Authors: James R. Hannibal
Titles by James R. Hannibal
James R. Hannibal
BERKLEY BOOKS, NEW YORK
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) LLC
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014
USA â¢ Canada â¢ UK â¢ Ireland â¢ Australia â¢ New Zealand â¢ India â¢ South Africa â¢ China
A Penguin Random House Company
A Berkley Book / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright Â© 2010, 2014 by James R. Hannibal.
by James R. Hannibal copyright Â© 2013 by James R. Hannibal.
Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.
BERKLEYÂ® is a registered trademark of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.
The “B” design is a trademark of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.
For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-19678-0
Berkley eBook edition / November 2014
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
King Khalid Military City
A single F-117 stealth fighter lumbered down the runway at King Khalid Airfieldâits angular black fuselage standing out in sharp contrast to the bleached pavement under the glaring Arabian sun. The crew chief wiped the sweat from his brow and shook his head as he watched it lift precariously into the air. He'd never really thought a jet like that should flyâthe thing looked like a fancy rock, and rocks should stay on the ground where they belong. Certainly it shouldn't fly in the daylight like this.
Daytime flights were usually not part of the Nighthawk repertoire, especially when they were in theater, but the Black Sheep had been doing it with regular frequency ever since they'd arrived in Saudi Arabia. A black jet in broad daylight didn't seem very stealthy at all. On top of that, they were all training missions. There had been several minor strikes against Iraqi targets over the course of the last month, but the Nighthawks were left out of all of them.
thought the crew chief as he began the long walk back to the hangar.
Worrying about the sense of it isn't my job. Ours is not to reason whyÂ .Â .Â . and so on and so on
. Instead, he turned his thoughts toward the ice cream they'd be serving at the mess tent later. Lost in his musings, he failed to take note of the big AWACS aircraft sitting empty at its parking location across the ramp. In fact, the flight line was full of aircraft and none of them had their engines running. King Khalid Airfield was uncharacteristically quiet.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
A half mile away, in a small room beneath King Khalid's main command facility, General Robert Windsor hovered over a pair of sergeants. He paced back and forth and glared at the men as if the fate of the world rested solely upon the speed of their work. His eyes burned through the backs of the sergeants' necks and they quickened their pace, arranging laptop computers and cables atop a folding table.
The small room in which the sergeants worked was known as the Room of Death, or ROD, to the men and women associated with itâthe most secure American location in Saudi Arabia. Buried two floors beneath the main facility, under several yards of concrete, its primary purpose was storing secrets.
The ROD's taupe walls were lined with locking file cabinets stocked with binders, tapes, hard drives, and other forms of classified media. Most of the cabinets also held inventories and access lists for the two rows of tall safes that filled the room's interior. Next to the door sat a single desk with a computer, a printer, and a nameplate that read
MR. JOSEPH MOORE
, but Mr. Moore was conspicuously absent. While many individuals from several different fields knew the combination to one or another of the safes, only Mr. Moore knew them all, and it was a matter of great pride for him. Today he'd been unseated from his throne, exiled from his own empire.
General Windsor smiled for just a moment, thinking of the diminutive bald man, sitting in the office across the hall, slowly coming to grips with the fact that there were still operations that he wasn't cleared for. Then the smile dropped from his lips. “Let's go, gentlemen,” he pushed. “Shadow Zero One is approaching the border and we need to get confirmation.”
The general's men hooked the laptops up to a stack of appliances on a rolling cart. Once the computers were booted up, the sergeants transformed from laborers to technicians, expertly typing commands, bending the machines to the general's will. On the left computer a map appeared with a little blue arrow near the border of Iraq; every ten seconds the little arrow inched forward. The right computer displayed two windows. In one there was a live video feed of a large house on the outskirts of Baghdad, a main residence with a north wing, a south wing, and a circular drive on the east side. The other window held a raw command line, similar to an old DOS prompt. Above the flashing cursor two data lines read:
“Can't you get a better refresh rate on Shadow?” Windsor asked.
“I'm sorry, sir. Ten seconds is the best the software can do.”
“Remind me to have Colonel Walker find me better software, then.”
The sergeant pulled out a small memo pad and made a note.
“There he is,” said the general, turning his attention to the other laptop.
On the screen, a black Mercedes pulled into the driveway, followed by two more. A gaggle of uniformed men piled out of the trailing vehicles and fanned out. One of them spoke into a radio. Then the driver of the lead Mercedes got out, strolled to the right rear door, and pulled it open. A familiar figure stepped out sporting his signature beret and obnoxious black mustache.
“Get the snapshots.”
The sergeant clicked his mouse a few times and a row of pictures appeared at the bottom of the window.
“That one,” snapped Windsor. “Send it.”
The sergeant grabbed the picture with his mouse and dropped it into a folder on the computer's desktop. Then he typed the file location into the command prompt and added the send command. The computer pondered its task and then
flashed on the screen. A few moments later another message popped up:
Suddenly the video in the other window rapidly swung away from the compound and settled on a distant horizon. The general could see the lazily winding path of the Tigris River stretching away to the southeast.
“What happened to the feed?”
“Fargo Two One is bingo, sir. He's RTB,” said one of the sergeants, indicating that the source of the video, a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, was low on fuel and that its operator had turned the remote-controlled airplane toward its recovery base.
The general scowled down at his underling. “You've got to be kidding me.”
“The Predator has been on airborne alert for nearly a day, sir. Don't worry, we have confirmation now and Shadow will be there within minutes. We'll get him.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Fifty miles south of Baghdad, Lieutenant Colonel Jason “Merlin” Boske pulled up the snapshot of the car and its passenger on his right console display and compared it to a hard-copy photograph. The house on the screen matched the house in the photo, except the house in the photo had a little red triangle printed over the south wing. Intelligence was certain that the bunker was there, under that section. Merlin checked his position. He'd be over the target in less than five minutes.
The whole idea of this mission made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. His presence here risked exposing the entire program, and for what? A practice run? No, Colonel Walker had called it something else. A validation. Whatever.
Merlin put his concerns asideâfocusing instead on checking his systems one more time. Four minutes later he called up his infrared targeting system, showing the house in luminescent green. A chill went up his spine. He checked the snapshot again. It was the same house, the same as in the photograph and the same as in the snapshot from the Predator feed.
POTUS isn't gonna like this,
The house was the same, but the vehicles were gone.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
General Windsor's eyes flared as a new message popped up on the right laptop. He balled up his fist and punched one of the aluminum filing cabinets, leaving a large dent. Despite his violent display, the message from Shadow remained on the screen, blinking, taunting him:
SHADOW 01 RTB
Windsor had been setting this up all year. In February POTUS, the President of the United States, had requested that an option be quietly developed. A covert group in the Pentagon came up with the plan: Use progressive strikes to clear a radar path for a Predator, then use the UAV to get real-time coordinates for the target and pass the imagery and location to a stealth fighter. POTUS had liked the idea, but he needed proof. “I'll authorize whatever assets you need,” he said. “Just show me that you can make it happen; everything but the final step.”
By mid-April the operation was under way, removing critical air defense radars in southern Iraq. The Iraqis made it easy, taking potshots at U.S. and British aircraft patrolling the no-fly zoneâgiving justification for retaliation strikes. Those strikes slowly cleared a path through the radar net for the Predator.
Then the Black Sheep of the 8th Fighter Squadron arrived in late July. At Windsor's direction, the stealth fighters flew training missions only, at all hours of the day, hugging the border but never crossing into Iraq. Windsor intended to lull the Iraqis into a false sense of security. Iraqi spies played their part by reporting Nighthawk movements in and out of the airfield and AWACS controllers made subtle references to the stealth fighters' flight paths over unsecure frequencies. Over time, the Iraqis became accustomed to the idea that the Black Sheep were just there to fly training missions and flex American muscle.
Things rose to a climax in August with a couple of F-16 strikes against radars at a pair of surface-to-air missile sites. With the objective radars taken out, Windsor moved forward by diverting an unmanned surveillance plane north on the twenty-seventh as a test case. Not only did the Iraqis see it, they shot it down. It was the first hint of a serious flaw in the plan. Maybe the Predator was just too easy to see on radar.
Intelligence analysts determined which sites might have snagged the UAV and the strikers targeted those sites on the twenty-eighth. That was two weeks ago. Windsor thought it was enough. Clearly it wasn't.
“He saw us coming. They must've picked up the Predator again,” fumed the general, heading for the door. “POTUS wants an option that I can't give him with the assets we have. Clean up this mess. I've got to make a phone call.”
The sergeants began packing up their temporary control center as General Windsor stepped out into the hallway. A passing airman nearly mowed him down. “What's your hurry, mister?” The general was in no mood for juvenile clumsiness.
“Sorry 'bout that, sir,” mumbled the young enlisted man and rushed on without so much as making eye contact.
“What on earth?” He walked after the kid, ready to tear into him, but as his eyes followed the airman down the hallway he noticed several other people rushing into offices. The sound of tense voices emanated from every workspace.
Something was very wrong.