By Kyle Mills
Read by Jeff Woodman
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Meanwhile, in the mountains of Afghanistan, CIA operative Randi Russell encounters an entire village of murdered Afghans–all equipped with enhanced Merge technology that even the Agency didn’t know existed. As Smith and Russell delve into the circumstances surrounding the Afghans’ deaths, they’re quickly blocked by someone who seems to have access to the highest levels of the military–a person that even the president knows nothing about.
Is the Merge really as secure as its creator claims? And what secrets about its development is the Pentagon so desperate to hide? Smith and Russell are determined to learn the truth. But they may pay for it with their lives . . .
WE'RE RUNNING BEHIND SCHEDULE. I can't be responsible for the weather."
Christian Dresner nodded and continued to gaze through the Trabant's dirty windshield. Outside, everything was hung with ice. Decayed houses glistened on either side of the narrow road, tangled power lines sagged with the weight, and the cobblestones glared blindingly in their headlights.
"We should go directly to the rendezvous," the driver continued nervously. "It's almost midnight."
"You took our money," Dresner said. "Now you'll do the job according to our agreement."
The man leaned over the greasy steering wheel, scowling as he tried to coax a little more speed from the car without losing traction.
A quiet rustle came from the backseat, followed by a voice barely audible over the sickly, communist-made engine. "Christian?"
Dresner twisted around and looked at the thin man clutching a briefcase to his chest. At twenty-six, Gerhard Eichmann was two years his senior, but his physique and manner made him seem perpetually trapped between adolescence and adulthood. Despite that impression, though, he was a brilliant psychologist—something highly valued by Soviet politicians obsessed with controlling every aspect of their people's lives. More important, though, Eichmann was a true friend—a rare treasure in a world full of zealous apparatchiks, secret police, and desperate informants. Perhaps the frail man would be the only friend he would ever have. But it didn't matter. One like him was enough. More than most people could hope for.
"Don't worry, Gerd. Soon, we'll wake up in a warm bed in the West. We'll be free to do what we wish. To become what we wish. I promise you."
Eichmann gave him a weak smile and held the briefcase tighter. It was the only thing they were taking with them, the only thing they possessed of value. It contained records of the research done at a remote facility they'd been all but imprisoned in for the past four years. The currency they would use to start their new lives.
The vehicle slowed and Dresner faced forward again as they started up a winding road, the moderate slope of which quickly proved too steep for the car's bald tires.
He stepped out before they fully stopped, finding his footing on the ice and starting forward as the falling snow swallowed up Eichmann's panicked entreaties.
The building began to reveal itself as the slope leveled—the cracked and faded arches clinging precariously to the facade, the peeling tower that sagged like everything and everyone around it.
A dim light coming from the upper window looked exactly as it had the day he'd been taken away but he averted his gaze, afraid that it would pull him into the past. That the frightened, desperate child he'd been would return and overwhelm him.
The gate he remembered was gone now and he felt his breathing turn shallow as he passed through the empty space where it had been. The swing set still stood, trapped in the frozen mud of the yard along with a teeter-totter snapped in the middle and a set of climbing bars. In his childhood, they'd still had paint clinging to them—patches of bright red and yellow that recalled the days before the war. Before the Soviets. On rare clear afternoons he'd lose himself in their glow, trying to transport himself to a time when children with homes and families clambered over them laughing.
Now even that was gone, swallowed by rust or obscured by the soot from coal fires people used to beat back the cold.
He pulled his coat closer around his neck and walked across the silent yard, stopping at the front door and pounding on it with a bare fist. When there was no reaction, he grabbed the shovel leaning against the railing and used the handle to hammer the unyielding wood. The fog of his breath obscured his vision as he continued to attack the entrance, years of repressed anger, helplessness, and hate resurfacing so easily.
A light came on inside and he stepped back, gripping the shovel in a shaking hand.
But when the door opened, it wasn't the man he'd come for. It was the woman who had seen him off more than fifteen years ago. Her bowl-cut hair and puritan style of dress were unchanged, but now the skin hung loose from her chin and her eyes had trouble focusing.
The recognition came quickly, followed immediately by the fear he had been too consumed to anticipate. Dresner had no desire to inspire that in her and he suddenly felt ashamed. She had never been an evil woman. Just weak. And numb.
He brushed by her, the cold not dissipating at all as he passed in front of a broad staircase leading to the second floor. At its top, the orphans imprisoned there would be hiding in the shadows, just as he had every time an unexpected visitor came. They would be perfectly still, holding their breaths, telling themselves that this time it would be a long-lost parent or cousin or sibling. That it would be someone who would take them away.
He plunged into the darkness, avoiding scattered furniture by memory and starting quietly up the spiral stairs that wound their way up the tower. The door at the top was framed by gray light flickering from the gap around the jamb and he stood in front of it for a few moments, trying to separate the sensation of being there at that moment from being there before.
"What do you want?" he heard from the other side of the door. "You'll get out of here if you know what's good for you!"
Instead, Dresner reached for the knob and went through, feeling the warmth of the kerosene heater that they had all known about and dreamed of. At first, he ignored the bulky, half-dressed man on the sofa and looked around at the room illuminated by the glow of a small black-and-white television. He'd never been inside—none of them had—and their imaginations had built it into a palace of gold and jewels and candy. In reality, it was just another disintegrating relic of a Germany that no longer existed.
Finally, Dresner's eyes fell on a cane in the corner, still black in places, worn down to bare wood in others. He wondered how much his own back was responsible for the polished gleam of it. And if the broken tip was a relic of the eight-year-old girl who had slipped away in her bed, a victim of a beating she'd received for knocking over an old lamp that had never worked.
"Who—" the man said, pushing himself to his feet with the same anger he'd had so many years ago, but not the same speed or vigor. Recognition wasn't as quick as with Marta.
It was understandable. Dresner's eyes, slightly magnified by thick glasses, were the only things that remained unchanged. The other researchers at the facility had been perplexed when he'd insisted on subjecting himself to many of the same protocols as the athletes they trained. He'd told them it was in the interest of science, but it was a lie. It had been entirely in the interest of this moment. His frail, half-starved body had been replaced with something more fitting for the occasion.
"Christian?" the man said, wet eyes widening as much as the half-empty bottle of vodka sitting on the table would allow.
Dresner nodded silently. Despite so many years planning for this day, he couldn't remember what he was supposed to say.
"You've grown strong." The man thumped his drooping chest. "I made you that way. I made you strong."
For the first time, fear was clearly visible in him. And why not? He was just a broken-down soldier drinking himself to death in a forgotten orphanage. But Dresner had been embraced by the party. He was one of the generation who would show the world the superiority of communism and the Soviet system. He was the future and this old man was part of a distant, irrelevant past.
"Don't worry," Dresner said, walking to the corner where the cane leaned. "I'm not sending the Stasi for you."
"With what your parents did…" the man stammered. "I had to make you ready for the world. To be able to resist the people who would be against you." He paused for a moment and then quickly added. "For something that wasn't your fault."
"And is that what you're still doing?" Dresner said, picking up the worn piece of wood. As with the playground outside, he remembered photographically the condition it had been in when he'd left, and now he ran his hand along every new scratch and gouge, every place where there had been paint that was now polished away. "Making them ready for the world?"
The old man saw it coming, but the years and alcohol had made him slow. The cane cracked across his cheek, causing him to spin and collapse against the grimy arm of the sofa. When it came down again, this time across his back, a low groan escaped him.
Dresner's mind lost its ability to track what his body was doing and he struck again and again. The man slipped to the floor and tried to raise an arm in defense, but the brittle bones in it snapped with the next blow. He soon went motionless, but it didn't matter. Dresner continued to beat him.
Only when his shoulder became too exhausted to rise and fall did he stop, staring blankly down at the body and trying to will his strength to return.
But, in truth, there was nothing left to do. The blood was pooling around the soles of his boots and the man's dead eyes were staring into him as though they could see the terrified child he'd once been.
Dresner dropped the cane and staggered down the stairs, stopping at the bottom where the children had dared to come out of hiding.
He blinked hard, bringing their faces into focus and trying to control his breathing, once again visible in the absence of the kerosene heater.
"I wish I could do more," he said finally. "I will someday. I promise you that."
ADITYA ZAHID LAY FLAT on his stomach behind the long-abandoned stone building, easing past its crumbling edge to scan the village of Sarabat.
The collection of square, dust-colored dwellings was small, even by the standards of this part of rural Afghanistan, and he felt the same shame that his father and his father before him had felt for allowing it to exist. The feud between these people and his own had burned for longer than anyone could remember, though the reason for it had faded with the years. Some said it was over stolen livestock and others a broken promise of marriage. Now it just was.
In truth, it no longer mattered. What did matter, though, was that despite outnumbering these people almost two to one, the fighting always ended in a bloody stalemate that resolved nothing. It was an ongoing humiliation that the elders of his village believed was about to be resolved. Zahid was less certain.
He retreated under cover and closed his eyes, picturing what he'd seen. Seven people in total were visible: two women, a child, and four men watering their goats at a well built by their good friends the Americans.
The sun was directly overhead and he squinted against it as he searched the walls of the shallow canyon. By now his companions would have completely surrounded the village, but he could find no sign of them. They had become part of the desert.
The anonymous foreigners who had made this moment possible insisted that the raid come now—not under the cover of darkness or even in the shade the cliffs would provide in only a few hours. And it was for this reason that Zahid didn't share the elation of his people at the prospect of wiping these dogs off the face of their land. All he felt was fear and suspicion.
Still, the faceless men had lived up to every agreement they had made. Zahid was holding a new AK-47 they had provided as well as a silenced American hunting rifle that he had used to take down the sentry now lying next to him.
He looked down at the dead man and then propped him against a shattered section of wall. His head easily cleared the top and would offer a reassuring silhouette, keeping the unsuspecting men in the village complacent.
The digital watch on his wrist—also newly provided—didn't read out the time, but a countdown. It would be less than two minutes before it reached zero. Before what could be their final victory began.
Again, Zahid closed his eyes. He had spoken against this. He didn't trust faceless men or their weapons or their money. It smelled like a trap—a CIA trick. But the elders didn't fully understand the new world they lived in. And their hated for the people of Sarabat burned much hotter than their hatred for an invader that would soon leave in defeat and be forgotten. Like all the others.
He wrapped his hand around his new assault rifle and prayed to Allah for success until he heard the quiet click of his countdown timer reaching zero. His men would be moving now, the younger ones too quickly—driven by adrenaline and the stories of glory they had heard from the day they were born. He was slower to rise, staying low as he approached the village, watching the ridgeline for American soldiers and the sky for attack helicopters. But there was nothing.
The silence was finally broken by the high-pitched scream of a child followed by the familiar roar of automatic rifle fire. A woman was hit from behind as she tried to escape, thrown forward with her arms spread wide, landing in the dirt with the unmistakable stillness of death. One of his own men appeared from behind a building, attempting to sight in on a running villager before a boy of eight on nine knocked his barrel aside. Zahid accelerated to a full run, putting himself on a path to intercept the fleeing man as the boy's skull was crushed by a rifle butt.
His quarry was probably in his mid-twenties, straight and strong, but also seemingly confused as to what to do. He sprinted and then slowed. He looked forward toward his escape route and then back at the massacre taking place in his village. He reached behind him for the ancient rifle on his back but then seemed unable to close his fingers around it.
Zahid stopped and knelt, bringing his AK-47 to his shoulder and squeezing off a careful volley. The disoriented man wavered and then dropped to his knees, staring blankly at the sky. But still he didn't reach for his weapon.
Fearing a trick, Zahid approached cautiously, scanning the empty landscape that stretched out in every direction. Was he being drawn into an ambush? Why would they wait? Why would they let themselves be slaughtered like animals?
He stopped two meters away, keeping the barrel of his new rifle trained on his enemy's unlined face. He was bleeding badly from a wound in his leg and the ground beneath him had gone dark with it. He wouldn't live much longer.
"Why don't you fight?"
He didn't answer, instead focusing on Zahid's face with eyes that contained no hatred or fear. Only emptiness.
"Why don't you fight?" Zahid repeated, glancing behind him as the rate of fire slowed and the screams went silent. The Americans hadn't come. The village of Sarabat was gone from God's vision. After more years than anyone knew, honor had been restored. But how? Why?
"God is great," Zahid said, tightening his finger on the trigger as he turned back to his enemy.
The injured man's brow furrowed and his chin rose until he was staring directly into the intense glare of the Afghan sun. "There is no God."
* * *
CLAUDE GÉROUX SWEPT the massive lens north, focusing on one of the last living inhabitants of Sarabat: an old woman trying uselessly to escape a horseman raining blows down on her with a primitive club. Blood spattered across the animal's fur and she fell, covering her head as she was pulled beneath its hooves.
He zoomed out, taking in the entire battlefield—if it could be called that. He'd fought in Congo, Iraq, and Bosnia, to name only a few, and thought he'd witnessed every way a human being could die at the hands of another. But never anything like this.
He turned his lens on one of the attacking force crouching next to the body of yet another armed male villager. They hadn't used those weapons, though. Some had fled, but most had just stood there and allowed themselves and their families to be butchered.
The gunfire went silent and Géroux kept filming for a few seconds more, documenting not the customary pumping fists and elated shouts, but silent confusion as the victorious warriors wandered among the bodies of their fallen enemies.
He finally pulled away from the camera and shut it down, but the recorded images stayed trapped in his mind. They would be added to the others, he knew. The ones he couldn't escape.
Las Vegas, Nevada
JON SMITH MADE HIS WAY through the cavernous Las Vegas Convention Center toward a dense knot of people at its heart. The air-conditioning was already drying the sweat that had soaked through the back of his shirt while he was stuck standing in the desert sun. It had never occurred to him that security for the function would be so tight—metal detectors, multiple ID checks, bomb-sniffing dogs. By comparison, the TSA and Secret Service were downright easygoing.
When he reached the crowd, the reason for the over-the-top scrutiny became apparent. It seemed to consist of a Who's Who of the tech industry. He spotted familiar faces from Amazon and Facebook right away. The new CEO of Apple was also there, embroiled in a heated discussion with two gangly young men he didn't recognize but whose presence and spectacular basketball shoes suggested they were probably worth a billion dollars each.
Feeling more than a little out of place, Smith skirted the crowd's edge, examining the hundred or so chairs lined up in front of a stage framed by a twenty-meter-high video monitor. Finally, he reached his objective: an enormous table straining under the weight of an impressive ice sculpture and an even more impressive spread of exotic food items.
His first sample turned out to be a deeply unfortunate combination of dates and caviar, so he headed toward the bar to get something to wash the taste from his mouth.
"Beer," he said to one of the men handling a line of taps that must have been ten meters long.
"My pleasure. We have Fat Tire, Snake River Lager, Sam Adams, Corona—"
Smith held a hand up, certain the man could recite them all but concerned that the flavor of those dates was starting to gain a permanent foothold. "I'll trust your judgment."
The voice of a woman behind him rose above the drone of the crowd. "You look like a Budweiser man to me."
He turned and she planted herself in front of him, red lips crossing pale skin in a broad grin. Mid-twenties, thin but shapely, with a pixie haircut and bangs that she pushed from her eyes to get a better look at him. Her name tag read "Janine Redford/Wired Magazine." His, as she had undoubtedly noticed, just read "Jon Smith."
"I've been watching you."
"Me?" he said, accepting the beer and then pushing back through the people mobbing the bar with her in his wake. "Why? I'm not anybody."
She pointed at his name tag. "And you're not afraid to put it in writing."
"Family name. Could have been worse. My father had a falling-out with my uncle Gomer right before I was born."
She seemed unconvinced. "I either know or recognize everyone here. You don't seem to fit."
"No. You've got your geeks, your scary business powerhouses, and your skinny, middle-aged Internet gazillionaires…" Her voice trailed off for a moment. "Then there's you."
There was no denying it. His shoulders were a bit too broad, his black hair a little too utilitarian, and his dark skin starting to show damage from sun, wind, ice, and the occasional unavoidable explosion.
"Maybe they sent my invitation by accident?" he said honestly. At this point, it was actually his most credible theory. But why look a gift horse in the mouth? A good quarter of the world would have cut off their pinkie toe to be here. And he was firmly in that twenty-five percent.
She gave him a suspicious little smile and took a sip from her martini glass. "Christian Dresner doesn't make mistakes."
"Okay. Then you tell me why I'm here."
"I'm a doctor," he said evasively. "Microbiology. But these days I work with the physically impaired."
"Okay. I'll buy that. But you're a military doctor and the impaired people you work with are injured soldiers. No point in denying it. I'm a prodigy at this."
He considered his options for a moment but then just stuck out his hand. "Lieutenant Colonel Jon Smith."
"So does the military know something?" she said, demonstrating a surprisingly firm grip. "Like, for instance, what Dresner's going to roll out today?"
"Not a clue."
Her pouting frown combined with the sagging of her shoulders made it clear she wasn't buying a word he said. When she spoke again, he wasn't sure if it was to him or if she was just thinking out loud. "Dresner's more of a save-the-world kind of guy than a blow-up-the-world guy…"
"And I don't work with weapons, Janine. I really am a doctor. If I'm not here by mistake, my best guess is it's another medical breakthrough. His antibiotics have been really important to us on the battlefield, and retired soldiers are a huge market for his hearing system."
She crinkled up her nose. "My grandpa was an artillery guy in Vietnam and he has one of those hearing aids."
"It's an amazing technology."
"Yeah. I used to shout 'Hi, Gramps!' right in his face and he'd say, 'Oh, about eleven o'clock.' Now he can hear a pin drop in the next room."
People often made the mistake of comparing Dresner's system to Cochlears, but the technology was an order of magnitude more advanced. Dresner had figured out a way to bypass the ear entirely, using a magnetic field to communicate directly with the brain. Children being born today would never even understand the concept of hearing impairment.
She pointed to the left side of her head. "The problem is that he's bald and he's got these two shiny silver receivers screwed right into his wrinkly old skull. I love the guy, but it's disgusting."
"You know the VA will pay to have those painted to match his skin."
"He says the government has better things to do with its money than try to make him look pretty."
Smith raised his glass to the old soldier and took a long pull.
"I think we can both agree that it's not going to be better hearing aids," she continued. "So what then?"
"I can't tell you what it is, but I can tell you what I hope it is. I've been working on developing prosthetics for injured troops and we've made some strides toward allowing people to control them mentally, but the technology is really basic. If there's anyone in the world who could crack that nut, it would be Christian Dresner."
Her eyes crinkled up as she considered the possibility. "We did a story a while back on a monkey that controls this huge mechanical arm with his brain. Doesn't seem to understand it's not his. Creepy."
"I've actually met that monkey," Smith said. "And it is kind of creepy."
She shook her head. "It's not going to be that."
"No? Why not?"
"First of all, because you're the only doctor here—everyone else is straight-up technology. And second, because a few years back Dresner overpaid for a Spanish search start-up that was doing augmented reality for cell phones."
"Like the astronomy app I have on my iPhone? You just hold it up to the sky at night and it shows you the stars behind it with their names. I love that."
She seemed less impressed. "Dresner didn't want the company. He wanted their technology guru. An old hacker named Javier de Galdiano."
"And what's de Galdiano do now?"
"No one really knows. What I do know, though, is that Dresner's bought up more than a few hardware companies and patents that would be complementary to what Javier was trying to accomplish at his start-up."
"You know a lot."
"Keeping tabs on what Dresner is doing is pretty much my job. And I'm saying he's getting into computing."
- "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
- "Freveletti turbocharges tension to nonstop levels in this Covert-One thriller."—Kirkus Reviews on The Janus Reprisal
- "Fast-paced, exciting . . . a winner."—Booklist on The Arctic Event
- "The cinematic chase through changing landscapes and mounting body count gives the book its rapid pace, while insider politics, tradecraft, and technical wizardry lend an extra kick."—Publishers Weekly on The Cassandra Compact
- "Packed with all the classic Ludlum elements . . . the intricately engineered plot thunders forward at breakneck pace. Bottom line: Perfectly executed."—People on The Altman Code
- On Sale
- Mar 26, 2013
- Hachette Audio