Translated by Philip Gabriel
Read by Joe Knezevich
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During a briefing in Washington D.C., the President is informed of a threat to national security: a three-year-old boy named Akili, who is already the smartest being on the planet. Representing the next step in human evolution, Akili can perceive patterns and predict future events better than most supercomputers, and is capable of manipulating grand-scale events like pieces on a chess board. And yet, for all that power, Akili has the emotional maturity of a child — which might make him the most dangerous threat humanity has ever faced.
An American soldier, Jonathan Yeager, leads an international team of elite operatives deep into the heart of the Congolese jungle under Presidential orders to destroy this threat to humanity before Akili’s full potential can be realized. But Yeager has a very sick child, and Akili’s advanced knowledge of all things, medicine included, may be Yeager’s only hope for saving his son’s life. Soon Yeager finds himself caught between following his orders and saving a creature with a hidden agenda, who plans to either save humanity as we know it — or destroy it.
This mansion never felt like home, no matter how many years he lived in it. He never slept well here; his sleep was shallow at best, and it wasn’t just because he was getting older. Today, after another restless night, Gregory S. Burns awoke to the ringing of his usual morning wake-up call.
He exchanged a few words with the operator but stayed in bed, enjoying a precious few minutes of reprieve. Eventually—reluctantly—he got up, stretched his arms high above his head, and yawned deeply. He stepped into the shower, keeping the water cool to help clear his head, then changed into the suit his wife had laid out for him.
In the dining room his wife and two daughters had started breakfast. His daughters, just up and in a bad mood, were running through a litany of complaints about their school. He half listened and made the appropriate noises so they knew he wasn’t totally ignoring them. Fortunately, his wife no longer had sharp words for him when he neglected his family, a small concession he’d won after a long-running battle.
His home and workplace were connected: all he had to do was step into the hall, and he was in a public space. He picked up the forty-pound briefcase at his feet and stepped out of the room. As the ominous nickname of the case—the nuclear football—implied, it contained within it the trigger that could destroy mankind, the device that Burns would need if he were to order a nuclear attack.
“Good morning, Mr. President.”
Naval Commander Samuel Gibson approached him. Gibson was rated Yankee White, the highest security clearance.
“Good morning, Sam.”
Gibson took the briefcase from Burns and snapped the metal cuff around his own wrist, chaining the case to himself. Burns and Gibson proceeded downstairs, where they were joined by Secret Service agents, and together they headed for the West Wing. On the way a National Security Agency official met them and handed Burns a small plastic card, code-named Biscuit. The card was coded with a series of random numbers that made up that day’s nuclear launch code. Inputting these numbers into the keyboard inside the nuclear football would authenticate any launch order. Burns put the card in his wallet, then put the wallet in the inside pocket of his jacket.
The Oval Office looked out onto the sunny Rose Garden. Burns waited as his daily briefing staff assembled. As they were cleared to enter they came in—the vice president, the White House chief of staff, the national security adviser, the director of national intelligence, and the director of the CIA.
They settled down onto the sofas, exchanging greetings, and Burns noticed one more person in the room than usual, a middle-aged man seated farthest from him—Dr. Melvin Gardner, his science and technology adviser. Gardner was hunched over, clearly ill at ease. With his genial, intelligent eyes below his silver hair and his low-key, subdued appearance, he looked ill suited to be joining a group that included the most powerful man on the planet.
“Good morning, Dr. Gardner,” Burns said quietly.
“Good morning, Mr. President.”
With Gardner’s smile the atmosphere relaxed ever so slightly. Of all the men in the room, only Gardner had this quality, this air, of being harmless. Innocent, even.
“Mr. Watkins asked me to sit in,” Gardner explained.
Burns glanced at Charles Watkins, his director of national intelligence.
“We need Dr. Gardner’s advice,” Watkins said.
Burns nodded, careful not to let his disapproval show. If Watkins wanted Gardner to sit in on the briefing, he should have gotten his permission beforehand. The post of director of national intelligence was new, and Watkins was newly appointed, but Burns was already irritated by the way the man was constantly taking authority into his own hands.
Well, we’ll eventually find out why Gardner was called here, Burns thought, collecting himself. In recent years he’d worked hard at controlling his sudden outbursts of temper.
“Sir, the daily intelligence briefing,” Watkins said, pulling some papers out of a leather binder. This was a summary, prepared by the intelligence community, detailing activities over the last twenty-four hours.
The first two items dealt with the wars Burns had begun in the Middle East. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t going well. Security in Iraq was deteriorating, while in Afghanistan hidden terrorist cells were still at large, and US casualties were mounting. The number of US war dead and Burns’s rising unpopularity were both trending upward. Burns now regretted having swallowed whole his defense secretary’s advice, which put only a fifth of the number of troops on the ground that the army chief of staff had requested. One hundred thousand US troops had been enough to overthrow the dictator and take over this small country, but they were unequal to the task of restoring order now that they were an occupation force.
The third item was an even more disturbing report. The CIA suspected that there were double agents at work among their paramilitary personnel in the Middle East.
The director of the CIA, Robert Holland, asked for permission to speak. “We’re seeing a type of intelligence leak we’ve never seen before. If our suspicions are correct, there is one individual who is leaking intelligence, not to an enemy country but to a human rights organization.”
“Correct. He’s leaking intelligence about our extraordinary renditions program.”
Burns looked sullen as he listened to the details. “Let’s get the counsel to the president involved before we discuss this again.”
“Of course,” Holland said.
The fourth item concerned a leader of one of the coalition countries who was suffering from depression and unable to carry out his duties. The report stated that it was only a matter of time before there was a change in leadership, but that this shouldn’t affect the country’s friendly relations with the United States.
They turned the page to the next two items on the report, and as Burns listened to the explanations they arrived at the final page and the following heading:
The Possibility of the Extinction of the Human Race: A New Life Form Appears in Africa
Burns looked up from his binder. “What is this? A Hollywood screenplay?”
Only the chief of staff smiled at the president’s little joke. The others were silent, unable to hide their bewilderment. Burns fixed his gaze on the director of national intelligence. Watkins held his gaze without flinching. “It’s a report from the NSA,” he said.
Burns suddenly recalled an earlier incident in which a deadly virus outbreak had occurred in Reston, a DC suburb. The US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and the Centers for Disease Control had worked together to contain the deadly virus, a form of Ebola. This incident must be something similar.
He read on.
A new type of life-form has appeared in the tropical rain forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. If it spreads, this life-form will pose a threat to the United States and may lead to the extinction of all mankind. This type of situation has already been mentioned in the Heisman Report from the Schneider Institute, which was submitted in 1975.…
Burns carefully read through the information and then leaned back on the sofa. It was clear now why the science and technology adviser had been summoned to the meeting.
He couldn’t help making a sarcastic joke.
“Are you sure they didn’t mistake Islamic extremists for this new life-form?”
Watkins remained matter-of-fact. “This is reliable intel. We’ve had specialists analyze it, and they believe—”
“Enough,” Burns said, interrupting. He found the report offensive. Not just the contents but its very existence, which he couldn’t stomach. “I’d like to hear what Dr. Gardner has to say.”
All eyes turned to the hesitant-looking older scientist. With the president in such a foul mood, Gardner found himself stammering. “It’s been predicted since—since the second half of the twentieth century that—something like this might happen. The Heisman Report mentioned in your intelligence summary was written in response to discussion about this possibility.”
Burns was surprised at the seriousness of his reply. The scientist’s thoughts on this seemed to exceed anything a layman could fathom. Still, Burns couldn’t get rid of a deep sense of unease. A new life-form that leads mankind to extinction? Who in his right mind could believe that?
“And you find this intelligence reliable?” Burns asked him.
“I can’t refute it.”
“I have a copy of the Heisman Report right here,” Watkins said, taking out a new document from his folder. “I’ve marked the relevant section. Section five.”
Burns read over this report from a quarter of a century earlier. Gardner waited for him to finish, then spoke. “The intelligence we have now is indirect. Other than the person sending the report, no one else has confirmed this new life-form. I think it would be worth sending personnel from the United States to check out what’s actually going on.”
“At this point it should be easy to take care of,” Watkins added. “And it wouldn’t cost much. A few million dollars should be sufficient. But we’d have to make sure it’s kept entirely confidential.”
“Do you have a plan in mind?” Burns asked.
“I’ve ordered the Schneider Institute to put together an action plan. I should have options on my desk by the weekend.”
Burns thought it over. He couldn’t see a downside. For the president of a nation at war, it was best to handle any extraneous problems immediately. And this whole issue was something he found particularly loathsome. “All right. Let me see the options as soon as you get them.”
The morning meeting was concluded, but these same issues were raised again at the nine o’clock cabinet meeting. There the secretary of defense, Geoffrey Lattimer, summarized the final issue—a biological problem—after a quick, two-minute discussion. “This is the kind of stupid thing that should be left up to the Schneider Institute,” he said dismissively.
At the president’s urging they bowed their heads in prayer to close the meeting.
A CIA staffer came into the Cabinet Room after the meeting broke up and collected all the copies of the president’s daily briefing. All briefing materials were top secret and were archived at Langley. Only ten people in the entire world knew what had been discussed at this meeting in the late summer of 2004.
The Heisman Report
The convoy of three armored Suburbans barreled through the swirling dust. The last SUV had its rear hatch open, a legless sofa set up on the bed, facing the rear. On this jury-rigged gunnery platform sat Jonathan “Hawk” Yeager, eyes scanning the road behind the vehicle.
They were five minutes out from their barracks in the Green Zone. Yeager was on his last mission before his three-month tour in Baghdad came to an end.
Western Shield, his employer, assigned him and his colleagues to protection detail the whole time they’d been in Iraq. Yeager and his team provided security for VIPs from around the world: reporters from the United States, an executive of a British oil company inspecting postwar reconstruction efforts, diplomats from a small Asian country.
The Iraqi sun had been piercingly hot when Yeager had begun his tour, but now, three months later, the heat had abated. It was so cool, in fact, that by late afternoon he was starting to feel the chill, despite the body armor and tactical gear. If the temperature dropped any lower, he knew this gritty, low-slung city would look even bleaker and more desolate. Not that he was looking forward to the one-month leave he was about to begin tomorrow. If anything, the thought depressed him, and he wished he could stay put. For Yeager, this city, far removed from the peace that civilized people took for granted, was a kind of nihilistic playground, an escape from the reality that faced him at home.
An armored chopper grazing past the rooftops. Mortar rounds whizzing by, shattering the quiet of the night. The hollowed-out shell of a tank in a barren, sandy field. And the Tigris River, its surface littered with dead bodies.
In its 5,200-year history this cradle of civilization had seen countless wars and now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, invasion by yet another enemy army. This invading foreign country claimed to be driven by ideology, but its real objectives were obvious: the vast oil deposits that lay beneath Iraqi soil.
Yeager knew the war wasn’t about justice. Not that he cared one way or the other. All that mattered was that there was a job here, work that paid well. But seeing his family meant confronting a reality far harsher than anything he came across in Iraq. As long as he was in Baghdad he could avoid having to face his son and could use the excuse that he was doing his duty.
Sporadic gunfire echoed in the distance. M16 assault rifles. Yeager heard no answering AK-47s and knew it wasn’t a real firefight.
He turned his gaze and saw a small car separate itself from the other vehicles far behind them and accelerate in his direction. Through his sunglasses Yeager checked out the vehicle, a battered Japanese sedan. Baghdad was crawling with them—little nondescript cars that terrorists loved to use for their suicide attacks. No one ever seemed to notice them until they exploded.
An adrenaline rush narrowed his field of vision. This main road their convoy was on was designated a kill zone. In the briefing before their mission they’d heard a report on how dangerous it was and how in the last thirty days the insurgents had switched from attacking US troops to targeting private defense contractors. A dozen or so security personnel had been killed along this short stretch of road alone.
His radio crackled with a report from the lead SUV. “A suspicious vehicle up ahead on the right. Stopped under the overpass. It wasn’t there this morning.”
Very likely the car contained an IED. Insurgents were probably nearby, impatient to set off a remote-control device. These explosives might be improvised, but they packed enough force to blow an armored car to shreds.
“Should we turn back?”
“Hold on,” Yeager said into his wireless mike. “A car’s coming our way from the rear.”
The Japanese car was only fifty yards back now.
Get away! Yeager waved his M4 carbine at the car and signaled with his left arm for them to back off. But the car only sped up.
“Check the jamming device,” the convoy leader, McPherson, yelled. The insurgents often used cell phones to trigger IEDs, and the jamming device could jam the signal.
“Jamming device is activated,” the lead SUV reported.
“Keep going,” McPherson ordered. “And get rid of that car.”
“Roger that,” Yeager replied and yelled at the car to move away.
But the car didn’t obey. Through the dusty windshield the hostile face of the Iraqi driver glared back at him. Following the rules of engagement for security contractors, Yeager squeezed off a few rounds. The four shots struck the pavement near the car’s bumper, sending fragments of concrete flying.
The warning shots didn’t slow down the small car. Yeager raised his carbine and aimed for the hood of the car.
“Watch out for an IED!”
Seconds after McPherson yelled this through the radio, a low, rumbling explosion rocked the SUV. The bomb hadn’t exploded in front of them but on the road a couple hundred meters to the rear, past where Yeager’s carbine was pointed. A single date palm alongside the road was wreathed in black smoke. Another hate-filled religious fanatic bites the dust, Yeager thought. Just another day in Baghdad. But if the car following them exploded like that, they’d be scraping up pieces of him off the road.
Yeager didn’t squeeze off a standard second warning shot, but drew a bead on the driver with his M4, the red laser beam inscribing a circle right between the Iraqi’s eyes.
Don’t close your eyes! Yeager yelled silently. Don’t show me that pathetic expression bombers show just before they blow. Or else you’re dead meat.
For the first time, the Iraqi driver looked afraid. Was he planning to die? Just as Yeager increased pressure on the trigger, the man’s face in his scope shrank away. The sedan was slowing down.
For a moment darkness fell over them as the convoy slipped beneath the overpass. The suspicious vehicle under the bridge didn’t explode.
Yeager waited for the car following them to change direction. “All clear,” he reported.
“Roger that,” McPherson replied from the lead SUV. “Returning to base.”
Maybe the driver of the sedan wasn’t a terrorist but just an ordinary citizen trying to challenge the Americans. And maybe the car stopped below the underpass wasn’t booby-trapped but had simply broken down.
All Yeager knew was the terrible hatred directed at him, the rush of fear, and that he’d been a second away from gunning down a person he’d never even talked to.
The three armored SUVs passed the American checkpoint, wound their way through the detour set up to stop VBIEDs, and entered the Green Zone. The zone was in central Baghdad, surrounding the palace of the former dictator.
The Western Shield barracks was along the road, not far from the palace. It was a long, two-story, concrete-block building covered in peeling paint. There were so many rooms in the building he wondered what it had been used for before it was rented out to the private contractor. Housing for government employees? Or a school dorm? No one had a clue.
The convoy pulled up in the front yard, and the six security guards clambered out. All six, including Yeager, were former Special Forces—Green Berets. They exchanged a few fist bumps in honor of a completed mission as a maintenance crew ran out. The crew discovered a bullet hole from a high-powered rifle in the body of the lead car, but that didn’t faze any of them. Par for the course.
“Hey, Hawk!” McPherson called out to Yeager as he was going inside. “No need to file a shooting incident report. Tonight we’re partying on the roof.”
“Roger that,” Yeager said, smiling his thanks. McPherson must be planning a farewell party for him. Tomorrow a replacement would show up, and Yeager would be out of here. Standard rotation for this company was three months on, one month off. The next time he came back there would be no guarantee he’d be with the same crew or on the same assignment. And depending on where the bullets chanced to fly, he might never see any of his crewmates again.
“Where’re you going on leave? Back home?”
McPherson knew the reason he was going to Portugal and nodded. “Hope it works out.”
“Yeah. Me, too.”
Yeager went up to his second-floor room, laid his M4 on the bed, stripped off his tactical gear, and stowed it in his locker. He’d relinquish his ammo and all the rest of the gear when he left and would just take along a backpack containing his few private effects.
Yeager paused and looked at the family photo taped to his locker door. It was taken six years ago at their home in North Carolina. Back in happier times. Yeager, his wife, Lydia, and their son, Justin, were seated on a sofa, smiling at the camera. Justin, seated on his father’s lap, was so small he could almost have disappeared in Yeager’s arms. Justin had his father’s dark brown hair and his mother’s blue eyes. When he smiled impishly he looked like Lydia, but when he was in a bad mood he looked just like a miniature version of his tough-guy dad, the former Green Beret. Yeager and his wife often wondered which of them he’d take after when he grew up.
Yeager stuck the photo in a half-read paperback, took out his cell phone, and called his wife in Lisbon. There was a three-hour time difference. Lunchtime would just be over there, and he knew he wouldn’t get her the first time. So he left a voice message, asking her to call him back. He finished cleaning the M4 then went downstairs, cell phone and laptop in hand.
The small rec room was always crowded. It was outfitted with an old TV, a sofa and love seat, a coffeemaker, and some computers, which anyone could use. A couple of guys were at the screens, scrolling through porn sites and joking around. Yeager went to a different station and plugged in his laptop to a high-speed line. He knew he’d be disappointed, but he checked an academic search engine anyway.
As expected, nothing. No reports on any dramatic new treatment for PAECS—pulmonary alveolar epithelial cell sclerosis. “Yeager.”
Yeager looked back to the doorway and saw Al Stephano, manager of the barracks, motioning to him. “Hawk, could you step into my office? You got a visitor.”
“Me?” Wondering who could be visiting him, Yeager walked to Stephano’s office at the foot of the stairs.
When he went in, a middle-aged man stood up from the sofa. He was about six feet tall, the same height as Yeager, and was dressed the same as the security guards—in a T-shirt and cargo pants. The man was a couple of decades older than Yeager, in his fifties. He had the stern look of a soldier, coupled with a faint smile. He held out his hand.
“This is William Liban, the director of Western Shield,” Stephano explained.
Yeager knew the name. The private defense contractor that employed Yeager was founded by former Delta Force members, and Liban was the company’s number two man. The secret to Western Shield’s rapid success lay in the tight relationship between its executives and the military. Liban clearly had combat experience, yet he lacked the hard, aggressive demeanor of most Special Forces veterans.
Keep things formal and noncommittal, Yeager told himself as he shook his hand. “Very nice to meet you, Mr. Liban. Jonathan Yeager.”
“Do you have a call sign?” Liban asked.
“They call me Hawk.”
“Hawk, take a seat and let’s talk.” Liban motioned to the sofa and turned to Stephano. “Could we have the room?”
“Of course,” Stephano said, and left his office.
When they were alone Liban gazed around the small room as though he were noticing it for the first time.
“Is this room secure?”
“As long as Stephano doesn’t have his ear glued to the door.”
Liban didn’t crack a smile. “Good. Let me get right to it. Can you postpone your leave?”
“What’s this about?”
“I’m hoping you could work one more month.”
Yeager imagined what Lydia would say if he told her his trip to Lisbon had to be delayed.
“It’s a good job. The pay’s fifteen hundred dollars a day.”
This was more than twice what he was getting now. This put him on his guard. Why would the company’s number two executive fly all the way here to offer him a job? “Is it in Hillah?”
Hillah was the most dangerous front in Iraq. “Is the job in Hillah?”
“No; the assignment isn’t here. It’s in another country. There’ll be twenty days’ prep time, then the mission should take, at most, ten days. You might even be done in five. But you’re guaranteed thirty days’ pay, no matter how short it turns out to be.”
Forty-five thousand dollars for a month’s work—not bad at all. Right now the Yeager family needed as much money as they could get. “What kind of assignment are we talking about?”
“I can’t go into the details, but I can say this: the assignment originates with one of the coalition forces, not from someplace like Russia or China. Or North Korea. Also, it’s not that dangerous a job. At least it’s safer than being in Baghdad. And this assignment won’t benefit any one particular country. If anything, you’ll be doing a service to mankind.”
Yeager couldn’t fathom what the job could be, but at least it didn’t seem overly risky. “Then why’s the pay so high?” he asked.
A trace of disgust showed in the deep lines around Liban’s eyes. “I was hoping you’d read between the lines. It’s kind of a—dirty job.”
A dirty job. An assassination. One that wouldn’t benefit one particular country. But weren’t all assassinations political?
“If you take the job, we’ll need you to sign an agreement. Then once you start training we’ll read you in. But understand that after you’ve signed the agreement and are briefed on the details, there’s no backing out.”
“You’re worried about a leak? You shouldn’t be. I have top secret clearance.”
US military intelligence is divided into three clearance levels: confidential, secret, and top secret. A strict background check is required for clearance at each level, including a polygraph test. Even after he left the army Yeager had kept up his TS clearance, for without it he wouldn’t be able to work at some of the assignments portioned out to security companies by the Defense Department.
“Look, I know your background. Ex–Special Forces, totally reliable. It’s just that in this case we have to be extra cautious about security.”
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