By Kyle Mills
Read by Jeff Woodman
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An attack on a Japanese warship brings Japan and China to the brink of war. Meanwhile, top Covert-One operative Colonel Jon Smith is sent on a mission to recover mysterious material from the wreckage of the Fukushima nuclear reactor.
When Smith fails to return, CIA agent Randi Russell heads off on an unsanctioned mission to find him. She quickly discovers that the missing samples may be evidence that Japan, led by hawkish military chief of staff Masao Takahashi, has been secretly developing next-generation weapon systems in preparation for a conflict with China.
If the Covert-One team can’t prevent General Takahashi from provoking a war, the entire world will be dragged into a battle certain to kill tens of millions of people and leave much of planet uninhabitable for centuries.
Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
March 11, 2011
Dr. Hideki Ito felt the floor shift and braced himself against the elaborate control console in front of him. He waited for the earthquake to subside, reminding himself that the structure had weathered a number of powerful tremors two days before with no issues.
Still, he could feel the tension creeping into his stomach the way it always did when the earth decided to move. There was no reason for concern, he told himself again. The general had chosen to shut down Reactor Four and use it as a research facility, ostensibly because of its ability to contain a radiation leak in the face of just these kinds of shocks. It wasn’t radiation they were asking it to hold in check, though. The work Ito had dedicated his life to was far more dangerous and difficult to control.
The vibrations seemed reluctant to subside as they had in the past, and he glanced nervously behind him. The room itself was unremarkable—a nine-meter cube of treated concrete lined with insulated pipes of every imaginable diameter. The only access was through a small titanium hatch centered between tables covered in computer equipment. His two research assistants had pulled back from their keyboards and sat holding the edges of their chairs, feet spread wide to keep from toppling to the rubber-coated floor.
The young man had the same stoic expression he’d been wearing since Ito had recruited him two years ago. The woman, a brilliant postdoc recently coaxed from the University of Tokyo, was searching the stark bunker with quick, birdlike movements of her head. Looking for cracks, Ito mused sympathetically. He felt compelled to do the same thing a thousand times a day.
The elderly physicist faced forward again, squinting through ten-centimeter-thick glass at the tiny room beyond. At its center was a secondary glass enclosure containing samples of concrete, plastic, and steel. Interspersed were organic materials—various dirt and stone specimens, as well as a few carefully chosen plants. And hovering above it all was a disinterested white rat stretching lazily on one of the robotic arms that serviced the enclosure.
The electron microscope reacted to the joystick in Ito’s hand as he tried to compensate for the continuing tremors and maneuver it over a patch of moss. The deep-green color suggested that it, like the rat, had been unharmed by his experiments. Of course, that hypothesis would have to be confirmed at the atomic level. To the naked eye, none of the human-made materials in the enclosure had suffered any damage either. The deeper truth, though, was very different.
With the scope finally over its subject, Ito was able to examine its fundamental structure on a monitor set into the wall. It looked precisely as it always had. A thriving biological specimen unaffected by the war being silently fought around it.
After so many years of failure, Ito was having a difficult time adjusting to his recent string of triumphs. Were they real or was there a fatal error hidden somewhere in the thousands of calculations he’d made? Were his carefully designed safety protocols as foolproof as they seemed? Was his sense of control just an illusion?
The euphoria he’d experienced when he first realized that he was influencing the fundamental forces of nature had slowly turned to a sense of dread. Had Einstein felt this way when his equations were used to create the bombs that had been dropped on Ito’s own country so many years ago? Had Einstein understood that, while intoxicating to explore, nature would never allow itself to be mastered by something so trivial as the human mind?
As if reacting to his thoughts, the intensity of the earthquake began to grow. This time, though, something was different. Within a few seconds, Ito was struggling to stay upright, even with both hands gripping the console in front of him. The roar of the tremors filled his ears, making it impossible to understand the high-pitched shouts of his new assistant.
A pipe snaking across the ceiling burst, showering him in a stream of frigid seawater powerful enough to finally knock him off his feet. He crawled across the heaving floor toward a cutoff valve, eyes burning from the salty spray as a wave of panic began to take hold. By the time he made it to the wall, he could no longer keep his eyes open. He was forced to feel along the wet concrete until he found the metal wheel he’d been searching for.
It didn’t move with the first effort, but his adrenaline-fueled muscles finally managed to break it free. He spun it right and when it stopped, so did everything else—the tremors, the water, the light. Chaos had suddenly turned to silence.
Ito pressed his back against the wall, struggling to fight off the disorientation brought about by the unexpected collapse of sensory input. He focused on the sound of dripping water, eyes now open but seeing only blackness.
Power had been lost. That was why the lights were out. No electricity.
That simple bit of analysis was enough to build on, and he clung to it as he evaluated his situation. Beyond the sound of falling water, he could make out the erratic breathing of his two assistants. The room was stable, so the earthquake was over. Aftershocks were possible—even likely—but when and how powerful could only be guessed at.
In the rest of the plant emergency protocols would be under way. Active reactors would go into automatic shutdown, and backup generators would be brought online to keep the cooling systems running. None of this was of any importance, though. The only thing that mattered was his own lab’s security.
“Isami!” Ito called into the darkness. “The emergency lights! Can you reach them?”
A grunted affirmative was followed by the splash of lurching footsteps. They’d trained for this situation and after only a few seconds, the room was bathed in a dull-red glow. Isami was predictably at the switch, but Mikiko was huddled beneath a table, her eyes locked on the thick glass wall that ran the length of the room’s north side.
The dust and water vapor hanging in the air created a kaleidoscopic effect, but not enough to hide what she was fixated on: a jagged, lightning-shaped crack that ran from floor to ceiling.
Mikiko suddenly bolted for the door, slamming into it and clawing for the handle. Ito moved more quickly than he would have thought possible, leaping to his feet and shoving her out of the way before sliding back the cover from a keypad. He managed to enter only two digits of his personal lockdown code before she grabbed him from behind. His air was cut off as she snaked an arm around his throat but he kept one hand wrapped around the door’s handle and refused to be torn away. Her terrified shouts filled the room as he fought to get the remaining sequence into the pad.
Isami managed to get to them and pulled the woman off, dragging her back as the metal-against-metal grinding of the lockdown bolts filled the room. The sound prompted the woman to fight even harder and Isami finally threw her to the floor, grabbing a fallen stapler and slamming it twice into the side of her head.
Ito stared down in horror at the blood flowing from her temple but then turned away. There had been no choice. Their lives were meaningless when weighed against the devastation that would ensue if his creation escaped into the world.
Once again silence descended, broken only by the gentle drip of water and the rhythm of their breathing.
Ito walked hesitantly to a hatch in the cracked glass wall, opening it as his heart pounded painfully in his chest. He slid through, having already forgotten about the unconscious woman on the floor and the emotionless man standing over her.
The glass cube containing his experiment was supported by hydraulic shock absorbers and thick rubber pads—additional insurance against eventualities exactly like this one. They were all intact, as was the glass upon first inspection. He went around it slowly, running a bare hand carefully along its sides. His heart rate began to regulate as he moved, but then his finger hit something. It was nearly imperceptible—nothing more than a slight roughness in the meticulously ground surface. He held his breath, moving his head back and forth in the red light, praying to the Christian god he’d adopted so many years before that the imperfection was just a trick of perception.
But like so many times before, his prayers weren’t answered. The crack was only a few centimeters long, and there was no way to determine with any certainty if it had fully penetrated. Not that it mattered. No chance of a loss of containment, no matter how remote, could be tolerated.
“We have a possible breach,” Ito said, his voice shaking audibly as he passed back through the hatch.
It took the combined efforts of both him and his assistant to open the bent locker that held their radiation gear. They put it on without speaking. There was nothing to be said.
Ito secured his face mask and connected it to an oxygen supply as Isami went to the unconscious girl and began trying to get her limp body into a bright yellow hazmat suit similar to the ones they were wearing. The safety gear would be sufficient to keep them from being killed outright by the radiation-driven sterilization process, but that was all. They would trade a relatively quick death for a drawn-out, painful one.
Ito used the key around his neck to unlock a cage protecting a fluorescent orange lever. He put his gloved hand on it and closed his eyes. In that place, in that moment, it was impossible not to look backward and question his entire adult life. To wonder if he had spent the last forty-five years shining a light into a place that God intended to remain dark.
Lieutenant Colonel Jon Smith had parked his rental car in the trees about a mile back, negotiating the remaining descent on foot. The dirt road was steep as hell and turned slick near the bottom, but there was no other way into the remote fishing village without a boat.
Behind him the mountains had swallowed the stars, but ahead the clear sky above the Sea of Japan was dotted with tiny pricks of light. Combined with a few salt-encrusted bulbs still burning below, there was just enough illumination to make out the sloped roofs of buildings hugging the shore and the long skiffs beached in front of them. The haphazard paths among the tightly packed homes, boathouses, and processing buildings, thankfully, were inky black.
He skirted the hazy glow of a porch light and eased along the edge of a shed that smelled of fresh diesel and rotten fish. The simple rhythm of his surroundings remained unchanged: the quiet lapping of waves, a southern wind just strong enough to get hold of the occasional loose board, the nearly imperceptible hum of power lines. Beyond that, nothing.
Smith followed the dim arrow on his GPS watch toward a narrow passageway between buildings, still wondering why he’d been chosen for this job. While his complexion and military-cut hair were relatively dark, a six-foot-tall, blue-eyed American slinking around rural Japan at 2:00 a.m. had the potential to attract more attention than would be desirable under the circumstances. And then there was the matter of his Japanese-language skills, which consisted of a few phrases incorrectly remembered from reading Shogun in high school.
There was just no way Covert-One didn’t have access to Japanese operatives. Hell, even Randi would have been a vast improvement. A little makeup and hair dye would be good enough to make her 90 percent invisible, and while most of her operational experience had been China-based, Japan was at least somewhere in the general vicinity of her area of expertise.
No doubt Klein had his reasons—he always did. And the job itself didn’t seem all that difficult. Meet a man, get a standard-size briefcase weighing in at a manageable twelve pounds, and bring it back to Maryland on a military transport out of Okinawa.
Piece of cake, right? Hell, he’d probably have time to grab a little sushi and have his spine walked on.
The darkness deepened as he entered the narrow space between the buildings, forcing him to slow to a crawl. The GPS said he was only twenty yards from the rendezvous point, and he slid a silenced Glock from beneath his sweatshirt. Not that he thought he’d be needing it, but you never knew.
The passage came to a T and Smith poked his head around the side of a warehouse to quickly scan both directions. Nothing but darkness. He was starting to regret not bringing light amplification equipment, but as hard as it was for a six-foot, blue-eyed American to remain anonymous in this part of the world, cover those blue eyes with an elaborate set of night-vision goggles and he might as well be juggling chain saws in a top hat.
He turned right, inching along for a few seconds, unable to completely silence the sound of his boots crunching on something he swore was fish bones.
The whisper was heavily accented and barely audible. Smith froze, squinting into the darkness as a vague human outline appeared from behind a stack of wooden pallets. He resisted the urge to speed up, keeping his steps careful as he approached with his gun held loosely by his side. Even in what little starlight could filter between the buildings, he could see from the man’s body language that he was scared. No point in making things worse by leading with a suppressor-tipped semiautomatic.
Unfortunately, his attempt to project as much casual calm as circumstances would allow seemed to be failing. By the time he eased alongside the man, it sounded like he was starting to hyperventilate. On the bright side, no discussion was necessary and the briefcase exchanged hands without problems—other than the fact that it was probably twice as heavy as Smith had been told. A rare error in detail by Fred Klein.
“Are you all right to get out of here on your own?” Smith said quietly.
The man nodded as a gust of wind kicked up. The old buildings around them protested, but there was something about the sound that didn’t seem to follow the pattern it had before. Something out of place.
Smith grabbed the man by the front of the shirt and tried to jerk him back behind the pallets, but he panicked and resisted. A moment later there was a dull thunk followed by the man’s legs collapsing.
Smith followed his injured contact to the ground and dragged him behind cover. The man was still breathing, but there was a wet sucking sound to it that Smith had heard too many times in his years as a combat doctor. A crude examination—while he was trying to watch both directions for people moving in on their position—turned up a crossbow bolt sunk to the fletching between two ribs. The man started to choke on his own blood, and Smith felt a rare moment of hesitation. The physician in him was finding it impossible to just abandon the man despite the fact that there was nothing he or anyone else could do to save him. The covert operative in him was screaming that he was being boxed in and if he didn’t get out soon, he wasn’t going to fare any better than the man fighting for breath on the ground in front of him.
Knowing in excruciating detail what the remaining minutes of the man’s life would be like, Smith pressed his suppressor against the man’s chest and fired a single round into his heart. The muffled crack of the round was followed by a now familiar thunk from the opposite direction of the first. Smith threw himself backward and slammed into the weathered boards behind him as a crossbow bolt hissed past his face.
That confirmed his fear that whoever these sons of bitches were, they were coming in from both directions. And they were good. He still hadn’t heard either one, and that last shot had been threaded through a gap in the pallets.
Smith grabbed the briefcase and held it behind him as he broke cover and darted toward the unseen man who had just shot at him. Crossbows were accurate, quiet, and hit like a runaway train, but they weren’t fast to reload.
A rickety staircase that ran up the side of the warehouse to his right was only a few yards away and he adjusted his trajectory toward it. Not that he had a chance in hell of getting up it, but he’d seen the outline of a single window beneath it on his way in and filed its location away in the event of a situation just like this.
The heavy briefcase hung over his shoulder was slowing him down as he tried to run, but the trade-off proved a good one when he heard a bolt slam into it from behind. With his right hand, he grabbed the support for the stairs and swung beneath them, throwing the briefcase through the window and leaping after it.
The remaining glass in the frame raked across his torso and the landing was a pile of wooden crates, but he was still breathing and a few scrapes and bruises weren’t anything that would hinder him.
Smith stayed low, tripping awkwardly across the warehouse interior toward a door warped badly enough to let the starlight bleed around it. Instead of bursting through, though, he ran his hand desperately along the wall next to it. When he found what he was looking for, he went completely motionless, trying to blend into the rough-hewn boards and watching the shattered window he’d entered through. While he’d elected to leave his night-vision gear at home, he was willing to bet that the men coming after him hadn’t.
When a dim human outline slipped cautiously into the empty window frame, Smith hit the lights. As expected, the man grabbed for his goggles, and at that moment Smith squeezed off a single round. Even for him it was a low-percentage shot—the sudden glare of the overhead lights, a partially obscured moving target, a heart rate running in the 160s. So he was surprised when the man’s head jerked back and he sank from view. Like his dad used to be fond of saying: better to be lucky than good.
Smith shoved through the door and, as suspected, someone was waiting for him out front. Also as expected, the man had lost a good second pulling off his night-vision goggles and now had to hit a backlit opponent with a medieval weapon. Advantage lost.
Smith fired a round into his chest as he sprinted away from the warehouse and toward the water. The man went down hard but immediately started to get back to his feet. The body armor that was beneath his black sweater wasn’t as effective at stopping the close-range round that Smith pumped into his face when he ran past.
Another bolt released behind him and he instinctively went into a crouch, hearing it hiss by just to his right. Too close. It was another fifteen yards to the edge of the water and the chance of him making it alive was starting to look remote.
He abruptly cut left and sprinted toward an open fishing boat pulled halfway onto the sand, diving headfirst into it. The brief illusion of safety, though, exploded in the crack of shattering wood and a powerful impact to his right shoulder blade. There was a stainless steel cooler in front of him and he crawled behind it, aware of the strength draining from his limbs. As he rolled painfully onto his side, he heard the crossbow bolt jutting from his back scrape against the bottom of the boat.
A few lights had snapped on in the buildings around the shore, and the shadows were dissipating at about the same rate as the adrenaline that was keeping him going. He could hear cautious footsteps moving toward him in the sand and he unscrewed the suppressor from his gun, firing a few blind rounds in the general direction of his attackers.
The unsilenced Glock would be enough to wake the rest of the town, but probably not in time to scare off the men who were about to kill him. The water was clearly his best chance for survival.
The briefcase was too heavy to swim with so he pressed his thumb against a hidden screen behind the handle and was surprised when the locks actually popped open. Klein had redeemed himself.
Smith wasn’t sure what he was going to find, but a ziplock bag full of what looked like garbage wasn’t high on his list. An odd thing to die for, he mused as he stuffed the bag into a pocket in his cargo pants and fired a few more noisy rounds over the cooler.
The pain in his back was becoming debilitating and it took him more than five seconds to slither to the back of the boat. Gritting his teeth, he grabbed hold of the outboard motor and used the leverage to throw himself over the stern.
The water was deeper than he anticipated—good for cover, bad for drowning—but the pain was so intense that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to swim. Finally, he forced himself to start kicking and managed to pull with the arm that would still move. The gun dropped from his hand as he tried to parallel the surface, not sure how deep he was but hearing impacts in the water. Crossbow bolts at the very least, but probably also bullets now. Stealth had been lost and there was no reason for the men hunting him to be bashful.
He went deeper. Or at least he thought he did. His sense of direction was being swallowed by blood loss, pain, and lack of oxygen. When his head started to spin, he followed the bubbles up, breaking the surface only with his mouth as he gulped desperately at the sea air. When his mind started to clear, he brought his head far enough above the surface to look back in the direction of the beach. Three men. All wading in after him.
Smith dived again, swimming awkwardly and trying to ignore the drag from the bolt in his back as it carved into muscle and bone. He came up only when he began to feel consciousness slipping away and to make sure that he was still heading in the right direction. Unfortunately, that direction was out to sea.
He had no idea how long he’d been in the water when he finally had to admit that he couldn’t go any farther. Surfacing, he rolled onto his back and bobbed helplessly in the swells. Based on the lights that were still coming to life on shore, he’d only made it about four hundred yards. The silhouettes of people coming out of their homes were easily discernible, but all he could hear was the hypnotic whisper of the water.
A quiet grunt brought Smith back to alertness and he swam away from it, using a modified sidestroke with his right arm floating uselessly below the surface. He was barely moving, though, and it was only a few seconds before a hand closed around his ankle.
Smith flipped onto his back in time to see an arm burst from the water, knife in hand. He kicked at his attacker’s head, connecting solidly enough to make the man miss but not enough to do any damage. With no other option, Smith took a deep breath and grabbed the man’s knife hand. Then he dragged him under.
The man started to fight, but Smith was too weak to do anything but try to control the knife. He wrapped his legs around the man’s waist, their proximity and the density of the water taking the sting out of the blows he was absorbing.
The advantage Smith was counting on was that he had been floating motionless for some time while his opponent had been swimming as hard as he could in pursuit. The hope was that he’d already been in oxygen debt when they’d gone under.
His lungs started to burn, melding with the rest of the pain racking his body, and he looked in the direction he thought was up to see only blackness. Eventually, the pain started to fade and he felt an unfamiliar sense of peace taking hold of him.
The air was bubbling slowly from his mouth when he became aware that the man had stopped fighting. What did that mean again? What was he supposed to do?
Primal instinct more than anything prompted him to push the limp body away and kick. He felt himself floating gently upward toward…what?
The air flooding back into his lungs was accompanied by the return of the unbearable pain in his back and the reality of the hopelessness of his situation. The silhouetted crowd on the bank had grown, but there were still two men in the water coming toward him. Neither seemed to be as good a swimmer as their friend whom he’d sent to the bottom, though.
Smith rolled onto his side again, moving away from shore and into the darkness.
When he couldn’t go on anymore, the lights from shore had disappeared—either turned off or lost in the swells. He floated on his back, feeling the crossbow bolt being tugged by the current. The pain had faded. Like everything else. Blood loss, most likely. His head felt like it was full of gauze, and he was having a hard time remembering where he was. In the ocean, but which one? Or was it a sea? What was the difference between the two again?
A sudden burst of light appeared in front of him and he squinted into it. Not particularly bright, but startling in the complete darkness. Voices. The lapping of water against a wooden hull.
A final, weak burst of adrenaline brought him momentarily back to the present. The contents of the briefcase were still in his pocket and he had no idea what they were or of their importance. No idea what kind of threat they could pose in the wrong hands. But the fact that he’d been sent, that Klein was involved, suggested that capture wasn’t an option.
He had no strength left to escape the boat or to fight the men in it. And that left him very few alternatives.
Smith exhaled, reducing his buoyancy, and felt the water close in on top of him.
One mission too many.
The street market was packed with people, jostling, laughing, and haggling for everything from rugs to Tupperware to stuffed animals. It was late morning and the heat of the day was already descending, mixing the stench of sweat with the aroma of spices and cooking meat to create an atmosphere that felt oddly comfortable to Randi Russell.
- "Mills offers an interesting new premise for action-adventure...[and] rockets the action around the world."—Kirkus Reviews on The Utopia Experiment
- "Ludlum fans will enjoy the familiar frantic pace and dramatic shifts in plot they have come to expect from this series."—Fredericksberg Free-Lance Star on The Utopia Experiment
- "From the opening sentence that literally starts with a bang, the latest Covert One novel speeds along at a breakneck pace.... Freveletti, who has an amazing talent for action scenes, has written one of the top entries in the Covert One series, which has established itself as the best of the numerous series based on Ludlum characters."—Booklist on The Janus Reprisal
- "Fast-paced and action-filled, with iconic characters and contemporary themes . . . Fans of Ludlum . . . thrillers will find The Ares Decision right on target."—Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star on The Ares Decision
- "A tight and tense pageturner."—Booklist on The Ares Decision
- On Sale
- Sep 29, 2015
- Hachette Audio