Subcamp of Vorkutlag, Polar Ural Mountains, Russia
May 26, 0130 hours
“Travel the world,” they’d said. “Have an exciting career while doing what you love.”
The navy recruiters who’d come knocking on John Donovan’s frat house door eight years ago, when he was an all-American water polo player at University of Southern California, had promised both. John had been thinking more along the lines of Bora Bora or Tahiti—not Siberia—but they’d sure as hell undersold the excitement part of the job.
It was hard to get more exciting than a no-footprint, fail-and-you-die recon mission to a supposedly abandoned gulag in Russia, looking for proof of a doomsday weapon, with not only their lives but war at stake if they were discovered.
Yeah, definitely undersold. But that was why he was here. Retiarius Platoon, one of the two platoons that made up the top-secret SEAL Team Nine, didn’t do vanilla. They did exciting and impossible, and this op sure as shit qualified.
But so far they’d been giving Murphy’s Law a workout in the “if it can go wrong, it will go wrong” category. They’d lost their unblinking eye in the sky—nicknamed Sauron from The Lord of the Rings—lost all comms—aka gone blind—and now that they were finally at the camp and ready to start looking around, something else was going down.
They should be inside the gulag’s command building by now, but they’d stopped in the yard for some reason. From his position at point, John took in the other six members of the squad through the green filter of his NVGs: Miggy, Jim Bob, the senior chief, Dolph, the new kid, and the LC.
Whatever it was, it wasn’t good. Dean Baylor, the senior chief, had broken the go-dark-on-comms order and was arguing with the officer in charge, Lieutenant Commander Scott Taylor.
Shit, he didn’t like this. John shifted back and forth, scanning the ghostly soviet-era labor camp through the scope of his AR-15. Stalin sure as heck knew how to do grim. This place was bleak with a big-assed “B.” But that wasn’t what was making him twitchy. It was being out here in the open like this, exposed for so long.
John getting twitchy didn’t happen often. It was one of the reasons he usually ended up on point. It was the most dangerous position, and it took a lot to rattle him. Unflappable, cool, laid-back, pick your California surfer-boy adjective—he didn’t let shit get to him.
He shot a glance across the camp to the second building—the wooden barracks where the other half of the platoon was reconnoitering. He didn’t expect to see anything—those guys were too good and knew how to be invisible—but they were like brothers to him, and if there was something wrong . . .
Fuck. Something was definitely wrong. The senior chief ran past him, heading not to the command building, but toward the barracks. The kid—Brian Murphy—followed. The senior chief broke off to the left toward the front of the building, and the kid broke right toward the rear. But the LC was shouting at them—and John—to fall back and get the hell out of there. In other words, it was a Dodge City.
John understood why a moment later.
He heard the whiz an instant before seeing the blinding flash of white light as the night detonated in front of him. The hot pressure of the shock wave made him rear back, his ears thundering with the powerful boom. The first time John had gone surfing he’d been struck unexpectedly by a large wave and dragged under—the blast felt like that but with fire.
The debris that pummeled his body like bullets and the rock that struck him in the forehead and took him to the ground were secondary. All he could think about was the heat, and the feeling as if his lungs had been filled with fuel-fired air.
When the blast of overwhelming heat finally receded, he choked in a few acrid breaths and looked around him in a daze. He couldn’t see. A stab of panic penetrated the haze. Only when he tried to wipe his eyes did he remember the NVGs, which were now shattered.
Jerking the goggles off and tossing them to the ground, he blinked as the world came into view. Dust, ash, and smoke were everywhere. It was like every doomsday movie he’d ever seen.
Suddenly he was aware of men around him, pulling at him and mouthing words to him. The world seemed to be moving in slow motion, and it took his brain a moment to catch up. The two men were Miggy and Jim Bob—aka Michael Ruiz and Travis Hart.
“Are you all right?” he thought Ruiz was saying, but John’s ears were ringing too loudly to hear anything.
He nodded, remembering that Miggy, Jim Bob, and Dolph—Steve Spivak—had been well behind him when the missile hit the barracks in front of them. John had been a couple hundred feet away. Had he been any closer . . .
He swore, remembering the kid and senior chief running past him. They’d been closer. And the LC?
A moment later his silent question was answered as the LC appeared out of the smoke with Dolph, both dragging the unconscious senior chief. It was hard to see what state Baylor was in in the dark, but if he was half as bad as John felt, it couldn’t be good.
Miggy dropped down to look the senior chief over and administer first aid as necessary. Jim Bob was doing the same to him. Their corpsman had been with the other squad, but they all had medical training. SEALs might have specialties, but what made them distinct was that they were trained to do any job. If someone went down, any one of them could step up and fill his shoes.
John finally found his voice. “The kid?”
The LC met his gaze and shook his head. “Murphy was too close to the rear of the building where the first missile hit.”
There’d been more than one?
Suddenly, the full importance and ramifications of what the LC said struck. If Murphy had been too close . . .
The other squad, the other seven men of Retiarius, including his best friend and BUD/S brother, Brandon Blake, had been inside the barracks building.
The senior chief and Murphy must have been trying to warn them.
John had to do something. He pushed Jim Bob away, told him he was fine, and struggled to his feet, swaying as he tried to find his equilibrium. Christ, his head hurt. The ground was spinning. He started to run—stumble—toward the orange inferno.
But the LC had guessed his intent and grabbed his arm to hold him back. “It’s too late,” he yelled, his voice sounding like it was coming from the far end of a tunnel. “They’re gone.”
Gone. The finality of that one word penetrated his shell-shocked brain.
John wanted to argue. With every bone in his body he wanted to deny the LC’s words. But the truth was right in front of his face. The gulag was gone. Both the command and barracks buildings had been flattened. What was left was incinerating before his eyes.
He’d never been so close to one before, but he suspected what he was seeing: a thermobaric explosion. It was also known as a vacuum bomb, although this one had been attached to missiles. They were nasty shit, frowned upon by the international community for humanitarian reasons. Russia had been accused of using them in Syria, and the US had used them to target the caves in Afghanistan, including one nicknamed the “Mother of all Bombs.” They used more fuel than conventional weapons, producing a much hotter, more sustained, and pressurized blast that was far more destructive—and deadly—when used in buildings, bunkers, and caves.
He knew what it meant. Just like that, his best friend, half the platoon, and half the family he had in the world were gone.
It was too horrible. Too hideous to think about.
He couldn’t think about it. John had been here once before, and it wasn’t a place he ever wanted to go to again. Utter devastation. Feeling as if the entire world had just gone black and he was lost.
He forced himself to look away. To move on and shift gears. Putting the bad stuff behind him was what made him so good at his job.
But his eyes glanced back to the fire, the instinct to run toward it still strong. SEALs didn’t leave their brothers behind. Ever.
“Donovan . . . Dynomite,” the LC said, shaking him as if it weren’t the first time he’d said his name. Kid Dyn-o-mite from the old 70s show Good Times. That was him. “I need you to focus. We don’t have much time. They’ll be here soon, looking for survivors. They can’t find us.”
John’s head cleared. The heavy weight in his chest was still there, but he was back. The op . . . he had to focus on the op. “What do you need me to do?”
The LC looked relieved. “Get rid of anything electronic. Anything that might let them detect that we weren’t in one of those buildings like we were supposed to be.” Taylor looked at the other three men around him. “That goes for all of us—and the senior chief as well.”
Baylor was still unconscious. He didn’t rouse until they went into the river. That was after they’d thrown their electronics into the fire. But fearing that the Russian soldiers—probably their special forces, Spetsnaz—might also be using thermal imaging, they needed to mask their body heat as well.
So, into the icy river they went, taking turns keeping the senior chief afloat. Baylor had come around, but he was still out of it, and every time they had to go under and hold their breaths as the Russian soldiers drew near, they feared he might not surface.
But he made it. They all did. Although those hours in the cold river weren’t anything John ever wanted to go through again. He’d thought BUD/S had prepared him for cold and uncomfortable. But the Pacific Ocean in San Diego didn’t have anything on a river in Arctic Russia.
It seemed as if the bastards would never leave. They were having too much fun. John didn’t need to understand Russian like Spivak did to know they were gloating.
Spivak could only catch a word or two of what they were saying in between breaths, but other than making some kind of joke that John took to be the Russian equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel and having what they needed to make the American “cowboys” pay, they weren’t thoughtful enough to mention how they knew the SEALs were coming. If it hadn’t been for the LC receiving a last-minute warning—that was what he and the senior chief had been arguing about—they would all be dead.
By time the Russians left, John wasn’t the only one battling hypothermia. But he pushed it aside just like everything else.
He never looked back, only forward.
And forward in this case meant getting the hell out of dodge—or, in SEAL terminology, exfil.
SEALs had contingencies for contingencies, and this op was no exception. They’d all been well briefed and knew the mission plan backward and forward, but they didn’t use their original exfil plan or the backup one. They were going to hump a good seventy miles through the Ural forests and tundra to the nearest city—or what passed for a city in the polar circle—to the old coal-mining town of Vorkuta.
The LC suspected that someone in their own government had set them up, and until he found out who it was, they were going to stay dead. That meant going dark, staying off the grid, and scattering in different directions as soon as they could.
It also meant getting rid of anything that could identify them as American or military. Due to the nature of their mission, most of their gear was unattributable, but even having it could be suspicious, so into the fires it went. They’d even have to ditch their weapons once they got closer to Vorkuta. Fortunately, they’d been trained in how to blend in—low-vis, as they called it. No buzz cuts or clean-shaven jaws for them. Relaxed grooming standards where common in the Teams. Once they had street clothes they would be good to go.
The only thing they saved was food—they would need what little they had—DEET for the bugs that would otherwise eat them alive, and medical supplies.
No one argued with the LC. Not even the senior chief, who had a few burns and was cut up pretty bad but was managing to stand up by himself. Of course, the senior chief could have two broken legs and would likely find a way to stand up by himself. He was one of the toughest sons of a bitches John knew, and given that John hung out with Navy SEALs all day, that was saying something.
Senior Chief Baylor was the link—and sometimes shield—between the men and command. If there were problems, the men went to the senior chief. He was their leader, their teacher, their advocate, their confessor, and their punisher all rolled into one. To a man, they would follow him into hell and not look back. There was no one in this world John admired more.
Officers like the LC were part of the team, but their rank kept them apart.
John had mixed feelings about officers. Some were good. Some were bad. But as long as they didn’t get in the way or do something to fuck up one of their missions when it needed to be run up the flagpole for approval, he didn’t give them too much thought.
He’d known the LC for years and respected the man as much as he did the rank, which wasn’t always the case, but he couldn’t say he really knew him. Officers had to keep themselves apart. They couldn’t let personal relationships interfere with or influence their decisions. Taylor could BS along with them, but he always kept himself slightly aloof.
But it wasn’t until that moment that John truly understood the weight of the duty and responsibility that fell on an officer’s shoulders. There was no head shed—aka command center—to issue orders. Here they were all half-frozen, in shock, mourning the loss of their brothers, six thousand miles away from their base in Honolulu, in a hostile country, where if they were discovered they would hope to be killed quickly, with no one they could trust to help them, and it was on the LC to get them out of it.
John had no idea whether the LC’s plan would work, but he had to give Taylor credit—he didn’t miss a beat. He didn’t show any hesitation or uncertainty in issuing his orders. They might have been on a training exercise in Alaska rather than on the other side of the world in one of the most inhospitable countrysides he’d ever experienced.
The LC knew his role, and he was doing it.
John knew his, too.
As just six of the fourteen men who’d entered the prison camp four short hours before walked out, John took one last look back and forced the heaviness that rose in his chest down. Good-bye, brother, he said to himself, and then aloud, “Hey, LC, I hear they have Starbucks all over Moscow now. Think there’s one in Vorkuta? I’d fucking kill for a latte.”
There was a long pause before the LC picked up the ball and ran with it. “I thought your discerning palate was too refined for chains?”
John grinned. “You know about the choices of beggars, LC.”
“You and your girly drinks,” Baylor grumbled. “If you try to order it with nonfat milk, I may have to shoot you myself.”
“Good thing for me the LC is making you toss your gun.” John patted his rock-hard abs. “You don’t get this incredible body without a little sacrifice, Senior. I have a certain standard to uphold. Just because you don’t care what the ladies at Hulas—”
“Dynomite,” the senior chief cut him off. “Shut the fuck up. My head hurts enough as it is. I don’t need to hear about your Barbie Brigade right now.”
But that is exactly what he did need to hear about—what they all needed to hear about. And they did. For two of the most miserable days he’d ever spent, John drew upon every story he could think of to keep their minds off the brothers they’d left behind.
Good thing he had plenty to draw on. But even he was tired of hearing his own voice by time they reached Vorkuta. He wasn’t sure what he expected of a coal-mining town on the doorstep of Siberia, but it looked pretty much like any medium-sized former industrial American city that had reached its height of modernity in the 70s.
They let Spivak, who with his Slavic languages and looks would be the most low-vis, go in first and do a little recon.
When he came back, he turned to John. “Didn’t find a Starbucks, Dynomite, but I did see sushi.”
“You gotta be shitting me?” It was his second favorite behind Mexican. “Think it would blow cover if I asked for a California roll? Although they probably use that fake crab crap, and avocado in Arctic Russia this time of year might be a little suspect. I know those brown spots are supposed to be safe to eat, but . . .”
This time the senior chief wasn’t the only one who was telling him to shut the fuck up. And that was as much normal as John could hope for for a while.
Ten weeks later
Brittany Blake tapped the steering wheel with her thumbs and glanced down at the clock in the dashboard. The bright green LED was just about the only light around on this deserted stretch of road.
Zero dark thirty. That was what they said for twelve thirty a.m. in the military, right? It sounded much more ominous in the movies, which was probably why she’d thought about it. This felt like a movie. A really scary movie where the heroine was doing something supremely stupid and the entire audience was yelling at the screen for her not to do it.
In other words, every horror movie ever.
Why, yes, waiting for a “drop” all alone in a not-so-great part of town after midnight on a moonless night under a highway overpass in an old warehouse area in a spot much loved by drug dealers and other not-so-law-abiding folks sounded like a fabulous idea. Nothing could go wrong there.
Jeez, she’d be yelling at the screen herself.
On cue, a loud crashing sound made her—just like a horror movie audience would—jump. Heart now pounding in her throat, she peered into the darkness but didn’t see anything. It had sounded like breaking glass. A bottle dropped by a wino nearby maybe?
She hoped that’s what it was, and not some serial killer roaming the streets and breaking the windows of stupid reporters sitting in their cars asking for trouble.
Slowly Brittany relaxed back into the cloth bucket seat, but her grip on the wheel didn’t lighten any.
Sigh. So this definitely wasn’t her most brilliant moment, but neither was it the first time she’d been in a sketchy situation. It went along with the job. It was the “investigative” part of the reporting bit.
But if this new source delivered on what they promised, the danger would be worth it—and then some. She had to find out the truth of what had happened to her brother, Brandon.
Tap, tap, tap. The sound of her thumbs hitting the plastic steering wheel mixed with the gentle whir of the AC, which was gradually becoming less and less effective in combating the horrible humidity of the warm summer night the longer she sat here. She was starting to sweat, literally and figuratively.
Her source was—she glanced down at the clock again—thirty-two minutes late.
It can’t be a hoax. Please, don’t let it be a hoax.
The caller had sounded so insistent, so knowledgeable, so official. She’d give them another ten minutes, and then—
Who was she kidding? She’d wait all night if she had to. She needed this. She hated to use the word “desperate,” but if the proverbial shoe fit . . .
She was desperate. She needed something concrete to prove that her suspicions were correct: that her brother, Brandon, was part of a top-secret Navy SEAL team (along the lines of the now not-so-secret-anymore SEAL Team Six) who had gone on a mission and not come back.
“The Lost Platoon,” she dubbed them in her articles, after the famous Lost Legion of Rome. Coincidentally—and eerily—they’d both been numbered nine.
She’d thought the title was catchy, and it had certainly captured the public’s attention. The three articles she’d written so far—the most recent out this morning—had proved wildly popular, being picked up by the AP, Reuters, and other news organizations worldwide.
Which had turned out to be a double-edged sword. It was great in that it got her the attention she wanted and put pressure on the government and military to explain what happened, but it also increased the pressure on her to come up with something more than a solid hunch from witness interviews. Preferably a few facts that could be substantiated. Editors liked those. Go figure.
Using the picture in the latest article had been a desperate move, a last-ditch effort to turn up something.
The fact that her brother hadn’t called two months ago, on the twelfth anniversary of their parents’ deaths, when he’d done so every year previously might have convinced her that something had happened to him, but her boss wanted more.
That she and Brandon hadn’t been close didn’t matter. Her brother wouldn’t have let that day go unacknowledged. No matter what clandestine operation he’d been deployed on that the government didn’t want anyone to know about, he would have called or contacted her in some way.
She was so certain of it that she’d flown to Hawaii, where she knew he was stationed, to demand answers.
Of course, at first the navy had refused to talk to her. When it had become obvious she wasn’t going to give up, they’d taken the ignorance route. “You must be mistaken. Your brother is not stationed here.” And her personal favorite: “SEAL Team Nine? We don’t have a team with that number.”
Right. And yet they had every other number between one and ten?
She had found some people who were willing to talk to her. Most were off-the-record, which only made her more certain she was onto something.
But when she’d presented proof of her brother’s being stationed there in the form of a handful of very attractive blondes she found at a dive bar called Hulas, who recognized Brandon and the three other men with him in the single recentish photo she had of him—she hadn’t seen her brother in five years, but some things apparently never changed—the stony-looking officers who’d been denying they’d ever seen him before suddenly made an abrupt about-face and claimed the information was “classified.”
Which was pretty much like holding up a bright red cape in front of an angry bull—her being the angry bull—making her even more determined to find out the truth.
She’d done enough research into America’s Special Mission Units and secret soldiers to know that they could be embedded for months on training ops or deployments.
But that wasn’t what was going on here. She knew something had happened to Brandon and his team—something bad—and the military was trying to cover it up. And she wasn’t the only one at the base who thought that. Proving it, however, was something else.
The wall of secrecy had gone up, and she’d returned home to DC to try to topple it from a different direction. But so far the navy and the government had ignored her articles. She had to come up with something they couldn’t ignore.
She wanted answers. If her brother had died—and every bone in her body told her he had—she wanted to know why. She wasn’t going to let them sweep his sacrifice under the rug and cover up whatever mess they’d made. Not this time. She wanted the truth, and she was going to find it. She owed him that at least.
Even if it meant sitting in her car for half the night in a not-so-wonderful part of town, waiting for information that sounded too good to be true. But the handwritten note that had been dropped in her apartment mail slot had promised “proof of what had happened to her brother’s platoon.”
She started to glance down at the clock again when the beams of approaching headlights reflected in her rearview mirror sent her pulse shooting through her chest again. Temporarily blinded, she looked over her shoulder, but her entire car was filled with light as the car slowly came right up behind her.
At the last minute, the car pulled alongside her. It was a black town car. The kind favored by government officials and airport transport companies everywhere.
Her heart was thumping hard now. This was it. This had to be it.
When the back passenger door was even with her driver’s door, the car came to a stop. Whoever was in there, they were important enough to have a driver. Slowly, just like in the movies, the heavily tinted window started to lower. Fortunately, unlike in the movies, the barrel of a gun aimed in her direction didn’t appear.
She lowered her window as well.
It was too dark to see inside the other car, but she could barely contain her excitement when a large manila envelope was passed to her. She caught sight of a medium-sized gloved hand—which, as it was about eight hundred degrees, must have been to hide anything identifying—and a dark-wool-clad arm with the telltale gold stripe of a military uniform around the sleeve edge before the window started back up.
“Wait!” Brittany said.
The window stopped with a few-inch gap at the top.
“How can I contact you?” she asked.
There was a long pause. Brittany thought they weren’t going to answer, but just as the window started to climb again, someone said in a low voice, “You can’t. I’ll contact you.”
The car pulled away before the window even had a chance to fully close. Despite the effort her contact had made to conceal their identity, Brittany was fairly certain it had been a woman.
She tried to make out the plates as the car drove off, but it was too dark. She flipped on her headlights just in time to see the government plates with a D followed by a few numbers she couldn’t read and either a 25 or 26 at the end. She was pretty sure “D” stood for “Department of Defense.”
Jackpot! This had to be legit. She pressed the overhead button for the interior light and practically ripped open the envelope.
It was a thin stack—only about four or five pages—but any initial disappointment in size slipped away as she started to flip through.
Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God kept running through her head as she saw the satellite images, heavily redacted deployment order, and news article about a large explosion in the Northern Urals near the border of Siberia picked up by our satellites last May, which the Russians had claimed was a missile test. She recalled seeing it, but as Russians testing weapons these days was not exactly unusual, she hadn’t paid it much mind.
She was looking at the redacted deployment order for something called “Naval Warfare Special Deployment Group” (which must be the official name for Team Nine), when the sound of a very loud muffler reminded her where she was.
She had that horrible moment when she turned the key and the car didn’t start right away. Oh God, please tell me I didn’t kill the battery with the AC! But fortunately, on the second try, the engine roared to life, and she whipped a U-ey to retrace her steps out of here.
Anxious to study the docs in more detail, she headed downtown to her office rather than the hovel she called an apartment across town. Her office was actually more of a cubicle, and the fact that it was less depressing than her home spoke volumes about their relative importance in her life.
She was so excited and busy trying to order the thoughts racing through her mind that it took her a while to realize someone was following her.
End of Excerpt
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