DEEP STRIKE EXCERPT
PROLOGUE INDIAN SPRINGS, NEVADA
“High value target. That’s all you need to know.”
It was already ninety degrees at Creech Air Force Base, the morning sun burning down on several dozen trailers neatly arranged in four rows. Captain Mike Berger, seated inside one of the dimly lit, cramped, and chilly trailers, kept his right hand on the joystick and his left on the throttle as his eyes scanned one of the fourteen displays built into the two-person control station. Beside him and sharing a center console was First Lieutenant Dee Ardis, likewise studying her screens.
Berger and Ardis were seated inside an MQ-9 Ground Control Station controlling a Reaper drone, with Berger piloting the aircraft while Ardis operated its sensors. For the last twelve hours, the Reaper had been circling high above Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a Pakistani province bordering Afghanistan. This section of the province was mainly no-man’s-land, a disputed area sparsely populated with villages containing only a dozen or so families each, a region where the Pakistani government had ceded authority to tribal warlords. In the center of Berger’s visual display was a single dwelling at the end of a long dirt road, if you could call it that—more like a trail worn into the rugged terrain, snaking through the wilderness.
Most days, it’d be just the two of them in the control van during their six-hour shift, even during combat missions taking out the bad guys. But Berger had been surprised this morning when he arrived to relieve the off-going team, finding an entourage of four high-ranking Air Force officers—his supervisor and his boss, plus a colonel and brigadier general he hadn’t seen before—further cramping the small trailer as they monitored the mission. Berger sensed the tension the moment he stepped into the trailer. When he was briefed on the operation, he’d been told, “High value target. That’s all you need to know.”
Thus far, it had been a boring four hours, with Berger keeping the MQ-9 Reaper at ten thousand feet to keep it out of sight and earshot of anyone inside or approaching the isolated dwelling. It was clear that today’s mission was combat-related and not just surveillance, and the Reaper was well equipped for the task, carrying four Hellfire missiles and two Paveway II five-hundred-pound bombs, all laser-guided to their target by equipment in the sensor ball mounted beneath the Reaper’s nose.
Although Berger and Ardis flew the drone, operated its sensors, and released its weapons, the mission was coordinated by an attack controller, a special operations type who Berger figured was probably sitting in a windowless concrete bunker somewhere in the Middle East. In the past, diferent controllers had provided Berger and Ardis with varying degrees of freedom over their attacks. Some were micromanagers, directing the drone approach angle, weapon selection, and impact point.
Other attack controllers were more hands-off, simply saying, “Kill these two targets,” letting Berger and Ardis make the optimum selections. Berger still didn’t have a feeling for this attack controller, as they’d had few interactions thus far. Things began to pick up, however, when Berger noticed movement on his optical display.
A white bongo—similar to a pickup truck but with a wider body— appeared on the left edge of the display, dust billowing behind it as the vehicle traveled up the dirt road toward the dwelling. From ten thousand feet and a thirty-degree offset, he could tell there were two occupants inside the bongo, but nothing more.
The attack controller’s voice emanated from Berger’s headphones. “Request visual target confirmation.”
Berger acknowledged, then tilted his joystick, sending the Reaper closer to the ground so its camera had a low enough angle to get a good look at the faces of whoever was in the truck.
The drone leveled off at the new altitude as the bongo stopped beside the dwelling. When the two men, both wearing white dishdashas—long white robes traditionally worn by Middle Eastern men—stepped from the vehicle, they were greeted by two other men who emerged from the building. Ardis zoomed in, taking a picture of each man’s face.
Berger waited as the facial recognition algorithms worked in the background, watching the percentage under each photograph churn until the reading under one of the pictures stopped at ninety-three percent. The man’s name remained blank on Berger’s display, but a green Target Confirmed appeared beneath the image as the four men entered the dwelling.
“We have confirmed jackpot,” the attack controller declared. “You are cleared for weapon release. Paveway in the center of the building.”
Berger selected one of the Reaper’s two Paveways, then waited as Ardis slewed the laser designator onto the building.
Release solution valid appeared on a display in the center console.
Berger armed the Paveway—Master arm on.
Finally, Ready for release appeared.
After a final glance at the laser designator, verifying it was locked on to the center of the building, Berger pressed the red button on his joystick, releasing the five-hundred-pound bomb.
As the Paveway descended toward its target, Berger assessed the probability of mission success. A five-hundred-pound bomb would normally kill everyone inside a dwelling that size, but they had no building schematics and no idea of the structure’s internal layout or composition.
Berger watched as the Paveway completed its journey, hitting the building dead center. An orange fireball erupted, billowing upward above a trail of black smoke as debris rained down on the surrounding landscape. As Berger examined the display for survivors, two men ran from the building.
“We’ve got two squirters,” Ardis announced.
Berger focused on the squirters, a drone term for someone who runs—squirts—from the scene of an explosion.
“Kill the squirters,” the attack controller ordered. “Payload your choice.”
Berger selected a Hellfire missile, which could be guided more effectively toward nimble targets on the move. The two men were close together and running in the same direction, so Berger directed Ardis to guide the missile between the two men. After Ardis adjusted the laser designator to the escaping pair, Berger released one of the Reaper’s Hellfire missiles.
As the Hellfire began its journey, Berger evaluated the advance warning that would be provided to the two targets. An incoming Hellfire missile would create a sonic boom, with the time delay between boom and impact up to eight seconds depending on the azimuth—the angle the laser designator was aimed toward the target. After years of drone strikes in the Middle East, the bad guys had learned—if you hear a boom, it’s time to run.
“Four-second warning,” Ardis announced, having done the mental calculation.
Four seconds ought to be short enough between boom and detonation, Berger figured, providing insufficient time once the targets heard the boom for them to realize what it was, change direction, and flee far enough from the impact point to survive.
The Hellfire streaked toward its targets, and just before it arrived, the two men altered their escape route, turning abruptly and splitting up. The Hellfire detonated a few seconds later, filling the center of Berger’s visual display with another explosion, albeit much smaller than the Paveway’s.
Ardis waited for the dust to clear, then zoomed in on the area, searching for the targets. Both men were lying immobile not far from the Hellfire crater, one man on his back with his eyes frozen open, and the other facedown with red splotches spreading through the sand, outward from his body.
Post-mission analysis would be conducted to assess the results of today’s mission, but Berger was confident the men’s status on his display would be updated from Target Confirmed to Target Deceased.
The attack controller’s voice came across Berger’s headphones again. “You are released for further duties.”
Berger tilted the joystick, turning the Reaper toward Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan for refueling and rearming.
ONE YEAR LATER
NEW YORK CITY
Standing at the back of the United Nations General Assembly Hall, Mel Cross surveyed the 1,800 men and women in attendance as they listened to the man at the podium. Like many of the attendees, Cross wore an earpiece, although for a decidedly different reason. There was no need to translate the speech being delivered by the American ambassador to the United Nations; Cross was one of the Diplomatic Security Service agents assigned to the ambassador’s detail. In the other rear corner of the assembly hall, Agent Jill Mercer also kept a watchful eye as they waited for Ambassador Marshall Hill to finish his speech, which was just now becoming interesting.
“Over the last year,” Ambassador Hill said, “there has been an increase in terrorist attacks around the world. The United States has evidence of Iran’s involvement, providing funding, arms, and training to organizations intent on harming those who do not align with Tehran’s ideology. Additionally, we have proof that Iran has been refining uranium for nuclear weapons. Evidence of Iran’s transgressions will be provided to the Security Council, and the United States will be working with member nations to strengthen the sanctions already in place.
“Let me be clear—if Iran’s leadership continues its belligerent and aggressive behavior, developing weapons of mass destruction and supporting those who harm others, the United States will work with its allies to address the situation. Various military options are within the realm of potential responses.”
There was a murmur throughout the assembly hall after Hill’s last statement. Cross paid no attention to the comments. His eyes swept across the audience, searching for that one small detail that seemed out of place. His gaze stopped on Agent Mercer, whose watchful eyes also surveyed the occupants.
His thoughts dwelt for a moment on Jill, an attractive brunette who had been assigned to the ambassador’s detail two months ago. She was a recent widow with two young kids—her husband had been an NYPD cop, killed a year ago in the line of duty. Jill had remained aloof since her assignment to the ambassador’s detail, failing to provide Cross with an opportunity to determine whether she was ready for, or even interested in, a relationship with him.
Cross forced his eyes to keep moving, admonishing himself for the lapse in his duties. He had dwelt on Jill for far too long. Fortunately, the United Nations General Assembly Hall was as safe a place as any in the city
Upon completing his speech, Ambassador Hill stepped away from the podium, and Cross moved to intercept him. The ambassador was on a tight schedule, heading to LaGuardia Airport for a flight to spend time with his family in Rhode Island, instead of returning to his penthouse condominium a few blocks away. Jill reached the ambassador shortly after Cross did, and the two agents bracketed the diplomat as they approached the exit.
Cross received a report on his earpiece. He spoke quietly into his sleeve, then informed Ambassador Hill, “Transportation is ready.”
The ambassador nodded his understanding. He had already been briefed on the enhanced security measures. Based on the administration’s position against Iran and its aggressive response to the recent wave of terrorism, along with Hill’s role as a primary messenger, his security detail had been augmented. The ambassador would travel with two DSS agents in the second of three vehicles, with two more agents in the lead SUV and Cross and Jill in the third.
The convoy was waiting as they exited the General Assembly Hall lobby, and Ambassador Hill stepped into the middle of three black Lincoln Navigators while Cross and Jill slipped into the vacant third, whose original driver had moved to the first vehicle. The lead SUV pulled out, with the other two SUVs following close behind. The convoy turned onto Second Avenue, beginning the short trip to LaGuardia Airport.
A few blocks from the United Nations headquarters, Lonnie Mixell waited patiently in the driver’s seat of a rented Buick Enclave, parked alongside the curb on East 37th Street, a hundred feet from and offering a clear view of the Second Avenue and East 37th Street intersection. After evaluating several locations over the last week, he had selected this intersection because at this time of day, in the middle of rush hour, the traffic backed up at the red light. The vehicles of interest would be either stopped near the intersection or moving slowly through it.
Normally, after a day at work, Ambassador Hill would have walked to his residence a short distance from the UN headquarters, offering Mixell a slim chance of completing his assignment in the manner desired by his employer: a method that would be captured on video—the aftermath, that is—and played repeatedly on news channels and internet browsers throughout the world. Mixell had eventually connected with one of the ambassador’s aides, who for the right price had shared his boss’s schedule. It had taken more money than Mixell had planned, but it didn’t really matter; he wasn’t the one paying the bills.
Inside the Buick, Mixell’s eyes were fixed on the video playing on his cell phone, relayed from a small wireless camera placed on a windowsill inside the Millennium Hilton, across the street from the United Nations headquarters. The hotel room, rented under an alias, provided a clear view of everyone exiting the UN General Assembly Hall. Mixell watched the three-car convoy pull away from the building entrance, then turn left onto Second Avenue.
Jill Mercer sat in the passenger seat of the third SUV while Cross drove, scanning the traffic and passersby for anything out of the ordinary. It was a beautiful day, a clear sky with the temperature in the midseventies, unusually pleasant for this time of year. The forecast for the next few days was comparable, likely the last patch of decent weather before winter set in.
She planned to take advantage of the warm afternoons, spending time outdoors with her children this weekend. The last year had been difficult for the kids, adjusting to the loss of their father. It had been tough on her as well, and as she approached the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death, she wondered if she was ready to move on, or if pursuing another relationship so soon would dishonor his memory.
As her eyes moved left across the traffic, she noticed Cross’s thumbs tapping on the steering wheel. It was a nervous habit of his, and she wondered what the issue was. Today’s transit was as straightforward as they came and there were no indications of anything amiss. After reflecting for a moment, she realized his nervous glitch appeared only when the two of them were alone in a vehicle. It was clear that Cross was attracted to her, as she frequently caught him gazing in her direction. Thus far, however, he had made no advance.
“So,” Cross said, interrupting Jill’s thoughts, “do you have plans for the weekend?”
Jill repressed a smile. Cross had finally worked up the courage to ask her out.
“The weather’s supposed to be nice,” she replied. “Maybe I’ll take the kids to Central Park. Other than that, I’ll probably just relax.”
“Care for company when you visit the park, or perhaps dinner one night?”
Her reaction to Cross’s question was unexpected. Her chest tightened and a lump formed in her throat. She’d been wondering if she was ready for another relationship, and she had the answer. She turned away and looked out the side window, hoping Cross hadn’t noticed her reaction.
“Not this weekend,” she replied. She tried to phrase her response delicately, not shutting the door completely. She was interested, but now wasn’t the right time. “I’m not ready yet. I hope you understand.”
“Of course,” he said quickly. “I can only imagine how difficult things have been for you. Whenever you’re ready, let me know.” He offered a smile before returning his attention to the traffic, slowing for the red light ahead.
Mixell checked his watch. He had timed the route from the United Nations headquarters several times, and the ambassador’s convoy should arrive in the next fifteen to forty-five seconds. He spotted the lead Lincoln Navigator not far from the intersection, stopped for a red light, but the other two vehicles were hidden behind a corner building. It wouldn’t be much longer, however. He slid the driver’s side window down.
Beneath a blanket on the passenger seat was a Milkor MGL Mark 1L—a six-shot, revolver-type, shoulder-fired grenade launcher—which could fire a variety of 40mm rounds. This MGL was loaded with XM1060 thermobaric rounds, a fuel-air explosive consisting of a fuel container and two explosive charges. The first explosion would burst the container open and disperse the fuel in a cloud, which would mix with atmospheric oxygen as it expanded. The second charge would detonate the cloud, creating a massive blast wave, killing anyone nearby and destroying equipment and even reinforced structures.
The traffic lights along Second Avenue turned green and Mixell waited as the traffic began moving again, the vehicles establishing the desired spacing between them like an accordion stretching out. He’d have only one shot at the target as it passed through the intersection, which, if successful, would bring the three-car convoy to a halt. Accuracy wasn’t an issue, as the MGL had an effective range of just over four hundred yards and he was only thirty yards away. The response time of the ambassador’s security detail was a concern, however. For his escape plan to work, he couldn’t have DSS agents charging up the street toward him.
When the lead Navigator began moving, Mixell pulled the blanket from the passenger seat and lifted the MGL to his shoulder, aiming at his primary target.
It happened almost simultaneously. A thin trail of white smoke appeared as the ambassador’s Navigator erupted in an orange fireball, the explosion sending glass fragments and metal shards pelting off Jill’s SUV. Cross slammed on the brakes, bringing their Navigator to a screeching halt, as did the driver of the lead vehicle.
Jill turned toward the origin of the attack, spotting a man in an SUV about thirty yards away, shifting the aim of a shoulder-fired weapon toward the lead Navigator.
“Weapon at two o’clock!”
The words left Jill’s mouth a second before a projectile slammed into the first Navigator, detonating before either agent could exit.
“Get out!” Cross shouted.
His warning was unnecessary, as Jill had already kicked open her door. She darted from the SUV and circled behind the vehicle, joining Cross as he squeezed off a three-round volley. The bullets missed the perpetrator, shattering his vehicle’s front window instead. Jill added another three-round burst while Cross fired again. The assassin ducked down and slipped from the vehicle via the passenger door, then fled up the sidewalk as pedestrians scattered, scrambling for cover.
Cross directed Jill to take the right side of the street while he moved left, and they crossed the remaining lanes of Second Avenue and sprinted up both sides of East 37th Street toward the suspect. Jill headed up the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street while Cross ran up the other side, keeping parked cars between him and the suspect.
Mixell had planned to leave the grenade launcher in the SUV, strolling from the scene with his hands in his pockets, moving toward his escape vehicle parked not far away. Unfortunately, the two agents in the third vehicle had reacted quicker than he had hoped. They had a bead on him and were already charging up the street. Mixell shifted to his backup plan.
He stopped beside a parked car, swinging the grenade launcher back toward the two agents pursuing him, with the man being closer. Before Mixell could target him, both agents fired their weapons. He ducked behind the vehicle and waited for the hail of bullets to end. Then he popped over the hood and fired a round into the car closest to the male agent.
The XM1060 detonated after it pierced the car and the explosion shredded the vehicle, sending glass and metal fragments in every direction. Nearby pedestrians had taken cover, either behind vehicles or in nearby stores, but those near the explosion were hit by shrapnel. The lead DSS agent was one of the casualties, his scorched and lacerated body writhing on the sidewalk.
After a quick assessment of the results, Mixell sprinted up the street, hoping to slip away from the last agent.
Jill Mercer tried to push the image of Cross’s smoldering body from her mind as she raced up the sidewalk, shifting her thoughts from wondering whether he would survive to getting a clear shot at the perpetrator. As she moved up the street, she periodically regained her target, glancing between the parked cars she used as cover. She heard the faint sirens of approaching law enforcement; assistance would arrive soon. However, he was traveling up the street faster than she was, opening the distance between them. She couldn’t let him slip away.
She picked up her pace, moving as fast as possible while staying in a crouched position, shielded by the parked cars. To make up ground, she stopped checking on the man’s progress between each vehicle, sprinting past a dozen cars before pausing to take a look.
Peering over the hood of a Chevy Blazer, she scanned the other side of the street, focused on where the man should have been if he had kept up his pace. Just to the left of where she expected him to be, not quite as far up the road, she spotted the suspect. The man had the grenade launcher on his shoulder, aimed at her
Jill’s gaze shifted to the burning and shredded car near Cross, suddenly realizing her peril. The projectile the man was firing would rip apart the Chevy Blazer she was hiding behind, turning the vehicle into a four-thousand-pound fragmentation grenade.
Bad place to take cover.
The danger coalesced in her mind a moment too late. She saw a thin white exhaust trail streak toward her as the projectile slammed into the Blazer.
Time seemed to slow down after the round detonated. An orange, blossoming cloud expanded from the vehicle as it shattered the windows and shredded the car body, enveloping her in a scorching inferno as shrapnel penetrated deep into her face and torso. The pressure transient from the explosion knocked her from her feet, blasting her backward until she slammed into a building’s brick facade, where she crumpled to the ground.
Unbearable pain sliced through her body as she lay there, while blood spread slowly across the concrete. As her world faded to darkness, the last thing she realized was that the agonizing scream piercing her ears was her own.