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Singapore

          The terrorists came dressed as waiters.

          They arrived at the rear service entrance to the Tonkai  Tower Hotel at precisely 10AM. There were eight of them. They unloaded six food carts from their two vehicles. There was no security in this part of the building and the rear door had been left open for them. They rolled the carts up onto the kitchen's loading platform and simply walked inside.        

          It was check-out time and the lobby of the enormous hotel was packed. Hundreds were waiting in line, hundreds more were picking up luggage or trying to find cabs. The routine chaos gave the eight terrorists all the cover they would need. They walked right through the lobby, heads down, pushing their carts, and made for the service elevators. Once there, they pushed the button to call the largest of the hotel's sixteen service lifts. It arrived a few seconds later. Loading the carts and themselves aboard, they quickly closed the doors and hit the button to go up. 

          The Tonkai  Hotel was one of the tallest structures in the world. It was shaped like a futuristic pagoda, with a tower that soared 1,200 feet in the air. There were more than 3,000 rooms here, most of them expensive suites, plus many function areas, shops and trendy restaurants. The hotel's grand style and downtown location made it a popular place for foreign businesses, especially American companies, to hold meetings and corporate events. The Singapore government encouraged such things and  frequently picked up the tab.

          The hotel was especially crowded with American citizens today as it had been declared America Day by the  city government, a fete for the families of US business and foreign service people living in Singapore. Several gala events were being held at the Tonkai. A huge breakfast for the American consulate was in progress on the 16th floor. A reception for US Embassy employees was about to begin on the 44th. Another for Ford Motor Company was scheduled for 10:30 on the 96th.  

          But the disguised terrorists in the elevator passed all these floors. They were heading directly for the top.

          They were members of Qeza al-Habu, a terrorist cell linked directly to Al Qaeda. Their destination was the building's penthouse, up on the 140th floor. There was an expansive banquet hall here known,  simply enough, as the Top Room. A party for children of US servicemen serving in Singapore had started in the hall around nine. There were 300 kids on hand, most under the age of 12, some as young as just a few months. There were twenty two adults watching over them. 

          The eight terrorists arrived on the top floor and unloaded their carts. Two stayed in the hallway and, using tools hidden in a steaming dish, disabled the hotel's elevator system by short-circuiting its main and auxiliary power panels, all of which were located up here at the building's  peak. This jammed more than fifty passengers lifts in place, trapping hundreds and making access to the top floor nearly impossible. It also knocked out every light in the hotel from the 99th floor down.

          The six remaining terrorists proceeded to the Top Room function hall. They reached its one and only door and wheeled the food carts in. The large triangular room had a long dining table set up at center, on it sat four gigantic chocolate cakes. Huge windows of lime tint made up the three walls of the room, balconies went all around the outside. The Top Room was so high in the sky, wisps of clouds could be seen passing by the windows. 

          The terrorists were met by several adults who greeted them quizzically. The children's party had already received their dessert order from the kitchens downstairs. Why were these men here?

          The terrorists didn't reply. They simply locked the door behind them, then uncovered their food carts. There were eight AK-47 assault rifles hidden inside. The terrorists pushed seven of the adults against the nearest wall and calmly shot each one in the head. Panic erupted. Children began screaming; some of the other adults tried to hide. The terrorists fanned out around the room, hunting down five more adults and killing them, including two shot at point blank range while cowering under the banquet table. This thoroughly terrorized everyone in the room. The remaining adults froze in place. Many of the children went numb with fear. A few however did not. Some began crying. The terrorists walked around the room and shot each one. Soon enough, the room was deathly quiet.

          The terrorists made their captives lie face down on the floor. Some muffled cries could still be heard as the young hostages and the adults complied. Those terrorists charged with disabling the elevators joined their colleagues in the function room. Besides their tools and more weapons, their food carts were full of plastique, the highly-volatile plastic explosive, nearly 100 pounds of it in all.  

          The leader of the terrorist group was a man known only as Moka. He was tall, skinny, a Syrian Arab. He began shouting orders. While four terrorists watched over the hostages, three others began setting up the explosives. The Top Room had three immense pillars, one in each corner of the triangular hall. They were painted pearl white with much gold leafing. Exotic vines and flowers grew up their sides, and at night, under low light, these flowers became translucent. But the three pillars served a purpose beyond ornamental. Soaring right through the glass ceiling thirty-five feet above, they held the roof of the immense tower in place. The terrorists knew this because they had taken a complete set of building plans for the Tonkai  off the Internet. They also knew if the pillars were severed with enough force, the concussion of the blast and the weight of the debris would send the entire tower crashing to the ground.

          The terrorists attached explosive charges to each of the three pillars. Plastique was very pliable and  the individuals packets stuck to the pillars like glue. Plastique was also easy to detonate. Two wires from a 20-volt motorbike battery would provide the spark, a simple kitchen timer would throw the switch. The terrorists worked quickly, as they had been trained to do. This operation had been planned for six months. The participants had practiced for it every day for the past eight weeks.  

          Once the explosives were in place, the terrorists took out their third arsenal of weapons: cell phones. Each man had three, except the leader, Moka, who had five. Each cell had a set of phone numbers pre-programmed inside it, each number connected to a large news organization somewhere around the world. The terrorists began activating these numbers. In seconds, phones were ringing at the news desks of CNN, Fox, the US TV networks, the BBC, the Associated Press, Reuters and more. The message transmitted by the terrorists was short and grim: They had taken over the world-famous Tonkai  Tower and were planning to destroy it, with thousands trapped inside, in fifteen minutes.

          Moka's last call was to a local Singapore TV news station, Sing-One TV. It was the largest of the four news stations in the city-state. Moka was soon talking to Sing-One's executive manager. The man believed Moka right away, as reports that something was wrong at the Tonkai  Tower had already reached his desk.

          Moka made himself very clear to the TV executive. This was not a situation for negotiations or ransoms or diplomacy. This was an unfolding act of war. He and his men were dedicated to publicizing the plight of Muslim peoples everywhere. To this end, they were going to crash the Tonkai  and kill every one in it. Why was Moka personally calling Sing-One TV? Because he wanted the entire incident broadcast, live around the world.

          Sing-One's manager called Moka a bastard and a religious devil, but then quickly complied to his wishes. Moka would allow only one news chopper to come close to the building. A camera on board would be able to record everything happening inside the function hall. When the station manager pointed out there were other TV copters in the city, and that a number of police and military helicopters would soon be heading for the Tower as well, Moka assured him that only the Sing-One chopper would be allowed to approach. 

          The rest would have to stay at least 1000 feet away, or Moka's men would start killing hostages.

          In the next ten minutes, the situation around the Tower changed dramatically. 

          The city police cordoned off the entire downtown area, meaning twenty blocks in every direction. Military police were flooding onto the scene  The government's Rapid Response Team arrived in six armed helicopters, landing just three blocks from the besieged tower. These special operations soldiers dispersed to buildings closest to the hotel, setting up weapons' positions and listening posts. The US Embassy had also been alerted. Despite Moka's warning, an emergency diplomatic team was on its way.  

          Meanwhile thousands of citizens were streaming out of the area. They included the hundred or so guests who'd managed to get out of the Tower simply by not being to be on an elevator when the terrorists first struck. Many more frightened guests were flowing down the stairwells of the hotel, many had a long, slow trip ahead of them, especially in the darkened stairwells. And hundreds were still trapped inside the building's fifty stalled elevators. 

          The sky above downtown Singapore had changed too. As predicted, a small fleet of military aircraft, police copters, and TV new choppers had arrived. Thirteen in total, they were all orbiting the tower, except one: the bright yellow Bell Textron belonging to Sing-One TV.

          So far the other helicopters had grudgingly obeyed Moka's orders, staying out at least 1000 feet. The yellow Sing-One copter however was allowed to hover just 15 feet away from the Top Room's grand balcony, located on the east side of the building. This was a huge parapet, enclosed in glass except for a plant-filled open-air terrace. By floating just off its railing, the people inside the Sing-One chopper were indeed able to capture just about everything going on inside the function room, thanks to their computer-stabilized Stedi-Cam. Inside two minutes of the copter's arrival, the horrifying images at the Tonkai  Tower were being broadcast around the world.

          And it was all very clear for billions around the world to see: the hostages, the explosives, the terrorists and the dead. It was early evening in the United States; the attack had been planned precisely for this hour so that it would be watched by a prime-time audience back in the states. A few minutes into the drama, Moka and three terrorists came out onto the terrace. Normally this would have been a very windy place, but glass valances installed around the balcony blocked most of the wind. Moka's men held up a banner. Scrawled in both Arabic and crude English letters, it declared the cell's intentions for all the world to see. At the same time, a phone connection was made between the Sing-One news copter and Moka. The conversation was conducted in Arabic, a common language between the head terrorist and at least one person inside the copter.

          Moka reiterated his group's plans, and to prove his point, he signaled that four bodies be brought out to the terrace. Two children and two adults. They were unceremoniously thrown over the side of the balcony, twisting, turning, the smallest caught by the wind, all to plunge nearly a quarter of a mile to the ground below. It was a horrifying sight to see on camera, and in person. 

          Then Moka read a statement, saying again that he had no demands, that he intended to crash the tower at exactly 10:30 AM and that the timers to do this had already been set. This was going to happen, he said, and the world could only sit and watch. If anyone tried to interfere, his men  would start shooting hostages, children first.   

          A tiny clock popped up in the lower right hand corner of Sing-One's broadcast screen.

          Catastrophe was five minutes away. 

          More than a thousand people were still trapped inside the Tower. To make matters worse, all of the lights had gone out in the building by this time, even inside the Top Room. Somehow a small fire had started on the 31st floor, filling the stairwells with acrid smoke. As they power continued to fail, many of the sinks and toilets began to overflow too. 

          The people in the Sing-One news chopper asked Moka if he had any last statement to make. Moka responded that he'd already spoken his last word, as had his men. The copter asked Moka if he wanted them to get final shots of the faces of his martyrs on TV, before the blast went off.  To this, Moka agreed.

          He called all but three of his men to the balcony. Each man took out photos of loved ones they'd carried with them on the mission; they held them up to the copter's steady-cam. By the time the four terrorists got into camera position, the deadline for the explosives to go off was just 60 seconds away. Each man shouted a short prayer, then raised his right arm above his head, with two fingers extended. Oddly, a peace sign.

          Moka then signaled the copter that the explosives were about to go off. Sing-One TV had to back away. But the copter remained where it was, just fifteen feet off the balcony. Moka signaled gain. But the copter came in even closer. Moka was furious. He began shouting into the phone that the aircraft had to get away; it was important to him that the copter crew live to tell their tale. But with the explosives just seconds from going off, the helo kept coming in. 

          Now Moka was confused. He squinted his eyes, trying to see into the copter's open bay. The man who had been holding the stedi-cam just moments ago was now holding a rather large gun. Men on either side of him were holding guns too. Moka saw the muzzle flashes, but never heard the shots that killed him. Six rounds, in rapid succession, went right through his head. 

          The same barrage killed the other four terrorists on the balcony, this while the copter's TV camera, now relocated to its cockpit, kept rolling for all the world to see. Then incredibly, and still on live TV, the helicopter touched down on the balcony's railing, an incredible feat of piloting. Six men burst from the copter's open bay. They were not TV reporters or camera men. They were wearing combat suits -- American combat suits. All black with much armor plating, ammo belts, side arms and helmets that looked like props from a '50s sci-fi movie. All with Stars and Stripes patches on their shoulders.  

          At the same moment, two of the Top Room's great plate glass windows came crashing in. Men swinging on ropes flew through the openings. The sudden change in air pressure created a mini-tornado inside the room. Some of the adult hostages screamed, kids began crying, but it was the remaining terrorists who panicked. They were stationed next to the explosive-packed pillars but now the noise was tremendous, the wind like the devil. And suddenly a small army of armed men was coming at them.

          Each terrorist backed up to guard his assigned pillar, but for what? The explosives were set to go off in thirty seconds. One terrorist boldly stood in front of his plastique charges, intent on protecting it with his body. He was shot five times in the head and there is where he died. His killers vaulted over the hostages and disconnected the explosive packs on the first pillar. But two remained, and only twenty seconds were left.

          The terrorist in the northeast corner took cover behind his pillar and started firing at the soldiers in black. Everyone, hostages and soldiers alike, hit the floor. The men who had crashed through the window returned fire; a vicious gunfight erupted. The terrorist returned fire in three short bursts, but turned too late to see the six men who'd just landed on the balcony. He was caught in their combined fusillade, taking more than forty rounds to the stomach alone. He fell over in slow motion, his insides hitting the floor before the rest of him.   

          Now just one terrorist remained, with one pack of explosives -- and ten seconds before detonation.

          Suddenly alone, this terrorist grabbed two small children and pulled them back against the pillar with him. The kids began screaming. Shrieks of horror went through the hall. Don't shoot! some of the adults started screaming.

          Nine seconds.

          The terrorist fired in the direction of his attackers. He was sure the soldiers would not shoot him, not as long as he was holding the two terrified children.

          Eight seconds.

          The soldiers kept advancing, moving quickly, but in a crouch. Their weapons were raised, but they were not firing.

          Seven seconds.

          The terrorist fired again, hitting the soldier closest to him, but still about twenty five feet away. He watched in astonishment as his bullets staggered the man, but then bounced off his armor plating.

          You cannot all be supermen! the terrorist cried out.

          Six seconds.

          Most of the adult hostages were crying now; they knew the explosives were about to go off. One pack, 30 pounds, was more than enough to kill everyone in the room.  

          Five seconds.

          The soldiers continued advancing toward the last terrorist. But would they sacrifice two children in order to save many?

          Four seconds.

          As it turned out, they wouldn't have to . . .

          Three seconds. 

          One armed man, undetected in the distractions around him, came up behind the terrorist and put a pistol to his head. He pulled the trigger and the terrorist's head was blown apart. He never knew what hit him, dead before he hit the ground.

          Two seconds . . .

          The man with the pistol hastily reached down and began pulling wires out of the block of plastique goo.                  

          One second.

          Zero . . . 

          There was one loud pop! as the last electrical wire was yanked from the explosive pack. The noise scared the hell out of everyone . . . but nothing happened except one long fizzle.

          The bomb did not go off. The hostages were safe.

          Just like that, the crisis was over.

The Pentagon

Washington, DC

          The Situation Room was overflowing with brass.

          Four-star generals, full admirals, a few colonels -- this was the top of the Pentagon's food chain. The bunker-like room, buried deep inside the venerable buidling, was used only in emergencies. A long conference table dominated its center. A huge wide-screen TV hung on one wall. The lighting was subdued. The room was built to hold about thirty people at the most. Twice that number were crowded inside now.

          All eyes were transfixed by the images on the big screen TV. Like the rest of the world, the Pentagon officers were watching the astonishing events in Singapore unfold, stunned by what they were seeing. After the terrorists' sudden demise, all of the TV news copters circling the Tonkai Tower had moved in closer. The drama was now being shot from four different angles.

          The soldiers in the black uniforms came back out onto the hotel balcony where the bright yellow copter was still balancing itself on the edge of the narrow railing. Seconds before, the rescue team had been seen ushering the children and the surviving adults away from the broken windows in the Top Room and into the hallway, were they would be safer. Then the soldiers collected all the terrorists' unused explosive packs and loaded them onto their helicopter. They took all of the terrorists' weapons too. 

          As this booty was being lifted on to the copter, one of the soldiers took down the terrorists' banner and ripped it in two; both pieces were taken away by the high wind. The soldier then took out a banner of his own. It was red, white and blue. A rather crude, but unmistakable American flag. He hung it where the terrorists' pennant had once been, leaving no doubt what country the rescuers hailed from. Then with no further ceremony, the rest of the rescue force climbed into the yellow chopper and flew away. 

          A hush came over the Situation Room. Someone turned down the volume on the TV set. The room full of military officers remained still, amazed and speechless.

          Finally, one spoke up. "Who the hell were those guys?"   

          The admirals and the generals and the colonels all looked at each other, but had nothing but shrugs and blank faces in reply.

          Standing at the back of the room, apart from the rest, were four officers. All captains, one each from the US's four military services, they were intelligence officers. All eyes in the room now turned to them.

          The officer who had first spoken up now elaborated his own question. "Those troopers," he said, nodding back towards the TV. "They were obviously Americans. And obviously very highly trained. But who are they? What special ops group do they belong to?"

          The intelligence officers had a quick, hushed conversation. They'd been asking that same question since the drama began. 

          Finally, one stepped forward. He was Army DIA.

          "I'm sorry, sir," he said. "But we have no idea . . ." 

                             *                           *                           *

Oki Jima

      The stars always seemed extra bright above the secret air base known as XH-2.

      On clear nights, with no moon, it was like you could reach up and touch them, the sky out here was so crystal clear.

      The base was located on the southern tip of the small island of Oki Jima, which itself was just three miles off the coast of the island of Guam. XH-2 was old. Originally built by the Japanese Army as a radio listening post in the mid-1930s, it served as an intelligence base during the World War II, and was one of the first places to fall after the battle for Guam. The US Air Force built two runways here during the Vietnam War from which to launch U-2 spy planes. The base had remained open, at various levels of readiness, ever since.

          There were three hangars here. They looked like very, very expensive warehouses. They were painted with a coating of charcoal black paint, that turned two shades of green during the day. This chameleon act was in place to baffle any photo-satellites going over the highly classified place, unfriendly or not.

          It was almost 10pm, the hangars were charcoal now, and the stars above were dazzling, making the buildings look bejeweled. There was a distinct if muffled sound coming from each building. These were very elaborate air conditioning units working overtime. It was a pleasant tropical Pacific night, low 70s, and low humidity. But what lay within each structure worked best at temperatures of 55 degrees or below. For them, being chilled meant being invisible.

          They were B-2Fs, a top-secret variation of the famous B-2 bat-winged stealth bomber. They were bigger, more stealthy and more expensive than their $1-billion cousins. The stock-version B-2 had a large bomb bay where a mix of bombs weighing up to x tons could be carried, dispensed by a rotary launcher. The B-2Fs were equipped with these bomb launchers too, but they were portable and could be quickly changed out, opening up a large area of the spy bomber to carry . . . well, just about anything.

          Photo recon packages. Jumbo jamming pods. Radiation detectors. Even black-ops eavesdropping gear. These exotic cargoes were called  NLPs -- for non-lethal payloads. Things that either the military or the intelligence services needed to be put over a target low and fast, without anyone knowing about it.     

          These three B-2Fs had been in existence since the late 1990s. They'd flown missions all over the world, but had been home- based here on Oki Jima since the latest war in Iraq. Their mission was to help US assets in and out of the Pacific Rim get whatever they needed whenever they needed it. And they could fly to the northern tip of North Korea all the way to the last hill in Syria in order to get it.

          Major John Atels, code-name "Atlas," had been flying B-2Fs for two years. He was early forties, divorced, no kids. He was known as one of the best B-2 frame pilots around, which was actually a back handed compliment as the B-2 was the only plane in the US inventory where the pilot was the crew member and the mission commander was the captain of the plane. Still it took great skill to jockey the big black bomber around, especially into and out of the nutty places higher authority wanted the "B-Fs" to go.

          The plane could fly anywhere in the world on auto-pilot; its almost-robotic like flight system was called "Hal" by many of its crews. It was that sophisticated. But once the B-2F had to go in on its target -- or, in its non-lethal mode, its "target sweep" -- human hands were needed on the controls.

          For those few, sometimes scary moments, Atlas was indeed one of the best. 

          He'd been told to report to the flight line at 2200 hours, not an unusual time as the B-2Fs always flew their missions at night. He was to meet his flight partner here. He too was an Air Force major, Ted Ballgaite. To just about everyone who knew him though, he was "Teddy Ballgame."   

          The B-2F needed someone other than the pilot to be in charge because there was a huge defensive systems suite on board the ship; sometimes running it was more labor intensive than flying the damn airplane. The Stealth bomber was not invisible just because of its shape, low-temperature and paint alone. It was filled with electronic counter-measures, jammers, and other secret gadgets that had to work together if the plane wanted  to stay a ghost. All this hardware needed to have a good eye and a quick hand to keep running smoothly. Teddy was a good guy, in the air and to have a few drinks with. He also had a mind like a Cray super-computer.

          Teddy was speaking with two men when Atlas arrived. He did not recognize either one. Guam was out in the middle of nowhere; Oki Jima was even further off the map. It was a very small base and everyone knew each other. So these two had to be visitors. And because this was such a secret place, they had to be top-heavy, security wise.

          They were dressed in what Atlas liked to call "casual spook." Jeans, denims shirts, expensive sneakers and sunglasses, even at night. These guys were from one of the US's intelligence agencies. Atlas could spot them a mile away.   

          He'd been dealing with spooks for years. These days many were from the NRO, the National Reconnaissance Office, a strange collection of individuals with the non-threatening name. Reconnaissance to most people meant taking pictures at high altitudes either by fast flying aircraft, or satellites. But that was just a small bit of it. The NRO guys reconned everything and had the stuff to do it with. When a story came out years before that the US had a satellite that, from 180 miles up, could zoom in so close to an individual on the ground it could read the label of  the  cigarette  pack in his pocket, the NRO guys were pissed. That was their satellite -- but they weren't upset by the security leak. They were mad that their eye in the sky, code name Dressing Mirror, wasn't given its props. Reading the name of a person's cigarette pack had been achieved approximately around the same time as Saturday Night Fever. These days, the NRO could count the number of threads holding on the top button of the smoker's shirt. And if that button popped off, they would be able to listen in on his cell phone conversation telling his wife that she had some mending to do tonight. Then they could track the wife as she went to the sewing shop to buy thread to do the repair, and hear just about every conversation she had along the way. And then they could find out what TV shows the love-birds watched that night, what radio stations they listened to. What time they went to bed. Even what they did when the lights went out . . . 

          Cigarette label? It was an insult . . .

          But these guys talking to Teddy were not NRO, Atlas surmised. The NROs tended to be a younger, more wide-eyed than other US spy types. These two seemed old at thirty; both were smoking, supposedly verboten on a flight line. Both were also carrying side arms, a sure mark of the CIA.  

          They were gone by the time Atlas walked up to the plane. He didn't see them leave; they just weren't there when he arrived. He and Teddy had their traditional handshake, even though they'd seen each other just a few minutes before. The ground crew was working feverishly on their aircraft's hollowed-out bomb bay. Although the vast majority of maintenance on the spy bomber had to be done inside its million-dollar hangar, last minute stuff could be done out in the open. It just couldn't take very long.

          Atlas looked back and saw the ground guys loading not a "weather package" or a exhaust detector system into the open bay, but many long cylindrical white tubes. There had to be a few dozen at least, either already up inside the spy bomber or on the ground waiting to be put on. A closer look at the tubes revealed they were made of strengthened cardboard with shrink wrap sealing either end. They looked like nothing more unusual than lengths of PVC pipe. But at a million-dollars a flight, the B-2Fs were not in the pipe delivery business.

          "What the hell are those things?" he asked Teddy straightway.

          A very practiced  shrug was Teddy's reply. "Stinger missiles. We're flying them in somewhere."

          Atlas thought he was joking. "Flying them in?" he asked. "As in delivering them somewhere?"

          Teddy nodded. "'Dat's the plan."            

          Atlas just laughed. He'd flown some freaky missions since joining the Fs, but never had they delivered something to anyone before. A bigger surprise was yet to come. These missiles were obviously going to someone who would not normally have access to them. A normal shipment of Stingers, to a US ally or customer, would be done by a big, squat, slow, inexpensive cargo plane; not a billion-dollar spy bomber. So Atlas had just assumed they were moving these missiles from one secret US location to another, possibly for later shipment to a third-party somewhere. 

          But he was wrong. According to his flight partner, they'd be delivering them to their new owners directly. 

          "Jessuzz . . .where?" Atlas asked him.

          Teddy was no fool. He would never actually speak the name -- there was no way of knowing who might be listening in. Instead he simply held up the cloth map just given to him by the spooks. There were only numbers on this map, no names, no cities marked. But Atlas looked at the coordinates, and knew immediately knew where they were going.

          "Really . . .?"

          Teddy just shrugged and rolled his eyes.

          Their orders were to fly the missiles to Hanoi. A delivery to the communist government of Vietnam.

                            *                           *                           *

     There was a grove of overgrown elastic trees just twenty feet off the beach. Ryder taxied the flying boat straight for it. The hanging branches parted ways and allowed them to hide the Kai beneath. Ryder and Gallant quickly shut down everything; they even killed all power from the generators. Then came the silence. They all just sat there, for more than a minute, catching their breaths, collecting their thoughts. Becoming one with their stomachs again. Then Fox bellowed. “Time to rock! We’ve only got a few hours to do what we have to do—so let’s get to it . . .” He gathered the team around him in the hold of the plane for one last briefing before they set out. Standing on an ammunition box, he looked like a college football coach addressing his players minutes before the big game. The Pentagon had precious few clues as to where the secret bomber may have gone down, he told them. No one was even sure it went down in the Bangtang Channel. However he did have an image from an NSA Keyhole satellite, a orbital package that was designed to look for nuclear explosions, as in nuclear testing, or nuclear missile launchings. The satellite’s imagers were light sensitive. One of them picked up a speck of light in this area just about the time the B-2 went missing. That speck of light occurred just a mile east of here. Maybe it was the B-2, maybe it wasn’t, Fox said. But if so, the telemetry indicated something might be sitting right about the center of Fuggu’s middle knuckle. Even though subsequent satellite images had shown nothing, this was where they would look first. Fox asked if there were any questions. Barney, the chief SEAL, raised his hand.
“ Any chance this bomber was carrying a nuclear weapon?” he asked.

     The usually unflappable Fox hesitated a moment. Do spy bombers carry nukes? It was a good question, but it was never addressed before Fox’s hasty departure for the Pacific. The DSA officer really didn’t know and said as much to those assembled. From that moment on though, most of the team members were convinced they were out here looking for a nuke.

     They climbed out of the flying boat and onto the tiny beach. It was past dusk and the last light was fading fast. They contemplated the jungle before them.
It was heavily overgrown and looked antediluvian, prehistoric even. The trees seemed much taller than what would be expected in a tropical jungle, much thicker and darker too. Running throughout them, were vines upon vines, covered in green moss, a massive spider web that looked like thousands of years in the making.

     “Jesuzz Christmas,” Fox said, startled by the forbidding jungle up close. “Haven’t I seen this in a movie before?” The sun had disappeared for good by now, just as they were standing there. Not two seconds after the last ray faded into darkness, a symphony strange and disturbing noises erupted from the thick Asian forest. Hoots, cries, caws. Roars. Screams . . . Not all of them were coming from birds.
“ Yeah, I saw that movie too,” Ryder finally replied. “This place looks like Kong Island. All we need now is the big monkey.” Two of the DSA guys would stay with the Kai; they were equipped with a 50-caliber machine gun and a cell phone. This was such a remote location, it seemed impossible for another human to be anywhere close by. But no one on the team was naive enough to believe that.

     “I think I might even smell him,” Gallant said to Ryder as they checked their weapons. He was talking not about King Kong, but Abu Kazeel, the man they’d been enticed out here to capture—and kill. According to Fox, the terrorist mastermind was in the Philippines and might have even been spotted in this area just a couple days ago. Though the thickly jungled island seemed a long way from the sands of the Middle East, Ryder replied: “If he’s out here, will find him.”
Like the Delta guys, Ryder and Gallant were carrying M-16/A-15s, the special ops version of the famous M-16 combat rifle. This model had a shortened stock, an over sized bullet clip, and extra gear which allowed its user to fire grenades, flares and even shot gun shells. Most rifles had laser-aiming devices on their muzzles, a thin line of red light would tell the bullets where to go. The Delta guys were all wearing Nightvision goggles as well. The SEALs were carrying their standard assortment of weapons, water proof M-16s mostly, with a couple shotguns as back ups. The DSA guys were all sporting Uzis, including Fox. Only Martinez was unarmed.

     Fox also had an unusual communications device connected to his Fritz helmet. About the size of a Nokia cell-phone, with tiny headphones and a microphone built-in right above his chin strap, it was called a UPX, for a universal personal communicator. The UPX was a highly classified piece of equipment. It could contact anyone, anytime, anywhere on the planet either by phone, high-band radio, e-mail, or even instant messaging. It could send and receive digital photo images. It could send and receive voice mail. It also served as a GPS device. It was obvious to the team that Fox was the type of guy who had to be plugged in at all times. His UPX would see plenty of action in the hours to come. Ryder and Gallant found a narrow pathway leading into the jungle. Putting down their NightVision goggles, they plunged right in. This was very thick undergrowth around them: bean leaf plants, azore vines, and kantaki, a small thorn covered bush that grew just about everywhere in the Philippines. Martinez and Fox went in right behind them. The Delta operators came next. Behind them the DSA guards, still a little too well-dressed for the terrain, but plowing forward, jaws tight, shades in place, even at night. Bringing up the rear were the half-dozen SEALs. Soon enough they found themselves having trouble keeping up. The team moved swiftly, Ryder and Gallant setting the pace. The prospect of finding Kazeel and getting home was too much for them to go anything but full-out. The island was about six miles long, but just three miles wide. It was about two miles to the center, their first and hopefully only destination. The jungle was exactly the green hell it appeared to be from the beach though. The terrain was a nightmare, nothing was flat or straight. The path, centuries old perhaps, turned into an obstacle course of fallen trees, sinkholes, and narrow but rapidly rushing rivers. The jungle canopy overhead was as thick as anything they put on top of Ocean Voyager; it was a true horror as viewed through the Nightscopes. Every once and while they would see birds the size of pterodactyls glide over their heads. Screeches that seemed to be coming from other Jurassic-type creatures also shook the night. It took them all of an hour, but finally they’d reached a small clearing just about in the center of the island. The team finally stopped and caught its collective breath, all except Fox, who was still talking into his UPX device. He’d been using it continually throughout the dash to this place, keeping those on the other end apprised of the team’s progress, though always doing so out of earshot of the others. Even now, Fox moved a good distance away from the others to have his hushed conversation. Ryder and Gallant finally stepped into the clearing, Martinez, a few paces behind. They began sniffing the air. They got a nose full of jungle stink in return, but detected something else too. Burnt rubber, seared metal, the unmistakable odor of aviation fuel.

     It told them one thing: an airplane had crashed nearby. A thick ring of rubber trees lay beyond the clearing. Behind them was a ridge line, which in turn led to the base of a thickly- covered mountain. Mist was spouting from its peak; it almost looked like a volcano.

     Ryder and Gallant followed their noses, Martinez and now Fox were close behind. They made their way across the clearing, through the rubber trees, down into a shallow gully, and then up the side of the ridge. It was maybe 50 feet high. Ryder and Gallant were the first to reach the top. They crawled up to its peak and looked over the other side.

     The first thing they saw was a large black metal wing, horribly twisted and sticking nearly straight up in the air. There was a long thin stream of black smoke rising above it. Directly below the wing were the guts of a cockpit, turned inside out, and smashed almost beyond recognition. Beyond it, was another twisted, misshapen wing. More smoke was rising above it. “We’re not this lucky, are we?” Gallant asked. “Why not?” Ryder replied. The site seemed to match exactly the telemetry followed from the location of the bright flash on Fox’s satellite photo. But as soon as Ryder said those words, he knew he was wrong. Adjusting his NightVision goggles, he saw large pieces of external-style jet engines, two, good-sized cargo doors and the remains of a very large tail section. Much of this was covered in charred white paint.

     Damn . . . Ryder whispered.

     This was not the B-2.

                             *                           *                           *

Night fell.

The rain stopped.

     Manila’s nightlife began heating up. Downtown certainly, but most especially in the War Zone. The neighborhood of iniquity was crowded early, strange for a week night. But there was a buzz all over the city, like something big was about to happen. Those he knew how to recognize such things could smell it in the air.

     The Impatient Parrot was busy early too. The bar out front was three deep at the real. The poon-tang rooms upstairs had a three-hour wait. The mudfights out back were already playing to overflowing crowds.

     The brothel’s owner, the man named Marcos, had woken at his usual time: 4PM. He’d finished dinner by five and was walking the floor by six. He spoke quietly with a handful of underworld associates, discussing various deals that would be going down in and around his establishment this night. Business done, he was about to enjoy his first drink of the night when he was informed that he had a very long distance phone call, which he took in his private office.

     It was from Palm Tree.

     The conversation was stern and one-sided. Marcos did all the listening. The Stingers were being assembled, packed and moved tonight, Palm Tree told him. But a crucial component was suddenly missing: Kazeel’s shuka hadn’t been seen since that morning. Moving the missiles was one thing, activating the Key was another. That could not be done without the dim-witted Uni. Like Ramosa, Marcos was being paid by Palm Tree’s government, he was reminded. If this mission was not completed, then not only would the whole affair be such an expensive, embarrassing failure, anyone connected with it would have to be silenced, Marcos and Ramosa included. If things did not change for the better quickly, they would both find themselves on a hit list to be carried out by the well-known and ruthless intelligence service of Palm Tree’s home government.

     Marcos was highly troubled by this news, he knew Palm Tree did not issue threats lightly. But as they were conversing, Marcos was scanning his crowded establishment on a bank of video monitoring screens next to his desk. And like a gift from God, he saw someone sitting deep in the shadows of the mudfight room. Bald, with many cuts and abrasions on his face and neck, trying to stay in the background, but watching the mudfight with a certain amount of glee, it was Uni, the shuka.

     And he appeared to be very drunk.

     The change came for Uni after he woke up in the ditch.

     Bleeding, battered, chilled again to the bone, he’d looked up the hill, back towards Ghost Town. The last rays of the sunset were creating weird patterns of shadows and light in the graveyards, especially streaming through the crucifixes. The shadow of a huge cross fell upon him as he raised himself from the stream. It would have been too poetic for this to be a conversion, but the vision, plus his nap, definitely gave him a different perspective on things.

     He no longer wanted anything to do with the Stingers, or Ramosa, or yachts or mini-bars. He wanted to remove himself from history, from any involvement in the Day of Falling Sparrows, in the ways of Allah. He wanted himself rid of Kazeel’s ghost. He was interested in doing just one thing: resuming his search for the Impatient Parrot.

     And this time he found it, just after the evening’s shower drenched him again, washing his clothes in the process. Clear headed or clear conscience, he found the War Zone, turned this corner then that corner and boom! there it was, that psychedelic neon sign which to Uni meant "the place where girls fought in the mud." Why here? Because it was here that he’d last felt safe, before the Crazy Americans broke in and started all this new trouble.

     Getting into the brothel wet was no problem. Everyone was wet in Manila tonight. He’d made his way through the crowd, using money stolen from the Buddha man to buy not a glass of champagne, but of whiskey -- the taste he’d acquired the night before. He found a seat in the rear of the back room, and settled down to forget everything else.


     He watched many mud fights, staring over the smaller people in front, laughing as they leered, drinking whiskey like it was milk. He could live here, he decided after his third drink. Just drink whiskey, sit in the back and watch girls wrestle in the mud. That was his Paradise. He would have to eat though eventually -- that might be a problem. Did this place serve food? Did they have mini-bars here?

     It was as if the Devil himself heard him, for at that moment he saw two more girls making their way across the back room, one of them was holding a huge frying pan with something smoking and sizzling inside.

     They stepped over and around the businessmen who were close to the mud pit, eyeing Uni while trying to keep the huge pan level. He was hungry -- back when things were normal he used to eat as much as six times a day. The girls indicated that they were indeed heading his way -- they were moving in a dreamlike fashion, almost as if they were in slow-motion. Maybe as a newcomer he was entitled to a free meal here? Uni did didn’t know, but the combination of the whiskey sours and his long ordeal in the past 24 hours, had his stomach aching for food.

     The two girls reached him. They were even prettier than the two rolling around in the mud -- and that was a milestone for Uni, brought on, he was sure by the alcohol, because he’d never graded women before in his life, simply because they’d never interested him. But these two girls were raven hair beauties, wearing short white dresses, and smiles a mile wide, almost like angels. The frying pan was not only hot, it was absolutely sizzling. He sat up straight, hoping this might be lamb curry and cabbage his favorite dish. The two girls never stopped smiling.

     Uni drunkenly pointed to himself with both thumbs , as if to ask: "For me?"

     Both girls nodded. "It sure is," one replied. "Big time, Joe."

     With that, she lifted the large sizzling skillet, and with a form rivaling a MLB player, gave it a mighty swing and hit Uni square in the face.



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