Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. I'm borrowing her characters, dressing them up in MARPAT, and giving them some guns. BilliCullen and Scooterstale are making sure they're ready for inspection.
Somewhere Between Northern Target Compound and Mogadishu, Somalia
"Did you catch that last part?"
Standing just inside the mouth of the cave on the opposite side of a flat, table-like slab of limestone, Edward nodded but didn't dare look away from the screen propped up between them.
The Delta captain's feed was dim and grainy, shot from behind a wall of rifle crates at the opposite end of a building that resembled a carved-out cavern more than a manmade warehouse. With the distance and echo off the high ceiling, the audio wasn't much better, even with the volume cranked all the way up and the benefit of Jazz's electronic tweaking. There was no mistaking what they saw or heard, however, and no matter how many times they watched the team's surveillance footage, searching for any clue they could find, Edward's skin crawled in a way it hadn't for years.
"Watch him close," Jacob said, leaning in and propping his elbows on the stone. He pointed at the pale, sixty-something man in a steel-gray suit in the dead center of the screen. "Here's where he starts losin' it. There's something about this part of his little speech that just sets him right off."
Tall and lean, athletic despite his years, the man in the feed possessed the smooth, fluid movements of someone accustomed to being in front of an audience. Like a professor giving a lecture, he paced the length of a makeshift stage framed by a pair of black and red scorpion banners strung from the rafters, and as he spoke, it was succinctly and persuasively, with a lightly inflected accent that belonged at some Ivy League university, not in some mercenary camp in the middle of the Somali wasteland. To the outward eye, this guy was every bit the picture of restraint and erudite self-assurance.
But Black was right. With each step and with each carefully delivered line, Edward watched that meticulously constructed façade begin to crack. His smooth, contained motions turned stiff and jerky, and his fists balled into tight, white-knuckled hammers that he held flush against his thighs. On his third circuit, with no obvious rhyme or reason, the man swept his fists up toward the ceiling as his speech abruptly morphed into a ranting tirade that reverberated through the entire building. A terrifying kind of charisma bled out from him into the mesmerized legion before him.
"Now! Now is our time, my children! We shall set loose their own horrors upon their soil, and they shall finally know the terror they so rightly deserve. The Western dogs will cower before us! Before our greatness! And they will beg for the mercy that we will deny!"
Edward swore and shoved an irritated hand through his hair. "What's this asshole talking about?"
Almost on cue, as if he somehow knew the camera was there, the man stopped and turned. Sharp, aristocratic features that hinted at some kind of Slavic ancestry came into focus. On his right side, however, heavy chemical scarring mottled his face, from his temple all the way to his throat.
A long moment of silence passed, where the tension in both the warehouse and here in their temporary shelter seemed to swell, but then the man's eyes darkened and he smiled the sinister, manic smile of a psychopath. Before the screen went black, his fist shot out and up again, and he roared, "Annihilation will be ours!"
"That's some fucked up shit right there. Straight up loony bin material, if you ask me," Jacob muttered, as he dug into his pocket to retrieve a half-eaten strip of beef jerky.
"No, what's fucked up is what you're eating," Alice quipped from her spot on top of another boulder nearby. Her nose crinkled when the Delta commander tore off a hunk of black-burgundy meat with his teeth. "Seriously, Black, how do you eat that shit?"
"What?" Lifting off his elbows, Jacob rolled his eyes. "It's cow. You eat steak, right?"
The lieutenant waved him off with a pointed sniff. "No, I don't."
From half a dozen feet deeper inside the cave, a low baritone belted out an echoing laugh. "She's a fuckin' liar. You put a 16 oz. T-bone in front of her and it'll be gone before you can even blink." Emmett snorted and tipped his cover up to see what he knew was coming from the spitfire pilot. "Don't know where she puts it all, but Tink eats like a goddamned horse."
Halfway turning to the Marine lounging on one of the few flat pieces of dirt behind them, Alice leveled him a flat, un-amused glare that would have set even the most hardened soldier on edge. "Shut up, Staff Sergeant. And aren't you supposed to be asleep?"
Unfazed, Emmett just shrugged and dropped his cover back over his eyes. "Whatever, Little Bit. It's true, and you know it. You're a vacuum cleaner."
Even though he wouldn't catch it, Alice stuck out her tongue and flipped him off. "Yeah, I'll show you whatever." Something round and weighty flew out of her hand, smacking him square in the chest. Whatever it was bounced off without so much as a grunt, however, and then rolled a few feet away. "And just so you know, what you call steak, isn't. At all. Ever."
Before the big man could grumble out a reply, Rosalie's boots dropped to the gravel just outside the cave. As she stepped inside, out of habit, the gunnery sergeant's gaze lapped the darkened space, taking in the position of each and every man and woman. Settling on the Marine in the back on the ground, one sculpted brow shot up, and as she shucked off her gear and helmet, she had to school her mouth into a straight line. "That's for damned sure. Your strips are like Naugahyde."
Emmett's head popped up, sending his cover flying. "Hey! You told me you liked my beef!"
Alice let out a peal of out-of-place, high-pitched laughter that bounced off the smooth, weatherworn walls, but the two sergeants didn't even notice. They eyed each other, neither willing to give away what – according to the lieutenant – only a blind man couldn't see. And hopefully not their captain.
At a loss, Jacob glanced to his left to Cullen's eerily silent corporal. After a beat, Jasper just shook his head and gave the Delta captain a look that he could only call pity. When Jake lifted a hand in question, one corner of Jasper's mouth curled up, but then without a word of explanation, he grabbed his helmet, strapped his M110 into his chest sling, and slipped out into the bright, baking noontime sun to take over the gunny's lookout position.
Ignoring the nonstop back and forth between his team, Edward moved closer to their makeshift table and motioned to the no-nonsense Delta tracker and former Ranger who'd taken most of the surveillance footage. "Trick, can you go back a little and see if you can get a clean headshot?"
"Already got 'em, sir." Almost as quick as his own corporal and electronics specialist, SFC Jared Cameron swiped his forefinger across the screen to open up a cluster of stills and then tapped out a few commands on a compact foldout keyboard he had balanced on his knee. No more than a second later, their target's face filled the screen. Not much better than the video feed, the shots were blurry and dark, but after a few adjustments and a little digital enhancement, they were more than clear enough. The operator flipped between a dozen or more angles, pausing briefly at each one to highlight the major marks and identifiers he'd already picked out – the pitted burn pattern on the target's cheek, the dark, tear-shaped mole above his left eye, the slight arch in the bridge of a nose broken decades ago. "These are the shots we sent back to Quantico," he told the Marine captain. "Sent 'em up to the Israelis, too."
"Good work." Edward tapped his chin, studying every single line on the man's face – burning the images into his memory – before offering the operator a subtle, approving dip of his head. "You guys got in pretty close, huh?"
"Yes, sir." Jared nodded, but then his features hardened into a cold, merciless expression that made it clear how he'd attained his rank and reputation. "But if it's all right by you, I wouldn't mind gettin' my 416 a lot closer next time around."
Edward's eyes danced in a moment of dark, predatory anticipation. "You and me both, Sergeant." When he looked over his shoulder to Alice, she was still laughing at the half-glaring, half-mooning exchange between his sergeants. "Tink, we heard anything back?"
Like a switch, the laughter cut out, and the lieutenant straightened. "Negative, sir," she said, shaking her head. "Talked to Quantico about an hour ago. Said they'd get something to us by mid-afternoon. I got a few calls in to those suits at Langley, too, but nothing yet."
"Damn it." The captain wiped his face in a rare show of fatigue and focused back on the screen and the stark, raving lunatic that wanted to kill them all. "Keep on 'em. If you don't hear something in the next couple of hours, I'll escalate it as far as I have to. We don't have time for their usual need-to-know bullshit."
"You got it."
Edward wiped his face again, and then to his counterpart, he asked, "Anything from your side?"
Stepping away from the feed they'd watched more times than he could count, Jacob dropped down to an old upside-down bucket, kicked up his boots on a nearby chunk of rock, and bit off the last of his jerky. "Nope. They just said they were 'working on it,' whatever the hell that means."
Three days ago, Black's response would have been cut with sarcasm and the biting edge of contempt. But that was three days ago, Edward thought, and now that hotheaded arrogance was strangely absent. He watched the other man carefully, taking in the minute signs of tension that most people would never notice – the drumming fingers, the way his eyes never stopped moving, the too-straight line of his shoulders when he pretended to be slouching. Whatever they'd seen in that godforsaken compound had been enough to scare some respect and cooperation into the younger captain, and as far as Edward was concerned, that said more than any video feed or weapons count ever would.
"We really that surprised?" Rosalie muttered a moment later, wearing an all-too-familiar annoyed scowl as she picked her way through the maze of debris and gear toward their pilot's rock by one of the cavern's walls. Once there, she motioned to Alice to scoot and hopped up in a quick, lithe move.
"Yeah, tell me about it." On the opposite side of the cave, Staff Sergeant Paul Lahote sat up with a drawn out yawn and stretched the kinks out of his shoulders. Eyeing the blonde's nail-spitting expression, he clucked his tongue in agreement and added, "Those dipshits couldn't find their way out of a paper bag."
"Not even with a map." Rosalie gave the Emmett-sized Delta a slight, approving nod, and then fished behind her for a bottle of water, only to find it already drained. When she spat out a curse, a low, "Here," came from across the way. She spun back around just in time to catch the barest hint of a grudging smile behind the man's scraggly beard, before a fresh bottle sailed through the air, targeting her with unerring accuracy.
She cracked open the lid. "If we're throwin' down bets," she directed over to Edward. The gunny paused just long enough to slug back half the bottle's contents in a single gulp. She used the rest to douse her face and neck. "I'm putting mine on Dayan coming back first."
"Pfft!" Alice bumped the other woman's shoulder and snorted. "Like anyone would be dumb enough to take that bet."
When Edward would have replied, the soft crunch of gravel came from immediately behind him. A blink later, an equally soft, feminine profile followed, appearing at the edge of his periphery and not stopping until she was close enough to raise a few brows if anyone was paying attention. Bella's sleeve brushed against his bare forearm, and at contact that increasingly familiar warmth in his chest came to life. Wrong place and wrong time, he knew, but considering what they'd just witnessed, right now that bit of heat was a welcome reprieve.
Edward's lips curved without permission. "Now who's being sneaky?"
Eyes glued to the small, lit screen propped up on the stone slab in the center of the cave, Bella flinched, as though she'd been only halfway paying attention, but when Edward nudged her arm, she recovered with a quick, almost mischievous smile. "What can I say?" Still staring at the bellowing silver-haired man on the screen, she shrugged. "I guess I have good teachers, eh?"
The captain made a noise somewhere between a cough and a laugh, and Bella just resisted the urge to look up. Instead, itching at the unfamiliar appraisal from the opposite side of the space, she focused on the bright green fruit she'd grabbed when the ache behind her eyes had finally demanded a break. She patted her pockets in a haphazard search for her Leatherman, but froze when an open palm cut across her vision, offering a small, bone-handled penknife that looked like it had seen its share of deployments.
"You mean you have the best teachers," Edward corrected, right as she plucked the knife out of his hand. "And don't cut yourself."
At that last part, Bella didn't resist rolling her eyes, which netted her another one of those low, almost-laughs that made her stomach flip in not entirely unpleasant ways. Tamping that down as best she could, with a careful but fast, meticulous hand, she peeled her Granny Smith in a single long, perfectly spiraling strip. Once finished, she carved out a thick wedge and without even thinking, offered it to the man beside her – still on the blade. She flashed him another small, close-lipped smile. "You were saying?"
"Touché, Doctor." Edward tipped his head, silently chuckling at the surprising display of knife work that would have made his Israeli friend drool had he seen it. He took the proffered hunk of fruit. "And thanks, by the way."
The sudden softness in his voice tugged Bella's gaze upward, and Deltas be damned, she roamed the captain's tired, too-hard-to-be-handsome face. While not quite as deep as before, the same stress lines still crossed his forehead, and the hollows of his eyes were still bruised plum-black from lack of sleep. Yet at the same time, Bella found warmth and a rare softness that matched his voice staring back down at her. As if he didn't notice or care who was watching, Edward's dark, gem-colored irises moved over her features, traveling in a slow, repeating circuit that started with her eyes and ended with her mouth.
By the second lap, in unconscious reaction, the tip of Bella's tongue swiped across her lip and in the process drew every bit of Edward's unrelenting focus. She didn't look away, however. And neither did he.
For far longer than they should have, they stood like that in the center of their dimly lit temporary base – quiet, staring, and close enough that whenever she unknowingly shifted, their arms brushed. And for that too-brief moment, never mind the chaos of their surroundings and the urgency of the situation, all Bella could think about was how furious the man had been when she'd finally shown up at the trucks, how he'd really just been afraid for her, and how warm and solid he'd felt when he'd grabbed her by the armor and pulled her into his chest. Both times.
A throat cleared somewhere in the background.
Edward blinked, but he didn't jerk away. Instead, he lingered for one more fleeting second, before reluctantly swinging from the too-pretty face of their scientist across the way to Black, where the man sat on his upside-down bucket with one brow lifted, concentrating a little too hard on knotting the long strand of black paracord he'd dug out of his pack. When Jacob stole a glance up, wearing one of his signature asshole smirks, Edward's jaw ticked in irritation, but he wasn't quite fast enough. No, the woman beside him, channeling his smart-ass lieutenant at her best – or worst – beat him to it.
"Oh, I'm so sorry, Captain Black. I'm being rude," Bella said too sweetly to the mocking captain against the wall. Her mouth twisted into a put-on pout. "Did you want me to cut up some food for you, too?"
There was a moment of absolute silence, where half a dozen soldiers and Marines all looked around in mute surprise. Alice broke rank and snickered first, followed by the rest a second later. From under his cover, Emmett slurred a sleepy, "Five points to Doc."
Jacob's lips twitched at the unexpected fire, and although he'd never admit it out loud, he suddenly got why Cullen was so hot for the woman. She was a pretty thing, sure, but as far as he was concerned, pretty women were a dime a dozen. Not many people would – or even could – go toe-to-toe with people like them, especially not soft, porcelain-faced civilians. That she could made her… interesting.
"Nah, I'm good, thanks," he replied, not looking away from his handiwork, but still aware of everything going on, including the light, impatient tapping of the scientist's boot. His lips twitched again. "But if you two are done with whatever the fuck you're doing, we got some shit to go over."
Pale pink climbed Bella's cheeks, a response thankfully lost in the shadows. Rather than acknowledging it or the man's jab, she just moved toward the makeshift table, popped a slice of apple in her mouth, and motioned to the broad-shouldered, stone-faced operator manning the controls. A hell of a lot bolder than she felt, she asked him, "What did you guys find?"
Jared's flat gaze slid past her left shoulder to Edward.
"Go ahead." Edward waved him on. "Show her what you got from the lab. She's the only one here who actually knows what all that shit is."
The sergeant turned to Bella, who fisted her hips and stared him down in a flare of annoyance that made Edward choke back a laugh.
"Sorry, ma'am." The man's shoulders shrugged in a fluid, graceful motion that drew the eye to the flexing cords of hard, field-borne muscle beneath his worn tee. Just like the rest of them – both her Marines and the other Deltas – Black's sergeant first class was a wall of lean, mean violence waiting to happen. As his fingers flew across his keyboard, he spared Bella another quick glance and added, "Just not used to having civil–" His eyes fell to her thigh holster. "Folks like you along for the ride. Takes some gettin' used to, I guess."
Not really wanting to argue – plus, it wasn't like he was the first to say it – Bella just shoved a long strand of hair out of her eyes and let out a tired sigh. "It's fine… Sergeant." At the uncertain address – said almost as question – Jared's brows lifted and one side of his mouth drew up into a reluctant smile. She started to smile back, but as soon as the first image pulled up, she turned grim as the Reaper himself. "Alright… let's see this asshole's house of horrors."
When Jared clicked over to the second shot, Bella's stomach took a sharp, nauseating nosedive, and the pulse she'd been trying to slow ticked up in time.
They didn't have time for nerves, she knew, and being afraid was getting old. So with a quick internal shake, Bella sucked down a deep, steadying breath, shored up her backbone, and focused all of her attention on the contents of screen in front of them, determined to find something in these shots that could help them stop the terrorists who'd murdered her best friend and who threatened to do far worse.
Steadier, but still not quite trusting her voice just yet, Bella waved the operator on. Without a word, Jared gave her a quick dip of his chin and then began to flip through dozens of photos, all various angles and sections of their target's laboratory.
As large or even larger than Bella's own back at DARPA, their target's lab was a stark contrast to the dim, echoing cavern of a warehouse where he kept his arsenal and rallied his legion. Instead, run by a bank of diesel generators lined up outside, it was bright, white, modern sophistication, nowhere close to its surroundings, and within moments, it was perfectly clear that these people possessed all the conveniences Bella had hoped they lacked.
"Pan over there. Right hand side."
The sergeant complied, targeting the banks of stainless steel hoods and pitch-black laminate benches that ran along the northern and western walls. New, top-of-the-line glassware, centrifuges, scales, and ovens topped each workstation. A tall stack of leather-bound notebooks sat at one of the corners, but from the way they'd been pushed to the side, it seemed like they hadn't been touched in weeks, if not longer.
"You see something?"
After another brief moment of study, Bella shook her head, gesturing for him to move to the next set of images.
Jared's fingers moved as fast as the corporal's and with just a couple of keystrokes, another cluster of photos pulled up on the screen. In these, opposite the hoods and workspaces along the northern wall, a small fortune's worth of equipment – GCs coupled with an array of back-end detectors, an FTIR, an XRF, what appeared to be an ICP-MS, a pair of current generation mass specs, microscopes, and at least half a dozen other gray and beige boxy machines – occupied the southern end of the building.
Jared scowled. "What is this shit anyway?"
"It's all analytical equipment." Bella reached over and tapped the screen, directing his attention to a pair of pale gray machines sitting on top of one of the benches. "Spectrometers and things like that. Same stuff we have back at DARPA."
"What's it do?"
Not quite prepared for an impromptu chemistry lesson, Bella's forehead creased. "How much do you like chemistry?"
His scowl deepened and he leveled her a flat stare.
Bella let out a quiet chuff of a laugh. "Fair enough." She waved at the screen. "When you're testing new reactants and reaction pathways, you need to know if what you tried to do actually worked and if so, how well. Make sense?"
"Yeah, I guess." Jared's shoulders rolled in another one of those fluid shrugs. The motion tugged his sleeves up, just enough to reveal an intricate maze of black and gray ink that wound its way up and around his left bicep.
"These machines…" she explained, simultaneously carving out another chunk of apple. "When used all together and operated by someone who understands how to read the outputs… they basically tell you what all you've made." Bella grimaced. "And how much of it."
"So–" The operator shook his head when she offered him the slice.
"That they have all this here and at their immediate disposal…" Bella blew out a long breath before blindly popping the fruit into her mouth. "It means they're getting near-instantaneous feedback on what they're doing. It's not like they're a bunch of hacks flying blind. They know what they're after. In other words… not good."
As he zoomed in on another one of those gray boxes – this one with a pale green LED screen and a keypad on its top right corner – Jared mumbled something under his breath that sounded a whole lot like, "Just need to firebomb these fucks."
Angling toward him, Bella softly replied, "As much as I wish we could, we can't."
Jared's hands stilled on the keyboard. "We can't what?"
"Firebomb them." She swallowed. "At least not with anything like a Mark 77, if that's what you mean."
From against the wall, Jacob froze mid-knot and looked up at the pale, frail woman, who despite having some damned chilling knowledge in her head, not to mention a surprisingly stiff spine, still had no business being here.
"And why the hell not?" he asked, just as his sergeant said the same.
"Of course, you can incinerate XR-5." Making a frustrated sound, Bella waved at nothing and everything all at once. "But we're talking extremely high heat. More than what it takes for VX." She made that sound again. "Remember they're similar, but not the same. XR-5 is worse… in every single way. And that includes how hard it is to get rid of."
As she recalled all the tests she'd run herself at night and on weekends, Bella's ponytail whipped back and forth. "If you don't get it just right, you'll atomize it instead and it'll just rise with the plume. Who knows how far it'd go before it'd finally come down." Bella's eyes – now dark and stormy – dropped to the rocky floor of the cave, where a jagged crack propagated all the way to the wall. "You could wipe out entire villages." The last part came out barely above a whisper.
"Just how hot are we talking?" It was the gunny who posed that one.
Bella spun half-way around, facing the pair of Marines sitting on top of the waist-high boulder behind them. The blonde's expression was ruthless. "To ensure destruction in an open environment like this?" Tapping her lip, she thought before answering. "You'd need something like a thermite incendiary. It'd need to be large enough to destroy their entire compound in very short order."
Directly across the way, Paul let out a long, low whistle. "Fuckin' A."
Stunned into silence, no one spoke for a long, still moment. Finally, after another hard internal shake, Bella turned back to the man with the keyboard and nodded. "Okay, let's keep going."
If the first and second sets of photos made Bella's stomach sink, it was the third set that made every muscle in her body lock in place. Because it was here – in an area that took up the entire eastern quadrant of the lab – where they housed the main event.
Much like she and Riley had done two years ago, their enemy had built an isolation chamber the size of a large bedroom, enclosed on all sides from the floor to ceiling with inch-thick chemically-resistant glass. Stainless steel plates protected the floor, and in place of a standard ceiling they'd installed a single, massive exhaust hood. But unlike the hoods in the main part of the lab, this one was coupled to a water heater-sized chemical scrubber.
Outside the chamber, no less than five men in clean room white sat manning a wall of complex electronic control panels with wide flat-screen computer monitors. Inside, surrounding a mocked-up warhead – no doubt modeled after an SS-1 – stood two more, these decked out in full Level A hazmat suits.
"Shit," Bella muttered, as the Delta flipped from image to image. Her knees buckled, finding an old, dried-out log propped up next to the stone. Now eye level, she studied the images, memorizing each and every detail, before abruptly directing the sergeant to the very center the chamber. "Zoom in right there. I need to see that gray blob between those two guys in the suits. If you can, clean it up."
"You got it, Doc."
Keys clicked at breakneck speed. A second later, the scene blurred, going in and out of focus a few times, before finally coming back magnified as far as the software could take it. Another keystroke darkened some of the lines and brought others into tighter focus.
The moment the curse left Bella's mouth, the cave went eerily silent. No one spoke, no one moved, except for the lean, hard man who instantly stepped up to the stone and dropped down to his knees beside her. Quietly, staring down at their scientist as her jaw mutely worked back and forth, Edward asked her, "What do you see?"
Bella didn't answer at first. Instead, as she thought and pieced the shots together with the all the files she'd reviewed from their raid on the villa, she slowly and methodically cut out another slice of apple. She ate it right off his blade.
Edward's gaze flicked over to the screen. To him, it was just an image of an old, rusted, gutted-out warhead. "Doctor? I need you to tell me what you see." When he asked again, this time it was a little louder, and his voice carried with it a gentle but deliberate firmness.
Bella cut out one last hunk of fruit, mindlessly offering it to Edward before chucking the core into a collapsible bin set up by the wall. "What do you want first?" she finally said, dragging her tired eyes up to his. "The good news… or the bad?"
"Bad." Springing off from his spot by the wall, Jacob strode over to the table. His palms flattened against the stone.
Looking up at the tall, imposing Delta commander, Bella sat back on her heels and wiped her face with her sleeve. "It looks like they're planning at least 50% more payload than Riley's initial estimates."
Edward stood and offered her his hand. When she took it, he pulled her up as if she weighed nothing. "How can you tell?"
Bella chewed the inside of her cheek. "See this?" Reaching into her knee pocket, she grabbed the pen she always carried with her journal and used it to trace a fuzzy, oblong shape situated between the two men inside the chamber. "Look at the size of this." She tapped a darker line – what appeared to be a steel plate that bifurcated the cone – and then another oblong shape on the opposite side. "And this. Remember what I told you about Riley's delivery system? About how the final synthesis step could occur mid-flight?"
From behind them, Alice piped in. "It's a binary warhead, like the Bigeye bomb."
Leaning against their makeshift table, Bella hugged her chest. "Exactly. I think I've pieced together the final set of reactants from the files we got from the villa. The files were incomplete… but there was enough there that I have a very good idea. And… it matches up with what I'm seeing here." She glanced around the cave, moving from Delta to Marine to Delta, finally stopping on Edward. "The design that Riley and I had been working on was smaller than what you see here, made for more localized application. With the materials they're using, our design would have only taken up… maybe half to two-thirds of the volume you see here. They've taken what we worked on and… scaled it."
The captain shifted, moving to copy her position against the edge of the slab. "What kind of impact are we talking about?"
Bella's heart stuttered against her sternum. "Hard to say without seeing it up close… but I'd predict that something that size… if the wind conditions were just right…" Her throat bobbed. "A single warhead set up like this could do significant damage to a population the size of… say… D.C." Her eyes fell to the ground once more, automatically locating the same jagged crack. She followed it to the far wall, where it splintered into half a dozen smaller lines that spider-webbed up through the limestone. "We're talking major casualties. Complete chaos."
Half a dozen curses spilled out from around the cave.
"And the good?" Even though he was right there beside her, Edward's voice was so soft that Bella wondered for a second if she'd just imagined him asking. In her periphery, she caught the slow, steady twisting of the tendons along his forearm.
"Before, back when we were still in Israel," Bella started, chewing on her lip. "I don't know if you remember… I told General Cullen that if they figured out a few things with the precursor, they could speed along the development process."
Edward's brows slanted. "You said something about a shortcut using some kind of sulfur instead of a polysulfide of some sort, right?"
Reaching down to her knee pocket again, Bella tugged out her journal. She flipped to a folded-up sheet of notebook paper that she'd shoved between the pages. Spinning around, she spread it out across the stone slab and smoothed out the creases. Dozens of letters, numbers, and arrows littered the page, and in the corners were smudged gray-brown fingerprints. "See this?"
To Edward, it was just a bunch of meaningless scrawl. "What am I seeing?"
Bella ran her forefinger across the sheet, tracing the complex series of reactions. "I copied this over from the shots you took from that villa. This is our good news, Captain." Wearing a small smile that hinted at the same kind of professional satisfaction Edward took when taking down his targets, she thumbed over to the screen. "That… and these reaction formulas right here say that those fuckers haven't figured out my shortcut. At least not yet."
Squinting down at the page full of lead-drawn lines, Jacob scratched his beard. "And that means?"
"Time. This probably buys us at least a few more days than my initial estimate." She directed Jared to flip back to the shots of the southern end of the building and then pointed to the long rows of analytical equipment. "With that kind of horsepower at their disposal, they have to have a decent biochemist on staff. Which means that even without the shortcut, they'll figure it out soon. But still, it's better than nothing."
"How much are we talking?"
Flitting back to the page, she ran through the set of reactions she knew better than her own name. "I'd say we have another week and a half before that mock warhead is the real deal." Her lower lip tucked under her teeth. "Two on the back end, if we're lucky. At least that's what I'd expect if I were to hand it over to someone at DARPA or the Naval Labs."
Edward stepped away from the slab and moved toward the mouth of the cave. Gazing out across the dry, desolate landscape, he crossed his arms and said, "So you're saying we have to take them down in the next ten days?"
Goosebumps erupted across her skin, and she shivered despite the heat. "That's exactly what I'm saying."
With the light streaming in from the entrance and the play of shadows from deeper within, the lines of the captain's face suddenly seemed harsher, like the lethal weapon of a man he was. "Can you secure XR-5 in this kind of situation?"
Bella's eyes shot to his. "You mean can I dismantle an armed warhead?" Carefully, trying to keep her hands from trembling, she refolded the sheet of notebook paper and placed it back inside her journal. "I mean, I know the basics and the theory, of course. I have to, so that the agents I design are compatible with the weaponry." She shook her head. "But I have no idea about the actual field-wiring or anything like that. I wouldn't know where to start."
"Forget the arming mechanism for a second, or even the warhead itself. Are there any neutralization steps for XR-5?"
Her head tilted as she flipped her journal over in her hands. "Incineration, like I said, is tough, but it can be done. Although it'd be easier if I had the right chemicals…" Forehead wrinkling, she trailed off, thinking a moment more. "I could hydrolyze it… probably in place. At least to the point where it'd be ineffective as a weapon without further reaction steps."
"But you'd have to–"
"You'd have to get me inside the compound." Her lips mashed together. "Or somehow bring the warhead to me."
Some unnamable thing in Edward's chest tightened and pulsed – the same sensation he'd felt those few, endless minutes he'd spent waiting for her to finally return to the trucks – and he had the sudden urge to grab her and haul her away from here and everything that this place meant. Nearly choking on it, he started to ask, "What if you sho–"
Edward's head jerked toward Black's sergeant first class, where he sat beside their scientist staring down at a second portable screen propped up on his lap. He glanced back to Bella only once, doing his damnedest to rein in the irrational emotional response that continued to pound away at his chest, before clearing his throat and finally addressing the operator. "What you got?"
Standing, Jared positioned the second screen beside the first. "Sir, we've got an incoming transmission request. Secure line."
"From?" the captain asked as he made his way back inside the cave.
The operator flipped the screen around. In its center was a familiar sword and wings, all in white and set against a background of dark maroon. The sergeant chuckled and side-eyed the two women behind them. "Where else?"
"Put 'em through."
The screen blinked once, and then the emblem disappeared, replaced by the equally familiar dark, olive-skinned, and perpetually amused face of Major El'azar Dayan. A bank of sophisticated computers and screens occupied the room behind him.
The man's expression twisted into a smirk the second Edward stepped in front of the cam. "Seren."
Edward crossed his arms over his chest and cocked a brow. "Rav Seren."
The two men stared at each other through the screen for a long, drawn-out second before the Israeli abruptly snorted and rattled off something in Hebrew – something not at all fit for mixed company if Bella translated correctly. Edward laughed and fired back something just as offensive.
"I heard that," Bella said, stepping beside Edward. She shook her head at the man beside her. "And you, too, Captain."
El'azar snorted again and then pressed his hands to his chest. "Ah, neshama… I see you still grace this one's…" Making a sour face, he motioned to Edward. "Presence. Although I cannot for the life of me figure out why. He is far too serious and sullen for one such as yourself… You should have stayed here in the Negev with me." His bushy brows wagged.
In the background, Alice let out another one of her peals of laughter while across the slab, Black muttered a grouchy, "You got that right," under his breath. Bella just rolled her eyes at all of them and said to the man behind the screen, "How are you, Major?"
The Israeli grinned and tsked. "It's Eli to you, beautiful one. But thank you for asking. Unlike some," he said, gesturing to the Marine next to her again. "You are infinitely polite and well-mannered." He inclined his dark head and then shrugged. "I am as I always am."
Recalling the first time she'd met the man, Bella's lips curved. "You mean, sweating your balls off in the desert?"
The man behind the screen stiffened and then threw his head back and belted out a loud, full-belly laugh that made her want to do the same. "You are a wicked, wicked woman." Eyes still dancing, El'azar turned to Edward. "You're certain that I cannot have her, O Mighty One?"
Edward's lips flattened. "Yes, I am."
El'azar pressed his hands to his heart again, this time with a dramatic sigh. "Ezeh bassa..."
The captain's fists fell to his hips. "Yalla, what have you got?"
"See?" The Israeli looked over to Bella once more. "What did I tell you? Always so serious." El'azar gave her another playful wink, but then, like the captain, the man's expression turned as serious as death itself. "We think we have a positive ID on your target. And at least two of his minions. "
The air in the cave electrified as every Marine and soldier came to life. The two women perched on the boulder behind them jumped down in unison. Emmett, who Bella had assumed had been sleeping, sat up and was on his feet a heartbeat later. And all three Deltas, each one suddenly oozing a sense of contained violence that rivaled that of the Marine beside her, moved in closer.
Edward issued a rapid hand signal to Rosalie, who nodded once and started quietly communicating through her radio to the corporal outside, and then said to El'azar, "Go ahead."
A pair of pictures flashed on the screen. The one on the left was familiar, taken less than 24 hours ago by the same sergeant first class manning the com. The image on the right was new. It was maybe a decade old judging by the style of suit and tie, and the smiling 50-something man in the center showed no sign of injury or scarring. Yet there was no doubt in Edward's mind that the two men in the pictures were one and the same.
"We think his real name is Vladislav Aronović."
Bella's jaw dropped, and before she knew it, words tumbled out of her mouth in a blast of incredulity. "You mean, Professor Vladislav Aronović? As in Dr. Aro? The dead Dr. Aro?"
A stunned, "How do you know him?" came from at least three different directions.
Shaking her head, Bella stared at the pictures on the screen. "I know of him, just like any biochemist from the last two decades would. He was a pioneer in the field of biotoxins." Bella's wild eyes jumped up to Edward's. "But that can't be him. It just can't. He died something like 10 years ago." Her pony-tail whipped around her throat. "He was somewhere in Northern Africa doing research on indigenous species of… fuck."
A shaky hand covered her mouth, and when she spoke, her voice was thin and reedy. "Deathstalkers. He was researching Deathstalkers."
Emmett's baritone thundered from somewhere in the back of the cave. "What the fuck is a Deathstalker?"
Bella winced and peeked behind her to where the big man stood. Arms crossed, his expression was that of bloody murder. Her throat bobbed. "It's a type of…"
Cold, hard, and deathly calm, Edward finished for her. "Scorpion."
Notes: Thanks so much for reading. Sorry for the long delay. I won't bore you with all the reasons and RL blah blah blah, but I will promise that the next chapter won't take nearly so long. It's already half-written. :)
Seren – Captain
Rav Seren – Major
Neshama – soul, used like darling
Ezeh bassa – what a disappointment
Yalla – originally from Arabic, means something like, "Come on, let's go"
Analytical Equipment – several were mentioned: GC (gas chromatography), FTIR (Fourier-transform infrared spectrometry), XRF (X-ray fluorescence spectrometry), ICP-MS (Inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry), and mass spec (mass spectrometry). I won't go into detail on these (unless you guys are seriously interested, lol). Just know they're all types of equipment that help scientists answer two basic questions about the "stuff" they're making: what is it chemically and how much of it did I make.
Cover – recall this is Marine-speak for hat.
Hazmat suit – a protective suit/gear that prevents the wearer from exposure to toxic or hazardous materials. Level A (US), or Type 1 (Europe) is the highest category of protection, consisting of a fully encapsulated suit, self-contained breathing air, and inside-the-suit radio communication.
HK 416 – is an urban assault rifle made by Heckler and Koch. It's very similar to Edward's M4A1 CQBR carbine.
Leatherman – recall this is a type of all-in-one multi-tool, which normally includes a knife blade, a screwdriver, pliers, etc. They're quite handy, but probably overkill for slicing up an apple. (Note from Scooterstale: but do they also include a corkscrew? Now THAT is handy.)
Mark 77 – is the primary incendiary bomb used by the US military. It's a 750-pound bomb with a kerosene fuel-gel mixture. The Mark 77 is the successor of the Mark 47, which used napalm instead of the kerosene fuel-gel mixture. These bombs' purpose is to destroy facilities by fire.
Naugahyde – is a US brand of fake leather, or pleather. It's a bit like Kleenex, in that its brand name is sometimes used as a generalized word for other similar/same products.
Paracord – or parachute cord, or 550 cord, is an infinitely useful type of nylon rope. Thin, somewhat elastic, and fairly strong, it's a general-purpose utility rope used by military and civilians for lashing things together, securing stuff, etc. The inner strings can split out and be used for things like sewing thread, fishing line, trip-wire, etc.
Thermite – is a rather cool compound. It's a mixture of metal oxide and metal powder fuel. When heated, an extremely exothermic oxidation-reduction reaction takes place, which results in very high resultant heat (~2500C). The compound is used in various civilian applications (for example, certain welding or metal cutting applications). It's used by the military in certain types of hand grenades, bombs, and other incendiary devices where the primary goal is to destroy/melt/otherwise disable equipment and/or facilities. When used in large incendiary bombs (usually loaded as clusters of smaller bombs), the impact can be significant.