By James H. Cobb
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Desperate to prevent a political and diplomatic firestorm, the U.S. president dispatches a Covert-One team led by Lieutenant Colonel Jon Smith to the crash site. But others have reached the frigid, windswept island first, including an international arms dealer and his crew of vicious mercenaries. As for the Russians, they are lying: a second, even deadlier secret rests within the hulk of the lost bomber, a secret the Russians are willing to kill to protect. Trapped in a polar wilderness, Smith and his team find themselves fighting a savage war on two front–against an enemy they can see and another hiding within their own ranks.
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The Present Day
The Canadian Arctic
Clad in Day-Glo orange parkas and snowmobiling suits, the three rope-linked figures leaned on their ice axes, forcing themselves up the last few yards to their goal. They had made their climb on the southern face of the ridge, its bulk shielding them from the prevailing wind. But now, as they struggled over the lip of the small, bare rock plateau at its peak, the full blast of the polar katabatics raked them, the wind chill driving the effective temperature from merely below freezing to well below zero.
It was a pleasant autumn afternoon on Wednesday Island.
The pale, heatless ball of the sun rolled along the southern horizon, filling the world with the strange, grayish glow of the weeks-long arctic twilight.
Looking down at the surrounding ocean, it was difficult to tell island from sea. The pack was closing in around Wednesday, the new, living ice buckling and jumbling up on the beaches. The only leads of free, dark water to be seen trailed behind the drifting icebergs on the horizon as they resisted the frozen constriction of the coming winter.
To the east, the driving winds had drawn a snow squall across the far end of the island, blurring the second, taller mountain into an ominous dark bulk hinted at behind a ragged curtain of mist.
The vista was that of hell with the furnaces shut down, yet the three who viewed it were of the breed who found such sights exhilarating.
The team leader threw his head back and challenged the wind with a wild wolf howl. "I claim this mountain by right of conquest and hereby name it...What in the hell are we going to name it anyway?"
"You were first man up, Ian," the smallest of the three climbers pointed out, her voice muffled by her wind mask. "So by rights it should be Mount Rutherford."
"Agh, no! This should not be!" the third member of the climbing team protested. "Our lovely Miss Brown is the first lady to climb this formidable peak. It should be Mount Kayla."
"That's very sweet, Stefan, but it still won't rate you more than a handshake back at the station."
Ian Rutherford, an Oxford biology major, chuckled. "I suppose we shouldn't worry about it. No matter what we might name it, we'll just end up calling it West Peak as we always have."
"You suffer from excessive realism, Ian." Stefan Kropodkin, of McGill's cosmic ray research program, grinned into the heavy woolen muffler that covered the lower half of his face.
"I think we need a little realism at the moment." Kayla Brown was in geophysics at Purdue. "We're already an hour off our schedule, and Dr. Creston wasn't too happy about us coming up here in the first place."
"Another man with little romance in his soul," Kropodkin grunted.
"We still have enough time for a few photographs," Rutherford replied, unslinging his rucksack. "Cresty certainly can't object to that."
They saw it as they cautiously worked around the perimeter of the tiny plateau, and it was the sharp eyes of the little geophysicist-to-be from Indiana who made the discovery.
"Hey, guys, what's that? Down there on the glacier."
Rutherford peered down into the saddle between the peaks. There was something there, just barely visible through the snow haze. He shoved his goggles up and pulled his binoculars out of their case. Being careful not to allow their frigid metal to touch his facial skin, he peered through them.
"Bloody hell! There is something down there!" He passed the field glasses to his friend. "What do you think, Stefan?"
The Eastern European looked for a long time. Then he lowered the binoculars. "It's a plane," he said wonderingly, "a plane on the ice."
Huckleberry Ridge Mountain Warfare Training Center
Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan "Jon" Smith U.S. Army, MD, stood with his back to the edge of the cliff and took his final look around.
It was beautiful up here. From this point, one could look southward along the western slope of the Cascade range, the mountains all stone blue-gray, snow-frost white and forest evergreen. Shreds of mist hovered protectively over the lower slopes, and the golden glow of the sunrise streamed through the notchbacks of the ridgeline. With a further twist of his head he could include the distant, shattered cone of Mount St. Helens in his field of vision, a thin haze of steam cupped in the volcano's gaping crater.
It reminded Smith of long-past summers in Yellowstone, and the childhood pride and thrill of packing into the backcountry for the first time with his father and Uncle Ian.
The air especially, chill, sweet, and biting with life. He took a last deep breath of it, relishing the experience, and stepped backward off the edge of the precipice.
His horizon rotated a smooth ninety degrees, and the climbing harness gave him a reassuring hug as the thick green nylon rope laced through his carabiners took up the strain. With his weight held by the rappelling brake and the cleated soles of his Danner "Fort Lewis" mountain boots braced against the lichen-mottled black basalt, he stood on the vertical face of the cliff. He was still new enough to the experience that he grinned with exhilaration. By God, this was better than lab work!
"Okay, Colonel," the loud-hailer–amplified voice of the instructor echoed up from the base of the cliff, "push off and take it easy."
Above, Smith's fellow students, clad in the same forest camouflage that he wore, peered over the cliff edge. This was the big drop, the 150-foot rappelling descent. The slack of the rope trailed away below him, and Smith gave it a final clearing flick. Then he snapped his legs straight, shoving away from the rock and allowing the line to feed through the brake.
In Smith's continuing efforts to balance the wildly diverse aspects of his life, that of soldier, scientist, physician, and spy, this mountain warfare course had been a resounding success.
Over the last three weeks, he had thrown himself into the challenge of the program with a growing enthusiasm, hardening his body with the muscle-cracking wilderness training regime and clearing his thinking after too many days spent buried in the Fort Detrick laboratories of the U.S. Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.
He had revived atrophied combat skills and had learned new ones: rough-terrain orienteering, hostile-climate survival, camouflage, high-angle marksmanship. And he had been introduced to the art of mountaineering. Smith had learned how to use crampons, pitons, and a rock hammer and more critically, how to trust in the rope and the harness, placing in abeyance the instinctive human fears of the fall and the high place.
The rappelling line zipped through the steel loops, the palm of Smith's heavy glove warmed, and his boots jolted against the rock twenty feet farther down the face. He felt his eyes narrow and his face tighten as the adrenaline surge hit, and once more he pushed away and sheered off another forty feet of cliff.
"Easy, sir," the voice from below warned.
For a third time he pushed off, hard, allowing himself to plummet, the rope screaming and the rappelling brake smoking.
"Easy, Colonel...Easy...Easy!...I SAID EASY, GODDAMN IT!"
Smith braked hard, arresting his fall. Pulling himself upright, he dropped boots-first the last few feet to the fir-needle duff at the cliff base. Backing off the bottom end of the rope, he rubbed the scalding heat pulse out of his glove and onto the thigh of his fatigues.
A stocky ranger sergeant in a sand-colored beret came up behind him. "Begging the colonel's pardon, sir," he said sourly, "but I hope you realize that an officer can bust his ass up here just about as bad as an enlisted man or an NCO."
"I'll take your word for it, Top," Smith grinned.
"Then when I say 'EASY, SIR,' I damn well mean it!" The climbing instructor was a twenty-year veteran of both the Seventy-fifth Ranger Regiment and the famed Tenth Mountain Division and thus was a rather privileged individual, even to a light colonel.
Smith sobered and undid the chin strap of his helmet. "I hear you, Sergeant. I got a little full of myself up there. Bad idea. Next time it'll be by the book."
Mollified, the instructor nodded back. "Okay, sir. Beyond being a little wild, that was a good descent."
The instructor went back to overseeing the next student down, and Smith withdrew to the edge of the clearing at the cliff base. Shedding his helmet and harness, he removed a floppy boonie hat from his cargo pocket, slapping it into shape before settling it over his dark, short-trimmed hair.
Jon Smith was a man doing his early forties well: broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted, and taut-muscled from both his recent bout of training and an instinctively vigorous lifestyle. He was handsome in a strong, man's way, his tanned features fine-planed, intent, and somewhat immobile—a face that kept secrets well. His eyes, an unusual shade of dark blue, had the capacity to cut across a room with a penetrating focus.
Taking another deep pull of the clean mountain air, Smith sank down at the base of a towering Douglas fir. This was a world he had lived in once. During an earlier phase of his career, before going into research and USAMRIID, he had done a tour with U.S. Army Special Forces as a combat medical officer on forward deployment with the Teams. It had been a good time, a time of challenges and comradeships. It had been a time of fears and despairs as well, but all in all, a good time.
A random thought had been creeping into his consciousness over the past few days: What about going tactical again, maybe for another tour in Special Forces? What about going back to the real Army for a while?
Smith recognized it to be only a random fancy. He was too senior for the field anymore. The best he could manage would be a desk job, a staff posting, probably right back inside the Washington beltway.
And then, he must confess, he was good at his current researcher's position, and it was a critical one. USAMRIID was America's first line of defense against both bioterrorism and the evolving global disease pool, and Smith was at the cutting edge of that defense. Important duty, undeniably.
And finally, there was his other tasking, the one not listed in his open service record. The one that had been born out of a megalomaniac's nightmare called the Hades Project, and the death of Dr. Sophia Russell, the woman he had loved and had planned to marry. That was a duty not to be denied, either, not if he was to know peace with himself.
Smith leaned back and relaxed against the moss-sheathed trunk of the fir tree, looking on as his classmates took their turn at the long line. Still, today was a good day to be a soldier.
The Camp David Presidential Retreat
The Camp David Presidential Retreat was located some seventy miles outside of Washington, DC, in a carefully isolated section of the Catoctin Mountain Recreation Area.
Its origins extended back to the turbulence of the Second World War, when, concerned about the safety of the presidential yacht, Potomac, the Secret Service requested that Franklin Delano Roosevelt find a new, more securable vacation and rest site in the Washington area.
Such a site was located in Maryland's forested hill country, a summer camp for federal employees built in the mid-1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps as a pilot reclamation project for marginal wasteland.
As a holdover from the days of the Potomac, the camp was staffed by the United States Navy and Marine Corps, a tradition that continued to the present day, and it was originally code-named "USS Shangri-La." The retreat did not gain the name "Camp David" until the 1950s, when it was retitled in honor President Eisenhower's grandson.
Many critical pieces of diplomacy and statesmanship had taken place at the retreat, such as the historic Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel. But for all the meetings or conferences reported by the national media, there were others unreported and shrouded in the deepest secrecy.
Dressed casually in chino slacks, polo shirt, and golfing sweater, President Samuel Adams Castilla looked on as a Merlin helicopter in the dark-blue and gold livery of the presidential squadron sidled in over the helipad, its rotor wash stripping scarlet leaves from the treetops. Beyond the inevitable wary perimeter guard of Marine sentries and Secret Service agents, Castilla waited alone. There was no formal diplomatic greeting planned. No ruffles and flourishes. No onlooking members of the White House press corps.
Castilla's guest had requested it.
That guest was now disembarking from the idling helicopter—a stocky, heavy-jowled man with short-trimmed gray hair and a blue pin-striped suit of European cut. It was worn as if it didn't fit comfortably, as if the wearer was accustomed to a different kind of garb. The instinctive way he started to answer the salute of the Marine sentry at the foot of the helicopter's stairway suggested what that other garb might be.
Castilla, a former governor of New Mexico and still tall, slim, and square-shouldered in his fifties, strode forward, his hand extended. "Welcome to Camp David, General," he said over the idling whine of the Merlin's turbines.
Dimetri Baranov, commanding general of the Thirty-seventh Strategic Air Force Army of the Russian Federation, returned a solid, dry-palmed handclasp. "It is an honor to be here, Mr. President. On behalf of my government, I thank you again for agreeing to meet with me under these...exceptional curcumstances."
"Not at all, General. Our nations share many mutual interests these days. Consultation between our governments is always welcome."
Or at least necessary, Castilla added silently.
The new non-Soviet Russia provided the United States with almost as many challenges as had the old USSR, just in different ways. Corruption-racked, politically unstable, and with its economy still struggling back from the ruins of Communism, the fledgling Russian democracy was perpetually threatening either to backslide into totalitarianism or to collapse altogether. Neither outcome would be favorable for the United States, and Castilla had sworn neither would happen on his watch.
Over considerable resistance from some of the old-school Cold Warriors and congressional budget-cutters, Castilla had rammed a series of thinly disguised foreign aid bills through Congress, working with Federation President Potrenko to plug some of the more critical leaks in the Russian ship of state. Another such bill was undergoing debate at this time, with the issue still very much in doubt.
The last thing the Castilla administration needed was a new Russian complication. However, on the previous evening, a Russian diplomatic aircraft had touched down at Andrews Air Force Base. Baranov had been aboard, bearing a sealed letter from President Potrenko, naming the general as his personal representative and authorizing him to negotiate with President Castilla on "an urgent point of mutual national concern."
Castilla feared this scenario could mean nothing but trouble. Baranov confirmed his fears.
"I regret the information I bear may not be so very welcome, Mr. President." The general's eyes flicked downward for a moment to the locked briefcase he carried.
"I see, General. If you would care to accompany me, at least we can be comfortable as we discuss it."
The Secret Service teams unobtrusively shifted their observation positions as Castilla led his guest around the rock-lined fishpond to Aspen Lodge, the presidential residence at Camp David.
A few minutes later the two men were seated at an Adirondack-style table on the lodge's broad porch, a quietly efficient navy steward serving hot tea, Russian style, in tall silver-filigreed glasses.
Baranov took a polite, disinterested sip. "I thank you for your hospitality, Mr. President."
Castilla, who on a warm fall day probably would have preferred a cold Coors, nodded an acknowledgment. "I gather, General, this matter is rather time critical. How may we assist you and the Federation?"
Baranov removed a small key from the pocket of his vest. Placing the briefcase on the table, he unlocked the latches and removed a folder. Deliberately he laid a series of photographic prints on the tabletop. "I believe, Mr. President, that you might recognize these."
Castilla took up one of the prints. Frowning, he adjusted his titanium-framed glasses and studied it.
It was a grainy black-and-white blowup from a video frame, showing a stark, ice-sheathed backdrop, possibly a glacier's surface. The wreck of a large four-engined aircraft lay centered in the image, essentially intact but with one long, straight wing twisted and buckled back from the crash impact. Castilla was enough of an aviation expert to recognize the wreck as that of a Boeing B-29 heavy bomber, the same kind of aircraft that had been used to bombard Imperial Japan in the closing days of the Second World War and that had delivered the first nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Or so it appeared to be.
"The mystery plane," some media outlets were calling it. Others were referring to it as "the Polar Lady-Be-Good." A scientific expedition on an isolated island in the Canadian Arctic had spotted the wreck on a mountain above their base, and these long-range telephoto images had been flashed around the world by the Internet and the global news networks.
It was the hot feature story of the day, and speculation about the aircraft and the aircrew that had flown it were rife.
"I recognize the picture," Castilla said carefully. "But I am curious as to how this antique aircraft might be a matter of concern for our two nations."
Castilla already knew that the mystery plane was a point of concern for the Russians. It had been mentioned in his recent national security briefings as a peculiar blip on the scope of the National Security Agency.
Over the past few days the Russian government had become frantic over the so-called mystery plane. NSA Internet monitors had noted a massive spike of activity on the part of certain known Russian Federation intelligence nodes, producing hundreds of hits on global infonews sites covering the crash. Hundreds more hits were being generated on sites involving the multinational science expedition that had discovered the wreck, the historic tables of organization of the U.S. Air Force and its record of arctic operations.
Castilla would let the Russians provide their own explanation, although both he and his intelligence advisors had their suspicions.
The Russian kept his eyes fixed on the photographs covering the table. "Before I answer that, Mr. President, I must first ask you a question."
Castilla took up his own filigreed glass. "Please feel free."
Baranov tapped one of the photo prints. "What has the United States government learned about this airplane?"
"We have learned, rather remarkably, that this was not an American Superfortress," Castilla replied, taking a drink of his tea. "The archives of both the U.S. Army Air Force and U.S. Air Force have been carefully examined. While we did lose a small number of B-29 aircraft and their B-50 derivative over the Arctic, all of those downed bombers have been located. In fact, all Boeing B-29s known to have served in the U.S. inventory have been accounted for."
Castilla set his tea glass down. "Some eighty-seven Superfortresses were also provided to Great Britain in 1950. The Royal Air Force called them the Washington. The British Air Ministry has been consulted, and none of their Washingtons were ever lost or even flown over the Canadian Arctic, and all of the aircraft were eventually returned to the United States."
Castilla looked levelly across the table. "Does that answer your question, General?"
Baranov didn't look up for a long moment. "I regret that it does, Mr. President. I must also now, regretfully, inform you that this aircraft may very well belong to us. It could be Russian. And if this is so, it could possibly represent a definite threat to both of our nations and to the world as a whole."
"How so, General?"
"This aircraft may be a Tupolev Tu-4 heavy bomber, code-named by NATO 'the Bull.' It is an aircraft very...similar to your B-29. They were used by our Long Range Aviation Forces, or rather by the Long Range Aviation Forces of the Soviet Union, during the early years of the Cold War. On March fifth of 1953, one such aircraft, radio call sign Misha 124, disappeared on a training exercise over the North Pole. The fate of this aircraft was unknown to us. All radio and radar contact with the bomber was lost, and the wreck was never located."
Baranov took a deep, deliberate breath. "We fear this mystery plane may be the Misha 124."
Castilla frowned. "And why should a Soviet bomber lost on a training exercise over fifty years ago be considered anything more than a relic of the Cold War?"
"Because the Misha 124 was not a simple bombing plane; it was a strategic biological weapons platform, and at the time of its disappearance, it was fully armed."
In spite of the warmth of the afternoon and the hot tea he had consumed, Castilla felt a chill ripple down his spine. "What was the agent?" he demanded.
"Anthrax, Mr. President. Weaponized anthrax. Given your nation's recent concerns in these matters, I'm sure you recognize the disastrous potential."
"All too well, General." Castilla scowled. The megalomaniac with an elementary biological laboratory and delusions of godhood; the whiff of powder sifting from an opened envelope—those were images to haunt a President's mind.
"The Misha 124 was equipped with a dry aerosol dispersal system," Baranov continued. "The bioagent was carried in a sealed stainless steel reservoir mounted in the aircraft's forward bomb bay. Should an in-flight emergency take place, the standard operating procedure would have been for this reservoir to be jettisoned over the open sea or, in this instance, the polar ice pack. But, from the photographs available to us, it is impossible to tell if this procedure was successfully carried out. The reservoir and the agent it contained could still be in the wreck."
"And still dangerous?"
Baranov lifted his hands in frustration. "Very possibly, Mr. President. Given the subfreezing polar environment, the spores could conceivably be as deadly today as they were when first loaded aboard the aircraft."
"We urgently desire the assistance of the United States in this matter, Mr. President. Firstly, to ascertain if this...problem actually exists, and then to deal with it if it does."
The Russian's hands wandered amid the photographs on the table. "I trust, Mr. President, you can understand why my government feels secrecy in this matter is imperative. The revelation that an active and dangerous biological-weapons system of the former Soviet Union has been found on the North American continent could further strain relations between the current Russian Federation and the United States at this critical hour."
"To say the least," Castilla mused grimly. "The Joint Russian-American Counterterrorism Act would go right out the door. Beyond that, any terrorist group or rogue nation on the planet who learned of the Misha crash would leap at the chance to acquire a biological-warfare arsenal simply by picking it up off the ground. And by the way, General, how much active agent are we talking about here? How many pounds, or rather, kilograms?"
"Tons, Mr. President." The Russian's expression was stony. "The Misha 124 was carrying two metric tons of weaponized anthrax."
The Marine Merlin growled away over the treetops, returning General Baranov to Washington, DC, and the Russian embassy while Samuel Adams Castilla walked slowly back to Aspen Lodge. His Secret Service guard held distant cover. It was obvious to the team leader that the POTUS desired only the company of his own thoughts.
A new figure was seated at the table on the lodge porch: a smallish, graying, slope-shouldered man in his sixties. An anonymous kind of individual who worked hard at his anonymity, Nathaniel Frederic Klein did not at all resemble the classic image of a spymaster. At best, he could manage retired businessman or schoolteacher. Yet he was both a service-hardened veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency and the director of the single most secret intelligence-gathering and covert-action force in the western hemisphere.
Early in his first term, President Castilla had been confronted by what had become known as the Hades Program, a ruthless bioterrorism campaign that had caused the deaths of thousands around the world and that had come within a hairsbreadth of killing millions. In his postcrisis assessment of the incident, Castilla had come to certain ominous conclusions about America's capacity to deal with such threats.
The American intelligence and counterintelligence communities, by their sheer size and breadth of responsibility, were becoming clumsy and bureaucratically overburdened. Critical information was being "stovepiped" and was failing to reach its needed destinations. Petty interdepartmental jealousies created unnecessary friction, and a growing number of professional political ass-coverers strangled operational initiative, crippling America's capacity to react to a rapidly changing global situation.
Castilla's had always been an unconventional administration, and his response to the Hades incident had been unconventional as well. He had chosen Fred Klein, an old and trusted family friend, to create an entirely new agency built around a small, handpicked cadre of specialists, military and civilian, from outside the regular national intelligence community.
These "mobile cipher" agents were carefully chosen both for their exceptional and unusual skills and capabilities and for their lack of personal commitments and attachments. They answered only to Klein and Castilla. Financed from national "black" assets outside the conventional congressional budgetary loop, Covert One was the personal action arm of the President of the United States.
That was why Castilla had Klein standing by during his conference with the Russian general.
A beverage cart had been wheeled out beside the table, and a pair of shot glasses, one filled with an amber fluid and the other with water, sat at each place.
"Bourbon and branch, Sam," Klein said, lifting his own drink. "It's a little early in the day, but I thought you might need one."
"I appreciate the thought," Castilla said, sinking into his chair. "You heard it all?"
Klein nodded. "I had a clear pickup on the shotgun mike."
"What do you think?"
Klein smiled without humor. "You're the National Command Authority, Mr. President. You tell me."
Castilla grimaced and lifted his drink. "As it stands, it's a mess. And if we aren't exceedingly careful and extremely lucky, it's going to grow into a vastly larger mess. For certain, if Senator Grenbower gets his hands on this, the Joint Counterterrorism Act is as dead as fair play. Damn it, Fred, the Russians need our help, and we need to give it to them."
Klein lifted an eyebrow. "In essence we're talking about American military aid to the former Soviet Union, monetary and advisory. That still doesn't sit well with a lot of people."
"A Balkanized Russia wouldn't sit well, either! If the Russian Federation disintegrates, as it is threatening to do, we could find ourselves facing Yugoslavia squared!"
- "Don't ever begin a Ludlum novel if you have to go to work the next day."—Chicago Sun-Times
- "Welcome to Robert Ludlum's world...fast pacing, tight plotting, international intrigue."—Cleveland Plain Dealer
- "Packed with all the classic Ludlum elements...the intricately engineered plot thunders forward at breakneck pace. Bottom Line: Perfectly executed."—People (on the Altman Code)
- On Sale
- Nov 1, 2008
- Page Count
- 512 pages