THE CHINOOK CAME beating up into a blood-red sky. It shuddered in the perilous crosscurrents, banking through the thin air. A web of clouds, backlit by the failing sun, streamed by like smoke from a flaming aircraft.
Martin Lindros stared intently out of the military copter carrying him upward into the highest elevations of the Semien mountain range. While it was true that he hadn't been in the field since the Old Man had appointed him to the position of deputy director of Central Intelligence four years ago, he'd made sure that he'd never lost his animal edge. He trained three mornings a week at the CI field agent obstacle course outside Quantico, and every Thursday night at ten he washed away the tedium of vetting electronic intel reports and signing action orders by spending ninety minutes at the firing range, reacquainting himself with every manner of firearm, old, current, and new. Manufacturing action of his own served to assuage his frustration at not being more relevant. All that changed, however, when the Old Man approved his operations proposal for Typhon.
A thin keening knifed through the interior of the CI-modified Chinook. Anders, the commander of Skorpion One, the five-man squad of crack field operatives, nudged him, and he turned.
Peering out the window at the shredding clouds, he saw the wind-ravaged north slope of Ras Dejen. There was something distinctly ominous about the forty-five-hundred-meter mountain, tallest in the Simien range. Perhaps that was because Lindros remembered the local lore: legends of spirits, ancient and evil, who supposedly dwelled on its upper reaches.
The sound of the wind rose to a scream, as if the mountain were trying to tear itself from its roots.
It was time.
Lindros nodded and moved forward to where the pilot sat strapped securely into his seat. The deputy director was in his late thirties, a tall, sandy-haired graduate of Brown who had been recruited into CI during his doctorate in foreign studies at Georgetown. He was whip-smart and as dedicated a general as the DCI could ask for. Bending low so he could be heard over the noise, Lindros gave the pilot the final coordinates, which security dictated he keep to himself until the last possible moment.
He had been in the field just over three weeks. In that time, he'd lost two men. A terrible price to pay. Acceptable losses, the Old Man would say, and he had to retrain himself to think that way if he was to have success in the field. But what price do you put on human life? This was a question that he and Jason Bourne had often debated, without an acceptable answer being reached. Privately, Lindros believed there were some questions to which there was no acceptable answer.
Still, when agents were in the field, that was another matter altogether. “Acceptable losses” had to be accepted. There was no other way. So, yes, the deaths of those two men were acceptable, because in the course of his mission he had ascertained the veracity of the report that a terrorist organization had gotten its hands on a case of triggered spark gaps somewhere in the Horn of Africa. TSGs were small, ultra-high-energy switches, used to turn on and off enormous levels of voltage: high-tech escape valves to protect electronic components such as micro-wave tubes and medical testing devices. They were also used to trigger nuclear bombs.
Starting in Cape Town, Lindros had followed a twisting trail that led from Botswana, to Zambia, through Uganda, to Ambikwa, a tiny agricultural village-no more than a fistful of buildings, a church and a bar among them-amid alpine pastureland on the slope of Ras Dejen. There he had obtained one of the TSGs, which he had immediately sent back to the Old Man via secure courier.
But then something happened, something extraordinary, something horrifying. In the beaten-down bar with a floor of dung and dried blood, he had heard a rumor that the terrorist organization was transshipping more than TSGs out of Ethiopia. If the rumor was true, it had terrifying implications not only for America, but for the entire world, because it meant the terrorists had in their possession the instrument to plunge the globe into nightmare.
Seven minutes later, the Chinook settled into the eye of a dust storm. The small plateau was entirely deserted. Just ahead was an ancient stone wall-a gateway, so the local legends went, to the fearsome home of the demons that dwelled here. Through a gap in the crumbling wall, Lindros knew, lay the almost vertical path to the giant rock buttresses that guarded the summit of Ras Dejen.
Lindros and the men of Skorpion One hit the ground in a crouch. The pilot remained in his chair, keeping the engine revved, the rotors turning. The men wore goggles to protect them from the swirling dust and hail of small pebbles churned up by their transportation, and tiny wireless mikes and earpieces that curled into their ears, facilitating communication over the roar of the rotors. Each was armed with an XM8 Lightweight Assault Rifle capable of firing a blistering 750
rounds per minute.
Lindros led the way across the rough-hewn plateau. Opposite the stone wall was a forbidding cliff face in which there appeared the black, yawning mouth of a cave. All else was dun-colored, ocher, dull red, the blasted landscape of another planet, the road to hell.
Anders deployed his men in standard fashion, sending them first to check obvious hiding places, then to form a secure perimeter. Two of them went to the stone wall to check out its far side.
The other two were assigned to the cave, one to stand at the mouth, the other to make certain the interior was clear.
The wind, rising over the high butte that towered over them, whipped across the bare ground, penetrating their uniforms. Where the rock face didn't drop off precipitously, it towered over them, ominous, muscular, its bare skull magnified in the thin air. Lindros paused at the remnants of a campfire, his attention shifting.
At his side, Anders, like any good commander, was taking readings of the area perimeter from his men. No one lurked behind the stone wall. He listened intently to his second team.
“There's a body in the cave,” the commander reported. “Took a bullet to the brain. Stone-dead.
Otherwise the site's clean.”
Lindros heard Anders's voice in his ear. “This is where we start,” he said, pointing. “The only sign of life in this godforsaken place.”
They squatted down. Anders stirred the charcoal with gloved fingers.
“There's a shallow pit here.” The commander scooped out the cindered debris. “See? The bottom is fire-hardened. Means someone's lit not just one fire but many over the last months, maybe as long as a year.”
Lindros nodded, gave the thumbs-up sign. “Looks like we might be in the right place.” Anxiety lanced through him. It appeared more and more likely that the rumor he'd heard was true. He'd been hoping against hope that it was just that, a rumor; that he'd get up here and find nothing.
Because any other outcome was unthinkable.
Unhooking two devices from his webbed belt, he turned them on, played them over the fire pit.
One was an alpha radiation detector, the other a Geiger counter. What he was looking for, what he was hoping not to find, was a combination of alpha and gamma radiation.
There was no reading from either device at the fire site.
He kept going. Using the fire pit as a central point, he moved in concentric circles, his eyes glued to the meters. He was on his third pass, perhaps a hundred meters from the fire pit, when the alpha detector activated.
“Shit,” he said under his breath.
“Find something?” Anders asked.
Lindros moved off axis and the alpha detector fell silent. Nothing on the Geiger. Well, that was something. An alpha reading, at this level, could come from anything, even, possibly, the mountain itself.
He returned to where the detector had picked up the alpha radiation. Looking up, he saw that he was directly in line with the cave. Slowly, he began walking toward it. The reading on the radiation detector remained constant. Then, perhaps twenty meters from the cave mouth, it ramped up. Lindros paused for a moment to wipe beads of sweat off his upper lip. Christ, he was being forced to acknowledge another nail in the world's coffin. Still-No gamma yet, he told himself. That was something. He held on to that hope for twelve more meters. Then the Geiger counter started up.
Oh, God, gamma radiation in conjunction with alpha. Precisely the signature he was hoping not to find. He felt a line of perspiration trickle down his spine. Cold sweat. He hadn't experienced anything like that since he'd had to make his first kill in the field. Hand-to-hand, desperation and determination on his face and on that of the man trying his best to kill him. Self-preservation.
“Lights.” Lindros had to force out the word through a mouth full of mortal terror. “I need to see that corpse.”
Anders nodded and gave orders to Brick, the man who had made the first foray into the cave.
Brick switched on a xenon torch. The three men entered the gloom.
There were no dead leaves or other organic materials to leaven the sharp mineral reek. They could feel the deadweight of the rock massif above them. Lindros was reminded of the feeling of near suffocation he had experienced when he'd first entered the tombs of the pharaohs down in the depths of Cairo's pyramids.
The bright xenon beam played over the rock walls. In this bleak setting, the male corpse did not look altogether out of place. Shadows fled across it as Brick moved the light. The xenon beam drained it of any color it might have had, making it seem less than human-a zombie out of a horror film. Its position was one of repose, of utter peace, belied by the neat bullet hole in the center of its forehead. The face was turned away, as if it wished to remain in darkness.
“Wasn't a suicide, that's for sure,” Anders said, which had been the starting point of Lindros's own train of thought. “Suicides go for something easy-the mouth is a prime example. This man was murdered by a professional.”
“But why?” Lindros's voice was distracted.
The commander shrugged. “With these people it could be any of a thousand-”
“Get the hell back!”
Lindros shouted so hard into his mike that Brick, who had been circling toward the corpse, leapt back.
“Sorry, sir,” Brick said. “I just wanted to show you something odd.”
“Use the light,” Lindros instructed him. But he already knew what was coming. The moment they had stepped inside the cave both the rad detector and the Geiger counter had beat a terrifying rat-tat-tat against his eyes.
Christ, he thought. Oh, Christ.
The corpse was exceedingly thin, and shockingly young, not out of its teens, surely. Did he have the Semitic features of an Arab? He thought not, but it was nearly impossible to tell because-
“Holy Mother of God!”
Anders saw it then. The corpse had no nose. The center of his face had been eaten away. The ugly pit was black with curdled blood that foamed slowly out as if the body were still alive. As if something were feasting on it from the inside out.
Which, Lindros thought with a wave of nausea, is precisely what is happening.
“What the hell could do that?” Anders said thickly. “Tissue toxin? Virus?”
Lindros turned to Brick. “Did you touch it? Tell me, did you touch the corpse?”
“No, I-” Brick was taken aback. “Am I contaminated?”
“Deputy Director, begging your pardon, sir, what the hell have you gotten us into. I'm used to being in the dark on black-ops missions, but this has crossed another boundary altogether.”
Lindros, on one knee, uncapped a small metal canister and used his gloved finger to gather some of the dirt near the body. Sealing the container tightly, he rose.
“We need to get out of here.” He stared directly into Anders's face.
“Don't worry, Brick. You'll be all right,” he said with the voice of authority. “No more talk.
When they reached the cave mouth and the glare of the blasted, blood-red landscape, Lindros said into his mike, “Anders, as of now that cave is off limits to you and your men. Not even to take a leak. Got it?”
The commander hesitated an instant, his anger, his concern for his men evident on his face.
Then it seemed he shrugged mentally. “Yessir.”
Lindros spent the next ten minutes scouring the plateau with his rad detector and Geiger counter. He very much wanted to know how the contamination had gotten up here-which route had the men carrying it taken? There was no point in looking for the way they had gone. The fact that the man without a nose had been shot to death told him that the group members had discovered in the most horrifying way that they had a radiation leak. They would surely have sealed it before venturing on. But he had no luck now. Away from the cave, both the alpha and gamma radiation vanished completely. Not a hint of a trace remained for him to determine its path.
Finally, he turned back from the perimeter.
“Evacuate the site, Commander.”
“You heard the man,” Anders shouted as he trotted toward the waiting copter. “Let's saddle up, boys!”
Wa'i,“ Fadi said. He knows.
“Surely not.” Abbud ibn Aziz stirred his position beside Fadi. Crouched behind the high butte three hundred meters above the plateau, they served as advance guard for a cadre of perhaps twenty armed men lying low against the rocky ground behind them.
“With these I can see everything. There was a leak.”
“Why weren't we informed?”
There was no reply. None was needed. They had not been informed because of naked fear. Fadi, had he known, would have killed them all-every last one of the Ethiopian transporters. Such were the wages of absolute intimidation.
Fadi, peering through powerful 12x50 Russian military binoculars, scanned to his right to keep Martin Lindros in his sights. The 12x50s provided a dizzyingly small field of view but more than made up for it in their detail. He had seen that the leader of the group-the deputy director of CI-was using both a rad detector and a Geiger counter. This American knew what he was about.
Fadi, a tall, broad-shouldered man, possessed a decidedly charismatic demeanor. When he spoke, everyone in his presence fell silent. He had a handsome, powerful face, the color of his skin deepened further by desert sun and mountain wind. His beard and hair were long and curling, the inky color of a starless midnight. His lips were full and wide. When he smiled the sun seemed to have come down from its place in the heavens to shine directly on his disciples. For Fadi's avowed mission was messianic in nature: to bring hope where there was no hope, to slaughter the thousands that made up the Saudi royal family, to wipe their abomination off the face of the earth, to free his people, to distribute the obscene wealth of the despots, to restore the rightful order to his beloved Arabia. To begin, he knew, he must delink the symbiotic relationship between the Saudi royal family and the government of the United States of America. And to do that he must strike at America, to make a clear statement that was as lasting as it was indelible.
What he must not do was underestimate the capacity of Americans to endure pain. This was a common mistake among his extremist comrades, this is what got them into trouble with their own people, this more than anything else was the source of a life lived without hope.
Fadi was no fool. He had studied the history of the world. Better, he had learned from it. When Nikita Khrushchev had said to America, “We will bury you!” he had meant it in his heart as well as in his soul. But who was it that had been buried? The USSR.
When his extremist comrades said, “We have many lifetimes to bury America,” they were referring to the endless supply of young men who gained their majority each year, from whom they could choose the martyrs to die in battle. But they gave no thought whatsoever to the deaths of these young men. Why should they? Paradise lay waiting with open arms for the martyrs. Yet what, really, had been gained? Was America living without hope? No. Did these acts push America toward a life without hope? Again, no. So what was the answer?
Fadi believed with all his heart and his soul-and most especially with his formidable intellect-that he had found it.
Keeping track of the deputy director through his 12x50s, he saw that the man seemed reluctant to leave. He felt like a bird of prey as he gazed down on the target site. The arrogant American soldiers had climbed into the helicopter, but their commander-Fadi's intel did not extend to his name-would not allow his leader to remain on the plateau unguarded. He was a canny man.
Perhaps his nose smelled something his eyes could not see; perhaps he was only adhering to well-taught discipline. In any case, as the two men stood side by side talking, Fadi knew he would not get a better chance.
“Begin,” he said softly to Abbud ibn Aziz without taking his eyes from the lenses.
Beside him, Abbud ibn Aziz took up the Soviet-made RPG-7 shoulder launcher. He was a stocky man, moon-faced with a cast in his left eye, there since birth. Swiftly and surely, he inserted the tapered, finned warhead into the rocket propulsion tube. The fins on the rotating grenade provided stability, assurance that it would hit its target with a high degree of accuracy.
When he depressed the trigger, the primary system would launch the grenade at 117 meters per second. That ferocious burst of energy would, in turn, ignite the rocket propulsion system within the trailing tube, boosting the warhead speed to 294 meters per second.
Abbud ibn Aziz put his right eye against the optical sight, mounted just behind the trigger. He found the Chinook, thought fleetingly that it was a pity to lose this magnificent war machine. But such an object of desire was not for him. In any event, everything had been meticulously planned by Fadi's brother, down to the trail of clues that had compelled the deputy director of CI out of his office and into the field, that led him a tortuous route to northwestern Ethiopia, thence here to the upper reaches of Ras Dejen.
Abbud ibn Aziz positioned the RPG-7 so that it was aimed at the helicopter's front rotor assembly. He was now one with the weapon, one with the goal of his cadre. He could feel the absolute resolve of his comrades flowing through him like a tide, a wave about to crash onto the enemy shore.
“Remember,” Fadi said.
But Abbud ibn Aziz, a highly skilled armorist, trained by Fadi's brilliant brother in modern war machinery, needed no reminder. The one drawback of the RPG was that upon firing, it emitted a telltale trail of smoke. They would immediately become visible to the enemy. This, too, had been accounted for.
He felt the tap of Fadi's forefinger on his shoulder, which meant their target was in position. His finger curled around the trigger. He took a deep breath, slowly exhaled.
There came the recoil, a hurricane of superheated air. Then the flash-and-boom of the explosion itself, the plume of smoke, the twisted rotor blades rising together from the opposite camps.
Thunderous echoes, like the dull ache in Abbud ibn Aziz's shoulder, were still resounding when Fadi's men rose as one and rushed to the butte, a hundred meters east of where he and Abbud ibn Aziz had been perched and were now scrambling away, where the telltale smoke plume rose.
As the cadre had been taught, it fired a massed fusillade of shots, the expressed rage of the faithful.
Al-Hamdu lil-Allah! Allah be praised! The attack had begun.
One moment Lindros had been telling Anders why he wanted two more minutes on site, the next he felt as if his skull had been crushed by a pile driver. It took him some moments to realize that he was flat on the ground, his mouth filled with dirt. He lifted his head. Burning debris swung crazily through the smoky air, but there was no sound, nothing at all but a peculiar pressure on his eardrums, an inner whooshing, as if a lazy wind had started up inside his head.
Blood ran down his cheeks, hot as tears. The sharp, choking odor of burned rubber and plastics filled his nostrils, but there was something else as well: the heavy underscent of roasting meat.
It was when he tried to roll over that he discovered Anders half lying atop him. The commander had taken the brunt of the blast in an effort to protect him. His face and bared shoulder, where his uniform was burned away, were crisped and smoking. All the hair on his head had been burned off, leaving little more than a skull. Lindros gagged, with a convulsive shudder pushed the corpse off him. He gagged again as he rose to his knees.
A kind of whirring came to him then, strangely muted, as if heard from a great distance. Turning, he saw the members of Skorpion One piling out of the wreckage of the Chinook, firing their semiautomatics as they came.
One of them went down under the withering hail of machine-gun fire. Lindros's next move was instinctual. On his belly, he crawled to the dead man, snatched up his XM8, and began firing.
The battle-hardened men of Skorpion One were both courageous and well trained. They knew when to take their shots and when to take refuge. Nevertheless, as the crossfire started up they were totally unprepared, so concentrated were they on the enemy in front of them. One by one they were shot, most multiple times.
Lindros soldiered on, even after he was the last man standing. Curiously, no one shot at him; not one bullet even came close. He had just begun to wonder about this when his XM8 ran out of ammo. He stood with the smoking assault rifle in his hand, watching the enemy coming down from the butte above him.
They were silent, thin as the ravaged man inside the cave, with the hollow eyes of men who had seen too much blood spilled. Two broke off from the pack and slipped into the smoldering carcass of the Chinook.
Lindros jerked as he heard shots being fired. One of the cadre spun through the open door of the blackened Chinook, but a moment later the other man dragged the bloody pilot out by his collar.
Was he dead or merely unconscious? Lindros longed to know, but the others had enclosed him in a circle. He saw in their faces the peculiar light of the fanatic, a sickly yellow, a flame that could be extinguished only by their own death.
He dropped his useless weapon and they took him, pulling his hands hard behind his back. Men took up the bodies on the ground and dumped them into the Chinook. In their wake, two others advanced with flamethrowers. With unnerving precision, they proceeded to incinerate the helicopter and the dead and wounded men inside it.
Lindros, groggy and bleeding from a number of superficial cuts, watched the supremely coordinated maneuvers. He was surprised and impressed. He was also frightened. Whoever had planned this clever ambush, whoever had trained this cadre was no ordinary terrorist. Out of sight of his captors, he worked the ring he wore off his finger and dropped it into the rocky scree, taking a step to cover it with his shoe. Whoever came after him needed to know that he'd been here, that he hadn't been killed with the rest.
At that moment, the knot of men around him parted and he saw striding toward him a tall, powerful-looking Arab with a bold, desert-chiseled face and large, piercing eyes. Unlike the other terrorists Lindros had interrogated, this one had the mark of civilization on him. The First World had touched him; he had drunk from its technological cup.
Lindros stared into the Arab's dark eyes as they stood, confronting each other.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Lindros,” the terrorist leader said in Arabic.
Lindros continued to stare at him, unblinking.
“Silent American, where is your bluster now?” Smiling, he added: “It's no use pretending. I know you speak Arabic.” He relieved Lindros of both radiation detector and Geiger counter. “I must assume you found what you were looking for.” Feeling through Lindros's pockets, he produced the metal canister. “Ah, yes.” He opened it and poured out the contents between Lindros's boots. “Pity for you the real evidence is long gone. Wouldn't you like to know its destination.” This last was said as a mocking statement, not as a question.
“Your intel is first-rate,” Lindros said in impeccable Arabic, causing a considerable stir among everyone in the cadre, save two men: the leader himself and a stocky man whom Lindros took to be the second in command.
There came the leader's smile again. “I return the compliment.”
Without warning, the leader hit Lindros so hard across the face his teeth snapped together. “My name is Fadi, the redeemer, Martin. You don't mind if I call you Martin? Just as well, as we're going to become intimates over the next several weeks.”
“I don't intend to tell you anything,” Lindros said, abruptly switching to English.
“What you intend and what you will do are two separate things,” Fadi said in equally precise English. He inclined his head. Lindros winced as he felt the wrench on his arms, so savage it threatened to dislocate his shoulders.
“You have chosen to pass on this round.” Fadi's disappointment appeared genuine. “How arrogant of you, how truly unwise. But then, after all, you are American. Americans are nothing if they are not arrogant, eh, Martin. And, truly, unwise.”
Again the thought arose that this was no ordinary terrorist: Fadi knew his name. Through the mounting pain shooting up his arms, Lindros fought to keep his face impassive. Why wasn't he equipped with a cyanide capsule in his mouth disguised as a tooth, like agents in spy novels?
Sooner or later, he suspected, he'd wish he had one. Still, he'd keep up this front for as long as he was able.
“Yes, hide behind your stereotypes,” he said. “You accuse us of not understanding you, but you understand us even less. You don't know me at all.”
“Ah, in this, as in most things, you're wrong, Martin. In point of fact I know you quite well. For some time I have-how do American students put it?-ah, yes, I have made you my major.
Anthropological studies or realpolitik?” He shrugged as if they were two colleagues drinking together. “A matter of semantics.”
His smile broadened as he kissed Lindros on each cheek. “So now we move on to round two.”
When he pulled away, there was blood on his lips.
“For three weeks, you have been looking for me; instead, I have found you.”
He did not wipe away Lindros's blood. Instead, he licked it off.
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