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Passing through the sturdy concrete barrier that encircled the military airfield, three identical limousines rolled across the smooth asphalt and onto the airfield. Separating, each of the armored vehicles rolled toward a different waiting 747 jumbo jet, the huge planes parked on converging runways.
Covering hundreds of acres, Andrews Air Force Base was located close to the capital and was charged with the primary defense of the city. Dozens of Apache and Cobra gunships were parked in orderly rows, ready to launch in a moment's notice. More than a dozen hangars edged the field, the sliding doors pulled aside to reveal ranks of jet fighters and interceptors: F-15 Eagles, F-16 Tomcats, F-18 SuperHornets and even a handful of the brand-new F-22 Raptors.
Riding in the back of the second limo, Hal Brognola snorted at the massive display of firepower and wondered what type of disaster had recently occurred in the world that required his immediate presence. The big Fed had been on a rare fishing trip with his family in upstate New York, but when the President of the United States called he had rushed down here immediately, barely stopping long enough to change out of his old denims into a business suit. As the head of the Sensitive Operations Group, Hal Brognola was only contacted by the Man after the blood had already hit the fan.
As the limo braked to a halt at the foot of an air stairs, the man from Justice waited as a Marine in full dress uniform opened the door and moved aside. Stepping onto the tarmac, Brognola noticed two other men dressed in business attire getting out of the other limousines.
Most impressive, Brognola noted professionally. Things must really be bad for the Secret Service to make such complex security arrangements to mask which jetliner I'm boarding. The man was under no delusion that the precautions were for his benefit, but for the august passenger on the waiting 747, better known to the world as Air Force One.
"Good afternoon, sir," the Marine said, checking a photograph attached to a clipboard. "Password, please."
The honor guard made the request in a friendly tone, but Brognola knew the man's response would be lightning fast and decidedly lethal if the wrong response was given. "Agamemnon," Brognola muttered, for some reason suddenly feeling the urge for a cigar, even though he had given them up years ago.
Nodding, the Marine looked at him much closer now. "Wife's maiden name?"
Puzzled, Brognola tilted his head slightly, only to notice the other men dressed like him at the other planes doing exactly the same thing. Damn, they could even copy his body language? Damn, the Secret Service was good.
"The name, sir?" the Marine repeated in a more insistent tone.
Brognola provided the required information, now very eager to get out of the open and inside the waiting 747. The sky was a clear blue, with scarcely a cloud in sight, yet he felt oddly vulnerable.
Easing his stance slightly, the big Marine motioned toward the air stairs. "Right this way, sir."
Nodding, the big Fed quickly walked up the portable staircase, his sharp eyes checking in every direction. There were snipers lying on the rooftops of the terminal buildings, and several Harrier Jumpjets parked on the grassy strips between the runways, the air in front of them blurry from the heat of the idling turbo engines. What in hell had happened that he didn't know about yet? There had been nothing on the news. But these were the sorts of safeguards normally reserved for a shooting war, not a tense peacetime.
As he reached the top of the stairs, a pretty female Secret Service agent checked his ID again, and Brognola gave the proper answers to her questions as a full delta formation of F-15E Strike Eagles streaked noisily by overhead, the deadly fighters leaving misty contrails behind from the sheer speed of their passage. There seemed to be a lot of contrails up there, crisscrossing in every direction, enough to almost make a smoke screen above the busy military base, which was probably the general idea. Entering the cool interior of the 747, Brognola forced himself to stop making wild guesses. Soon enough he would know the truth.
"Welcome aboard Air Force One," a smiling flight attendant said politely, an Uzi machine gun hanging at her side. "If you'll just hold for a second, sir "
Standing still, Brognola waited while another Marine used a handheld EM scanner to check him for weapons and explosives. Nobody got close to the President without being scanned, and then scanned again. As part of his job, the big Fed usually carried a 9 mm Glock pistol in a shoulder holster, but that had been left behind in the limo. Over the years, he had created a lot of enemies, but most of them were buried six feet under the ground. However, no visitors got this close to the President caring anything that could be used as a weapon. End of discussion.
"Clear," the Marine announced crisply, tucking away the device.
"Welcome to Air Force One," the flight attendant said, smiling briefly. "If you'll please follow me " Without waiting for a response, the woman turned to briskly walk down the main aisle of the jet toward the passenger section.
As the Marine closed and locked the hatch, Brognola proceeded down the main aisle of the jetliner, as always marveling that the rich carpeting and polished mahogany panels of the sumptuous interior masked enough state-of-the-art military armor for the plane to be driven through a brick wall.
Catching a movement outside the window, he saw one of the other 747 jumbo jets taxi into position for an immediate take-off. But that was to be expected. The President always traveled in a three-on-three defensive formation, whether it was a 747 or a limousine. Any potential assassins would not know exactly which vehicle he was traveling in.
Passing the stairs to the second level, Brognola reached the passenger section and noted the unusual assortment of people sitting in the comfortable seats. Normally the craft carried a host of government aides, cabinet members, news reporters, along with the occasional member of Congress or the Senate. But this day there seemed to be only grim Secret Service agents, several key members of the Joint Chiefs and a score of Air Force Rangers openly carrying M-17 assault rifles and wearing full body armor.
"Please have a seat, sir," the flight attendant said, a touch of urgency in her voice. "We'll be taking off in just a moment."
Knowing it would be useless to ask about their destination, Brognola took the only empty seat in sight. He barely had time to buckle the seat belt when there came a low rumble of controlled power and the 747 started moving forward, the pressure increasing on him as the front of the jet lifted and he felt the telltale tingling sensation in his gut that meant they had just left the ground. Wow, that was fast. Things had to be a lot worse than he had imagined if the pilot pulled a stunt like that with Eagle One on board. It was almost as if the pilot was taking off under combat conditions and trying to avoid enemy fire.
The angle of assent, maintained for a lot longer than Brognola would have thought necessary, finally leveled out and the rumble of the massive engines faded to a subdued murmur as the colossal plane reached cruising altitude. A light above his seat flashed that it was safe to remove his seat belt. The flight attendant returned.
"Please follow me, sir," the woman said with a smile.
Brognola stood and followed her to the rear of the aircraft.
Walking up to a plain door, the woman tapped a code into a keypad set into the burnished steel frame, then pressed her hand against a glowing plate. There was an answering beep, a light above the door turned green and the flight attendant stepped aside as electromagnetic bolts disengaged and the door slid into the wall with a hydraulic sigh.
"Good to see you, Hal," the President said from behind a large wooden desk in the corner of the room. "Glad you could make it on such short notice."
"No problem, sir," Brognola replied, stepping into the office. "The fish weren't biting worth a damn." Softly, the door closed behind him and resoundingly locked into place.
"Fishing " the President said with a wan smile. "I haven't done that in ages. You're probably using the wrong type of bait again, my friend. Can't catch catfish with a pop fly, you know."
"As you've mentioned once or twice before." Brognola grinned as he took a seat.
"I'll get you to switch from lures to flies yet."
There was a soft beep from the door. The President pressed a button on the intercom set into his desk and the door opened again, admitting a steward pushing a wheeled cart holding a steaming coffee urn, stacks of cups and saucers and several serving trays piled high with an assortment of sandwiches. Both men nodded politely to the steward as he departed, then completely ignored the food.
"All right, what's so important that we couldn't talk at the White House?" Brognola asked, crossing his legs at the knee. "Has there been an assassination attempt?" He paused in consternation.
"Nothing that simple, I'm afraid," the Man said with a grimace. "And I will not be returning to Washington until further notice. My double is sitting in the Oval office while I stay at Cheyenne Mountain. The Veep is heading for Camp David."
That was unsettling news.
"Okay, what happened?" the big Fed demanded bluntly. "Are we at war with somebody?"
"You tell me," the President replied, pressing a button on the intercom.
Silently an oil painting of President John Adams rotated on the wall to display a plasma-screen monitor. There was a brief strobing effect as the room dimmed, and Brognola found himself looking at the smoke-covered remains of Cape Canaveral in Florida. The Vehicle Assembly Building was on fire, the flames licking skyward for hundreds of feet, the blaze occasionally punctuated by a powerful explosion. Several fire trucks were positioned around the blaze and countless firefighters hosed the structure with steady streams of water and foam.
In the foreground of the screen lay a smashed crawler-transporter. The colossal machine was designed to ferry a space shuttle from the assembly building to the launch pad so that the technicians could work on the vehicle and save days of time for a fast turnaround. With a top speed of one foot per hour, the crawler-transporter couldn't catch a snail, but it was tough enough to roll over an Abrams battle tank without ever noticing. But now the monstrous crawler was deeply bowed in the middle and covered with glowing rivulets of molten metal only partially congealed. The engines were blackened ruins, the armored treads lay broken and randomly scattered. A gigantic pool of hydraulic fluid and diesel fuel covered the ground several feet deep.
Even worse, lying across the top of the crawler-transporter was something that only vaguely resembled a space shuttle. A dozen burned skeletons were sprawled around the crushed wreckage, almost every ceramic heat tile gone or dangling loosely from the warped and badly dented hull. The cockpit was open to the sky, the cargo hatches crumpled like old newspaper. The rear engines were jagged pieces of twisted metal and tubing.
"Son of a bitch," Brognola muttered, leaning closer.
"Wait, there's more." The President sighed.
Slowly the camera panned to the right showing the toppled remnants of two gantry towers, extended over the lip of a huge crater large enough to swallow the crawler-transporter intact. The interior of the depression was filled with a dense gray cloud, tarnished steel rods rising out of the swirling fumes like the desperately reaching fingers of a dying man.
"That was the fuel depot," the President said in a monotone.
With his heart pounding, Brognola gave no reply, studying the scene of destruction closely as the camera took almost a minute to get past the smoking blast crater to finally focus on a relatively undamaged section of the launch facility. Spread out in neat rows were dozens of black plastic body bags, armed soldiers standing guard while medics ferried the still forms into waiting ambulances. Far in the distance, several Navy warships could be seen along the coastline, while swarms of Apache and SuperCobra gunships hovered overhead.
The room seemed to grow still as Brognola said nothing for a few seconds; there was only the muted hush of the jet engines.
"How many people did we lose?" the big Fed asked, controlling his seething emotions. Normally the Cape was as clean as an operating room, washed and scrubbed almost daily. Now it looked like the bombed-out sections of Beirut.
"Eighty-six are confirmed dead," the President reported. "With another hundred missing, including a lot of tourists."
Inhaling deeply, Brognola turned away from the grisly vista of destruction and sat back in his chair. For a long moment he said nothing, lost in dark contemplation.
"Any idea who did it?" he asked.
"Damn. And we're sure this was not a nuke?"
"Absolutely positive," the President replied, scowling down at the closed report. "Both NASA and the DOD checked for residual radiation, and NSA Keyhole satellites registered nothing out of the usual on the magnetic spectrum."
"All right, if they weren't hit by a nuke, then what happened?"
"We're not exactly sure," the President replied, tapping a few buttons on his desk. "But the NSA was able to retrieve this image from the cell phone of a Mr. Thomas Hutchings who was fishing about a mile off Cocoa Beach."
The monitor flickered, then abruptly changed into a jumpy view of the bow of a fishing boat, and a white line stretching down into the water.
Just then something fiery shot down from the sky like a film of a missile launch played in reverse. Smoke exploded from the Cape, then a series of bright explosions, closely followed by a blinding light flash that extended outward. The corona was dotted with bodies and tumbling cars, and pushed back the choppy waves to create a tidal wave that slammed into the fishing boat and sent it flying. The cell phone was dropped to the deck with a clatter and there were only chaotic images for a few seconds, mixed with the sound of splintering wood before the screen went blank.
Excerpted from Dark Star by Don Pendleton
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.