Abidjan, Ivory Coast
MASTER SERGEANT JOHN COOPER ran a hand through his sweaty
dark hair and wondered if he'd live to see another sunset.
"You're sure this will work, Frank?" he asked the team's dark-haired
explosives expert, pushing the negative thought from his
"What I'm sure of, Coop, is that over one hundred children
will be forcibly converted into particulate matter in less than an
hour if we don't try this. That is, unless someone has a better
John and Sergeant First Class Frank Baldwin both looked
across the hood of their Humvee at their commander, waiting to
see if he did indeed have a better idea.
Major Louis Williams stared past the two soldiers at the rusty
swing set between him and the school compound. His face
showed little emotion, except for a firmly clenched jaw. He said
nothing for a full twenty seconds.
John's eyebrows shot up. "Well, sir?"
Williams picked up his Motorola radio and growled into it,
"What have you got, Dan?"
Dan Daly, the team's sniper, answered from his observation
point on the roof of an apartment building across the street from
the school complex. "The leader hasn't moved. I can't tell for sure,
but it looks like the sick kid they released this morning was telling
the truth about the setup inside."
John looked at his watch. Forty-seven minutes. "If we're going
to try Frank's plan, we'd better make it quick."
Major Williams turned to Frank. "Explain this thing to me
again." He gestured to the cylindrical metal object lying on the
hood of the Humvee. "It looks like an artillery shell casing."
Frank sighed, then spoke as one would to a slow child. "It's a
miniature e-bomb, sir. Basically, it's a small Flux Compression
Generator, or FCG, which is a copper tube packed with explosives,
surrounded by a coil of heavy copper wire. The wire is
charged with electricity just before the explosive is detonated,
which creates a ramping pulse of electrical current equivalent to
maybe ten or twenty bolts of lightning. That should be enough of
an EMP to inhibit the use of the enemy's detonators."
Major Williams stared at him. "You're speaking English,
Baldwin. I know you are. It's just not the same English I speak."
John bit back a grin. Granted Frank drove him nuts sometimes
with his smarter-than-thou routine, but it had to be hard
being a genius.
"I think what he's trying to say is, this thing will create an
energy pulse that will toast the bad guys' toys without damaging
the building or the schoolchildren. The sick kid said that he saw
explosives duct taped to the concrete pillars and wall supports on
the first floor, with wires running to a mat the terrorists brought
in with them. It looks like the floor mat out of a car, but it has a
plate of sheet metal on it. The terrorists are taking turns standing
on the plate, never completely stepping off of it."
The major nodded. "So that must be the detonator. And
these yahoos are trying to foil our snipers by setting it up so if
they get knocked down, the whole place blows. And you're saying
this e-bomb will disable their explosives?"
"Not the bombs, sir. Just the circuitry in the detonators."
"What if they have backup methods in place?"
"We have to assume that they do," Frank said. "But this thing
will instantly render everything electronic inoperative. Batteries will
malfunction, wires will melt, lightbulbs will explode. The only way
they could light their demo after the e-bomb goes off is with a manual
nonelectric detonator, like a time fuse. Which is why we'll need
to assault the building immediately once the FCG detonates."
"And be sure to use a manual detonator for our own breach,"
The major rubbed the back of his neck and grimaced. "Have
you tested this device?"
John looked at Frank, whose smarts appeared to fail him for a
moment as he hesitated, then cleared his throat. "Well, not
exactly, sir. The Army successfully used several larger devices like
this on bases around Iraq during the initial invasion in 2003. This
one is just . um . smaller."
The major, an ex-linebacker from Auburn University, picked
up the device and turned it over in his hands like a football.
"Where did you get it, Frank?"
He cleared his throat again. "I built it."
Williams nearly fumbled the thing. "You what?"
John almost laughed at the major's expression. Frank was an
acquired taste, always having a newer and better way of doing
things. Sometimes he was even right.
"Well, I assembled it, anyway." Frank stared at the bomb like
a man might gaze upon a beautiful woman. "I used the first stage
FCG and capacitors from a low-frequency Mark-eighty-four
e-bomb the Air Force . um . wasn't using."
The major slapped his Kevlar-helmeted forehead. "I'm going
to get fired."
John spoke up. "He didn't steal it, sir. It fell off a forklift at
the ammo supply point at Bragg back in January, and they were
going to destroy it as potentially damaged. Frank talked them into
letting us have it. He's carried it with him on our last two deployments,
waiting for an opportunity to try it out."
Williams spat on the ground. "Well, I don't see what other
choice we have. If we go in hot and one of the terrorists falls off of
his magic carpet, we lose. They've promised to blow the place
unless all French and UN peacekeepers leave the country, which
ain't gonna happen." He checked his watch. "So in forty-four
minutes, we lose. Unless ."
He set the cylinder back on the vehicle's hood and looked
toward the high cement wall surrounding the school building. "It
looks like we're fourth down and fifteen and plum out of options.
But how do you propose getting the e-bomb inside the building?"
"Oh, we don't need to, sir," Frank said. "That's what's so great
about it. It can be detonated anywhere within a hundred meters
of the school." He hesitated for a moment. "Which reminds me.
There might be a few, er, side effects."
The major's gaze narrowed. "Like what?"
John bit the inside of his cheek to keep that smile contained.
"Like anything electronic in the area will also be cooked,"
Williams didn't immediately answer, and John leaned against
the Humvee, scanning the ramshackle neighborhood that surrounded
the school. This part of Abidjan was predominantly
Christian, but lately Muslim rebels from the north had been sowing
terror here. As if these people's poverty wasn't miserable
John'd been all over the world in his years in the Special Forces,
and except for the language on the road signs and business signs,
this could be any third-world city. They all shared a certain sense of
despair, as if the people who labored to construct these rickety
dwellings started out with good intentions but at some point were
simply overwhelmed by the Law of Entropy and gave up.
The more places like this John visited, the more he appreciated
the hopefulness he felt when he was back home. America was
the land of optimism, whether its people realized it or not.
He studied the two-story cinderblock homes lining the trash-strewn
street in front of the school. Most had corrugated metal
roofs and no glass in their windows. Concrete walls around some
dwellings showed graffiti in French and Arabic, as well as numerous
pockmarks from previous violence.
The French peacekeepers were holding all civilians behind
barricades they had set up two blocks away. How many of those
people lived in these houses and had children in the school, their
kids' lives in the hands of men willing to kill themselves to earn
Allah's approval through martyrdom?
How can You let kids be treated like this, God? They're so powerless.
You're supposed to protect them, aren't You?
The major nodded abruptly and reached for his radio. "I can
handle a few burnt-out lightbulbs if we save the lives of a hundred
elementary school kids."
Frank's smile was brilliant.
The major gestured toward the hardened troop transport
vehicle the team had brought with them on the mission. "Frank,
have the boys put anything that might get wrecked in the back of
the Cougar HEV transport over there. Radios, night-vision
goggles-everything electronic. Have all other vehicles pull back
far enough so their components won't get fried. We might end up
buying new televisions for everyone in the neighborhood, but I'm
not having the rest of our whiz-bang gear taken out if I can help
it. John, keep one radio for yourself in case we have to abort."
Frank scooped up his e-bomb and trotted off toward the
vehicles. The major turned back to the schematics of the school
laid out over the hood of the Humvee.
"Okay, John. Get your breach team in position on the south
wall. Once we blow that . er . thing, you'll need to hit the school
quick before the bad guys figure out what's happened. If they realize
we've killed their electronics, they just might resort to blowing
this thing the old-fashioned way-if they don't shoot all the kids
first, the rotten cowards!" He spoke the last two words with
enough volume to be heard across the street.
Cowards was a good word. Grown people who went after kids
were cowards. Bullies. What kind of worldview held that murdering
a hundred innocent schoolchildren was the path to heaven,
but touching a piece of bacon could get you damned eternally?
John wasn't even sure he wanted to understand it.
On the other hand, there were people back in the States with
similar philosophies-groups who believed that bombing abortion
clinics scored them points with God, but owning a Rolling
Stones CD was a ticket to hell. Go figure.
John didn't consider himself an expert on the Lord by any
stretch, but something inside him knew that a vindictive and
unjust God wasn't worth the title.
But those were questions for chaplains and clerics. At the
moment, John had time for neither. If God wasn't going to keep
kids and the other innocents of the world safe, he and his men
would do it.
He consulted his watch again. "We've got fifteen minutes."
He keyed the Motorola. "Dan, get ready. We're going for it."