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Ten miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border
Hermann Schwarz watched the stars sprayed across the black night as Jack Grimaldi piloted the Hughes 500 NOTAR across the Texan sky. The inky-black background with the glittering field of pinpoints reminded the Able Team electronics genius of one of his lifelong dreamsto soar among the stars. And he had been one of the lucky few who had done just that.
Schwarz's other lifelong dream was more pedestrian. He wanted to help people. Though he was one-third of one of the world's most highly experienced and blooded combat teams, the ultimate goal of Able Team wasn't to engage in bloodshed. It was to protect the citizens of the U.S. Schwarz had been called an assassin by various enemies, but the term "assassin" implied a callous disregard for human life. Certainly, he had a measure of ruthlessness, but it was only displayed against opponents who were demonstrably hostile and violent. While he had no qualms about shooting heavily armed men in the back to end their potential to harm himself, his partners or noncombatants, Schwarz was not murderous.
Killing was just an aspect of his job, just as much as tinkering on new electronic surveillance devices and security countermeasures. Schwarz turned from the starry night sky back to his Combat Personal Data Assistant, a compact little computer that provided the gadgeteer with a suite of powerful tools to make his work easier. He kept the illumination low on the monitor as he scanned the screen. Its powerful satellite modem, akin to the satellite phones, allowed him Internet access even without a WiFi source for miles around, even though a backup transceiver would allow him to piggyback on someone else's modem if necessary. The CPDA was connected to Stony Man Farm, thousands of miles away in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, allowing him to be plugged into the network run by Aaron Kurtzman and the cyberwizards of his team.
"Hey, Nerd Man." Carl Lyons spoke up, interrupting Schwarz's reveries. "You getting this?"
"I am," Rosario Blancanales announced, answering for his friend. He had a pair of light amplification binoculars scanning out the window. "To the north."
"Minimal profile on the terrain radar," Lyons answered. Sitting shotgun in the Little Bird helicopter, his hard blue eyes scanned the screens devoted to the Forward Looking InfraredFLIRand Terrain Looking Radar, both keen electronic sensors installed in a bulbous nose projecting from the front of the helicopter's teardrop shape, lending it the appearance of a porpoise whose snout had been punched off center. "But we've got headlights on the FLIR."
"Low-light headlights," Blancanales said. "Probably Ultraviolet or IR illumination to make it easier for them to run dark. I didn't see the vehicles directly, but I saw the ground lit up."
Schwarz looked to where Blancanales was sweeping the horizon. He ran his stylus over the CPDA, popping open a window that displayed a satellite view of their immediate surroundings.
Lyons turned in his seat and Blancanales leaned over. They all saw, through the IR imaging of a National Reconnaissance Office satellite, a cone of illuminated terrain with tiny stars of light one after another.
"IR beacons so they can follow each other," Lyons suggested.
"This way only one vehicle has to have its illuminators on, but the others can follow," Schwarz said. "We got lucky. If you hadn't seen the ground lit up by IR lights and given Bear a heading, we'd have completely missed them."
Schwarz's mind continued to race, analyzing the situation. This night, Able Team was in the air, racing to intercept a smuggling operation that the Farm had heard whispers about. Someone had been monitoring Border Patrol schedules, tailing Jeeps as if looking for holes. This was something more than just a coyote operation snooping for a gap in the defenses. The human smugglers bringing illegals across the border didn't need to track the USBP's agents and vehicles, and wouldn't even dream of tickling their computer system with hacker fingers in cyberspace.
Whatever this operation was about, it wasn't smuggling illegal immigrants. Able Team had come into conflict at the border several times before, and it could have been anything from a large shipment of drugs to nuclear weapons.
Schwarz's headset warbled with a beep from his communicator. He keyed the com unit, hearing Aaron "The Bear" Kurtzman's voice in his earphone. He immediately switched it so everyone in the helicopter could hear their support back at the Farm.
"We've got a call. Someone hit Burgundy Lake Testing Facility," the Stony Man cyberwizard said. "Nine-one-one call center got the news five minutes ago. A lone survivor says that the raiders just bugged out."
"We believe we have their convoy in our sights," Lyons announced. "And you already know Gadgets has them highlighted on satellite imagery."
"Affirmative," Kurtzman returned. "Still creepy how that little box of his keeps him plugged into our network."
Schwarz smirked. "You know me, I'm five bucks and a nuclear weapon short of controlling the world."
"Which is why I'll never pay you back anything you lend me," Blancanales quipped. "Burgundy Lake, that's not far from the border, relatively speaking. This has got to be a part of what drew our attention down here."
"What are they testing there?" Lyons inquired.
Schwarz tapped the CPDA screen a couple of times with his stylus. "They're on a NASA grant. High-efficiency rocket thrusters."
"Give the man a cigar," Kurtzman stated. "You'll put us out of business with that thing, Gadgets."
"Nah. I'm just piggybacking on Carmen's workstation. She pulled up the information a moment before she got it to you," Schwarz stated.
Kurtzman chuckled. "So you let us do all the work, and you look brilliant."
Lyons snorted. "It'll take a lot of work to make Gadgets look anything close to brilliant."
Schwarz lifted his middle finger to inform Lyons that the Able Team leader was still number one in his book. Lyons grinned and turned to Grimaldi. "Jack, see that wash down there? It's the only path through these foothills that'll give the convoy a quick route south. Land us right there. We'll set up an ambush."
"Good spot," Grimaldi mentioned. He grimaced with regret. "Wish this thing had some guns on it."
"Take off and pull back to an overwatch. We might need a quick pickup, but the convoy could have the firepower to deal with aircraft."
Grimaldi swung the Little Bird around, depositing Able Team at Lyons's suggested position. It was several miles ahead of the convoy, but still in their path. The helicopter had been set up for quiet running with engine baffles and sideways projecting speakers that canceled out the racket of the rotor by interrupting the noise with the same sound, aimed back at the rotors at a perpendicular angle. When the two sound sources crossed, they nullified each other, rendering the aircraft no louder than an idling automobile.
There was no doubt that the convoy was up to no good. A line of trucks running on "invisible" headlights and tail beacons at night were the tactics of thieves and smugglers, not of innocents. Burgundy Lake was less than twenty miles north of the border, but directly to the south there was a range of uneven hills without anything more than a goat trail wending through them to cross into Mexico. Schwarz pulled his CPDA from its pocket on his load-bearing vest, checking on the satellite view from above. Something was wrong.
Lyons looked over his shoulder at the small but crystal-clear screen. His big fists clenched and relaxed, tendons popping like firecrackers as his adrenaline kicked into his bloodstream. "They're operating on strict discipline. The beacons have cut out. It was a refresher flash so that the convoy could maintain its formation. Only the headlights are still running hot."
"The right place at the right time with the right kind of eyes," Schwarz mused. "One thing wrong, and they would have gotten away. And we were only here because they were so professional and thorough in their planning and recon, they left enough fingerprints to make us wonder what was going on."
"Okay," Lyons said. "We've got six vehicles. One truck and several SUVs. They're running dark and they've got radar-absorbent materials rendering them almost invisible. We can also assume they've got armor on their rides, and considering the destruction they've wreaked, they're heavily armed and ruthless."
"Bear, do we have any images of the actual assault?" Blan-canales asked over his communicator.
"No," Kurtzman replied. "We have some NRO satellites looking at the area, but we were looking at the border, not any facilities. I have Hunt and Akira scanning recordings to see if we can see the raiders in action, but nothing yet."
"This has got to be what drew us down here," Lyons interjected over his headset. "A hit on Burgundy Lake? Wonder why they didn't take out the communications."
"We received a report of a sudden blackout in the facility's cell tower coverage. It's still out, but somehow the survivor got a signal," Kurtzman told him.
"Steel-framed buildings," Schwarz said. "Usually the steel understructure isn't preferred because it acts as too good of an antenna, pulling down all manner of interference. However, out in the middle of nowhere, the prefabricated structures are exactly what are needed to set things up on the cheap. If the raiders set explosives and blew up the place, then they undoubtedly left wreckage behind. Our survivor must have huddled among the wreckage, and a remaining girder of the freestanding superstructure formed an impromptu antenna."
"Wouldn't be too efficient," Kurtzman mentioned. "The specific frequency range"
"All you'd need was at least one bar of signal. The sur-vivor'd be better off with a walkie-talkie," Schwarz advised, cutting him off. "Shit Bear, check the satellite imagery from when I first high lit the convoy. I think one's missing."
"Checking it," Kurtzman said. "One beacon has cut out."
"They're altering course," Schwarz told his partners. "Something's up."
Lyons ground his teeth in frustration. The trucks were veering back toward the north when he looked over to Schwarz and the dim glow from his CPDA screen. He then turned his gaze skyward, switching his com link to the Stony Man Farm cybernetics crew.
"Bear, check to see if you're the only ones on the NRO's party line. The bad guys are changing course, and they might be keyed into the same eyes in the sky."
"Good instincts, Ironman. How'd you guess?" Kurtz-man asked.
"Because we're the only ones watching them," Lyons returned.
"One vehicle just dropped off the grid. I can't even find it by its illuminators," Schwarz replied. Using a stylus, he dragged the focus of the camera, and stopped. "We're visible to our own satellite. Damn it "
Lyons and Blancanales returned to scoping out the darkened landscape, alert that they were literally in the spotlight, the National Reconnaissance Office satellite's unblinking electronic eye pointing them out to the very force they had used it to spy upon.
"They'll come in hard and fast, and we're sitting ducks," Blancanales replied. "At least in comparison to them."
"We could call Jack back, but we might only expose him to fire," Schwarz returned.
"And we'd lose track of the convoy," Lyons snarled. "No, we get ourselves some wheels and continue the chase."
Blancanales and Schwarz smiled. When it came to the burly blond ex-cop, the simplest solution was always his choice. There was one vehicle in the area that they could use to chase down and intercept the escaping convoy. The fact that it was filled with heavily armed gunmen was no hindrance in the Ironman's mind. Lyons had no problem sitting on the gore-soaked bucket seats of an SUV while chasing after high-tech raiders.
Fortunately, the men of Able Team were prepared for a war. The trio had opted for DSA-58 carbines, compact versions of the FN FAL. Normally, the team utilized some form of the M-16 rifle, but with the long ranges and flat terrain of the desert they were in, they went for the 7.62 mm NATO round for the excellent reach it possessed over the 5.56 mm NATO. The smaller, lighter bullets would be blown off course by a stiff desert wind at farther than 500 meters, and at that range, a reliable kill was an iffy proposition. For the FAL, it was child's play to cause a lethal injury at twice that distance.
The American-made FALs were supplemented by Smith & Wesson Military and Police pistols. The M&Ps were sixteen-shot, .40-caliber autoloaders in a package no larger than a 1911. Attached to Picatinny rails under the pistols' barrels were white light and laser aiming modules, as much for recoil control as for illumination purposes. Able Team had chosen a proved border-fighting load, the 165-grain jacketed hollowpoint round, as accurate and powerful as a .357 Magnum round out to one hundred yards. The trio opted to leave the suppressors off the thread-barreled handguns, not needing stealth at the cost of increased range. Blancanales had added an M-203 grenade launcher to the forearm of his DSA-58 carbine, while Lyons wore a Mossberg 500 Cruiser pistol-grip pump shotgun in a sheath on his back. The Cruiser had no shoulder stock, but the big ex-cop had a Knox Comp-Stock installed, as well as a stabilizing single-point sling. Schwarz's extra load had been taken up by his various electronics gear.
Lyons changed out the dutch-load of shot and slugs to go completely to Brenneke slugs, which turned the compact scat-tergun into a large-bore rifle spitting out devastating .72-inch slugs. Anyone coming at them would catch a face full of big bullets that hit hard.
Even though Able Team knew that a single vehicle had broken off to break their ambush, it still came as a surprise when they heard the warbling whistle of a 40 mm grenade arcing through the sky.
"Cover!" Lyons bellowed, throwing himself into a rut on the uneven ground.
Schwarz dropped behind a berm that rippled up at the base of a foothill instants before the world broke apart around him. Six and a half ounces of high explosive detonated only a few yards away, the lethal concussion wave and shrapnel deflecting off the small slope. No jagged bits of segmented wire tore through his flesh, but the powerful ripples of force coming off the detonation expanded, rolling into him.
The stars above swirled chaotically as he struggled to retain consciousness.
Carl Lyons saw Schwarz flop on the ground in reaction to the grenade detonation and cursed under his breath.
"Pol! Gadgets is hit," he hissed into his throat mike. "Cover him."
"One sec," Blancanales responded. His own 40 mm launcher popped off a shell. Instead of returning fire, it threw an M-583 parachute flare into the sky. Burning at 90,000 can-dlepower, it lit up the general area where the enemy grenade had come from, illuminating a spot two hundred yards in diameter with night vision-frying light. Even bare, night-attuned eyes would have trouble adapting immediately to the sudden blaze of white light slashing a hole in the dark.