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Louis Armstrong International Airport, New Orleans, 2010
The white airline catering van lurched to a stop.
Captain Scott Boulder crouched in the dim, hot cargo area behind the driver’s seat with the three other members of his assault team. They wore black tactical hoods, fatigues, Kevlar vests, and combat boots, and carried MP5s and flexicuffs. The bare minimum so they could move. Fast.
Scott spoke into his headset, “Team Ultra to base. We’ve reached the target.”
“We read you, Team Ultra,” came the crackling reply. “Spotter reports four, repeat, four hijackers aboard the aircraft.”
Men of unknown nationality had hijacked an Airbus A320 on the ground and demanded the release of military prisoners from Guantánamo Bay. How the assholes got AK-47s and grenades on board was anybody’s guess. Officials had three hours to meet their demands or the hijackers would start killing a passenger every fifteen minutes.
The U.S. government didn’t negotiate with terrorists, at least not directly. More often than not, they sent a team like Boulder’s to do the “talking” for them, to fight fire with fire. In a situation like this, it was the only realistic response.
“Where are the hijackers now?” Scott asked into his headset.
There was a pause before the answer came back. “Locations remain unchanged. One in the cockpit. Two in the forward galley beyond the main door. Another in the passenger cabin. Execute in thirty seconds.”
“Thirty seconds, on your mark,” Scott said into the headset, and felt a deep weariness in his muscles, his bones. He’d seen many people die at the hands of fanatics like these. Too fucking many. Innocent civilians and men he’d served with . . . their bodies torn apart by bullets and bombs, their families left behind to suffer. He’d proudly protected his country for the past eighteen years, but lately he felt like he was drowning in blood. He should have quit months ago when he’d had the chance, but he’d enlisted for one more tour of duty. And now he had to live with that decision.
Scott forced himself to concentrate. He didn’t have the luxury to indulge his fatigue. As always, success today would depend on control . . . on his controlling the team, and on the team wresting control from the hijackers.
The latter wouldn’t be easy. Airplane incursions were a tactical nightmare. You had tight quarters, sharp corners, interrupted lines of sight. Not to mention every row of seats was a potential barricade for the bad guys to hide behind. It didn’t help that his team had been assembled only six weeks ago. They’d been successful thus far, but lacked the cohesion of a team that had spent real time together in the field.
Then again, they had a few tricks up their sleeves that other teams didn’t.
“Let’s do this by the numbers,” Scott said.
The two men across from him nodded to indicate they understood. Scott traded places with them, positioning himself in front of the van’s sliding door and gripping the handle, ready to throw it open when the time came. If the hijackers expected water and peanuts from this catering van, they were in for one hell of a surprise.
Scott glanced at the third man on his right, who was making a last-minute adjustment to his gear. “You okay?”
“Sure about that?”
The man glared, amber eyes flashing. “I said I was.”
Scott wasn’t convinced. Eric had been acting strangely these past few days. Distracted, contentious. This was just more of the same. “I never asked you to look out for me,” added Eric.
“It’s my job to look out for you,” said Scott, suppressing an urge to bounce his younger brother from the mission right then and there. Eric’s disrespect to a superior officer notwithstanding, the action would hardly be appropriate minutes before go time. He had to make sure Team Ultra maintained discipline and focus, acted as a unit. But Eric was still obviously in pain, and as his older brother, that meant Scott felt some of it, too. “What the hell is up with you? This is a mission.”
A look of pure resentment crossed Eric’s face. “Why not worry about yourself for a change?”
Scott was about to reply when the voice in his headset returned. “Ten seconds.”
“Ten seconds,” Scott repeated to his men, and made a mental note to bring up the personal issues with Eric later. He had to keep his mind on the matters at hand. “Remember, fire only if necessary and at what you can see. Drew and Jonas, you’re up first. Eric, you’re with me. By the numbers, gentlemen, do you hear me?”
Eric flashed him another “fuck you” look. Scott glared back in reply—You’re on thin ice, little brother—and then it was time.
“Mark,” came the voice on his headset.
“Mark,” Scott said, then wrenched open the side door; it slammed open with a rolling bang. Sunlight and swampy New Orleans air flooded the back of the van as Drew and Jonas leaped past him onto the tarmac. Scott moved to follow, but Eric rushed past him. Scowling, Scott let the transgression go. He didn’t want to break the rhythm of the team in the middle of an op.
Outside, the airbus loomed, its aluminum skin gleaming in the morning sun.
“Cockpit!” Scott yelled to Drew.
Drew sprinted beneath the nose section, and looked up at the cockpit’s side window. Earlier, one of the hijackers had shot it out and stuck out his arm to wave a pistol around, demonstrating that the pilot was no longer in control of the airplane. A stupid move.
Drew stood ramrod straight with his arms at his sides, cutting a lean profile, and then the entire surface of his body—flesh, clothes, equipment—began to whirl, colors and textures mixing, until the framework of flesh and bone fell into itself with an implosion of gray mist.
The transformation took less than two seconds, and never failed to make Scott a little queasy. Seeing Drew’s body evaporate was too fucking weird.
The gray cloud stretched and flowed up through the side window as quickly as a waterfall in reverse, then a scream issued from the cockpit. From the sound of it, the hijacker holding the pilot found the transformation disturbing, too. A Special Forces commando materializing from thin air is not something they prepare you for in terrorist school.
Scott turned to see Jonas already at the top of the air stairs that had been wheeled into place earlier under the pretext of delivering food and water. Jonas had anticipated his order. Good. With each mission, the team’s cohesion was improving.
“Stay on my six,” he said to Eric.
“Go to hell,” Eric growled, and rushed past him up the stairs, taking them two at a time.
Not completely improving, Scott thought grimly, and followed. He no longer cared about what his brother was going through; this was crossing the line.
At the top of the stairs, Jonas punched his fingers into the metal seam on either side of the locked forward main door, and pulled. With a screech of rending metal, he ripped the massive door from its mooring and pitched it over his shoulder. Scott ducked instinctively as the door passed over his and Eric’s head with a slipstream whoosh, and crashed onto the tarmac below.
Two hijackers with AK-47s waited inside the forward galley. They were young, probably mid-twenties, and wore dirty white T-shirts with American logos on them, blue jeans, and tennis shoes. Red bandannas covered the lower halves of their faces, but their confused eyes said it all: What just happened?
Scott felt much the same way. Jonas was a tall, lantern-jawed Swede who was thick with muscle, already plenty strong, but his enhanced strength was downright scary.
Jonas grabbed the hijackers by their shirts and knocked them together. Hard. They crumpled to the ground, and then he rolled them onto their stomachs and pressed a knee into their backs to make sure they didn’t get up again.
Barely nine seconds had elapsed.
Scott followed as Eric ran headlong past Jonas through the greeting area and took a hard right, leading with his MP5. Scott glanced into the cockpit as he passed and saw a reconstituted Drew hog-tying his hijacker with flexicuffs. A grenade lay harmlessly on the floor. The pilot appeared uninjured, and sat wide-eyed in his seat, staring at Drew. Apparently, the pilot had witnessed Drew’s transformation, too.
Scott moved smoothly into the main cabin behind Eric. Eighty-two passengers stared at them, faces frozen in uniform terror. The sharp scent of urine wafted into Scott’s nostrils. Some of the passengers had no doubt wet themselves in fear.
The remaining hijacker was in the aisle about ten rows away, using a woman as a shield. Pressing a gun to her temple, he yelled in a thick accent, “Get back! Get back!”
“Drop the gun!” Scott yelled. “Now!”
Scott knew there was no way the guy would comply. He was too freaked out that his comrades had been taken down in less than ten seconds; freaked out that Team Ultra was more than human. He was about to pull the trigger, and there was no way any of the team could draw a safe bead on him before he did.
“Hey!” Eric yelled. The hijacker looked at him, finger tightening on the trigger. Eric stretched out his right arm as though he were trying to touch the man across the rows that separated them. “Put down the gun.”
The hijacker frowned, obviously confused at Eric’s audacity, then his eyes went completely white, like they’d been replaced with cue balls. Scott didn’t know which he found more disturbing: Drew’s and Jonas’s overt physical powers, or Eric’s sublime power of Suggestion.
“Put down the gun,” Eric repeated, keeping his arm outstretched.
The hijacker began to tremble, and then the pistol fell away from the woman’s temple. Scott began to breathe easier. Mission accomplished. He slung the shoulder strap of the MP5 over his head when he saw the hijacker’s pupils and irises reappear, disappear, and then flicker like an out-of-tune television station.