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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Tom Clancy's Op-Center: Dark Zone

Tom Clancy's Op-Center (Volume 16)

Created by Tom Clancy and Steve Pieczenik, Written by Jeff Rovin and George Galdorisi

St. Martin's Griffin

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CHAPTER ONE


New York, New York

June 2, 11:25 AM

“It is said that a diplomat is someone who is able to deceive his friends but never his enemies.”

Douglas Flannery brushed windblown strands of gray hair from in front of his sunglasses as he looked up at the speaker. The sixty-two-year-old former ambassador was sitting on a bench near South Street Seaport, watching the late-morning sun play on the East River, mesmerized by the shards of light leaping and stabbing constantly as water taxis and ferries shot by. He was thinking back to the last time he had sat beside a river, waiting for her. It was on the older, western right bank of the Dnieper River, in a park with winter-bared trees and lean squirrels emboldened by hunger. There were squirrels here, too, but they were well fed.

He stared briefly at the woman who had spoken, took her in with surprising equanimity—surprising, given how they had parted—before turning back toward the hypnotic water. She looked well, and he was glad of that; but it was the woman’s accent that had stirred an immediate and overpowering rise of emotions. The inflection was Ukrainian, starting far back in the throat and possessing a somewhat nasal quality. It was an accent Flannery had grown accustomed to during the eight years in which he served as the United States ambassador in Kiev. Though he was fluent in the language—he held a master’s degree in translation from NYU—he had never quite mastered a precise accent, since most of his contacts had been in writing.

“I have heard that said,” Flannery replied. “Which is why, after thirty-plus years, I’ve learned that a good diplomat treats everyone equally—as a potential adversary.”

“Even an old friend and ally?”

“Everyone,” he said, his body tensing, the word sounding harsher than he had intended. He relaxed his shoulders. The conflict in Crimea had done that to all of them—made them callous, or worse.

“I see,” the woman replied quietly.

“Events change us, alliances challenge us,” Flannery said in an apologetic tone. “In our work, ‘old’ doesn’t mean settled. You still have to start over again.”

“What is the saying? ‘Everything old is new again’?”

Flannery nodded and took another look at the familiar figure as she sat easily on the opposite end of the bench. The woman was in her late thirties. She had dark eyes, a long neck, and a broad, open face framed by black hair worn in twin ponytails. Her powder-blue jogging suit was speckled with perspiration. Swallowing a mouthful of water, she began to text as she spoke.

“I suppose even friends and allies want something, often without knowing it,” she said.

“Inevitably,” he agreed. “Though I continue to believe that there may be rare exceptions. People who just want to say hello or reconnect. Otherwise, I might become a cynic.”

She gave him a sidelong look. “You know what I remember best, Douglas? I remember watching you with the Australian ambassador when he called after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down. So many of his countrymen lost, and you could not have been more sincerely compassionate. You will always be a humanist.”

“That was three years ago, another life,” he said. He met her glance, and then they both looked away.

In 2011, three years before the hostilities began in Crimea, Galina Petrenko—who had been relocated at age two from Chernivitz after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster—had secured a mission position as an ADC, an arrivals and departures coordinator who helped orient and acclimate American staff. Flannery had been impressed by her work ethic, her patriotism, and her courage: after two years at the embassy she had been drafted, but was turned down when a medical exam revealed Stage 1 thyroid cancer. She went back to the mission, missing only a few days of work to undergo treatment. Risking her job and her freedom, Galina had spied on her employers to transmit any potentially useful scrap of information to the ZSU, the Zbroyni Syly Ukrayiny—the Ukrainian military. Flannery was forced to have her dismissed, though he checked on her through mutual acquaintances. He heard that she had gone to work for a lieutenant general at the Sluzhba Zovnishn’oyi Rozvidky Ukrayiny, the Foreign Intelligence Service, and was now working as a translator for the Permanent Mission of Ukraine to the United Nations. He was not surprised to hear from her after his appointment as a fellow of the York Organization for Peace had been announced two weeks before. The think tank was located on Pearl Street, in a three-story-tall manor-style building from the Revolutionary era. Financed by wealthy Eastern European expatriates, York was deeply involved in analyzing and guiding the politics of the region.

“How is your health?” Flannery asked.

“Two years without remission, three to go,” she said. A brow went up. “Unless you’re referring to something else?”

“I meant the…” He touched his throat as if he were loath to say the word. “Though there is a rumor that you are involved with Russians here,” he added. “Buying information?”

“We buy from them, they buy from us—it is an honest arrangement, no one is deceived,” she said.

“That also lets you watch each other,” Flannery noted.

“Yes, which is why I asked you to meet me on the river,” she said. “A short walk from your office but a decent run for me, and it will take a monitor at least another ten minutes to catch up.”

Flannery made a point of not looking north. It would indicate a level of confidence that could put him in jeopardy. “Do you have any backup?” he asked.

“Not today. He is pursuing his own contacts.”

Flannery felt an old, familiar feeling. The Galina he once knew—warm, smart, attentive—was still very much in evidence, though those qualities had a newly burnished edge. They were not enough to be off-putting, but they were enough to make him wary.

“So what do you want, Galina? I’m due back at a symposium at noon.”

“For lunch?”

“For peace.”

“Most of the people are there for the free food,” she said. “You know, Douglas, I never knew which you disliked more in Kiev, the borscht or the small talk.”

“Neither. As much as I dislike a slow verbal massage like the one I’m getting now,” he said. “You and I did not part on the best of terms, but I always appreciated your directness.”

“Fair enough,” she replied, setting her smartphone in her lap and taking another swallow of water before continuing. “I phoned, Douglas, because we need someone inside Suhoputnye Voyska Rossiyskoy Federatsii. Our people undercover in the Kremlin have disappeared amid rumors that six armored columns are being readied as the spearhead for a renewed invasion force. The ZSU wants information on the tanks and their deployment to make a preemptive strike.”

Flannery turned to her abruptly. “You want to attack Russian troops and tanks in Russia?”

“We don’t want them setting a foot deeper in our soil,” she replied.

“How—where have you been preparing for this?” the diplomat asked. As far as he knew, his own nation’s Department of Defense was unaware of any such preparations.

“Do you really want to know?” she asked.

“If I’m to believe you, yes,” he replied.

“All right. It’s very ingenious,” she said. “We use VRS in a secret facility. Only a handful of people know of this training center’s existence.”

“Virtual-reality simulations?” Flannery said, openly astonished.

“It’s the boot camp for the next generation of soldiers,” she said. “You’d be surprised. Some of our new recruits suffered PTSD without ever leaving their chairs. They had to be replaced.”

“‘New recruits,’” he said. “Are you talking about regular military, or paramilitary?”

Galina was stubbornly silent.

“And this facility,” he said. “At least tell me where it is?”

“I’m sorry, I cannot do that,” she replied.

“That is madness,” Flannery said. “All of it. You understand that this will provoke a massive retaliation.”

“We understand that if the ZSU never takes the fight to them Putin wins by attrition,” she said. “And—there are other precautions we are taking. Please. Before we can do anything, we need intelligence.”

“Then count me out,” he told her. “I don’t want to expedite a reckless suicide.”

Galina stared thoughtfully out at the river. “Douglas, if you won’t help, then our people will be forced to proceed under the assumption that such an attack is being readied,” she said bluntly. “Participating, you have the ability to prevent needless bloodshed.”

“Or help trigger it by confirming your fears,” he said.

“In that case, helping us end this quickly may save lives.”

If Flannery had possessed an appetite, he would have lost it. Imagined scenes of combat filled his mind, the grainy green tint of night-vision goggles sparked by the crisp cries of gunfire and screaming—shouted commands, agonized injuries. The region had never been a bed of tranquillity, with ancient ethnic and religious strife, two World Wars, and then the decades as Soviet Socialist Republics. But York was working hard with the heads of local governments and relief groups to try to sow at least the seeds of peace.

“I have to think about this,” Flannery said. “How much may I share with my colleagues?”

Galina checked the time on her smartphone and stood. “As much as you see need to, though time is obviously critical.”

“How soon do your people plan to move?”

Galina briefly looked down at him. “It will be this month,” she said. “That is all I can say.” She waggled the phone she was holding. “I have a burner the Russians haven’t hacked. Call me on it? You have the number.”

Flannery nodded noncommittally.

The woman sent the number to Flannery’s phone and, with a lingering look at him—an expression of resolve—ran off to the north, back toward the United Nations.

Be careful, he thought, not daring to speak aloud in the event someone was nearer than she suspected.

The toot of a tugboat brought the diplomat back to the moment, and he rose on suddenly unsteady legs. He stood for a moment, smelling the salty sea air of the harbor. He didn’t want this responsibility, but it was his nonetheless. Redacting and forwarding intelligence that helped forge U.S. policy in the region had been stressful enough, which was why he’d left the diplomatic corps. But this …

He didn’t feel like attending a symposium on the real and existential risks facing Belarus, Lithuania, and Latvia, but he had to get through that before he could discuss this with his colleagues.

And, as if to underscore the fact that even a man of nearly three score years could still learn new ways, the idea of small talk suddenly seemed vitally appealing.

* * *

His lean face pulled in a familiar scowl, his careful eyes tired and itchy from the high morning pollen count, Andrei Cherkassov was definitely ready to go home.

When he left Moscow in 1986, it was expensive for a young man—even a former kapitán who had been an honored Spetsnaz officer in Afghanistan but who had been retired due to tinnitus, of all things, a six-foot-three-inch young man who could only get work as a security guard at the Cosmonautics Memorial Museum, where he didn’t have to hear very well because most of the visitors didn’t speak Russian. All he had to do was make sure no one touched the space capsules and satellites.

That job had lasted a year. One of his former superiors, Polkóvnik Birman, had been leading a group through the facility and recognized him, asked him to come and see him at his new post in the Main Intelligence Directorate. Eighteen months later, after a shakedown period in South Africa, Cherkassov was assigned to London, then New York. He remembered, with a smile, the jealousy of his colleague, Georgi Glazkov, who had really wanted the post. Instead, he was sent to Mongolia to keep an eye on the many members of the Mongolian Revolution of 1990, the “Democratic Revolution,” which threatened the country’s extensive border with southern Russia.

“You may be killed in a very dangerous position,” Glazkov had said, “but at least, Andrei, you will not die of boredom!”

His job was surveillance with occasional zvetchenya—termination up and down the Eastern Seaboard. It was just like being back in Afghanistan, only civilized. The truth was, Cherkassov preferred assassination to the Spetsnaz or to working at the CMM. The hours were shorter and the clothes were less restrictive.

But now, after more than twenty-five years in New York, that city had become much too expensive. Even Moscow was preferable, especially since he could get into one of the flats open to individuals over sixty-five. In just a few days, he would turn sixty-six. Birman was gone, but his successor had promised Cherkassov a plane ticket … and a big party. Cherkassov hadn’t had a birthday party since he was six, living in what was still Leningrad.

After receiving the call from Olga confirming the route his target was apparently taking, Cherkassov had taken an Uber to South Street, just north of the Brooklyn Bridge and below the FDR Drive. The highway cast the area in darkness and the columns that supported it provided ample cover. He had arrived in time to see Olga pant her way south, after her quarry—the woman was in very good shape, but she was not young—and then he saw Olga again, running the other way. A look from her told him that the other runner had finished her meeting early and was already on the way back. The runner would see Olga, of course. Olga was there to be seen. She would not, however, see Cherkassov.

The killer was dressed in jeans and a New York Mets T-shirt. Both had been freshly laundered; she couldn’t see or hear him, and he certainly didn’t want her to smell him. Many homeless people lived under the highway. People who ran here were alert to odors, the scent of potential danger.

Cherkassov had chosen this particular spot across from Beekman Street because the road to the west was little traveled and there were parked cars to block the view of anyone to the east. Traffic passing overhead created an irregular, rattling beat; he wouldn’t be able to hear her footsteps, but he would see her shadow. The sun was over the harbor and would throw her elongated shape well forward, right in front of him. As it happened, he saw the shadow, heard the footfalls on dirt left over from a recent street excavation, and saw a cloud of that dirt preceding her. His hand went into his pocket and he took out his wallet. He used two fingers to remove his preferred weapon—one that never tripped alarms, attracted the attention of the TSA, or broke any laws: an American Express card, one corner sharpened to a razor’s edge. He pinched it between the thumb and index finger of his left hand.

As the woman jogged past the large, slightly rusted stanchion, Cherkassov’s right arm shot out toward her. It stretched across her breastbone, circled her throat, pulled her toward him back first. She did what everyone did: she reached up with both hands to try and dislodge the biceps that were thicker with flesh than muscle but still held her fast. In the shadow of the highway, the credit card flashed across her throat, drawn firmly and steadily across the arm that restrained her. It was a guide, a way of making sure he sliced both her windpipe and her carotid artery. As soon as the blood began to shoot out, he leaned her forward so she’d bleed out on the street. She gurgled and gasped, but only for a moment, as her throat filled with blood and drowned her—which caused her to lose consciousness that much quicker. The hands stopped struggling within moments. She was unconscious within seconds. Though blood continued to flow and pool, she was dead when he let her flop to the asphalt.

It was a relatively clean kill: there were only a few spots on his jeans and shirt. The denim quickly turned those speckles brown so they wouldn’t attract attention. The shirt was blue and, to anyone who had ever been to Citi Field, the splatters looked for all the world like smudged ketchup.

Crouching and wiping the credit card on her jogging suit—where the blood did look very red—he put it back in his pocket, retrieved her smartphone, and pressed her dead thumb on the screen. The phone unlocked. Then the killer slipped deeper under the highway and headed south for several blocks before turning toward the sunlit streets and the omnipresent security cameras.

CHAPTER TWO

Op-Center Headquarters, Fort Belvoir North,

Springfield, Virginia

June 2, 12:30 PM

Chase Williams arrived at the office six hours later than usual.

He had been working—a semiregular meeting at the White House with the president and the top bureaucrats at Homeland Security—and, as a result, had been in the heart of the nation’s capital shortly after the sun came up.

That was a magical, uncommonly calming time in Washington, D.C.

The older he got, the more Williams valued the late-spring mornings. The mix of floral scents, the sounds of countless birds, the sense of rebirth that came so vividly with spring, especially early in the morning, not long after sunup—these made him smile. There were many qualities that defined living, but these were the foundation of life.

And as the fifty-nine-year-old swung his Escalade into an unmarked parking space at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency at Fort Belvoir in Springfield, Virginia, he acknowledged something else with that smile: each year marked a very real passage of time. He was not morose about it; on the contrary. The fewer springs that remained, the more he cherished them.

Challenges, too, he admitted as he eased his six-foot frame from the car. Those challenges were as grave as they had ever been. There had been the Great War in the teens and rampant gang crime in the twenties. Then a Great Depression in the thirties, from which the world saw no possible exit. A World War broke that fever but started another: an escalating fear of Communism. There had been the heavy shadow of nuclear war in the fifties, civil unrest in the sixties, and drug epidemics were always with us like a toxic cloud that moved from city to city, group to group, without the abundant patience of the Devil himself.

But the retired Navy four-star, former combatant commander for both Pacific Command and Central Command had seen enough, experienced enough in his thirty-five years of active duty to believe that right prevailed and that good systems worked. The older he got, the more comfort he took from that belief, too. As the head of Op-Center, the nation’s leanest and most effective rapid-response security agency, he was in a position to make sure that American values were preserved in accordance with our greatest traditions. While that spared him the impotent fear that a lot of people felt, it was also a burden: when he made a mistake, even a small one, people died.

Williams leaned into the backseat to grab his backpack. In it was a laptop and his lunch; right now, the latter was what he needed. The president served a decent cup of coffee in the meeting room adjacent to the Oval Office, but the croissants were as buttery as Midkiff’s rhetoric. He preferred to hold out for apples covered with organic peanut butter.

The smell of history, fuel, and asphalt swiftly replaced what was left of the scent of rose blossoms. Williams moved easily through the lot heavy with SUVs and Humvees. His dark-blue suit was sharply tailored but conservative, a look as close to a uniform as he could get without it actually being his old, familiar attire. A crisp white handkerchief tucked carefully into the coat pocket was the only concession to civilian style as he headed toward the facility that many on the base didn’t even know was there. The parking lot had been expanded when the location for the revived Op-Center was installed in the basement levels of the NGA. The lot still had reserved parking spaces that were emphatically marked for senior NGA staffers. But Williams had insisted that there should be no stenciled names for Op-Center personnel, or any Op-Center logo displayed on the building’s façade or directory of tenant commands. One of the most accomplished military officers in a generation and a consensus choice to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he had been passed over for that post—and for other essential, good-fit jobs like defense secretary, national-security adviser, and director of National Intelligence, in favor of political appointees by a politically insecure commander-in-chief. Though he was aggressively courted by industry, think tanks, and academia—all very high-paying, high-prestige jobs—Williams had accepted this command because he was, above all else, a patriot.

But he had his demands, and one of them was being guaranteed a high level of autonomy for himself and his carefully picked team. The president had agreed, since Op-Center was autonomous by charter. They moved to action only when the normal levers of U.S. national security—the military, the intelligence agencies, law enforcement, and the numerous organizations that made up the nation’s security bureaucracy—couldn’t act quickly enough or were compelled by statute or oversight to function within strict legal protocols. Besides, what President Wyatt Midkiff bestowed with a handshake, Congress could undo with the stroke of a budgetary delete key. But with a budget of less than half of one percent of the NSA, the president could afford to take a chance on the man and his vision.

A cornerstone of that was anonymity, not just from other agencies and career bureaucrats but also from other agencies competing for intelligence—and, thus, funding—and from the press. As Williams told Roger McCord, his intelligence director, in their first interview, “Only in the movies does an operative stroll into a bar, announce his name and affiliation, and survive the evening. Not in my world.”

In Williams’s world, just letting someone know you held an American passport could be a death sentence. That was the reason Op-Center’s presence at Fort Belvoir was kept secret, and why it was housed in a sub-basement of the NGA instead of in its own building—which the secretary of Homeland Security had pushed for, since that would have added to the annual budget and to his own power base.

Williams hadn’t cared about any of that during his military career, and he didn’t care about it now. Only the mission mattered, and, right behind that, the people.

He passed through the double glass doors, showed his NGA badge to the guard at the counter—a young woman who always seemed uncomfortable returning the smile of a man who was just a name and a face—and continued to the leftmost elevator in a bank of elevators. Officers emerging from an adjoining elevator acknowledged him with tight nods. Williams nodded back as he opened an app on his smartphone—doing so notified the staff that the chief was on his way down. Williams held the device to the scanner at the right of the elevator and the door opened. The code was a signal and it changed daily, sent only to Williams’s secure, government-issued phone. A swift, quiet three-level descent later, he was in a small antechamber. After submitting to a retinal scan beside the single door, he was admitted to the subterranean bunker that was Op-Center’s main compound.

Anne Sullivan was waiting for him just inside the door. The fifty-seven-year-old deputy director was dressed in a red blazer with black trim on the collar and red slacks. She wore a locket with a photo inside that she never shared but which was a source of much discussion throughout the ranks. The current consensus was “girlfriend,” though no one knew for sure what Sullivan’s sexual orientation was. She had never been married, but that meant nothing to a woman who came of age in an era when a woman couldn’t always have a successful home life and a career.

Anne held a tablet cradled to her bosom with one hand, her smartphone in the other. “How was the meeting, Chase?” she asked with just the hint of an Irish brogue and a much larger dose of irony.

“It was polite,” he replied as they walked side by side around the circle of cubicles toward their adjoining offices. “They like to make sure the tight suit isn’t all that’s holding me together. Though this is the first time they asked about you by name.”

Anne grinned. “My review isn’t for another four months. Am I being considered for something?”

“Not after what I told them.” Williams laughed. “You think I can afford to lose you?”

It was a statement, not a question. Anne Sullivan was a former General Services Administration official, a Washington insider who navigated inside the Beltway with a balance of hard work, organizational skill, and a healthy dose of intimidation. She was personally acquainted with everyone who had a skeleton buried somewhere between 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill, and also at the Pentagon. That last was particularly useful, since Op-Center had enemies there, officials who knew what a smart high-ranking officer could do with both direct access to the president and to top security secrets. Their acquired paranoia didn’t factor into the character of the man they feared, the ally they had—only into his strength as a potential adversary.

They reached Williams’s office, and he threw an informal, habitual salute at a framed color photo on the wall, showing General Douglas MacArthur in Manila, in 1945, smoking a corncob pipe. It was signed crisply in fountain pen—not to him, but the great man’s hand had been laid upon the photo, and that was enough.

“What did I miss?” Williams asked.

“The lunch with Brian,” Anne informed him.

“No, no,” Williams replied, shaking his head. “I texted him from the West Wing. Didn’t he get it?”

“Not if you sent it from the Oval Office.”

He shot her a perplexed look.

“They have the new Closed Whisper Sec System,” she said. “Nothing flies without a code. I sent you the alert.”

“When?”

“About two months ago,” she replied.

“Didn’t see that update,” Williams said as he sat behind his desk. “There are so many damn alerts.”

“There are so many damn crises,” Anne replied. “I let Brian know where you were, though he’s still at Texters Barbeque. Met an old girlfriend.”

The way she had said it—Williams shot her a look. “Carolina?”

Anne nodded knowingly.

“He’s gonna need a drinking buddy or a crisis,” Williams said.

Brian Dawson was the forty-year-old operations director and a bit of a loose cannon—which was what Williams liked about him. What the former Army man lacked in discipline he made up for with impulsive surges tempered by instinctive good judgment. He also possessed bagfuls of charm, a fact that stood him in good stead with the three-to-one ratio of single women to eligible men in the district.

“We did just pick up one interesting item from the NYPD,” she said, looking at her tablet and resuming the briefing. “They found a female murder victim identified as Galina Petrenko, a Ukrainian operative who worked at the embassy there. Her throat was cut, and only her phone was taken.”

“Operational specialty?”

“Not known,” Anne replied. “But she used to work for our ambassador in Kiev and had been on a KGB watch list since 2011. She was dismissed, charge of espionage.”

“Prosecuted?”

Anne shook her head.

“Intimate with the ambassador?”

“Unknown,” Anne said.

“Who was she spying for?”

“On the books, Kiev,” she said. “They were gathering intel on Russia. Fairly well-known dance they do out of the U.N.”

“Anything off the books? They don’t suddenly start killing embassy employees, even spies.”

“Not that we were aware of,” she replied. “But you’re right, something like that seems likely. Done in daylight, on a morning run—sends a signal.”

Williams shook his head slowly. It was hell having enemies, but worse when you didn’t trust your allies. “What was the name of our ambassador there?”

“Douglas Flannery,” Anne informed him.

“Name’s familiar.”

“He works for the York group in Manhattan now,” Anne said. “It was in the—”

“HUMINT resource update, yes,” Williams said. “I do read some of what you send around.”

“Their offices are a half mile from where the woman was killed,” Anne continued. “Tenuous connection, but the NYPD’s counterterrorism task force is checking security footage along that route.”

“Let’s get Paul on this, see what he can come up with,” Williams said.

“Starting with Quantico and the usual channels or—?”

“His call,” Williams decided. He liked delegating, not because he was lazy but because the alternative was to become a micromanager. He had selected his staff based on competence first, self-reliance second, and team-playing third. As former military, he could get any personnel to mesh as long as each member had the fundamental skill set.

Anne acknowledged with a nod and texted the new international crisis manager. Paul Bankole was recruited after the previous ICM, Hector Rodriquez, was killed in an assault on an ISIS compound in Mosul. Raised in poverty in Atlanta, Bankole was a former senior chief with the Navy SEALs who had served under Williams early in his military career. The young man had left a strong impression as a confident individualist who was also a team player. Wounded in a firefight, Bankole spent a year recuperating, during which time he became a computer specialist. He had a natural genius for all things technical, and after going to work for the ROTC program at the University of San Diego he came back on Williams’s radar. He was the only candidate the Op-Center director considered to replace Rodriquez.

“Where’s McCord?” Williams asked as he unzipped his backpack.

“At his weekly lunch with Allen Kim,” she said.

“Right, right.” Kim ran an FBI division out of Quantico that served as Op-Center’s domestic wing. Ordinarily, the research into the murder of Galina Petrenko would have begun with his team. That’s where Williams would have started. But the director also wanted to see what the new man came up with. “Have you eaten?” he asked.

“Fasting today,” Anne said. “Annual physical after work.”

Williams frowned. “Sorry. Could I have talked about lunches more?”

“I can take it,” she said. “The rest of the briefing is on file—nothing exceptional in it, though you might want to think about the reports from Crimea, given this morning’s developments. I’m going to review the West Coast files, see what’s up in Asia.”

Williams thanked her and waited until she had shut the door before setting two apples on his desk and going to the mini fridge to get the jar of peanut butter. He sat down and went right to the joint CIA Crimea Report while he ate. The comprehensive report on Russian and Ukrainian troop strength, deployment, communications, and forecasts was refreshed each morning with HUMINT, ELINT, and satellite surveillance.

The news was all on the factions opposing Russia. NATO was beginning a buildup that had previously been announced by SACEUR, the supreme allied commander in Europe, who was nearing the end of his three-year term.

Legacy move, Williams thought as he saw where the four battalion-size groups were being sent, a total of four thousand troops. They were reinforcing existing positions well within Romania and Poland, put in place to show that NATO took its self-defense responsibilities seriously if Russia moved first. The key word was “if.” The orders linked to the deployment were what the DOD was now describing as “resistance-postured.” The two words, compounded, was a forceful way of saying they were strictly peacekeepers.

Naturally, Russia was opening new installations near the border for its own “peacekeepers” and their ordnance.

Of more concern was the Polish defense minister’s approval of an additional two thousand paramilitary personnel to join the four thousand already stationed in Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia. The designation meant the troops had received a total of thirty days’ military training. The numbers were bad, and the map itself seemed absurd on the surface: between NATO and the Polish paramilitaries, the new array looked like fingers pinching the tip of the nose of the Russian bear. It was even worse when the latest response from Moscow was factored in: in addition to the new bases and the existing thirty thousand troops, the Russians were mobilizing three motorized rifle formations of ten thousand troops each and had another two thousand paratroopers based in Ivanovo. The latter were apparently earmarked to bolster the forces that were manning the Iskander-M nuclear-capable missiles long entrenched in the region. Fortunately, there was no indication of warheads being moved to any of those locations.

“This is why the old days will not be returning,” Williams said to himself as he crunched an apple slice. Not that he was nostalgic: classic trench-style warfare would result in widespread destruction, even if NATO’s F-16 were a match for the Russian Su-27 fighter jets. The planes were; Williams wasn’t so sure about the pilots. Aerial supremacy would lead to a Russian rout and decades of geographical ruin if the situation went all to hell. In addition, the U.S. would be pulled in, responsible for far more than the six hundred troops already on the ground there with NATO. The physical cost would be compounded by a financial cost that was untenable for both sides.

“Special Ops,” he said softly. “Surgical strikes.”

Remove the hardware, pluck the screws from the hardware, and men and materiel could go nowhere.

Williams closed the file and was just about to start on his second apple when the phone rang. It was Aaron Bleich, the intelligence director’s networks leader.

“Go,” Williams said.

“Sir, I just picked up something you should see,” the thirty-two-year-old Bleich told him. “A game. Well, maybe not. It’s a virtual-reality program. And not all of it, just pieces.”

“You got it in the tank?” Williams asked, referring to the Geek Tank where the tech genius worked.

“I do.”

“Be right there,” Williams said, wiping his mouth as he strode toward the door.


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