Don Pendleton Death Minus Zero (Stony Man)

ISBN 13: 9780373804535

Death Minus Zero (Stony Man)

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9780373804535: Death Minus Zero (Stony Man)

When innocence is under attack, the Stony Man teams are primed to hit the battlefield. Operating under the President's orders, the world's best black ops warriors and cyber techs are willing to pay the ultimate price to uphold freedom.

LAST DEFENSE

Washington goes on full alert when Chinese operatives kidnap the creator of a vital US defense system, a top secret orbiting platform. Tracking the missing scientist to the Swiss Alps, Phoenix Force has to rescue the captive before torture forces him to give up the platform's secrets—putting millions of lives at risk. While Phoenix Force is overseas, Able Team uncovers a plot to take over the system's mission control facility. Both teams are outnumbered and outgunned, but they'll do whatever it takes to stop America's enemies from holding the entire country hostage.

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About the Author:

Don Pendleton

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Virginia

As he did every morning, Saul Kaplan stepped out of his town house and approached the waiting car. As he also did every day, he dropped his briefcase on the seat, climbed inside and took his place in the vehicle. The driver, a uniformed US Air Force sergeant, waited until Kaplan was settled. He glanced in the rearview mirror.

"Morning, Doc," Sergeant Steven Kessler greeted Kaplan.

"Good day, Steven. I think it is going to be a pleasant day."

"You sit back and enjoy the ride, Doc."

Kaplan smiled at the title he had been awarded by those he worked with. In truth Saul Kaplan was neither a professor nor a doctor, though he had been granted honorary degrees as he'd risen through the levels. But he barely recognized them and refused to use the titles; he recognized his skills in his chosen profession and was happy simply to develop his craft, seeing no advantage to having paper titles. Kaplan saw no need for aggrandizement. He was simply Saul Kaplan. That was enough for him. He was at the top of his game.

Kaplan was the man who had created and designed the Zero Platform and the human technology that went with it. It was through his determination and drive that the orbiting satellite had been approved and built. His sheer persistence had pushed Zero through the seemingly insurmountable barriers initially placed in his way. The US Air Force, the branch of the American defense services that had taken on Zero, held Kaplan in great esteem. His creation had already proved itself, and Kaplan's dream had stepped away from being a flight of fancy to become a solid reality that was continuing to prove itself in more ways than even Kaplan might have envisaged. "Doc" was simply something people called him out of respect for his skill and dedication to the work he did and Kaplan accepted it in the spirit it was given.

The Zero Platform was an orbiting defensive-offensive machine providing observation and analysis, though it also carried an array of weaponry capable of offering destructive potential. Currently that ordnance comprised powerful long- and short-range explosive-warhead missiles that could be used in an aggressive manner if the United States so decided. Weapons planned for future use—laser and particle beam—were still under development, though the complexities of putting them into action was proving frustrating, especially for Saul Kaplan. He was still working out the mechanics of the weapons. His expertise was being tested to the limit as he and the Air Force techs at Zero Command spent their days wrestling with the math and the applications of the weapons. Kaplan was confident they would succeed. The Air Force, always wanting everything by tomorrow, had been forced to step back and allow Kaplan his space.

During Zero's early days the USAF had made it difficult for him, and Kaplan had walked away. His return to a full-time commitment to the Zero Project had come after an attempted takeover by rogue elements in the US and an aborted attempt by the Chinese to destroy the project. Kaplan had, in the end, come back to the fold after he had deliberated the point of his involvement with the man he knew as Matt Cooper. It had been Cooper, drawn into the affair, who'd convinced Kaplan that America would be better off having Zero and making sure it was the best. Cooper had also made the point that Doug Buchanan, the human part of Zero, had committed himself to the project and the two men needed each other. Kaplan had capitulated and had returned to the Zero group, determined to carry on his work.

Zero held state-of-the-art communication equipment and was also able to produce pinpoint, bird's-eye views of the Earth. America did not publicly announce Zero's existence and most of the nation had no idea that it was orbiting the Earth, monitoring and watching. It had, by nature, been identified, but only as an orbiting information platform. Its full operating capability had not been released. The platform served its purpose and the Air Force considered it one of their most important assets. Unfortunately, Zero's secrets had been discovered by elements within the upper echelons of the People's Republic of China, which had long harbored a desire to wrest Zero from the Americans.

Zero's attributes were controlled through a unique partnership between Zero, the machine, and Air Force Major Doug Buchanan, the human element within Zero. The uniqueness was in the coupling of man and machine via Kaplan's genius—more specifically, his creation of the biocouch that fused Zero with Buchanan.

The implants within Buchanan's cancer-ridden body allowed the man to resist his illness; the coupling kept the cancer under control while generating the symbiosis of man and machine. The biocouch constantly fed him with controlling drugs that held his cancer at bay and with regenerating elements that kept him alive and well.

Since the initial connection Zero and Buchanan had successfully operated the platform, and with each passing year the partnership had grown and proved itself on a number of occasions. Kaplan had labored ceaselessly to improve the setup, making adjustments to Zero's electronic systems as well as working on ways to reduce the advance of cancerous cells within Buchanan's system.

While Zero Command's medical team monitored Buchanan's physical well-being, Air Force psychologists watched over his mental health. Their counseling sessions found that Buchanan was handling that part of his health far better than they could have expected. They were unable to find any undue stress. No deep-rooted psychological problems. Doug Buchanan passed their probing analysis with ease, leaving them with little to do in that area.

The Crown Victoria eased away from the curb and merged with the light traffic. It was barely 7:30 a.m., the day bright and holding a sharp chill in the air. The forty-minute drive to the facility would take them out of the city and through the countryside. The drive to the Zero Command Center was something Kaplan enjoyed. A relaxing start to the day, allowing him time to gather his thoughts for what lay ahead.

The route they traveled was one of three that could be chosen. Kaplan knew alternate runs were not announced and were picked randomly just before each journey. There had been no problems with the routing since the creation of Zero Command. Sometimes, though, he wondered if the lack of anything but uniformity would lead to complacency.

The Crown Victoria cruised steadily, maintaining a smooth ride along the quiet back road. The single-lane blacktop was bordered by trees and a wide grass verge on each side. It was a pleasant run along a peaceful scene.

Until a car sped into view, swinging in close and causing Kessler to swerve to avoid a collision. The pressing closeness of the vehicle forced him to run off the road and across the grass, narrowly missing the close-standing trees. Kessler stood on the brakes, bringing the Vic to stop. Something about the intimidating presence of the other car alerted Kaplan that something was not right.

"Doc, stay in the car," Kessler said. "Let me check this out."

Kessler pushed open his door as he reached to open the glove box where he kept his service automatic.

As fast as he was, Kessler failed to stay ahead of the moment. Kaplan saw the passenger door being yanked open behind his driver, and a dark shape leaned in. Kessler stood no chance. The hand extended toward him held an automatic pistol. The weapon fired a single shot, sending a slug into the back of Kessler's head. He toppled forward, half out the open door.

Before Kaplan could react, his rear door was pulled open. A stunning shock engulfed Kaplan's body. His whole body went into a violent series of spasms. He fell back across the seat, body arching in reaction to the paralyzing agony that swept over him. He was barely aware of the hands reaching in to pull him out of the car. Or of the sharp jab of a needle into his neck. The powerful sedative worked quickly and Kaplan lost all conscious thought and feeling...

When the vehicle failed to arrive as expected, an alert was initiated. Although fitted with a tracking device, no sign of the Air Force car could be found. Electronic searches detected nothing; the tracking device was not working. Search vehicles were sent out from the Zero Command Center. They followed each route, in reverse, but found no sign of the vehicle until almost two hours after it had disappeared.

Just after 9:40 a.m., a member of the public spotted the abandoned car and contacted the local police. It was in a stand of trees off the single-lane rural road that made up one of the routes. Once the Air Force designation on the vehicle was seen, the AF was informed and the car checked out. It was quickly identified as the missing vehicle that had been transporting Saul Kaplan.

Air Force Sergeant Steven Kessler's body lay half out of his driver's seat, the door open. He had been shot in the head. A single bullet, later identified as a 9 mm, had been fired into the back of his skull.

The rear door of the car was open, as well. Saul Kaplan was missing. As was the briefcase that he always carried with him.

Agent Claire Valens had been on the security team assigned to the Zero Project at the time there had been an attempt to sabotage it in its early existence. She had seen her partner, Jackson Byrd, killed in front of her eyes during that incident. She had been actively involved in Zero security ever since, over the years moving up the promotion ladder and now heading the Zero security team that worked alongside the Air Force at Zero Command. She knew Saul Kaplan well, having forged a good working relationship with the man, and on hearing he had vanished she put herself on standby. Valens, along with her partner, Larry Brandon, drove out from the Zero Command Center and headed for the location.

Valens was already getting a feeling of déjà vu. Since the first attempt at disrupting Zero, the sensation of something similar happening had stayed in Valens's memory. It had fueled her desire to make certain the project was never compromised again. Up until now her fears had been nothing more than shadows—but the possibility of Saul Kaplan having been kidnapped was starting to raise those shadows. Valens found the resurgence of memories unsettling.

Agent Brandon drove fast but safely. He was a couple of years younger than Valens, in his early thirties. He was a good partner and Valens counted herself lucky to have him siding her. He knew all there was to know about the original incident and understood how it drove Valens to maintain tight security around the Zero Command Center. The last thing he would ever do was to remind her of what had happened before. He didn't need to, because he was aware how Valens reminded herself on a regular basis.

"I can't believe this is happening again," Valens said.

"Is it the same?"

"Saul is missing. Work it out, Larry. The car didn't crash. It was stopped. Steve Kessler took a bullet in the head and Saul Kaplan is missing."

"So, who?"

"The original conspirators were all dealt with," Valens said. "At home the threat vanished but."

"The Chinese?"

"I don't believe they've forgotten about Zero. The Chinese are good at playing the long game. Watching and waiting. They'll know that Zero performs as it was designed to. And as long as it does, it presents them with a perceived threat. Let's face it—what country wouldn't like a piece of hardware like Zero? It would be a hell of a prize."

"It's not like they can just walk in and take over," Brandon said. "Zero is an orbiting platform in space."

"Saul Kaplan is not in space. And taking him would be something the Chinese could go for. And maybe even a hit against Zero Command. Cripple the nerve center. Do that and if they can gain control of Zero... " Valens shook her head. "Larry, do I sound like some gibbering conspiracy nut? Because that's what I'm feeling like. Right now I'm having a nightmare in broad daylight."

"After what happened last time, I couldn't blame you."

Brandon swung the car off the narrow road onto the side strip and pulled in beside a local police cruiser. The area was busy with cruisers and Air Force vehicles. Crime scene tape was strung out from tree to tree, and a collection of police and military personnel milled around.

"Great," Brandon said. "The circus is in full swing."

Valens had her ID out as she climbed from the car, clipping it to her belt. "Agent Valens."

Valens saw a broad-shouldered man approaching. He was average height, in his mid-forties, his receding hair peppered with gray. He was a local cop named Jerry Zeigler. He and Valens had met before. He wasn't deliberately obstructive but harbored a slightly abrasive attitude toward the agencies that stepped in and took over, pushing the local PD aside. He didn't take too kindly when it happened, so Valens tried to maintain a professional presence whenever she met Zeigler.

"Detective," she said, offering her hand, which Zeig-ler took.

Zeigler glanced at Brandon. "You brought your backup, I see."

Valens smiled. "Agent Brandon is my partner. And, yes, he has my back."

A thin smile curled Zeigler's lips. "I'll refrain from making any inappropriate comments on that," he said.

"What can you tell us?" Valens said. "Seeing as you've been here a while."

"Only because the original call was made to us. But there's not much more than you can see. One of your vehicles. Uniformed Air Force man shot dead. I was informed by your people there was a passenger. He's missing. A preliminary search hasn't turned up anything, so I guess the passenger has been removed from the area."

Valens checked out the place. A spot off the road where trees and foliage helped to mask the site. A smooth operation could have been mounted and completed quickly on the quiet stretch before anyone was aware.

"They chose a good spot. Away from the main highway. Pretty quiet. Whoever it was, they were well prepared. All nicely worked out. Must have worked fast."

Brandon had gone to talk to the investigative team near the Crown Victoria. Valens saw him check inside the car before he returned to where she was standing.

"It's Steve Kessler," he said. "Bullet to the back of his head. No sign of any struggle in the back."

"Passenger some kind of VIP?" Zeigler asked.

"Yes," Valens answered.

"That it?"

"I'm not at liberty to give out that information. Sorry."

"Oh, I know," Zeigler said. "Classified, huh?"

"If I was able, I'd tell you, Detective Zeigler..."

"It's Jerry."

"If I was able, I'd tell you, Jerry...?'' Zeigler glanced at Brandon. "Is she always this hard-nosed?"

"Actually, you've caught her on a good day," Brandon said. "No fingers missing, are there?"

"I can believe she bites if provoked."

Valens's cell rang. She moved away to answer it, knowing it was Zero Command by the caller ID on the screen.

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Pendleton, Don
Editore: Gold Eagle
ISBN 10: 0373804539 ISBN 13: 9780373804535
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ISBN 10: 0373804539 ISBN 13: 9780373804535
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