Seven Corners, Virginia
Dr. Guzman rubbed her tired eyes. She became a doctor to heal the sick, not to file endless reports. But here she was, typing away after hours.
No matter. It was the price she paid to run the free clinic for the poorest of the poor in the area, mostly immigrants.
She checked her watch. The delivery was late. As soon as it arrived, she'd finish up this last budget report and head home for some needed shut-eye.
A noise in the back room startled her. She glanced up from her laptop, listening.
Probably just the rats again, she told herself. Gross.
She made a mental note to pick up some more traps at Lowe's tomorrow on her way in.
She settled back down into her spreadsheet, her bleary eyes focused on the empty columns she still needed to fill with numbers. Her fingers froze.
She smelled the acrid tang of sweat and dope before she felt the blade against her throat.
The man stood behind her. Grabbed a fistful of her hair.
"The drugs are in the safe. I can't open it," she said in Spanish, her first language.
The voice behind her laughed. "Don't want the drugs, bitch," he said in English. "We gonna party."
Guzman whispered a prayer and cursed her stupidity. She'd left the back door unlocked for the delivery. That meant no alarm. That's how he got in.
And with no alarm, no help was on the way.
The man grabbed her shoulder and spun the chair around. He stood over her, flashing a gold tooth in a nicotine-stained smile. His bare, ropy arms were slathered in tattoos, but it was his shaved skull that shocked her. His entire head, from the neckline up, was a tangle of blue ink, with ms splashed across his throat and 13 emblazoned on his forehead.
She recognized him. He had come in last week, a wreck. Hep C and gonorrhea. He gave a name-Lopez-but no ID. She assumed it was fake. Didn't matter. He was sick, she was a doctor. She treated him. Even if he did give her the chills.
"You don't have to do this," she said, steeling her voice.
"Don't have to. Want to." He smiled. He stepped closer, thrusting his belt buckle close to her face. He laid the blade flat against her cheek. "So do you. If you want to live."
"Not like that."
A soft whistle from behind.
The gangbanger whipped around, pulling a chrome Ruger .357 out from beneath his shirt. Fast. A real gunslinger.
But a larger hand was faster. It grabbed the four-inch barrel and yanked it up toward the ceiling, then outward and away.
Fast, but not fast enough.
Tendons snapped in the banger's wrist, but his index finger smashed against the cocked trigger. A magnum round fired with a deafening roar into a ceiling tile, superheating the barrel in the big man's right hand. He didn't let go.
The big man's left hand crashed into the banger's jaw, buckling his knees. He crumbled to the floor, out cold.
It had all happened in a flash.
Dr. Guzman didn't have time to scream, let alone help. She stared wide-eyed at the man standing in front of her now. Six-one, one hundred and ninety pounds of lean muscle. Black hair, blue eyes.
Still in shock, all she could manage was, "Who are you?"
The man tucked the Ruger into his waistband.
"My sister Sally sent me. With those." He pointed at a backpack on the floor a few feet away, where he had set it down. "Antibiotics. Said you were running short."
"Dr. Sally Ryan?"
"Then you must be Jack Ryan."
He shrugged and smiled.
The Syrian fighter stood on the roof of the apartment building, shielding his aging eyes from the western sun as he watched the children playing in the street seven floors below. They sweated and laughed in the long shadows of the fading light, swarming after the ball like bees chasing a dog, ignoring the calls of their anxious mothers to come in and clean up. He smiled.
Kids everywhere, the same.
The truce was a mercy. "Thanks be to God," he whispered to himself. He checked his watch, a nervous habit. By the fading light he knew the muezzin's voice would ring out over the loudspeakers, calling for the maghrib.
He had raged when his battalion commander, an Iraqi, first announced the truce with that butcher Assad and his paymasters, the godless Russians. But the last nine weeks had given them time to rest and regroup with smuggled weapons, food, fuel, cash. Now they were ready for anything up close, and their Stinger missiles kept the dreaded Russian jets and helicopters out of the skies. The senior Al-Nusra commanders were all stationed here; even the emir was living in Idlib, just three blocks away. This was the safest place in Syria, as long as the truce lasted.
The war seemed far away now. A distant, painful memory. So much blood. And for what? Life was better than death, was it not?
He craved a cigarette, even after all these years, but cigarettes were haram, and men in his unit had been executed for smoking them. But perhaps a strong coffee after maghrib, he thought, his eyes tracking the black-clad women scurrying into the street, clapping their hands and shouting, trying to herd the laughing children back to their homes.
The adhan began, a strong voice calling the faithful. Its familiar words warmed his soul. The mosque would be full tonight.
He picked up his rifle and headed for the stairs. Perhaps the war was indeed over and these children would finally know peace.
Thanks be to God.
Nine miles south of Idlib
A bead of sweat trickled down the side of Captain Walib's face despite the A/C unit blasting overhead. The Syrian captain stared at the monitor in front of him, his right hand poised near the master launch button.
The monitor verified the ready state of the fire-control computers on the six TOS-2 Starfire launch vehicles stationed nearby, each composed of a seventy-tube box missile launcher fixed on a heavily armored T-14 Armata tank chassis, and all linked to his command console.
He and Major Grechko sat at their stations inside the cramped BMP-3K armored personnel fighting vehicle, Walib's mobile command post. Technically, the Russian major was only an adviser on today's operation. But in reality Grechko was evaluating Walib's combat command capabilities along with the new TOS-2 Starfire system.
Walib stole a quick glance at Lieutenant Aslan Dzhabrailov sitting near the doorway. The young, broad-shouldered Chechen was the platoon leader of the commandos guarding his unit. There was a fierce intelligence in the man's pale gray eyes and a well-used ten-millimeter Glock on his hip. The Chechens were savage, brutal fighters-a breed apart, the best in the war, at least on his side. Dzhabrailov was a man to be feared.
The major checked the GLONASS receiver-the Russian version of GPS-one last time, along with the laser guidance beam. "Targeting confirmed. Free to fire, Captain."
Walib smoothed his mustache with his thumb and forefinger, hesitating.
"Something wrong, Captain?" Grechko asked.
Walib was a Syrian patriot. He had no problem killing terrorists, especially foreign ones. The Syrian "civil war" was fought by everyone but Syrians these days. But they were all just proxies for the Americans and Russians, who happily sacrificed the Syrian people on the altar of their superpower ambitions.
He hated them all, especially today.
"There are no civilians in Idlib, Captain," Grechko said. "Only Al-Nusra bandits, the women who breed them, and the children who become either bandits or breeders. This is a war of demographics. We must fight accordingly."
This wasn't the war Walib had volunteered to fight. He never imagined the terrible weapons under his command would be used to slaughter innocents.
But if he disobeyed Grechko's order, the Russian would pull his nine-millimeter Grach pistol out of its holster and splatter his brains against the BMP's steel hull, and simply order one of Walib's lieutenants in the other vehicles to fire.
Nothing would be accomplished except that Walib would be dead in exchange for a few minutes of respite for the doomed civilians.
He hated himself. He hated this war.
But he hated dying needlessly even more.
"Just checking the spin on the number-eleven gyro," Walib said. A convenient lie. "Good to go."
"Then you're free to launch. Proceed at once." Grechko's drooping bulldog eyes narrowed.
"Yes, sir." Walib flipped the safety cap on the launch button and jabbed it before he could change his mind.
Instantly, the French-designed, solid-fuel motors on the 122-millimeter rockets fired. The roar was terrifying, like the shout of God himself, even inside the idling command vehicle. Each half second, another nine-and-a-half-foot-long missile screamed out of its tube. A full-throated chorus of death.
Thirty-five seconds later, all 420 missiles had launched, lofting nearly fifteen tons of thermobaric munitions into the air. The TOS-2 master fire-control computer coordinated the launch timing and trajectories so that all of the warheads arrived on target simultaneously, avoiding warhead fratricide and increasing the explosive effects.
Grechko stared greedily at his monitor displaying a live video feed from the Israeli-designed Forpost-M aerial drone circling high over Idlib, which also provided the laser guidance beam for the missiles.
"Any second now," Grechko said, grinning. "Time to burn out those cockroaches."
But Walib didn't want to see it. He was already outside, barking orders to his men, who were scrambling to prep for rapid "shoot and scoot" redeployment, the only defense against counter-battery fire, real or imagined.
Walib marched through the billowing clouds of exhaust and debris still swirling in the air, rage and shame welling in his eyes.
Lieutenant Dzhabrailov stood outside the command vehicle, studying the Syrian captain with keen interest.
The laser-guided TOS-2 Starfire rockets struck inside a kill box two hundred eighty meters square-about eight densely populated city blocks. A much tighter pattern was possible with the new guidance system, but it would have resulted in far fewer casualties.
The cascade of crashing warheads released clouds of combustible fuel mixed with finely powdered aluminum, PETN high-explosive, and ethylene oxide gas into the open streets. The incendiary clouds also penetrated through the cracks and crevices of nearly every mosque, apartment building, and shop in the eight-block area. Basements, attics, kitchens, toilets, and bedrooms filled with the toxic mixture in nanoseconds, leaving nowhere to hide.
Timed scatter charges of conventional explosives within the warheads detonated next, igniting the explosive fog into a blazing plasma cloud. The few people standing outside and nearest to the points of impact were instantly incinerated.
They were the lucky ones.
The shock wave produced by the explosion caused the first surge of destruction, producing thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch-enough to crush the hull of a World War II submarine. Those who weren't initially killed by the striking force of the overpressure waves suffered terribly. Limbs were torn away or broken; alveoli and bronchioles ruptured in the lungs; emboli formed in coronary and cerebral arteries; bowels perforated; inner ear structures were crushed; eyes were ripped from their sockets.
The crushing force of the expanding overpressure waves smashed walls, broke windows, shattered doors. The city itself became a form of shrapnel, hurling shards of burning brick, glass, wood, and iron through the fiery winds, lacerating soft tissues and exposed flesh.
Yet this still wasn't the worst of it.
The powdered aluminum in the expanding plasma cloud slowed its burn rate, resulting in the total consumption of the atmospheric oxygen. This created both a massive vacuum and a fireball of nearly 3,000 degrees Celsius-twice the melting point of steel. But it was the vacuum that caused the most destruction.
The buildings and other structures still standing held no protections against the fast-forming negative pressure, equal to its opposite in energy and violence, generating fiery, hurricane-force winds. Shrieking survivors were crushed beneath tons of crumbling debris, buried alive in basements, crucified on shattered timbers, impaled on twisted metal. Anyone still alive in the rubble spent their last few minutes suffocating to death, gasping like carp for oxygen that no longer existed.
There were no more laughing children in the streets.
The last of the thermobaric munitions burned out just as the explosions of gas mains, petrol tanks, and other urban flammables began, stoking the burning rubble and the still-living bodies beneath into an inferno of unquenchable fire.
Within seconds, thousands had died, and thousands more suffered. Within a few hours, many of the wounded survivors would perish as well.
It was the explosive equivalent of a tactical nuclear device, but entirely conventional, and perfectly legal, according to international treaties.
It was also Hell on Earth.
The White House, Washington, D.C.
Jack Ryan, Jr., spooned up the last of the Burgundy beef stew, earthy and rich, scraping the bowl as he fished out the last piece of savory meat.
"More, son?" Dr. Cathy Ryan asked.
"Always, but two helpings are enough," Jack Junior said. This was his favorite meal, and his mother made it better than anybody. It was just Jack and his parents tonight-the twins were on an ecological field trip to the Virginia wetlands for the next three days and his older sister was on ER duty at the hospital, so she couldn't join them.
Jack and his parents were seated at the round table in the First Family's private dining room, formerly known as the Prince of Wales guest room before Jacqueline Kennedy converted it to its current function for her own young family. Cathy Ryan had redecorated it in a transitional Craftsman style, favoring the clean lines and sturdy functionality of an original American art form.
"I hope you saved room for the apple pie," she said, standing.
"Are you kidding me?" Jack said. His mother's apple pie was his all-time favorite dessert. His suspicions grew. "What's the occasion?"
"Does a mother need a special reason to cook for her son?" she said.
"When a mother is as busy as you are, yes, she does need a special reason."
"I haven't had a chance to see you in forever, and you're off to Europe soon. I knew the only way I could get you over here was to bribe you with a home-cooked meal. Besides, it's something I love to do." She glanced at her husband, a pair of reading glasses perched on the end of his nose, his mind buried in a file folder on the dining room table. "Isn't that right, honey?"
Senior grunted. "What? Yeah. Dinner was great."
Cathy fake-frowned. "Hey, bub. What's more interesting than us?"