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Even with the Aurora aircraft’s misted‑methane propulsion system at half power, the Delta Force was hurtling through the night at three times the speed of sound‑over two thousand miles an hour. The repetitive throb of the Pulse Detonation Wave Engines behind them gave the ride a hypnotic rhythm. A hundred feet below, the ocean churned wildly, whipped up by the Aurora’s vacuum wake, which sucked fifty‑foot rooster tails skyward in long parallel sheets behind the plane.

This is the reason the SR‑71 Blackbird was retired, Delta‑One thought.

The Aurora was one of those secret aircraft that nobody was supposed to know existed, but everyone did. Even the Discovery channel had covered Aurora and its testing out at Groom Lake in Nevada. Whether the security leaks had come from the repeated “skyquakes” heard as far away as Los Angeles, or the unfortunate eyewitness sighting by a North Sea oil‑rig driller, or the administrative gaffe that left a description of Aurora in a public copy of the Pentagon budget, nobody would ever know. It hardly mattered. The word was out: The U.S. military had a plane capable of Mach 6 flight, and it was no longer on the drawing board. It was in the skies overhead.

Built by Lockheed, the Aurora looked like a flattened American football. It was 110 feet long, sixty feet wide, smoothly contoured with a crystalline patina of thermal tiles much like the space shuttle. The speed was primarily the result of an exotic new propulsion system known as a Pulse Detonation Wave Engine, which burned a clean, misted, liquid hydrogen and left a telltale pulse contrail in the sky. For this reason, it only flew at night.

Tonight, with the luxury of enormous speed, the Delta Force was taking the long way home, out across the open ocean. Even so, they were overtaking their quarry. At this rate, the Delta Force would be arriving on the eastern seaboard in under an hour, a good two hours before its prey. There had been discussion of tracking and shooting down the plane in question, but the controller rightly feared a radar capture of the incident or the burned wreckage might bring on a massive investigation. It was best to let the plane land as scheduled, the controller had decided. Once it became clear where their quarry intended to land, the Delta Force would move in.

Now, as Aurora streaked over the desolate Labrador Sea, Delta‑One’s CrypTalk indicated an incoming call. He answered.

“The situation has changed,” the electronic voice informed them. “You have another mark before Rachel Sexton and the scientists land.”

Another mark. Delta‑One could feel it. Things were unraveling. The controller’s ship had sprung another leak, and the controller needed them to patch it as fast as possible. The ship would not be leaking, Delta‑One reminded himself, if we had hit our marks successfully on the Milne Ice Shelf. Delta‑One knew damn well he was cleaning up his own mess.

“A fourth party has become involved,” the controller said.

“Who?”

The controller paused a moment‑and then gave them a name.

The three men exchanged startled looks. It was a name they knew well.

No wonder the controller sounded reluctant! Delta‑One thought. For an operation conceived as a “zero‑casualty” venture, the body count and target profile was climbing fast. He felt his sinews tighten as the controller prepared to inform them exactly how and where they would eliminate this new individual.

“The stakes have increased considerably,” the controller said. “Listen closely. I will give you these instructions only once.”