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The Disciple


May: Syria

The dark green bombs fell from a milky sky. There were six of them, weighing a ton apiece. They had been dropped from an altitude of about twenty-six thousand feet, so the fall was going to take a while.

On the ground, Mikhail Toporov heard the distant, fading thunder of the three warplanes. Although he didn’t know it, they were Israeli F-15s. He scanned the sky. The visibility was excellent in the dry air under a high cirrus layer, which made the sky look a dirty white. Toporov saw nothing. If he had looked harder, he would have seen the aircraft as black dots against the white clouds, but his eyes were not focused for really distant objects. Even as he looked, the falling bombs were accelerating to terminal velocity.

Mikhail Toporov was offended by the airplane noise. There should be no aircraft at all in this prohibited zone.

Toporov flipped away his cigarette and walked quickly back into the air defense command and control bunker. Meanwhile the GPS modules on the tails of the bombs located their satellites and began issuing steering commands to canards that protruded from modules screwed into the noses of the weapons. Each bomb steered toward its designated target.

As the warplanes completed their postrelease turns and steadied out on course for home base, Mikhail Toporov leaned over the shoulder of one of his Russian colleagues seated at a radar console and looked at the display. The radar was sweeping . . . and there were no returns.

“Select the local area display,” Toporov said.

“That is the local area display.”

It didn’t compute. Toporov had just heard the planes. “Select fi fty kilometers,” he said.

A flip of a switch, and still the scope was empty.

“Something is wrong,” Toporov said, his mind racing.

Now only three miles above him, the bombs plummeted down.

Inside the administration building for the Syrian nuclear reactor, which was just next door, less than fifty yards away, Dr. Raza Qureshi was eating lunch at his desk while he scrutinized the latest draft of the government’s Top Secret plan to stockpile enriched uranium for future nuclear warheads. He had written the plan upon direction from Damascus; it was almost ready to be signed and forwarded to the ministry.

Dr. Qureshi gave little thought to the political implications of the plan --- he was concerned with the technical aspects. Still, he knew that Syria and her allies in the Middle East had many formidable enemies, with the most formidable, Israel, not very far away. It was his belief that the national leaders were prudent and correct to plan for the future.

He used his fingers to select a piece of cold meat as he scanned the text. He was a compulsive editor, one who was never satisfied, even with his own words, and now he saw a word that perhaps should be changed. He abandoned the food plate in midgrope. He drew a careful line through the offending word and wrote the one he wanted immediately above it.

That done, he laid down the pen and checked his watch. He had another half hour before he needed to go to the control room.

Qureshi reached again for the food plate and resumed reading.

There were seventeen people in the reactor control room. A dozen technicians monitored dials and gauges and made meticulous notes in logbooks. Behind them, four electricians were trying to find the fault in a relay panel, which seemed to have developed a short. They had the front of the panel off and were working with voltage meters.

The technicians were engrossed in their work. The reactor had been down for a month for maintenance, and they were engaged in the prestart checks. They were almost finished. Just now they were pulling the rods from the pile one at a time, then reinserting each one, checking to ensure that they had complete control of every rod. So far, everything was working just as it should, praise Allah, but Dr. Qureshi was a demanding taskmaster who insisted on no shortcuts. Intently focused, they continued their work.

A man from the ministry in Damascus was watching and taking notes. He spoke to no one, asked no questions. Even though this was his very fi rst visit to the reactor, he acted as if he knew everything, so there was nothing to ask; most of the people in the room suspected that he asked no questions because he was afraid to reveal the depths of his ignorance. In their experience, political people rarely knew anything about the reactor or how it worked. This one, they had concluded hours earlier, was like all the others.

Seventeen people, all of whom had only seconds more to live as the bombs fell toward the earth, toward the reactor, toward them.

An F-15 and two F-16s banked into a lazy right-hand circle around the reactor, twenty-two thousand feet above the ground, still well under the cirrus layer.

The reactor off their right wings had been constructed under a large pitched roof, which resembled that of a barn, or even an old factory. The roof was there to hide the reactor from satellites and aerial reconnaissance. A half mile to the northeast of the building was the Euphrates River, a broad, brown, placid, meandering highway that stretched to the horizon. The reactor had been under construction for six years, so the disturbed area above the ditches in which the water pipes were buried that carried river water to and from the reactor were no longer discernible from this altitude.

The single-piloted F-16s were merely escorts for the F-15, which had a two- man crew. The man in the rear seat of the F-15 Eagle centered his handheld camera on the roof of the reactor. Fortunately, the visibility was excellent today. The camera was a digital one with a long lens, one designed to take fi ve photos a second automatically if the shutter button was depressed and held down. The pilot in the front seat was counting down the seconds. “Six . . . five . . . four . . .”

At four, the cameraman depressed the shutter button and held it down. He concentrated on holding the camera steady and keeping the reactor centered in the viewfinder.

In the antiaircraft defense control center, Mikhail Toporov was still baffled. Something was wrong --- he had heard jet engines, and there should be no aircraft in the prohibited zone, none whatsoever. He reached down beside the man at the scope and pushed the red alert button on his console. Instantly a siren sounded in the control room.

A siren also sounded in the reactor administration building. Startled, Dr. Qureshi looked up, just in time to see his secretary walking into his office. That was the last thing he saw as the first bomb penetrated the roof of the building, plunged through all five floors and detonated in the basement of the structure. The floors heaved before they buckled. The desk on which he had been working was flung upward and struck Dr. Qureshi in the head, knocking him unconscious. He was killed when the building collapsed around him

In the reactor control room, a siren also went off. Shocked, the technicians stared at the gauges in front of them, trying to understand. The reactor was cold, so this couldn’t be the nuclear alarm.

Even as they realized it was an air raid alert alarm, the bombs smashed into the roof of the reactor and penetrated deeply, one at a time, two-tenths of a second apart. The bomb fuses were set to explode before the weapons penetrated all the way through the structure into the earth; they actually exploded just above the massive concrete floor that formed the support for the reactor. The trip-hammer explosions --- a total of five tons of high explosive --- destroyed the pile, destroyed the coolant pipes and pumping systems and rods and rod machinery and the hydraulic systems that controlled them, destroyed the walls and machinery and ceiling, reduced everything to molten rubble. The explosions were so hot that steel and concrete ignited.

In the adjacent control room, everyone died instantly as the control panel, which faced the reactor, was driven into them by the successive shock waves. The control room was completely crushed, which was fortunate, because anyone surviving the initial blast would have been cremated alive by the resulting inferno or quickly poisoned by the radiation released from the nuclear pile.

In the F-15 the photographer was capturing all of it. Later, technicians examining the photos would be able to count each individual explosion. The guidance system in every bomb had worked flawlessly. The Americans made good stuff.

Now, through the viewfinder, the photographer saw smoke pouring out of the reactor and adjacent administration building. Soon the rising smoke obscured the buildings, so he released the shutter button. He waited a moment, watching the smoke column, which he knew was radioactive. It seemed to be drifting off toward the desert to the southeast, just as the weather gurus predicted it would.

“Let’s go home,” he said to the pilot, who banked the jet smoothly around onto a heading back to Israel.

Mikhail Toporov heard the explosions over the wail of the siren. He ran outside. The antiair defense center was on a low ridge two miles from the reactor. He stood stupefied as black smoke roiled up from the place where the reactor and admin building had stood. Their remains were hidden by the smoke.

That was no meltdown --- he knew that. Airplanes. Bombs!

The Syrian in charge of the facility joined him. “What happened?” he demanded in Russian, the only language that Toporov spoke, as he jerked at Toporov’s sleeve.

“Look for yourself, fool,” Toporov roared, gesturing wildly with his free hand. He jerked his other arm free and went back inside, the Syrian trailing closely.

“Why didn’t your radars detect the planes?” the Syrian screamed over the high-pitched blast of the siren. He, too, had leaped to the conclusion that the facility was bombed.

“I don’t know,” Mikhail Toporov replied bitterly. He was very worried. The people in Moscow, he knew, would be apoplectic when they heard the news. First and foremost, he must get possession of the tape that recorded everything the radars saw during the last hour. Only with that tape could he prove that the S-300 air defense system --- a combination of radars and computers that controlled batteries of SA-20 antiaircraft missiles --- failed to detect the incoming bombers. Only with that tape could he save himself.

When the warplanes landed in Israel, two men in civilian clothes stood outside the operations building watching them. One was about five and a half feet tall, heavyset, with a rounded tummy and a crew cut. He wore khaki trousers and a white short-sleeve shirt with buttons down the front and a pocket protector in the left breast pocket. His name was Dag Mosher, and he was a senior officer in Israeli intelligence, the Mossad.

The man beside Mosher was an American. A half foot taller than Mosher, he was lean, with graying, thinning hair combed straight back. His face was not handsome; he had a square jaw, gray eyes and a nose that was a trifle large. His face and arms were tanned. He was wearing blue jeans and a pullover golf shirt with a logo on the left breast that he had apparently acquired at some summer festival in the States. He was the new CIA head of Middle Eastern Operations, and his name was Jake Grafton.

They watched the planes shut down in revetments. The crews were picked up by a little van, which brought them to this building and let them out in front of it. Still in their flight gear, the pilots and Weapons Systems Operators straggled into the building carrying their helmets and chart bags. Mosher and Grafton followed them.

The civilians sat in the back of the room and listened to uniformed intelligence officers debrief the flight crews. Neither asked a single question. An hour later, as the crews gathered their gear to leave, a technician brought in bomb- damage assessment photos of the target reactor and taped them to the blackboard. Mosher and Grafton strolled to the front of the room and, when the flight crews had had their looks and left, adjusted their reading glasses and studied the photos carefully.

The intelligence debriefers packed up their gear and departed. When only Mosher and Grafton were left in the room, Grafton dropped into a folding chair and asked the Israeli, “Are you guys going to do Iran?”

“You know we can’t without aerial tankers. We’d need to borrow some of yours.”

“Anything you bomb in Iran will release radioactivity. Lots of it.”

“Their problem,” Dag Mosher said and dropped into a chair beside Grafton. He sat looking up at the row of photos.

Finally he turned to Grafton. “All the choices are bad --- every one has a great many negatives attached. I certainly am not one of the decision-makers, but I can tell you this: If Israel is destroyed, it will only be because we gave every last drop of blood and that wasn’t enough. We Jews got in line and shuffled into the gas chambers once --- but never again. Never!”

Mosher turned back to the photos and sat staring at them.

“I think the driving force in Iran for the acquisition of nuclear weapons,” Grafton said conversationally, “and perhaps the destruction of Israel, is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. One wonders what might happen in Iran if he died unexpectedly.”

Dag Mosher turned slowly to face Grafton. He sat silently, examining his face. Finally he said, “Was that thought hatched in Washington, or did you dream it up?”

“Well, I’m kinda new to the Middle East,” Jake Grafton drawled, “and, I confess, I thought that one up all by my own self. There’re probably a hundred good reasons not to pop Ahmadinejad. Not cricket, bad form, and all that. You won’t hold this against me, will ya?”

A trace of a smile appeared on Mosher’s face; then he turned back to the photos.

“Same country, different subject,” Jake Grafton continued. “I’ve sent one of my best men to Iran, and he’s going to need all the help he can get. I was wondering, do you folks have a few people there who can discreetly watch his back? I would appreciate a heads-up if he appears to be getting in too deep.”

Dag Mosher looked amused. “Tommy Carmellini, perhaps?” he asked casually.

“Why, yes,” Grafton said with a smile. “Let’s hope the Iranians are not as well informed as the Mossad.”

“We can always hope,” Mosher admitted.

Excerpted from THE DISCIPLE © Copyright 2011 by Stephen Coonts. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Paperbacks. All rights reserved.

The Disciple
by by Stephen Coonts

  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 0312372833
  • ISBN-13: 9780312372835