THE RULERS OF THE WORLD
20 OCTOBER, 1900 HOURS
There were 12 of them in total.
Ten of the 12 were over 60 years of age. The other two were in their thirties, but they were the sons of former members, so their loyalty was assured. While membership of the Council was not strictly conditional on heredity, over the years it had become commonplace for sons to replace their fathers.
Otherwise membership was by invitation only and invitations were rarely given --- as one would expect of such an august collection of individuals.
The co-founder of the world's largest software company.
A Saudi oil magnate.
The patriarch of a Swiss banking family.
The owner of the world's biggest shipping company.
The world's most successful stock trader.
The Vice-Chairman of the US Federal Reserve.
The newly-inherited heir to a military construction empire that built missiles for the United States Government.
There were no media barons on the Council --- since it was widely known that their fortunes were largely based on debt and fluctuating share prices. The Council controlled the media simply by controlling the banks that fed the media barons their money.
Likewise, there were no national leaders --- as the Council well knew, politicians possess the lowest form of power: transient power. Like media barons, they are beholden to others for their influence. In any case, the Council had made and unmade presidents and dictators before.
And no women.
It was the Council's view that there was --- as yet --- no woman on the planet worthy of a seat at the table. Not the Queen. Not even the French make-up heiress, Lillian Mattencourt, with her $26 billion personal fortune.
Since 1918, the Council had met twice a year, every year.
This year, however, it had been convened nine times.
This was, after all, a special year.
While the Council was a somewhat secretive group, its meetings were never held in secret. Secret meetings of powerful people create attention. No. It had always been the Council's opinion that the best-kept secrets existed out in the open, witnessed by the world but never actually seen.
As such, Council meetings were usually held during major international gatherings --- the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland; various World Trade Organization meetings; the Council had even met once at Camp David, when the President wasn't there.
Today it met in the grand executive boardroom of the Dorchester Hotel in London.
The vote was taken and the decision was unanimous.
"Then it is agreed," the Chairman said. "The hunt will commence tomorrow. The list of targets will be released tonight through the usual channels, and bounties will be paid to those contractors who present to Monsieur J. P. Delacroix of AGM-Suisse the accustomed form of proof that a particular target has been eliminated.
"There are fifteen targets in total. The bounty for each has been set at US$18.6 million."
An hour later, the meeting ended, and the members of the Council adjourned for drinks.
On the boardroom table behind them lay their meeting notes. Of the notes sitting in front of the Chairman's seat, one page lay face-up.
On it was a list of names.
|1. ASHCROFT, William H.||UK||SAS|
|2. CHRISTIE, Alec P.||UK||MI-6|
|3. FARRELL, Gregory C.||USA||Delta|
|4. KHALIF, Iman||AFGH||Al-Qaeda|
|5. KINGSGATE, Nigel E.||UK||SAS|
|6. McCABE, Dean P.||USA||Delta|
|7. NAZZAR, Yousef M.||LEBN||HAMAS|
|8. NICHOLSON, Francis X.||USA||USAMRMC|
|9. OLIPHANT, Thompson J.||USA||USAMRMC|
|10. POLANSKI, Damien G.||USA||ISS|
|11. ROSENTHAL, Benjamin Y.||ISR||Mossad|
|12. SCHOFIELD, Shane M.||USA||USMC|
|13. WEITZMAN, Ronson H.||USA||USMC|
|14. ZAWAHIRI, Hassan M.||SAUDI||Al-Qaeda|
|15. ZEMIR, Simon B.||ISR||IAF|
It was, to put it mildly, a singularly impressive list.
It featured members of the world's elite military units --- the British SAS, the US Army's Delta Detachment and the Marine Corps.
The Israeli Air Force made an appearance, as did intelligence agencies like the Mossad and the ISS --- the Intelligence and Security Service, the new name for the CIA. Plus members of the terrorist organizations HAMAS and Al-Qaeda.
It was a list of men --- special men, brilliant at their chosen deadly professions --- who had to be removed from the face of the earth by 12 noon, October 26, US Eastern Standard Time.
AIRSPACE ABOVE SIBERIA
26 OCTOBER, 0900 HOURS LOCAL TIME
(2100 HOURS E.S.T USA, 25 OCT)
The airplane rocketed through the sky at the speed of sound.
Despite the fact that it was a large plane, it didn't show up on any radar screens. And even though it was breaking the sound barrier, it didn't create any sonic booms --- a recent development in wave-negativing sensors took care of that.
With its angry-browed cockpit windows, its black radar-absorbent paint and its unique flying-wing design, the B-2 Stealth Bomber didn't normally fly missions like this.
It was designed to carry 40,000 pounds of ordnance, from laser-guided bombs to air-launched thermonuclear cruise missiles.
Today, however, it carried no bombs.
Today its bomb bay had been modified to convey a light but unusual payload: one fast-attack vehicle and eight United States Marines.
As he stood in the cockpit of the speeding Stealth Bomber, Captain Shane M. Schofield was unaware of the fact that, as of six days previously, he had become a target in the greatest bounty hunt in history.
The gray Siberian sky was reflected in the silver lenses of his wraparound anti-flash glasses. The glasses concealed a pair of vertical scars that cut down across Schofield's eyes, wounds from a previous mission and the source of his operational nickname: Scarecrow.
At five-feet-ten-inches tall, Schofield was lean and muscular. Under his white-gray Kevlar helmet, he had spiky black hair and a creased handsome face. He was known for his sharp mind, his cool head under pressure, and the high regard in which he was held by lower-ranking Marines --- he was a leader who looked out for his men. Rumor had it he was also the grandson of the great Michael Schofield, a Marine whose exploits in the Second World War were the stuff of Marine Corps legend.
The B-2 zoomed through the sky, heading for a distant corner of northern Russia, to an abandoned Soviet installation on the barren coast of Siberia.
Its official Soviet name had been "Krask-8: Penal and Maintenance Installation," the outermost of eight compounds surrounding the Arctic town of Krask. In the imaginative Soviet tradition, the compounds had been named Krask-1, Krask-2, Krask-3 and so on.
Until four days ago, Krask-8 had been known simply as a long-forgotten ex-Soviet outstation --- a half-gulag, half-maintenance facility at which political prisoners had been forced to work. There were hundreds of such facilities dotted around the former Soviet Union --- giant, ugly, oil-stained monoliths which before 1991 had formed the industrial heart of the USSR, but which now lay dormant, left to rot in the snow, the ghost towns of the Cold War.
But two days ago, on October 24, all that had changed.
Because on that day, a team of thirty well-armed and well-trained Islamic Chechen terrorists had taken over Krask-8 and announced to the Russian government that they intended to fire four SS-18 nuclear missiles --- missiles that had simply been left in their silos at the site with the fall of the Soviets in 1991 --- on Moscow unless Russia withdrew its troops from Chechnya and declared the breakaway republic an independent state.
A deadline was set for 10 a.m. today, October 26.
The date had meaning. October 26 was a year to the day since a force of crack Russian troops had stormed a Moscow theater held by Chechen terrorists, ending a three-day siege, killing all the terrorists and over a hundred hostages.
That today also happened to be the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a traditional day of peace, didn't seem to bother these Islamist terrorists.
The fact that Krask-8 was something more than just a relic of the Cold War was also news to the Russian government.
After some investigation of long-sealed Soviet records, the terrorists' claims had proved to be correct. It turned out that Krask-8 was a secret that the old Communist regime had failed to inform the new government about during the transition to democracy.
It did indeed house nuclear missiles --- sixteen to be exact; sixteen SS-18 nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles; all contained in concealed underground silos that had been designed to evade US satellite detection. Apparently, "clones" of Krask-8 --- identical missile-launch sites disguised as industrial facilities --- could also be found in old Soviet client states like the Sudan, Syria, Cuba and Yemen.
And so, in the new world order --- post-Cold War, post-September 11 --- the Russians had called on the Americans to help.
As a rapid response, the American government had sent to Krask-8 a fast-and-light counter-terrorist unit from Delta Detachment --- led by Specialists Greg Farrell and Dean McCabe.
Reinforcements would arrive later, the first of which was this team, a point unit of United States Marines led by Captain Shane M. Schofield.
Schofield strode into the bomb bay of the plane, breathing through a high-altitude face-mask.
He was met by the sight of a medium-sized cargo container, inside of which sat a Fast Attack "Commando Scout" vehicle. Arguably the lightest and fastest armored vehicle in service, it looked like a cross between a sports car and a Humvee.
And inside the sleek vehicle, strapped tightly into their seats, sat seven Recon Marines, the other members of Schofield's team. All were dressed in white-gray body armor, white-gray helmets, white-gray battle dress uniforms. And they all stared intently forward, game faces on.
As Schofield watched their serious expressions, he was once again taken aback by their youth. It was strange, but at 33 he felt decidedly old in their presence.
He nodded to the nearest man. "Hey, Whip. How's the hand?"
"Why, er, it's great, sir," Corporal Whip Whiting said, surprised. He'd been shot in the hand during a fierce gun battle in the Tora Bora mountains in early 2002, but since that day Whip and Schofield hadn't worked together. "The docs said you saved my index finger. If you hadn't told them to splint it, it would have grown in a hook shape. To be honest, I didn't think you'd remember, sir."
Schofield's eyes gleamed. "I always remember."
Apart from one member of the unit, this wasn't his regular team.
His usual team of Marines --- Libby "Fox" Gant and Gena "Mother" Newman --- were currently operating in the mountains of northern Afghanistan, hunting for the terrorist leader and longtime No. 2 to Osama bin Laden, Hassan Mohammad Zawahiri.
Gant, fresh from Officer Candidate School and now a First Lieutenant, was leading a Recon Unit in Afghanistan. Mother, an experienced Gunnery Sergeant who had helped Schofield himself when he was a young officer, was acting as her Team Chief.
Schofield was supposed to be joining them, but at the last minute he'd been diverted from Afghanistan to lead this unexpected mission.
The only one of his regulars that Schofield had been able to bring with him was a young sergeant named Buck Riley, Jr., call-sign "Book II." Silent and brooding and possessed of an intensity that belied his 25 years, Book II was a seriously tough-as-nails warrior. And as far as Schofield was concerned, with his heavy-browed face and battered pug nose, he was looking more and more like his father --- the original "Book" Riley --- every day.
Schofield keyed his satellite radio, spoke into the VibraMike strapped around his throat. Rather than pick up actual spoken words, the vibration-sensing microphone picked up the reverberations of his voice box. The satellite uplink system driving it was the brand-new GSX-9 --- the most advanced communications system in use in the US military. In theory, a portable GSX-9 unit like Schofield's could broadcast a clear signal halfway around the world with crystal clarity.
"Base, this is Mustang 3," he said. "Sitrep?"
A voice came over his earpiece. It was the voice of an Air Force radio operator stationed at McColl Air Force Base in Alaska, the communications center for this mission.
"Mustang 3, this is Base. Mustang 1 and Mustang 2 have engaged the enemy. Report that they have seized the missile silos and inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy. Mustang 1 is holding the silos and awaiting reinforcements. Mustang 2 reports that there are still at least twelve enemy agents putting up a fight in the main maintenance building."
"All right," Schofield said, "what about our follow-up?"
"An entire company of Army Rangers from Fort Lewis is en route, Scarecrow. One hundred men, approximately one hour behind you."
Book II spoke from inside the armored Scout vehicle. "What's the story, Scarecrow?"
Schofield turned. "We're go for drop."
Five minutes later, the box-shaped cargo-container dropped out of the belly of the Stealth Bomber and plummeted like a stone toward the Earth.
Inside the container --- in the car resting inside it --- sat Schofield and his seven Marines, shuddering and jolting with the vibrations of the terminal-velocity fall.
Schofield watched the numbers on a digital wall-mounted altimeter whizzing downward:
50,000 feet . . .
45,000 feet . . .
40,000 . . . 30,000 . . . 20,000 . . . 10,000 . . .
"Preparing to engage chutes at five thousand feet . . ." Corporal Max "Clark" Kent, the loadmaster, said in a neutral voice. "GPS guidance system has us right on target for landing. External cameras verify that the LZ is clear."
Schofield eyed the fast-ticking altimeter.
7,000 feet . . .
6,000 feet . . .
If everything went to plan, they would land about fifteen miles due east of Krask-8, just over the horizon from the installation, out of sight of the facility.
"Engaging primary chutes . . . now," Clark announced.
The jolt th