AIR FORCE TWO WAS MISSING!
When last contacted, Air Force Two, with the vice president of the United States aboard, was flying high over the Philippine jungle.
On board was not only the vice president, but the "football" that gave him the power to initiate nuclear war. For in Washington, D.C., the U.S. President lay dying.
At the newly reconstituted Clark Air Base, the orders went out: Air Force Two, aloft or downed, had to be found. The vice president, alive or dead, had to be brought back.
The hunt was on. The race against time and the ultimate terror had begun … in an action-packed military thriller of supersonic suspense and explosive excitement—
"The Author's experience and expertise is very evident throughout the book."– Amazon Review
FIRST CHAPTER: Fifteen miles south of Bagio City, Philippine Islands
Cervante watched the road, waiting for the convoy, and wondered what it felt like to die.
Lying on a tightly braided grass mat, he had wedged himself far enough back from the crest to make himself invisible from below. Propped in front of him, between the roots of a towering tree, his AK-47 had a direct line of shot to any point on the road. It was the only direction that Cervante could see for more than two feet without being smothered by the dense jungle.
A fine mist filled the air, pushing the humidity up so high he thought he would have to pull out a machete and chop his way through it. Broad leaves collected the mist, pooling the liquid into thimble-sized drops before the weight of the water became too great for the leaf to hold. Thousands of such leaves filled the jungle; together, they produced a symphony of random drips. Birds chattered high up in the trees, adding to the cacophony. Cervante couldn't hear any other sounds as he waited for the convoy.
He shifted his weight on the mat. An array of grenades hanging from his belt poked him in the thigh; he wiggled to push them out of the way, and soon was comfortable again.
Water drenched Cervante, but he had grown used to it as he waited for the precise moment to strike, as if he were the feared habu, the stealthy jungle snake that struck without warning.
A faint sound caught his attention. It came from below, channeled down the foliage-canopied road like a whistle blast through a pipe. Cervante grew alert. The birds stopped chirping, leaving only the eerie sound of splashing water.
He crept forward by pulling himself on his elbows. As he gripped the AK-47, he swung the automatic rifle back and forth across the road, ensuring latitude in his view. The sound grew louder: the unmistakable roar of trucks, the groaning of diesel engines as they chugged up the mountain road. The road narrowed to one lane just around the bend. He knew the drivers would be using parabolic mirrors, set by the curve, to see if any vehicles would be approaching from the opposite direction.
Cervante could not hear his compatriots, but he knew that around him three dozen men were preparing for the attack. The fine wires that led to patches on the road, plastique, were the sole signs of the men's presence.
Cervante wished he had situated himself closer to the young man Barguyo—a boy no older than fourteen—who would throw the switch and detonate the explosives when the armored personnel carrier appeared; but Cervante had too many items to take care of, and not enough of himself to go around.
It was the hardest lesson he had to learn: assigning responsibilities to the Huks and allowing them to work alone. It was a far cry from the way things used to be, but their ability to strike bigger targets, penetrate deeper into the establishment, had increased tremendously.
Cervante was no longer a one-man operation, and the lessons pounded into him in the training camps north of the South Korean border would meet its first big test today. If the Huks were going to survive and turn things around, it had to start now. They had to strike the Philippine Constabulary at the very heart of its operation and steal the weapons that had been tapped to ferret out the Huks.
Cervante could now make out the sounds of individual vehicles. The engine running at high gear had to be the jeep that preceded the convoy. It would be well ahead of the main body, and it should soon pass. The deeper roar came from troop and supply trucks, belching black smoke and grinding their gears in an attempt to climb the four-thousand-foot rise to Bagio City. Cervante wiggled to his side and pulled up five grenades. He left three hanging on his belt, in case the group had to flee back into the jungle and use the explosives for a makeshift booby trap.
Seconds passed. Cervante blinked away perspiration that dripped into his eyes. It sounded as if the jeep were right on top of them.…
The vehicle pulled around the bend. Five men sat in the overloaded jeep, rifles held loosely. All but the driver smoked cigarettes. The jeep took the corner recklessly, eliciting wild laughter from the passengers. The soldiers knew they were near their base. It was just the state of mind Cervante had hoped for: If the convoy's commanding officers were jocular, then the troops would be in a similar vein.
When the jeep disappeared from view, Cervante's grip on his rifle tightened. The humidity continued to bear down on him; sweat rolled off his nose, but aside from an occasional wipe to remove the perspiration, Cervante focused on the road. Waiting.
A puff of black smoke gave the first troop truck away. As it rounded the curve, the driver honked its horn to warn approaching vehicles of its presence. The truck lurched; a grinding sound came from the vehicle as the driver shifted to a lower gear. There would be more trucks, and Cervante had to wait for the precise one—too soon, and the convoy would combine forces and flush the Huks out; too late, and the convoy would speed up to outrun the ambush.
Another truck passed, full of PC—the Filipino Philippine Constabulary troops, heading for their home base.
Cervante counted the tenth truck before he decided. The driver had just put his cigarette back in his mouth and expelled a cloud of smoke when Cervante pulled the trigger.
The windshield shattered into a thousand pieces. Gunfire erupted everywhere, enveloping the once peaceful jungle in a barrage of white noise.
The truck veered wildly and flipped off the side of the road. It barreled through the brush and disappeared. Screams came from all around. The next truck did not have a chance to slow down. Blasts of gunfire peppered the air. The truck somehow managed to weave along the narrow road, then drove into the side of the mountain.
Cervante rammed a new cartridge of bullets into the AK-47, throwing the spent package to the side. He continued to pump bullets at the next truck. Soldiers leapt from the truck and scurried down the hillside; those who stopped to take aim at Cervante's unseen companions were mowed down in a barrage.
Nothing came from up the road—the small PC contingent that had turned back to assist had encountered gunfire from the Huks stationed on the hill.
Cervante waited for a full ten heartbeats before yelling the order to search the vehicle, but an armored personnel carrier crept around the bend. Bullets ricocheted off the vehicle. Cervante wet his lips. He hoped that the boy Barguyo would not hurry, would wait until the precise moment.…
The APC stayed in its lowest gear, grinding up the steep roadway and firing bursts from an exterior gun mount. As the vehicle crept over the wires in the road, the plastique exploded. The APC lifted slightly off the ground, then stopped moving.
Cervante struggled to his feet, pulling the AK-47 up with him. He flung himself down the slope and raced to the APC. Smoke billowed from underneath the vehicle. Muffled screams came from the APC's interior. As Cervante moved to the vehicle, Huks started pouring out from the jungle. The men clutched various types of rifles and ranged in age from preteen to late middle-aged.
Cervante pulled a grenade from his side. He snapped at the men still coming from the jungle. "Quickly, the supply truck!" He pointed with the grenade to the truck that had careened into the side of the hill.
Dropping his rifle, Cervante scrambled on top of the armored vehicle. He tried to open the APC hatch, but when the access did not give, he pushed his foot against the lever and kicked; the hatch barely creaked open. He pulled the grenade pin with his teeth.
A voice wailed from the vehicle in Tagalog: "Mother Maria, please help me!"
Cervante tossed the grenade into the APC, then leaped to the ground, running. When he was thirty feet from the APC, a muffled explosion rocked the area; the screaming inside the vehicle stopped.
A horn beeped down the road.
Seconds later, a truck driven by a Huk sympathizer roared into view. The old man driving the truck slammed on his brakes at the sight of the smoking armored personnel carrier. Cervante motioned at the man.
"Pompano! Get as close to the truck as you can."
As Pompano crept forward, Cervante huffed up to the supply vehicle.
Two Huks threw wooden crates from the truck. Some cracked open, spilling bullets and rifles. Pompano positioned his truck, and a line of men quickly filled it with crates.
Cervante pulled himself inside the PC supply truck and made a quick scan for anything they should take. Several large crates caught his eye. He felt his pulse quicken at the prospect of finding some heat-seeking missiles. As he scrambled over the jumble of crates, he made out stenciled lettering written in English:
United States Army
Battlefield High-Power Microwave Weapon
Caution: Capacitors May Carry High Voltage!
The boy Barguyo stuck his head in the back of the truck: "Hurry, we are ready!"
Cervante pulled himself up. The gunshots grew louder. The Huks had taken nearly all the supplies … yet this "high-power microwave" device intrigued him. He snapped out, "Quickly, get me some help—we must take this with us."
Moments later, Cervante was sitting in the rear with his comrades. Their spirits were high, and understandably so: they had commandeered bullets, rifles, and enough supplies to last the band of Huks six months. The truck bounced as it sped down the winding mountain road.
Cervante rummaged through the crates. Every new find heightened his elation: ammunition, food packets, medical supplies.
Finally, he pulled out a thick manual. Written in English with large print, the title read:
User's Manual for United States Army Battlefield High-Power Microwave
Situation Room, White House
The Cabinet secretaries stood as President Longmire hobbled in, escorted by his nurse. The President entered with his head bent. Clear tubes emanated from his nostril and a bottle of oxygen trailed behind him.
Vice President Adleman watched from the oval table, reaching out a hand as the President approached. Once strong hands grasped the vice president's. Adleman spoke in a low voice. "Are you all right?"
President Longmire waved Adleman aside as he sat. "Let's get on with it." Then, wearily, "Take it, will you, Cyndi? Go ahead and start."
A tall, dark-haired woman nodded to the President as she pushed back her chair and stood. Wearing a dark suit with skirt, white blouse and subdued jewelry, Cyndi Fount strode to the front of the chamber and waited in front of the wall-sized monitor. She seemed to command respect, with a no-nonsense presence and an unsmiling face. As Director of the CIA, Cyndi had ruled the Agency with an iron fist, turning the Ivy League Mafia with their numerous escapades into one of the most efficiently run government organizations.
Vice President Robert Adleman leaned back in his chair and tapped his fingers, waiting for the President to return Cyndi's glance. He studied the CIA Director: quiet, efficient, slim—no, lithe was the word. The word seemed to convey a willowiness, an exotic character.
The President waved a feeble hand. "Go on, Cyndi."
A slide appeared on the TV monitor; a drawing of an eagle's head with the words central intelligence agency blocked in blue filled the screen.
"Mr. President, no changes in status since yesterday." The screen behind her flashed with locations, numbers, and mnemonics, listing local operations and operatives. She ran through a quick update of the usual hot spots of activity.
Adleman continued to tap his fingers as Cyndi spoke in clipped sentences.
There were no surprises here. He had seen a "talking paper" on the briefings just a half hour earlier, and skimmed through the presentations to be given by Intelligence, Defense, and State. He made a point of staying on top of everything. He strived to anticipate the direction that events would take and have a contingency ready just in case. His enthusiasm was infectious, and his staff was ready to follow him off a cliff if necessary—and not because of his good looks or his longish blond hair. Rather, he radiated charisma, fueled by a seemingly boundless supply of energy.
He quickly reviewed his events scheduled for that day. Church socials, supermarket openings, and press interviews weren't the most exciting activities, but he was grooming an image, one of competence and élan to get the job done. Everything would fall into place with sufficient exuberance. It was a sure mark of presidential material to look beyond the mundane duties of the Vice-Presidency, and strive to excel in those same mundane responsibilities.
Adleman almost missed Cyndi's concluding remarks, but her inflection pulled him out of his thoughts.
"Although the last item isn't part of the Agency's agenda, I feel that it has a propensity to affect our operatives and thus deserves your attention."
President Longmire coughed violently, expelling fluid. His nurse hastily wiped up the majority of the spittle. He wheezed and motioned for the CIA Director to continue.
Adleman raised his eyebrows at the exchange. The President's health had worsened lately, contrary to the glowing reports given to the press. Adleman pressed his lips together as Cyndi concluded her briefing.
"The lease extension to cover our military bases in the Philippines runs out at the end of the next calendar year. The extension was originally granted a few years after we re-opened Clark Field and Subic Naval Station, but there has been no progress since then on a permanent treaty. The administration has being going round and round on this for years, and—"
"Mr. President, Ms. Fount is correct. This is a matter for State," interrupted Francis Acht, "and not the CIA."
Adleman bit his lip at the exchange. Like everyone else in the room, he thought that Secretary Acht was an egotistical boor—but the man knew his stuff and would win any altercation. Many despised his demeanor yet respected his insight.
Longmire spoke quietly, plunging the room into silence so his words could be understood. "Please continue, Cyndi."
Acht promptly shut his mouth. The CIA Director continued without breaking stride.
"The United States has been debating the Philippine question for several years now, Mr. President. We have reason to believe that the leases will not be extended. The Filipinos will play hardball, just as they did when they kicked us out in the '90s. I don't have to go into the implications of the importance of the lease—losing the Philippines as a staging area will not only result in degrading our ability to project naval and air power, but will adversely affect our intelligence operations in the Far East. That is my concern."
Acht tapped a pencil on the table. The sound echoed around the chamber and focused attention on the Secretary of State. "It more than threatens our military options in the Far East, Mr. President. It affects the entire Pacific Rim, the security of a hemisphere. If something happens in the South China Sea, especially with the way the Chinese have been so territorial, it's not a sure bet that we will come out on top. Maintaining our bases there is a critical necessity—the threat to the U.S. would probably not be an immediate military one, but something just as drastic, and probably not even geopolitical, but economic.
"The Pacific Rim is following Japan's lead, jockeying to dominate world economy," said Acht warily. "Aside from China, Malaysia, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, New Guinea, and even Australia have all jumped on the bandwagon. Without a strong U.S. presence in the Philippine Islands, we would lose our economic foothold and become a mere player—and an outsider." He paused. "I concur with Ms. Fount's concern, but for a farther-reaching reason. As for how to do it," he shrugged, "I haven't a clue. We can't even keep our fighter aircraft there now for more than a few months at a time."
Silence; then, over wheezing: "What do you propose, Cyndi?"
"Immediate Cabinet-level negotiations. Negotiations in good faith and at a high level, to let the Filipinos know that we take them seriously."
Vice President Adleman interrupted. "She's got a good point, Mr. President. The usual channels have been stalled for years. We've tried shipping more military aid to the Philippine forces—the PC, or Philippine Constabulary, they call it—in an attempt to free the logjam. Fifty million dollars over the last year."
Another voice spoke up, that of General Newman, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. "That's an increase of twenty million, if you remember, Mr. President—the House upped the ante."
Secretary Acht swung his attention to the general. "Was that for new weapons, Dave?"
General Newman shook his head. "No, Sir. Mostly supplies—ammunition, rifles, that sort of thing. The only new item we sent them was an HPM weapon—high-power microwave."
Adleman's eyebrows rose. "Why did we give them an HPM device?"
"We've had them in the field for years now. Besides, HPMs are only good against a certain class of targets—electronics, mines. And they're relatively short-ranged; the type we sent them isn't effective past five hundred yards. The Philippine Constabulary will only be able to use them to detonate land mines, but it still impresses the hell out of the Filipinos. It's a psychological coup: They are convinced we're giving them our state-of-the-art equipment, and in return they've given us leeway on extending the leases of our bases."
Acht nodded. "Good move, if it works."
President Longmire paused. "Cyndi, you said the negotiations should proceed at the Cabinet level.…" He moved his head and squinted at Adleman. "Bob, what do you think?"
Adleman straightened; his mind clicked into high gear, assimilating events from the past few days. "She's right, Mr. President. Decisive negotiations—and I'd go even higher: I'm probably the one that should sign the deal. We should push this now, take the bull by the horns and demonstrate to the Philippine government that this is one of our top priorities. Regardless of what we've said in public, the bases are too important to lose. Sending anyone below me to open the talks would be a slap in their face."
The Secretary of State placed his elbows on the table and extended his hands. "No high-level emissary has negotiated with the Philippines since Madame Aquino's visit decades ago. Even our negotiation of reopening Clark and Subic was at the assistant secretary level. Properly briefed, Mr. Adleman could use his position to tilt the scales in our favor, wrap up a new treaty, and ensure our foothold in the Far East until the end of the century."
Longmire coughed again. He motioned with his hand to Adleman. "Bob, have Francis' people get you up to speed on the lease arrangements. Let's get you out there within three weeks."
He turned to General Newman, weakly. "How does that fit with the aid the Philippine Constabulary is getting, Dave?"
"They've got more than enough to last them, Sir." He cracked a grin. "Bullets, rifles, blankets—you name it. And like I said, there's nothing for them to use the HPM weapon against, anyway."
Camp John Hay
Bagio, Philippine Islands
The Philippine Constabulary officer tapped a pencil on his desk. The damned Huks, he thought. How do they keep doing this? But he knew the answer—information was the most abundant commodity on the black market. They had stolen one truck—ten percent of the total convoy. And from only one convoy out of ten. Which meant the Huks now had one percent of the total military aid given by the U.S. government.
The amount was miniscule, and a greater percentage of the aid would be missing during the next year from pilfering. The only missing item that disturbed the officer was the high-power microwave weapon. It was one out of five that the U.S. had sent.
The officer knew the percentages. And he also knew what had happened to the last officer who had commanded a unit that the Huks had raided.
He didn't want to be a scapegoat.
He stopped tapping his pencil. The PC Commandant would never learn of the missing truck. Men were constantly being killed during PC exercises, so that could be explained … even though seventeen dead men was an unusually high number.
What the PC commander didn't know wouldn't hurt him.