Quicksilverby Garfield Reeves-Stevens, Judith Reeves-Stevens
THE PLACE: The Pentagon. Headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense. The world's most safeguarded and secure building.
THE EVENT: An unprecedented gathering at which the military leaders of America and Europe are to welcome into NATO its most controversial new memberRussia.
THE NIGHTMARE: In a breathtakingly precise split-second operation, a team of… See more details below
THE PLACE: The Pentagon. Headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense. The world's most safeguarded and secure building.
THE EVENT: An unprecedented gathering at which the military leaders of America and Europe are to welcome into NATO its most controversial new memberRussia.
THE NIGHTMARE: In a breathtakingly precise split-second operation, a team of ruthless commandos takes over America's ultimate military command postfrom the inside. Within minutes, their hostages include the top military officials of more than twenty European nations, along with America's senior military commanders, the Vice President, the First Lady, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
tHE STAKES: Higher than even the president can anticipate because the enemy commandos have also seized control of a top-secret orbital weaponcodenamed Quicksilverpowerful enough to decimate America and change the balance of power in the world forever!
- Pocket Books
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 4.00(w) x 6.75(h) x 0.25(d)
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One UNITED STATES NAVAL ACADEMY/ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND
They had stolen her underwear.
Amy "Nuke" Bethune cursed like the sailor she hoped one day to become as she charged down the empty corridor on the third floor of Wing Three of Bancroft Hall, the hem of her tightly clutched b-robe flying behind her. Three years at the United States Naval Academy and everything she had done to earn her place as an equal among her classmates had come to nothing. She was still treated this way.
Not by the men. But by the other women.
Amy skidded to a stop on the slickly polished linoleum outside Midshipman Annika Marsh's dorm room. Marsh's name and graduating year were cut into the white plastic ID plate on the door, the color to alert other mids that this was a room for females. Male mids had their names cut into black plates.
Amy had targeted this room for two reasons, the most important being that Marsh was about her size. She knew that some might think she was about to take a strong initiative that would violate the Academy's honor concept, the solemn vow to never lie, cheat, or steal. But it was the only way she could complete her duty for today. Besides, the honor concept also stated that midshipmen were to ensure that others were able to benefit from the use of their own property. So it's not stealing, Amy told herself, it's emergency borrowing. The distinction made what she had to do a bit easier to justify. But not by much.
Amy pushed hard against the metal doorplate and the oversized, heavy door swung open as she knew it would. The level of trust among the Academy's 4,000-strong brigade ofmidshipmen meant that virtually none of the dorm-room doors was ever locked, except during long absences over holiday and vacation breaks. Considering that Marsh was more than likely one of the masterminds behind the disappearing underwear, though, Amy was surprised that her classmate seemed unprepared for retaliation.
Marsh's dorm room was the size of a small and spartan studio apartment, identical to Amy's and typical of the Hall. There were two narrow bunk beds, one to either side, with a built-in desk beneath each, and two closets along the wall. In one corner was a shower and sink -- an absolute timesaving necessity when 4,000 midshipmen had to follow identical schedules.
But Amy took no time to study the room. She headed straight for the cupboard unit built in against the end of Marsh's bunk, trying not to think what might happen to 12th Company's status if she were caught in the act.
Twelfth Company was Amy's cadre of 124 fellow mids from plebes to Firsties, one of the 36 companies making up the Academy's brigade of midshipmen. It was also the Academy's current Color Company, an honor it had earned for the past three years. Amy considered it no coincidence that 12th Company's ascendancy had begun when she had joined it. Points in an Academy-wide competition were awarded for academic, athletic, and professional excellence. Her performance in the classroom and on the diving team had added significantly to 12th Company's point score. This past year, she and her cadre had accumulated 320.6 out of a possible 360. Her accomplishments had also, obviously, raised her profile among the company to the point where her textbooks had begun disappearing, her e-mail account was regularly acquiring new passwords, and -- as had happened this morning -- her alarm clock could no longer be trusted.
For all that the Academy made a point of searching out young men and women who would excel in the Navy and Marine Corps, Amy was painfully learning that it also hewed to a military culture which valued team solidarity over individual achievement. Somewhere, unofficially, there existed an invisible boundary between excellence and independence. Marsh, among others, apparently thought Amy Bethune had crossed it.
But as Amy quickly searched through the stack of drawers in Marsh's cupboard, trying to find the midshipman's underwear, she rebelliously thought again that it was not her obligation to hold herself back in her quest for the controversial career goal that had earned her her nickname. Rather, it was her classmates' obligation to raise themselves to her standards.
Some might call -- and had called -- her attitude arrogant. To which Amy always replied, Welcome to the real world. If people didn't like her being the best at what she set out to do, then it was their mission to try to do even better. If they weren't prepared for that challenge, they'd soon find out that their only other choice was to get out of her way.
She hit pay dirt in the third drawer down. A sports bra and briefs, both, fortunately, still folded from the laundry. She quickly rifled through the remaining stack to see if she had the luxury of a choice in what she appropriated, but the only other option, crammed out of sight at the bottom of the stack, was a flaming-pink combo: transparent above and little more than a G-string below. Definitely not regulation.
As a calling card, Amy draped Marsh's racy weekend underwear over the green shade of the lamp beside the desktop computer, confident that even such flagrant disorder would be unlikely to cost Marsh a demerit. Commissioning week, when the latest class had graduated and all other classes moved up one year, had come and gone three weeks ago, putting the Academy into summer-leave and summer-training mode. That meant the Yard was noticeably less populated, especially on weekends, when not even the high-school students brought in for one of three introductory summer seminars were present. Room inspections, a frequent fact of life during the other semesters, especially for plebes, were almost nonexistent.
In fact, there were no plebes at the Academy right now. Most mids who had completed their plebe year, and were now officially Youngsters, were off patrolling New England ports on the Academy's unarmed Yard Patrol craft, training on the Academy's forty-four-foot sailing sloops, or taking part in joint maneuvers that simulated SEAL and Marines Corps exercises. The second-class students, those entering their third year, were getting firsthand introductions to naval aviation at Pensacola or to submarine operations off Florida, or fighting war games with Marines in the wilds of Virginia. And most new Firsties, like Amy -- those midshipmen who had been raised to their fourth and final year -- were serving as junior officers in operational fleet squadrons around the world. Except for the volunteers from 12th Company.
As the Academy's Color Company, they had earned special privileges and duties for the academic year, including the honor of representing the Academy at official government functions. And few events in recent memory were as official or as historic as today's at the Pentagon. Which was why forty-two second-, third-, and fourth-year midshipmen had responded to Commandant Rigby's invitation to give up part of their precious three-week summer leave to volunteer for a special honor detail: attending the President's NATO ceremony.
Every mid knew that even if they were to do little more than seat dignitaries and help set tables, their participation in what was surely to become one of the defining moments of the new century would forever mark their service records apart from others. To say nothing of the opportunity to clock face-time with the top brass.
But it was equally clear that there were those in the company, besides Marsh, who didn't want Amy to be able to share in that distinction and opportunity. Unfortunately for them, they obviously hadn't yet learned that Nuke Bethune was impossible to stop. She'd make it the way she always did -- on her own. Determinedly clutching the borrowed underwear, Amy flew out of Marsh's room, bare feet slapping the floor.
Back in her own room, she slammed the door behind her and checked her watch. That action was ingrained in every mid from his and her first day of induction. As many as fourteen times every day, Academy students were subject to accountability -- the requirement to establish their presence at a specific place at a specific time, from class attendance to bed checks. Punctuality became instinctive, which was all the more reason Amy pushed herself this morning. Being late was unprofessional, and unacceptable.
The time right now was 6:51. The bus was scheduled to leave from the seaward side of Macdonough Hall at 0700. Reaching it in time was just within the realm of possibility. Just.
She threw off her b-robe, dragged on Marsh's regulation underwear, then grabbed the pristine set of summer whites hanging in her closet. She yanked up her skirt zipper, took a few precious extra seconds to tie her shoes tightly, then crammed her cap onto her unruly chestnut brown hair -- disastrously thick but short enough to meet regulations and take care of itself without wasting valuable time. She stuffed her wallet and her Pentagon day pass into an inner pocket of her dress jacket, then burst from her room into the corridor, blouse still undone, but on her way at last.
As she had anticipated, there was no one in Bancroft to see her careen down the wide stairs, holding the metal handrail tightly at each landing in order to whip around at full tilt, open jacket and blouse a double-layered cape behind her.
By the time she exploded from the foyer onto the broad stone steps leading down to Tecumseh Court, she had enough buttons done up for propriety's sake, and brought her speed up to maximum. She gave no thought to pacing herself. This was an all-or-nothing effort. Either she'd make the bus with ample time to catch her breath and straighten herself out on the ride to Arlington, or she would fail and nothing more would matter.
And Nuke Bethune never failed. The word was not in her vocabulary.
But a minute later, it was clear her vocabulary was in need of revision.
As she breathlessly rounded the eastern wing of Bancroft Hall, Amy caught sight of the gleaming silver-and-blue Academy VIP bus pulling out from the Macdonough Hall parking lot to turn right on Holloway Road.
Amy flung herself after the bus in futile pursuit. Waving her arms wildly, she leapt from the narrow concrete pathway to the edge of the parking lot, shouting as much in frustration as in any hope of attracting the bus driver's attention. But the bus disappeared behind the hall in seconds, and she reluctantly stumbled to a halt.
One more minute and I'd have been on that bus. The simple recognition of her tactical situation was as close to self-pity as Amy could allow herself to come.
Drenched in sweat, her dress blouse ruined, she leaned over to rest her hands on her knees, gasping deep lungfuls of humid air. It was supposed to reach an unseasonable ninety-five degrees today, and even this early in the morning the June heat was verging on oppressive. But she pushed physical comfort to the side. Her mind churned with alternative scenarios.
She could jog back the way she had come, head for Gate One just past Lejeune Hall. She could use a phone in the guardhouse. But for what?
There was no public transportation between Annapolis and Washington, let alone Arlington, Virginia. She didn't have enough cash to take a cab all that way and she knew her maxed-out Visa card couldn't take the strain, either. This early in the summer, she was still drawing second-class midshipman's pay, which, after deductions for everything from laundry to the payments for the Academy-assigned computer, netted her slightly less than two hundred dollars cash each month.
Which left her with only one solution. The Harley.
Amy had no idea how her summer whites would fare on the thirty-five-mile drive to Arlington. And she doubted the security arrangements at the Pentagon would permit her to take the cycle onto the grounds. But showing up on time in a deficient uniform was better than not showing up at all. Marginally, at least.
Amy made her decision in less than a second -- another benefit of Academy training. She'd sprint back to her room, get the key to the Harley, then leave the Yard and run the three blocks to the garage she rented in town. Technically, no midshipman was authorized to operate or even maintain a motorcycle within twenty-two miles of the Academy -- the most common cause of death for mids was traffic accidents. But that cycle had been in Amy's life as long as she could remember, and Commandant Rigby had personally signed the special-request chit that had given Amy permission to keep her father's cycle within the town's liberty limit, provided she rode it only during vacation leaves.
But Amy was certain the Dant wouldn't object to her planned use of it today. And regardless of what the Dant might think or do, she wasn't about to let Midshipman Marsh or whoever had set her up this morning win this round. With any luck, Amy decided she might even be able to catch up with the bus and talk her way back on before it reached its destination.
Decision made and strategy outlined, Amy started the run back to Bancroft Hall, filled with new purpose. She had been an attentive student for the past three years. As the Navy would expect of those selected for the Academy, Midshipman Bethune was thoroughly trained to accept no other outcome but victory.
No matter what the cost.
Half a mile away, in the air-conditioned comfort of the Academy's VIP bus, Midshipman Annika Marsh was exceptionally pleased with herself.
As she had known it would, the bus had pulled out of the parking lot at precisely 0700 hours. And, as she had hoped, Nuke Bethune wasn't on it.
It was a sweet plan. Today's honor detail was volunteer duty. No demerits would accrue to the company if one of its members screwed up. So Bethune's failure would be completely her own, not shared.
It would be a particularly fitting punishment, because that was exactly how Bethune had chosen to pursue her naval career -- on her own. Now maybe her egotistical classmate would see what the result of not being a team player could be. And far better she learn it here than on a warship where the lives of her fellow sailors could be at stake.
Her objective achieved, Marsh gazed contentedly out the bus window, watching the lofty green elms and quaint antique buildings of the Academy pass by. Few of her classmates spoke, and those who did kept their voices low. Marsh approved of their demeanor. They weren't midshipmen off on an excursion. They were naval officers on a mission. The excitement was real, but suppressed. Marsh knew the unspoken question all shared was who, if any, would be assigned to the President's table.
The guards at the blue-awninged Gate One security post raised the traffic barricade and the bus pulled out onto the peaceful Sunday streets of Annapolis, in bright, early-morning sun. In just a few hours, as day tourists and weekend sailors descended on the small town, the narrow downtown streets, most dating back to pre-Revolutionary times, would become impossibly congested.
It was a glorious morning and Nuke Bethune had been taught a lesson. Already, Marsh knew this was going to be a perfect day, made even better by the certainty that she herself would be a participant, no matter how minor, in a truly momentous occasion.
The bus quickly left the historic sections of Annapolis behind as it headed northwest to Highway 50, just outside the city limits. The newer streets here were wider and smoother, and few other vehicles were on the road. The only interruption occurred on the approach to the new construction on the twisting interchange between 70 and 50. As the bus slowed, Marsh craned her neck to see a portable traffic-advisory sign announcing closed lanes ahead. Behind it, a row of orange plastic traffic cones snaked into the overpass tunnel, shutting down both right lanes. A young highway worker in an orange safety vest and hard hat held up a stop sign as he listened to a hand radio.
The Academy bus downshifted and hissed to a stop. All the midshipmen looked ahead, questioning the delay. Then the curved concrete wall of the overpass tunnel glowed with light and a red pickup truck with its headlights on sped out. Marsh saw the young worker say something into his radio, then he turned his sign around. Now it read SLOW.
The bus rocked to life again, pulled into the oncoming lanes, then entered the tunnel. Marsh half-expected the bus to start splashing through water. Whatever had prompted the highway department to send out a repair crew on a Sunday morning, she knew it would have to be something drastic, like a broken water main.
As the bus crawled through the dark tunnel, Marsh noticed that the lights running along both walls were not working. She peered through the side window, catching the reflection of regular flashes of red light up ahead. That explained it. A traffic accident. Marsh impatiently tapped a finger against the laminated Pentagon security pass she wore on a chain around her neck -- every mid on the bus wore one.
Sure enough, at the deepest bend of the tunnel, the bus stopped again. A large, silver tractor-trailer was parked to the right, angled across three of the tunnel's four lanes. The red flashing lights came from two white cars blocking the one free lane remaining.
Marsh pushed herself up from her seat to look over the heads of the midshipmen in front of her. She didn't see any insignia on the cars, and the flashing lights were portable, held on to the roofs by suction cups. Maybe the cars were unmarked police vehicles. Maybe it wasn't an accident. Maybe it was an arrest.
Eight men, all in orange safety vests and hard hats, were grouped by the gleaming silver tractor-trailer, the unmarked white cars, and now, in front of the bus. Still looking ahead through the large front windows, Marsh saw one of the men approach the bus, holding up an open badge case.
At any other time, Marsh would have been interested to know exactly what was going on here. At some level, everyone who joined the Navy looked forward to a life of action, so three years of classrooms and training maneuvers at the Academy could take their toll on a mid's enthusiasm. But today, instead of wondering if there were escaped criminals in the area, Marsh was anxious to move on. Especially since she didn't put it past Bethune to try and catch up with the bus on her Harley.
Of course, Marsh thought smugly, first she'd have to find the key to the Harley, and old Nuke wasn't likely to do that anytime soon. Marsh ran her fingers over the key's outline, where it rested secure in her jacket pocket.
The conversation level in the bus increased as the driver opened the front doors and the man holding up the badge ran up the stairs. He was in his thirties, Marsh estimated, lean, though his broad face was full-featured. He also looked as if he had had a recent sunburn. His reddened cheeks contrasted strongly with his short, almost military-style black hair, though his long, wide sideburns were definitely not regulation. The driver, a civilian assigned to the Academy's transportation department, leaned forward to examine the man's badge. At the same moment, the red-faced man suddenly struck him down with the dark object he held in his other hand. The driver slumped sideways, half out of his seat.
Marsh didn't have time to be startled by the unexpected violence of the action. The man in the vest was facing the bus full of midshipmen, screaming hoarsely as he waved the handgun he had used to fell the driver.
"HANDS ON YOUR HEAD! NOW! NOW! NOW!"
Even as she slowly began to raise her hands, Marsh felt empowered at the sudden charge that crackled through the bus. She was in the company of forty-one of the Navy's finest young men and women on this bus. Everyone had trained in hand-to-hand combat. Everyone knew small arms. Everyone had slogged through Virginia swamps with Marines.
The enemy didn't have a chance.
Marsh knew she and her classmates all shared a single thought: They were going to shape this battle space, not one lone, crazed civilian with a gun.
Marsh began thinking tactics. The two mids sitting in the front seats, just an arm's length from the enemy, were Bragonier and Shelton. With them was Lieutenant John Roth, an ethics instructor at the Academy who had volunteered to serve as the company's liaison today. The lieutenant also helped train the Academy's power-lifting team, and he had the broad shoulders and solid physique to prove it.
With those three capable sailors up front, the tactics of the situation were clear. Roth would jump the enemy, one mid would take his gun, and the other would take over the bus and ram it through the cars blocking the fourth lane. It was as simple as that.
And then the man in the vest stopped shouting, swung his gun to the side, and shot Lieutenant Roth in the head.
The abrupt noise of the gun's explosion shocked Marsh as much as the sight of the back of the lieutenant's head exploding outward in a geyser of blood.
When he spoke again, the red-faced man no longer shouted. His words were succinct, crisp, and unhurried. "You have been subdued by a superior force. If one of you resists, you will all be killed. Is that understood?" Deep within, Marsh responded to the cadence and sincerity of his speech -- the voice of command. This was no civilian. The enemy was an officer.
With no hesitation now, everyone's hands clasped the back of their heads. Marsh's heart was racing. This was the real thing. But she was still prepared for the consequences of action. There was no way the man was getting off this bus, except as the Navy's prisoner. The rest of her company had to be feeling the same way.
A second man now stepped onto the bus. His features were almost chiseled, his tanned skin smooth and unlined, his military-short hair luminously blond. Although he wore faded orange workman's coveralls, the second man had the same intent manner as the first and Marsh concluded he must also be a soldier.
"Put your passes in the case," the blond man ordered as he began walking down the aisle, holding out a well-worn, soft-sided, black leather attaché case that opened from the top. To Marsh, his clipped accent sounded almost British.
At the same time, at the front of the bus, the gunman had placed his weapon two inches from Midshipman Shelton's forehead. "If anyone does not give up his pass," he warned, "this woman will die."
Marsh heard someone in one of the front seats begin to vomit. Her gaze traveled to the side window near Lieutenant Roth's body. Rivulets of blood and bits of tissue were slowly dripping down the glass. Marsh's own stomach tightened. When her time came, she surrendered her laminated Pentagon security day pass and its neck chain without resistance. Like her classmates, she knew, her mind was working furiously, seeking the right time to take action.
His mission accomplished, the blond man walked backward up the aisle to the front of the bus, where the gunman waited with Shelton.
Now! Marsh thought, barely able to keep her seat. This was the moment.
And it was.
Just as the blond man with the case reached the gunman's position, the gunman stepped aside to allow him access to the steps that led out of the bus. For that instant, Marsh knew the gunman's contact with Shelton was momentarily deflected, and he'd lost sight of Bragonier.
The two midshipmen acted at once, leaping forward from their double seat, Bragonier tackling the man with the case, Shelton engaging the gunman.
Then every member of the company was on his and her feet. Marsh couldn't see anything. She heard a cry of pain, a muffled gunshot, shouts of victory, and then a jarring explosion of glass as a fusillade of bullets blew out the middle-right windows of the bus.
Marsh ducked in the aisle as she heard screams. A fine spray of blood rained across her white skirt and jacket. More gunmen outside the bus. With automatic rifles.
Someone up front screamed. "Get him! Get him!"
The gunfire stopped. Marsh lifted her head. The two men were gone. Shelton's body hung limp across a seatback, her dark face a ragged scarlet mass without features. But Bragonier was behind the wheel, the unconscious driver sprawled in the aisle beside him.
The bus engine revved violently, but Marsh felt no motion. Then a wet hand gripped her knee. Midshipman Fisher. In the aisle. His white jacket sodden with blood.
Four weeks ago, Joe Fisher had been only a plebe. Just turned twenty. Fresh blood trickled from the corner of his mouth as he moaned words she couldn't hear. Marsh's body trembled with outrage. To hurt one member of a company was to hurt everyone. The enemy had to pay for what they had done.
The bus engine revved again. This time Marsh heard gears grind. Felt the bus rock with renewed life.
She grabbed Fisher's slippery hand. "We're going to win..." she vowed fiercely. Nothing could stop 12th Company.
She leaned forward, tensely anticipating the forward lurch, but the bus only vibrated as its gears ground more loudly.
Given their helplessness, Marsh didn't understand why the gunfire had stopped. The ambush had been perfect. Why would the enemy let them escape without renewing the attack?
Then she heard more glass breaking at the back of the bus. She twisted around and saw a dark green, hat-sized, disk-shaped object hit the aisle with a thud, then vanish in a sudden swirl of white fog.
In a heartbeat, the mist swept forward with the cutting smell of ethylene oxide.
A terrible understanding possessed her as she remembered the scent from her summer in Virginia. She knew what would happen next.
That's why they're not firing, she thought. They don't have to.
Annika Marsh squeezed Joe Fisher's hand tightly, offering the only comfort she could. Then she closed her eyes, took a last breath, and wished she'd missed the bus like Nuke Bethune.
Every intact window in the Academy bus blew out at once, accompanied only by a dull thud and a dim yellow flash.
Ranger, the blond leader of the intercept platoon -- four squads of four men each -- rubbed his hand over his close-cropped hair and allowed himself a moment to exhale. The first stage of the operation had played out almost perfectly.
The SLAM-II, a fuel-air-explosive version of the U.S. Army's Selectable Lightweight Attack Munition, had lived up to specs. It had neutralized everyone in the bus's passenger compartment without causing appreciable structural damage to the vehicle or risking a collateral detonation of its fuel system. He'd specifically chosen this variation of the weapon because it had been developed for close-quarters urban combat, when mission objectives deemed it desirable to kill enemy personnel without destroying civilian structures. Instead of projecting its lethal energy from a single ignition point, as with conventional explosives, the SLAM-II first released a volatile gas which expanded to fill a contained space, then detonated the entire volume at once.
For the midshipmen who had been on the bus, Ranger knew, it was as if they had been embedded in the explosive matrix. The SLAM-II pressure wave came from all sides at once, ensuring that there would be no blast-shadow areas of survival. For those who had, in their last second of life, inhaled the gas, even the air in their lungs would have ignited. But despite the blast's lethality, the overall pressure in a confined space would barely be enough to cause cracks in drywall.
Now, even as the last glittering fragments of shattered safety glass bounced along the tunnel roadway beside the motionless bus, Ranger circled his hand in the air.
With rehearsed precision, two figures in highway-worker coveralls swung open the rear doors of the silver tractor-trailer that blocked three of the four lanes in front of the bus. Just as quickly they pulled out the two long tire ramps stowed inside. The harsh metal clatter of the ramps banging on the asphalt joined with the sudden, deep rumble of a diesel engine turning over inside the trailer.
Ranger motioned to a third figure, who immediately wrested open the front doors of the Academy bus and leapt over the bloody pile of limp bodies to reach the driver's seat. The bus engine was still running -- the midshipman who had attempted to drive the bus had not known how to put it in gear.
Ranger's commandos needed no more instructions. Accompanied by Norway, the senior communications member of the first squad, Ranger jogged over to the nearer of the two white LeBarons that blocked the fourth lane of the tunnel.
He placed the attaché case containing the collected security passes on the roof of the car, then quickly shrugged off his faded orange overalls to reveal the spotless summer-white dress uniform of a naval lieutenant. The name on his ID badge read ROTH.
As he expertly straightened his shirt and belt, he saw Norway fingering the gun in the hidden holster in the orange safety vest he wore. During the training simulations, the communications officer had insisted that the midshipmen of 12th Company would not have enough experience to recognize a hopeless situation. Norway's prediction that they would foolishly resist had been correct.
Ranger, in truth, had been surprised by the midshipmen's actions. In the tactics sessions, though he had conceded that their young targets would have little experience in combat situations and so could possibly misjudge the strength of their position, he had not expected them to resist. These days, few in America had any stomach for death -- especially their own.
In the end, though, whatever the reaction of the targets had been, Ranger knew it was unimportant to the final outcome of the mission's intercept stage. Holding prisoners, even for the short duration of the full operation, had never been an option. The violence of this encounter had been strictly scripted by necessity. The Pentagon passes had to be recovered undamaged and on schedule. Norway's authorization to shoot one passenger at random at the beginning had actually been useful to hasten the collection process. Ranger regretted the violence -- As would any good officer, he thought -- but accepted that it was unavoidable to serve the greater good.
Three minutes after the SLAM-II's detonation, Ranger heard the chirp of Norway's radio. It was the flagman at the tunnel's west entrance reporting that three civilian cars were waiting to pass. Ranger instructed Norway to radio back his response: The tunnel would be clear within two minutes, exactly on schedule.
The Academy bus was now inside the trailer, its engine switched off. In only a few seconds, his commandos would have the tire ramps stowed and would close and seal the trailer's rear doors. The plan called for the entire tractor-trailer to be abandoned in an industrial park ten miles away where a parking space had already been arranged, and three months' rental paid in cash. If the rear-door seal held as it should, it would be weeks before anyone investigated.
The duplicate bus that had been concealed in the trailer was already on the road. Two technical specialists were almost finished attaching the license plates from the original bus. Ranger could see the duplicate passengers inside, their white uniforms ghostly through the tinted windows. All forty-one were sitting ramrod straight, facing forward, properly focused on the mission's next objective.
As Ranger made the final adjustments to his uniform and the cap he now wore, Norway handed him the black attaché case, then, unexpectedly, snapped to attention and saluted.
Touched, even honored, Ranger made a point of returning the salute with the same passion and precision. Despite their many differences, he and Norway were brothers-in-arms, and together they had just survived their first contact with the enemy. That alone would serve to bind them through the engagements to follow.
Salutes exchanged, Norway spoke a single word, awkwardly. "Stasglivo."
Ranger shook his head at Norway's execrable pronunciation. "Et vous, mon ami. Bonne chance, aussi." His French was much better than Norway's Russian. But then, given their respective histories, it had to be.
Then Ranger walked away from the LeBaron, over to the duplicate bus. Once on board, he had two replacement midshipmen hand out the passes, matching them according to the list he had prepared. At the same time, the duplicate bus pulled out of the tunnel, passed the flagman and the waiting, unsuspecting civilian cars, and smoothly took the entrance ramp to Highway 50.
In less than a minute, Ranger knew traffic flow would resume through the tunnel, even as the last of his commandos removed the traffic cones, swept up the shattered window glass, and drove off in the two white LeBarons, along with the stolen Department of Highways trucks towing the portable traffic-advisory signs.
Except for a few errant cubes of safety glass, the tunnel and the 70-50 interchange would be back to normal, as if nothing had happened.
Taking his place in the front passenger seat, Ranger switched on a small radio and dialed to the Washington news station, WTOP. Not hearing what he was waiting for, he kept the radio on at low volume, just enough that he would be able to hear the first reports from the National Archives.
Then he cleared his mind and settled back to watch the passing landscape, alive to each subtle nuance of color, light, and shadow. His mind no longer held thoughts of what had happened, nor of what was still to come. Experiencing only the sensations of the moment, he savored the clarity of a warrior in battle, knowing all was as it should be.
The temperature was seventy-eight degrees. The morning sun was rising in a cloudless blue sky. A silver-and-blue United States Naval Academy bus filled with forty-one white-clad midshipmen was rolling westbound on Highway 50, its destination, the Pentagon.
Team Two was on its way to Ground Zero.
And Ranger was confident that even before he heard the news from the Archives, thirty-five miles away, Team One was already in position.
Copyright © 2000 by Softwind, Inc.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >