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"Rodman Command, Rodman Command! This is a priority encoding from Gatun Unit One! Position is offshore Gamboa. Repeat, offshore Gamboa! Unidentified submarine in shallows! Unit One is under fire. Repeat, Unit One is under fire! Request assist! Request assi"
Hal Brognola, director of the Sensitive Operations Group based at Stony Man Farm and one of the most powerful men in the Justice Department, looked at Aaron Kurtzman. "That's enough, Aaron."
A respectful, weighty silence followed the recording of the last transmission sent from Gatun Unit One of the PSBU. The men of Phoenix Force sat around the conference table in the War Room and traded somber looks.
"There were five men on that boat," Brognola finally said. "No survivors."
"Any sign of the sub?" asked David McCarter, Phoenix Force leader.
Brognola shook his head. "The sub was gone by the time reinforcements arrived. Panamanian officials contacted nearby Coast Guard cutters and eventually the word got out to put the U.S. Navy on alert, but presumably our mysterious ship submerged and slipped through the sonar nets."
"This isn't the first time the Panamanian government has reported this kind of activity," Barbara Price said. The mission controller's hair cascaded along her nape like a blond waterfall, the ends barely brushing her shoulders. Her inquisitive blue eyes studied each Phoenix Force warrior in turn. "But this is the first time there's been hostilities of this level. In the past, Panama has blamed drug-runners as the primary culprits."
"And that's the story they've given the press for now," Brognola added. "That should buy you enough time to get down there and check this out more thoroughly."
"Anynewshound worth his or her weight isn't going to buy that, guys," Rafael Encizo remarked. "A lot of the frequencies used by the PBSU are unscrambled and monitored 24/7."
"Agreed," McCarter said. "It won't take them long to figure out what's up. They might know the truth before we do."
Price sighed. "Either way, we've been asked by the Panamanian government to get involved on this one. The First Vice President contacted the White House with the request personally."
"No surprise," Calvin James said. The lanky, black warriorleaning on the back legs of his chairpulled a toothpick from his mouth and jabbed it at his chest for emphasis. "I did a tour in Panama when I was in the Navy. I doubt they're equipped with the resources to combat a menace like this. It sounds like whoever did this wiped out that patrol boat unit like it was nothing."
"We believe we have a possible explanation for that," Price said.
She looked at the man next to her, his wrestlerlike body confined to a wheelchair. Aaron "the Bear" Kurtz-man headed the Stony Man cybernetics team. He wasn't a mere whiz kid with computers. Kurtzman served as chief architect and systems administrator of one of the largest, most complex, state-of-the-art computer networks in the world. Nearly every scrap of processed information went through the Stony Man databases where powerful computers mined, compiled and sorted the data into neat little bytes.
Kurtzman took his cue. "The initial investigation of the site uncovered some interesting clues. My team's still working on what this all means, but maybe the intelligence will help."
The computer wizard tapped a key on the keyboard in front of him and the photo of a large weapon appeared on the projection screen at one end of the room.
"Gentlemen, I introduce you to the Steyr IWS-2000. In the event you're not familiar, this is a 15.2 mm antitank rifle and, as you can see, it has a bullpup design." He tapped a key and they got a different view of the weapon. "According to Cowboy, this weapon fires a distinct projectile shaped much like a finned dart, one of which was retrieved during salvage and recovery ops. Each shell fired weighs approximately 308 grains and exits at a muzzle velocity of almost 1500 meters per second."
T. J. Hawkins produced a long whistle. In his soft, Southern drawl he said, "Holy guacamole. That is one bad dude."
"It's also a pretty interesting weapon to mount to a minisub," Brognola added. "This is why we bring it to your attention. As you know, Steyr-Mannlicher is an Austrian company, and this particular make has never been exported for purchase."
"So whoever acquired it probably did so in-country," McCarter concluded.
Gary Manning cleared his throat and all eyes turned toward him.
"Al Qaeda still has pretty strong ties in that area," Manning reminded the team. "If this was a terrorist operation and they were using those kinds of weapons, then I'd say they're our most likely candidate."
McCarter nodded. "That's a bloody good assessment, mate."
"The Panamanian government's very concerned about the timing of this whole thing," Brognola said. "Especially in light of the recent handoff of all canal operations to local oversight."
"Didn't they also pass some recent legislation to fund reconstruction and upgrade efforts?" Encizo asked.
Price nodded. "Yes, and some of those operations are already under way, although not in this particular area. Less than ten percent of the structures in Gamboa are even occupied, and there's only one resort to service the tourist population."
"Not to mention this is the off-season," Brognola added.
"Gamboa thrived when it acted as a township under the old Panama Canal Zone," Price continued, "but with the return of its resources to Panama officials, the departure of U.S. citizens and servicemen living there turned the place into a virtual ghost town."
"I don't get it," James said. "If this wasn't about drugs and these were actual terrorists, al Qaeda or otherwise, what the hell was the point? They didn't blow anything up other than one small patrol boat, and they obviously didn't stick around very long. What gives?"
"I think that's what we're going down there to find out," McCarter replied.
"Exactly," Price said. "Your local contact will be a Panamanian official from the First VP's office. A CIA operative from the embassy in Panama City will also meet you in Gamboa."
"Why's the Company involved?" James asked suspiciously.
"They're not," Brognola replied. "This guy's merely on an intelligence-gathering mission for the official reports. He's been advised of your arrival. Both of these men have been told to give you their full cooperation, so it's your show. All the way."
"Dandy," McCarter said with a grin. "Just the way I like it."
Rosario "The Politician" Blancanales had known better days. Huge droplets of sweat rolled off his head and slid slowly down his neck and along his spine like globules of oil. His body ached, his shirt was soaked at waist and armpits and he had hunger pangs such as he'd never before experienced. The temperature had already reached nearly one hundred degrees with about ninety percent humidity, and it wasn't even noon yet. He'd consumed nearly an entire canteen of water and a couple of salt tablets and still his tongue felt like 20-grade sandpaper. Blancanales removed his utility cap, wiped at the sweat on his forehead and behind his ears with an OD green hanky and then replaced his cover.
Squinting in the bright sun, the Able Team warrior studied the profile of the muscular man who stood next to him talking on a cell phone. The man's frosty blue eyes stared with moderate interest at the work in progress in front of them. Some might have called this man a work in progress, but Blancanales knew better. Time and the brutal reality of urban combat had hardened and shaped this guy into the most rock-steady man it had ever been Blancanales's pleasure to know.
"Yeah, I understand. Out, here," Carl "Ironman" Lyons said, and then disconnected the call.
"Hal?" Blancanales inquired.
Lyons nodded. "Yeah. Says they just sent Phoenix down to Panama. Some kind of major shit hit the fan down there. Naturally, they took Jack, and Charlie's somewhere with Mack."
"So no dedicated wings for the ride home."
"Nope," Lyons said. "Says once we're finished to give them a call and they'll get us on the first MAC flight out of Fort Bliss."
"Why so grumpy, Carl?" Blancanales asked. "Lighten up some and put on a happy face."
"This is my happy face," Lyons said with a sideways glance at his friend. He nodded toward another man working with the group near a ten-foot-high wall fifty yards from their position and added, "When's Gadgets going to be finished with these eggheads already?"
Hermann Schwarz, whose wizardry and expertise in electronic surveillance and countersurveillance had earned him the "Gadgets" moniker, stopped to look at his two friends as if he had somehow read Lyons's mind. He held up one hand in the "gimme five more minutes" sign and Lyons returned the gesture with a nod, although the look on the Able Team leader's face said he was none too happy about having to continue waiting.
Lyons hadn't been keen on taking the assignment to start with, Blancanales knew, but when in the service of an organization like Stony Man they didn't get to pick and choose their assignments. And to some degree, each of them possessed some significant expertise in this particular endeavor. Lyons, of course, had a background as an LAPD cop dealing with illegal immigrants from Mexico on practically a daily basis and Blancanales, a man raised in East L.A., knew just about everything there was to know about border crossings. Finally, Schwarz had the greatest impact on this mission because of his significant expertise in electronic surveillance measures.
The End Zone Project was the baby of numerous computer scientists at Sandia Laboratories in New Mexico. Designed around two integral technologies Forward Area Alerting Radar and Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting for NightEnd Zone had the ability to not only detect when someone attempted to cross the border illegally, but further could deliver several neutralizing mechanisms to stun and immobilize the subject until Border Patrol units could arrive and take custody. End Zone had passed its final trials in time for implementation into the new border wall under construction by the U.S. Army's Corps of Engineers.
The President had stressed the importance of the success of the project, not just because of its political and social ramifications, but also due to the increased violence resulting from unrest between the various special-interest groups keeping the topic of immigration hot.
"Mostly, we just want you to keep the peace and ensure domestic tranquillity," Brognola had concluded in their mission briefing.
"Marvelous," had been Lyons's reply.
Now as they stood and watched their friend at work, Blancanales said with a smirk, "See there, the look on Gadgets's face? See how happy you've made him?"
Lyons shook his head. "Whatever gets you through the day."
The pair turned and ascended the steps that led into the Tactical Operations Center, a trailer-mounted facility that looked like a rail car, and the only air-conditioned building for miles. The place was relatively cool compared to the blistering heat outside. A small refrigerator in one corner contained shelves of soft drinks and bottled water.
Blancanales made a show of shuddering and said, "Brrr, it's downright chilly in here."
Lyons didn't bother to reply, instead moving over to the refrigerator and grabbing a bottle of water before taking up a stance to look over the shoulder of one of the controllers. The man wore a subdued three-up, one-down chevron on the collars of his desert camouflage uniform blouse: a staff sergeant.
"We online there yet, Sarge?" Lyons asked casually.
"How much longer you think?" Lyons asked.
"Almost there now, sir. We've rebooted the servers and we should be online right now."
The trio of LCD screens in front of the controller came to life simultaneously and displayed different camera angles on Schwarz and the team members huddled around him near the wall. The pictures were displayed in high-definition format and rendered with full sharpness and opacity, and neither Blancanales nor Lyons could admit they weren't somewhat impressed.
The pair continued to watch with interest as the controller talked with Schwarz over a headset. The two discussed a few techie-tech things and then Schwarz concluded the conversation with a thumbs-up to the camera before he stepped out of viewing range. A minute later Schwarz entered the TOC. His face beamed with pride and as soon as Blancanales saw it he looked knowingly at Lyons, who chose only to return the look with an exaggerated smile.
"Well, boys," Schwarz said as he removed his work gloves and slapped at the make-believe dust on his uniform trousers. "It looks like that's that. I'd have to say End Zone is a complete success."
Lyons visibly brightened. "Great! Does that mean we can leave now?"
Blancanales mocked him with a stunned expression. "But, Ironman, this is just where the real fun begins."
Lyons groaned and Schwarz held up a hand to placate him. "Don't worry, buddy. We only have a few tests we have to run through tonight. But if those pan out, I'd say we'll probably be able to head out first thing in the morning. So you can call Jack."
"No go," Blancanales said. He looked in the direction of the controller and then added, "He's busy."
Schwarz nodded, but before anyone could say another word the controller called for their attention. Able Team gathered around as the guy pointed toward one of the screens. It now displayed a different set of cameras that Blancanales recognized from having worked in that location two days prior. The group watched with fascination as two figures climbed over the top of the wall and dropped down onto the U.S. side.
"What's going on?" Lyons demanded.
"Sergeant, do we have some kind of live exercise scheduled for that area today?" Schwarz asked.