The gripping thriller by the author whose books have sold over three million copies.
A power-mad genius with the ultimate secret. Can anyone stop him?
Oliver Scott is the reclusive genius behind countless world-changing breakthroughs. But how does he innovate at such a furious pace? And while most hail him as a savior, what if he’s actually the most dangerous tyrant humanity has ever seen? A man who will stop at nothing to gain absolute power.
Liam Dunne is an elite American operative enhanced with next-level technology, including a prototype supercomputer implanted in his brain. When an encrypted data file is transmitted into this implant, Liam is thrust into a battle for the very soul of humanity. Because the file holds the key to unlocking the mystery of Oliver Scott—and stopping a nightmarish future.
As Liam and the woman he loves race to unravel the truth, they become the targets of a lethal manhunt initiated by the ruthless genius. If they can survive long enough to access the enigmatic file, they can lift humanity to unimaginable heights.
But they’re facing impossible odds. And time is running out . . .
The Breakthrough Effect is a propulsive, action-packed thriller with big ideas, mind-blowing technologies, and twists and turns you won’t see coming. The novel explores such profound concepts as immortality, supercomputer implants, whole brain emulation, and virtual reality, along with nothing less than the nature of the universe—and the meaning of existence.
"Richards is an extraordinary writer," (Dean Koontz) who can "keep you turning the pages all night long." (Douglas Preston)
"Richards is a worthy successor to Michael Crichton." (SF Book dot com)
You can write to "Doug" at [email protected], and he will always respond.
Release date: September 14, 2023
Publisher: Paragon Press
Print pages: 420
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
The Breakthrough Effect: A Science-Fiction Thriller
Douglas E. Richards
Eric Raymond’s eyes fluttered open just a sliver before he slammed them shut again. The light beyond his closed eyelids was bright enough to make the surface of the sun seem pale. He groaned in agony, which only served to make the daggers of pain that much worse.
How was worse even possible?
Where was he? And which parts of his body were responsible for torching so many of his pain receptors? Had he been stuffed inside an industrial-sized clothes dryer filled with knives and hammers while someone dialed it up to maximum spin? It sure felt that way.
He realized he was hungover in addition to his injuries. Severely hungover. Which explained his hypersensitivity to light and sound, and why he didn’t remember the night before.
He’d been too busy killing brain cells.
And judging from numerous cuts on his legs and torso now held together with stitches, he’d been too busy wrestling giant cacti, or doing something equally stupid.
He was lying on a mattress that wasn’t his own. Time to find out where he was.
He opened his eyes all the way and thought his head might explode as he adjusted to the light. Finally, after what seemed like forever, his surroundings swam into focus.
He was on his back in a small hospital room wearing a thin, blue cotton gown, and his left hand was cuffed to a steel railing. IVs were plugged into several veins, delivering much-needed hydration and blood. A gray sticker on the infusion pump read property of Dayton Memorial Hospital. It was the nearest hospital to his rundown apartment, and one with which he had become all too familiar, even at the tender age of twenty-four.
A slender young nurse was standing over him—her nametag indicating she was Irina Jordan—and she greeted his awakening with a look of concern. “Welcome back,” she said softly. “How’s the pain?”
“Excruciating,” he croaked out. “Run out of pain meds?”
Irina winced. “Sorry about that. We like to start with the minimum possible and see where we’re at.”
“Need to go way higher,” said Eric, his voice still weak. “Not that I don’t deserve it,” he added, forcing the hint of a smile, trying not to take his own issues out on the well-meaning nurse.
Irina found a syringe, plunged it into a bottle, and injected the liquid into his IV line. “This will take the edge off very quickly,” she said.
Eric was about to respond when he noticed a tall man looming behind the attractive young nurse. He had been standing there the entire time, observing. The man was casually dressed, but he gave off an unmistakable air of command and competence. Everything about him said he was an alpha male, including his granite physique.
“Thank you, Irina,” said the man, holding a slim tablet computer down by his side. Since he wasn’t in a position to see the nurse’s nametag, Eric assumed they had interacted previously. “Please uncuff him and leave us alone. I’ll make sure he doesn’t hurt himself.”
The visitor approached the bed and shook his head with just the hint of a smile. “Well, doesn’t hurt himself further,” he added.
The nurse did as instructed and then left, closing the door behind her. Once she was gone, the visitor returned his gaze to Eric Raymond.
“So what did I do this time?” asked the patient.
“You don’t remember?”
Eric shook his head. The pain was still there but had already subsided considerably. No wonder pain meds were so damn addictive.
“My name is Phil Thomison,” said the visitor in a deep, soothing tone. “Colonel Phil Thomison.”
Eric tried to whistle, but his lips were swollen, and he didn’t even come close. “So why’s a colonel making house calls? Or hospital calls, anyway?”
“I’m on a recruiting trip.”
Eric rolled his eyes, one of the few parts of his body he could still move. “No, really,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
“You’re too sharp not to believe me.”
“Also too sharp to believe the timing of your recruiting trip is coincidental. You wanted to wait until I was on my back before you pitched me, didn’t you?”
Thomison nodded. “I’ve had my eye on you for a while. Figured it was only a matter of time before you ended up here.”
“And that I’d be more receptive to your pitch when I hit rock bottom?”
The colonel studied the young man in the hospital bed for several long seconds. “That’s right.”
“Please tell me you aren’t looking for a ringer for the military’s flag football team.”
The colonel lowered his eyes and sighed. “Look, Eric. It goes without saying that I couldn’t be sorrier for what you’ve been through. Going from the ultimate high to the ultimate low can break any man.”
Eric’s eyes moistened. From rarified heights to the depths of hell in the blink of an eye. How many times had he let the weight of this fall crush his spirit? How many times had he lost himself in a bottle to drown the pain?
Eric Raymond’s father had been a fire chief in Dayton, Ohio. When Eric was two, his father had been killed in the line of duty, rescuing more than ninety grade-schoolers who had been trapped inside a burning auditorium. He had been crippled by a falling wooden beam and then burned alive—the last soul to leave the building and thus the only fatality.
With Eric’s dad gone, his mother had suffered anxiety attacks and depression, and had trouble holding down a job.
Still, despite their tragedy and her own struggles, she was a wonderful, loving mother. And as Eric grew, it quickly became apparent that he was gifted. The universe had tried to compensate for the injustice of taking his father by making him one of the luckiest people on the planet—on any number of dimensions. His brilliance and charisma were only exceeded by his athleticism, and he dazzled on the soccer field, the basketball court, the track, and the gridiron.
At the age of eleven he vowed to devote himself with all his heart and soul to the task of becoming a professional athlete, so he could support his mother in style, give her the life he dreamed of being able to give her.
He went about this with a singlemindedness of purpose that was truly extraordinary. He cross-trained with a religious fervor, playing multiple sports until he was fourteen, along with mastering ballet and earning black belts in several martial arts, ensuring his agility, balance, and discipline were as extraordinary as his strength and natural athleticism.
By the time he was fifteen, Eric Raymond had singled out football as the sport he would pursue. He was well on the way to his final height of six foot two and was already commanding national attention as a quarterback. He soon led his high school team to two consecutive state titles, despite his supporting cast being wholly unimpressive.
He had speed, toughness, athleticism, decisiveness, and an arm like a cannon. Not to mention a gift for memorizing playbooks and reading opposing defenses as though he had been in the huddle with them.
Considered the number one prospect in the nation when he graduated, he was relentlessly courted by every major college program in America, but the Ohio State Buckeyes had the inside track, given he had been a lifelong Ohio resident and fan. He started as a true freshman, easily beating out two other highly recruited quarterbacks to win the job.
Before he was nineteen, Eric Raymond had it all. Popularity, fame, superhuman athleticism, fawning co-eds eager to sleep with him, and the adoration of over half a million OSU alumni. Not to mention a Heisman Trophy in his sights, and a future that seemed certain to bring him a net worth of over a hundred million dollars before he was thirty.
But just after turning twenty, everything changed. Fate had decided to rebalance the scales yet again, doing so with a speed and cruelty that was truly profound.
Early in Eric’s junior year a burly lineman had launched himself at him like a three-hundred-pound torpedo, his helmet driving into Eric’s throwing elbow and tearing his ulnar collateral ligament to shreds, instantly ending his season. And while what had become known as Tommy John Surgery usually restored an athlete to top form within nine months, on rare occasions, when nerve and blood vessel damage occurred, numbness and weakness became permanent. Eric eventually regained the use of his right arm, but his freak ability to rocket a football downfield was forever lost—as was the future he had been driving toward for most of his life.
Still, as devastating as this setback was, his mind was every bit as special as his throwing arm had once been, and he vowed to regroup and find another path.
That was when his mom was killed in another freak accident. In a random drive-by shooting, by a stray bullet meant for a drug dealer who had been caught stealing from the wrong gang.
The loss of his mom was the straw that had broken Eric’s back, and he quickly spun out of control. He dropped out of school and did little more than play video games, drinking his way into oblivion. He quickly fell off the national radar, a barely remembered tragic figure, an athlete with unlimited potential, who had been respected and admired on and off the field, but whose elbow—and mother—had been at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Prior to these devastating events, Eric had been down-to-earth and thoughtful by nature, despite his growing stature. He had visited sick kids in Columbus Children’s Hospital on multiple occasions while playing at OSU, and he lent his time and fame to the community in other ways. He had treated his body like a temple, never indulging in alcohol or drugs, or even caffeine.
But he soon learned that misery and alcohol in combination could trigger his inner demons. He got into brawls on several occasions and avoided jail only because Ohio judges knew his tragic tale and repeatedly gave him every benefit of the doubt.
But Phil Thomison was right. Eric had fallen from the ultimate heights and had shattered, like a skydiver with a failed chute crashing into concrete. The cruelty of having the dreams he had pursued so relentlessly stripped from him, just when he could all but touch them, and losing his mother, both in quick succession, had destroyed him like nothing else could.
Eric Raymond broke from his reverie and turned his attention back to the looming colonel. “So you’re sorry about my, ah . . . misfortune,” he said. “But that isn’t stopping you from trying to take advantage of it. From trying to recruit me, for some bizarre reason.”
Thomison didn’t reply.
“Well, you can save your breath. Get out of here. Let me enjoy my morphine-induced serenity in peace. My answer is a firm no.”
“You haven’t heard the question.”
“I don’t need to. I’m not joining the military. And why you’ve made a recruiting house call is beyond me. Are you a lifelong fan of the Buckeyes? Is that it?”
“Oklahoma Sooners, I’m afraid. Although, I have to admit, the Buckeyes usually field the better team.”
“Good talk,” said Eric. “Now leave me alone. You can call in nurse Irina now to cuff me to the bed.”
His swollen lips slowly turned up into a wry smile. “Which, sadly,” he added, “won’t be as fun as it sounds.”
“You don’t remember anything about what happened last night?”
Eric shook his head no.
“The thug who killed your mom is in jail, but it seems you wanted to send other members of his gang to the grave—and join them yourself.”
Eric’s face remained blank. Not even the hint of a memory had survived the alcohol onslaught.
“You ran into eight members of the Dayton View Hustlers near a bar you were at,” continued Thomison. “Some people commit suicide by cop. You tried suicide by gang. Your martial arts training allowed you to get in some good licks, as drunk as you were, but you failed to kill any of them—or yourself.
“They did beat you silly and leave you for dead, but you have quite the resilience. Quite the unconquerable will to survive, even in your darkest hour. You have four broken ribs, multiple lacerations, and every inch of your body has been . . . tenderized. But you got lucky.”
“Not if my goal was suicide, I didn’t.”
“Here’s the thing,” continued the colonel as if Eric hadn’t spoken. “There were multiple witnesses, and some took videos with their phones. You started the fight. You drew first blood. It was unmistakable. By rights, you should have been thrown in jail months ago for previous offenses. And while I won’t pretend these guys didn’t deserve every bit of what you gave them—and more—nothing can keep you out of jail this time.”
Eric sighed. “Why didn’t these assholes finish me off?”
“Only because of the witnesses I just mentioned. Beating you in self-defense is one thing. Killing you when you’re already unconscious is quite another.”
“You said nothing can keep me out of jail. What you meant is nothing can keep me out of jail—except you.”
“Well, you can take your get out of jail free card and shove it up your ass. I’ll likely get a light sentence. I’ll serve my time and get on with my life. Or find a way to end it. I brought this on myself, and I’ll suffer the consequences. So I’ll say it again, please leave me the hell alone. You don’t want me to have to scream for nurse Irina, do you?”
The colonel blew out a long breath. “I was here for about an hour before you awoke. And as I was studying your file and gazing upon a beaten, wayward soul with staggering potential, I was struck by the uncanny similarities between you and the young James T. Kirk. From the reboot movie.”
Eric made a face. “The psych ward is on another floor, Colonel.”
Thomison laughed. “Very good. I deserved that. But let me elaborate. The movie hit theaters in 2009, when you were only five. I take it you’ve never streamed it.”
“Then you missed out. Not only did you remind me of that Kirk when I got here, but I realized I was about to recreate my favorite scene from the movie. So I’ll make you a deal. I’m convinced you can make a mark. One more profound than you can imagine right now. Be a bigger hero even than your father. You were destined for greatness, and that got derailed. But you can still arrive there by a different route. So watch about ten minutes of the movie. The opening scene and then a scene a little later. If you do that, and still want me gone, you’ll never see me again.”
“You’re kidding, right? What, will I be hypnotized?”
“No. But I think you’ll be moved. It’s a reboot, so the timeline differs from the original, while keeping key elements. In this version, James T. Kirk is about to be born on the starship Kelvin while his father is the first officer. That’s when an unstoppable Romulan ship from the future travels back through time and alters the timeline forever.”
The colonel paused. “Watch ten minutes. That’s all I ask.”
Eric thought about this for a moment and sighed. “It won’t help,” he said. “But anything to get you out of here.”
“Thank you,” said Thomison, holding up his tablet computer so it faced Eric, since the patient could barely move. He brought up the movie in question and hit play.
The movie opened as the starship Kelvin was investigating a lightning storm in space. Suddenly, a massive Romulan ship emerged through the storm, dwarfing the Kelvin, looking like a swimming squid trailing a cylindrical cone of spiked steel tentacles behind it. The Romulans quickly proved the superiority of their ship, interrogated and killed the Kelvin’s captain, and then began an unstoppable attack.
Kirk’s father, now the captain after a battlefield promotion, ordered all hands, including his pregnant wife, to abandon ship. He then sacrificed his own life in a kamikaze move, making sure the crew got away by using the Kelvin as a battering ram against the superior vessel. The scene ended with the Kelvin exploding while a multitude of escape pods inched their way through space to safety.
Eric was spellbound despite himself, strangely riveted to the screen as the tense and poignant scene unfolded. It was quite the compelling opening, even with 2009 special effects.
Colonel Thomison quickly fast forwarded to a scene that played out in a bar on Earth, where a young Jim Kirk, a miscreant and troubled townie who was going nowhere in life, had picked a fight with countless Starfleet cadets and was getting pulverized. The fight was interrupted by Christopher Pike, the captain of the visiting starship Enterprise, who entered the bar to intervene and sent the cadets packing.
With the bar cleared out, Pike sat across from a drunk and battered Kirk, whose face was covered in his own blood, but who still hadn’t stopped drinking.
Eric had to admit there might be some real-world similarities between himself and this character.
The scene continued with Captain Pike explaining to Kirk how astonished he was to learn his identity, since Pike had done a dissertation on the Kelvin and Kirk’s father.
“Why are you talking to me, man?” said Kirk on the tablet computer, slurring his words.
“Because I looked up your file while you were drooling on the floor,” replied the charismatic captain. “Your aptitude tests are off the charts. So what is it? You like being the only genius-level repeat offender in the Midwest?”
“Maybe I love it,” replied Kirk, sounding like a drunken idiot.
Pike was undeterred. “So your dad dies,” he said. “You can settle for a less-than-ordinary life. Or do you feel like you were meant for something better? Something special?”
There was a long pause.
“Enlist in Starfleet,” finished Pike.
On the tablet screen, a bloody Kirk snorted derisively, making a show of laughing at the very thought. “Enlist?” he repeated drunkenly, in disbelief. “You must be way down in your recruiting quota for the month.”
“If you’re half the man your father was, James, Starfleet could use you. You can be an officer in four years. You can have your own ship in eight.”
Pike paused, realizing he wasn’t getting through. “You understand what the Federation is, don’t you?” he continued. “It’s important. It’s a peacekeeping and humanitarian armada.”
“Are we done?” said Kirk.
“I’m done,” said Pike calmly. Then rising from his chair, he added, “Riverside Shipyard. Shuttle for new recruits leaves tomorrow at oh eight hundred.”
Kirk’s expression made his continued contempt abundantly clear.
Pike remained unperturbed. His steely gaze held steady on the drunk and bloody miscreant. “Your father was the captain of a starship for twelve minutes,” he said with immense gravity. “He saved eight hundred lives. Including your mother’s—and yours.”
He paused to let this sink in. “I dare you to do better,” he finished.
With that, Colonel Thomison halted the movie playback and returned the tablet computer to his side as silence engulfed the room. Eric was dismayed to find a tear had formed in the corner of his right eye. The scene was truly powerful, even if the parallels between himself and the young Jim Kirk hadn’t been so eerily obvious.
But they were. Like the Kirk in this movie, Eric’s father had died saving lives. Had sacrificed himself so that others might live. Like Kirk, Eric’s aptitudes were off the charts. And like Kirk, Eric had become a waste of life, spiraling downward, refusing to use his gifts as he wallowed in misery.
The silence lasted for what seemed like forever. Finally, Eric nodded. “Well played, Colonel. You’re more clever than I gave you credit for. So give me your pitch. I’ll at least hear you out.”
The colonel didn’t delay a moment, taking no chance Eric might change his mind. “Have you ever heard of something called Enhanced Human Operations?”
“Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“It’s an ultra-elite group of American special operators who are enhanced using genetic engineering and breakthrough tech coming out of black-budget labs. At a cost of millions of dollars per operative. The program began eighteen years ago, in 2010, and the Obama Pentagon basically admitted it existed in 2015.”
“Why would they do that?”
“They didn’t have much choice. It was becoming clear China and others were investing heavily in such super-soldier programs. And these countries weren’t trying to keep it secret. Which spooked a lot of people. So the disclosure was an attempt to calm nerves. The Pentagon claimed to hate the idea ethically, but insisted our hand was being forced.”
“Okay, so it was disclosed in 2015. So why isn’t it common knowledge? Seems like it should have dominated the news.”
“Great question,” replied the colonel. “I have no idea. The government has long since stopped bringing it up, and with nothing to fuel the fire, most people think super-soldier programs are purely science fiction. You’d think journalists would demand answers. Would sue for information and not stop until they got it. But most in this so-called profession have been strangely uncurious for many decades now.”
“I guess the why of it doesn’t really matter,” said Eric. “For the sake of our discussion, what matters is that for some reason, you want me for this program.”
“Ultimately, yes. If you agree, you’d be earmarked for it. But you’d have to qualify, and doing so would make getting into the NFL seem easy. To say it will be brutally difficult is an understatement.”
“So why would I take this on?”
“To give yourself purpose again, a goal, which you sorely need. To challenge yourself against the best in the world to become truly elite. To live a life that’s both exciting and deeply meaningful. To use your once-in-a-generation talents to make a difference.
“And you won’t be doing it for money, or fame, or glory. You’ll be doing it to become more formidable than anyone who ever lived. To be part of a force dedicated to service and the safety of all humanity. To save countless lives. Possibly even entire nations.”
A wry smile came over Eric’s battered face. “Right,” he said in amusement. “A peacekeeping and humanitarian armada. Can I captain a starship in eight years?”
Thomison laughed. “If I had any starships handy, I’d say yes.”
“So just how brutal is the training?”
“Brutal enough to make what the Navy SEALs go through seem like a stroll in the park. Rigorous unlike anything you’ve ever been through, including elite-level football, both physically and mentally. You’ll be schooled in every branch of science and technology. In weapons and warfare. In spytech and spy methods. You’ll need to be able to survive in any environment and operate seamlessly behind enemy lines. And so on.”
The colonel paused for this to sink in. “But surviving the training with high marks won’t get you into EHO. Before that happens, you’ll have to prove yourself in the field. Physical prowess and extraordinary endurance is a given. But you’ll also have to show you’re intuitive, decisive, courageous, smooth, resourceful—in short, unstoppable. And it won’t just be your effectiveness on trial, but your moral character.”
Eric considered. “You know I have a bad right arm, right?”
“Your right arm works just fine for a mere mortal. It isn’t the freakishly capable weapon that would have put you in the NFL, but it won’t hamper you, either. If you’re going to endanger your life, don’t do it by fighting in a drunken haze against street thugs. Do it stone-cold sober, a superman among men, to protect all of humanity.”
Eric’s eyes bored deep into the colonel’s for almost five seconds, taking his measure. “Why me?” he said at last.
“You’re too smart not to know the answer. Which is one of the many reasons we want you. You’re the only genius-level repeat offender in the Midwest, after all—at least until Kirk comes along in a few hundred years. You’re a world-class athlete who is already expert in multiple forms of martial arts. You’re someone who has shown a superhuman level of dedication and discipline. Until your life was destroyed, you were widely known to have a strong moral center and an impressive character.”
“I appreciate the superlatives, Colonel, I really do. But no one would put themselves through the wringer you just described unless they were out of their fricking minds.”
“You’re right. But to have a major impact on the course of human history, you have to be slightly out of your mind.”
A sly smile came over the colonel’s face, and he raised his eyebrows. “The question isn’t whether you’re crazy, Eric. The question is whether you’re crazy enough.”
The patient smiled despite himself. “Just for the sake of argument, say I agreed. There are likely to be a smattering of people out there who would recognize me, even many years from now. I’m guessing that would be a problem.”
Thomison grinned from ear to ear. “See, thinking like an operative already. Yes, even though you didn’t get NFL exposure, there will be people who will remember the great OSU quarterback.
“But we can fix that. You sported a brown beard and mustache while you were playing. As an operative, you’d be clean-cut, with your hair dyed black. And we’d plan to kill off Eric Raymond fairly soon. Fake the death you’re heading toward if you refuse my offer. So anyone who thinks you’re Eric Raymond will know they’re mistaken, since this promising young man is no longer among the living. We’ll change you up a few other subtle ways as well. And we’ll change your name, creating fake records and an internet footprint that will hold up to scrutiny.”
“You’ve really thought this through.”
“I have. I even have your new name picked out.”
“I’ll bite. What is it?”
Eric snorted. “Liam? You know I’m not Irish, right? Is there anything about me that says Liam? I hate it. I may not sign up for your program, but if I do, Liam Dunne is out of the question. It’s an absolute deal breaker.”
“Of course,” said the colonel innocently. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Thirteen Years Later
Major Liam Dunne neared the top of a grassy hill and stopped crawling to take a short break.
“Hey . . . One,” he broadcast telepathically to his personal AI assistant, housed in a tiny but immensely powerful optical supercomputer implanted in his brain, “are you there?”
“I’m here,” replied One telepathically, sending electrical impulses to the auditory center of Liam’s brain in such a way that he interpreted the voice as male.
Liam rolled his eyes. Just once he’d love to engage in more human-like banter with his able assistant. Just once he wished the AI would give him the flippant reply such a question deserved, like “I’m trapped in your thick skull, Liam, so where else would I be?”
But of course not. It was programmed to take every question with grave seriousness.
Liam had been there for the birth of this tech, had been the primary beta tester, in fact, and had pushed to have a sense of humor programmed into One and the thirty-six other AIs that were soon installed in his fellow EHO agents. But the pleas of Liam and the remarkable woman who had created the tech had fallen on deaf ears.
He had recently pleaded again for a humor module, but General Phil Thomison, five years from retirement, stubbornly refused. The tech had long been there to make this happen, but the general continued to insist the AIs remain all business to avoid the misunderstandings and lack of precise communication a humor module might inadvertently introduce.
Which was a shame, because humor was all that kept Liam sane. This was even more the case after he had agreed to let Thomison fake his death and had embarked on a course that put his life in jeopardy on a regular basis.
The more dangerous the mission, the more his mind defaulted to humor, his coping mechanism to deal with the extraordinary stresses of the job. He had ultimately allowed himself to be born again under the name Liam Dunne, but only because he saw the potential for humor there.
Dunne was a homophone for Done, after all. So why not steer into it? If a hostile ever said, “Are you done?” he could reply, “Of course I’m Dunne. Liam Dunne.” When he forged an agreement, he could say it was a Dunne Deal.
It turned out that even though he could say such things, he never did. But at least he often amused himself in his own head. Actually uttering such inanities out loud would lessen the air of bad-assery he needed to project.
Ultimately, the man born as Eric Raymond had allowed himself only one inside joke when it came to his new name, and only after he had been calling himself Liam Dunne for many years. It was a running joke that occurred to him when contemplating what to call his brand-new AI, and he couldn’t resist it.
After naming his AI One, he had carefully explained that they were now a team.
They were One and Dunne.
The AI had failed to see the humor, of course. Oh well, if his AI wouldn’t banter with him, he’d just have to continue bantering with himself. Why not? He firmly believed in the sentiment of the famous poem. Roses are red. Violets are blue. I’m schizophrenic. And so am I.
Liam sighed and returned his full attention to the Iowa countryside he now found himself in. “Any indication I’ve been detected?” he asked the AI.
“None. Multiple sensors and drones have scanned you. But I was able to successfully modify the signal they received in each case so you appear to be a whitetail doe.”
Liam grinned. “Doe?” he whispered aloud. “A deer? A female deer?”
“That is correct,” replied One, playing the straight man, as always.
“Good work,” replied Liam telepathically, a smile still on his face. The AI might not have a sense of humor, but his electronic companion was absolutely indispensable.
He crawled on his stomach until he crested the small hill he was on, peering over it at the great beyond. He had left his vehicle behind—for now—so he could do a visual reconnaissance before his op began. It was less than two hours before nightfall, plenty of time to ready himself. He was dressed all in brown, in the uniform of a UPS driver, and he would return to his mock UPS delivery truck momentarily.
His plan didn’t call for him to pretend to be a delivery driver, but it was always best to have a cover in case he was seen by a civilian.
Under his UPS uniform, hugging every inch of his body from neck to toe, was a thin, lightweight jumpsuit of breakthrough body armor composed entirely of carbyne nanomesh material. This fabric cost orders of magnitude more than its weight in diamonds, but miraculously hardened when hit with fast-moving matter, and could absorb and dissipate the force of high velocity ammo in a way that was truly miraculous.
Once festivities began, he would don his combat vest, containing numerous pockets bulging with all sorts of lethal goodies, slip a carbyne nanomesh ski mask over his face, and he’d be nearly invulnerable.
With nearly being the operative word.
He ordered One to magnify his smart contact lenses twenty-fold as he surveyed what was purported to be a corn farm, complete with processing and packaging plants. At the same time, he had the AI project tiny 3D holographic images of the farm through his lenses, taken from a spy drone four miles overhead. The images were invisible to anyone but Liam and seemed to hang in midair about a foot from his eyes.
The compound he was surveilling covered almost ten thousand acres, although, since corn wasn’t planted until the end of April, the land was now barren and would remain so for a few weeks longer. The farm had been purchased by Chinese interests just eight months earlier. Like many purchases, the company doing the acquiring was simply a convenient front for the Chinese Communist Party and the dictators in charge.
The compound was bound by woods all around, and an innocent-looking chain-link fence, although no one could get anywhere near it without being politely escorted away. If a party persisted and tried to breach, well-concealed guards and automatic armaments would make short work of them.
Seven buildings, which had been part of the purchase, were clustered in tight formation near the center of the compound, but these would end up being the tip of a subterranean iceberg. Extensive facilities, barracks, and VIP quarters would be buried underground. At the moment, the site was manned by a skeleton crew until this construction was completed.
Iowa was the largest producer of corn in the US, at almost three billion bushels annually, and the compound Liam faced was one of thousands of Chinese-owned farms in America as they continued buying up US land at a furious pace.
Only this parcel of land was no longer just a farm. Instead, it was being transformed into what was basically a mini Chinese military base in the heart of America. A dire threat Liam himself was responsible for uncovering.
Less than a year earlier, Ostech, which stood for Oliver Scott Technologies, had come out with yet another breakthrough invention, a fully automated machine capable of boring tunnels at over half a mile per day, more than a hundred times faster than anything previously available. The machine used a dense array of plasma torches, burning at seventy thousand degrees Fahrenheit, to vaporize rock like it wasn’t even there, and had aptly been named the “Plasma Torch Seventy Thousand,” or PT-70K.
Liam reasoned this new tech made excavations so quick and easy the Chinese wouldn’t be able to resist using it to build extensive subterranean bases around the world. On a hunch, he spent three weeks tracing a stolen shipment of forty-two such machines. After a heroic effort akin to finding a pea hidden under a million shells, he traced the missing excavators to Iowa. All of them. They had arrived just twelve days earlier.
Based on intel Liam had been able to gather on the site from a Chinese mole—once Liam knew where to point him—he learned that the base would be buried underground. Over a hundred miles of drivable tunnels would radiate out from its center, leading to dozens of concealed exits.
Such a system would allow undetectable movement of massive amounts of equipment and personnel in and out. The base would support Chinese intelligence operations and operatives throughout the US.
The boldness of the Chinese government was off the charts. The CCP was totalitarian and made no bones about its plans to dominate the globe—but it also had balls the size of, well . . . China.
Liam decided he had seen enough and began crawling back down the hill, preparing for a three-mile hike back to his fake UPS delivery vehicle.
“You’re still monitoring base communications, right?” he asked the AI.
Liam had shot a tiny, Wi-Fi-enabled AI chip, housed inside a hollow bullet, into the center of the compound five nights earlier, one that had cost over two million dollars to create. The bullet AI had been working around the clock to hack the compound’s exceedingly sophisticated computer system, succeeding just the day before. It had then created a backdoor for One, who was now able to both listen in on the hostiles’ comm systems and also actively transmit—and hopefully a lot more.
“And you still haven’t detected a single communication from a colonel named Yang Yi?”
“I would have told you if I had.”
Liam frowned. The intel he’d personally uncovered indicated Yang was the base commander. “Keep monitoring,” he ordered unnecessarily. Liam had given the AI strict instructions to record any communications from Yang and be ready to impersonate him.
“What about intercepting the feeds from their on-site surveillance cameras?” asked Liam.
“I’m making good progress. I believe I’ll gain access within the next ten minutes.”
“Any luck burrowing further into their computer’s security module?”
“I’m afraid not,” replied One. “I’ll be able to stop their automated security from operating, including their drones. But only for a short time. And I won’t be able to turn their own systems against them as you had hoped.”
“Also, these systems tend to change passwords and entry configurations quite frequently, so I could be locked out at any moment, losing my ability to block their defenses entirely.”
Liam swallowed hard. “Well, that would make this a wee bit more challenging, wouldn’t it?”
“I estimate it would make this considerably more challenging,” corrected the AI helpfully. “But even best case, their AI should be able to regain control within twelve minutes of the attack.”
Liam nodded. That should give him plenty of time, but it was always good to be on the safe side. “I need you to do everything you can to delay that from happening,” he broadcast. “If any One can do it . . . you can,” he added with a grin. “You’re truly the One for the job.”
Why did these stupid jokes keep entering his head? He must be more stressed than he thought. “Focus everything you can on it.”
“Roger that,” replied the AI.
“Have you and the recon drone managed to get an exact count of personnel on-site?”
“Negative. Most are working underground. Best estimate is between forty-nine and ninety-eight.”
“Way to narrow it down,” broadcast Liam wryly.
“Thank you,” replied One. “I should add that an extremely high percentage of their personnel are likely to be heavily armed and well-trained commandos.”
Liam rolled his eyes. “Thanks,” he broadcast back. “That’s very comforting.”
“I’m happy to help,” replied One without a hint of sarcasm.
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