The president of the U.S. orders Director Elizabeth Harker of the Project to investigate the collision at sea of a U.S. Navy missile destroyer with a Chinese freighter. It may have been sabotage, and the president wants her to get to the bottom of it. But the assignment is not what it seems. Harker has an enemy in the White House who wants her to fail. The Project's continued existence is on the line.
In the cold reaches of the far north, a hidden supercomputer with malicious artificial intelligence is being used by a secret organization to drive the world to war. Disruptive attacks across the world begin to create deep suspicions between China, Russia, and America. Preparations for war escalate. As the war drums begin to beat, the Project team discovers a digital trail that could lead to whoever is trying to touch off a nuclear confrontation.
That makes the team a serious threat. They're getting too close to the truth, and the man behind the attacks decides to stop them. As the doomsday clock ticks toward zero, it's touch and go whether any of the team will get out alive, much less stop the certainty of nuclear war and mutual annihilation.
Will they survive long enough to stop the missiles from flying?
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The USS Wayne madea steady twenty knots through the gray-green waters of the South China Sea, the sharp edge of her bow cutting like a samurai sword through the water. The Wayne was an Arleigh Burke class missile destroyer, an elegant, deadly, war machine of the sea. She was showing the flag, sailing in international waters claimed by Beijing.
Two miles to starboard, a Chinese Navy corvette had been shadowing them since first light. So far there'd been no incidents, although the Wayne had received numerous radio transmissions protesting her presence in "Chinese territorial waters."
This part of the world's sea lanes was a busy place. Freighters, fishing boats, and container ships dotted the wide horizon. The Wayne featured the most sophisticated navigational electronics and displays taxpayer money could buy. It made no difference if she sailed in a complete white out or the black of night, whoever was on the bridge knew exactly what was out there. On a day like today, with unlimited visibility, it didn't take instruments to see the freighter making erratic movements ahead of them. Streams of rust ran down her sides. The vessel flew a Chinese flag.
Captain Randolph "Randy" Carpenter lowered his binoculars. He turned to his XO, Commander Zachary Armstrong, standing next to him on the bridge.
"What does that idiot think he's doing, Zack?"
"You got me, skipper. He keeps that up, he's going to cross right in front of us."
"Helm, ten degrees to port."
"Ten degrees to port, aye."
The ship heeled slightly as she changed course.
Armstrong studied the freighter through his binoculars.
"Sir, he's altered course. He's headed right for us."
"Helm, twenty degrees to port, all ahead full."
"Twenty degrees to port, aye. All ahead full, aye."
The seaman standing at the bridge helm station turned the wheel in front of him.
The destroyer began turning to starboard.
"Damn it, helm, I said port."
"Sir, the helm is not responding." There was a touch of panic in the seaman's voice. He spun the wheel. "Sir, there is no response. I'm locked out."
The floor under Captain Carpenter's feet vibrated as the four powerful gas turbines that drove the destroyer spun up to full speed. The Wayne was engineered to make a fast thirty knots and could make a turn impossible twenty years before. That didn't help if she wasn't turning in the right direction. The freighter altered course again, presenting her starboard side to the onrushing destroyer. The Wayne was a deadly arrow, aimed at the heart of the ship ahead.
"Sound collision alarm," Carpenter said. "All stop."
"All stop, aye," the helmsman said. "Sir, no response."
The deck thrummed as the engines went to flank speed. A harsh klaxon began blaring throughout the ship. Carpenter watched helplessly as the Wayne bore down on the luckless freighter. Now he could make out the name painted on her side.
The destroyer struck the Happy Nation at maximum speed, slicing into her like a knife cutting through cheese. The agonized sound of tortured metal ripping apart was the last thing Carpenter heard before he was thrown down and knocked unconscious.
Twelve minutes later, the freighter slipped stern first beneath the surface of the sea. The USS Wayne was down by the bow and listing to starboard.
It had begun.
Nick Carter gripped the handles of an exercise bike, his legs rocketing up and down, driving everything except physical movement from his thoughts. Three months before a bullet had brushed by his heart, whispering of death. He'd flat lined in the OR. He'd been dead for several minutes before they'd brought him back.
There's nothing like dying to make you think twice about what you're doing with your life, he thought.
Nick had a vague memory of something happening during those minutes. He'd been talking to someone, but he couldn't remember who, or what had been said. What he did remember was a feeling of utter peace and ease, something always in short supply if you worked at the Project.
Sometimes he wondered what would have happened if he'd stayed in the Marines. It would've been easier, he was sure of that. But if he hadn't taken Director Elizabeth Harker up on her offer to join the Project, he'd never have met Selena or remembered what it meant to love.
Selena was working her way through a series of martial arts exercises on the floor mat across the room. The bulge of her abdomen swelled against her workout sweats. She was four months pregnant, an unexpected complication in their life together.
He thought she seemed a little large for four months. Maybe she was farther along than they thought. They had an appointment at her gynecologist's office later today for an ultrasound and general checkup. They should have gone before now, but today they'd find out if Selena was carrying a boy or a girl. Then they could start thinking about names.
He'd had plenty of time to think when he was recovering in the hospital, too much time. Time to bring up the dark thoughts that usually got pushed away. There was always the possibility the next bullet wouldn't miss. That there would be a next bullet was a certainty, given the work he did.
With a child on the way, he was forced to think twice about continuing to work for Harker. The problem was that try as he might, he couldn't think of anything else he wanted to do. He was good at what he did. He was serving his country.
At least Selena was out of the line of fire. She was still part of the team, but no longer going on missions with them.
Nick slowed his pace and gradually brought his legs to a halt, feeling the buzz working through his thighs and hips. His legs were pretty much back to where they were before he'd been shot. He hadn't recovered all of his upper body strength, but he was getting close. It was amazing how much strength he'd lost while waiting to heal up. If he told the truth to himself, it was getting harder to maintain the body he was used to.
The body he needed to survive.
Another reason to think about whether or not it was time to hang it up.
Not yet, his inner voice said. You've still got a couple of years left.
"Sure," he said out loud, "at least a couple of years."
"Did you say something?" Selena asked.
"Just talking to myself."
"Nothing important. I'm going to hit the showers."
"I'm done. I'll join you."
"In your condition? I'm shocked to see such wanton behavior."
"What's wanton about taking a shower? I'm all sweaty. Besides, I need you to soap my back."
"What if your husband catches you?"
"I'm kind of hoping he does," Selena said.
"See? Wanton behavior."
Later, as they were dressing, Elizabeth Harker's voice came over the intercom.
"Nick, Selena, can you finish your workouts and come upstairs?"
"We're done now, Director," Nick said. "On the way."
Selena gave her hair a final rub with a towel. "Something's up. She's got that sound in her voice."
"It's a little hard to describe. It's a tension, a kind of tightness. It's the sort of thing I learned to listen for when I was studying different languages. It shows up when she's looking at a mission where things could get complicated."
"Things always get complicated," Nick said.
They climbed a spiral staircase to Elizabeth Harker's office on the ground floor. Project HQ looked like a family home in the Virginia countryside, but it was nothing like what it appeared to be. No one got in without a key card and a retinal scan. Cameras recorded everything that came within a hundred yards of the building. A skilled observer would notice that the glass on the windows seemed unusually thick. Nothing except an RPG was getting through that glass.
Across from the house was a large, steel building painted a light tan color, the kind of building found on farms and used for storing equipment or stabling horses. There weren't any tractors or horses in the building. Inside was a computer-driven urban combat course that could be configured to imitate anything from a village to a major city.
Not far from the house was a helicopter pad. That wasn't much cause for comment in the wealthy suburbs within commuting distance of Washington, but the high fence topped with razor wire surrounding the property was unusual. That, and the armed guards and gatehouse at the entrance.
Elizabeth Harker's office was large, comfortable. A long, brown leather couch sat opposite her desk, under a row of clocks showing times in cities around the world. A flat screen monitor was mounted on the wall behind the desk. A coffee station against the wall to the right of the desk sported a new Keurig coffee maker and a regular brewing set up. Bullet proof sliding glass doors looked out over a pleasant patio, bordered by manicured flowerbeds coming into spring bloom.
A huge orange cat lay on the couch, snoring loudly. A shaved patch of fur on his belly, a fresh scar, and stitches showed where a clump of matted hair the size of a baseball had been taken out of his gut by the local veterinarian.
"Try not to wake him," Elizabeth said. "Burps is still recovering from his adventure with the vet and he's a little grouchy. Think of it as good practice for when the baby comes."
"Mmm," Nick said.
Elizabeth was a small woman, barely over five feet when wearing heels. What she lacked in physical size she made up for in intelligence and intensity. She usually dressed in combinations of black and white. Today she'd chosen a dark green business suit and a pale green silk blouse. She had milk white skin, small ears, jet black hair with a few streaks of silver in it, and emerald eyes that could bore through you with the sharpness of a laser when she was angry.
Nick thought she looked like a woodland elf in the green outfit. All she needed was a green peaked cap. He kept his thoughts to himself.
Nick and Selena sat down on the couch, away from the cat.
"We have a problem," Elizabeth said.
"What is it this time?" Nick asked.
"One of our missile destroyers collided with a Chinese freighter in the South China Sea. We've been asked to look into it."
"Yes. The exact number isn't known yet. The Chinese ship sank within minutes. I'm not sure how many survived. The USS Wayne is still afloat, but she's pumping water and barely holding on. A Chinese Corvette was shadowing her. She's on the scene and offering assistance. Ships and aircraft from the Seventh Fleet are on their way to the area."
"That's awful," Selena said.
"What happened?" Nick asked.
"All we know is that the Wayne struck the Chinese ship at high speed. There's a geostationary satellite over the South China Sea and we have video. It shows erratic movements by the Chinese vessel. It looks as though the Wayne altered course early on to avoid a collision, but then the Chinese ship steered right into her path and the Wayne changed course again to meet her. There were no further evasive movements by the Wayne. She took massive damage and damn near cut the Chinese ship in half."
"How does this concern us? It's the Navy's turf."
"The Wayne wasn't only showing the flag. She was part of a secret DARPA project."
"Oh, boy," Nick said. "The black arts boys."
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was the Pentagon's skunk works. DARPA had its hand in everything from laser cannons to flying saucers, developing weapons straight out of science-fiction. Some of those projects succeeded, some didn't. No one knew exactly how many billions DARPA spent on research. Most of what they did was hidden under a cloak blacker than Darth Vader's robe.
"Was it equipment failure?" Selena asked. "Human error?"
"DARPA was monitoring the Wayne in real time. Before the collision, she was targeted with a high-speed encrypted transmission. It may have done something to the navigational system."
"Sabotage," Nick said.
"What was DARPA up to?"
"They were dropping smart mines into the sea."
"What are smart mines?"
"They sink to a predetermined depth and wait for an activation command. They're programmed to seek and destroy enemy vessels in case of war."
"I don't think the Chinese would appreciate that if they found out about it," Nick said.
"What happened to the Wayne sounds like something for NSA or Langley," Selena said. "Maybe both."
"I agree, but it's been handed to us." Elizabeth paused. "I think it's a set up. I believe we're meant to fail."
"What do you mean?"
"Things are changing since Corrigan took office. There are bad signs, politically speaking. It's getting harder for me to get through to him. His Chief of Staff is a fine example of someone who gets some power and begins to throw her weight around because she can. She strikes me as a spiteful and ambitious woman, and she doesn't like me. She's convinced she knows more than she does and she has far too much influence on Corrigan. That may change after he's been in office for a while, but right now he listens to her. She sees us as a political liability and she wants to close us down."
"Spiteful and ambitious isn't a good combination," Selena said.
"All the same, it's up to us to find out what happened. It's our best shot at blocking her and staying in business."
"What if it really was an accident?" Selena asked.
"That's what we need to find out. If it was an accident, everyone can move on. If it wasn't…"
Elizabeth left the sentence unfinished.
"What happens next?" Nick asked.
"We need to find out more about that transmission sent to the Wayne. I'm going to put Stephanie on it. She might be able to determine where it originated and whether or not it had anything to do with the collision."
"Sounds like a long shot," Nick said.
"Maybe so, but it's a place to start."
"And if she can pinpoint where the transmission came from?"
"Then I'm going to send the team to do something about it."