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Acid Test

The American hadn't moved. Barely breathed. He'd been crouching on the cold desert ground for nine hours and forty minutes, and a light film of khaki-colored dust coated his boots, jeans, leather bomber jacket, even his hair and face. Just like the bloody aborigines, thought Major Edward Linden of the Australian Defence Force --- he'd seen native hunters stay in that same intense, trancelike state for hours, even days.

As the first shafts of sunlight touched the rock mountaintops in the distance, reflecting pink and gold onto the salt flats below, Special Agent Matt Wilder snapped off the tiny infrared video monitor at his feet. His sudden movement startled Linden, who had cramps in his legs and back and needed to piss so bad he could taste it. He wondered how Wilder had remained so focused. They were both thirty-three, six feet tall; they could almost pass for brothers. Although Linden considered himself a fucking specimen, Wilder's feat of concentration vastly exceeded his endurance. Turning, he spoke into the bullet-sized microphone clipped to his collar: "Stand down, mates."

Six young Defence Force troops in camouflage fatigues --- two sharpshooters, an electronic surveillance expert, and three strike-force Commandos --- appeared from behind the scruffy vegetation to groan and stretch. Two more of Linden's Commandos --- big, tough bastards --- were inside a cluster of windowless, bunkerlike concrete buildings. He'd put them there as a greeting party, in case anyone managed to slip through the outside perimeter. In unison, the men outside lined up to relieve themselves along a twelve-foot-high chain-link fence separating the buildings from the salt flats. Some passed around cigarettes while others took vacuum bottles of coffee from their packs. Linden pissed and smoked by himself, apart from the enlisted men, and he scowled when Wilder walked over to them.

"Morning, sir," a Commando said. "Cup a coffee?"

"Yeah, thanks."

Having arrived yesterday, Wilder's body was still on Washington time --- fourteen hours behind local time. He scooped a handful of water from a fifty-five-gallon metal drum next to the fence and sniffed it. Satisfied at its relative purity, he submerged his entire head. The Australians looked at each other, amused --- the Yank was definitely not your typical officer. Wilder held his head under water until the fog of fatigue lifted, then ran his fingers through his hair and took a plastic cup of lukewarm coffee from the Commando. He smiled and listened to the Defence Force kids laughing and joking; after the long, uncomfortable stakeout he appreciated their lively camaraderie and the new light of dawn. Remembering his first years in the Air Force, he wondered what the men did while off duty. The choices had to be limited being dead-center of nowhere: 78,000 square miles of the undulating plateaus, salt flats, and low vegetation comprising the Woomera Prohibited Area of South Australia.

The concrete buildings on the edge of the Island Lagoon flats were part of the Woomera Instrumented Range, the most private location in the world for space, air, and ground weapons testing. For the past year designers from a joint U.S.-Australian hypersonics team had been leasing the range. Experimental aircraft components --- low-orbit thrusters, cold-burning stealth engines, and combo air-breathing/solid propellant boosters --- went from blueprint to prototype in the buildings, then were moved to the testing area on large, specially modified semis.

"Back out at sunset, looks like," Linden said, walking over to Wilder. He didn't look forward to another night in the desert.

"Next time you should tighten the perimeter," Wilder said. "Put some additional surveillance on the back of the buildings."

"Look, Wilder, we went over this last night. They're concrete. Solid. Anyone wants in, they'd have to go in here, or up there." He pointed at the front entrance and at the roof.

Wilder understood Linden's resentment --- the American and Australian brass made it clear the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations would do nothing more than observe this operation. Although American personnel first detected the earlier infiltrations, and the prototypes at Woomera included some sensitive new technology from the States, the Aussies had home-turf advantage. They would plug the security leak.

Linden turned to his men. "Get to the jeeps"; Then he radioed for the two Commandos still inside the building. "MacGregor, Ahearn; let's hustle."

The men outside began walking to their jeeps, hidden near the test area, but Wilder stared expectantly at the building's doors --- the other two should've come out by now. He shot a look at Linden, who was thinking the same thing. Linden tried the radio again.

"MacGregor? Who copies inside?"

No answer. Wilder pulled his nine-millimeter Sig Sauer P226 from its holster and started toward the entrance. The men instantly fell silent.

"Two by two, follow me," Linden said, then turned to Wilder. "You're bringing up the rear."

Wilder snapped the safety off the Sig. AR-15s set to three-shot bursts, the platoon moved cautiously, single-file, toward the buildings. Linden held his hand up to halt their movement, then made sharp movements to the left and right to indicate they spread out. He crawled knees and elbows the last ten yards and paused at the orange-painted metal door. Listened. Nothing. He reached up, tried the handle. Locked. No surprise --- he'd bolted it himself nine hours ago. He glanced over at Wilder, who shrugged: It's your show, bro.

Linden slipped the key into the lock and turned it. A tall Commando everyone called Farm Boy, with Clark Gable ears and an overbite, stepped forward to assist. Linden pushed the door open a quarter of an inch and they heard a whoosh of air --- the building's air supply was filtered and the atmospheric pressure kept slightly higher inside than outside to minimize dust contamination. While Farm Boy held the door in position, Linden took a dentist's mirror from his belt kit and ran it along the cracked door, searching for tripwires. Satisfied, he took the handle from Farm Boy, gestured him to step back, and opened the door. No explosion, so they went inside.

Except for a few halogen task lights on the desks and worktables, the windowless building was dark, and nothing seemed disturbed since last night. Linden gestured to proceed and the Commandos came forward in pairs. One pair checked the offices and cubicles to the left, one went to the large assembly area to the right, and one stuck with Linden. No one spoke.

Wilder, entering last, immediately sensed something that gave him the creeps. A smell, he decided, sharp and coppery.

"Oh, Jesus!" A startled, shit-scared voice, coming from the assembly area.

Wilder and Linden were the first ones through the double doors. The voice belonged to Farm Boy. He and his partner, a short, tough Tasmanian with black hair and thick, connecting eyebrows, stood paralyzed at the edge of a twenty-by-forty-foot room with a high ceiling. Around the perimeter were long metal construction tables supporting prototype jet engines in various stages of completion.

In stark contrast to the white linoleum floor, a twenty-foot-wide russet puddle slowly expanded toward the feet of Farm Boy and his partner. It came from MacGregor and Ahearn, the two Commandos positioned inside. They'd been bound back to back and hung by their ankles from a block and tackle used to move jet engines. A small, neat slit had been made in each of their jugulars, right below their ears, and with each pump of their hearts thick ribbons of blood spurted from the holes. Normally, such a wound would be fatal in moments, but being upside down gravity continued to supply blood to their brains. Their bodies would have to drain dry before they lost consciousness and died.

"Mother a God, get 'em down, quick!" Linden shook with fury.

The Commandos moved forward to help their comrades, walking carefully on the linoleum floor made slippery from the blood.

Wilder, saddened and disgusted, remembered how he'd sat next to Ahearn in the jeep during the ride from base and the kid had excitedly told him about his upcoming marriage.

"This just happened, maybe five minutes ago," he said to Linden. "Any longer they'd be bled out."

Wilder looked around the room, spotting faint bloodstains on the floor beyond the big blood puddle. Footprints. One pair. It made no sense to Wilder: How could a single man overpower two armed, highly trained Commandos and hang them up like this? He followed the footsteps, slowly. Another prickle of danger nagged at him.

Farm Boy, meanwhile, stood motionless at the edge of the bloody pool, his eyes locked with MacGregor's. His friend tried to speak, but could manage only a garbled, hissing gurgle.

Four men linked their arms and gently lifted MacGregor's and Ahearn's heads up, while others pressed squares of gauze to their wounds. Everyone knew it was too late, but they weren't going to let their mates die hung up like pigs.

Wilder paused from tracking the bloody footprints on the floor, noticing MacGregor still trying to communicate something to Farm Boy --- urgent, a warning. Linden crossed to the wall panel and lowered the block and tackle so the men could lift MacGregor and Ahearn off the hook.

"Wait!" Wilder yelled, just as they freed their feet.

A small, metallic ping was the last thing most of them heard. As they disengaged the hook, they simultaneously pulled the pin from an M-33 "baseball" antipersonnel grenade hidden between the men. Wilder knew that sound. He dove for cover behind a metal table, tackling Farm Boy as he went, then a fierce, fiery explosion enveloped everything. A jumble of blackened arms, legs, and torsos flew from the epicenter of the blast, thudding against the walls and ceiling. The explosion slammed Linden against the wall, breaking his back, and a millisecond later the heat wave hit him. Behind the table, Wilder and Farm Boy were spared the direct results of the concussion and heat blast, although the sudden, violent increase of pressure in the airtight building felt like immense hands around their bodies, intent on crushing them to death.

Woozy, Wilder tried to get to his feet, but the wind had been knocked out of him. If he'd been injured beyond that, he couldn't tell. He saw Farm Boy curled up beside him, knees to his chest, scared but alive. Horrified, he stared at the carnage, feeling utterly helpless, then crawled over to Linden, who was muttering something about getting to his boys. Wilder's ears were ringing so badly he couldn't hear him. Linden tried to pull himself toward the center of the room, but Wilder gently stopped him.

"Lie still."

He snapped a partially melted telephone handset loose from its cradle. No dial tone --- either damaged in the blast or the Infiltrator had cut the phone wires. More likely the latter. The guy was thorough, Wilder thought, going to a lot of trouble to be as ruthless and cruel as possible.

He turned back to Linden, who looked at something way beyond him and, with one resigned breath, went there. He closed Linden's eyes, crossed to Farm Boy and helped him up. Together, they limped out the front door. The sudden sunshine, fresh wind, and vast wilderness came as a shock to Wilder's senses. It seemed so clean and benign; he felt as if he'd been inside that goddamn building for a year. Shading his eyes, he scanned the area but saw no evidence of movement. The numbness and disorientation from the explosion slowly began to fade and was re-placed by a growing, gut-deep rage. He looked up at the edge of the low, flat roof.

"Boost me up."

It took a moment for Farm Boy to respond. Wilder knew the kid was freaked, but right now he needed him.

"Can't, sir. Gotta sit down. Gotta sit."

Farm Boy repeated it over and over, so Wilder shoved him against the side of the building.

"He waited till dawn to string your friends up, wanted us to find 'em alive, still bleeding, just to fuck with us. That means he's not far. You want a piece of him or not?"

Farm Boy blinked and nodded. The hope of ripping the heart from his enemy brought a little life back into his eyes. He knitted his hands together and held them at crotch level so Wilder could step up onto the roof and take in the panorama. Behind the cluster of buildings stood a sheer rock wall --- the base of an enormous mesa rising suddenly out of the flat landscape. Safe to say the Infiltrator neither came nor went from that direction.

In front of the buildings lay a twenty-one-mile-wide salt flat. On its far side, to the north and west, were the rugged, bare mountains that he first saw illuminated by the dawn, seemingly so long ago. He squinted at the featureless, tawny wasteland, wishing to hell he had binoculars. After a moment, he thought he saw something, far out on the flats, almost beyond his range of vision. Or did he? It was too early in the day and too temperate for mirages. No, it was real: a low spiral of dust from a moving vehicle.

"Out on the flats! Halfway across!"

More pressing than his desire to catch and punish the fleeing Infiltrator, Wilder needed to retrieve any top-secret information taken or photographed. He looked around for transportation, but the only candidate seemed to be the canvas-covered jeep they'd come in, parked behind the modified semis used to move the test units from the assembly area. He jumped down from the roof and ran for the jeep. Farm Boy ran along with him.

"Never catch 'em, sir. Once he makes it to the hills, he's gone. Million places to hide out there."

"I'm not gonna stay here blowing him kisses."

The test area was about half the size of a football field, empty except for some equipment at its edge and four steel-reinforced concrete pilings in its center, designed to anchor a jet or rocket engine while it ran at full throttle. Test engines and tanks of fuel sufficient for a measured burn were attached at the assembly room to two-inch-thick steel plates; one such unit sat on the flatbed of a unibody semi, its metal slab bolted to the truck bed the same way it would be attached to the pilings.

Farm Boy crossed to the troop jeep but Wilder ignored it. An idea had occurred to him ---along with a hundred reasons why he should not even consider it. He knocked on the fuel tank next to the prototype engine atop the flatbed. It had fuel inside it, but he couldn't tell how much. Not until Wilder jumped into the semi, started it, jammed it into gear, and turned it around to face the salt flats did Farm Boy realize what he planned to do.

"Bloody insane, sir!"

Wilder replied by turning the truck's motor off and putting the transmission in neutral.

"Hook up the power pack. Turn it over, then jam the throttle open."

Farm Boy helped him connect a cable from the power pack to a receptacle on the side of the engine. Starting a jet engine is not much different from starting a car: Power applied to a starting motor in conjunction with the regulation of a fuel supply gets the thing going.

As they worked, Wilder relied on his pilot's training to make some calculations. The engineers would've put exactly enough fuel in the tank for a test burn, but standard tests can run either three or four minutes. At an estimated speed of 350 miles per hour, or almost 6 miles a minute, fuel for a three-minute burn will take the rig about 17 miles out, leaving enough room --- maybe --- to stop before hitting the boulder-strewn foothills, 21 miles away. It was easy to do the math on where fuel for a four-minute burn would put it: inside a rock.

Wilder climbed back into the semi, Farm Boy flipped a switch on the power pack, and the huge jet engine on the back of the truck whined to life. He didn't know what he'd do once he reached the fleeing Infiltrator; he'd worry about that when he got there. Farm Boy shoved the fuel throttle control all the way forward and leaped out of the way. As the semi lurched forward, Wilder started the stopwatch on his Rolex to count down three minutes. The acceleration inside the cab jammed him against the back of the seat and he found it nearly impossible to keep his hands on the big, almost-horizontal steering wheel.

Trying to keep the semi on course reminded him of flying the early versions of the F-117A stealth fighter-bomber. Its nickname back then was the Wobbly Goblin; pilots complained of it being the sloppiest aircraft they'd ever flown. When the semi tore through the chain-link fence and hit the salt flats at two hundred miles per hour with a terrifying slide and yaw, Wilder knew he'd found something worse.

Fighting the shimmy of his sixteen-wheel, twenty-ton Roman candle, Wilder considered the things that might go wrong. The bolts holding the jet engine to the flatbed could shear, sending the engine-and-metal-plate unit slicing through the cab. And him. One of the axles could break, locking a set of wheels, flipping the whole rig end over end. And even though the cab and flatbed trailer were one solid unit and the tires and transmission were modified for the extreme conditions of the grueling outback, the whole machine would soon rattle apart at such high speeds . . . unless the tires exploded first. He forced the image of the dead Australians' bright young faces out of his mind and glanced at his watch. A minute had gone by and he estimated the Infiltrator's car to be about six miles --- or another minute --- away.

Boom! A tire blew, sending a shudder through the semi. Wilder clutched the wheel, reorienting the rig again toward the ever-larger cloud of dust in front of him. Then a burnt-oil smell and dark blue smoke began to fill the cab as the transmission, even in neutral, grew white hot from the bands spinning at a few hundred thousand RPM. The Infiltrator's getaway car grew close enough for him to see it --- a green Land Rover. Wilder couldn't tell at his great speed, but it was traveling at 165 miles per hour, thanks to its own modified engine, drivetrain, and oversized tires. He counted on being on top of it before the Infiltrator realized he had someone chasing him. Wilder didn't want him quickly veering off --- any attempt to turn the semi more than a few degrees in either direction would send it tumbling. He checked his watch again: two minutes, twenty-five seconds into the burn. He slowly pulled the emergency brake lever up. Against the still-burning jet engine it meant almost nothing, but he did feel a slight dampening of his speed. The brakes howled like they were being tortured, adding a new burning smell to that of the frying transmission.

Over the roar of his own engine, the Infiltrator heard the approaching jet engine and the screeching of the brakes. He glanced in his rear-view mirror, stunned at the sight of the huge truck approaching at an impossible speed. Before he could react, the front bumper of the semi hit the center of the Land Rover's rear hatch, crumpling it like a soda can and blowing its back tires out. Its shattered back end burrowed into the grille of the semi like a big hood ornament, and slowed the big rig down a bit more.

"Gotcha," Wilder muttered to himself. The front of the Rover's passenger compartment appeared intact, so its passenger was probably still alive, although he'd surely have a nasty whiplash. Sue me, he thought, and checked his watch again --- the three minutes had passed and the engine should be winding down now.

It kept running. "Big surprise," Wilder grumbled. It'd been that kind of morning.

The foothills loomed larger by the second. He unholstered his Sig, covered his face with his jacket, and shot out the windshield. The safety glass exploded into thousands of green nuggets. Driven by the wind, they peppered the inside of the cab, cutting his jacket and upraised arm. He unbuckled his seat belt and pulled himself toward the opening in the windshield. He swung his leg over the edge of the windshield frame. His eyes watered so badly from the wind he could barely see. He crouched, then jumped out onto the hood, scrambling furiously to grab the bulldog hood ornament at the top of the grille before he got blown away.

He squinted ahead at the approaching foothills, figuring he had about fifty seconds before impact. The back window of the Land Rover had been buried inside the front of the truck, so Wilder shot the Rover's glass sun-roof several times until he made a big enough hole to fit through. He clambered down the grille, grabbed a twisted hinge on the Rover's hatchback, and pulled himself onto the top of it.

A burst of machine-gun fire tore a row of holes through the roof of the Land Rover next to Wilder's head. Oh, yeah, he thought, there's a sadistic killer inside. Funny how the little details can slip your mind.

Wilder dove headfirst into the sunroof. The man tried to swing his machine pistol up again, but Wilder shot him through the back of the hand, blasting the weapon from his grasp. The Infiltrator turned and with his good hand pushed the passenger's seat sideways, bending its frame and shearing the bolts holding it to the floor. Wilder stared at him, dumbstruck. It became instantly clear how he'd overpowered the two Commandos back at the building. His demeanor was even more unsettling --- despite the fact he'd just been shot, he had a small smile on his face.

The man grabbed Wilder's forearm and shoved it up toward the roof. Dropping his Sig, Wilder caught it with his free hand. He wanted the Infiltrator alive, if possible, so he smashed him across the face with the barrel of the weapon. The blow broke the man's nose. Although this did nothing to change his calm expression, it did lessen the power of his grasp. Wilder pulled loose, swung his feet up and kicked repeatedly at him, knocking his head against the door frame. The man caught hold of Wilder's foot and twisted; Wilder cried out. Just before his bone snapped he shot the Infiltrator, taking a piece out of his left shoulder. He kicked him in the face with his other leg, again and again, until finally the man became groggy.

Wilder climbed over him, grabbed the steering wheel, and jerked it back and forth, trying to jockey the Land Rover loose from the grille of the semi. The metal groaned and creaked but would not separate. Then, finally, the jet engine stopped shrieking as its fuel ran out. Wilder frantically shook the steering wheel as the foothills continued to loom larger. With a snap a sliver of daylight appeared between the two vehicles. He jerked the steering wheel one more time and the Land Rover broke free, its blown-out back wheels digging into the dry flats. The semi slammed back into it, sending it into a spin on the slippery salt. Wilder wrestled the wheel and pumped the brakes, trying to keep the Land Rover from rolling over.

The semi tore past and plowed into the rugged foothills. It crumpled into itself like an accordion, before twisting into a mass of sharp, spectacular angles, then exploding in a boiling, black-and-orange fireball.

Spinning out of control, the Land Rover also headed for the foothills. Wilder pushed the brake pedal all the way to the floor and jammed the transmission into first. The pedal under his foot fluttered with the anti-lock braking system and the bare metal rear rims sliced into the hard, salty ground.

The Land Rover came to a stop ten feet from an outcropping of rocks.

Wilder kicked the door open and rolled out. He wobbled to his feet, Sig in his right hand, and used his left to drag the bloodied, dazed Infiltrator out of the car and shove him to the ground. He patted him down for weapons; finding a knife, he tossed it into the rocks. The Infiltrator turned, looked back the way they'd come as if hearing something. Amazingly, despite his gunshot wounds, he pushed himself into a sitting position and tried to stand.

"Don't move!"

The Infiltrator ignored him. He still had that goddamn smile on his face.

"Won't matter to my bosses whether you can walk or not. You're five seconds from losing your kneecaps."

The Infiltrator put his hands at his sides as ordered, but continued to glance over his shoulder. Wilder peered across the flats. He saw no one, and could hear nothing through the ringing in his ears beyond the semi burning in the distance and his own heart pounding. He limped over and sat on a rock, twenty feet away, and leaned his forearm on his knee. The Sig felt like it weighed a hundred pounds. Also, he didn't want the Infiltrator to see his hand shaking. He felt this way every time he came down from one of his fury-and-adrenaline-stoked episodes --- moments when nothing mattered but accomplishing his goal. They left him scared and exhausted, and he often thought this must be how the Wolfman must feel waking up the morning after a full moon.

His first good look at his enemy confirmed Wilder's guess regarding his nationality. The man, dressed in a cotton shirt and American jeans, appeared to be a hybrid of Asian, Arab, and European. Meaning, almost certainly, a citizen of the Trans-Altaic Alliance. And, Wilder presumed, one of Batu Khan's handpicked Khaldun Elite.

Wilder caught him shooting another quick glance back across the flats.

"Eyes front, shithead." Wilder wished he'd finished that cup of coffee.

Then he heard something, low and rhythmic, far in the distance --- an approaching helicopter. Farm Boy must've found a working phone and called the Defence Support Centre. He looked at the Infiltrator. How in the fuck had he heard the copter so much earlier?

His captive suddenly swung his hands up, grabbing a thin chain hanging around his neck. Snapping it taut, he pulled a small, pewter-colored medallion from beneath his shirt. The medallion was shaped like the inside of the Mercedes logo --- a three-pointed star. Each point consisted of a cylinder, two inches long and a half-inch thick, covered with an engraved design. He put one point of the star between his teeth and held the other two in his hands, then snapped them apart into three pieces.

Wilder shouted, but by the time it emerged no one remained to hear it. The separate pieces of the star --- held in mouth, left hand, and right hand --- exploded the instant they broke apart, creating three tight, modulated blasts. Wilder reeled back, scalded by the bursts of vaporized flesh, bone, and brains.

The Infiltrator's headless, handless body rolled slowly onto its back.

Excerpted from ACID TEST © Copyright 2001 by Ross LaManna. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House. All rights reserved.

Acid Test
by by Ross LaManna

  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345439929
  • ISBN-13: 9780345439925