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Автор Jeff Kirkham

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Jeff Kirkham & Jason Ross

BLACK AUTUMN

A POST–APOCALYPTIC SAGA

Prologue

[Two Weeks Ago]

Santa Catalina Island, California

Near Avalon Bay

AFTER FOUR MONTHS OF LIVING with a nuclear bomb in the hold of their sailboat, even the Koran’s promise of seventy-two bare-breasted virgins wore a little thin. When they left the Sulu Archipelago of the Philippines, dying in an atomic flash sounded like a small price to pay for even one virgin, much less six dozen. Now, with the end near at hand, the unspoken truth between the two Filipino villagers was that neither of them felt particularly eager to die.

They decided to wait for a sign from Allah before completing the last twenty-six miles of the voyage to America. The two villagers, far from home, anchored on the east side of Catalina Island, just a handful of hours from the bustling coast of Los Angeles, California.

They had been loitering there for nearly two months and, amazingly, nobody had so much as spoken to them.

Njay and Miguel had settled into a daily routine. Wake up. Defecate off the side of the boat. Make tea. Defecate off the side of the boat. Fish all morning. Nap. Fish all afternoon. Defecate. Eat fish. Sleep.

The journey from the Philippines had gone exactly as planned, which amounted to a miracle in sailing. Nothing ever went exactly as planned. The well-provisioned sailboat had contributed to their successful journey. Neither of the men had ever sailed in a boat so well stocked. The boat even came with a desalination filter sufficient for a couple of months. With such a fine craft, they had been able to set a simple tack into the north-northeast trade winds directly at the coast of California. For fifty-eight days, they kept the boat pointed on a steady course, barely having to trim the sails. It had been the easiest sailing of Njay’s life.

But time was running out. Both men felt sick. They suspected the desalination filter had worn out and was letting a small amount of salt into their drinking water. The other possibility was that the crate-sized nuclear bomb in their hold was leaking radiation.

Their village imam had given Miguel and Njay simple instructions, but Njay suspected the instructions had come from the light-haired, tall man who had been skulking around their village for months. Everyone seemed to know that gossiping about Tall Man would be a violation of obedience to the imam. Njay concluded that the man must be Middle Easterner or Russian, given the nature of their mission. No Pacific Rim nation would risk war with America.

In truth, Njay knew little of the world outside his island chain, but he’d been taught much about America, with its Special Forces murderers and its weapons of unimaginable power. The United States lorded over the Pacific, threatening to blow their enemies back to the Stone Age. Like a disease consuming the hearts of man, America plagued the world, and Islam would cure it. Such a plague could be stopped by the tiniest of medicines: one small boat and two small men could vaporize the Hollywood movie stars and shake the Wall Street skyscrapers. In Allah’s wise path, giants were often felled by pebbles.

The two Filipinos talked about sailing into Avalon Bay for another desalination filter, but the risk of being discovered, especially considering their almost non-existent English, was too great.

Njay and Miguel spoke endlessly about God’s will while crossing the ocean and then fishing off the coast of Catalina. Would Allah really want them to sacrifice their lives if it wasn’t necessary?

Based on their time in Catalina, it didn’t seem like Americans worried much about the coming and going of sailboats in their waters. Over four months, the two men received nothing more than hearty waves from other boaters. Perhaps they could sail into Long Beach Harbor, tie up their sailboat, set the bomb to explode, then walk into America. Surely there were other Filipino Muslims in America who would shelter them.

They even discussed how to build a time delay device for the bomb. They pulled the crate below decks apart, only to find that the bomb was a steel box with a single green button. The box had been welded shut, and the men hadn’t brought any tools capable of cutting steel. The button protruded through the metal box and through the slats in the crate. Their instructions had been simple: sail into Long Beach Harbor and press the button.

They talked about a time delay device where a candle could burn through a rope and release a hammer to swing into the button. The contraption could give them a few minutes to get clear of the bomb. If they ran, they might make it.

They didn’t know how big the explosion would be, nor did they know if a hammer strike would sufficiently depress the button without breaking it. Of course, it could not be tested in advance.

The men eventually set their time delay idea aside and put the decision in the hands of Allah. They listened to American radio as they fished, talking into the evening about how a sign from Allah might appear.

The sickness had them both concerned. Their daily defecations into the ocean were audible from everywhere on the boat, and they agreed the sickness was worsening, compelling them to relieve themselves more often.

Time grew short.

• • •

[Two Weeks Ago]

Mongratay Province, Afghanistan

Jeff Kirkham’s adrenaline spiked before he even knew why, his subconscious recognizing the blue-white trail of a rocket-propelled grenade as it whistled into his column of trucks. The low growl of a PKM machine gun and a swarm of AK-47s joined the chorus as the battlefield roared to life.

This had been the wrong place to drop overwatch, and it had been Jeff’s bad call. He rocked forward, squinting through the filthy windshield, hoping he wasn’t seeing what he was seeing. Some of his best men were in the Corolla, still the lead vehicle, and they were hanging way out in the wind.

Jeff rode in the passenger seat of the command truck toward the back of the column with his shorty AK wedged between his butt and the door. Only the medical truck lagged behind them.

Endless hours of experience and training kicked in, and Jeff launched from his seat, slamming the passenger door forward, pinning it with his boot to keep it from bouncing back. He cleared his rifle and rolled out of the truck, scrambling for cover behind the rear axle. None of their vehicles offered much in the way of cover, and their best play was to fight through the ambush. Getting everyone turned around and moving back the way they had come wasn’t an option.

As soon as Jeff reached the rear of the column, he ran into Wakiel, a tall, sinewy Afghan from the Panjshir Valley. They had worked together for years. In broken Dari, Jeff ordered Wakiel to gather his squad for a flanking maneuver. Wakiel chattered into his radio and, within a few moments, the assault squad piled up behind the medical truck, ready to roll.

Jeff didn’t remember the Dari word for “flank,” so he just stabbed a knife hand up and to the left. His Afghani assaulters knew what to do and they were hot to fight.

The twelve of them, including Jeff, sprinted up the closest ravine, working to gain altitude so they could drop down on the Taliban-infested ridge line. As he pounded up the hill, Jeff could see the Corolla getting mauled in the middle of the bowl. One glance at the car told Jeff he would have men to mourn when the dust settled.

At forty-three years of age, it almost didn’t matter how fit Jeff was. Running straight up a mountain in body armor at seven thousand feet made him feel like a lung was going to pop out of his mouth. He had been born with the furthest thing from a “runner’s physique.” Between his Irish genes and a thousand hours on the weight bench, Jeff could fight eyeball to eyeball with a silverback gorilla. He had no neck, a foot-thick chest, huge arms, and thighs the size of tree trunks. Like most of the Special Forces operators getting on in age, Jeff didn’t mind a bit of a belly bulge sticking over his waistband. His enormous upper body mass and the belly bulge added up to dead weight, though, when running up a mountain in Afghanistan in the middle of a fire fight.

He wasn’t about to let Wakiel and his guys get away from him, so Jeff drove harder up the sand and moon dust, his boots filling with gravel and debris, his throat burning like he was sucking on a blow torch. They had been pushing up a ravine and, as they crested the hill, Jeff could see they were now above the Taliban force.

“Shift fire. Shift fire.” Jeff coughed into the radio as his assault team reached the top. Jeff knew his men would plow straight into the Taliban positions without considering that their truck column below, with more than a dozen crew-served machine guns, was pounding that area with everything they had.

“Shift fire, copy?” Jeff heaved for air, trying to gulp down oxygen and listen intently at the same time.

“Roger. Shifting fire up and right,” one of the other Green Berets with the column replied, no doubt running up and down the string of trucks trying to get control of sixty adrenaline-crazed Afghani commandos and their belt-fed machine guns.

With his command job done, Jeff launched into the fight himself, hammering rounds from his AK and catching up to his men. T ...