He must have been given a counteragent to his sedative, returning him to full alertness in seconds.
But where am I?
Concrete walls surrounded him on all sides, creating a box five feet wide and three feet tall. The illumination was sharp, painfully bright, coming from a battery-powered lamp in the corner. A long metal case rested on the floor near his feet, and one of the walls had a thin aperture, sealed by a steel shutter. Even if open, the hole was too narrow to climb through. The only exit appeared to be the hatch in the floor, sealed from the outside.
What is going on?
The answer came from inside his head, from deep within his right ear. “GOOD MORNING, COMMANDER PIERCE,” a mechanized voice greeted him. It sounded like one of those soulless computerized answering services—though he suspected he was hearing a real voice, digitally masked.
“THE RUDE AWAKENING WAS A NECESSITY.” There was no apologetic tone to that statement, merely matter-of-factness. “THE SHOCK AND THE INJECTION OF METHYLPHENIDATE SHOULD HAVE YOU ALERT AND READY FOR THE TASK AT HAND. YOU HAVE TEN MINUTES UNTIL YOU MUST ACT.”
“To do what?” he asked loudly to the bare walls of his concrete crypt. He suspected the answer, glancing at what looked to be a rifle case.
The voice continued to speak, either ignoring him or perhaps this conversation was a one-way transmission.
“THE RADIO DEEP IN YOUR EAR IS BOLTED IN PLACE AND WIRED VIA A BLASTING CAP. YOU’LL FIND THAT SAME EAR PACKED FULL OF C-4.”
Disturbed, Gray probed with a finger and discovered a wad of hard material jammed into the canal. He pictured what would happen if that exploded, and quickly pushed that thought away.
The speaker continued, “THE DEVICE CAN ALSO BE USED AS PUNISHMENT, AS YOU EXPERIENCED UPON WAKING. ADDITIONALLY, IT’S WIRED TO A TRANSMITTER HELD BY A GUARD OUTSIDE. IF YOU STRAY BEYOND TEN YARDS FROM THAT TRANSMITTER, YOU HAVE TEN SECONDS TO GET BACK IN RANGE, OR THE DEVICE WILL AUTOMATICALLY EXPLODE.”
They’ve got me connected to an electric leash.
A tingle of foreboding worked through his drug-induced hypervigilance.
“AS TO YOUR DUTY,” the voice said, “AT EXACTLY NOON TODAY, YOU WILL ASSASSINATE PRESIDENT JAMES T. GANT. YOU WILL FIND A SNIPER RIFLE AND A MAGAZINE WITH TWO ROUNDS, IN CASE YOU MISS ON YOUR FIRST SHOT. YOU WILL NOT BE GIVEN A THIRD CHANCE. PREPARE YOURSELF NOW.”
The lamp blinked off inside the bunker. A small motorized hum sounded, and the shuttered window opened. Sunlight streamed into the space through the slats. He wasn’t blinded. He realized the brightness of the lamp had been to assist him with maintaining his day vision.
Gray searched around for a camera, while he rolled and crawled to the gun case and snapped it open. Nestled inside was a Marine Corps M40A3 sniper rifle, along with a stabilizing bipod. He slipped the weapon free, checking its heft and balance. He knew this rifle. It had an effective range of a thousand yards.
But what fell within that range?
Gray moved into the sunlight’s blaze. Staring between the slats, he distantly made out the tip of the Washington Monument poking above a line of towering oaks.
I’m back in DC.
He oriented himself. Through the trees, sunlight glinted off water. That had to be the Potomac. Shifting to the left and peering sideways, he caught a peek, far to the right, of a rolling expanse of green lawns, dogwoods, and rows of small white gravestones. He knew that place too well: he had many friends buried there. Arlington Cemetery. He was north of the park, likely not far from the USMC War Memorial.
Closer at hand, viewed down a short street that ended at an oak-studded park, people milled about a large gathering of tents and booths. Most were wearing various shades of armed forces uniforms, from dress blues to camouflage khakis.
He raised the rifle and peered through the telescopic sight, adjusting the Unertl 10x lens to focus on that gathering. The view zoomed to reveal barbecues, children running and laughing, a military band playing on a shaded stage. The distant beat of drum and sharper notes of brass reached him.
In the center of the picnic grounds, a tall platform had been erected, framed by an arch of red, white, and blue balloons.
He shifted the sight to maximum, concentrating on the group clustered by the podium. They appeared to be top military brass from every branch of service.
Among them, he spotted his supposed target.
With his back to Gray, President James T. Gant kissed his wife, who was decked out in a dark blue pantsuit, with a muted pink-and-white-striped top, and silver flats. It was a festive look for this Fourth of July barbecue, a USO celebration. Gray also knew the First Couple were hosting a fireworks-viewing party on the South Lawn of the White House later tonight.
But the day’s strain already showed on the First Lady’s face.
The detail through the scope—even at seven hundred yards—revealed the grief etched in the lines around her eyes, hidden as best she could under thick makeup. Her fingers clung to her husband’s hand, trying to hold him as he stepped to the podium, but the president had to show a strong face to the world.
The pair both thought their daughter dead—and maybe Amanda was. The last memory Gray had of her was floating in dark waters, supported by his two teammates. The administration must not have announced the kidnapping and death of Amanda, likely waiting for confirmation from the charred remains. Probably the White House chief speechwriter already struggled on the wording for that tragic announcement.
In the meantime, the parents had to put on a show of normalcy.
President Gant stepped to the podium, lifting a hand and waving.
A distant cheer rose.
Gray turned away, crouching lower in his sniper’s nest, resting the rifle across his knees. He picked up the magazine, eyed the cartridges—the newer M118LR rounds, for heightened accuracy.
Two of them.
They had better be accurate.
He remembered the warning: You will not be given a third chance.
But why did his kidnappers believe he would agree to assassinate the president? They had Seichan, but that wasn’t enough leverage, as much as it pained him to admit it. He knew they would likely carry out horrible atrocities against her in an attempt to ensure his cooperation—or to punish his failure.
That fear sat like a cold stone in his gut.
He knew that, even to save her, he could not sacrifice the leader of the free world. Frustrated, he tightened his fingers on the fiberglass stock of the rifle and on the cold length of deadly muzzle.
I’m sorry, Seichan. I can’t do it.
“FOUR MINUTES,” the voice finally announced, and, as if reading his mind, the speaker gave him the incentive to act. “TO ENSURE YOUR COOPERATION, WE HAVE BURIED FIFTEEN PLASTIC CARTRIDGES OF SARIN GAS WITH INDETECTABLE TRIGGERS THROUGHOUT THE PARK. THE DISPERSAL PATTERN WILL SWEEP THE FIELDS, KILLING EVERYONE THERE, INCLUDING THE PRESIDENT. THOSE CHARGES WILL GO OFF TWENTY SECONDS AFTER NOON. UNLESS THE PRESIDENT IS KILLED FIRST.”