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Art of Vengeance
by Mel McNairy

CHAPTER ONE

A computer screen inside “A” Building at Stockford Station suddenly beeped to life, causing Sparkey to instinctively roll his chair closer, then adjust his keyboard. Data began flashing across the screen faster than even the lieutenant’s practiced eyes could follow. “It lives! It lives!” Sparkey said in his best Dr. Frankenstein voice, while clasping and rubbing his hands together like a mad scientist on the brink of success.

Five feet of chain ran from his wrist to an iron plate on his desk. It allowed some freedom but also guaranteed he would always be in position whenever circumstances dictated. The information he received was never likely to alter the course of world events, but it involved some of the best-kept secrets the military had to offer.

Lieutenant Curtis, or Sparkey as the other six men on his crew called him, punched several keys on the keyboard while quietly whistling the Jetsons’ theme song.

Sergeant Kennedy turned from an array of keyboards and lights to look at his lieutenant, whose normally handsome face was now intentionally distorted to fit his mad scientist routine. Kennedy, the oldest of seven men locked inside “A” Building, chuckled, shook his head and turned back to scan the screen in front of him.

“What’ve we got tonight Sparkey?” he asked without looking away from the monitors. “Anything?”

“Well, let’s take a look,” came the reply in Lieutenant Curtis’ normal voice. He punched in the electronic combination that unlocked and opened a door on a small safe just to the left of his computer screen.

“All right gentlemen!” Sparkey said, as he finished loading the disk and reviewing their new orders. “We get to talk to the stars tonight.”

Day and night, like a giant bionic ear, the large satellite dish at the Stockford Army Station tuned in on conversations far above the earth’s atmosphere. Not verbal conversations, but digital messages between satellites and transmitters. Stockford was one of eighteen U.S. monitoring stations around the world responsible for gathering all signals transmitted to or received from any satellite orbiting the planet. These signals were fed through filters to highly advanced computers where the nature of any transmission was identified and recorded. Tonight Sparkey’s data apparently indicated that something demanded his crew’s attention.

“So we finally get to do some talkin’,” drawled a large sergeant with short cropped blond hair. With a good pinch of his favorite chewing tobacco tucked neatly in his jaw, the sergeant finished making a line on a large clear glass board in the middle of the room. There were permanent markings on the board that made up a map of some sort, but unlike any road map or atlas ever seen. Including its heavy wooden base, the glass map stood seven feet tall and was almost thirty feet long. The six- foot ten-inch Texan spit a mouthful of brown juice into an olive-green rations can, being careful to lean forward so as not to soil his crisp clean army fatigues.

“How ‘bout it, Lieutenant?” he asked, adjusting his gun belt and .45 automatic. “Anything good?”

“Hang on, Tex.” The lieutenant held up his right hand as he continued to read the orders from his screen.

In addition to the lieutenant, Tex and Sergeant Kennedy, there were two communications specialists on duty, Mark and Juan, who could be seen through the glass map, sitting at their posts while wearing their headphones. Each of the men had one side of his headset slightly off the ear so he could pick up on most of the conversations in the room.

Beside the vault-like door into the large control room sat the electronics technician. He was carefully soldering a connection on the back of a circuit board that had been pulled from its place inside one of the control boxes. Just outside the large door was a long hallway. At the end of the hall was a security desk with eight video screens displaying the views of several cameras that covered most of the angles around and in “A” Building. In addition to screening all personnel who attempted to enter the building, the lone M.P. who sat at this station was also responsible for the door alarms and the main control room.

Outside, other heavily armed military police and K-9 patrols completed the formidable Stockford security detail. Except for the large satellite antenna and the roaming guards, Stockford maintained a fairly low profile. Its four simple buildings could almost pass as one of the several Central Indiana farms in the area.

Standing in his darkened bedroom, looking over the grounds, was a nightly ritual for Colonel John Freedman. His assignment as commander of Stockford Station was crucial to national security, but, nonetheless, somewhat mundane.

The experienced fifty-year-old colonel was looking forward to retirement in eight months. He looked down on his nightstand at his digital clock. Eleven thirty-four ... over a half-hour later than his normal bedtime, but tonight he was not even sleepy. The colonel checked to make sure his alarm was set and placed it back between the two phones that shared the top of the nightstand. One phone was black. It was used every night to call his wife in Oklahoma. The other phone, red, had never been used as far as the colonel knew. He lay back in his bed on top of the covers with his arms behind his head. Something was wrong. He just had no idea what it was.

The guard inside “A” Building, down the hall from the control room, held one of several telephones to his head. “Yes sir, we have an all clear on one through eight.” He wedged the receiver between his shoulder and ear while using both hands to flip and check a series of switches in a routine that had obviously been performed many times before. “Sir, outside is a check ... Inside checks and infrared is on and quiet. Yes sir. Whiskey, Tango.” He snapped his operating initials and returned the receiver to the hook.

“Delta, Charley,” Sparkey replied from his chained position in the control room. Of the three phones to the left of his desk, none of them had dials. Sparkey hung up one of two black phones. The third was red and unused. “OK! Here we go!” Sparkey raised his voice so that all could hear. “It looks like our guys have stumbled across a build-up of some hardware in the middle of a desert in Egypt somewhere. We currently don’t have anything focused in that area, so we have to talk to one of our stars about takin’ a few pictures for us.”

Talking to the stars was a Stockford term for transmitting specially coded messages to one of several military satellites in orbit around the earth. These messages could be as simple as the one Lieutenant Curtis’ team was about to send or as complex as activating an attack-capable satellite. The men and women at Stockford Security Base knew very well that laser-firing spacecraft not only existed but had been called upon during certain military conflicts.

“Our host for this evening,” Sparkey continued, “is Delta, Mike, three, zero, niner, Delta, Charley.”

As the identification numbers of the satellite were read off, Sergeant Kennedy’s fingers danced across the keyboards on his console. “Stand by.” He paused, then began reading from a screen above his head. “OK Tex, two, four, niner at seven, seven, one.”

The Texan scanned along the top of the glass map and then made a small mark with his grease pencil. He quickly ran his finger down the middle and marked a second point. “Well, gawd damn,” Tex said, as he connected the two points. “They could ‘av given us a little bit more time. This thang’s damn near outta our range.”

“We’ve gotta give it a shot,” Sparkey said. “Where’s that ol’ team spirit?”

Tex shook his head as he placed a huge protractor on a line that ran the length of the map. “We need a zero four niner at about two seven two.”

Sparkey leaned out as far as the chain around his wrist would allow, to look at a small corporal across the room whose uniform looked as if it belonged to a big brother. Corporal Beck, the unit’s electronics technician, dialed the proper adjustment with his right hand, while holding an apple in his left. Atop the corporal’s head was a set of Mickey Mouse ears.

“Geez! I feel like one of the seven dwarfs in here!” Sparkey smiled as he spoke to Sergeant Kennedy a few feet away. “Hey, Mickey!” the lieutenant said louder to the tiny soldier across the room. “Are we all set, Mr. Mouse?”

“No problem, Lieutenant,” the corporal said over his shoulder while tapping a key on the keyboard beside him.

The whole building shook as powerful motors turned and aimed the giant satellite dish that rumbled to life from its rest over “A” Building. Except for the computers, the building fell silent again. Corporal Beck checked some readings, then gave a thumbs-up sign.

Tex nervously spit another mouthful of tobacco juice into his green can. “Now would be a mighty fine time to send that signal, Lieutenant.”

“I’m with ya Tex.” Sparkey held the transmit bar on his keyboard and tapped the send key. “And the signal is ... outta here,” he said. All eyes turned toward Juan who sat with his headset over both ears now. His face was emotionless as he stared blankly at the floor, waiting for any indication that the satellite had accepted their coded message. Military activities in Egypt were difficult to monitor without detection. Miles and miles of flat open land made approach from the ground next to impossible. The simplest model radar unit could pick up a tin can tossed in the air eighty miles out. The super telephoto lens of a sophisticated satellite was the best bet for eavesdropping.

Sergeant Kennedy sat backward on his chair with his arms folded across the back. “What’s the big deal?” he whispered. He was obviously bored. He kicked off with his right leg as if he were on a scooter and rolled over to Sparkey. “If we don’t get it now, we can just catch it in a few hours when it comes around again, can’t we?”

“Ordinarily yeah, but after going through these orders it looks like they don’t know how long these guys have been there and it seems they’re expecting a bit of cloud cover that might screw things up for a day or two,” Sparkey said, tapping his finger on a disk in his left hand.

“By tomorrow the whole show could be over and we would never know what was goin’ on ... at least not any time soon.”

“Ya know what ah think?” Tex added as he gathered up another pinch from his tobacco pouch. “Ah think our intelligence boys got caught with their pants down. We shoulda known ‘bout this mess long before now.”

“Who knows?” Sparkey sighed and threw up both his arms. The chain on his left wrist rattled against the wall. “As long as we keep track of stuff comin’ from all those satellites and keep everybody’s little paws away from all these records, no one can say we’re not doin’ our job.”

Sergeant Kennedy stood up, turned his chair around, sat back down and leaned back. “If people knew what some of those satellites were really capable of doing,” he started, “they would ...”

“Lieutenant!” Juan interrupted. He sat up straight with his hands on each side of his headset. “Sir, do you know exactly what a Russian desert uniform looks like?”

“Well ... no ... not exactly.” Sparkey looked puzzled from Tex to Sergeant Kennedy and back to Juan. “Why?”

“Cuz in a few minutes, sir, we can get you some fresh clear photos of the uniforms on the Russian troops in Egypt.” Juan smiled. “She got the signal and is changing orbit! No problem!”

Throwing his headset on the keyboard, Juan jumped up, stomping his feet in a mock run. His hands held high over his head, palms out as he stomped toward Tex. “Ya-hoo” the big Texan yelped stomping in a similar fashion around the big glass map and toward Juan. “Stockford late shift has done it ah-gen! Group photos, courtesy of the most expensive photo lab in the world.”

Like two football players just scoring a touchdown, Juan and Tex jumped high in the air, smacking their palms together in a well-deserved high-five. All of the men laughed as the two jokesters danced and celebrated their small victory in espionage photography.

Sparkey, still smiling, carefully copied some information into his orders manual, then counted the printed pages of data and code numbers he and his team had just used. Pulling the slack out of the chain leading to his wrist, he stretched around to a machine which slanted into a long one-inch wide slot near the top of the typewriter-sized unit. The tan shredder buzzed and vibrated as the documents labeled “Top Secret” now swirled into a wastebasket in the form of thousands of tiny white ribbons. The lieutenant turned back to his desk, quickly checked his notes and locked them in the safe beside him.

“Well now.” Sparkey laced his fingers together across his chest and propped his feet on his desk. “Who wants to get the good lieutenant a diet cola? I’d get it myself,” he added, “but, as you can see,” he held up the chain, “I’m a bit tied up at the moment.”

“I’m beginning to think you like being chained up over there,” Sergeant Kennedy said, sliding his hand into his pocket to retrieve two quarters. “Anybody else?”

Sparkey smiled and handed the sergeant fifty cents. Tex peeled a dollar bill from a money clip. “I’ll take an orange soda since you’re goin’ Sarge.” He handed the bill to Kennedy. “Hope that changer’s workin’.”

“There’s a trick to it,” the sergeant said taking the bill from Tex. “First, you gotta make sure ...”

Bleep! ... Bleep! ... Bleeeeeep! ... Bleeep! The piercing blast of an alarm smothered Sergeant Kennedy’s sentence.

“What the hell is that one?!” Sparkey jumped up. “That’s not fire!”

Every man was on his feet. If the alarm was a fire alarm, there were certain procedures each person was to follow to protect documents and disks from damage. On the other hand, if this was an intrusion alarm those very same documents and disks would be intentionally destroyed.

Bleep! ... Bleep! ...

“Shit! If this is some kind of test,” Sparkey reached for the black phone on the left, “I think we’re flunking!”

“Wait a minute!” Corporal Beck said stepping into the doorway and looking down the hall. He turned and looked back into the control room at his lieutenant. “Sir, I think that’s the intrusion alarm from somebody tripping the infrared beams.”

Bleep! ... Bleep! ...

“This is Lieutenant Curtis. What’s going on guys?” Sparkey listened to the dead line as he watched his team gather documents to be destroyed. Corporal Beck, Tex, Juan, Mark and Sergeant Kennedy all stood with stacks of papers and folders ready for the shredder.

“Come on people,” Sparkey spoke into the silent phone. “We’re gettin’ ready to get rid of some important stuff here ... come on!”

Bleep!... Bleep!...

“Shit!” The now very frustrated lieutenant slammed the receiver down on the phone. “Beck, hand your stuff over to Tex, run down the hall and see what the hell is going on. Get your weapon out ... and take off those stupid mouse ears, this still might be some kind of test.”

The twenty-one-year-old technician nodded and handed an assortment of disks and electronic stat sheets to the big Texan.

“Ya want me ta go with ‘im?” Tex asked Sparkey as he took the papers.

“Hang on everybody,” Sparkey said, attempting to calm the group. “Beck, go ahead, check it out. None of us are supposed to leave this room in the first place!”

The corporal again nodded, clicking the safety off his .45 automatic. He rested his shoulder against the left side of the doorway. Holding the pistol firmly with both hands, Beck pointed the weapon towards the floor and peeked into the long hallway. Looking cautiously from left to right he eased out of sight.

Bleep! ... Bleep! ... The alarm continued, loud and irritating. Sparkey and Tex stood looking at each other, nervously analyzing the events that were taking place. Beads of sweat were forming on the young lieutenant’s forehead. “All right Tex,”

Sparkey said finally, “go with him. I’m probably gonna get court-martialled for this anyway.”

Tex moved around the corner of the large map toward Sergeant Kennedy. “Now don’t you fret none, Lieutenant,” Tex said, handing his double stack of papers to the older sergeant. “We’ll find out what the hell is goin’ on around this dat burn place.”

“OK, listen!” Sparkey held up his right index finger. “You two go down the hall and look for the M.P. or the perimeter guards. If you don’t see anything or anybody get your asses back here right away.”

“No problem,” Tex answered. He quickly spat his wad of tobacco into the green can and then pulled his heavy sidearm from its holster. Tex moved toward the door as he held the weapon to his side in his massive right hand. “Beck,” he shouted stepping through the door into the noisy hall, “Hold on, I’m comin’ with ya.” He turned, winked at his worried lieutenant, then disappeared down the hallway.

What was becoming the longest minute in Lieutenant Curtis’ career was being paced by the constant squeal of the intrusion alarm.

Blam!

The sound of a gun shot echoed from down the empty hallway.

Blam! Blam! Two more shots.

Sparkey grabbed the stack of classified bulletins and documents from his desk and tossed them into the shredder behind him.

“Zap ‘em!” he shouted to the others as he pointed to their folders and then to the shredder.

Sergeant Kennedy moved over to the machine in time to see the last of the lieutenant’s papers become confetti. The older sergeant dropped one of the three folders in his hand into the tray. Juan and Mark were soon by his side feeding their selected documents into the shredder.

Sparkey reached with his left hand and lifted the receiver of the second black phone from its cradle. “This is Lieutenant Curtis, clearance number three, seven, twenty-seven ... repeat ... three, seven, two, seven. We have a Code Four in “A” Building. This is not a drill. Shots have been fired ... That’s right, cut all power and seal the building!” Sparkey hung up the phone with his left hand while drawing his service automatic with his right. He looked at Juan, Mark and the sergeant standing with their guns ready, not pointed up in the air by their heads like in the movies, but down at the floor as they had been trained.

“Juan, get over by the door. Use the doorway for cover. Challenge anybody comin’ down the hall and if they can’t answer with the right word, blast ‘em!” Sparkey ordered. His leadership abilities kicked into gear as he began to realize this was no test.

“Mark, move back to that far corner over there. Sarge, stay down between these two units. They should be shutting the power soon,” Sparkey continued.

“The power?” Mark asked. He seemed a bit confused. “Sir, why cut the power?”

“Cuz,” the lieutenant answered as he watched Juan peer down the hall, studying the radio man’s face for any clues as to who the intruder might be. “No matter what, they can’t force us to give up information from computers that don’t have a power source, can they?”

There was a loud pop. The room fell dark and the hum of the various units faded. Control panels which seconds before were alive with hundreds of lights were now lifeless and black. The blaring of the alarm fell into a cold silence that was pleasant on the ears but uneasy on the nerves of the five men.

“I guess not, sir,” Mark whispered a reply to his lieutenant’s last question. He still was not sure of the advantages of not having any light just prior to confronting unknown intruders who were probably moving down the hall now if Beck and Tex didn’t stop them.

There was a soft click as the emergency light came to life. The gray box was mounted high over the door with two spotlights on each side that illuminated a small area just inside the door of the control room. The battery-operated units didn’t produce much light, but considering the circumstances, were greatly welcomed when compared with the several seconds of total darkness the nervous men had endured.

Everyone turned and looked at one another in the dim light and each gave a mental sigh of relief. Mark, however, gave his verbal approval of the light with “Geez! That’s better!” and then wiped his sweaty palms on his pants. Juan inched toward the big door, crouched, his .45 felt weightless as the adrenaline raced through his body.

Slowly he again peeked down the long corridor. Emergency lights identical to the one over his head were spaced evenly down the hallway, creating small areas of light separated by larger areas of darkness.

“Can you see anything?” whispered Sparkey. Juan just shook his head slowly from side to side, straining his eyes to adjust to the dim light. After a few seconds he turned toward his lieutenant. “It looks like the emergency lights at the other end of the hall aren’t working. It’s all dark down there,” he said, returning his attention back to the door.

Sparkey chewed his lowered lip while looking across into the dark corner at Mark, who was again wiping his palms. Sparkey then turned to the gray-haired sergeant just to his right. “What do you make of all this?” the young lieutenant whispered. “You’ve been around a lot longer than me. Any ideas?”

“I don’t know, Sparks.” Sergeant Kennedy moved his head slightly toward Lieutenant Curtis but kept his eyes trained on the door by Juan. “I’ve been thinkin’ ... what do we have here that’s worth all this to anyone? I mean ... the place is sealed outside by every swingin’ dick at the base by now and we’re right smack in the middle of the country. How do they expect to get outta here even if they get what they came for?!”

Sparkey started to answer but froze when he saw Juan suddenly tense up and point his pistol down the hall with both hands firmly around the grip. “Who’s there?!” Juan shouted. “Tex ... Beck?!”

“What is it?!” the lieutenant asked. “Give the challenge!”

“Something!”

“Something my ass! Give the challenge!”

“I think it’s just ...” Juan stepped a little further into the hallway.

“Keep covered!” Sergeant Kennedy shouted, but only too late.

Juan screamed a short loud scream. His gun clattered noisily to the floor. He staggered backwards through the doorway, slapping both hands to his throat as his second scream turned into a sickening gurgle. Thin jets of blood sprayed in all directions from between the doomed man’s fingers. Stumbling across test equipment Corporal Beck had been using, Juan fell crashing among many tools and computer parts, kicking and twitching in protest of his inevitable fate. The communication specialist became still. The grip he held on his own throat relaxed. Juan’s life and blood were in a race to see which could leave his body the fastest. The growing pool of blood placed a close second as the younger soldier died.

“Jeez ... us!” Mark shouted. Flames a foot long leaped from the barrel of his .45 as he fired three shots through the dark doorway.

“Do you see ‘em?!” Lieutenant Curtis shouted. He realized Mark was at a better angle to see who had attacked Juan.

“Jeez ... us!” the terrified soldier responded, staring at the doorway. It was obvious he was on the verge of firing more shots.

“What do you see man? Come on, answer me!” Sparkey shouted.

“I don’t see shit!” Mark trembled as he aimed his gun at the same place he had just shot. “I don’t see or hear shit, Lieutenant! What’s goin’ on?!”

“Hang on Mark ... just hang on! Don’t shoot until you see what you’re shootin’ at. Beck or Tex might be coming through there.”

“No sir!” Mark shook his head. “No sir! They aren’t comin’ back! ... I know they’re not!”

“Now don’t start crackin’ up boy,” Sergeant Kennedy spoke calmly to Mark. “We need you son, get a hold of yourself.”

“I’m trying Sarge,” Mark answered. He wiped his palms on his pants.

The sergeant looked slowly from Mark to the door, to the lieutenant, then his eyes locked in on Juan’s body lying in a large scarlet puddle.

“Who would do all this, just for what we’ve got?” he muttered, bringing his weapon up and aiming at the entrance to their control room.

“Keep an eye on that door,” Sparkey said as he reached for the red phone.

...And it gets even better.

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