Jake Reynolds leaned back in his seat, thinking that it was going to be a long night. These types of trips didn’t happen too often, but they were the entire purpose for which the 25-year-old former Ranger had been employed. Another nine contractors sat with him in the back of the truck’s cargo compartment. They had served in various special operations units, and a few of them were still in 19th or 20th Group, the Special Forces National Guard components.

Highway 70 was long and lonely at three in the morning, which was exactly why the convoy was traveling on it. Five blacked-out SUVs surrounded a tractor-trailer truck that cruised along just over the speed limit. The Department of Energy vehicles only traveled in the dead of night when transporting highly sensitive cargo. Just behind the convoy, and several hundred feet up in the air, a Little Bird helicopter provided overwatch.

The contractors were locked in the back of the truck with the cargo, the last and final line of defense. They wore OD green flight suits, body armor, and had HK416 rifles slung around their necks. The reality of their job was that it was boring as hell. Mostly just qualifying out on the range and the occasional long-distance transport job. Despite the mundane nature of the work, the cargo was so sensitive that the U.S. government hired the best to ensure its safety.

The highway they were on cut straight through the state of Missouri as they drove from one secure DOE facility to the next. The ex-Ranger chugged some more water and sat patiently. It was times like this he missed the excitement of rolling out on midnight raids with the 2nd Ranger Battalion.

There was no way he could have known that tonight would be the hairiest mission of his career.

Jake was rocked back in his seat as the entire vehicle shook, his rifle swinging up and smacking him in the face, opening a ragged cut above his eyebrow.

Outside, the entire highway split into pieces and rose up into the air. The two SUVs in the lead floated into the night like matchbox cars, turning sideways and then upside down before gravity could inevitably bring them back down to the ground. The tractor-trailer driver slammed on the brakes, then jerked the wheel in a desperate attempt to prevent the truck from jackknifing.

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Several more improvised explosive devices were detonated, taking out two more SUVs. The remaining escort vehicle slid to a stop as the first two that had been propelled into the air crashed back down in a rain of debris. The doors on the surviving SUV were flung open and more contractors in OD flight suits jumped out, just as a linear ambush along the side of the road initiated with fully automatic fire.

The pilot of the Little Bird pulled hard on the stick, bringing the agile little helicopter back around on the convoy. The two contractors riding on the external pods attached to the side of the Little Bird spotted the muzzle flashes coming from the treeline, but the pilots could not identify any white-hot thermal signatures on their forward-looking infrared system.

The pilot clicked his mic to transmit over their secure communications net.

“Prairie Fire! I say again, Prairie Fire!”

The distress code was the final word the pilot was able to get out before an SA-7 surface-to-air missile slammed into the side of the helicopter. The Little Bird was knocked out of the air and crashed into the forest on the opposite side of the highway in a brilliant ball of red and yellow fire.

In the back of the tractor trailer, Jake wiped at his forehead and tried to blink blood out of his eyes. As he reached down and undid his seatbelt, he realized he couldn’t hear anything. His ears were ringing, but he wasn’t sure why.

The other contractors were coughing and struggling with their seat belts. A few of them fell out of their seats as they tried to stand. Jake struggled to his feet and jacked a round into the chamber of his HK rifle.

Over the ringing in his ears, he could now make out the staccato bursts of gunfire from outside. Rounds were thudding into the side of the truck. Thankfully, the armored cargo compartment kept them safe, at least for the time being.

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Their team leader, a retired sergeant major, was already barking orders as the other contractors were racking rounds into the chambers of their rifles. He was pointing to the door at the end of the compartment.

Even though he couldn’t hear him, the message was clear to Jake.

They were the last line of defense.