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The Arctic Event



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The rappelling line zipped through the steel loops, the palm of Smith’s heavy glove warmed, and his boots jolted against the rock twenty feet farther down the face. He felt his eyes narrow and his face tighten as the adrenaline surge hit, and once more he pushed away and sheered off another forty feet of cliff.

“Easy, sir,” the voice from below warned.

For a third time he pushed off, hard, allowing himself to plummet, the rope screaming and the rappelling brake smoking.

“Easy, Colonel…Easy…Easy!…I SAID EASY, GODDAMN IT!”

Smith braked hard, arresting his fall. Pulling himself upright, he dropped boots-first the last few feet to the fir-needle duff at the cliff base. Backing off the bottom end of the rope, he rubbed the scalding heat pulse out of his glove and onto the thigh of his fatigues.

A stocky ranger sergeant in a sand-colored beret came up behind him. “Begging the colonel’s pardon, sir,” he said sourly, “but I hope you realize that an officer can bust his ass up here just about as bad as an enlisted man or an NCO.”

“I’ll take your word for it, Top,” Smith grinned.

“Then when I say ‘EASY, SIR,’ I damn well mean it!” The climbing instructor was a twenty-year veteran of both the Seventy-fifth Ranger Regiment and the famed Tenth Mountain Division and thus was a rather privileged individual, even to a light colonel.

Smith sobered and undid the chin strap of his helmet. “I hear you, Sergeant. I got a little full of myself up there. Bad idea. Next time it’ll be by the book.”

Mollified, the instructor nodded back. “Okay, sir. Beyond being a little wild, that was a good descent.”

“Thanks, Top.”

The instructor went back to overseeing the next student down, and Smith withdrew to the edge of the clearing at the cliff base. Shedding his helmet and harness, he removed a floppy boonie hat from his cargo pocket, slapping it into shape before settling it over his dark, short-trimmed hair.

Jon Smith was a man doing his early forties well: broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted, and taut-muscled from both his recent bout of training and an instinctively vigorous lifestyle. He was handsome in a strong, man’s way, his tanned features fine-planed, intent, and somewhat immobile-a face that kept secrets well. His eyes, an unusual shade of dark blue, had the capacity to cut across a room with a penetrating focus.

Taking another deep pull of the clean mountain air, Smith sank down at the base of a towering Douglas fir. This was a world he had lived in once. During an earlier phase of his career, before going into research and USAMRIID, he had done a tour with U.S. Army Special Forces as a combat medical officer on forward deployment with the Teams. It had been a good time, a time of challenges and comradeships. It had been a time of fears and despairs as well, but all in all, a good time.

A random thought had been creeping into his consciousness over the past few days: What about going tactical again, maybe for another tour in Special Forces? What about going back to the real Army for a while?

Smith recognized it to be only a random fancy. He was too senior for the field anymore. The best he could manage would be a desk job, a staff posting, probably right back inside the Washington beltway.

And then, he must confess, he was good at his current researcher’s position, and it was a critical one. USAMRIID was America’s first line of defense against both bioterrorism and the evolving global disease pool, and Smith was at the cutting edge of that defense. Important duty, undeniably.

And finally, there was his other tasking, the one not listed in his open service record. The one that had been born out of a megalomaniac’s nightmare called the Hades Project, and the death of Dr. Sophia Russell, the woman he had loved and had planned to marry. That was a duty not to be denied, either, not if he was to know peace with himself.

Smith leaned back and relaxed against the moss-sheathed trunk of the fir tree, looking on as his classmates took their turn at the long line. Still, today was a good day to be a soldier.

Chapter Three

The Camp David Presidential Retreat

The Camp David Presidential Retreat was located some seventy miles outside of Washington, DC, in a carefully isolated section of the Catoctin Mountain Recreation Area.

Its origins extended back to the turbulence of the Second World War, when, concerned about the safety of the presidential yacht, Potomac, the Secret Service requested that Franklin Delano Roosevelt find a new, more securable vacation and rest site in the Washington area.

Such a site was located in Maryland’s forested hill country, a summer camp for federal employees built in the mid-1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps as a pilot reclamation project for marginal wasteland.

As a holdover from the days of the Potomac, the camp was staffed by the United States Navy and Marine Corps, a tradition that continued to the present day, and it was originally code-named “USS Shangri-La.” The retreat did not gain the name “Camp David” until the 1950s, when it was retitled in honor President Eisenhower’s grandson.

Many critical pieces of diplomacy and statesmanship had taken place at the retreat, such as the historic Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel. But for all the meetings or conferences reported by the national media, there were others unreported and shrouded in the deepest secrecy.

Dressed casually in chino slacks, polo shirt, and golfing sweater, President Samuel Adams Castilla looked on as a Merlin helicopter in the dark-blue and gold livery of the presidential squadron sidled in over the helipad, its rotor wash stripping scarlet leaves from the treetops. Beyond the inevitable wary perimeter guard of Marine sentries and Secret Service agents, Castilla waited alone. There was no formal diplomatic greeting planned. No ruffles and flourishes. No onlooking members of the White House press corps.

Castilla’s guest had requested it.

That guest was now disembarking from the idling helicopter-a stocky, heavy-jowled man with short-trimmed gray hair and a blue pin-striped suit of European cut. It was worn as if it didn’t fit comfortably, as if the wearer was accustomed to a different kind of garb. The instinctive way he started to answer the salute of the Marine sentry at the foot of the helicopter’s stairway suggested what that other garb might be.

Castilla, a former governor of New Mexico and still tall, slim, and square-shouldered in his fifties, strode forward, his hand extended. “Welcome to Camp David, General,” he said over the idling whine of the Merlin’s turbines.

Dimetri Baranov, commanding general of the Thirty-seventh Strategic Air Force Army of the Russian Federation, returned a solid, dry-palmed handclasp. “It is an honor to be here, Mr. President. On behalf of my government, I thank you again for agreeing to meet with me under these…exceptional circumstances.”

“Not at all, General. Our nations share many mutual interests these days. Consultation between our governments is always welcome.”

Or at least necessary, Castilla added silently.

The new non-Soviet Russia provided the United States with almost as many challenges as had the old USSR, just in different ways. Corruption-racked, politically unstable, and with its economy still struggling back from the ruins of Communism, the fledgling Russian democracy was perpetually threatening either to backslide into totalitarianism or to collapse altogether. Neither outcome would be favorable for the United States, and Castilla had sworn neither would happen on his watch.

Over considerable resistance from some of the old-school Cold Warriors and congressional budget-cutters, Castilla had rammed a series of thinly disguised foreign aid bills through Congress, working with Federation President Potrenko to plug some of the more critical leaks in the Russian ship of state. Another such bill was undergoing debate at this time, with the issue still very much in doubt.

The last thing the Castilla administration needed was a new Russian complication. However, on the previous evening, a Russian diplomatic aircraft had touched down at Andrews Air Force Base. Baranov had been aboard, bearing a sealed letter from President Potrenko, naming the general as his personal representative and authorizing him to negotiate with President Castilla on “an urgent point of mutual national concern.”

Castilla feared this scenario could mean nothing but trouble. Baranov confirmed his fears.

“I regret the information I bear may not be so very welcome, Mr. President.” The general’s eyes flicked downward for a moment to the locked briefcase he carried.

“I see, General. If you would care to accompany me, at least we can be comfortable as we discuss it.”

The Secret Service teams unobtrusively shifted their observation positions as Castilla led his guest around the rock-lined fishpond to Aspen Lodge, the presidential residence at Camp David.

A few minutes later the two men were seated at an Adirondack-style table on the lodge’s broad porch, a quietly efficient navy steward serving hot tea, Russian style, in tall silver-filigreed glasses.

Baranov took a polite, disinterested sip. “I thank you for your hospitality, Mr. President.”

Castilla, who on a warm fall day probably would have preferred a cold Coors, nodded an acknowledgment. “I gather, General, this matter is rather time critical. How may we assist you and the Federation?”

Baranov removed a small key from the pocket of his vest. Placing the briefcase on the table, he unlocked the latches and removed a folder. Deliberately he laid a series of photographic prints on the tabletop. “I believe, Mr. President, that you might recognize these.”

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