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AN INTERNATIONAL CADRE OF MERCENARIES DOES THE UNTHINKABLE—HIJACKS THE ISS AND HOLDS THE WORLD HOSTAGE IN A BLAZING NEAR-FUTURE TECHNOTHRILLER FROM TRAVIS S. TAYLOR
Don't mess with our astronauts!
A Russian ICBM site is attacked just north of the Ukraine boarder. The nuclear warheads are missing! A Special Operations and Intelligence Community Task Force is rapidly put together to respond, but where it should deploy is unclear. A fire ravages a cosmonaut training facility in which five spacesuits disappear. And the Task Force finds a cache of detailed schematics of highly complex rocketry systems.The Task Forces reaches out to Dr. Amy Sue Harrington of the Missiles and Space Intelligence Center in Huntsville, Alabama. To Dr. Harrington, it all adds up to the unthinkable: someone—someone extremely well-funded—is taking aim at the International Space Station.
But Colonel Vladimir Lytokov and his team of mercenaries aren’t planning to bring the ISS crashing to Earth. They’re taking the fight to orbit, boarding the station and hijacking it. As the ISS traces its path across the heavens, Lytokov rains down destruction from above, effectively holding the entire globe hostage.
With all the rockets capable of reaching the ISS currently out of commission, the terrorists are untouchable in their orbital perch. But Lytokov and his men have overlooked one crucial aspect of their intricate plan: that astronaut Major Allison Simms is on board the ISS—and you don’t mess with American astronauts! But can one astronaut hold out until the Task Force can come to the rescue?
About Travis S. Taylor:
“. . . explodes with inventive action." —Publishers Weekly on Travis S. Taylor’s The Quantum Connection
“[Warp Speed] reads like Doc Smith writing Robert Ludlum. . . You won’t want to put it down”—John Ringo
Release date: August 2, 2022
Print pages: 400
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Travis S. Taylor
Southern Russia Border
Tuesday (Present Day)
1:03 a.m. Coordinated Universal Time
6:03 a.m. Local
Colonel Vladimir Lytokov squinted a bit as the rising sun glared against the windshield, exacerbating the mild hangover he was struggling with. The oranges and reds were beginning to spread across the sky and shine over the tops of the taller birch and pine trees along the ridge ahead of them. He reached in his shirt pocket for his sunglasses and fumbled with them as the vehicle bounced like a kicking mule, almost dropping them twice before he could get them in place. A brief memory of his days flying MiGs flashed in his mind, but the fighters had never made him nauseous. Vladimir had spent more than seven thousand hours in the Mikoyan and Gurevich creations including his favorite, the MiG-35. He’d done bombing runs over most of the former southern Soviet states and even been a test pilot with the MiG-41 program. He’d been through high-gee maneuvers, flat spins, and had to punch out on three different occasions. Even the concussion he’d gotten from the latter was no match for his current hangover. But, it was only a “mild one.”
Vladimir swallowed the lump in his throat, drawing a smirk from his subordinate seated in the driver’s position. He choked back a retort along with the bile rising in his esophagus. His face was oily and covered with a light sheen of sweat. He white-knuckled the armrest briefly before massaging the bridge of his very Russian nose and then placing the shades on. The lenses powered on and quickly adjusted the tint until the optical recognition chip saw his squint wrinkles relax and his pupils adjust to normal. Vladimir could hear the ding-dong doorbell sound telling him that the glasses had made the local connection with the audio implant behind his ear. The heads-up display, or HUD, window view through the virtual glasses would kick on if there was any important information for him to see. There was.
The MZKT-79221 mobile transporter erector launcher—“TEL” rhyming with Hell, as the Americans had coined it—was one of the most rugged, versatile, and capable vehicles on the planet. If there was such a thing as being more of a “tank” than an actual tank, the TEL was it. A history that had turned out to be the ultimate battle of strategic wits, a chess match of warfare and super technologies, had forced the vehicle into being. Decades of Cold War pressures to technologically and militarily overpower the Americans had forced an environment where pure and simple Russian, hard-nosed, devil in the details, bang on it until you make it work or go to the gulag, rocket science and engineering had led to a solution that worked, and worked well—in fact, worked better than any other system similar to it on the planet.
The sixteen-wheeled vehicle rolled through the rough terrain across the uneven hillside so close to the southeastern-most Russian border near northeastern Oral, Kazakhstan, that at times Vladimir wondered if half the truck wasn’t across the mostly imaginary country borderline creating imminent diplomatic issues with what was left of NATO, the World Security Council, the Ukrainians, the Europeans, the Kazakhstanis, and, mostly, the Americans. But Vladimir didn’t care. He had a job to do and he was going to do it come Hell or winter blizzards—fortunately, spring was approaching and most of the snow had melted.
The TEL plowed over saplings of ash, pine, and maple trees along the way, tearing such a large path in the greenery that, if anyone were looking, one could compare their path to borders on the map. Most certainly the Americans were looking, or at least they would be in about nine minutes and thirty seconds. Of course, it was all a show for the United Nations Security Council. The Russian president had for more than a decade been posturing and showing off the nation’s military might, especially their nuclear one, and the MZKT-79221, with a Topol-M on it at the southern border for all the world’s spy satellites to see, was the ultimate flexing of those muscles. The Russian president had made a show of making comments about placing the missiles in Canada, but that was certainly show. That would be as bad or worse than the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Topol-M had no need of being deployed in Canada. From the TEL, the Topol-M could hit anywhere in the world undeterred in about thirty-two minutes or less if so desired. Vladimir and his crew were simply playing a part on the global diplomatic and strategic stage.
His team was just one of many across the country posturing and, for all intents and purposes, vainly showing off. Vladimir also knew from intelligence briefings that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was doing exactly the same thing and only “sort of” hiding what they were doing. They weren’t moving TELs. Instead, they were building launch sites for the Deng Fong rockets that could go orbital and carry nuclear weapons. The world was becoming more and more dangerously close to the threat of something bad.
The current showing of military might on the world stage was more heated than it had ever been during the Cold War era, and the only thing keeping the world from the brink of nuclear war was the fact that all the world liked having “stuff” and doing “things.” From the old guard Soviet KGB that was still secretly running Russia to the CCP, all of the current figureheads enjoyed their lives of luxury too much for the lean times of global war. But that type of world peace, Vladimir knew, was a threadbare tapestry—and one only needed to know which thread to pull to unravel it.
Vladimir checked his watch and noted the time and relaxed as best he could while being thrown around in his seat against the restraints. He had to gulp down the lump in his throat, again. While the MZKT-79221 was a marvel of Russian engineering it was also a testament to the Russians having little care for creature comforts. The ride was rough as hell and then some. There was no comfort to be had.
They didn’t need to be caught over the border by a spy satellite photo that could be embarrassing for the Kremlin, at least those were their standing orders. Kazakhstan was its own sovereign country with its own demarcated and established borders. But as far as the Russian government was concerned it was still a part of the empire that might have to be “reintegrated” back into the homeland someday and therefore the Russian president had told them to “push the boundaries to the edge of unclassified GLONASS positioning capabilities.” That was a farce, he knew. The Russian Global Navigation Satellite System was just as capable as anything the American Gobal Positioning System satellites could do. GLONASS could put the TEL within a meter of where it needed to be. But, diplomatically, one could always argue loss of satellite connectivity. They might get away with as much as a kilometer across the border—the key word being “might.”
As far as Vladimir was concerned there was little that would stop the Russian military in an all-out war, perhaps not even the Americans and CCP combined. But there was no chance the Chinese would align with the West. They’d damn near toppled them economically during the first pandemic invasion. No, there was little might that could stand against Mother Russia.
The RT-2PM2 Topol-M nuclear missile sitting behind him was a testament to his sentiment. The missile itself was a brilliant piece of Russian rocketry and the reentry vehicles and single warhead—treaty allowed them to carry only one—couldn’t be targeted by American antiballistic missile defense systems, at least not as far as any intelligence briefings had said. The Topol-M was state of the art more than a decade prior and was still unrivaled by any other nation and yet the Russian military had produced an even better one, the RS-28 Sarmat “heavy,” which had recently just replaced the R-36M the Americans called “Satan.” This new one was often referred to as the “Satan-2.” The fact that an ICBM more threatening to the Americans than “Satan” himself was being deployed excited him. Vladimir really hoped to get a close up look at one of them someday. Someday, soon.
But for now, the mobile TEL and the Topol-M were impressive enough. The ninety-foot-long hunter green diesel truck rolled and bounced unhindered by anything in its path. Directly behind them rolled the Launch and Mission Command Center vehicle. Several other vehicles also made up the convoy. The security detail vehicles behind, to the sides on each flank, and far out in front kept precise formation around the TEL and Command vehicles. The squad of Russian specialists and officers were well trained and patriotically driven to do their jobs as well as any soldiers on the planet.
Vladimir appreciated that and respected it. In decades past the TEL would have been housed in a special facility and only brought out during times of show or potential world crisis, but the last few years had brought back the Cold War style of preparedness. The missiles were moved about, some hidden, and some in plain sight, just to keep the Westerners on edge. At the moment they weren’t the only ones driving nuclear weapons about the Russian countryside and borders.
“Take it easy on the pedal, Pyotr.” Colonel Vladimir Lytokov looked at his young junior sergeant and smiled. “We are way ahead of schedule, comrade.”
“I would think such a decorated MiG pilot as yourself wouldn’t be so, uh, unsettled by a little truck ride, Colonel.” The junior sergeant smiled and goosed the throttle of the TEL purposefully. The noncommissioned members of the unit had likely heard of the drinking binge the officers had been at the night before.
“MiGs typically do not have six one-hundred-and-twenty-kiloton warheads strapped to them. And they ride much more smoothly.” He smiled sardonically.
“One. Colonel,” Pyotr replied.
“Begging your pardon, Junior Sergeant?”
“MiGs typically do not have one five-hundred-and-fifty-kiloton warhead strapped to them.” Pyotr flashed a smile at the colonel. “Treaty only allows for one warhead, sir.”
“You keep believing that, Pyotr. Of course, there is only one warhead on our missile back there. Just one.” Vladimir smiled back at either the naivete or excellent security training of the young soldier. Not only were there six warheads that would yield over one-hundred-and-twenty-kiloton explosions each as payload of the missile, Vladimir also knew that the missile was loaded with decoys, chaff, and radar flares. Indeed, their cargo was the full-up and ready-for-a-hot-war real deal. Whether NATO or the United Nations Security Council knew this was a whole other matter. And unless the Americans had invented some sort of magic, all the spy satellite photos were going to tell them was that the TEL was in the location as laid out by the treaties and that it was likely a standard Topol-M. The Americans called it an SS27. He had also heard it referred to as a “Sickle-B” in the counterintel briefings.
“Two minutes to GLONASS coordinates, Pyotr. You can slow down.” Vladimir double-checked the readout on the Russian Global Navigation Satellite System and compared it to the American satellite orbital tracking information. Both pieces of data were extremely classified yet the Russians and the Americans knew them whether they wanted to admit that or not.
“Standard approach and setup, Colonel?” the junior sergeant asked.
Vladimir held the armrest of his seat tightly and closed his eyes for the remaining two minutes of the drive. Once he felt the engine throttling down, he breathed a sigh of relief. The TEL rolled to a stop on nearly level ground by a small stream and an outcropping of pine trees nearly twenty meters tall. He rolled the window down and cautiously scanned the terrain and only briefly glanced down at their coordinates. They were right where they were supposed to be.
“This is good, Pyotr. Level the rig and lock it down. Have the convoy close in and I want all the troops outside their vehicles for the satellite images so they can get a full head count in the spy satellite images. We should all smile big for the Americans, yes?”
“Yes, Colonel.” Pyotr smiled in response. “You would think we would want our missile locations a secret from our enemy.”
“We must hide some of them in plain sight so they can count them. The treaties only allow so many. We must show them those are all that we have. It is a cautious balance of peace,” Vladimir explained. “Now get to work.”
“Yes, Colonel. But I still don’t think it makes any sense.” Pyotr shrugged as he moved to the back of the rig to start the leveling procedures as if they were actually going to launch the missile.
“Me either, my friend. The peaceful balance is just an appearance that keeps the world calm.” Vladimir knew that of course there were other missiles unaccounted for. After he’d left the test pilot program and became part of the Strategic Rocket Forces of the Russian Federation he had been briefed into the various strategies of the homeland’s nuclear arsenal. He was well versed in the details of those missiles that the world knew about—and those it didn’t. The garages that were built for the TELs were never empty even when “all” the TELs were deployed out in the open. “We must keep up appearances.”
The six other vehicles had closed in ranks and the men had filtered out of them, taking up casual positions about the missile TEL; several of them had lit cigarettes. Vladimir had decided to pull his thermos from within the vehicle and leaned on the back of the TEL beside Pyotr, having a cup of extremely black and bitter French roast coffee that had just a hint of vodka smell mixed in. He couldn’t remember if he’d held a bottle of Kahlua anywhere near the thermos or not, but it was as close a rendition to a hot “Black Russian” as he cared for.
“‘Hair of the dog,’ you Americans would say,” he whispered to himself as he toasted the sky with the thermos cup.
The availability of goods in the present, post-pandemic but pre-next-pandemic “world economy” at least still managed to have some positive benefits despite all the global supply chain issues. Coffee had never been in shortage that he knew of. The aroma, heat, and the bitterness on his tongue were enough of a sensation to bring his mind close to fully awake. There was just enough alcohol to calm his nerves. He wasn’t really a morning person and, after nearly thirty years in the military, he’d become dependent on coffee’s bitter pick-me-up to make it through them. He’d only recently added the vodka. In the earlier days, the blend was a very sad and strong version of coffee that was whatever the Russian economy allowed. The world had changed. It had only been the last few years where he had become a fan of the stronger French roast. The brand of vodka didn’t matter. As far as he was concerned, vodka was vodka. Cognac, on the other hand, well, that required more of a delicate choosing. But cognac wasn’t for hair of the dog; it was for more special occasions. He sipped the coffee as the countdown timer in the virtual view of his sunglasses continued toward zero.
“Everybody smile for the Americans,” Vladimir said as he held his cup upward again as if toasting the spy satellite. “What is it they say?”
“Cheese, Colonel.” Pyotr laughed with him. “They say ‘cheese.’”
“Ah, yes. Ha-ha. Say ‘cheese,’ my friends.” He let out a very fake laugh and acted as if he were looking at his wristwatch for the timing of the satellite flyover for his troops to see. The countdown timer in his virtual glasses continued to tick downward.
There would just be a couple of minutes longer until the American spy satellite pass was over. He lit himself a cigarette to pass the time and to go with the coffee mixture. They just might get him through the morning, he thought. The stopwatch timer on his wristwatch counted down from twenty seconds and then beeped the last three as he counted them. “…and three, two, one! We should be out of their prying view now. We can rest here for a few minutes and then prepare to move to the next location.”
Vladimir purposefully reset his wristwatch for all the team to see and then turned to the young junior sergeant as the countdown in his virtual glasses approached zero. He smiled at the man and gave him a nod. “Good job, Pyotr.”
“Thank you, Colonel, I, uh—” The Russian soldier stopped midsentence and looked at his chest as red flowed across the uniform; he slumped and fell forward to his knees into the colonel. The schzipp, schzipp of suppressed rifle fire continued. Three of the men to his right were hit in the head almost simultaneously by very-large-caliber rounds practically tearing out the backs of their skulls, flinging gray matter and bright red blood across the hunter green truck behind them.
“Fifty caliber—” One of the soldiers didn’t finish before being hit.
Vladimir dropped to the ground and crawled up underneath the truck as the previously silent sniper fire either became, or was supplemented with, automatic weapons fire. The clear sound of 5.56 by 45 millimeter rounds being fired from the distance was unmistakable. The pinging of rounds against the heavily armored TEL and flying rocks and dirt around them gave Vladimir the impression that there was little intention of the attackers to leave behind any survivors.
“NATO rounds, Colonel!” one of the soldiers said. “Americans here?”
“I doubt it.” Vladimir grunted while doing his best to crawl to cover as close to the truck as he could manage. “NATO, Russian, Chinese, doesn’t matter if it hits you! Get down!”
The remaining convoy soldiers took cover behind the vehicles and scrambled for their weapons. One of the men crawled beneath the vehicle adjacent to them and began returning fire rapidly. Vladimir worked his way to the opposite side of the TEL and knelt against the giant wheels in cover position. Two of the other soldiers dove in beside him.
“What is happening, Colonel?” one of them asked. Vladimir could see the man’s hands shaking so fast that he couldn’t hold his pistol.
“Clearly, we are under attack,” Vladimir said nonchalantly over the cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth. He took a last draw from it, tossed it aside, brought his pistol up to chamber a round, held it up and around the edge of the TEL’s rearmost wheel, and fired twice in the general direction of the incoming fire. Several rounds dug up the ground near him, startling him to the point that he lost his footing, his left bootlace entangled itself with some of the underbrush, and he fell over backward clumsily.
“Colonel! Are you hit?”
“No. Return fire, men!” he ordered as he regained his composure and scrambled for cover once more.
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