Agent Matt: Falcon Force

Chapter 17: Falcon Force

Matt and Sabrina were taken to a room somewhere in the basement of the house and thrown inside. The door closed and suddenly they were alone. Matt signalled to Sabrina not to speak, then began a quick search. The door was a slab of solid oak, locked from the outside and probably bolted too. There was a single square window set high up in the wall, but it was barred and wouldn't have been big enough to crawl through anyway. There was no view. The room might once have been used to store wine; the walls were bare and undecorated, the floor concrete, and apart from a few shelves there was no furniture. A naked bulb hung on a wire from the ceiling. Matt was looking for hidden bugs. It was unlikely that Crow would want to eavesdrop on the two of them, but even so he wanted to be sure that they couldn't be overheard. It was only when Matt had gone over every inch of the room that he turned to Sabrina. She seemed amazingly calm. He thought about all the things that had happened to her. She had been kidnapped and kept prisoner - bound and gagged. She had been brought face to face with the man who had ordered the execution of her father, and had listened as he outlined his mad idea to destroy half the world. And here she was locked up again with the near certainty that she and Matt wouldn't be allowed to leave here alive. Sabrina should have been terrified. But she simply waited quietly while Matt completed his checks, watching him as if seeing him for the first time.

"Are you OK?" he asked at last.

"Matt..." It was only when she tried to speak that the emotion came. She took a breath and fought for control. "I don't believe this is happening," she said.

"I know. I wish it wasn't." Matt didn't know what to say. "When did they get you?" he asked.

"At the hospital. There were three of them."

"Did they hurt you?"

"They scared me. And they gave me some sort of injection." She scowled. "God - Damon Crow is such a creep! And I never realized he was so -small." That made Matt smile despite everything. Sabrina hadn't changed. But she was serious. "As soon as I saw him, I thought of you. I knew you'd been telling the truth all along and I felt so rotten for not believing you." She stopped. "You really are what you said. A spy!"

"Not exactly..."

"Do Jin 7 know you're here?"

"No."

"But you must have some sort of gadgets. You told me they gave you gadgets. Haven't you got exploding shoelaces or something to get us out of here?"

"I haven't got anything. JIN 7 don't even know I'm here. After what happened at the TV Station- in Orotaki Street - I sort of went after Crow on my own. I was just so angry about the way they tricked you and lied about me. I was stupid. I mean, I had the flash drive in my hand ... and I gave it back to Crow!" Sabrina understood.

"You came here to rescue me," she said.

"Some rescue!"

"After the way I treated you, you should have just dumped me."

"I don't know, Sabe. I thought I had it all worked out. I thought they'd let you go and everything would turn out all right. I had no idea..." Matt kicked out at the door. It was as solid as a rock. "We have to stop him," he said. "We have to do something."

"Maybe he was making it up," Sabrina suggested. "Think about it. He said he was going to fire twenty-five missiles all around the world. American missiles. But they're all controlled from the White House. Only the American president can set them off. Everyone knows that. So what's he going to do? Fly to Washington and try to break in?"

"I wish you were right." Matt shook his head. "But Crow's got a huge organization. He's put years of planning and millions into this. He's got Ivan Harkov working for him. He must know something we don't." He went over to her. He wanted to put an arm round her but he ended up standing awkwardly in front of her instead. "Listen," he said. "This is going to sound really big- headed and you know I'd never normally tell you what to do. But the thing is, I have sort of been here before..."

"What? Locked up by a maniac who wants to destroy the world?"

"Well, yes. Actually I have, at least three times." He sighed. "My Father was trying to turn me into a spy when I was still in short trousers. I never even realized it. And it's true what I told you. They made me train with the SAT. Anyway, the truth is ... I know things. And it may be that we do get a chance to get back at Crow. But if that happens, you have to leave everything to me. You have to do what I say. Without arguing..."

"Forget it!" Sabrina shook her head. "I'll do what you say. But it was my dad he tried to kill. And I can tell you, if Crow leaves a kitchen knife lying around, I'm going to shove it somewhere painful..."

"It may already be too late," Matt said gloomily. "Crow may just leave us here. He could have already left."

"I don't think so. I think he needs you; I don't know why. Maybe it's because you came closest to beating him."

"I'm glad you're here," Matt said. Sabrina looked at him.

"I'm not." As matt stroked her face gently he smiled and said.

"For what it's worth I would have helped you shove that knife deep."

Ten minutes later the door opened and Ivan Harkov appeared carrying two sets of what looked like white overalls with red markings- serial numbers - on the sleeves.

"You are to put these on," he said.

"Why?" Matt asked.

"Crow wants you. You're coming with us. Do as you're told." But Matt still hesitated.

"What is this?" he demanded. There was something disturbingly familiar about what he was being asked to wear.

"It is a polyamide fabric," Ivan explained. The words meant nothing to Matt. "It is used in biochemical warfare," he added. "Now put it on." With a growing sense of dread, Matt put the suit on over his own clothes. Sabrina did the same. The overalls covered them completely, with hoods that would go over their heads. Matt realized that when they were fully suited up, they would be virtually shapeless. It would be impossible to tell that they were teenagers.

"Now come with me," Ivan Harkov said. They were led back through the house and out into the cloister. There were now three vehicles parked on the grass: a jeep and two covered trucks, both painted white with the same red markings as the suits. There were about twenty men, all in biochemical suits. Henryk, the Dutch pilot, was in the back of the jeep, nervously polishing his glasses. Damon Crow stood next to him talking, but seeing Matt he stopped and came over. He was bristling with excitement, walking jauntily, his eyes even brighter than normal.

"So you're here!" he exclaimed, as if welcoming Matt to a party. "Excellent! I've decided I want you to come along. Mr Harkov tried to talk me out of it, but that's the thing about Russians. No sense of humour. But you see, Matt, none of this would have happened without you. You brought me the flash drive; it's only fair you should see how I use it."

"I'd rather see you arrested and sent to Fuchu prison," Matt said. Crow simply laughed.

"That's what I like about you!" he exclaimed. "You're so rude. But I do have to warn you, Ivan Harkov will be watching you like a hawk. Or maybe I should say like a Falcon. If you do anything at all, if you so much as blink without permission, he'll shoot your girlfriend first. And then he'll shoot you. Do you understand?"

"Where are we going?" Matt asked.

"We're taking the motorway into Tomoeda. It'll take us just a couple of hours. You and Sabrina will be in the first truck with Ivan Harkov. Falcon Force has begun, by the way. Everything is in place. I think you'll enjoy it."

He turned his back on them and went over to the jeep. A few minutes later the convoy left, rolling out of the gates and back up the lane to the main road. Matt and Sabrina sat next to each other on a narrow wooden bench. There were six men with them, all armed with automatic rifles, slung over the white suits. Matt thought he recognized one of the faces from the compound outside Amsterdam. Certainly he knew the type. Pale skin, dead-looking hair, dark, empty eyes. Ivan Harkov sat opposite them. He too had put on a biochemical suit. He seemed to be staring at Matt, but he said nothing and his face was unreadable. They travelled for two hours, taking the back roads towards Tomoeda, to avoid suspicion. Matt glanced occasionally at Sabrina and she caught his eye once and smiled nervously. This wasn't her world. The men, the machine guns, the biochemical suits ... they were all part of a nightmare that had come out of nowhere and which still made no sense - with no sign of a way out. Matt was baffled too. But the suits suggested a dreadful possibility. Did Crow have biochemical weapons? Was he planning to use them? At last they turned off the motorway. Looking out of the back flap, Matt saw a signpost to Kenobi Airport and suddenly he knew, without being told, that this was their true destination. He remembered the plane he had seen at the compound. And Crow, talking to him in the garden. Henryk is very valuable to me. He flies jumbo jets. The airport had to be part of it, but it still didn't explain so many things. The president of the United States. Nuclear missiles. The very name - Falcon Force - itself. Matt was angry with himself. It was all there in front of him. Some sort of picture was taking shape. But it was still blurred, out of focus.

They stopped. Nobody moved. Then Ivan Harkov spoke for the first time.

"Out!" A single word. Matt went first, then helped Sabrina down. He enjoyed feeling her hand in his. There was a sudden loud roar overhead and he looked up just in time to see an aircraft sweeping down out of the sky. He saw where they were. They had stopped on the top floor of an abandoned multistorey car park. The security barriers - a legacy of Sir Alex Grayson, Crow's father, were rusting away. It was on the very edge of Kenobi Airport, near the main runway. The only car, apart from their own, was a burnt-out shell. The ground was strewn with rubble and old rusting oil drums. Matt couldn't imagine why they had come here. Crow was waiting for a signal. Something was going to happen. But what?

Matt looked at his watch. It was exactly half past two. Crow called them over. He had travelled in the jeep with Henryk and now Matt saw that there was a radio transmitter on the back seat. Henryk turned a dial; there was a loud whine. Crow was certainly making a performance out of this. The radio had been connected to a loudspeaker so that they could all hear.

"It's about to begin," Crow said. He giggled. "Exactly on time!"

Matt Looked up. A second plane was coming in. It was still too far away and too high up to be seen clearly, but even so, he thought he recognized something about its shape. Suddenly a voice crackled out of the loudspeaker in the jeep.

"Attention, air traffic control. This is Millennium Air flight 119 from Amsterdam. We have a problem."

The voice had been speaking in English but with a heavy Dutch accent. There was a pause, an empty hissing, and then a woman's voice replied.

"Roger, MA 119. What is your problem, over?"

"Mayday! Mayday!" The voice from the aircraft was suddenly louder. "This is flight MA 119. We have a fire on board. Request immediate clearance to land." Another pause. Matt could imagine the panic in the control tower at Kenobi. But when the woman spoke again, her voice was professional, calm.

"Roger your mayday. We have you on radar. Steer on 0-90. Descend three thousand feet."

"Air traffic control." The radio crackled again. "This is Captain Schroeder from flight MA 119. I have to advise you that I am carrying extremely hazardous biochemical products on behalf of the JSDF. We have an emergency situation here. Please advise."

The Kenobi woman replied immediately.

"We need to know what is on board. Where is it and what are the quantities?"

"Air traffic control, we are carrying a nerve gas. We cannot be more specific. It is highly experimental and extremely dangerous. There are three canisters in the hold. We now have a fire in the main cabin. Mayday! Mayday!"

Matt looked again. The plane was much lower now and he knew exactly where he had seen it before. It was the cargo plane that he had seen in the compound outside Amsterdam. Smoke was streaming out of the side and even as Matt watched, flames suddenly exploded, spreading over the wings. To anyone watching, it would seem that the plane was in terrible danger. But Matt knew that the whole thing had been faked.

The control tower was monitoring the plane.

"Flight MA 119, the emergency services have been alerted. We are beginning an immediate evacuation of the airport. Please proceed to twenty-seven left. You are cleared to land." At once Matt heard the sound of alarms coming from all over the airport. The plane was still two or three thousand feet up, the flames trailing behind it. He had to admit that it looked totally convincing. Suddenly everything was starting to make sense. He was beginning to understand Crow's plan.

"Time to roll!" Crow announced.

Matt and Sabrina were led back to the truck. Crow climbed into the jeep next to Henryk, who was driving, and they set off. It was difficult for Matt to see what was happening now as he only had a view out of the back, but he guessed that they had left the car park and were following the perimeter fence around the airport. The alarms seemed to have got louder; presumably they were getting nearer to them. A number of police sirens erupted in the distance and Matt noticed that the road had got busier as cars tore past, the drivers desperate to get away from the immediate area.

"What's he doing?" Sabrina whispered.

"The plane isn't on fire," Matt said. "Crow's tricked them. He's evacuating the airport. That's how we're going to get in."

"But why?"

"Enough," Ivan Harkov said. "You don't speak now." He reached under his seat and produced two gas masks which he handed to Matt and Sabrina. "Put these on."

"Why do I need it?" Sabrina asked.

"Just do as I say."

"Well, it'll ruin my make-up." She put it on anyway. Matt did the same. All the men in the truck, including Ivan Harkov, had gas masks. Suddenly they were completely anonymous. Matt had to admit that there was a certain genius to Crow's scheme. It was a perfect way to break into the airport. By now all the security personnel would know that a plane carrying a deadly nerve agent was about to crash- land. The airport was in the throes of a full-scale emergency evacuation. When Crow and his miniature army arrived at the main gate, it was unlikely that anyone would ask them for ID. In their biochemical suits they looked official. They were driving official-looking vehicles. The fact that they had arrived at the airport in record time wouldn't be seen as suspicious. It was more like a miracle.

It happened exactly as Matt suspected. The jeep stopped at a gate on the south side of the airport. The guards there were both young. One of them had only been in the job for a couple of weeks and was already panicking, faced with a red alert. The cargo plane hadn't landed yet but it was getting closer and closer, stumbling out of the air. The fire was worse, clearly out of control. And here were two trucks and an army vehicle filled with men in white suits, hoods and gas masks. He wasn't going to argue.

Crow leant out of the door. He was as anonymous as the rest of his men, his face concealed behind the gas mask.

"Japanese Ministry of Defense," he snapped. "Biochemical Weapons division."

"Go ahead!" The guards couldn't hurry them through fast enough.

The plane touched down. Two fire engines and an assortment of emergency vehicles began to race towards it. Their truck overtook the jeep and came to a halt. Looking out of the back, Matt saw everything. It started with Damon Crow. He was sitting in the passenger seat of the jeep and had produced a radio transmitter. "It's time to raise the stakes," he said. "Let's make this a real emergency."

Somehow Matt knew what was about to happen. Crow pressed a button and at once the plane exploded, disappearing in a huge fireball that erupted out of it and at the same time consumed it. Fragments of wood and metal spun in all directions. Burning aviation fuel spilt over the runway, seeming to set it alight too. The emergency vehicles had fanned out as if to surround the wreckage, but then Matt realized that they had received new orders from the control tower. There was nothing more they could do. The pilot and his crew on the plane were certainly dead. Some unknown nerve gas could even now be leaking into the atmosphere. Turn round. Get out of there. Go!

Matt knew that Crow had cheated whoever had flown the plane, killing them with exactly the same cold-blooded ruthlessness with which he killed anyone who got in his way. The pilot would have been paid to send out the false alarm and then to fake a crash wouldn't have known that there was a load of plastic explosive concealed on board. He might have expected a long stay in an English prison. He hadn't been told his job was to die.

Sabrina wasn't watching. Matt couldn't see anything of her face - the gas mask had fogged up - but her head was turned away. For a moment he felt desperately sorry for her. What had she got into? And to think that this had all begun with a holiday in the South of France! The truck jerked forward. They were inside the airport. Crow had managed to short- circuit the entire security system. Nobody would notice them - at least not for a while. But the questions still remained. What had they come for? Why here? And then they slowed down one last time. Matt looked out. And at last everything made sense.

They had stopped in front of a plane, a Boeing 747-200B. But it was much more than that. Its body had been painted blue and white, with the words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA written across the main fuselage and the Stars and Stripes emblazoned on its tail. And there was the eagle, clutching a shield, just below the door, mocking Matt for not having guessed before. The eagle was a bird of prey and another type was a falcon that's what had given Falcon Force its name. Air Force One. This was the reason why Damon Crow was here.

Matt had seen it on the television in Ooishi's office. The plane that had brought the American president to Japan. It flew him all over the world, travelling at just below the speed of sound. Matt knew very little about it, but then virtually all information about Air Force One was restricted. But one thing he did know. Just about anything that could be done in the White House could be done on the plane, even while it was in the air. Just about anything.

Including starting a nuclear war.

There were two men standing guard on the steps that led up to the open door and the main cabin. They were soldiers, dressed in khaki combat gear and black berets. As Crow got out of the car, they brought up their guns, moving into a position of alert. They had heard the alarms. They knew something was happening at the airport but they weren't sure what it had to do with them.

"What's going on?" one of them asked. Damon Crow said nothing. His hand came up and suddenly he was holding a pistol. He fired twice, the bullets making hardly any sound - or perhaps the noise of the gun was somehow dwarfed by the immensity of the plane. The soldiers twisted round and fell onto the tarmac. Nobody had seen what had happened. All eyes were on the runway and the still-burning debris of the cargo plane.

Matt felt a surge of hatred for Crow, for his cowardice. The American soldiers hadn't been expecting trouble. The president was nowhere near the airport. Air Force One wasn't due to take off for another day. Crow could have knocked them out; he could have taken them prisoner. But it had been easier to kill them; already he was putting the gun back into his pocket, two human lives simply brushed aside and forgotten. Sabrina stood next to him, staring in disbelief.

"Wait here," Crow said. He had removed his gas mask. His face was flushed with excitement. Ivan Harkov and half the men ran up the steps onto the plane. The other half stripped off their white suits to reveal American army uniforms underneath. Crow hadn't missed a trick. If anyone did chance to turn their attention away from the cargo plane, it would seem that Air Force One was under heavy guard and that everything was normal. In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth.

More gunfire came from inside the plane. Crow was taking no prisoners. Anyone in his way was being finished without hesitation, without mercy. Crow stood next to Matt.

"Welcome to the VIP lounge," he said. "You might like to know, that's what they call this whole section of the airport." He pointed at a glass and steel building on the other side of the plane. "That's where they all go. Presidents, prime ministers ... I've been in there once or twice as a matter of fact. Very comfortable, and no queues for passport control!"

"Let us go," Matt said. "You don't need us."

"Would you rather I killed you now, instead of later?" Sabrina glanced at Matt but said nothing. Ivan Harkov appeared at the door of the plane and signalled. Air Force One had been taken. There was no one left to fight. Crow's men filed past him and made their way back down the stairs. One of them had been wounded; there was blood on the sleeve of his suit. So at least someone had tried to fight back!

"I think we can go on board," Crow said. All his men were now dressed as American soldiers, forming a half circle round the steps leading up to the door of the plane, a defensive wall in the event of a counter-attack. Henryk had already climbed up; Matt and Sabrina followed him. Crow was right behind them, holding his gun. So there were only going to be the five of them on the plane. Matt filed the information somewhere in his mind. At least the odds had been shortened. Sabrina was numb, walking as if hypnotized. Matt knew what she was feeling. His own legs almost refused to carry him, to take these steps, reserved for the most powerful man on the planet. As the door loomed up ahead, with another eagle mounted on its side, he saw Ivan Harkov appear from inside, dragging a body dressed in blue trousers and a blue waistcoat: one of the air stewards. Another innocent man sacrificed for Crow's mad dream.

Matt entered the plane.

Air Force One was like no other plane in the world. There were no seats cramped together, no economy class, nothing that looked even remotely like the inside of an ordinary jumbo jet. It had been modified for the president and his staff over three floors: offices and bedrooms, a conference room and kitchen ... four thousand square feet of cabin space in all. Somewhere inside, there was even an operating table, although it had never been used. Matt found himself in an open-plan living area. Everything had been designed for comfort, with a thick-pile carpet, low sofas and armchairs, and tables with old-fashioned electric lamps. The predominant colours were beige and brown, softly lit by dozens of lights recessed into the ceiling. A long corridor led down one side of the plane, with a series of smart offices and seating areas branching off. There were more sofas and occasional tables at intervals all the way down. The windows were covered with fawn-coloured blinds.

Ivan Harkov had cleared away the bodies but he had left a bloodstain on the carpet. It was horribly noticeable. The rest of the plane had been cleaned and vacuumed until it was spotless. There was a wheeled trolley against one of the walls and Matt noticed the gleaming crystal glasses, each one engraved with the words AIR FORCE ONE and a picture of the plane. A number of bottles stood on the lower shelf of the trolley: rare malt whiskies and vintage wines. It was service with a smile, all right. To fly on this plane was a privilege enjoyed by only a handful of people and they would be surrounded by total luxury. Even Crow, who had his own private jet, looked impressed. He glanced at Ivan Harkov.

"Is that it?" he asked. "Have we killed everyone who needs killing?"

Ivan Harkov nodded. Crow turned to Matt and Sabrina. "Sit down," he waved his pistol at them. "We'll be taking off soon." As they sat down Crow turned to Ivan and smiled. "Time to go!" he said. Ivan nodded and turned to a white phone on the side of the wall. It was connected to the cockpit. Crow smiled at Matt. "You realize, of course, that once this plane is in the air, it's virtually indestructible. You could say it's the perfect getaway vehicle. That's the beauty of it. It has over two hundred and thirty miles of wiring inside the frame which is designed to withstand even the pulse of a thermonuclear blast. Not that it would make any difference anyway. If they did manage to shoot us down, the missiles would still find their target. The world would still be saved!"

Matt tried to clear his head. He had to think straight.

There were just the five of them on the plane. Sabrina, Ivan, Damon Crow and himself- with Henryk in the cockpit. Matt looked out of the main door. The ring of fake American soldiers was still in place. Even if anyone at the airport glanced their way, they would see nothing wrong. Not that that was likely to happen. The authorities must still be concentrating on the cloud of deadly nerve gas that didn't in fact exist.

Matt knew that if he was going to do anything - if there was anything he could do - it would have to happen before the plane left the ground. Crow was right. Once the plane was in the air, he would have no chance at all.

"Close the door, Mr Harkov," Crow commanded. "I think we should be on our way."

"Wait a minute!" Matt started to get to his feet but Crow signalled to him to sit down. The gun was in his hand. It was a Smith and Wesson .40, small and powerful with its three and a half inch barrel and square handgrip. Matt knew that it was extremely dangerous to fire a gun on a normal plane. Breaking a window or penetrating the outer skin would depressurize the cabin and make flight impossible. But this, of course, was Air Force One. This was not a normal plane.

"Stay exactly where you are," Crow said.

"Where are you taking us?" Sabina demanded. Crow was still sitting on the sofa next to her. He obviously thought it would be better to keep her and Matt apart. He reached out and ran a finger across her cheek. Sabina shuddered. She found him revolting and didn't care if he knew it.

"That is none of your concern, my dear." Ivan had closed the door, with a soft thud. Matt watched as he pulled the lever down, locking it. "Doors to automatic," said Ivan. There was a speaker system active in the plane. Everything that was said in the main cabin could be heard in the cockpit. And, sitting at the flight deck, Henryk flicked a switch so that his voice too could be heard throughout the plane.

"This is your captain speaking," he said. "Please fasten your seat belts and prepare for take-off." He was joking: a grisly parody of a real departure. "Thank you for flying with Crow Airlines. I hope you have a pleasant flight." The engines started up. Out of the window Matt saw the soldiers scatter and run back to the trucks. Their work was done. They would leave the airport and make their way home to Amsterdam. He glanced at Sabrina. She was sitting very still and he remembered that she was waiting for him to do something. I know things... You have to leave everything to me. That was what he had told her. How very hollow the words sounded now.

Air Force One was equipped with four huge engines. Matt heard them as they began to turn. They were about to leave! Desperately he looked around him: at the closed door with its white lever slanting down, at the stairway Leading up towards the cockpit, at the low tables and neatly arranged line of magazines, at the trolley with its bottles and glasses. Crow was sitting with his legs slightly apart, the gun resting on his thigh. Ivan was still standing by the door. He had a second gun. It was in one of his pockets but Matt knew that the Russian could draw, aim and fire before he had time to blink. There were no other weapons in sight, nothing he could get his hands on. Hopeless.

The plane jerked and began to pull back from its stand. Matt looked out of the window again and saw something extraordinary. There was a vehicle parked next to the VIP building, not far from the plane. It was like a miniature tractor, with three carriages attached, loaded with plastic boxes. As Matt watched, it was suddenly blown away as if it had been made of paper. The carriages spun round and broke free. The tractor itself crashed onto its side and skidded across the tarmac. It was the engines! Normally a plane of this size would have been towed to an open area out of harm's way before it began to taxi. Crow, of course, wasn't going to wait. Air Force One had been put into reverse thrust and the engines -with a thrust rating of over two hundred thousand pounds - were so powerful that they would blow away anything or anyone who came near. Now it was the turn of the VIP building itself. Windows shattered, the glass exploding inwards. A security man had come out and Matt saw him thrown back like a plastic soldier fired from an elastic band. A voice came through on the speakers inside the cabin. Henryk must have connected up the radio so that they could hear.

"This is air traffic control to Air Force One." This time it was a man's voice. "You have no clearance to taxi. Please stop immediately." The stairs that they had climbed to board the plane toppled to one side, crashing onto the tarmac. The plane was moving more quickly now, backing out onto the main apron. "This is air traffic control to Air Force One. We repeat: you have no clearance to taxi. Can you please state your intentions..."

They were out in the open, away from the VIP lounge. The main runway was behind them. The rest of the airport must have been almost a mile away. Inside the cockpit Henryk put the plane into forward thrust, and Matt felt the jolt and heard the whine of the engines as once again they began to move. Crow was humming to himself, his eyes vacant, lost in his own world. But the Smith and Wesson was still in his hand and Matt knew that the slightest movement would bring an instant response. Ivan hadn't stirred. He also seemed wrapped up in his own thoughts, as if he was trying to forget that this was happening. The plane began to pick up speed, heading for the runway. There was a computer in the cockpit and Henryk had already fed in all the necessary information: the weight of the plane, the outside air temperature, the wind speed, the pressure. He would take off into the breeze, now coming from the east. The main runway is nearly four thousand metres long and the computer had already calculated that the aircraft would only need two and a half thousand of them. It was almost empty. This was going to be an easy take-off. Air Force One was moving rapidly now, following the taxi paths to the main runway. Ahead was the holding point where it would make a sharp turn and begin pre-flight checks.

"Air Force One. You have no clearance. Please abort immediately. Repeat: abort at once." The voice from air traffic control was still buzzing in his headphones. Henryk reached up and turned the radio off. He knew that an emergency overdrive would have gone into operation and any other planes would be diverted out of his way. After all, this aircraft did belong to the president of the United States of America. Already the Kenobi authorities would be screaming at each other over the phone lines, fearing not just a crash but a major diplomatic incident. The prime minister would have been informed. All over Tomoeda, officials and civil servants would be asking the same desperate question.

What the hell is going on?

Moments later they were up in the air, Matt looked as the ground slowly disappeared, with a hollow feeling he knew he had failed, some spy he was. Sabrina saw the look on his face and held his hand. She knew there was still a chance; it was now Matt's job to find that chance. As they climbed to ten thousand feet the "captain" said that it was safe to walk around the plane on their non-stop journey to a better tomorrow. As Crow and Ivan unbuckled he ordered to Ivan.

"Let's get started. I'll take Matt. I want to show him...something. You wait here."

Crow nodded at Matt. Matt knew he had no choice. He took one last glance at Sabrina and tried to tell her with his eyes: I'll think of something. I'll get us out of here. But somehow he doubted it. The enormity of Falcon Force had finally hit him. Air Force One! The presidential plane. It had never been invaded in this way -and no wonder. Nobody else would have been mad enough to consider it.

Crow jabbed Matt with the gun, forcing him up a stairway. Half of him hoped they would meet someone. Just one soldier or one member of the cabin crew who had managed to escape and who might be lying in wait. But he knew that Ivan Harkov would have been thorough in his work. He had told Crow that the entire crew had been dealt with. Matt didn't like to think how many men and women there might have been on board. They entered a room filled with electronic equipment from floor to ceiling. Hugely sophisticated computers stood next to elaborate telephone and radar systems with banks of buttons, switches and blinking lights. Even the ceiling was covered with machinery. Matt realized he was standing in the communications centre of Air Force One. Someone must have been working there when Crow took over the plane. The door wasn't locked.

"Nobody at home," Crow said. "I'm afraid they weren't expecting visitors. We have the place to ourselves." He took the flash drive out of his pocket. "This is the moment of truth, Matt," he said. "This is all thanks to you. But do, please, stay very still. I don't want to kill you until you've seen this, but if you so much as blink, I'm afraid I may have to shoot you." Crow knew what he was doing. He laid the gun on the table next to him so that it would never be more than a few centimetres from his hand. Then he opened the flash drive and plugged it into a socket in the front of the computer. Finally he sat down and tapped out a series of commands on the keyboard.

"I can't explain exactly how this works," he said as he continued. "I've always found computers and all that stuff really dreary. But these computers here are just like the ones in the White House, and they're connected to Mount Cheyenne, which is where our American friends have their top-secret underground nuclear weapons control centre. Now, the first things you need to set off the nuclear missiles are the launch codes. They change every day and they're sent to the president, wherever he is, by the National Security Agency. I hope I am not boring you, Matt?"

Matt didn't reply. He was looking at the gun, measuring distances...

"The president carries them with him all the time. Did you know that President Carter actually lost the codes once? He sent them to the dry-cleaner's. But that's another story. The codes are transmitted by Milstar - the Military Strategic and Tactical Relay system. It's a satellite communications system. One set goes to the Pentagon and one set comes here. The codes are inside the computer and..." There was a buzzing sound and a number of lights on the control panel suddenly went green. Crow let out a cry of pleasure. His face glowed green in the reflection. "...and here they are now. Wasn't that quick! Strange though it may seem, I am now in control of just about all the nuclear missiles in the United States. Isn't that fun?" He tapped more quickly on the keyboard and for a moment he was transformed. As his fingers danced over the keys, Matt was reminded of the Damon Crow he had seen playing the piano all over the world. There was a dreamy smile on his face and his eyes were far away. "There is, of course, a fail-safe device built into it all," he continued. "The Americans wouldn't want just anyone firing off their missiles, would they! No. Only the president can do it, because of this..." Crow took a small silver key out of his pocket. Matt guessed that it must be a duplicate, also provided by Kevin Hall. Crow inserted it into a complicated-looking silver lock built into the workstation and opened it. There were two red buttons underneath. One to launch the missiles. The other marked with two words which were of more interest to Matt.

SELF-DESTRUCT.

Crow was only interested in the first of them.

"This is the button," he said. "The big button. The one you've read all about. The button that means the end of the world. But it's fingerprint sensitive. If it isn't the president's finger, then you might as well go home." He reached out and pressed the launch button. Nothing happened. "You see? It doesn't work!"

"Then all this has been a waste of time!" Matt said.

"Oh no, my dear Matt. Because, you see, you may remember that I recently had the Privilege - the very great privilege - of shaking hands with the president. I insisted on it. It was that Important to me. But I had a special latex coating on my own hand, and when we shook, I took a cast of his fingers. Isn't that clever?" Crow removed what looked like a thin plastic glove from his pocket and slipped it onto his hand. Matt saw that the fingers of the glove were moulded. He understood. The president's fingerprints had been duplicated onto the latex surface. Crow now had the power to launch his nuclear attack.

"Wait a minute," Matt said.

"Yes?"

"You're wrong. You're terribly wrong. You think you're making things better, but you're not!" He struggled to find the right words. "You'll kill thousands of people. Hundreds of thousands of people, and most of them will be innocent. They won't have anything to do with drugs..."

"There have to be sacrifices. But if a thousand people die to save a million, what's so wrong with that?"

"Everything is wrong with it! What about the fallout? Have you ever thought what it'll do to the rest of the planet? I thought you cared about the environment. But you're going to destroy it."

"It's a price worth paying, and one day the whole world will agree with me that you have to be cruel to be kind."

"You only think like that because you're insane."

Crow reached for the launch button. Matt dived forward. He no longer cared about his own safety. He couldn't even protect Sabrina. The two of them might be killed, but he had to stop this from happening. He had to protect the millions who would die all over the world if Crow was allowed to continue. Twenty five nuclear missiles falling simultaneously out of the sky! It was beyond imagination.

But crow had been expecting the move suddenly the gun was in his hand and his arm was swaying through the air. Matt felt a savage blow on the side of his head as crow struck him. He was thrown back, dazed. The room swam in front of his eyes, and he stumbled and fell.

"and you're too slow." He said with glee as he watched Matt fall to the floor. As he turned his attention back to the screen he lifted a single finger. "You're too late and it's too late for the rest of the world." He drew a circle in the air with his finger.

He paused.

Then he stabbed down and screamed.

"The show must go on!"