America’s top operatives are on a collision course with Russia’s deadliest weapon in this novella by the acclaimed author and Black Ops veteran.
The Trans-Siberian Railway is the longest rail line in the world. But it could be the shortest trip of Alex Morgan’s life—and the last. The daughter of CIA veteran Dan Morgan, Alex is on a dangerous assignment outside Vladivostok, Russia, when she boards the train to make her escape. But she’s not the only passenger with a hidden agenda.Now Dan Morgan has an impossible choice to make. Either he saves his daughter before fighter jets blow up the train, or he stops a madman from annihilating the world. Either way, this train ride is a one-way ticket to World War III.
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Alex Morgan was lying face down on a hillock of freezing Russian snow.
She had been there for more than two hours, barely moving, and now her body was starting to rebel. It didn't matter that she was stuffed in a cocoon of polypropylene thermals, Icelandic socks, Sorel mountain boots, a bone- white Gore-Tex suit and a polar bear Inuit hat. The temperature had dropped to minus eight degrees Celsius. She felt like one of those wooden sticks wrapped in an ice cream bar.
Suck it up, Morgan, she told herself as she tried to stop her teeth from chattering. Just make the shot.
To her left and right were lines of enormous pines, the edge of the forest from which she'd crawled. Their branches speared upwards into an inky sky, needles barely fluttering in the windless night. Below her, out front, the hillock dropped off into waves of avalanche snow before smoothing out at the bottom across a vast plain of unmarred white — maybe three kilometers across and surrounded by more pine-crested hills. A couple of trees in the snow bowl were bent under coats of gleaming ice.
It looked like a scene from Dr. Zhivago, an old movie her father, Dan Morgan, liked — except she wasn't watching it next to Dad on a couch. She was in it, up to her neck.
The first sound that reached her frozen ears was a thin, distant squeal, like someone turning a rusty pump handle. Then came the rumble of a piston engine. She squinted as a track-equipped Sno-Cat vehicle emerged from between two faraway hills on the right and started inching to the center of the snow bowl. Then, from the left, a Russian ZiL military truck appeared, crawling cautiously forward as well.
Game on, Alex thought as she reached to her left with one Gore- Tex glove and carefully slipped the white tarp from her rifle. She glanced up at the sky, where a frothy filigree of clouds was splitting at the center — revealing a huge, glowing, perfect orb. Her teeth stopped chattering, and she smiled.
Alex loved a sniper's moon.
A day earlier, she'd arrived in Vladivostok aboard a ZIM Lines tramp steamer — a 650-foot container vessel that had six berths for adventurous passengers. Zeta Division analysts knew that Russian border controls at the ports were tight, so she'd come off the boat with nothing but her US passport, visa, winter clothes, and a backpack containing her photographic gear. No weapons but a ceramic, undetectable Benchmade boot knife.
From there she'd found her way to a prearranged safe house, where she picked up her sniper-hide clothing, rifle, ammunition, and rangefinder. Then she'd moved to a second garage location, scooped up her motorcycle, and headed north for Razdolnoye — a nothing little town on the road to Ussuriysk.
She'd had Lincoln Shepard talking in her ear comm — using GPS back in Boston and satellite overheads — to get her off the main road at Razdolnoye, twenty klicks west, and then here to this snow-cone hill. She'd hauled all her gear, plus a pair of short skis, up through the forest as the night fell, hard and cold. Then she'd said good-bye to Linc, pulled the comm out, and stripped the battery. Her dad had taught her that. If Linc sneezed at the wrong time, he could screw up her shot, and she wasn't going to get a second chance.
The Sno-Cat and the ZiL were approaching each other toward the middle of the snow bowl. Alex rolled to her right, popped the top of her snow suit open and pulled a Sig Sauer Kilo rangefinder monocular from the relative warmth of her chest. She rolled back onto her stomach, pushed her snow goggles up on her white fur hat, and peered through the scope.
The Russian ZiL's windows were all frosted up. She couldn't tell how many men were in the cab, but that didn't matter. It was an old Soviet vehicle, which she knew was manned by rebel Ukrainians. In the back, under the canvas cover, was Satan's pitchfork, a high-yield tactical nuke lifted from Ukrainian military inventory.
The Sno-Cat's windows were heated and clear, and she could plainly see four figures inside. One of them was Colonel Shin Kwan Hyo of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Pyongyang had just tested its latest long-range ballistic missile, the Unha-3. It couldn't carry a heavy payload, such as the bulky North Korean atomic warheads, but it had a range of ten thousand kilometers. Pop a compact tactical nuke in the nose cone, and the DPRK could take out Los Angeles. Alex thought the Hollywood whackos could use some pruning, but not this way.
In a couple of minutes those two vehicles were going to meet, and the world's power balance would irrevocably change for the worse.
She figured Colonel Hyo would be easy to spot. He'd be the one carrying a briefcase, or satchel, of cold, hard cash. Plus, she had a very clear image of his face in her mind. Lily Randall had described exactly what he looked like — thick arching eyebrows, black eyes, a flat nose, and a white scar to the left of his thin lips. It was the face that had sneered down at Lily for hours while Hyo tortured the hell out of her in China. Lily was Alex's friend — a very close friend. Alex only wished she could send Hyo a good-bye note along with her bullet.
The vehicles slowed to a stop, facing each other at twenty meters — engines idling, exhausts blowing steam in the air. Their occupants started to get out, forming a small cluster in the glow of the headlights. Alex pressed the rangefinder trigger — 730 meters, or 2,395 feet, with a downward angle of five degrees. It would be a long shot, just at the end of her rifle's effective range. Could she do it? Damn straight she could, but now she had to move fast.
She slithered to her left through the snow and got behind her Accuracy International Arctic Warfare. It was a beautiful weapon in lime green furniture, with a free-floating stainless steel barrel, and a Schmidt & Bender 6x24 PMII variable magnification scope. And hers was the special-ops version, with a folding stock and suppressor. She pulled the glove covers off her fingers, adjusted the bipod, popped up the scope covers, and nestled the beast to her cheek. It felt like being kissed by an ice cube.
Alex didn't need a range card. She'd memorized every possible variable, which was sort of amusing since she'd been so lousy at math in college. Maybe it was a matter of motivation. She started running calculations in her head as she peered through the scope, worked the bolt quietly, and seated a round in the breech. Linc had told her the rifle would already be zeroed; he'd better have been right. And she'd warned him to tell the armorers not to clean the barrel afterward; a pristine barrel could give you an off-the-mark, cold bore shot.
Okay, M118 Special Ball ammo, 7.62×51mm, range at 730 meters ... That'll mean a bullet drop of minus seventy-nine inches. Zero wind, so no lateral adjustment. Got to compensate for the suppressor, which slightly increases muzzle velocity, so kick the bullet drop back up to minus seventy-eight inches.
She reached for the scope's elevation knob and turned it, counting off minute-of-angle clicks, which tilted the front of the scope downward. This meant that when she set the crosshairs on Hyo's face, her barrel would actually be tilted up, shooting at a spot six-and-a-half feet above his head. Gravity would pull the bullet down precisely that much and, hopefully, ruin his life.
She pulled the scarf up over her nose so her lung steam wouldn't fog up the scope and pressed her eye socket to the rubber ring. Her heart rate picked up, thumping through her suit against the hard pack snow. The shapes of five men filled her reticle, huddled close and talking. The two on the left were Ukrainians, easy to spot by their leopard camouflage, fur hats, and AK-47s. On the right were two North Koreans in full-body black ski suits — also slinging weapons — but she couldn't tell what kind. In the middle, facing her, was a broad-shouldered man wearing a long winter coat — collar turned up — and a fur hat with the ear flaps snapped skyward. Next to his right boot a dark briefcase sat in the snow. But was that Hyo?
Then he lifted a gloved hand to his lips, one of the Ukrainians extended a fist, and a cigarette lighter flamed up. His face glowed yellow as he dragged on the cigarette, blew out the smoke, and smiled. Nice white scar, right next to his snarling lips.
Wait! She remembered she'd have to compensate for the five-degree downward angle. Okay, Colonel John Plaster's drop table ... I'll have to hold low ... Five degrees means multiply seventy-eight drop inches by point zero zero four ... uhh ... hold low on the target by a third of an inch. Aim for the throat.
Her hands were trembling. By pure force of will, she sent what was left of her body heat into her fingers, balled them into tight fists, and slowly released. Better. She turned the scope's magnification ring and filled the reticle with Hyo's ugly face, sitting it right above the vertical crosshair post. She slipped her right thumb into the rifle's thumb hole, curled her fingers around the icy grip, and barely touched the trigger, easing it past the first stage until she felt the secondary pressure.
Hyo was laughing at something, his black eyes open to the sky as his lung steam poured from his mouth. Laugh it up, mofo, Alex thought as she inhaled a breath, released it halfway, and held it. Her entire body stilled except for one thing: her trigger finger.
She heard her dad's voice in her head: "Don't squeeze the trigger with your finger. Squeeze it with your mind. And always let the shot surprise you."
The crosshairs jumped as the bullet left the barrel and the butt pad bucked her shoulder. Because of the suppressor, the only sound the rifle made was like a closed-mouth sneeze, and there was barely a flash. Alex stared through the scope. A second went by, then another. Hyo pulled the cigarette from his mouth. Then his head exploded.
Alex didn't wait. She knew the rest of those men were in shock, slimed with Hyo's blood and brain matter, and scrambling to bury themselves in the snow or to haul ass back into their vehicles. She shifted her shoulders to the right, cranking the barrel left, and took a bead on the ZiL's cargo bed as she worked the bolt. She fired again. While that round was still in the air, she put one more down range. If she was lucky, a round might hit the nuke warhead. It wouldn't set it off, but it would make it useless.
She quickly shifted left, swinging the barrel to the right toward the Sno-Cat. Now she could hear thin, panicky shouts echoing from the surrounding hills, and the Sno-Cat was roaring backward. She laid her crosshairs two feet behind the moving cab, squeezed off another shot, and then raised her head up, both eyes open. The Sno-Cat's side window shattered, and it skittered across the snow like a drunken ice skater.
Enough. Time to get the hell out of Dodge.
She snapped her scope covers down, her bipod up, jammed her rangefinder into her Gore-Tex suit, and slithered backward into the tree line — leaving a gouge in the snow like a sea turtle's tail. She rolled over, sat up, swung the rifle behind her, shoved her arms in the double slings, and staggered upright. She was breathing hard now, almost panting with the adrenaline surge, and then she heard the first gunshots. They sounded wild, un-aimed, which made sense since her suppressor had masked her location. Then a short AK-47 burst sliced off some branches just above her head.
Okay ... wrong!
She took off, tramping downhill through the maze of black pine trunks. The forest was about a hundred feet deep, but then it ended at the head of a five-hundred-foot slope — the snow gleaming in the moonlight, marred only by her own footprints from her climb uphill. Her short skis were right where she'd left them, sticking up like a pair of rabbit ears. She yanked them out, slipped her boots into the old-fashioned cable bindings, pushed off hard, and squatted low as she heard more gunshots whip-cracking through the trees above and behind her.
She made a dead-straight run down the hill, no turns, picking up so much speed she wasn't sure she'd be able to stop. Then she spotted the low mound of hand-shoveled snow with her signal twig jutting up. She sat hard on her left buttock and skidded in, showering a plume of snow.
She kicked off her skis, got up, and hurled them away as far as she could. Then she shoved her gloves in the snow mound up to her elbows and grunted hard as she hauled herself backward. Up popped a Ural 750cc Russian motorcycle — the Sahara model, sand tan with a black engine. She'd already named it.
"Come on, Natasha," Alex whispered as she jumped on, cranked the ignition, and stamped on the starter. "Growl for me, baby!"
The engine did as she asked, and Alex hunkered low, twisted the throttle, fishtailed onto the icy road, and sped off like a demon back toward Razdolnoye.
* * *
By the time she got close to the bridge over the western vein of the Razdolnaya River, she had her ear comm fired back up, and Linc was talking to her.
"You should see it coming up in about one klick," he said. "Looks like an old British Bailey bridge."
"I see it," said Alex as she took a swipe at her snow goggles. "You picking up any radio chatter, Linc?"
"Negative. I don't think the Ukes and the NKs will be complaining to the Russians. Did you pass any traffic?"
"One truck," Alex said as she slowed the bike on the bridge. The heavy steel structure was perched about fifty feet above the river, its roaring black water peppered with swirling ice floes. "If the driver saw my rifle, he probably thought I was out for some biathlon practice."
Linc laughed. "Diana's very pleased, by the way."
Linc hesitated, but he just had to ask. "What'd you feel when you hit him?"
"Recoil," Alex said. She got off the bike, looked around, and stamped the kickstand down. "I hate this part, Linc," she complained.
"Just do it," he said. "It's only a tool. We'll buy you a new one."
"Yeah, but not this one."
She unslung her rifle, kissed it, and leaned through the girders. Then she let it go and watched it slowly spinning down through the darkness. She waited until it made a tiny splash and disappeared. Then she pulled out her rangefinder and got rid of that too.
"Done," she said.
"Outstanding," Linc said. "Get crankin'."
An hour later, she pulled into the outskirts of Ussuriysk. She was exhausted, shivering, and hungry. Her last two Power Bars hadn't done much, and she'd finished all the water in her pocket flask. Thankfully, Linc was with her, so she didn't have to navigate or think much. He guided her along the snow-shouldered streets of the small Russian town, past one pretty church with gleaming red onion-spire caps, and then into the mouth of a dark, slimy alleyway that had frozen bedsheets crackling from clotheslines strung across the apartments above. Two blocks down at the end of the alley, she could see the back of a tavern that must have been a hundred years old.
Alex stopped the bike and dismounted. "Guess it's time to dump Natasha too."
"Don't worry about her," Linc said. "She'll get recycled."
"Is that a pun?"
She stripped out of her sniper cocoon, fur cap, and goggles, leaving her dressed in a blue-black Mountain Hardwear jacket, jeans, and boots. She found a garbage can that reeked of rotten fish and stuffed everything deep inside, including her sniper gloves — they'd be covered with gunfire residue. Then she pulled a back pack from the Ural's saddlebag, rummaged past her photography gear, slipped into a pair of girlie-pink woolen gloves and matching ski cap, whispered "Thanks" to Natasha, and walked.
"How's my train timing?" she asked Linc as she clipped along the alleyway.
"Perfect. It's just pulling in from Vladivostok. But those things can sit in the station for two hours or be gone in five minutes. Better hustle."
Alex walked faster as the rear service door of the tavern loomed. She yanked it open and strode right through the steam-fogged kitchen, where a couple of Mongolian cooks stared at her. Then she pushed through the doors and into the tavern. It was long and dark, filled with rough-hewn tables and benches, with a heavy wooden bar on the right. The place was packed with nothing but men, and in one corner, a balalaika musician strummed Russian folk songs. His half-in-the-bag audience sang along while their beers slopped over their tankards.
Excerpted from "Dark Territory"
Copyright © 2018 Leo J. Maloney.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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