In this military thriller from a Black Ops veteran and author of Deep Cover, a secret government agent fights to stop biochemical terrorism.
They strike without warning, in key locations around the world. In Russia, a Soviet-era storage facility is raided by terrorists. In the Philippines, an important international conference is under siege. In the United States, Dan Morgan is stalked by Russian agents. And at Berkeley, Morgan’s daughter is kidnapped with other students and taken to a remote laboratory. The attacks are neither coincidental nor random. They are part of a carefully orchestrated plan by a new and merciless organization. As Zeta Division struggles to make sense of the international chaos, Dan Morgan races to stop a deadly biochemical weapon—one that Morgan’s daughter is being forced to help build…
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“Fine writing and real insider knowledge.”—Lee Child
“Everything a thriller reader wants.”—Ben Coes
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Three Months Later
Over the Pacific Ocean
The aircraft alarm beeped, and Dan Morgan checked the clock on the fuselage wall.
"That's our cue," he said, as he reached for his helmet.
"Copy that," Peter Conley replied.
Both men put on their helmets, which seemed like they belonged on a space suit — with a hardened top and a bubble of glass in front of the face for visibility. They were also surprisingly lightweight, with a roughly triangular aerodynamic shape that got smaller toward the back of the "head."
Morgan had watched Lincoln Shepard designing them in his lab. It was half a day's work that Shepard would never think about again, but Morgan suspected that it was probably better than anything else used in civilian or military high altitude jumps.
Once Morgan had fastened the helmet to his neck seal, he was breathing pure oxygen instead of the standard oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide mix in the plane's hold. It was supplied by hoses than ran from the wall of the plane to the back of their helmets.
The first few breaths made him lightheaded, but Dan Morgan adjusted to the pure oxygen. They would be on it for the next forty-five minutes. It would take that long for the nitrogen to be purged completely from their bloodstreams. Otherwise, when their plane hit the extreme low pressure of the stratosphere, any nitrogen in their blood would boil and the mission would be over before it began.
Though the helmet was cutting edge, their jumpsuits were standard high altitude jump gear. They offered some protection from the cold, but not enough. The safer and more comfortable option would have been to perform the jump with full pressure suits, but that would add weight and would make it much harder to reach the landing target. And more weight on their bodies meant fewer weapons and ammo strapped to them — which would cause other problems later. So Morgan and Conley had decided that the lower the weight in the air, the greater the chance of success on the ground. The important thing here was that they had a choice.
Diana Bloch had presented them with the mission objectives; the details were left up to them. When asking people to risk their lives, it was the only way to do business as far as Dan was concerned.
But that was not the way they did things at the CIA, which was one of the many reasons why Dan and that institution had parted ways.
The plane rocked from turbulence. Morgan and Conley were strapped into the jump seats that lined the sides of the fuselage. However, the NSA guy in a suit who was sitting behind a desk — and safely behind thick Plexiglas near the front of the plane — was nearly knocked off his seat in front of the computer monitor he was studying.
"You okay up there?" Morgan said.
He felt Conley's eyes on him. He didn't have to look to see his friend was giving him a dirty look that said — leave the kid alone.
"You might want to strap in," Morgan said helpfully.
"Um, I'm okay, Cobra," the young man said, using Morgan's code name. He was in maybe his mid-twenties and wore a suit, with his NSA badge clipped to his lapel.
"Next time make sure they give you a seat belt," Morgan said.
He felt Conley elbow him in the side and gave his friend an innocent look.
"Yes sir," the kid said. Morgan remembered his name: Stevens.
Morgan didn't have anything against the kid, except for the fact that he was sitting in heated, fully-pressurized comfort while Morgan and Conley froze their butts off in the jump section of the plane.
"It will get easier when we hit our altitude. Not enough air at 40,000 feet to make turbulence," Morgan said.
Of course, at that point things would get tricky for the agents. It would start to get really cold in the back of the plane. It was heated — sort of — but when the air got that thin, the heaters couldn't heat what wasn't there. And, still, that was nothing compared to what they would feel when they jumped out of a perfectly good aircraft.
At that point, Stevens would still be sitting in comfort while Morgan and Conley plummeted out of the plane, freezing their butts off even more.
Come to think of it, Morgan did have something against the kid.
The pilot increased their altitude gradually. Forty-five minutes later, as if on cue, the ride smoothed and Morgan knew they had hit the stratosphere.
Though the turbulence was gone, the plane banked frequently, which Morgan knew was necessary to avoid the line of sight of the Chinese satellites overhead.
"Approaching Tibetan airspace, sirs," Stevens said, still a little green around the gills from the recent maneuvers. "Ten minutes until our mark."
It was difficult to hear Stevens' voice through Morgan's helmet, especially since the sound had to travel from the speaker on the wall through the rapidly thinning atmosphere air in the cabin as they approached 40,000 feet.
They couldn't use helmet radios because any radio signals could, potentially, be "heard" by the Chinese. So there had been no transmissions from the aircraft for hours.
"Entering Tibetan airspace, sirs," Stevens said. Morgan gave him a nod. Well, as a practical matter, they were entering Chinese airspace, since the people of Tibet had no more control of their sky then they did over their land. They'd lost that control to the Chinese army in 1950.
However, that was not the reason Morgan and Conley were there today. Their mission was much more ... targeted.
"I'm coordinating with our CIA and naval contacts. They will be ready for you on the other side," Stevens said.
Morgan felt his blood run cold and shot Conley a look. "You're kidding me," he said.
"Stevens, we may have a change of plans," he called out.
"Sir?" Stevens said.
"Morgan ..." Conley began.
"We talked about this," Morgan cut in. "I don't work with the CIA. Ever. What part of that do you have trouble with?"
"There is no CIA directly involved," Conley said.
Conley turned to Stevens. "What's their role here?"
"Logistics and support, Mr. Conley," the young man offered. "We're using their naval liaison," Stevens continued nervously, clearly not knowing what was going on.
"Indirect ... paperwork mostly," Conley said. "Barely even errand boys on this one."
"What part of no —" Morgan began, his temper rising.
"The country needs this mission, Morgan. You know why we're here, you know it's true," Conley said evenly.
That stopped Morgan cold, as Conley knew it would.
"One day you're going to play that card and it's not going to work," Morgan said.
"Not in this lifetime and you know it," Conley said, the easy smile back on his face.
Morgan felt his anger slowly melting away.
"Stevens, why don't you tell your CIA contact to — "
"Morgan," Conley interrupted.
"Tell them to what? What's the message, sir?" Stevens asked.
"No message," Conley replied. "Don't make trouble for him. It's not the kid's fault," Conley said to Morgan.
"No, it's yours," Morgan shot back.
Conley checked the clock on the wall. "Almost time to go to work," Conley said.
"Opening the jump door in two minutes," Stevens called. "Good luck, sirs," he added.
Both men waited until they heard the click as the door started opening. The plane jolted as the opening changed its aerodynamics before leveling out.
Looking out at the open door, Morgan saw a nearly black sky. Beneath that, he could actually see the curvature of the Earth. Well, they were in the stratosphere. And the air pressure was closer to the vacuum of space than it was to standard air pressure at sea level.
He felt the additional chill. Though their protective jumpsuits were the best available — knowing Shepard, probably better — there was no getting around the fact that it was 70 degrees below zero out there.
He and Conley worked quickly. They disconnected their oxygen hoses from the fuselage of the plane and re-connected them to the small bottles of oxygen at their waists. Then they checked the line that tethered them together at the hip, and the smaller one that connected their helmets.
The helmet tether had been Morgan's contribution. Shepard and his engineers had struggled with a communications system for Morgan and Conley on their way down. Simple radio would have been best, but any signals risked being picked up by Chinese satellites, a particular concern given where they were going.
At Zeta headquarters, Morgan had watched the engineers squabble over how strong a signal would be safe for hours. The next day, he'd told Shepard he'd cracked their problem and tossed the young man two soup cans connected by a dozen feet of string.
Now he and his partner were depending on a variation of the same system to keep in touch during their fall to Earth.
Morgan took a few breaths and knew the pressure in their helmets was good; the low-oxygen, low-pressure atmosphere outside would have rendered them unconscious in less than thirty seconds if the helmets weren't working.
He and Conley made their way to the back of the plane and the jump platform. The digital clock above was counting down from sixty seconds.
Then forty seconds.
Morgan gazed out at the Earth and was struck by fact that it appeared as if they were literally jumping into space.
He shot Conley a look.
Ten seconds ...
He kept his eyes forward, finishing the countdown in his head.
When he was a kid, he had briefly dreamed of becoming an astronaut.
Well, now was his chance.
Morgan and Conley jumped at the same time.
His first thought was that they were falling too fast. Morgan had been on jumps before, but not from anywhere near this height, and none of them had felt anything like this. The almost non-existent air pressure didn't provide the normal pushback, and the acceleration was startling. Yet they had to work quickly. Morgan maneuvered himself until he and Conley were both falling face down and he felt the tether at his hip pull tight.
Then he counted to three and spread his arms and legs open, engaging the lift areas of his wingsuit as Conley did the same. Almost immediately, their downward velocity was cut in half as they glided forward, the GPS units on their right wrists telling them which direction to go.
Together, the two men adjusted their position until their heading was correct.
The normal glide ratio for this sort of jump was 2:1, or two feet forward for every 1 foot down. Because of the distance to the landing site, they would have to do a little better, but Morgan trusted that the modifications Shepard had made in the suits would get them there.
Morgan gave his head a slight tug to the left, tightening the second tether that connected their helmets.
Conley's voice filled the air around him.
"How you doin' over there, Morgan?"
"Okay, but I'm thinking of complaining to the airline," he replied. "There really ought to be a meal on a flight that long."
"I hear you brother. Not even peanuts," Conley replied.
"And no movie."
"I was almost glad when they opened the door and kicked us out the back," Conley said, with a chuckle.
The ground still seemed a long way from them. "How do our numbers look?"
"Heading ... airspeed ... all solid," Conley said. "We've got a ways to go, but we should hit the target."
That was good. If they didn't hit their mark precisely, they would miss their even narrower time window. If they were even a mile or two off, they would lose precious time walking to the base. And that meant they would almost certainly run into the soon-to-be-visiting Chinese General and his honor guard.
There were fifty things that could go wrong on this mission if everything went according to plan. The last thing they needed was to face another couple of dozen heavily armed, highly trained, and dangerous troops.
After a couple of minutes in the air, Morgan realized the activity, adrenaline, and exhilaration of flight had almost made him forget the cold. Now that they were more than halfway down it was a bit warmer, or rather, less freezing — barely ten below zero.
By now they were close enough to the ground that Morgan could see mountains and hills. He checked his own heading and identified the mountains that ringed their landing site.
"I see it too," Conley said.
They dropped a little altitude and adjusted their course for approach.
"There," Morgan said, getting his first visual of the small space between the two mountains north of the objective.
"Approach is good. Altitude is good. Speed is right on the money," Conley said. "Thank you for flying — "
And then they dropped.
To Morgan it felt like a giant hand was pushing him down for several long seconds. Then the hand let up.
"What the ..."
"Downdraft," Conley spat out.
They were losing altitude fast, too fast.
Less than two miles away, the pass loomed. It was straight ahead, the bottom of the pass just below their flight path. At this rate, if they were very careful and very lucky when they reached the mountains they would be just a couple of hundred feet below the lip of the pass — which meant they would hit the rocky face of the mountain at a couple of hundred miles an hour.
Morgan had been concerned that there were fifty things that could kill them on this mission.
Turns out it would only take one.CHAPTER 2
"Angling up," Morgan said.
"Just a little," Conley replied.
They could gain some altitude now, but it would cost them speed, which would cost them distance. In the long run, it would still cost them altitude as they lost momentum and started dropping out of the sky.
"Level out. That's a little better," Conley said.
"Better as in we'll make it? Or as in we'll almost make it but still hit the side of the mountain?"
"Could go either way," Conley said. "If we hit, it will be higher up the mountain at least."
"We need to work on our plan," Morgan said.
"We can abort if we do it in the next twenty seconds, but then we'll be walking home."
They had both understood from the beginning that there would be no extraction. They would have to get their own ride out, and that would happen only if they succeeded in their mission.
Morgan did a little math in his head. "Well, there's definitely a chance we'll make it."
"Exactly," Conley said.
"I'd hate to walk home," Morgan said.
"And I'm looking forward to our new ride," Conley said.
That was all the conversation they needed. It was decided. Morgan counted off in his head and then watched as they passed over their last chance to pull their chutes and end the mission early.
And then they dropped again. Not as fast or as far as before, but it was enough. At their current course and speed, they would slam into the mountain ahead of them in less than a minute.
He heard Conley muttering.
Morgan saw the ground rising up — not because they were falling but because the ground under them was now part of the mountain rising to meet them.
"Two thousand feet," Conley said.
"I have an idea," Conley continued. "Angle down, about thirty degrees."
That didn't make sense. That would get them to the side of the mountain quicker, but he didn't argue.
"Mark" Conley said.
Morgan angled himself downward.
They raced toward the ground.
"Pull up," Conley said.
They angled back up and then leveled off at twenty four hundred feet. Pretty good given that they were about 1,000 feet out.
But their speed was down and their 2-to-1 glide ratio was closer to 1.5.
They would never make the pass unless they hit an ...
It forced them up as fast and as hard as that first downdraft, though not for as long.
But it was long enough to put them just over the bottom of the pass ... maybe.
Morgan could see the mountain below them, almost close enough to touch. He kept his concentration and his focus forward. They'd either hit the rocks below ... or miss them.
Morgan and Conley shot out through the pass and into the open air, their altitude increasing as the mountain fell away from them.
There were five hundred feet between the two men and the ground. Then a thousand, then two.
Morgan let out his breath.
"Nice," Conley said. "Close enough for you?"
"Just right," Morgan said.
"Two o'clock," Conley said.
"I see it," Morgan replied.
What happened next was relatively easy. They kept their eyes on the landing site as they detached their hip tether.
"See you on the ground," Conley said.
Then they disconnected the helmet line, breaking their communications link, which was fine, since they didn't need it for this part.
Morgan watched his position and altitude.
Seven hundred feet.
Then six. Five hundred was the floor, the lowest they could go and still have a good jump — a jump they would walk away from.
Of course, that would only work if the chutes deployed. If the parachutes failed, they still had their reserves — which would open at almost precisely the same instant they hit the ground.
Morgan pulled his ripcord and felt the tug of the open chute. His peripheral vision told him that Conley's parachute had deployed as well.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Threat Level Alpha"
Copyright © 2018 Leo J. Maloney.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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