But now they had another problem to address as he lowered the satellite phone. Moments ago, he had checked in with Painter, confirming they’d reached Utopia. And in hindsight, maybe he should never have made that call.
“What’s wrong now?” Seichan asked, reading his face.
“We’ve been ordered to cease all mission objectives and return to the States,” Gray told the others. “Apparently, the powers-that-be in DC need a scapegoat for the death of the president’s daughter.”
“And that would be us,” Kowalski mumbled sourly.
“Painter is working on an appeal, but he has to officially instruct us to pull up stakes here.”
“But Amanda isn’t even dead,” Tucker said. “Why doesn’t the director tell the president that?”
Gray had already explained Painter’s reasoning back in Somalia—how Amanda’s best chance for recovery lay in a surgical strike, to hit the enemy while they believed no one was looking for her.
Still, this decision sat wrong with him. Gray believed the president’s family had a right to know, and now they were all suffering the fallout. Gray also sensed that Painter wasn’t telling them everything; that he was holding something close to the vest.
But whatever it was, it would have to wait.
They had a decision to make.
“Maybe Painter will inform the president as a part of his appeal process. But what is he going to tell him? We don’t know for sure that Amanda is still alive. All we know is that the charred body at the camp was not his daughter. So we have to make a choice: to retreat back to the Ghost or to move forward. If we defy these direct orders and aren’t successful, we may face criminal charges. And even moving forward, we’ll have limited support.”
Gray stared around the small group.
Seichan shrugged. “I’m already a wanted fugitive. What’s one more crime?”
“And I was never an official member of Sigma anyway,” Tucker said. “Nothing says Kane and I have to follow those orders.”
Gray turned to his last teammate.
Kowalski sighed. “My pants are already soaking wet, so what the hell …”
“Then let’s figure out where to start our search.” Gray gripped his phone and brought up a detailed 3-D rendering of the island. He rotated it to show the outline of a cross. “These are the businesses and properties with possible ties to the Guild organization.”
“Wait,” Seichan said. “How does Painter know that?”
Gray glanced up at her, crinkling his brow. In the rush of information, he never thought to ask that question.
Seichan must have read that realization in his eyes. She shook her head, silently scolding him for yet another oversight. Gray tightened his fingers on the phone, irritated as much at the mistake as at Seichan catching him.
Pull it together …
“Go on,” Seichan said.
“If Amanda is on the island, she’s likely to be found somewhere within the properties highlighted.”
“That’s a lot of territory to cover,” Tucker said.
“That’s why we’ll start here, the most likely target, and spiral out from it.” Gray pointed to the center of the cross.
“X marks the spot,” Kowalski mumbled. “What the hell, we are looking for a pirate’s buried treasure.”
Gray straightened. “And let’s hope it’s still there.”
He lowered his phone and started toward the center of the island, toward the shining central axis upon which this star turned. And it was turning—the tower, not the island. The floors of the spire, each rhomboid in shape and slightly offset from the next, formed a massive corkscrew—but the most amazing aspect of the engineering was that each story rotated independently of the others, creating a dynamic structure, powered by wind turbines and solar panels. It was mesmerizing to look at, shifting slowly, melting into new shapes, meant to mimic a shimmering mirage.
“Burj Abaadi,” Tucker said, naming this central hub of Utopia. “The Eternal Tower.”
The fifty-floor skyscraper had been built in only eighteen months, constructed in conjunction with the island’s creation, the two projects rising together out of the sea.
Gray sensed that if anything were hidden on this island it would be there, at the heart of Utopia. There was only one way to find out for sure.
He turned to Tucker and Kane.
“Time to go to work.”
Tucker led the way—or rather Kane did.
The shepherd ran a full block ahead along a deserted avenue that cut down one leg of the star. He heard his partner’s panting breath in his left ear and kept one eye on the video feed, watching for any signs of armed guards or the rare resident of Utopia.
He and the others stuck as much as possible to the shadows as they headed the quarter-mile to their destination. Palms lined both sides of the road and along a center median. Several stretches of trees were still in massive boxes, waiting to be craned into place and planted.
The entire island had that same surreal feeling—like a child’s model of a city, where pieces sat to the side, waiting to be fitted and glued into their proper spot.
But as they traveled closer to the star’s center, the cityscape became less fragmentary. Buildings grew taller, more polished, shining with lights. Evidence of life began to appear: an occasional golf cart or car in an empty parking lot; a tiny grocery store with stocked shelves; a neon sign glowed in the window of a Korean restaurant.
Still, Tucker suspected only a skeleton number of people actually populated the island, and most of those were likely connected in some manner to the Guild.
To Tucker, that terrorist outfit still sounded like something out of a dime-store novel. But then again, he had dealings in the past with many different mercenary-for-hire groups, private military companies with equally colorful names: Saber, Titan, GlobalEnforce. And while he didn’t subscribe to conspiracy theories, he knew that the military-industrial complex was rife with corruption and collusion, generating scores of shadowy organizations that merged armed forces, intelligence services, political ambitions, and even scientific ventures.
So what was one more?
Earlier, Kowalski had pulled him aside and told him what had happened to Pierce’s mother and hinted at previous altercations with this organization. So, no matter what this new enemy was named, Tucker and the others were trespassing on their home turf—and he intended to watch his step.
And that applied to his partner, too.