Read an Excerpt
The Flight of the Firestone
Australia December 1, 2007
9 Days Before the 1st Deadline
Zou chu lai dao jia ban shang! Wo yao kan de dao ni. Ba shou ju zhe gao gao de!"
Translation: "Hey! Come out onto the deck! Remain in plain sight! Hold your hands up high!"
Deleting a final image, Chow did as he was told, kicked back from his desk, and stepped out onto the open foredeck of his barge.
The lead gunboat towered above him. It was a modern one, fast, with camouflaged flanks and a huge forward gun.
Chinese soldiers with American-made Colt Commando assault rifles lined its deck, their short-barreled guns pointed at Chow.
That they held modern American weapons was a bad sign: it meant that these soldiers were elite troops, special forces. Ordinary Chinese infantrymen carried clunky old Type 56 assault rifles the Chinese rip-off of the AK-47.
These guys weren't ordinary.
Chow raised his hands a bare second before someone fired and the entire front half of his body exploded with bloody holes and he was hurled backward with violent force.
Wizard keyed his radio mike.
"Chow? Chow, are you there?"
There was no reply.
Then, abruptly, the harness that until now had hung suspended from the well hole in the ceiling went whizzing back up into the hole like a spooked snake, hauled up by someone above.
"Chow!" Wizard called into his radio. "What are you "
Moments later, the harness came back into view...
...with Chow on it.
Wizard's blood turned to ice.
"Oh, dear me, no..." He rushed forward.
Almost unrecognizable from the many bullet wounds, Chow's body came level with Wizard.
As if on cue, the radio suddenly came to life.
"Professor Epper," a voice said in English. "This is Colonel Mao Gongli. We know you are in there, and we are coming in. Try nothing foolish, or you shall meet the same fate as your assistant."
The Chinese troops entered the chamber quickly, abseiling down drop-ropes with clinical precision.
Within two minutes, Wizard and Tank were surrounded by a dozen men with guns.
Colonel Mao Gongli entered last of all. At fifty-five years of age, he was a portly man, but he stood with perfect poise, ramrod straight. Like many men of his generation, he'd been patriotically named after Chairman Mao. He had no operational nickname except the one his enemies had given him after his actions at Tiananmen Square in 1989 as a major the Butcher of Tiananmen, they called him.
Silence hung in the air.
Mao stared at Wizard with dead eyes. When at last he spoke, he did so in clear, clipped English.
"Professor Max T. Epper, call sign Merlin, but known to some as Wizard. Canadian by birth, but resident Professor of Archaeology at Trinity College, Dublin. Connected with the rather unusual incident that took place atop the Great Pyramid at Giza on March 20, 2006.
"And Professor Yobu Tanaka, from the University of Tokyo. Not connected with the Giza incident, but an expert on ancient civilizations. Gentlemen, your assistant was a gifted and intelligent young man. You can see how much I care for such men."
"What do you want?" Wizard demanded.
Mao smiled, a thin joyless smile.
"Why Professor Epper, I want you." Wizard frowned. He hadn't expected that answer.
Mao stepped forward, gazing at the grand chamber around them. "Great times are upon us, Professor. In the coming months, empires will rise and nations will fall. In times such as these, the People's Republic of China needs knowledgeable men, men like you. Which is why you work for me now, Professor. And I'm sure that with the right kind of persuasion in one of my torture chambers you are going to help me find the Six Ramesean Stones."
Great Sandy Desert Northwestern Australia December 1, 2007, 0715 hours
On the day his farm was attacked with overwhelming force, Jack West Jr. had slept in till 7:00 a.m.
Normally he got up around six to see the dawn, but life was good these days. His world had been at peace for almost eighteen months, so he decided to skip the damn dawn and get an extra hour's sleep.
The kids, of course, were already up. Lily had a friend over for the summer holidays, a little boy from her school named Alby Calvin.
Noisy and excited and generally up to mischief, they'd played nonstop for the past three days, exploring every corner of the vast desert farm by day, while at night they gazed up at the stars through Alby's telescope.
That Alby was partially deaf meant little to Lily or to Jack. At their school in Perth for gifted and talented students, Lily was the star linguist and Alby the star mathematician and that was all that mattered.
At eleven, she now knew six languages, two of them ancient and one of them sign language it had been easily acquired and was actually something that she and Jack had done together. Today the end tips of her beautiful long black hair were colored electric pink.
For his part, Alby was twelve, black, and wore large thick-lensed glasses. He had a cochlear implant, the miraculous technology that allowed the deaf to hear, and spoke with a slightly rounded inflection signing was still necessary for those times when he needed to understand extra emotion or urgency in a matter but deaf or not, Alby Calvin could rumble with the best of them.
West was standing on the porch with his shirt off, sipping a mug of coffee. His left arm glinted in the morning sun from the bicep down, it was entirely made of metal.
He gazed out at the wide desert landscape, hazy in the morning light. Of medium height, with blue eyes and tousled dark hair, he was handsome in a rugged kind of way. Once upon a time, he had been ranked the fourth-best special forces soldier in the world, a lone Australian on a list dominated by Americans.
But he was no longer a soldier. After leading a daring ten-year mission to acquire the fabled Golden Capstone of the Great Pyramid from the remains of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, he was now more a treasure hunter than a warrior, more skilled at skirting booby-trapped cave systems and deciphering ancient riddles than killing people.
The adventure with the Capstone, which had ended atop the Great Pyramid, had forged West's relationship with Lily. Since her parents were dead, Jack had raised her with the help of a truly unique team of international soldiers. Soon after the Capstone mission had concluded, he had formally adopted her.
And since that day nearly two years ago, he had lived out here in splendid isolation, away from missions, away from the world, only traveling to Perth when Lily's schooling required it.
As for the Golden Capstone, it sat in all its glory in an abandoned nickel mine behind his farmhouse.
A few months back, a newspaper article had troubled West.
An Australian special forces trooper named Oakes had been killed in Iraq, shot to death in an ambush, the first Australian battle casualty in any conflict in nearly two years.
It bothered West because he was one of the few people in the world who knew exactly why no Australian had been killed in battle these past eighteen months. It had to do with the Tartarus Rotation of 2006 and the Capstone: thanks to his performance of an ancient ritual back then, West had assured Australia invulnerability for what was supposed to be a very long time.
But now with the death of that soldier in Iraq, that period of invulnerability appeared to be over.
The date of the man's death had struck him: August 21. It was suspiciously close to the northern autumnal equinox.
West himself had performed the Tartarus ritual atop the Great Pyramid on March 20, 2006, the day of the vernal equinox, the spring day when the Sun is perfectly overhead and day equals night.
The vernal and autumnal equinoxes are twin celestial moments that occur at opposite times of the year.
Opposites but the same, West thought. Yin and yang.
Someone, somewhere, had done something around the autumnal equinox that had neutralized Tartarus.
West was disturbed from his reverie by a small brown shape cutting across his view to the east.
It was a bird, a falcon, soaring gracefully across the dusty sky, wings wide. It was Horus, his peregrine falcon and loyal companion. The bird landed on the railing next to him, squawking at the eastern horizon.
West looked that way just in time to see several black dots appear in the sky there, flying in formation.
About three hundred miles away, near the coastal town of Wyndham, military exercises were under way, the biennial Talisman Sabre exercises that Australia held with America. Large in scale, they involved all sections of both nations' armed forces: navy, army, and air force.
Only this year, Talisman Sabre came with a twist: for the first time ever, China was participating. No one was under any illusions. Under the chaperoning of neutral Australia (it had significant trade links with China and long-standing military links with the US), China and America, the two biggest kids on the block, were sizing each other up. At first, the US hadn't wanted China's participation, but the Chinese had exerted some considerable trade pressure on Australia to be involved, and the Australians had begged the US to allow it.
But happily, West thought, these weren't matters that concerned him anymore.
He turned to watch Lily and Alby scamper around the barn, kicking up matching dust trails, when the computer in his kitchen pinged.
Ping, ping, ping, ping.
Lots of them.
Jack stepped inside, still gripping his coffee, and checked the monitor.
Over two dozen e-mails from Max Epper had just come in. Jack clicked on one, and found himself staring at a digital photo of an ancient carved symbol. Chinese by the look of it.
"Oh, Wizard." He sighed. "What's happened now? Did you forget to take your extra hard drive again?"
Wizard had done this before. He needed to back something up but had forgotten to take a second hard drive, so he'd e-mailed his photographs to Jack for safekeeping.
With a groan, Jack clicked over to the Internet and brought up a Lord of the Rings chat room, punched in his ID tag: strider101.
A little-used notice board came up. This was how he and Lily communicated with Wizard: through the anonymity of the Internet. If Wizard was sending a bulk block of e-mails, then he'd probably also sent an explanatory message via the chat room.
Sure enough the last message left on the notice board was from gandalf101: Wizard.
West scrolled down to view the message, expecting to see the usual bashful apology from Wizard...
...only to be surprised by what he saw.
He saw numbers.
Lots of numbers, interspersed with parentheses and forward slashes:
(3/289/-5/5) (3/290/-2/6) (3/289/-8/4) (3/290/-8/4) (3/290/-1/12) (3/291/-3/3) (1/187/15/6) (1/168/-9/11) (3/47/-3/4) (3/47/-4/12) (3/45/-163) (3/47/-1/5) (3/305/-3/1) (3/304/-8/10) (3/43/1/12) (3/30/-3/6) (3/15/7/4) (3/15/7/3) (3/63/-20/7) (3/65/5/1-2) (3/291/-14/2) (3/308/-8/11) (3/232/5/7) (3/290/-1/9) (3/69/-13/5) (3/302/1/8) (3/55/-4/11-13) (3/55/-3/1)
Jack frowned, concerned.
It was a coded message from Wizard, a special code known only to the members of their trusted inner circle.
This was serious.
Jack quickly grabbed a paperback novel from the nearby bookshelf the same novel that Wizard had used to compose the message in China and began flicking pages, unraveling the coded communication.
He jotted down words underneath each numerical reference until at last he had the full message and his blood ran cold:
(3/289/-5/5) (3/290/-2/6) (3/289/-8/4) (3/290/-8/4) (3/290/-1/12)
GET OUT GET OUT NOW!
(3/291/-3/3) (1/187/15/6) (1/168/-9/11)
GRAB FIRE STONE
(3/47/-3/4) (3/47/-4/12) (3/45/-163) (3/47/-1/5)
AND MY BLACK BOOK
ENEMIES ARE COMING
(3/291/-14/2) (3/308/-8/11) (3/232/5/7) (3/290/-1/9)
WILL MEET YOU AT
THE WORST IS COMING
"Holy shit..." Jack breathed.
He snapped to look back out the kitchen window, saw Lily and Alby still playing out by the barn. Then he saw the hazy orange sky beyond them, glorious in the morning sun as it began to fill with falling figures, dozens and dozens of them, figures that issued blooming parachutes above them, slowing their falls.
Paratroopers. Hundreds of paratroopers.
Coming for his farm.
West burst out of the farmhouse, calling, "Kids! Get over here! Quickly!"
Lily turned, perplexed. Alby did too.
West motioned in sign language as he spoke: "Lily, pack a suitcase! Alby, get all your stuff! We're leaving in two minutes!"
"Leaving? Why?" Alby said.
Lily, however, knew the look on West's face.
"Because we have to," she said/signed. "Come on."
West rushed back into the farmhouse and pounded on the doors of the farm's two guest rooms. "Zoe! Sky Monster! Wake up! We're in trouble again!"
Out of guest room No.1 stepped Sky Monster, a hairy New Zealander who was West's good friend and resident pilot.
With his great black beard, potbelly, and overgrown eyebrows, Sky Monster wasn't exactly pretty first thing in the morning. He had a real name, but no one except his mother seemed to know it.
"Not so loud, Huntsman," he growled. "What's up?"
"We're being invaded." West pointed out the window.
Bleary-eyed, Sky Monster looked out through it and saw the swarm of falling parachutes filling the morning sky. His eyes sprang wide. "Australia is being invaded?"
"No, just us. Just this farm. Get dressed and then get down to the Halicarnassus. Prep her for immediate liftoff."
"Gotcha." Sky Monster hurried away, just as the door to guest room No.2 opened, revealing a far more pleasant sight.
Zoe Kissane emerged from her room, dressed in a spare pair of West's pajamas. With sky-blue eyes, short blond hair, and a lightly freckled face, she was a true Irish beauty. She was also on leave from the Sciathan Fhianoglach an Airm, the famed crack commando unit of the Irish Army. A veteran of the Capstone adventure, she and West were close, and some said getting closer. The end tips of her blond hair were also electric pink, the remains of a hair session with Lily the previous day.
She opened her mouth to speak, but West just pointed out the window.
"Well, you don't see that every day," she said. "Where's Lily?"
Jack ducked into his room, snatching stuff from all sides: a canvas miner's jacket, a fireman's helmet, and a double-holstered gun belt that he strapped round his waist. "Getting her things. Alby's with her."
"Oh God, Alby. What will we "
"We take him with us."
"I was going to say, what will we tell his mother? 'Hi, Lois, yes, the kids had a great summer, outran an invading force of paratroopers.'"
"Something like that," Jack said, dashing into his study and emerging a moment later with a large black leather folder.
Then he hurried past Zoe, heading down the hallway to the back door of the farmhouse. "Get your things and corral the kids. We're leaving in two minutes. I have to get the top piece of the Capstone."
"The what ?" Zoe asked, but West had already dashed out into the sunlight, the screen door clapping shut behind him.
"And grab the codebooks and computer hard drives, too!" came his distant shouting voice.
A moment later, Sky Monster came bustling out of his guest room, buckling his belt and holding his pilot's helmet. He too shoved past Zoe with a gruff "Mornin', Princess" before stomping out the back door.
And suddenly Zoe woke up to the situation.
"Holy shite." She hurried back into her room.
Jack West hustled across the backyard of his farmhouse and dashed inside the entrance to an old abandoned mine set into a low hill there.
He hurried down a dark tunnel, guided by the penlight attached to his fireman's helmet, until after about a hundred yards he came to a larger space, a wide chamber containing...
...the Golden Capstone.
Nine feet tall, glittering and golden, the great mini-pyramid that had once sat atop the Great Pyramid at Giza possessed an authority, a presence, that humbled Jack every time he saw it.
Arrayed around the Capstone were several other artifacts from his previous adventure, artifacts that were all in some way related to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the Mirror from the Lighthouse at Alexandria, the head of the Colossus of Rhodes.
On occasion, Jack would come here and just sit and stare at the priceless collection of treasures assembled in the cavern.
But not today.
Today he grabbed an old stepladder and climbed up alongside the Capstone and carefully removed its uppermost piece, the only piece that was itself a pyramid, the Firestone.
The Firestone was small, its square base perhaps as wide as a hardback book. At its summit was a tiny clear crystal, an inch wide. All the other pieces of the Capstone possessed similar crystals in their centers, all seven of which lined up in a row when the Capstone was assembled.
West tucked the Firestone into his rucksack and hurried back out the exit tunnel.
As he ran down it, he triggered several black boxes mounted on wooden supports along the way red lights blinked on. At the last support beam, he switched on a final box and grabbed a remote handheld unit that had lain on top of the box for just this occasion.
Then West was out, back in the morning sunshine, standing before the entrance to the old mine.
"I never wanted to do this," he said sadly.
He hit detonate on the remote. Muffled sequential booms thudded out from the mine tunnel as each charge detonated, the innermost charges going off first.
Then, with a great rushing whoosh, a billowing cloud of dust came blasting out from the mine's entrance. As the last charge exploded, it caused a landslide to cascade down from the low hill above the mine entrance, a loose body of rubble, sand, and rocks.
Jack turned and ran back toward the farmhouse.
If he'd had time to look back, he would have seen the great dustcloud settle. Once the dust had completely come to rest, all that remained in its place was a hill a plain ordinary rock-and-sand-covered hill no different from any of the dozen others in the surrounding area.
Jack returned to the farmhouse in time to see Sky Monster zoom off in a pickup truck, heading south for the hangar.
The parachutes were still falling from the sky, many of them close to the ground now. There were literally hundreds of them, some obviously bearing armed men, while others were larger chutes carrying oversized objects: jeeps and trucks.
"Mother of God..." Jack whispered.
Zoe was pushing Lily and Alby out the back door of the farmhouse, with a computer hard drive tucked under one arm.
"Did you grab the codebooks?" West called.
"Lily's got 'em!"
"This way, to the barn!" West waved them to follow.
The four of them ran together, two adults, two children, struggling with either backpacks or essential gear, with Horus flying above them.
As he ran, Alby saw West's guns.
West noticed the shocked look on the boy's face. "It's OK, kid. This sort of thing happens to us all the time."
West came to the barn's huge door, ushered the others inside before he peered out after Sky Monster's pickup as it sped south alongside a spur of hills, kicking up a thick dust cloud behind it
But then a parachutist cut off his view of the truck, a fully equipped Chinese trooper who hit the dusty ground and rolled skillfully, slewed his chute, and quickly pulled out an automatic rifle.
Then he started running directly for the farmhouse.
Another man landed behind him. Then another, and another.
West swallowed. He and the others were cut off from Sky Monster. "Damn it, damn it," he breathed.
Then he ducked inside the barn as over a hundred more paratroopers hit the ground on every side of his farm.
The East Drive
Moments later, the barn doors blasted open, and two compact all-wheel-drive vehicles boomed out from it.
They looked like something out of a Mad Max movie.
They were modified Longline "Light Strike Vehicles," or LSVs
ultralight two-seater dune buggies with chunky all-terrain tires, high-tolerance wishbone suspension, and sleek bodies made only of roll bars and struts.
Jack and Alby were in the first car; Zoe and Lily in the second.
"Sky Monster!" Jack called into the radio-mike wrapped around his throat. "We're cut off from you! We're going to have to meet you at the highway! We'll take the east drive and the river crossing."
"Copy that," Sky Monster's voice replied. "The highway it is."
"Jack," Zoe's voice came in. "Who are these people, and how the hell did they find us?"
"I don't know," Jack said. "I don't know. But Wizard knew they were coming. He sent us a warning "
Just then, a storm of bullets chewed a line across the dirt road in front of Jack's car. Jack yanked his steering wheel hard over, blasted through the dust cloud.
The shots had come from a big all-terrain vehicle thundering in from the desert plain to the north.
It was a distinctive six-wheeled vehicle, a WZ-551 armored personnel carrier built by the Chinese North Industries Corporation for the PLA. Featuring heavy armor and a French-made Dragar turret on its top, it had a box-shaped body and a flat prowlike nose that sloped backward underneath it. The Dragar turret boasted a brutish 25mm cannon and a 7.62mm coaxial machine gun.
It was the first of many APCs coming from the north. Jack counted seven...nine...eleven vehicles behind it, plus even more smaller ones, jeeps and trucks, all overflowing with armed troops.
It was the same from the south: men and vehicles had touched down there, discarded their chutes, and were now coming north toward the east drive.
An armada of vehicles coming right at them, from both the north and the south.
Zoe's voice: "Jack! Those APCs look Chinese!"
He keyed his radio scanner, picked up the broadcast frequency for the Talisman Sabre exercises. A voice was shouting: "Red Force Three! Come in! You are way off course for this drop! What the hell are you guys doing!"
Clever, West thought. His attackers had made this look like an exercise drop gone wrong.
He evaluated his options.
The east drive led to the Fitzroy River, a north-south-running river that was currently full, it being the wet season. A single bridge spanned it. Beyond that river was an old highway which at one straight section doubled as West's own private runway.
If his cars could make it across the river before the inrushing forces cut them off, they could make it to the highway, where they'd rendezvous with Sky Monster.
But a quick glance at the twin columns coming at him from the north and the south revealed a simple mathematical truth: it was going to be close.
West's LSV roared down the dusty east drive.
In the passenger seat, Alby gripped the roll bar, his eyes wide with terror.
West glanced over at the little boy.
"Bet you never experienced anything like this at another kid's house over the summer!"
"Nope!" Alby shouted over the whipping wind.
"You a Boy Scout, Alby?"
"And what's the Boy Scout motto?"
"Absolutely! Now, young man, you're gonna find out why you're not allowed to play on the cattle crossings or the bridge."
The two LSVs whipped down the dusty road with their twin hordes of pursuers closing in from either side, converging on them in a V-shaped formation. Giant clouds of dirt rose behind the two incoming forces.
"Zoe! Swing in front!" West called.
Zoe obeyed, pulled her car in front of West's, just as the two cars zoomed over a cattle grid.
As his LSV shot over the grille, however, West swung left, plowing right into a low signpost that read cattle crossing.
The post unknown to the casual observer was equipped with a trip wire that snapped as the LSV shot over it, triggering a concealed mechanism that launched a hundred six-pronged nails onto the roadway behind the fleeing car.
Alby turned, saw the star-shaped nails bounce down onto the road, fanning out all across it, just as the first pursuing jeep the men on it firing hard drove right into the field of nails.
Blasting puncture noises ripped the air as all four of the jeep's tires blew and the vehicle skidded and then flipped, spraying men in every direction.
A second jeep suffered a similar fate, but the rest skirted the nail field, bouncing around the suspect section of road.
Alby watched them crash, before turning to face West, who shouted over the wind, "Be prepared!"
Alby then swung back to see the trailing APCs, slower than the jeeps, reach the nails with their runflat tires they just thundered right over them, impervious to damage.
Chasing. Pursuing. Hunting.
As she drove, Zoe continued to monitor the airwaves with her car's radio scanner. A moment after the two jeeps crashed, it picked up voices speaking in Mandarin over a secure military frequency.
"Jack!" she called into her own mike. "I got the bad guys on UHF 610.15!"
In his car, Jack switched to that channel and heard the voices of his enemy speaking Mandarin:
"Heading east in two cars "
"Ground Force Seven is in pursuit "
"Ground Force Six is going for the bridge "
"Command. This is Ground Force Two. We're right on their tail. Please repeat capture instructions "
A new voice came on the line, a calmer one, one possessing clear authority.
"Ground Force Two, this is Black Dragon. Capture instructions are as follows: priority one is the Firestone; priority two, the girl and West, both are to be captured alive, if possible. Any other captives are to be executed. There can be no witnesses to our doings here."
Hearing this, West snapped to look over at Alby. Then he looked forward at Zoe, driving the lead car.
It was one thing to know that if everything ended badly, you were safe, but it was another thing entirely to know that those dear to you were not.
"You hear that?" Zoe said over the radio.
"Yep," West said, his jaw tightening.
"Please get us out of here, Jack."
As Jack's and Zoe's cars sped away to the east, a Chinese command APC was arriving at Jack's farmhouse, flanked by several escort jeeps.
As it skidded to a halt, two men stepped out of it, one Chinese, the other American. While the Chinese man was clearly older, both bore the rank of major on their collars.
The Chinese major was Black Dragon, the owner of the voice on the airwaves. Officious and intense, Black Dragon was known for his cold methodical efficiency; he was a man who got the job done.
The younger American with him was tall and broad, powerful, and he wore the customized uniform of a US Army Special Forces operator. He had a sharp-edged crew cut and the unblinking eyes of a psychopath. His call sign: Rapier.
"Secure the farmhouse," Black Dragon ordered the nearest unit of paratroopers. "But be wary of any improvised devices. Captain West is clearly a man who prepares for eventualities such as this."
Rapier said nothing. He just stared intently at the abandoned farmhouse, as if absorbing every feature of it.
The River Crossing
The bridge was up ahead now, maybe a mile away an old wooden single-lane bridge.
West saw it come into view, just as three APCs and five Chinese jeeps skidded to a halt in front of it, blocking the way. A roadblock.
They'd got there first.
The lead APC lowered its turret-mounted cannon ominously.
At that exact same moment, four Chinese jeeps caught up with West's cars from behind, two to each side.
The soldiers on the jeeps looked angry as all hell and, buffeted and jostled by the uneven terrain, they tried to aim their rifles at West's tires.
"Jack!" Zoe called over the radio. "Jack...!"
"Stay on the road! Whatever you do, stay on the road till you reach the windmills!"
Two skinny windmills flanked the road up ahead, halfway between them and the bridge.
An explosion boomed out behind Jack's LSV barely three feet behind it tearing a crater from the road. A shot from the APC's cannon.
"Sheesh." Jack turned to Alby. "Do me a favor, kid. Try not to tell your mother about this part of your stay."
Zoe's car came to the windmills flanking the roadway, shoomed between them, closely followed by Jack and Alby's LSV still harried by the four Chinese jeeps.
Jack cut through the windmills, while the jeeps took them differently: one jeep swung onto the road proper and sped between the windmills, while the three others went wider, whipping around the outside of the windmills and
Suddenly the first such jeep dropped from view. As did the jeep traveling immediately behind it and the one that had sped around the windmill on the other side of the road.
The three jeeps just fell out of sight, as if they had been swallowed by the Earth.
In fact, that was exactly what had happened. They had fallen into Indian tiger traps large concealed holes in the ground next to the windmills, designed by Jack for an escape just like this one.
"Zoe! Quickly! Let me pass, then drive exactly where I do!"
Jack zoomed past Zoe's car and then abruptly shot left, off the road and out onto rough scrubland. Zoe followed him, swinging her LSV left, chased now by the sole surviving Chinese jeep.
Bouncing over the scrub, the river up ahead, the roadblock off to their right.
"Exactly where I drive!" West repeated into his mike.
He swept down an embankment toward the Fitzroy River a suicidal course. There was no way he could possibly cross the fast-flowing waters of the river in his low-slung LSV.
But into the river he went. At full speed.
The LSV plunged into the Fitzroy, kicking up spectacular fans of spray on either side as it sheared right through the water, unusually shallow water, across an uncommonly smooth section of riverbed: a concealed concrete ford.
As Jack's LSV skipped out the other side of the river, roaring up the far bank with a three-foot-high jump, Zoe's car hit the near edge of the stream, at the same time as the last Chinese jeep came alongside it.
Zoe hit the ford, following Jack's path exactly. But the pursuing jeep didn't, and the ford was deliberately narrow, a submerged concrete bridge only one car width wide, and thus the Chinese jeep nosedived into the water and came to a jarring, splashing halt, while Zoe's LSV just continued on, bouncing safely up the far side.
Seeing the two LSVs successfully cross the river to the north, the Chinese troops blocking the bridge leaped into their jeeps and APCs, and started across the bridge in pursuit.
Only to have the bridge collapse completely beneath the first jeep.
Amid a tangled mess of precracked wooden beams and struts, the jeep tumbled down into the river, leaving the remaining vehicles bunched up behind the void, now with no bridge to cross.
They hurried for the ford, but by the time they found it and negotiated its narrow span, Jack's two escape cars were already speeding onto the highway.
The Escape Plane
While Jack and Zoe had been fleeing east, tripping nail traps and racing over concealed river crossings, Sky Monster had been busy, too.
He'd arrived in his pickup at the very south of the farm, where he disappeared inside a cabin set into the hillside, a hillside that when seen from up close was actually a giant camouflage-netted structure.
And in it was a giant black 747.
If one looked closely at the plane's underbelly, one could still make out an inscription in Arabic: president one air force of iraq: halicarnassus.
It was a plane that had once lived in a secret hangar outside Basra, one of several such 747s that had lain in secret locations around Iraq, ready to whisk Saddam Hussein to safe havens in East Africa in the event of an invasion. Saddam, it turned out, had never been able to use this particular plane. But in 1991, cornered by enemy forces and abandoned by his own men, Jack West Jr. had.
It was now his plane, the Halicarnassus.
The Halicarnassus rumbled out of its hangar and down a wide dirt taxiway, which itself crossed the flowing Fitzroy River via a second submerged concrete ford a few miles south of the rigged bridge.
Once over its ford, Sky Monster brought the big 747 left onto the highway, pointing north.
The giant plane thundered up the desert highway, a great black behemoth speeding along the shimmering blacktop, until Sky Monster saw the two LSVs of Jack and Zoe swing out onto the bitumen a few hundred yards in front of him.
A ramp at the rear of the Halicarnassus lowered to the roadway, kicking up sparks as it did so, and with the great plane still moving at considerable speed the two LSVs swung in behind it and zoomed up the ramp into its belly, closely followed by the tiny shape of Horus.
Once the second car was inside and firmly tied down with a crank-harness, the ramp was raised and the plane sped up and hit takeoff speed and slowly, gracefully, lifted off the empty desert highway, leaving the farm now crawling with Chinese cars and troops in its wake.
West strode into the cockpit of the Halicarnassus.
"We're not outta this yet, Boss," Sky Monster said. "I got incoming bogeys. Four of them. Look like J-9 Interceptors. Chinese MiG variants."
West charged back into the main cabin, where Zoe was buckling in the kids.
"Zoe," he said. "To the guns."
Moments later, he and Zoe were harnessed into the Halicarnassus's wing-mounted gun turrets. The plane also had revolving guns on its roof and underbelly that Sky Monster could control from the cockpit.
"They can't blow us out of the sky, can they?" Sky Monster asked over the intercom. "They'd destroy the Firestone."
"It's made of almost solid gold," West replied. "It'd survive just about anything except a total fuel fire. If I were them, I'd shoot us down and expect to find it in the wreckage."
"Great. Here they come..."
Four Chinese J-9 Interceptors blasted across the sky in pursuit of the Halicarnassus, screaming low over the desert, unleashing their missiles.
Four small aerial darts zoomed out from their wings, spiraling smoke trails extending out behind them.
"Launch countermeasures!" West called.
"Launching countermeasures!" Sky Monster reported back.
He punched some buttons and immediately, several chaff bombs sprang out from the underbelly of the Hali.
Three of the missiles took the bait, and detonated harmlessly against the fake targets.
West himself nailed the fourth and last one, blowing it to pieces with his cannon.
"Sky Monster! Hit the deck! Rawson's Canyon! Let's throw the line and hope Super Betty still works! Go! Go! Go!"
The Halicarnassus banked and dived, swooping for the flat desert floor. Two of the Interceptors took off in pursuit, the other two staying high.
The Halicarnassus came to a rocky canyonland, a wide dry plain flanked by low mesas and hills. It shot into Rawson's Canyon, a long thin chutelike canyon that ended at a narrow aperture between two mesas. Technically this was all Army land, but no one except Jack West Jr. had set foot out here in years.
The Halicarnassus zoomed low through the canyon, barely a hundred feet off the ground, chased by the two Chinese Interceptors.
The fighters fired their guns.
Jack and Zoe blazed back from their revolving turrets.
Tracers sizzled through the air between the chased and the chasers, the landscape whizzing by in a blur of speed.
Then Zoe got a bead and hammered the left-hand Interceptor with a wave of tracers that entered it square in its intakes. The J-9 shuddered instantly, belching black smoke, before it wobbled in the air and lurched dangerously to the left, popped its ejection seat, and smashed at 500 mph into the canyon wall.
The remaining fighter kept firing, but Sky Monster kept banking within the confines of the narrow canyon and the bullets sizzled past the speeding black plane, nicking its wingtips but hitting nothing of value.
Then the Halicarnassus hit the end of the canyonway and blasted through the narrow exit, just as Jack called: "Sky Monster! Call in Super Betty! Now!"
And bam! Sky Monster punched a switch on his console marked: launch sup bet.
A hundred feet below and behind him, the solenoid on a large explosive that had sat undisturbed on the desert floor for many months tripped.
The explosive was a large RDX one, based on the principle of the Bouncing Betty land mine. Once triggered, it set off a preliminary blast that launched the main bomb a hundred feet into the air.
Three seconds later, the main charge went off, just like a Bouncing Betty, only much bigger. Plane-sized. And filled with shrapnel.
The Super Betty.
A giant star-shaped blast exploded in the air behind the fleeing Halicarnassus, right in the path of the second speeding Interceptor.
Shards of shrapnel assaulted the fighter jet head-on, smacking against its cockpit canopy, lodging in its reinforced glass, creating a hundred spiderwebs. More shards slammed into the J-9's air intakes, ripping apart the innards of the plane.
The pilot's ejection was followed by the fighter's full-scale explosion. Dead Interceptor.
"I hadn't checked on Betty for months," West said. "Glad she still worked."
The Hali soared up into the sky.
Where the last two Interceptors were waiting.
By now, Sky Monster had taken them northwest, toward the coast, and as the Halicarnassus left the mainland of Australia and shot out over the Indian Ocean, the two Interceptors engaged it.
Missiles, guns: they gave it everything they had.
West and Zoe returned fire with equal violence until finally West nailed one Interceptor with his cannon and...went dry.
"Right-side gun is out!" he called into the intercom. "How're you traveling, Zoe?"
"Still got a few rounds left," she said as she fired at the last J-9. "But not many shit! I'm out, too!"
They were out of ammo and there was still one bad guy left.
"Uh, Huntsman...!" Sky Monster called expectantly. "What are we gonna do now, throw rocks?"
Jack stared at their remaining pursuer the Interceptor hovered in the sky behind them, waiting, watching, holding back a little, as if it sensed something was wrong.
"Shit. Shit, shit, shit," he muttered.
He unbuckled himself from his gun chair and hurried back into the main cabin, thinking fast.
Then it hit him.
He keyed his headset radio. "Sky Monster. Take us vertical. As vertical as you can go."
"What? What are you doing?"
"I'll be in the rear hold."
Sky Monster pulled back on the yoke and the Halicarnassus went nose-up into the sky.
Climbing, climbing, climbing...
The Interceptor gave chase, zooming upward after it.
Battling the slope, Jack staggered into the rear hold, clipped a safety rope to his belt, and opened the rear loading ramp.
Air rushed into the hold, and beyond the entryway, he saw the Interceptor immediately behind them beneath them framed by the deep blue ocean.
Sizzling-hot tracer bullets entered the hold, smacking into the girders all around Jack sping!-sping!-sping! just as he kicked a release lever the release lever that held his LSV harnessed in place.
The spring-loaded harness retracted instantly, whip-snapping away, and the light strike vehicle rolled out the back of the plane and fell out into the sky.
Seen from the outside, it must have looked very odd indeed.
The Halicarnassus soaring upward with the J-9 behind and below it, when suddenly the LSV an entire car came dropping out of the Hali and...
...sailed past the J-9, the Chinese fighter banking at the last moment, just getting out of the way.
Its pilot grinned, proud of his reflexes.
Reflexes, however, that weren't fast enough to evade or avoid the second LSV that came tumbling out of the Halicarnassus's rear hold a moment later!
The second falling LSV smashed squarely into the fighter's nose, causing the whole Interceptor to just drop out of the sky. It plummeted to the ocean, ejecting its pilot a moment before it and the car entered the water with twin gigantic splashes.
High above it, the Halicarnassus righted itself, retracted its rear ramp, and flew off to the northwest, safe and away.
"Huntsman," Sky Monster's voice came over the intercom. "Where to now?"
Standing in the hold, Jack recalled Wizard's message. "will meet you at great tower."
He keyed the intercom. "Dubai, Sky Monster. Set a course for Dubai."
Copyright © 2008 by Karanadon Entertainment Pty Ltd.