Buried deep in the US defense and special forces architecture is an elite, ultra-black unit, created expressly to prevent weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of terrorists and rogue regimes. Their covert, surgical strikes eliminate grave threats so the rest of America can sleep without fear. Until now.
After returning from a successful operation in Pakistan, the entire team is assassinated within forty-eight hours. Only their leader, Michael Garin, survives.
As the sole survivor and chief suspect of the attack, Garin finds himself on the run from Iranian intelligence operatives bent on tracking and killing him. Even Garin’s own government appears to have turned against him, sending a lethal sniper from the vaunted Delta Force to eliminate the threat they think he’s become.
With enemies coming at him from every direction, Garin’s fight for survival becomes part of a larger conspiracy unfolding on the world’s stage: a catastrophic attack—precipitated by escalating tensions in the Middle East—that will shift the balance of power and plunge the United States of America into oblivion.
From the Hardcover edition.
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The White House
2:18 p.m. EDT
Mr. President, we should not commit to any irreversible course of action, not until we confirm the Russians' and Iranians' true intentions. And our missing operator is vital to such confirmation. We mustn't act before we locate him."
The president examined the faces of the core members of the National Security Council arrayed around the conference table in the Situation Room. Most registered anxiety, others disbelief, perhaps even fear.
Except for James Brandt. The national security advisor appeared calm, almost serene. But inside, he was rattled by the call he'd received only moments earlier.
"Are you familiar, sir, with the phenomenon surrounding the event known as Starfish Prime?"
"The man I'm speaking of, the man we've assumed is on the run after committing numerous acts of unspeakable violence, possesses information that could thwart an event dwarfing Starfish Prime. We've got to find him, sir."
The president stared hard at Brandt. "What's the worst-case scenario if we didn't?"
Brandt appeared to stare right back at the commander in chief. "Not to overstate matters, sir, but the immediate end of the United States as currently constituted."
Six Days Earlier
Punjab Province, Pakistan
4:16 p.m. PKT
There were thirty-five of them-twenty shooters and the rest labor-and they were within moments of acquiring a nuclear device.
Not just one nuke, but several. More than the West would ever, or could ever, expect. Enough to obliterate the entire population of their target and, if deployed shrewdly, to provide second-strike capability. Deterrence and insurance.
In less than two hundred feet they would enter the facility and would meet, at most, token resistance. There might be a brief firefight, but only for show, to fool the West.
They would load the devices on the flatcars they pushed before them. Then they would go to the extraction point, detonating explosives to cover their escape, making it look like the work of terrorists.
Less than two hundred more feet. Then victory and glory. They had trained for more than a year, rehearsed hundreds of times. They knew their assigned roles to the letter. They knew they would be celebrated. They knew they would be heroes.
What they did not know was that they would be martyrs, for less than a hundred feet behind them, death approached.
The tunnel ninety feet below the outskirts of Wah Cantonment was a serpentine affair, winding around hard rock formations for nearly eight hundred yards before coming to a stop beneath the nuclear weapons facility approximately two miles west of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories. From there, a laddered shaft led up to a concealed trapdoor in a seldom-used storage area in a remote part of the facility.
The tunnel wasn't what Mike Garin had imagined during the briefing on the flight from Ramstein Air Base in Germany. It was wide and tall and brightly lit, almost like a miniature metropolitan subway tunnel. The floor was smooth and level and the walls were carved into the earth at precise ninety-degree angles to the floor. It was built deep enough to minimize, if not completely evade, detection by the nuclear facility's vibration sensors or, for that matter, most any other monitoring device.
Not that such detection was likely. Nearly two hundred million US dollars had been paid to both corrupt officers and faithful confederates within and without the facility to ensure that no alarms would be triggered-or, if triggered, would not be reported.
Garin hated tunnels. Most operators did. Tunnels were telescoped kill boxes. No cover, no possibility of lateral movement. Therefore, no effective way to avoid incoming fire unless you were fortunate enough to be near one of the tunnel's twists and turns. Then you might be able to duck behind an earthen bend to avoid a direct frontal hit. But even then, you were just as likely to be struck by bullets ricocheting off the tunnel's walls.
Tunnels were death traps. No margin for error. Even tactical perfection provided little protection.
Nonetheless, Garin led his eight-member team swiftly and stealthily through the labyrinth, pausing before each turn to be sure no sentries were posted around the corner. Somewhere ahead, a force estimated to consist of at least two dozen highly trained, heavily armed men was using the tunnel to gain access to the facility.
If the intelligence reports were accurate, it was only about a hundred more yards before Garin and his team would reach the shaft leading up to the storage area. Accordingly, the odds of encountering the armed force grew with each step he and his men took. It was possible the force was already on its way back, having acquired the holy grail. If they had, and Garin's mission was unsuccessful, the world would soon be facing a crisis unlike almost anything previously witnessed.
Instinctively slowing the pace, Garin signaled his team to stop as they approached another bend angling toward the right. He flattened himself against the right side of the tunnel wall and slowly slid forward until he was able to peek quickly around the curve. Two sentries, standing shoulder to shoulder, alert, carrying KL-7.62s, and glancing expectantly down the tunnel in the direction of the facility.
Garin signaled his findings to the team, lowered his HK416, and after contemplating whether to leave it slung across his torso, lowered it gently to the ground. He withdrew his tactical knife with his right hand, braced for a beat, and then burst around the bend toward the sentry on the left. Garin jammed the knife deep into the left side of the man's neck, ripping its serrated blade across his throat and tearing through skin, muscle, cartilage, and veins as he severed the man's trachea.
The other sentry's brain hadn't yet begun processing the blur of carnage before Garin pivoted a full 180 degrees to his right and plunged the blade into the base of the second man's throat, just above his sternum. A jet of blood spurted from the cavity as Garin retracted the knife. Both sentries collapsed to the ground almost simultaneously, dead.
Elapsed time: a tick under two seconds. Speed, Garin maintained, kills.
He wiped his blade on the second sentry's trousers before sheathing his knife and shouldering his rifle again. He listened for any sounds of movement ahead, then motioned his team to advance.
Stepping lightly over the two corpses, the team moved cautiously and silently, the engagement with the sentries raising expectations of an imminent encounter with the larger force. As they rounded the bend, the tunnel straightened for a full thirty yards before disappearing around another right turn.
Garin sped up the pace. They were exposed while in the straightaway. Shooters shielded behind the bend ahead could cut them down with impunity. An underground slaughterhouse.
Within seconds they approached the break of the next turn. Garin signaled another halt and again went flush against the right wall, his team doing the same, single file, John Gates and Gene Tanski immediately behind him. Garin paused for a moment, alert for any sounds, any vibrations, any whisper of air that might betray human presence.
He darted his head around the corner to take a peek. Still nothing. Only the singular silence of a channel embedded within millions of tons of earth and rock.
Garin turned back slightly toward his team, pointed to himself, and nodded. Then he paused, braced, and spun swiftly around the corner.
Twenty-five feet in front of him stood a man brandishing a rifle who himself had just spun around a corner from the left.
The two men stood staring at each other, absolutely frozen, for two seconds that seemed like ten. Not a single breath, not so much as a blink or a twitch or a flinch between them. Squared off. High noon.
Then a second man began to emerge from the bend behind the point man. And a third.
Garin shot the point man with a three-round burst just above the bridge of his nose, the impact shearing off much of the top half of his head and the rifle's sharp report reverberating down the tunnel. The point man's body toppled backward to the ground.
There was utter silence for another full second, the surrounding earth having quickly absorbed the gunfire's echo. A moment later, John Gates appeared from behind Garin and shot the other two men with a level of precision even Garin could not have surpassed.
And then all hell broke loose.
11:43 p.m. IDT
He was drunk. Again.
To the casual observer, nothing about the Russian would seem amiss. His speech was slow but not slurred; the normally stern visage was more relaxed but still flinty. He was somewhat more talkative but not voluble.
But to a man like Hamid Mansur, who had spent more than three decades making a living-and staying alive-by reading people closely, it was apparent that his guest, reclining comfortably on a low white couch in Mansur's living room, was approaching the red zone of inebriation.
For Mansur's immediate purposes, this was a good thing. He had befriended the Russian scientist shortly after his arrival in Iran with the intent of gathering as much information as possible about what he was doing at the military installation within the mountains just south of Mansur's hometown of Chalus.
The Russian remained guarded even after consuming enough alcohol to fell a camel. But on each such occasion, he would reveal another small piece of the puzzle. It had taken the better part of a year, but Mansur had been able to collect enough disparate kernels of information from the Russian to conclude that the installation formed some part of Iran's nuclear weapons program; and the man sipping chilled vodka across from him was an integral part of that program.
Whatever was inside those mountains appeared to be nearing completion, and although important pieces of the puzzle were still missing, the latest piece filled Mansur with alarm and a compulsion to relay the information to a resourceful Israeli agent who would take appropriate action.
Among the residents of Chalus it was a poorly kept secret that shortly after Iran had begun negotiations with Western powers regarding the scope of its nuclear program, the facility located in the North Alborz Protected Area swarmed with Russians and North Koreans. With only one or two exceptions, the foreigners remained confined to the "research" facility. In truth, Mansur's guest, Dmitri Chernin, represented the sum total of the exceptions, a position accorded him due to his elevated status at the facility. A position, Mansur deduced, that was something akin to a project manager.
Yet even Chernin wasn't permitted to venture outside the heavily guarded gates of the installation without an escort, whose purported responsibility was to act as Chernin's driver, but whose real duty was to act as a minder, a spy, ensuring that the Russian made no unauthorized contacts with local residents or unknown individuals.
Mansur was not merely known to the Iranian regime, but occasionally proved himself quite useful. Now in his mid-sixties, he'd once been one of the more talented agents of the Sazeman-e Ettala'at va Amniyat-e Keshvar, or SAVAK, the ruthless Iranian intelligence agency under the shah. When the shah fell, Mansur was among the few former SAVAK agents not executed or purged, primarily because of his extensive and valuable network of contacts throughout the Middle East-particularly Israel-and he'd demonstrated a fidelity to each of Iran's supreme leaders since Khomeini. Vezaret-e Ettela'at va Amniyat-e Keshvar, or VEVAK, the current ruthless Iranian intelligence agency, used Mansur to gather intelligence from, and pass disinformation to, the regime's adversaries.
What the regime didn't know was that Mansur's professed allegiance was a charade-he'd detested most everything about the Iranian leadership since the revolution. So while feeding the regime inconsequential intel from the various intelligence services throughout the Middle East, he provided useful intel about the Iranian regime to those very same agencies. Mansur had even played a minor but indispensable role in one of the occasional setbacks that had beset the Iranian nuclear program over the years. And although it was a dangerous game, Mansur excelled at it, and it had provided him with a very comfortable lifestyle. One that, at least by Iranian standards, might even be considered luxurious.
Mansur was sufficiently concerned by what he'd heard from Chernin this evening that he planned to contact an Israeli named Ari Singer immediately upon Chernin's departure. But first, Mansur needed to draw as much information about the timeline from his guest as he could.
Assuming a pose of amiable indifference, letting Chernin believe he was controlling the conversation, Mansur asked, "So what will you do when it is finished?"
Chernin shrugged. "I am not sure it matters . . ." Chernin caught himself. "I am not sure, Hamid. I have been working, seemingly day and night, and I have not given it much thought. It will not be a matter of what I do, but of what I do not do."
"Retirement? Is that what you are insinuating? You are not that old, Dmitri."
"Every Russian is born sixty years old."
Mansur smiled. "You are fatigued, yes. I can see that for myself. Fatigue is not the same thing as age."
"It is worse." Chernin took another sip of vodka. "It steals one's optimism. Robs one of time. Makes one a coward."
Mansur sensed an opportunity. "How much more time, Dmitri? Years? Months?"
And just like that, Mansur felt a stab of anxiety. Based on their conversations over the last few weeks, he knew Chernin's work was nearing completion, but he'd assumed at least a few more months remained. So had the analysts to whom Singer had conveyed Mansur's information. This development would dramatically alter timelines, if not strategies, in Tel Aviv. Mansur needed to bring the evening to a close so he could contact Singer. The elf needed to know this now.
Mansur made a show of examining his watch, appearing surprised. "It is nearly midnight. I have an appointment in Tehran in the morning," he lied.
The Russian waved him off and rose from the couch. It was his turn to lie. "I am about to leave, Hamid. Early start for me as well." He keyed his cell phone to alert his driver to pick him up. "Thank you, once again, for dinner. And the vodka. And the cigars." A playful pause. "Did I mention the vodka?"
"Thank you for the company, Dmitri. These days I have few occasions for interesting conversation."
Mansur guided Chernin down the narrow entryway to the door of the apartment, pleased that he was able to so easily manipulate Chernin into departing. Opening the door for the Russian, he clapped him on the shoulder and watched him go down the stairs with surprising alacrity and steadiness for someone who had consumed more than half a bottle of liquor.
From the Hardcover edition.
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