Mistakes would not be tolerated.

“I won’t risk an agent,” Painter said. “Call them in.”

“Yes, sir.” Logan crossed to a phone. The man appeared more a California surfer than a leading strategist: blond hair, tanned, fit but going a bit soft in the belly. Painter was his darker shadow, half Native American, black hair, blue eyes. But he had no tan. He didn’t know the last time he had seen the sun.

Painter wanted to sit down, lower his head to his knees. He had assumed control of the organization only eight months ago. And most of that time had been spent restructuring and shoring up security after the infiltration of the group by an international cartel known as the Guild. There had been no telling what information had been gleaned, sold, or spread during this time, so everything had to be purged and rebuilt from scratch. Even their central command had been pulled out of Arlington and moved to a subterranean warren here in Washington.

In fact, Painter had come in early this morning to unpack boxes in his new office when he had received the emergency call from satellite recon.

He studied the monitor from the NRO satellite.

A trap.

He knew what the Guild was doing. Four weeks ago, Painter had begun to put operatives into the field again, the first in more than a year. It was a tentative test. Two teams. One over in Los Alamos investigating the loss of a nuclear database…and the other in his own backyard, over at Fort Detrick, only one hour from Washington.

The Guild’s attack sought to shake Sigma and its leader. To prove that the Guild still had knowledge to undermine Sigma. It was a feint to force Sigma to pull back again, to regroup, possibly to disband. As long as Painter’s group was out of commission, the Guild had a greater chance to operate with impunity.

That must not happen.

Painter stopped his pacing and turned to his second, the question plain on his face.

“I keep getting cut off,” Logan said, nodding to the earpiece. “They’re having intermittent communication blackouts throughout the base.”

Certainly the handiwork of the Guild too…

Frustrated, Painter leaned on the console and stared at the mission’s dossier. Imprinted atop the manila file was a single Greek letter.

In mathematics, the letter, sigma represented “the sum of all parts,”, the unification of disparate sets into a whole. It was also emblematic of the organization Painter directed: Sigma Force.

Operating under the auspices of DARPA—the Department of Defense’s research and development wing—Sigma served as the agency’s covert arm out in the world, sent forth to safeguard, acquire, or neutralize technologies vital to U.S. security. Its team members were an ultrasecret cadre of ex–Special Forces soldiers who had been handpicked and placed into rigorous fast-track doctoral programs, covering a wide range of scientific disciplines, forming a militarized team of technically trained operatives.

Or in plainer language, killer scientists.

Painter opened the dossier before him. The team leader’s file fronted the record.

Dr. and Commander Grayson Pierce.

The agent’s photograph stared up at him from the upper right corner. It was the man’s mug shot from his year of incarceration at Leavenworth. Dark hair shaved to a stubble, blue eyes still angry. His Welsh heritage was evident in the sharp cheekbones, wide eyes, and strong jaw. But his ruddy complexion was all Texan, burnt by the sun over the dry hills of Brown County.

Painter didn’t bother glancing over the inch-thick file. He knew the details. Gray Pierce had joined the Army at eighteen, the Rangers at twenty-one, and served to distinction off and on the field. Then, at twenty-three, he was court-martialed for striking a superior officer. Painter knew the details and the back history of the two in Bosnia. And considering the events, Painter might have done the same. Still, rules were codified in granite among the armed forces. The decorated soldier spent one year in Leavenworth.

But Gray Pierce was too valuable to be cast aside forever.

His training and skill could not be wasted.

Sigma had recruited him three years ago, right out of prison.

Now Gray was a pawn between the Guild and Sigma.

One about to be crushed.

“I’ve got base security!” Logan said, relief ringing in his voice.

“Get them over—”

“Sir!” The technician leapt to his feet, still tethered to his console by the headset’s cord. He glanced to Painter. “Director Crowe, I’m picking up a trace audio feed.”

“What—?” Painter stepped closer to the technician. He raised a hand to hold off Logan.

The technician turned up the feed on the speakers.

A tinny voice reached them though the video feed remained fritzed.

One word formed.


5:07 A.M.


GRAY KICKED out a heel, catching the woman in the midriff. He felt a satisfying thud of flesh, but heard nothing. His ears rang from the concussion of the slug against his Kevlar helmet. The shot had spider-webbed his faceshield. His left ear burned as the electronic bay shorted with a burst of static.

He ignored it all.

Rolling to his feet, he slipped the carbonized dagger from its wrist sheath and dove under a neighboring row of tables. Another shot, sounding like a loud cough, penetrated the ring of his ears. Wood splintered from the edge of the table.

He cleared the far side and kept a wary crouch while searching the room. His kick had caused the woman to drop her flashlight, which rolled on the floor, skittering shadows everywhere. He fingered his chest. The body blow of the assassin’s first shot still burned and ached.

But no blood.

The woman called to him from the shadows. “Liquid body armor.”

Gray dropped lower, attempting to pinpoint the woman’s location. The dive under the table had jarred his helmet’s internal heads-up display. Its holographic images flickered incoherently across the inside of his faceshield, interfering with his sightlines, but he dared not abandon the helmet. It offered the best protection against the weapon still in the woman’s hand.

That and his body suit.

The assassin was right. Liquid body armor. Developed by U.S. Army Research Laboratory in 2003. The fabric of his body suit had been soaked with a shear-thickening fluid—hard microparticles of silica suspended in a polyethylene glycol solution. During normal movement, it acted like a liquid, but once a bullet struck, the material solidified into a rigid shield, preventing penetration. The suit had just saved his life.

At least for now.

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