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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 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 John. 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 being incinerated 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 breath 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 the 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 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.