Code to Zero

Code to Zero

by Ken Follett


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In this classic Cold War thriller, #1 New York Times bestselling author Ken Follett puts his own electrifying twist on the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. As the clock counts down to a shocking climax, "Code to Zero's split-second suspense proves that . . . [Follett is] still a hell of a storyteller" (Entertainment Weekly). Look out for Ken's newest book, A Column of Fire, available now.

January, 1958—the darkest hour of the Cold War and the early dawn of the space race. On the launch pad at Cape Canaveral sits America’s best hope to catch up with the Russians: the Explorer I satellite. But at the last moment, the launch is delayed due to weather, even though everyone can see it is a perfectly sunny day.

The real reason for the delay rests deep in the mind of a NASA scientist who has awoken that morning to find his memory completely erased. Knowing only that he’s being followed and watched at every turn, he must find the clues to his own identity before he can discover who is responsible. But even more terrible is the dark secret that they want him to forget. A secret that can destroy the Explorer I—and America’s future. . . . 

Praise for Code to Zero:

"This spy thriller is Follett at his best." —People

"Starts off fast and never slows down. . . . Follett creates a rousing story that never flags." —Chicago Tribune

"Gripping." —The New York Times

"Flawlessly plotted, tautly told, and suspenseful." —Minneapolis Star Tribune

"A winner . . . a jolting joyride." —St. Louis Post-Dispatch 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451216724
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/28/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 128,404
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Ken Follett is one of the world’s best-loved authors, selling more than 160 million copies of his thirty books. Follett’s first bestseller was Eye of the Needle, a spy story set in the Second World War. 

In 1989 The Pillars of the Earth was published, and has since become the author’s most successful novel. It reached number one on bestseller lists around the world and was an Oprah’s Book Club pick.
Its sequels, World Without End and A Column of Fire, proved equally popular, and the Kingsbridge series has sold 38 million copies worldwide.
Follett lives in Hertfordshire, England, with his wife Barbara. Between them they have five children, six grandchildren, and three Labradors.


Hertfordshire, England

Date of Birth:

June 5, 1949

Place of Birth:

Cardiff, Wales


B.A. in Philosophy, University College, London, 1970

Read an Excerpt

5 a.m.

The Jupiter C missile stands on the launch pad at Complex 26, Cape Canaveral. For secrecy, it is draped in vast canvas shrouds that hide everything but its tail, which is that of the Army’s familiar Redstone rocket. But the rest of it, under the concealing cloak, is quite unique . . .

He woke up scared.

Worse than that: he was terrified. His heart was pounding, his breath came in gasps, and his body was taut. It was like a nightmare, except that waking brought no sense of relief. He felt that something dreadful had happened, but he did not know what it was.

He opened his eyes. A faint light from another room dimly illuminated his surroundings, and he made out vague shapes, familiar but sinister. Somewhere nearby, water ran in a cistern.

He tried to make himself calm. He swallowed, took regular breaths, and attempted to think straight. He was lying on a hard floor. He was cold, he hurt everywhere, and he had some kind of hangover, with a headache and a dry mouth and a feeling of nausea.

He sat upright, shaking with fear. There was an unpleasant smell of damp floors washed with strong disinfectant. He recognized the outline of a row of washbasins.

He was in a public toilet.

He felt disgusted. He had been sleeping on the floor of a men’s room. What the hell had happened to him? He concentrated. He was fully dressed, wearing some kind of topcoat and heavy boots, though he had a feeling that these were not his clothes. His panic was subsiding, but in its place came a deeper fear, less hysterical but more rational. What had happened to him was very bad.

He needed light.

He got to his feet. He looked around, peering into the gloom, and guessed where the door might be. Holding his arms out in front of him in case of invisible obstacles, he made his way to a wall. Then he walked crabwise, his hands exploring. He found a cold glassy surface he guessed was a mirror. Then there was a towel roller, then a metal box that might be a slot machine. At last his fingertips touched a switch, and he turned it on.

Bright light flooded white-tiled walls, a concrete floor, and a line of toilets with open doors. In a corner was what looked like a bundle of old clothes. He asked himself how he got here. He concentrated hard. What had happened last night? He could not remember.

The hysterical fear began to return as he realized he could not remember anything at all.

He clenched his teeth to stop himself from crying out. Yesterday . . . the day before . . . nothing. What was his name? He did not know.

He turned toward the row of basins. Above them was a long mirror. In the glass he saw a filthy hobo, dressed in rags, with matted hair, a dirty face, and a crazy, pop-eyed stare. He looked at the hobo for a second; then he was hit by a terrible revelation. He stared back, with a cry of shock, and the man in the mirror did the same. The hobo was himself.

He could no longer hold back the tide of panic. He opened his mouth and, in a voice that shook with terror, he shouted, “Who am I?”


The bundle of old clothes moved. It rolled over, a face appeared, and a voice mumbled, “You’re a bum, Luke, pipe down.”

His name was Luke.

He was pathetically grateful for the knowledge. A name was not much, but it gave him a focus. He stared at his companion. The man wore a ripped tweed coat with a length of string around the waist for a belt. The grimy young face had a crafty look. The man rubbed his eyes and muttered, “My head hurts.”

Luke said, “Who are you?”

“I’m Pete, you retard—

“I can’t—” Luke swallowed, holding down the panic. “I’ve lost my memory!”

“I ain’t surprised. You drank most of a bottle of liquor yesterday. It’s a miracle you didn’t lose your entire mind.” He licked his lips. “I didn’t get hardly any of that goddamn bourbon.”

Bourbon would explain the hangover, Luke thought. “But why would I drink a whole bottle?”

Pete laughed mockingly. “That’s about the dumbest question I ever heard. To get drunk, of course!”

Luke was appalled. He was a drunken bum who slept in public toilets.

He had a raging thirst. He bent over a washbasin, ran the cold water, and drank from the tap. It made him feel better. He wiped his mouth, then forced himself to look in the mirror again.

The face was calmer now. The mad stare had gone, replaced by a look of bewilderment and dismay. The reflection showed a man in his late thirties, with dark hair and blue eyes. He had no beard or mustache, just a heavy growth of dark stubble.

He turned back to his companion. “Luke what?” he said. “What’s my last name?”

“Luke . . . something, how the hell am I supposed to know?”

“How did I get this way? How long has it been going on? Why did it happen?”

Pete got to his feet. “I need some breakfast,” he said.

Luke realized he was hungry. He wondered if he had any money. He searched the pockets of his clothes: the raincoat, the jacket, the pants. All were empty. He had no money, no wallet, not even a handkerchief. No assets, no clues. “I think I’m broke,” he said.

“No kidding,” Pete said sarcastically. “Come on.” He stumbled through a doorway.

Luke followed.

When he emerged into the light, he suffered another shock. He was in a huge temple, empty and eerily silent. Mahogany benches stood in rows on the marble floor, like church pews waiting for a ghostly congregation. Around the vast room, on a high stone lintel atop rows of pillars, surreal stone warriors with helmets and shields stood guard over the holy place. Far above their heads was a vaulted ceiling richly decorated with gilded octagons. The insane thought crossed Luke’s mind that he had been the sacrificial victim in a weird rite that had left him with no memory.

Awestruck, he said, “What is this place?”

“Union Station, Washington, D.C.,” said Pete.

A relay closed in Luke’s mind, and the whole thing made sense. With relief he saw the grime on the walls, the chewing gum trodden into the marble floor, and the candy wrappers and cigarette packs in the corners, and he felt foolish. He was in a grandiose train station, early in the morning before it filled up with passengers. He had scared himself, like a child imagining monsters in a darkened bedroom.

Pete headed for a triumphal arch marked exit, and Luke hurried after him.

An aggressive voice called, “Hey! Hey, you!”

Pete said, “Oh-oh.” He quickened his step.

A stout man in a tight-fitting railroad uniform bore down on them, full of righteous indignation. “Where did you bums spring from?”

Pete whined, “We’re leaving, we’re leaving.”

Luke was humiliated to be chased out of a train station by a fat official.

The man was not content just to get rid of them. “You been sleeping here, ain’t you?” he protested, following hard on their heels. “You know that ain’t allowed.”

It angered Luke to be lectured like a schoolboy, even though he guessed he deserved it. He had slept in the damn toilet. He suppressed a retort and walked faster.

“This ain’t a flophouse,” the man went on. “Damn bums, now scram!” He shoved Luke’s shoulder.

Luke turned suddenly and confronted the man. “Don’t touch me,” he said. He was surprised by the quiet menace in his own voice. The official stopped short. “We’re leaving, so you don’t need to do or say anything more—is that clear?”

The man took a big step backward, looking scared.

Pete took Luke’s arm. “Let’s go.”

Luke felt ashamed. The guy was an officious twerp, but Luke and Pete were vagrants, and a railroad employee had the right to throw them out. Luke had no business to intimidate him.

They passed through the majestic archway. It was dark outside. A few cars were parked around the traffic circle in front of the station, but the streets were quiet. The air was bitterly cold, and Luke drew his ragged clothes closer about him. It was winter, a frosty morning in Washington, maybe January or February.

He wondered what year it was.

Pete turned left, apparently sure where he was going. Luke followed. “Where are we headed?” he asked.

“I know a gospel shop on H Street where we can get free breakfast, so long as you don’t mind singing a hymn or two.”

“I’m starving. I’ll sing a whole oratorio.”

Pete confidently followed a zigzag route through a low-rent neighborhood. The city was not yet awake. The houses were dark and the stores shuttered, the greasy spoons and the newsstands not yet open. Glancing at a bedroom window hung with cheap curtains, Luke imagined a man inside, fast asleep under a pile of blankets, his wife warm beside him; and he felt a pang of envy. It seemed that he belonged out here, in the predawn community of men and women who ventured into the cold streets while ordinary people slept on: the man in work clothes shuffling to an early-morning job; the young bicycle rider muffled in scarf and gloves; the solitary woman smoking in the brightly lit interior of a bus.

His mind seethed with anxious questions. How long had he been a drunk? Had he ever tried to dry out? Did he have any family who might help him? Where had he met Pete? Where did they get the booze? Where did they drink it? But Pete’s manner was taciturn, and Luke controlled his impatience, hoping Pete might be more forthcoming when he had some food inside him.

They came to a small church standing defiantly between a cinema and a smoke shop. They entered by a side door and went down a flight of stairs to the basement. Luke found himself in a long room with a low ceiling—the crypt, he guessed. At one end he saw an upright piano and a small pulpit, at the other, a kitchen range. In between were three rows of trestle tables with benches. Three bums sat there, one at each table, staring patiently into space. At the kitchen end, a dumpy woman stirred a big pot. Beside her, a gray-bearded man wearing a clerical collar looked up from a coffee urn and smiled. “Come in, come in!” he said cheerfully. “Come in to the warm.” Luke regarded him warily, wondering if he was for real.

It was warm, stiflingly so after the wintry air outside. Luke unbuttoned his grubby trenchcoat. Pete said, “Morning, Pastor Lonegan.”

The pastor said, “Have you been here before? I’ve forgotten your name.”

“I’m Pete. He’s Luke.”

“Two disciples!” His bonhomie seemed genuine. “You’re a little early for breakfast, but there’s fresh coffee.”

Luke wondered how Lonegan maintained his cheery disposition when he had to get up this early to serve breakfast to a roomful of catatonic deadbeats.

The pastor poured coffee into thick mugs. “Milk and sugar?”

Luke did not know whether he liked milk and sugar in his coffee. “Yes, thank you,” he said, guessing. He accepted the mug and sipped the coffee. It tasted sickeningly creamy and sweet. He guessed he normally took it black. But it assuaged his hunger, and he drank it all quickly.

“We’ll have a word of prayer in a few minutes,” said the pastor. “By the time we’re done, Mrs. Lonegan’s famous oatmeal should be cooked to perfection.”

Luke decided his suspicion had been unworthy. Pastor Lonegan was what he seemed: a cheerful guy who liked to help people.

Luke and Pete sat at the rough plank table, and Luke studied his companion. Until now, he had noticed only the dirty face and ragged clothes. Now he saw that Pete had none of the marks of a long-term drunk: no broken veins, no dry skin flaking off the face, no cuts or bruises. Perhaps he was too young—only about twenty-five, Luke guessed. But Pete was slightly disfigured. He had a dark red birthmark that ran from his right ear to his jawline. His teeth were uneven and discolored. The dark mustache had probably been grown to distract attention from his bad teeth, back in the days when he cared about his appearance. Luke sensed suppressed anger in him. He guessed that Pete resented the world, maybe for making him ugly, maybe for some other reason. He probably had a theory that the country was being ruined by some group he hated: Chinese immigrants, or uppity Negroes, or a shadowy club of ten rich men who secretly controlled the stock market.

“What are you staring at?” Pete said.

Luke shrugged and did not reply. On the table was a newspaper folded open at the crossword, and a stub of pencil. Luke glanced idly at the grid, picked up the pencil, and started to fill in the answers.

More bums drifted in. Mrs. Lonegan put out a stack of heavy bowls and a pile of spoons. Luke got all the crossword clues but one—“Small place in Denmark,” six letters. Pastor Lonegan looked over his shoulder at the filled-out grid, raised his eyebrows in surprise, and said quietly to his wife, “O! what a noble mind is here o’erthrown.”

Luke immediately got the last clue—HAMLET—and wrote it in. Then he thought, How did I know that?

He unfolded the paper and looked at the front page for the date. It was Wednesday, January 29, 1958. His eye was caught by the headline U.S. MOON STAYS EARTHBOUND. He read on:

Cape Canaveral, Tuesday: The U.S. Navy today abandoned a second attempt to launch its space rocket, Vanguard, after multiple technical problems.

The decision comes two months after the first Vanguard launch ended in humiliating disaster when the rocket exploded two seconds after ignition.

American hopes of launching a space satellite to rival the Soviet Sputnik now rest with the Army’s rival Jupiter missile.

The piano sounded a strident chord, and Luke looked up. Mrs. Lonegan was playing the introductory notes of a familiar hymn. She and her husband began to sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and Luke joined in, pleased he could remember it.

Bourbon had a strange effect, he thought. He could do the crossword and sing a hymn from memory, but he did not know his mother’s name. Perhaps he had been drinking for years and had damaged his brain. He wondered how he could have let such a thing happen.

After the hymn, Pastor Lonegan read some Bible verses, then told them all that they could be saved. Here was a group that really needed saving, Luke thought. All the same, he was not tempted to put his faith in Jesus. First he needed to find out who he was.

The pastor extemporized a prayer, they sang grace, and then the men lined up and Mrs. Lonegan served them hot oatmeal with syrup. Luke ate three bowls. Afterward, he felt much better. His hangover was receding fast.

Impatient to resume his questions, he approached the pastor. “Sir, have you seen me here before? I’ve lost my memory.”

Lonegan looked hard at him. “You know, I don’t believe I have. But I meet hundreds of people every week, and I could be mistaken. How old are you?”

“I don’t know,” Luke said, feeling foolish.

“Late thirties, I’d say. You haven’t been living rough very long. It takes its toll on a man. But you walk with a spring in your step, your skin is clear under the dirt, and you’re still alert enough to do a crossword puzzle. Quit drinking now, and you could lead a normal life again.”

Luke wondered how many times the pastor had said that. “I’m going to try,” he promised.

“If you need help, just ask.” A young man who appeared to be mentally handicapped was persistently patting Lonegan’s arm, and he turned to him with a patient smile.

Luke spoke to Pete. “How long have you known me?”

“I don’t know. You been around a while.”

“Where did we spend the night before last?”

“Relax, will you? Your memory will come back sooner or later.”

“I have to find out where I’m from.”

Pete hesitated. “What we need is a beer,” he said. “Help us think straight.” He turned for the door.

Luke grabbed his arm. “I don’t want a beer,” he said decisively. Pete did not want him to dig into his past, it seemed. Perhaps he was afraid of losing a companion. Well, that was too bad. Luke had more important things to do than keep Pete company. “In fact,” he said, “I think I’d like to be alone for a while.”

“What are you, Greta Garbo?”

“I’m serious.”

“You need me to look out for you. You can’t make it on your own. Hell, you can’t even remember how old you are.”

Pete had a desperate look in his eyes, but Luke was unmoved. “I appreciate your concern, but you’re not helping me find out who I am.”

After a moment Pete shrugged. “You got a right.” He turned to the door again. “See you around, maybe.”


Pete went out. Luke shook Pastor Lonegan’s hand. “Thank you for everything,” he said.

“I hope you find what you’re looking for,” said the pastor.

Luke went up the stairs and out into the street. Pete was on the next block, speaking to a man in a green gabardine raincoat with a matching cap—begging the price of a beer, Luke guessed. He walked in the opposite direction and turned around the first corner.

It was still dark. Luke’s feet were cold, and he realized he was not wearing socks under his boots. As he hurried on, a light flurry of snow fell. After a few minutes, he eased his pace. He had no reason to rush. It made no difference whether he walked fast or slow. He stopped and took shelter in a doorway.

He had nowhere to go.

—Reprinted from Code To Zero by Ken Follett by permission of Signet, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2000, Ken Follett. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.can’t you see?”

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Gripping.”—The New York Times

“This spy thriller is Follett at his best.”—People

Code to Zero’s split-second suspense proves that nearly a quarter century after his breakthrough novel, Eye of the Needle…[Follett is] still a hell of a storyteller.”—Entertainment Weekly

“Absorbing, tightly plotted…Suspense junkies won't be disappointed.”—Publishers Weekly

“Starts off fast and never slows down…Follett creates a rousing story that never flags.”—Chicago Tribune

“Flawlessly plotted, tautly told and suspenseful.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“A winner…a jolting joyride.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Customer Reviews

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Code to Zero 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 73 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As always Follett wraps suspense and intrigue around a histery/science lesson in a very enjoyable way. It requires suspence of reallity on the part of the reader, but if it didn't it woulndn't be fun! Just a bit too slow to start but once it got going it was great.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a fun read...but not up to the usual thriller that Follett is known for...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
First Ken Follett book that I have read. Great discription of both the beginnings of the CIA and Americans entrance into the space race. Durning a time America was in a world war people were also taking sides on how they view freedom. Look forward too another great read by Ken Follett.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although Code to Zero wasn't super good, I was actually pretty sad that it had to end. At first, I thought this was going to be an extremely good book but then it started getting too obvious. I kind of figured out the ending already and the book also tends to stay too long on a certain point. Aside from that, I totally recommend this book to everyone else!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Espionage is at the core of this Cold War era thriller and the suspense sizzles. The time is 1958 when the space race was young and the Soviets seemed to be outdistancing the America. The protagonist is an inventive, complex study - he's Dr. Claude Lucas, an important cog in a new space launch. However, he's also a victim of amnesia, an apparent vagrant in Washington D.C.'s Union Station. Toss in the CIA, a covey of spies, and an old college buddy of Lucas's who is more foe than friend. Some might deem this a classic take on chased and chasers - not so. Thanks to the deft Mr. Follett, it's a no-holds-barred, riveting epic. And, so are the readings. Frank Muller, who has been featured on over 150 audiobooks, offers a splendid rendering of crisp, character driven dialogue in the two abridged versions on cassette and CD. While Obie award-winner George Guidall, an actor for 40 plus years, reads the unabridged version. He takes sinister and dramatic to their zenith.
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AshRyan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
At first, this seemed like a pretty typical espionage thriller and nothing too special or exciting. But as the story progressed, the more I got involved in it and enjoyed it. The space race element was intriguing, but it was the characters that really got me hooked. Through their history and relationships, which unfold to the reader as the amnesiac main character rediscovers them, Follett dramatizes how communism ultimately means the sacrifice of all one's own personal values, everything and everyone he holds most dear. This makes for high drama, conflict that is meaningful both intellectually and emotionally as these elements are united in the story. Quite well done.
jewelryladypam on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was terrific! I chose this one after visiting Kennedy Space Center, and I was not disappointed! Would highly recommend and I give it 5 stars. It had it all - good characterization, well-paced plot that gradually builds to a last-50-pages crescendo, suspense, romance (not sappy), history, and was thought-provoking. I found it so well-written that I can't wait to read more by Follett.
jo-jo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Code to Zero is a book that is packed with mystery, suspense, espionage, and love that leaves you perched on the edge of your seat until it is completed. I wasn't sure what to expect from Follett, as this is the first book that I have read (listened to) by him. When Luke wakes up in a Washington D.C. train station dressed like a bum and with a case of amnesia, he finds himself having to rely on little clues to help piece is life together. Throughout the story, pieces of his memory come back to him through flashbacks. He learns that he is married to his college sweetheart, Elspeth, but just cannot understand how they became married. He had a later memory that put him in a very heated and romantic relationship with Billie, also a college friend, but just doesn't understand how that relationship dissolved.As the book progressses Luke learns that he is actually a rocket scientist and the launch of Explorer I may be in jeopardy. I think that everyone is aware of the animosity that developed from space programs between the Russians and Americans and this book really highlighted the intensity of that period of time very well.Between the CIA, the KGB, and the double agents Luke really wasn't sure who to trust towards the end of this novel. He had to rely on his instincts and make quick decisions that would affect his future and American history.I don't want to go into too much detail as this book is categorized as a suspense/thriller, but I really did enjoy it, especially as an audiobook, and will more than likely read more of Follett's work in the future.
SLuce on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Really enjoyed- good thriller.
Neilsantos on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I liked it. Man, do I miss the Cold War; and I definately need a silencer. Maybe next Xmas...of course it's a Xmas gift, what do you think 'Silent Night' is all about?
DaddyPupcake on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a good story. I felt that is was pretty exciting and the subject was unique. I'm not sure that a normal person would do some of the things that the characters did in the story but I guess that's all right because it is only fiction after all. All in all I believe that this book was money well spent.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Liked it a lot it kept me busy anticipating what his buddies were doing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hard to put down. Liked the historical facts at the beginning of each chapter
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The start of the story is slow but it becomes fast paced.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great read.
TRFeller More than 1 year ago
I do not recall ever reading this Cold War spy thriller, but it felt very familiar to me and I was expecting the plot twists. Of course, I have read many spy thrillers, including others by Follett, so it may just be familiarity with the genre. This novel is set in January, 1958, and centers on the launch of Explorer I, the first successful American launch of a satellite with flashbacks to scenes set from 1941 to 1954. The central character is Claude “Luke” Lucas, a rocket scientist who works for the U.S.Army at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. On the day of the launch he wakes up in Washington, D.C. with amnesia and is being followed by C.I.A. agents led by an old friend of his, Anthony Carroll. He gradually learns about himself and a plot to destroy the satellite from his wife Elspeth, former lover Billie, and another old friend Bern. It is very well crafted, and all the characters are interesting, even the villains who are not sociopaths and have reasons for their actions.
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MLIII More than 1 year ago
I just read a review below and couldn't agree more. This book is a great page turner but definitely not Follett's best work. However,the writing is great, and Follett does a great job linking a storyline.
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