"Reilly has a gift for sustaining momentum that never lets up." Publishers Weekly
Area 7by Matthew Reilly
Matthew Reilly dazzled the world with his electrifying thrillers Ice Station and Temple. And now, Shane "Scarecrow" Schofield returns with his most harrowing and explosive adventure yet. . .
It is America's most secret base, hidden deep in the Utah desert, an Air Force installation known only as Area 7. And today, it has a visitor -/b>/i>/i>… See more details below
Matthew Reilly dazzled the world with his electrifying thrillers Ice Station and Temple. And now, Shane "Scarecrow" Schofield returns with his most harrowing and explosive adventure yet. . .
It is America's most secret base, hidden deep in the Utah desert, an Air Force installation known only as Area 7. And today, it has a visitor - the President of the United States. He has come to inspect Area 7, to examine its secrets for himself. But he's going to get more than he bargained for on this trip. Because hostile forces are waiting inside.
Among the President's helicopter crew, however, is a young Marine. He is quiet, enigmatic, and he hides his eyes behind a pair of silver sunglasses. His name is Schofield. Call-sign: Scarecrow. Rumor has it, he's a good man in a storm. Judging by what the President has just walked into, he'd better be. . .
"An exciting romp. The action is nonstop and includes shootouts, crazed convicts, wild animals, and an eerily timely subplot."Library Journal
"Reilly has a gift for sustaining momentum that never lets up." Publishers Weekly
- St. Martin's Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
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- 6.70(w) x 4.32(h) x 1.10(d)
Read an Excerpt
3 July, 0600 Hours
The three helicopters thundered over the arid desert plain, booming through the early morning silence.
They flew in tight formationlike they always didshooting low over the tumbleweeds, kicking up a tornado of sand behind them, their freshly waxed sides glinting in the dawn light.
The giant Sikorsky VH-60N flew out in frontagain, like it always didflanked on either side by two menacing CH-53E Super Stallions.
With its pristine white roof and hand-polished dark-green flanks, the VH-60N is unique among American military helicopters. It is built for the United States government in a high security "caged" section at the Sikorsky Aircraft plant in Connecticut. It is non-deployablemeaning that it is never used in any operational capacity by the United States Marine Corps, the branch of the military charged with its upkeep.
It is used for one thing, and one thing only. And it has no replicas on active dutyand for good reason, for no one but a few highly cleared Marine engineers and executives at Sikorsky can know all of its special features.
Paradoxically, for all this secrecy, the VH-60N is without a doubt the most recognized helicopter in the Western world.
On air traffic control displays, it is designated "HMX-1," Marine Helicopter Squadron One, and its official radio call-sign is "Nighthawk." But over the years, the helicopter that ferries the President of the United States over short-to-medium distances has come to be known by a simpler nameMarine One.
Known as "M1" to those who fly in it, it is rarely observed in flight, and when it is, it is usually in the most demure of circumstancestaking off from the manicured South Lawn of the White House or arriving at Camp David.
But not today.
Today it roared over the desert, transporting its famous passenger between two remote Air Force bases located in the barren Utah landscape.
Captain Shane M. Schofield, USMC, dressed in his full blue dress "A" uniformwhite peaked hat; navy-blue coat with gold buttons; medium-blue trousers with red stripe; spit-polished boots; white patent leather belt with matching white holster, inside of which resided an ornamental nickel-plated M9 pistolstood in the cockpit of the Presidential helicopter, behind its two pilots, peering out through the chopper's reinforced forward windshield.
At five-ten, Schofield was lean and muscular, with a handsome narrow face and spiky black hair. And although they were not standard attire for Marines in full dress uniform, he also wore sunglassesa pair of wraparound antiflash glasses with reflective silver lenses.
The glasses covered a pair of prominent vertical scars that cut down across both of Schofield's eyes. They were wounds from a previous mission and the reason for his operational call-sign, "Scarecrow."
The flat desert plain stretched out before him, dull yellow against the morning sky. The dusty desert floor rushed by beneath the bow of the speeding helicopter.
In the near distance, Schofield saw a low mountaintheir destination.
A cluster of buildings lay nestled at the base of the rocky hill, at the end of a long concrete runway, their tiny lights just visible in the early light. The main building of the complex appeared to be a large airplane hangar, half-buried in the side of the mountain.
It was United States Air Force Special Area (Restricted) 7, the second Air Force base they were to visit that day.
"Advance Team Two, this is Nighthawk One, we are on final approach to Area 7. Please confirm venue status," the pilot of M1, Marine Colonel Michael "Gunman" Grier said into his helmet mike.
There was no reply.
"I say again, Advance Team Two. Report."
Still no reply.
"It's the jamming system," Grier's copilot, Lieutenant Colonel Michelle Dallas, said. "The radio guys at 8 said to expect it. These bases are all Level-7 classified, so they're covered at all times by a satellite-generated radiosphere. Short-range transmissions only, to stop anybody transmitting information out."
Earlier that morning, the President had visited Area 8, a similarly isolated Air Force base about twenty miles to the east of Area 7. There, accompanied by his nine-man Secret Service Detail, he had been taken on a brief tour of the facility, to inspect some new aircraft stationed in its hangars.
While he had done so, Schofield and the other thirteen Marines stationed aboard Marine One and its two escort choppers had waited outside, twiddling their thumbs underneath Air Force One, the President's massive Boeing 747.
While they waited, some of the Marines had started arguing over why they hadn't been allowed inside the main hangar of Area 8. The general consensusbased solely on wild unsubstantiated gossiphad been that it was because the facility housed some of the Air Force's top-secret new airplanes.
One soldier, a big-smiling, loud-talking African-American sergeant named Wendall "Elvis" Haynes, said that he'd heard they had the Aurora in there, the legendary low-orbit spy plane capable of speeds over Mach 9. The current fastest plane in the world, the SR-71 Blackbird, could only reach Mach 3.
Others had proffered that a whole squadron of F-44sultra-nimble, wedge-shaped fighters based on the flying-wing shape of the B-2 stealth bomberwere stationed there.
Others stillperhaps inspired by the launch of a Chinese space shuttle two days previouslysuggested that Area 8 housed the X-38, a sleek 747-launched offensive space shuttle. A black project run by the Air Force in association with NASA, the X-38 was reputedly the world's first fight-capable space vehicle, an attack shuttle.
Schofield ignored their speculation.
He didn't have to guess that Area 8 had something to do with top-secret airplane development, probably space-based. He could tell it from one simple fact.
Although the Air Force engineers had concealed it well, the regulation-size black bitumen runway of Area 8 actually extended another thousand yards in both directionsas a pale concrete landing strip hidden beneath a thin layer of sand and carefully placed tumbleweeds.
It was an elongated runway, designed to launch and receive aircraft that needed an extra-long landing strip, which meant aircraft like space shuttles or
And then suddenly the President had emerged from the main hangar and they were on the move again.
Originally, the Boss had intended to fly to Area 7 on Air Force One. It would be faster than Marine One, even though the distance was short.
But there had been a problem on Air Force One. An unexpected leak in the left wing's fuel tank.
And so the Boss had taken Marine Onealways on stand-by for precisely this situation.
Which was why Schofield was now gazing at Area 7, lit up like a Christmas tree in the dim morning light.
As he peered at the distant hangar complex, however, Schofield had a strange thought. Curiously, none of his colleagues on HMX-1 knew any stories about Area 7, not even wild unsubstantiated rumors.
No one, it seemed, knew what went on at Area 7.
Life in the immediate vicinity of the President of the United States was a world unto itself.
It was at the same time both thrilling and frightening, Schofield thought.
Thrilling because you were so close to one with so much power, and frightening because that man was surrounded by a great number of people who claimed his influence as their own.
Indeed, even in his short time on board Marine One, Schofield had observed that at any one time, there were at least three competing power clusters vying for the President's attention.
First was the President's own staff, those peoplelargely self-important Harvard typeswhom the President had appointed to aid him on a range of matters: from national security and domestic policy; to the management of the press corps or the management of his political life.
No matter what their field of expertise, at least insofar as Schofield could see, each of the President's personal staff seemed to have one all-encompassing goal: to get the President outside, onto the streets, and into the public eye.
In direct contrast to this objectiveindeed, in direct opposition to itwas the second group vying for the President's ear: his protectors, the United States Secret Service.
Led by the stoic, no-nonsense and completely impassive Special Agent Francis X. Cutler, the Presidential Detail was constantly at loggerheads with the White House staff.
Cutlerofficially known as "Chief of the Detail," but known to the President merely as Frankwas renowned for his coolness under pressure and his complete intransigence to pleas from political ass-kissers. With his narrow gray eyes and matching crew-cut hair, Frank Cutler could stare down any member of the President's staff and rebuff them with a single word, "No."
The third and last group pressing for presidential attention was the crew of Marine One itself.
Not only were they also subjected to the inflated egos of the presidential staffSchofield would never forget his first flight on Marine One, when the President's Domestic Policy Adviser, a pompous twenty-nine-year-old lawyer from New York, had ordered Schofield to get him a double latte, and to "make it quick"they were also often at odds with the Secret Service.
Securing the President's safety may have been the job of the Secret Service, but when he was on HMX-1, so the Marine Corps reasoned, the Boss had at least six United States Marines on board with him at any given time.
An uneasy truce had been brokered.
While on board Marine One, the President's safety would be in Marine hands. As such, only key members of his Secret Service DetailFrank Cutler and a few otherswould fly with him. The rest of his personal Detail would fly in the two chase helicopters.
As soon as the President stepped off Marine One, however, his well-being was once again the exclusive responsibility of the United States Secret Service.
Gunman Grier spoke into his helmet mike. "Nighthawk Three, this is Nighthawk One. Go and check on Advance Team Two for me. This radiosphere is screwing up our long-range comms. I'm picking up their All-Clear beacon, but I can't get any voice contact. They should be over at the exit vent. And if you get close enough, see if you can raise Area 8 again. Find out what's happening with Air Force One."
"Copy that, Nighthawk One," a voice replied over the short-wave. "On our way."
From his position behind Grier and Dallas, Schofield saw the Super Stallion to their right peel away from the group and head off over the desert.
The two remaining choppers of Marine Helicopter Squadron-1 continued on their way.
In a darkened room somewhere, a blue-uniformed man wearing a radio headset and seated in front of an illuminated computer display spoke quietly into his wraparound microphone.
"Initiating primary satellite signal test ... now"
He pressed a button on his console.
"What the hell?" Dallas said, touching her earpiece.
"What is it?" Gunman Grier asked.
"I don't know," Dallas said, swiveling in her seat. "I just picked up a spike on the microwave band."
She looked at the microwave display screenit depicted a series of jagged spikes and troughsthen shook her head. "Strange. Looks like an incoming microwave signal just hit us and then bounced away."
"Antibugging was done this morning," Grier said. "Twice."
Comprehensive sweeps for listening devices planted on Marine Oneand her passengerswere done with rigorous regularity. It was nigh on impossible to plant a transmitting or receiving device on the President's helicopter.
Dallas peered at her screen, shrugging. "The signal's too small to be a location beacon. Ditto, speech or computer data. It didn't send or take any informationit's as if it was just, well, checking to see if we were here." She turned to Grier questioningly.
The Presidential Helicopter Pilot frowned. "Most probably it's just a surge in the radiosphere, a deflected microwave signal. But let's not take any chances." He turned to Schofield. "Captain, if you wouldn't mind, would you please do a sweep of the aircraft with the magic wand."
"Return signal received," the console operator in the darkened room said. "Primary signal test successful. The device is operational. Repeat. The device is operational. Switching back to dormant mode. All right. Commencing test of secondary signal"
Schofield stepped into the main cabin of Marine One, waving a AXS-9 digital spectrum analyzer over the walls, seats, ceiling and floor, searching for anything that was emitting an outgoing signal.
As one would expect of the President's helicopter, the interior of M1 was plush. Indeed, with its deep maroon carpet and widely spaced seats, it looked more like the first-class section of a commercial airliner than the hold of a military aircraft.
Twelve beige leather seats took up most of the main cabin. Each seat had the Seal of the President of the United States embroidered on it, as did the oversized armrests that adjoined each chair and the scotch glasses and coffee mugs, just in case anyone forgot in whose presence they were traveling.
At the rear of the central area, guarded at all times by a Marine in full dress uniform, was a polished mahogany door that led to the aft-most section of the helicopter.
It was the President's private office.
Small but elegantly appointedand featuring an amazingly compact arrangement of phones, faxes, computers and televisionsMarine One's office allowed the Boss to monitor the nation's business wherever he happened to be.
At the very rear of the President's office, behind a small pressure-sealed door, was one final feature of Marine One which was reserved for use in only themost dire of circumstancesa small one-man ejection unit, the Presidential escape pod.
Schofield waved his spectrum analyzer over the seats in the first-class section, searching for bugs.
Seated there were Frank Cutler and five of his Secret Service people. They peered out the windows, ignoring Schofield as he did his sweep around them.
Also there were a couple of the President's advisershis Deputy Chief of Staff, his Communications Directorboth of whom flicked through thick manila folders.
Standing above them, manning the two exit doors at either end of the main cabin, were a pair of straight-backed United States Marines.
There was one more person seated in the main cabin.
A stocky no-necked man dressed in an olive U.S. Army uniform, sitting quietly at the back of the cabin, in the first-class seat closest to the President's office.
To look at him, with his carrot-red hair and bushy orange mustache, he didn't seem like anyone special, and truth be told, he wasn't anyone special.
He was an Army warrant officer named Carl Webster, and he followed the President wherever he wentnot because of any special expertise or knowledge he possessed, but because of the extremely important object handcuffed to his right wrist: a stainless-steel briefcase that contained the codes and the activation switches to America's nuclear arsenal, a briefcase known as "the Football."
Schofield finished his sweep, including a short "excuse me" check of the President's office.
There was not a single bug to be found on the helicopter.
He returned to the cockpit, just in time to hear Gunman Grier say into his mike: "Copy that, Nighthawk Three, thank you. Continue on to the vent."
Grier turned to his copilot. "Air Force One's back on deck. It was just a valve leak. It'll stay at Area 8. We'll bring the Boss back after our little visit to Area 7. Scarecrow?"
"Nothing," Schofield said. "The helicopter's clean."
Grier shrugged. "Must have been the radiosphere. Thanks, Scarecrow."
Suddenly Grier touched his helmet as another message came through.
He sighed wearily as the voice at the other end nattered into his ear.
"We'll do our best, Colonel," he said, "but I make no promises." Grier switched off his mike and shook his head. "Fucking Ramrod."
He turned to Schofield and Dallas. "Ladies and gentlemen, our esteemed White House Liaison Officer has asked us to pick up the pace a little. Apparently, the Boss has an afternoon tea with the Washington Ladies' Auxiliary to get to, and Liaison Officer Hagerty thinks we're not going fast enough to meet his schedule."
Dallas snuffed a laugh. "Good ol' Ramrod.'
When it came to the use of Marine One, all White House-Marine Corpscorrespondence went through a Marine colonel called the White House Liaison Officer, a position which for the last three years had been held by Colonel Rodney Hagerty, USMC.
Unfortunately, Hagerty, forty-one years old, tall and lanky, with a pencil-thin mustache and a far too proper manner, was regarded by many in HMX-1 as the worst kind of soldiera ladder climber, but also a ruthless expert in office politics, someone more interested in getting stars on his shoulders than actually being a United States Marine. But as so often happens, the upper echelons of the Corps didn't see this and kept promoting him nonetheless.
Even Schofield disliked him. Hagerty was a bureaucrata bureaucrat who had obviously come to enjoy his proximity to power. Although his official call-sign was "Hot Rod," his rigid adherence to procedure and protocol, even when it was patently impractical, had earned him an alternate call-sign among the troops: "Ramrod."
At that very same moment, the lone Super Stallion chopper that was Nighthawk Three was landing in a cloud of dust on the sandy desert plain. About half a mile to the west stood the low rocky mountain that housed Area 7.
As the big chopper's tires hit the ground, four Marines dressed in full combat attire leaped out from it and ran over to a small trench carved into the rock-hard desert floor.
The trench housed Area 7's EEVEmergency Escape Ventthe well-concealed exit point of a long underground tunnel that provided emergency egress from Area 7. Today it was the primary escape route from the complex, in the unlikely event that the President encountered any trouble there.
The lead Marine, a lieutenant named Corbin "Colt" Hendricks, approached the dusty earthen hole, accompanied by his three subordinates, MP-5/10sometimes called the MP-10, they were 10 mm versions of the Heckler & Koch MP-5in hand.
A steady beep-pause-beep warbled in Hendricks's earpiece: Advance Team 2's All-Clear beacon. The A-C beacon couldn't transmit voice messages, but its powerful digital signal still provided a worthwhile service: if Advance Team 2 encountered any kind of ambush or disturbance, its lead agent simply flicked off the All-Clear beacon and everyone else in the presidential entourage would know that danger was afoot. Its presence now was reassuring.
Hendricks and his squad came to the edge of the trench and looked down into it.
"Oh shit ..." Hendricks breathed.
The other two Presidential helicopters raced toward Restricted Area 7.
"Hey, Scarecrow?" Gunman Grier turned in his seat to face Schofield. "Where's your harem?"
Through his reflective silver sunglasses, Schofield offered a crooked smile to the Presidential Helicopter Pilot.
"They're over on Nighthawk Two today, sir," he said.
Grier was referring to the two female members of Schofield's former unit who had joined him on his tour on board Marine Helicopter Squadron-1Staff Sergeant Elizabeth "Fox" Gant and Gunnery Sergeant Gena "Mother" Newman.
As a former commander of a Marine Force Reconnaissance Unit, Schofield was something of a rarity on board Marine One.
Owing to the largely ceremonial duties associated with working on the President's helicopter and to the fact that time spent on board the helicopter is not counted as "active deployed airtime," many Marines choose to avoid HMX-1 duty. Indeed, with few exceptions, most of the troops assigned to HMX-1 are relatively junior soldiers who won't miss any promotional opportunities.
So to have a former Recon commander on board was highly unusual, but something which Gunman Grier welcomed.
He liked Schofield. He'd heard on the grapevine that he was a gifted field commandera man who looked out for his men, and as a result, got the very best out of them.
Grier had also heard about what had happened to Schofield on his last mission and he respected the young captain for it.
He also liked both Mother and Gantadmired their attitudes to their work and their fierce loyalty to their former commanderand his labeling of them as Schofield's "harem" was a sign of affection from a man who rarely showed it.
Schofield, however, was used to being considered unusual.
Indeed, that was why he was stationed aboard Marine One.
About eighteen months previously, as a lieutenant, he'd been in command of a Marine Reconnaissance Unit that had been sent to a remote ice station in Antarctica, to investigate the discovery of a possible alien spacecraft.
In a word, the mission had gone to hell on an express elevator.
Including himself, only four of his twelve Marines had survived the nightmare, during which they had been forced to defend the station against two foreign military forces and infiltrators from within their own unit. To top it off, Schofield himself had been declared dead by some corrupt members of the Marine Corps hierarchy, men who had been prepared to make that lie a reality.
His eventual return to Americaalive and wellhad sparked a media frenzy.
His face appeared on every major newspaper in the nation. Wherever he went, even after the initial frenzy, tabloid journalists and photographers tried to snap his picture or coax information out of him. After all, he was a walking talking monument to the corruption of the United States militarythe good soldier who had been targeted for extermination by the faceless generals of his own military leadership.
Which left the Marine Corps with a serious problem: where to put him?
In the end, the answer had been rather inventive.
The safest place to hide Schofield was right in front of the world's media, but in the one place where they wouldn't be able to touch him.
He would be assigned to Marine One.
The chopper was based at the Marine Corps Air Facility at Quantico, Virginia, so Schofield could live on the base, making access to him all but impossible. And he would work on board the President's VH-60N, which was only really ever seen landing at the White House, and even then, always at a safe distance from the press.
When the transfer was made, Mother and Gant had elected to go with Schofield. The fourth survivor of their Antarctic disaster, a private named Rebound Simmons, had decided to leave the Marine Corps after their ill-fated mission.
That had been a year ago.
In that time, Schofieldquiet at the best of times and not given to small talkhad made only a handful of friends in the White House: mainly people among the Secret Service and the domestic staff; the ordinary people. With his reflective silver antiflash glasses, however, he was popular with the President's playful grandkids. As such, to their delight, he was nearly always assigned to guard them whenever they visited. And yet, despite this, he had never actually spoken conversationally with the President.
Area 7 loomed large in front of Marine One. Schofield could see the massive doors of the complex's enormous hangar slowly opening, revealing bright electric lighting inside.
Grier spoke into his helmet mike: "Nighthawk Two, this is Nighthawk One, beginning descent now."
In the belly of Nighthawk Two, Sergeant Elizabeth "Fox" Gant sat hunched in a canvas jumpseat, trying vainly to read from a folder perched on her knees.
Unlike Marine One, the rotor noise inside Nighthawk Two was absolutely deafening. And since it never carried the President, its interior decor was about a thousand times more utilitarian. No upholstered seats or embroidered armrests here.
Now a staff sergeant, Libby Gant was twenty-eight years old, well, as of six hours ago.
Compact and fit, she had short blonde hair and sky-blue eyes, and in regular battle dressfatigues, body armor and MP-10she cut a smart figure. In full dress uniformpeaked hat, dress coat and trousersshe looked spectacular.
Since they were flying in restricted Air Force airspace, the mood on board Nighthawk Two was relaxed. The usual tensions of coordinating Marine One's flight path with those of civilian air traffic weren't an issue, so Gantstudying part-time for entry into Officer Candidate Schooltook the opportunity to brush up on some of her notes.
She was just getting to Course 9405, Advanced Tactical Command, when a soft voice invaded her consciousness.
"Happy birthday to you ...
Happy birthday to you ...
Happy birthday, dear Staff Sergeant Ga-ant ...
Happy birthday to you."
She looked up from her work and sighed.
Sliding into the empty seat beside her was Nicholas Tate III, the President's Domestic Policy Adviser. Tate was handsome in a European sort of waywith dark eyebrows, olive skin and a male model's jawlineand confident in the extreme. Today he wore a three-thousand-dollar Armani suit and matching Armani cologne. Apparently it was the latest thing.
Tate held out a small neatly wrapped package for Gant to take.
"Twenty-eight, if I'm not mistaken," he said.
"That's right, sir," Gant said.
"Please, call me Nick." He nodded at the gift. "Well, go on. Open it."
Reluctantly, Gant unwrapped the small package, unveiling an aqua-green box. She popped the lid, revealing an absolutely gorgeous silver necklace.
Small and thin, it looked like a length of the finest silver thread, its polished surface sparkling. A small but stylish diamond dangled like a teardrop from the front of the necklace.
"It's from Tiffany's," Tate said.
Gant looked up at him. "I'm not allowed to wear jewelery in uniform, Mr. Tate."
"I know. I was hoping you could wear it when I took you to dinner at Nino's next Saturday."
Nino's was a restaurant in Georgetown, popular among Washington socialites and arguably the most expensive eatery in town.
Gant sighed. "I'm seeing someone."
It was kind of true. Only last weekend, after a tentative start, she and Shane Schofield had gone out on something resembling a date.
"Now, now, now," Tate said, "I heard about that. One date does not a relationship make."
This was getting difficult. Gant held the necklace up to the light of the window. "You know, this looks a lot like a necklace I saw in Paris once."
At Gant's mention of the word "Paris," however, one of the other Marines sitting nearby cocked her head to the side. Tate never saw it.
"Yes," Gant said. "We were there a couple of months ago with the Boss, and I had a day off, so I"
"Jesus H. Christ, would you take a look at that!" a lusty woman's voice cut Gant off.
"Hey there, Mother," Gant said, as Gunnery Sergeant Gena "Mother" Newman appeared in the narrow aisle next to her.
"How you doin' there, Birthday Babe?" Mother said with a knowing smile.
The "Paris" code was one they had used several times before. When either of them encountered an unwanted male admirer, she would slip the word "Paris" into the conversation and the other, hearing the signal, would come to the rescue. It was a common trick used by girlfriends worldwide.
Granted, at six feet four inches and an even 200 pounds, Mother rarely had to use it. With her dark, heavyset features, fully shaved head and gruff no-nonsense manner, she was almost the perfect antithesis of Libby Gant. Her call-sign, "Mother," said it all, really. It wasn't indicative of any extraordinary maternal qualities. It was short for motherfucker. A gifted warrior, adept at all kinds of heavy weaponry and guncraft, she'd been promoted to the highly respected rank of gunnery sergeant a year ago.
In addition to thisthanks to a close encounter with a killer whale during the disastrous mission to AntarcticaMother had one other, highly unusual physical feature.
A prosthetic lower left leg.
The nasty incident with the killer whale had deprived her of everything below the left knee. That said, she'd done better than the killer had. It had received a bullet to its brain.
What Mother now had in place of her natural left foot and shin was a state-of-the-art prosthetic limb which, so its makers claimed, guaranteed total andundiminished body movement. Featuring titanium-alloy "bones," fully rotating joints and hydraulic muscle simulators, its operation was so sophisticatedinvolving nerve impulse reception and automatic weight-shiftingthat it required an internal prologic computer chip to control it.
Mother was gazing at the glistening Tiffany's necklace.
"Whoa, that is one mighty fine piece of jewelery," she gawped. She turned to Nick Tate: "That piece of string must have cost you a pretty penny, sonny Jim."
"It was within my price range," Tate said coolly.
"Probably cost more than I make in a year."
Mother ignored him, turned to Gant. "Sorry to rain on your parade, Birthday Babe, but the skipper sent me back to get you. He wants you up front for the landing."
Gant stood, and as she did, she handed Tate back his necklace. "I'm sorry, Nicholas, but I can't accept this. I'm seeing someone else."
And with that she headed up front.
Over at the Emergency Escape Vent, Colt Hendricks just stood with his mouth agape, staring down into the trench.
The sight before him was nothing short of horrific.
All nine members of the Secret Service's secondary advance team lay on the sand-covered floor of the trench, their bodies twisted at all angles, riddled with bullet holes. The size of the wounds indicated hollow-point ammunition had been usedbullets that expanded once they entered the wound, guaranteeing a kill. A few of the agents had been shot in the facetheir heads had been all but blown off. Blood was everywhere, drying in the sand.
Hendricks saw the agent-in-charge of the Secret Service team, a man named Bakermouth open, eyes wide, bullet hole in the forehead. In Agent Baker's outstretched hand was the Advance Team's All-Clear beacon switch. The attack must have happened so quickly that he hadn't even had time to flick the switch.
Beyond Baker, Hendricks saw a solid-looking steel door set into the dirt wall of the trenchthe escape vent itself. It just stood there, resolutely closed.
Hendricks spun on his heel, yanked out his radio, headed back toward Nighthawk Three.
"Goddamn it! Nighthawk One! This is"
It was as if the desert just came alive.
The dusty desert floor partedsand falling off canvas ambush coversand suddenly, from both sides of Hendricks, about a dozen man-sized shapes rose from the sand, submachine guns raised and firing.
A second later, a 9-millimeter Silvertip bullet entered Hendricks's brain fromthe side. The subsequent gaseous expansion of the hollow-pointed projectile caused his head to explode.
Hendricks never saw the man who killed him.
Never saw the dark team of desert wraiths take down the rest of his men with clinical, ruthless efficiency.
And he never saw them take his helicopter and fly it back toward Area 7.
The two remaining Presidential helicopters descended together, landing in a whirlwind of sand in front of the massive main hangar of United States Air Force Special Area (Restricted) No. 7.
The giant hangar's enormous twin doors yawned wide, its interior brightly illuminated. The low mountain into which the hangar had been carved loomed over the squat four-building complex.
No sooner had the two choppers touched the ground than the Secret Service people from Nighthawk Two were dashing to their positions around Marine One.
A welcoming party stood on the runway in front of the hangar, standing silently in the cool morning air, silhouetted by the hangar light behind them.
Two Air Force officersone colonel and one majorstood at the head of the welcoming unit.
Behind the two officers stood four rows of fully armed commandos, ten men to a row. All of them were dressed in full combat gearblack battledress uniforms, black body armor, black helmetsand they all held high-tech Belgian-made P-90 assault rifles rigidly across their chests.
Looking out through Marine One's cockpit windshield, Schofield recognized their insignia patches at once. They were members of a unit rarely seen at U.S. military exercises, a unit which was shrouded in secrecy, a unit which many believed was used only in the most critical of missions.
It was the elite ground unit in the United States Air Force, the famous 7th Special Operations Squadron.
Based in West Germany for much of the Cold War, its official task during that time was the defense of U.S. airfields against the elite Soviet Spetsnaz units. Its unofficial achievements, though, were far more spectacular.
Masterminding the defection of five senior Soviet nuclear missile specialists from a secret base in the Ukraine mountains. The assassination of KGB operationschief Vladimir Nakov in Moscow in 1990, before Nakov could himself assassinate Mikhail Gorbachev. And, finally, in 1997, the daring rescue of the CIA's captured Far Eastern Bureau Chief, Fred Conway, from the dreaded Xiangi Prisonthe all but impregnable maze of grim cells and torture chambers belonging to the notorious Chinese External Intelligence Service.
Each man in the formation wore a special combat mask around his throatan ERG-6 gas mask. Black and hard, it looked like the lower half of a hockey mask, and it covered its wearer's mouth and nose in much the same way Jesse James's mask had covered his face in the old days.
Three other men stood out in front of the detachment of 7th Squadron members on the deserted runway. All three wore starched white lab coats. Scientists.
Once the Marine and Secret Service people from Nighthawk Two were in place, a set of Airstairs folded down from the forward left-hand side of Marine One.
Two Marines emerged from the helicopter first and took up their positions at the base of the stairs, backs straight, eyes forward.
A moment later, Special Agent Frank Cutler stepped out of the chopper, hand on his holster, eyes watchful. The Secret Service trusts nobody. Not even the United States Air Force. Even it could have a disgruntled soldier who might take a shot at the President.
The President came out next, followed by his staff.
Schofield and a young Marine corporal emerged last of all.
As usual, Marine One's two pilots, Gunman and Dallas, stayed on board just in case a rapid departure was called for.
The two parties faced each other on the runway in the early morning lightthe Air Force detachment stationed at the complex; the President and his entourage.
Twisting coils of windswept sand swirled around their bodies. A sandstorm was due later in the day.
A young Air Force captain guided the President over to the colonel at the head of the Air Force formationa severe-looking man with gray hair and eyebrows. As the President came closer, the colonel stepped forward and crisply saluted his Commander-in-Chief.
"Good morning, Mr. President," he said. "My name is Colonel Jerome T. Harper, United States Air Force Medical and Surgical Command, and commanding officer of United States Air Force Special Area (Restricted) 7. This is Major Kurt Logan, commander of the 7th Squadron forces here at the base. Your two Secret Service advance teams are waiting for you inside. We're honored to have you, sir. Welcome to Area 7."
"Thank you, Colonel," the President replied. "It's a pleasure to be here. Lead the way."
As soon as the President was taken away, disappearing inside the enormous main hangar with his highest-level entourage in tow, the major in charge of the 7th Squadron detachment came up to Schofield.
Major Kurt Logan was about six-one, with closely shaved hair and heavily pockmarked skin. Schofield had actually met him before, although he doubted Logan would remember him.
It had been at a special command and leadership course run by the Navy at their SEAL compound in Fort Lauderdale in 1997. Through a combination of smart tactics and ruthless follow-through, the softly spoken Logan had come first in the class by a clear forty points. He could assess any battlefield situation in an instant, and when it came to engaging the enemy, he was uncompromising. Schofield, then just a budding Recon Unit commander, had come tenth in a class of sixteen.
From the looks of things, Logan hadn't changed much. His whole bearinghands clasped firmly behind his back, steely level gazeindicated a powerful, confident inner strength. Battle-hardened strength.
"Excuse me, Captain," Logan said in a soft Southern drawl. He offered Schofield a sheet of paper. "Our personnel list for your records."
Schofield took the list, then gave one of his own to Logan in return.
It was common practice at presidential inspections for both sides to swap personnel lists, since the President's people wanted to know who was at the base they were inspecting, and the base people wanted to know exactly who was in the presidential convoy.
Schofield glanced at the Area 7 list. Columns of meaningless names ran down it.
UNITED STATES AIR FORCE
SPECIAL AREA (RESTRICTED) 07
CLASSIFICATION: TOP SECRET
He did notice something, though.
There were more names here than there were 7th Squadron men on the tarmac. While there had been forty commandos out on the tarmac, there were fifty 7th Squadron members on the list. He figured there must be another ten-man unit inside the base somewhere.
As Schofield looked at the list, Logan said, "Captain, if you wouldn't mind, we'd like you to move your"
"What appears to be the problem, Major?" a voice said from behind Schofield. "Don't bother with Captain Schofield. I am in command here."
It was Ramrod Hagerty, the White House Liaison Officer. With his Englishman's mustache and distinctly unbattle-hardened posture, Hagerty was everything Kurt Logan was not.
Before he answered him, Logan looked Hagerty up and down. What he saw obviously didn't impress him.
"I was led to believe that Colonel Grier was in ultimate command of Marine One," Logan said coollyand correctly.
"Well, ah, yes ... yes, technically, he is," Hagerty said. "But, as White House Liaison, anything to do with the movement of these helicopters must go through me first."
Logan looked at Hagerty in stony silence.
Then he said, "I was about to ask the captain here if he wouldn't mind rolling your helicopters into the main hangar while the President is at the base. We wouldn't want enemy satellites knowing that we had the Boss visiting, now would we?"
"No, no, of course not. Of course not," Ramrod said. "Schofield. Make it happen."
"Yes, sir," Schofield said dryly.
The giant double doors of the hangar closed with a resounding boom.
The two lead helicopters of Marine Helicopter Squadron-1 were now parked inside the main hangar of Area 7, their rotors and tail booms folded into their stowed positions. Despite their own considerable size, the two Presidential helicopters were dwarfed by the cavernous hangar.
Having supervised the roll-in of the choppers, Schofield now stood in the middle of the massive interior space, alone, scanning it silently.
The rest of the Marine, White House and Secret Service contingentthose who hadn't been senior enough to go with the President, about twenty peoplevariously milled about the helicopters or drank coffee in the two glass-walled offices that flanked the main doors.
The size of the hangar stunned Schofield.
It was gigantic.
Completely illuminated by brilliant white halogen lights, it must have stretched at least a hundred yards into the mountain. A ceiling-mounted rail system ran for its entire length. At the moment, two large wooden crates hung from the rails at either end of the hangar.
At the far end of the vast spacefacing the doors that led out to the runwaystood a two-story, completely internal building that ran for the full width of the hangar. This building's upper floor had angled glass windows that looked out over the hangar floor.
A small unobtrusive personnel elevator sat quietly underneath the overhang created by the building's upper level, sunk in the hangar's northern wall.
Apart from the Presidential helicopters, there were no other aircraft in the hangar at present. Some large white-painted towing vehicles not unlike those seen at airports lay scattered around the hangar floor-indeed, Schofield had used two of them to bring in the choppers.
By far the most striking feature of the immense hangar, however, was the massive aircraft elevator platform that lay in its center.
It was huge, unbelievably huge, like the enormous hydraulic elevators that hang off the sides of aircraft carriersa giant square-shaped platform in the very center of the hangar.
At 200 feet by 200 feet, the platform was large enough to hold an entire AWACS Boeing 707the Air Force's famous radar-detecting airplanes, known for the thirty-foot flying-saucer-like rotodomes mounted on their backs.
Supported by an unseen hydraulic lift system, the giant platform took up nearly the whole of the central area of the hangar. As with similar aircraft elevators, to maximize efficiency, on the northeastern corner of the platform was a small detachable section which was itself a working elevator, capable of operating independently of the larger platform. To do this it ran on rails attached to the wall of the elevator shaft rather than on the main platform's telescoping hydraulic struta kind of "platform within a platform," so to speak.
Today, however, the Air Force personnel at Area 7 were putting on the whole show.
As he stood at the edge of the enormous elevator shaft, Schofield could see the Presidentwith his nine-man Secret Service Detail and his high-ranking Air Force tour guidesstanding on the full-sized platform, getting smaller and smaller as they descended the wide concrete shaft on it.
At that very same moment, as Shane Schofield stood in the center of the vast hangar bay, looking down into the wide elevator shaft, someone else was watching him.
The watcher stood in Area 7's darkened control room, on the upper floor of the internal building that formed the eastern wall of the hangar. Around him, four uniformed radio operators spoke softly into headset microphones:
"Alpha Unit, cover the Level 3 common room"
"Echo Unit advises that the Marine investigatory team from Nighthawk Three had to be neutralized out at the EEV. They found the secondary advance team. Echo is parking their chopper in one of the outside hangars now. Returning to the main hangar when they're done"
"Bravo and Charlie Units are to remain in main hangar"
"Delta Unit reports that it is now in position"
"the Secret Service are trying to contact their primary advance team on Level 6. The simulated All-Clear signal, however, appears to be working"
Major Kurt Logan arrived at the side of the shadowy figure. "Sir. The President and his Detail just arrived on Level 4. All units are in position."
"Shall we move now?"
"No. Let him take the tour," the faceless man said. "There is still one more thing that has to be taken care of before we can begin."
Schofield turned, and saw the smiling faces of Libby Gant and Mother Newman.
"Hey there," he said.
"Ralph's still pissed at you," Mother said. "He wants a rematch."
Ralph was Mother's husband. A short nugget of a man with a moon-shaped smiling face and a limitless ability to put up with Mother's eccentricities, he was a trucker, owning his own Mack eighteen-wheeler. It had a painting of an arrow-struck heart on its side with the word "Mother" flowing over it. With his short stature and ready smile, Ralph was widely regarded in the Marine community as a bona fide legend.
He was also the proud owner of a new barbecue, and at the obligatory Sunday afternoon lunch at Mother's place a few weeks ago, he'd challenged Schofield to a shoot-off on the garage basketball hoop. Schofield had let him win and Ralph knew it.
"Maybe next weekend?" Schofield said. "How about you? How'd that checkup on the leg go yesterday?"
"In a word, Scarecrow, sen-fucking-sational," Mother said. "I got full movement and I can run just as fast as I used to. That seemed to satisfy the docs. Hell, I told'em that just last week I bowled 275, but that didn't seem to mean much. Either way, since I'm now part machine, I want a new nickname: Darth Fucking Vader."
Schofield laughed. "Okay, Darth."
"You having trouble with Ramrod again?" Gant asked seriously.
"The usual," Schofield said. "Hey, happy birthday."
Gant smiled. "Thanks."
"I got you something." Schofield reached into his dress coat pocket. "It's nothuge or anything, but ..." he frowned, patted his other pockets. "Damn, it's here somewhere. Maybe it's back on the chopper ..."
"Don't worry about it."
"Can I give it to you later?"
Mother gazed at the enormous hangar around them. "What the fuck is this place? Looks like Fort Knox."
"More than that," Schofield said.
"What do you mean?"
"Look at the floor just inside the hangar doors."
Mother and Gant did. A series of box-shaped indentations ran in a line across the concrete floor in front of the doors. Each indentation was at least a yard square and deep.
"Now look up."
They did, and saw a series of thick, toothlike metal protrusionsprotrusions which, when lowered, would fit perfectly into the box-shaped indentations on the floor.
"Piston-driven armored door," Schofield said, "like the ones they have on Nimitz-class carriers. They're used to divide the ship's hangar bays into self-contained zones in case of fire or explosion. But, you'll notice that there aren't any other armored doors in this hangar. That's the only one, which means it's the only exit."
"So what are you saying?" Mother asked.
"I'm saying," Schofield said, "that whatever they're doing in this complex is more important than you or I could possibly imagine."
The wide elevator platform holding the President of the United States jolted to a halt in front of a giant steel door marked with an enormous black-painted "4."
The wide concrete elevator shaft stretched up into the air above the President and his Secret Service Detail like an oversized vertical tunnel. The bright artificial light of the ground-level hangar was but a small square of white nowthree hundred feet straight up.
No sooner had the elevator stopped than the massive steel door in front of it rumbled upward. Colonel Jerome Harper led the way, walking and talking quickly:
"This facility was once the headquarters for the North American Air Defense CommandNORADbefore NORAD was moved to a more modern facility built underneath Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado in 1975.
"The complex is surrounded by a two-foot-thick titanium outer wall, which is itself buried beneath one hundred feet of solid granite. Like the Cheyenne Mountain complex, it is designed to withstand a direct hit from a thermonuclear missile."
Harper handed the President a sheet of paper, on which was a schematic diagram of the subterranean structure.
The hangar appeared at the top of the diagramat ground level, capped by the low mountainthen the wide aircraft elevator shaft led downwards, until it met a multileveled structure built deep within the earth.
Harper said, "The underground complex contains six levels, the first two of whichLevels 1 and 2are storage hangars for high-risk aircraft, much like the ones you saw at Area 8 earlier this morning. Level 3 houses communications and staff living quarters. Level 5 is confinement. And Level 6 is the X-Rail system.
"Each level is completely sealable to both radiation and airborne contagions, and the whole facility, if locked down, is capable of living off a self-containedsupply of oxygen for thirty days. Food supplies are kept in a storage area on Level 3. Water supply is kept in a 100-millon-gallon tank in the Level 1 hangar."
Their group came to a short upwardly sloping corridor, at the end of which sat a squat solid-looking door that looked like a gigantic safe. An Air Force man hurriedly began opening it.
"Project Fortune was stationed here four years ago, after the first viable embryo reached maturity," Harper said. "Now, at last, it has reached a stage where it can be put to use."
The President waited patiently while the three-foot-thick door was pulled open.
Frank Cutler and the eight other members of the President's personal Detail stood behind himsilent, impassive, invisible. At three-minute intervals, Cutler would silently check his earpiece for the All-Clear beacons from both of his advance teams. The beacons came in loud and clear.
Then, finally, the door swung open, and the President looked casually beyond it.
And his jaw dropped.
"Oh ... my ... God ..."
"My money's on the superbomb," Elvis Haynes said as he leaned back in his chair.
Elvis, Schofield, Gant and Mother were sitting in one of the glass-walled offices by the main doors of the hangar. With them were Colonels Grier and Dallas, all the other Marines stationed on board the Presidential helicopters, as well as the three remaining Secret Service agents.
In a not-so-subtle division of management and labor, all the White House people who had remained up in the hangar either sat in the other glass-walled office on the southern side of the hangar or worked inside their helicopters, which, they said, were more suited to their rank than the spartan Air Force offices.
They alsoso Nicholas Tate had said to Gant when he had invited her to stay on Marine One with himhad better coffee, plunger stuff.
Gant went with Schofield and the others.
Ramrod Hagerty, on the other hand, sat over with the White House people.
"No way, man," a small bespectacled corporal named Gus Gorman said. "The superbomb doesn't exist."
Gorman was a thin, nerdy looking individual, with thick glasses, a big nose and a narrow scrawny neck. Not even full dress uniform could make him look sexy. Popular with the other troops for his almost-photographic memory and sharp wit, his call-sign "Brainiac" was a compliment, not an insult.
"Bullshit," Elvis said, "DARPA made it in the nineties, in conjunction with the Navy"
"But they could never make it work. Thing depended on some element only found in meteorites and they could never find a live specimen of it."
"You guys'll believe anything," a softly spoken voice said from the other side of the office.
Everybody turned, Schofield included.
The speaker was a new sergeant to the unitan intense young man with aheavy-browed face, pug nose and deep brown eyes. He didn't talk much, so when he did it was something of a special occasion for the team. At first, it had been a trait which some had mistaken for contempt. But soon it was discovered that Sergeant Buck Riley Jr. just didn't like to talk unnecessarily.
Riley Jr. was the son of a highly regarded Marine staff sergeant. His father, Buck Riley Sr., had also been a man Shane Schofield had known better than most.
They had met under fireback when Schofield had been in a god-almighty mess in Bosnia and Riley Sr. had been on the rescue team. They had become good friends and Riley Sr. had become Schofield's loyal staff sergeant. Sadly, he had also been on that fateful mission to Antarcticawhere he had been murdered in the most brutal fashion by an enemy whose name Schofield had been forbidden to mention by the Official Secrets Act.
Sergeant Buck Riley Jr.silent, intense and seriousbore his father's call-sign with pride. He was known throughout the unit simply as "Book II."
Book II looked at Elvis and Brainiac. "Do you guys seriously believe that DARPA has built a bomb that can destroy a third of the earth's mass?"
"Yes," Elvis said.
"No," Brainiac said.
"Well, they haven't. The superbomb is an urban myth," Book II said, "designed to keep the conspiracy theorists on the Internet and the gossipy old women in the United States Marine Corps happy. Want me to give you a couple more examples? That the FBI sends agents into prisons as deep cover operatives. That the United States Air Force has nuclear bombers stationed in commercial hangars at every major airport in the United States for use in the event of a sudden outbreak of war. That USAMRIID has developed a cure for AIDS but hasn't been allowed to release it. That the Air Force has developed a magnetic-propulsion system that allows vehicles to float on air. That the losing tenderer in the bid to build the stealth bomber proposed a supersonic plane that could attain complete invisibility through the use of nuclear-powered air refractionand built the plane anyway, even after they lost the bid. Heard any of those?"
"No," Elvis said, "but they're way cool."
"What about you, Captain?" Book II turned to Schofield. "You heard any of those before?"
Schofield held the young sergeant's gaze. "I've heard about the last one, but not the others."
He turned away from the debate, scanning the office around him.
He frowned. Someone was missing.
And then it hit him.
"Hey, where's Warrant Officer Webster?" he said.
The President of the United States stared out through the slanted observation windows, his mouth agape.
Through the windows, in the middle of a high-ceilinged, hall-like room, he saw a large freestanding cube made of a clear glasslike substance.
It just sat there in the middle of the hall, not quite reaching the ceiling, not quite reaching the walls, a glass cube the size of a large living room, bounded on two sides by the elevated L-shaped observation structure.
It was what lay inside the glass cube, however, that seized the President's attention.
Indeed, he couldn't take his eyes off it.
"The cube is made of high-tensile polyfiber, and has its own separate oxygen supply. It is completely airtight," Colonel Harper said. "Should its structural integrity be compromised, the cube's internal air pressure is automatically raised, so that no contagions can enter it."
Harper gestured to one of the three scientists who had been up on the tarmac earlier. "Mr. President, I'd like you to meet Dr. Gunther Botha, the guiding force behind Project Fortune."
The President shook Botha's hand. Botha was a fat, wide-faced, balding man of fifty-eight, and he spoke with a guttural South African accent: "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. President."
"Dr. Botha is from"
"I know where Dr. Botha is from," the President said, a trace of disapproval in his voice. "I saw his file yesterday."
Gunther Botha was a former member of the South African Defense Force's notorious Medical Battalion. Though not widely known, throughout the 1980s South Africa was second only to the Soviet Union in the creation and stockpiling of biological weapons, principally for use against the black majority.
But with the fall of the apartheid regime, Gunther Botha quickly found himself out of a job and directly in the firing line of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. His clandestine hiring by the United States government in 1996 was not unlike its harboring of Nazi scientists after World War II. Specialists in Botha's chosen field of expertise were exceedingly hard to come by.
The President turned back to look out through the observation windows. "So this is the vaccine ..." he said, gazing down at the clear fiberglass cube.
"Yes, sir, it is," Botha said.
"Tested?" The President didn't turn as he spoke.
"In serum-hydrate form?"
"Against the latest strain?"
"We tested it against 9.1 yesterday afternoon, as soon as it arrived."
"Mr. President," Colonel Harper said, "if you'd like, we can give you a demonstration."
"All right," the President said. "Do so."
"Where did he go?" Schofield asked as he stood in the middle of the wide main hangar of Area 7 with Libby Gant.
Warrant Officer Carl Websterthe man in charge of the Footballwasn't in either of the two Presidential helicopters, nor was he in the hangar's two offices. And a quick check with the Secret Service people had revealed that he hadn't gone with the President on the tour of the facility.
Warrant Officer Webster was nowhere to be found.
It was cause for concern because there were strict rules of protocol as to Webster's movements. If he wasn't with the President, he was supposed to stay close to Marine One at all times.
"Take a look at the welcoming committee, the famous 7th Squadron," Gant said, eyeing the three groups of P-90-armed commandos stationed at various points around the hangar bay. The crack Air Force troops just watched Schofield and Gant impassively.
"They look pretty mean to me," Schofield said.
"They're jacked up," Gant said.
"Yellow tinges to their eyes."
"Uh-huh," Gant said.
"No wonder they look so edgy," Schofield said.
"Elvis doesn't like them," Gant said. "Says he heard somewhere that they're, quote, 'unofficially racist.' You'll notice that there are no black members in these squads."
It was true. Apart from a couple of Asian-American members scattered among them, the 7th Squadron units in the hangar were absolutely lily-white.
"Yes, I've heard those rumors, too," Schofield said. Although no one liked to admit it, in some sections of the armed forces, racismparticularly against black soldierswas still a problem. And with their brutal selection courses, special forces units like the 7th Squadron could easily wield subtle discriminatory powers.
Schofield nodded at the leaders of the three ten-man groups, distinguished from the others by the fact that they didn't have to hold their P-90s in their hands. Their machine guns were secured behind their shoulder blades, in back-mounted holsters. "You know what they call the five 7th Squadron unit commanders at exercises?"
"The Five Snakes. As the overall squadron leader, Kurt Logan commands one ten-man team, the first one, Alpha Unit. The other four units are run byfour captainsMcConnell, Willis, Stone and Carney. And they're good. When they've cared to show up at the interservice combat exercises at Bragg, they've always come in at number one. One time, a lone 7th Squadron unit took out three SEAL defensive teams all by itselfand that was without Logan."
"Why do they call them the Five Snakes?" Gant asked.
"It started out as a jealous joke among the other field commanders. Three reasons. One, because tactically they resemble snakes: they strike quickly and with maximum force, and with a total lack of mercy. Two, because, personally, they're all very cold individuals. They would never mix with their counterparts in the other services. Always stuck together."
"And the third reason?"
"Because each of their call-signs is a variety of aggressive snake."
"Nice," Gant said wryly.
They kept walking. Gant changed the subject: "You know, I had a good time last Saturday night."
"You did?" Schofield turned to face her.
"Yeah. Did you?"
Gant said, "I was just wondering, you know, because, well, you didn't ..."
"Wait a second," Schofield said suddenly. "Something's wrong here."
Schofield looked at the three 7th Squadron units stationed around the hangar again.
One squad stood guard over by the regular elevator. The second group of ten men stood beside the wide aircraft elevator shaft. The third unit stood on the southeastern side of the hangar, over by a door that led into the two-story control building.
It was at that moment that Schofield saw the sign on the door behind the third group of 7th Squadron men.
And then, in his mind's eye, he saw it.
"Come on," he said, heading back toward the offices. "Quickly."
"The arming codes have been entered, sir," Logan said. "The Football is ready. Warrant Officer Webster was most ... forthcoming."
The radio operators inside the control room continued their verbal updates:
"emergency sealing system ready"
"self-contained oxygen supply ready"
"Major Logan," one of them said, "I'm still picking up those trace heat signatures in sector nine outside, out by the EEV."
"Same as before. Between twelve and seventeen inches. I'm not sure, sir, but I'd swear they've moved closer to the vent since the last time I looked."
Logan looked at the satellite image. A zoomed-in black-and-white shot of thedesert to the east of the main complex showed about twenty-four rod-shaped white blobs arrayed in a wide three-hundred-yard circle around the Emergency Escape Vent.
"Twelve to seventeen inches." Logan peered closely at the image. "Too small to be men. Probably just a pack of desert rats. Get an enhanced image from the satellite, just to be sure. Keep an eye on them."
The shadowy figure turned to face Logan. "Where is the President now?"
"He's down in the testing lab on Level 4."
"Contact Harper. Give him the green light. Tell him we're ready. Tell him the mission is go."
"Subject One has not been immunized with the vaccine," Dr. Gunther Botha said in a neutral scientific voice.
The President now stood in near darkness, in another area of Level 4, facing two brightly lit test chambers.
Inside each chamber stood a completely naked man. Both men, in perverse contrast to their nakedness, wore gas masks and a series of electrodes attached to their chests.
"Subject One is a white, Caucasian male, five foot seven inches, one hundred and sixty pounds, age thirty-six. Subject is wearing a standard-issue anticontagion gas mask. Releasing the agent now."
There was a soft hissing sound as a light mist of mustard-yellow aerosol particles was released into the first man's chamber. He was a thin man, gangly. He looked about himself fearfully as the gas entered his air-tight room.
The President said, "Where did you get the virus?"
"Changchun," Botha said.
The President nodded.
Changchun was a remote town in northern Manchuria. Although the Chinese government denied it, Changchun was the Chinese Army's chief biological weapons testing facility. It was said that political prisoners and captured foreign spies were sent there and used as guinea pigs for virus and nerve agent testing.
The naked man in the gas chamber was still standing, still looking nervously about himself.
"Secondary infection occurs via indirect ingestion through dermatological orificeshair follicles in the skin, open cuts," Botha said blandly. "Without administration of an effective vaccine, death will occur approximately thirty minutes after contact. For indirectly ingested nerve agents, this is a relatively fast kill rate.
"But," Botha held up a finger, "when compared with the effects of direct inhalation of this agent, it is highly inefficient."
He pressed an intercom switch and addressed the man in the chamber. "Would you please remove your mask."
In response, the man gave Botha the fingerfirmly.
Botha just sighed and pressed a button on a nearby console. Subject One received a severe shock through his chest electrodes.
"I said, would you please remove your gas mask."
Subject One slowly took off his mask.
And immediatelyviolentlythe virus took effect.
The man clutched his stomach and coughed a deep, hacking cough.
"As I said, far more efficient," Botha said.
The man doubled over, started wheezing.
"Gastrointestinal irritation begins within approximately ten seconds of onset."
The man vomited explosively, splatting brown-green vomit all over the test booth's floor.
"Stomach liquefication within thirty seconds ..."
The man dropped to his knees, gasping for air. A chunky liquid dribbled down his chin. He clutched at the booth's glass wall, right in front of Botha.
"Liver and kidney liquefication within a minute ..."
The subject puked a bloody black sludge all over the window. Then he fell to the ground, shuddering and shivering.
"Total organ failure within ninety seconds. Death within two minutes."
Soon, the naked man inside the chambercoiled in the fetal positionlay still.
The President watched, trying to hide his revulsion.
It was beyond cruel, this method of death, even for a man such as this.
Nevertheless, he tried to justify Subject One's grisly death in the light of what Subject One had done during his life. With a friend, Leon Roy Hailey had tortured nine women in the back of his van, laughing at them as they begged for mercy. The two men had recorded the girls' death throes on a video recorder for later gratification. The President had seen those tapes.
He also knew that Leon Roy Hailey had been sentenced to four hundred and fifty-two years in prison for his crimes. He was never to leave prison alive. And so, after five brutal years in jail, helike every other test subject at Area 7, all of them serving multiple life sentenceshad elected to submit himself to scientific testing.
"Subject Two," Botha said tonelessly, "has been given the vaccine in serum-hydrate form. Serum was mixed into a glass of water he drank exactly thirty minutes ago. Subject is a white, Caucasian male, six feet eight inches, two hundred and fifteen pounds, age thirty-two. Releasing the agent now."
Again, the hissing came, followed by the sudden puff of mustard-yellow aerosol mist.
The man in the second chamber saw the gas enter his booth, but unlike the first test subject, he didn't do anything in response. He was much bigger than the first mana massive six-eightbroad chested, too, with bulging biceps, enormous fists and a small elliptical head that seemed way too tiny for his body.
With his gas mask on and the yellow mist falling all around him, he just stared out through the one-way glass of the test chamber, as if a painful agonized death didn't worry him in the slightest.
No coughing. No spasming. With the gas mask on, the virus hadn't affected him yet.
Botha flicked the intercom switch: "Take off your mask, please."
Subject Two obeyed Botha's command without objection, removed his mask.
The President saw the man's face, and this time he caught his breath.
It was a face he had seen many times beforeon television, in the newspapers. It was the evil tattooed face of Lucifer James Leary, the serial killer known across America as "the Surgeon of Phoenix."
He was the man who had killed thirty-two hitchhikers, most of them young backpackers, whom he had picked up on the interstate between Las Vegas and Phoenix between 1991 and 1998. In every case, Leary had left his trademarka piece of the victim's jewelery, usually a ring or necklace, lying on the roadway at the spot where the victim had been abducted.
A disgraced former medical student, Leary would take his victims to his home in Phoenix, amputate their limbs and then eat those limbs in front of them. The discovery of his house by FBI agentscomplete with blood-smeared basement and two live but partially eaten victimshad horrified America.
Even now, Lucifer Leary looked like the picture of evil. The entire left-hand side of his face was covered by a black tattoo depicting five vertical claw marks, as if Freddy Krueger himself had slashed his razor-tipped fingers viciously down Leary's cheek. The tattooed slash marks were impressive in their detailtorn ragged skin, imitation blooddesigned to evoke maximum revulsion.
At that moment, to the President's horror, Leary smiled at the observation window, revealing hideous yellow teeth.
It was then that it hit the President.
Even though his gas mask was off, Leary didn't seem to be affected by the airborne virus.
"As you will see," Botha said proudly, "even when the virus is inhaled directly into the lungs from the air, an orally administered vaccine delivered in serum-hydrate form is effective in preventing infection. The vaccine neutralizes the invading virus by restricting the release of the protein diethylpropanase by the virus, a protein which attacks the pigmentation enzyme metahydrogenase and the blood group protein, DB"
"In English, please," the President said tersely.
Botha said, "Mr. President, what you have just seen is a quantum leap forward in biotechnological warfare. It is the world's first genetically engineered biological weapon, a completely synthetic agent, so there are no natural cures.And it works with a degree of efficiency the likes of which I have never seen before. It is a purely constructed virus, and make no mistake, it has been constructed in a very particular way.
"It is an ethnic bullet, designed to kill only certain races of people, people possessed of certain ethnically exclusive genes. In this case, it attacks only those people who are possessed of the enzyme metahydrogenase and DB blood protein. These are the enzymes which cause white skin pigmentation, the characteristic enzymes of Caucasian people.
"Mr. President, the same enzyme that makes our skin white makes us susceptible to this virus. It is extraordinary. I don't know how the Chinese did it. My government in South Africa tried for years to develop a virus that it could put in the water supply which would make only black people sterile, but we never succeeded.
"But from the look of this agent, it would not be difficult to adapt the genetic makeup of the virus so that it would also attack African Americans, since their pigmentation enzyme is a variant of metahydrogenase"
"Bottom line," the President said.
"The bottom line is simple, Mr. President," Botha said. "The only people safe from this virus are people of Asian origin, because they do not possess these pigmentation enzymes at all. As such, they would be immune from the agent while Caucasians and African Americans everywhere would die.
"Mr. President. Allow me to introduce you to the latest Chinese biological weapon. Meet the Sinovirus."
"I'm telling you, there's something not right here," Schofield said.
"Bullshit, Captain." Ramrod Hagerty waved his hand dismissively. "You've been reading too many comic books."
"What about Webster, then? I can't find him anywhere. He's not allowed to just disappear."
"Probably in the john."
"No, I checked there," Schofield said. "And Nighthawk Three? Where are they? Why hasn't Hendricks called in?"
Hagerty just stared at him blankly.
Schofield said, "Sir, with all due respect, if you would just look at where these 7th Squadron guys are standing ..."
Hagerty turned in his chair. He, Schofield and Gant were in the southern office of the main hangar, with the small group of White House people. Hagerty casually looked out through the office's windows at the 7th Squadron commandos spaced around the hangar outside.
"Looks like they're guarding every entrance." Hagerty shrugged. "To stop us going into areas we're not supposed to."
"No, sir, they're not. Look closely. The group to the north are guarding the regular elevator. The middle group are guarding the aircraft elevator. They're both fine. But look at the group over by the control building, the group in front of the door."
"Yeah, so ..."
"Sir, they're guarding a storage closet."
Hagerty looked from Schofield to the Air Force commandos. It was true. They were standing in front of a door marked "STORAGE."
"That's very nice, Captain. I'll put your observations in my report." Hagerty resumed his paperwork.
"But sir ..."
"I said, I'll put your observations in my report, Captain Schofield. That will be all."
"With respect, sir, have you ever been in combat?" he said.
Hagerty froze, looked up. "I'm not sure if I like your tone, Captain."
"Have you ever been in combat?"
"I was in Saudi during Desert Storm."
"No. Embassy staff."
"Sir, if you'd ever been in combat, you'd know that those three groups of Air Force commandos are not standing in defensive positions. Those are offensive positions. More than that, those men are perfectly placed to rout these two offices"
Schofield grabbed the sheet of paper Hagerty had been writing on and scribbled a quick map of the hangar:
"This is where they are now," Schofield tapped the three big black dots on the diagram. "Twelve o'clock, ten o'clock and four o'clock. But when they move like this ..." Schofield added some arrows to his diagram:
" ... we've got serious trouble. All the Marines and Secret Service people over in the northern office will face the full force of the attack, while the White House people here in the southern office will naturally run the other wayright into the third unit of 7th Squadron soldiers."
Hagerty looked at Schofield's diagram for a long moment.
Then he said, "That has got to be the stupidest thing I've ever heard, Captain. These are American servicemen."
"For Christ's sake, just listen to me"
"No, you listen to me," Hagerty spat. "Don't think for a moment that I don't know who you are. I know all about Wilkes Ice Station. I know what happened there. But just because you were some kind of hero once doesn't give you a license to spout out fucking conspiracy theories and expect to be believed. I've been in this Corps for twenty-two years and I have risen to where I am by"
"what? Pushing pencils," Schofield said.
Hagerty fell silent. His face grew beetroot red.
"That's it, Schofield. For the sake of the Corps, I won't make a scene here, but when we get back to Quantico, as soon as we touch down, you will be taken into custody and held for court martial on charges of gross insubordination. Now get the fuck out of my sight."
Schofield just shook his head in exasperation and left.
"And these, sir, are the men who brought back the Sinovirus," Colonel Harper said, guiding the President around the test booths on Level 4.
A giant thirty-foot-long quarantine chamber stood before them. Through a small glass window set into the side of the reinforced chamber, the President saw four men, all seated on sofas watching a television and bathed in blue ultraviolet light. All of them, he noted, were of Asian extraction.
As soon as they saw the President, two of the men inside the chamber rose to their feet and stood to attention.
"Mr. President, meet Captain Robert Wu and Lieutenant Chet Li from the 7th Squadron"
Just then Harper's cell phone buzzed.
The colonel excused himself and stepped away to take the call.
"It's a pleasure to meet you both, gentlemen," the President said, stepping forward. "Your country owes you a debt of gratitude."
"Thank you, sir."
"How long do you have to stay in there for?" the President inquired, asking the obligatory personal question.
"Another couple of hours, I think, sir," the one named Wu said. "We got back yesterday with the new strain, but we have to stay in here for twenty-four hours. The chamber is operated on a time lock. Can't be opened until 0900 hours. So they can be sure there are no other bugs on us."
"Well, I won't be here come nine o'clock," the President said, "but rest assured, you'll be receiving something from me in the very near future."
"Thank you, sir."
"Thank you, sir."
Having finished his call, Colonel Harper returned.
"And that concludes our tour, Mr. President," he said. "Now, if you'll come this way, I have one last thing to show you."
Schofield and Gant stood inside Marine One, behind Brainiac.
Brainiac was seated at the helicopter's communications console, typing quickly on a keyboard.
"Anything from Nighthawk Three or the two advance teams?" Schofield asked.
"Nada from Nighthawk Three," Brainiac said. "And just the beacons from the Secret Service teams."
Schofield thought for a moment. "Are we plugged into Area 7's local network?"
"Yep. So the President can collect secure transmissions by the landline."
"Okay then, can you bring up the complex's security camera system for me?"
The President was led up a set of firestairs to Level 3, the living quarters of Area 7.
With his nine-man Secret Service Detail he was brought into a wide low-ceilinged common roomcouches, coffee tables, kitchenette and, taking pride of place over by the wall, a big-screen Panasonic TV.
"If you would just wait here for a moment, Mr. President," Colonel Harper said, "I'll send someone down in a minute."
And then he left the room, leaving the President and his Detail alone.
A series of black-and-white monitors flickered to life in the communications bay of Marine One.
Each monitor depicted a grid of views from the multitude of security cameras around Area 7.
"We have contact," Brainiac said.
From various angles, Schofield saw empty stairwellsthe main hangarsomething that looked like a subway stationthe interiors of the glass-walled offices in the main hangar, one of them filled with Marines and Secret Service people, the other containing White House staff membersand, in grainy black-and-white, the inside of an elevator
Schofield froze at the final image.
The elevator was packed with ten fully armed 7th Squadron commandos.
And then suddenly movement from one of the other monitors caught his eye.
It was the view from one of the stairwell cameras.
A whole stream of armed 7th Squadron commandos were storming down the stairwell.
"This is going to be very painful," he said flatly.
Schofield stepped out of Marine One onto the hangar floor, Gant and Brainiac close behind him.
Although nothing physical about it had changed, somehow the hangar now looked very different.
Now it looked menacing.
Schofield saw the three groups of 7th Squadron commandos arrayed around the enormous interior spacesaw the commander of one of the groups touch his ear as he caught a radio transmission.
"Stay here," Schofield said.
"Okay," Brainiac said.
"Hey," Gant said.
"Try not to look so spooked."
"I'll do my best," Schofield said as he stepped out from the cover of Marine One and started walking casually across the hangar floor, toward the northern glass-walled office.
He was about halfway there when it happened.
Loud and sudden.
Like a curtain falling at the end of a stage show, a giant piston-driven titanium door thundered down in front of the hangar's main doors. Its leading edgelined with nasty-looking toothlike protrusionslodged firmly into the series of boxlike indentations that ran across the entry to the hangar.
And with the falling of the massive armored door, Schofield gave up any pretense of trying to appear calm.
He broke into a run just as the two nearest groups of 7th Squadron commandosthe ones at twelve o'clock and ten o'clockraised their P-90s and the air around him became awash with sizzling bullets.It had been five minutes now and nobody had come for them and the President of the United States was not accustomed to waiting.
The President and his protective Detail just stood in the common room on Level 3, looking about themselves, waiting in the silence.
"Frank," the President said to the Chief of the Detail, "see what's going on"
The big-screen television came on.
The President and his Detail whirled around.
"What the fuck ..." somebody said.
On the screen, large and bold, was the bright yellow insignia of the Emergency Broadcast Systemthe special all-spectrum broadcast network that was capable of cutting off regular broadcasting in the event of a national emergency.
Then, abruptly, the EBS symbol disappeared, and a face appeared in its place.
"What the hell ..." this time it was the President who spoke.
The face on the screen was that of a dead man.
It was the face of Lieutenant General Charles Samson Russell, USAF, call-sign: "Caesar."
On every television screen in Area 7and, it appeared, every television in the United Statesthe round, heavy-browed face of Charles Russell began to speak.
"Mr. President. People of America. Welcome to Area 7. My name is General Charles Russell, United States Air Force. For too long, I have watched this country eat itself. I will do so no longer." His tone was measured, his Louisiana accent thick.
"Our representatives at both federal and state levels are incapable of genuine leadership. Our free press is no longer the tool for controlling government thatit was intended to be. To every man who has ever fought or died for this country, this state of affairs is a disgrace. It can no longer be allowed to continue."
In the common room, the President just stared at the big-screen television.
"And so I propose a challenge, Mr. Presidentboth to you and to the system you represent.
"Implanted on your heart is a radio device. It was attached to the outer tissue of your cardiac muscle during an operation on your left lung four years ago."
Frank Cutler spun to face the President, a look of horror spreading across his face.
"I will initiate its signal now," Caesar said. He pressed some buttons on a small red unit that he held in his hand. The compact unit had a black stub antenna sticking out from its top.
Frank Cutler pulled a debugging wand from his coata spectrum analyzer used to detect any signal-emitting deviceand waved it over the President's body.
Feet and legs ... okay.
Waist and stomach ... okay.
The wand went crazy.
"My challenge to you, Mr. President, is simple." Russell's voice echoed throughout the underground base.
"As you well know, at every major airport in the United States there are at least three hangars devoted to the storage of United States Air Force bombers, fighters and ordnance.
"Right now, inside fourteen of those hangars, sit fourteen Type-240 blast plasma warheads. The airports include John F. Kennedy, Newark and La Guardia in New York, Dulles in Washington, O'Hare in Chicago, LAX in Los Angeles, and airports in San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, Boston, Philadelphia and Detroit. Each plasma warhead, as you know, has a blast radius of sixteen miles and a detonation yield of ninety megatons. All are armed."
In the common room on Level 3, everyone was silent.
"The only thing that will stop the detonation of these warheads, Mr. President," Charles Russell said with a smile, "is the continued beating of your heart."
Russell went on.
"All the devices at the airports are patched in to a single satellite in geosynchronous orbit above this base. That satellite, Mr. President, emits a high-powered microwave signal which is picked up and bounced back to it by the transmitter placed on your heart.
"But the radio transmitter on your heart, once started, is kinetically operated. If your heart should stop beating, the transmitter will cease to operate, and the satellite's signal will not be bounced back to itin which case, the satellite will instruct the bombs in the airports to detonate.
"Mr. President. If your heart should stop, America as we know it dies. If your heart keeps beating, America lives.
'You are the symbol of a bankrupt culture, sir: a politician, a man who seeks power for power's sake, but, like the people you represent, one who lives safe in the knowledge that he will never ever be called upon to stand up and fight for the system that gives him that power.
"Well, you have lived safely for too long, Mr. President. Now you have been called to account. Now you have been called to fight.
"I, on the other hand, am a warrior. I have spilled my blood for this country. What blood have you spilled? What sacrifices have you made? None. Coward.
"But like an honest patriot, I will give you and the system you represent a final chance to prove your worth. For the people of this country need proof. They need to see you floundersee you fallsee you sell them out to save your skin. They elected you to represent them. Now you shall do thatliterally. If you die, they die with you.
"This facility has been completely sealed. It is designed to withstand the full force of a nuclear blast, so there is no way out of it. Inside it with you is a fiftyman detachment of the best ground force this country has to offer, the 7th Special Operations Squadron. These men have orders to kill you, Mr. President.
"With your Secret Service Detail, you will face them in a fight to the death. Whoever wins, gets the country. Whoever loses, dies.
"Of course, the American people must be kept apprised of the score in this challenge," Caesar said. "Therefore, every hour on the hour, I shall address them via the Emergency Broadcast System and give them an update on the pursuit."
The President looked up at the nearest security camera. "This is ridiculous! You couldn't possibly have put a"
"Jeremiah K. Woolf, Mr. President," Caesar Russell said from the TV screen. The President immediately fell silent.
No one else spoke.
"I will assume from your silence that you have seen the FBI file."
Of course the President had seen the filethe peculiarities of the ex-senator's death had demanded it.
At the exact moment that Jeremiah Woolf had died in Alaska, his home in Washington, D.C., had exploded. No culpritfor either incidenthad ever been found. It was a coincidence too bizarre to ignore, but in the absence of any evidence to explain it, to the mass media it had remained simply that, a tragic coincidence.
As the President knew, however, one particular aspect of the ex-senator's death had never been made public: namely, the elevated levels of red blood cell production in his bloodstream, plus extremely low alveolar and arterial phosphate pressures. All of these symptoms indicated a prolonged period of hyperventilation before Woolf had been shota period during which the ex-senator had experienced a heightened state of "fight or flight" physiology.
In other words, the ex-senator had been running from someone when he'd been shot. He had been hunted.
And now it made sense.
Woolf had been implanted with a transmitter ...
... and then in Alaska he had been hunted and shot, and when, finally, his heart had stopped, his home on the other side of the country had been destroyed.
Caesar Russell's voice invaded his thoughts. "Former Senator Woolf's unexpected retirement from government left me with an extra transmitting device. And so he became a guinea pig, a test run. A test run for today."
The President exchanged a look with Frank Cutler.
Caesar said, "Oh, and just in case you're harboring ambitions of escaping this facility ..." He lifted an object into view.
It was a stainless steel briefcase.
Warrant Officer Carl Webster's steel briefcase.
The case's handle still had the pair of handcuffs attached to itonly now the open-ended cuff was no longer attached to anything. It was splattered all over with blood.
It was the Football.
And it was open.
The President saw the briefcase's flat-glass palm-print analyzer and keypad. The palm-print analyzer was an identification feature programmed to recognize the President's palm print, so that only he could activateand de-activateAmerica's thermonuclear arsenal.
Somehow, though, Russell had managed to falsify the President's palm print and enter the arming codes. But how could he have got a copy of the President's hand?
In addition to the transmitter on your heart, Mr. President," Russell said, "all the devices in the airports have been networked to a recycling timer of exactly ninety minutes, as is shown on the Football's display screen. Only the application of your palm print to the analyzeronce every ninety minuteswill reset that timer and stop the plasma warheads from going off, so don't think of leaving. The Football, for your information, will be kept up here in the main hangar.
"This is a great day in the history of the nation, Mr. President, a day of reckoning. Come the dawn of tomorrow, the glorious Fourth of July, we shall see if we all awake in a new, reborn America. Good luck, Mr. President, and may God have mercy on your soul."
At that moment, as if right on cue, the main doors to the common room burst open and a team of 7th Squadron commandosled by Major Kurt Logan and wearing their fearsome ERG-6 gas masksrushed into the room, their devastating P-90 machine guns blazing.
The challenge had begun.
AREA 7. Copyright © 2001 by Matthew Reilly. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
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