74

Above Central Iran
December 4—1014 Hours GMT+3:30

The ancient Russian helicopter felt like it was going to rattle apart as it skimmed across the top of the ridge. Smith gripped the rusted instrument panel as the ground fell away and Farrokh dove hard toward the valley below.

He hadn’t been given access to his phone or any other method of communication, and all questions — about the search for Omidi and the parasite, about where Peter Howell had disappeared to, about when the hell they were going to do something — had been politely deflected.

“There,” Farrokh shouted over the sound of the rotors. He pointed toward a group of fifty or so people who were still at the very edge of visibility, some in formations that were obviously military, others moving quickly over what may have been an obstacle course.

“Our newest training ground,” the Iranian explained, tracing a sweeping arc over the men and then setting down in the shadow of a towering cliff. “Before this, we were focused on purely peaceful protest techniques enhanced with technology. But the more successful we are, the more desperate and violent the government becomes.”

“So you’re developing a military arm?”

The Iranian shut down the engine and jumped out with Smith close behind. “It isn’t intended as an offensive force. I believe that if we’re patient, we can win without blood on our hands. Trying to depose the old men entrenched in our government would be a poor strategy.”

“Better to just wait for them to die and quietly replace them.”

“Just so,” Farrokh said. “Overt violence against the government would be a publicity disaster for us. I suspect it’s no different in the United States. No matter how despised the government, any attempt by a group to physically overthrow it would be wildly unpopular. On the other hand, having no capability to protect my followers seemed irresponsible.”

“Hope for the best but prepare for the worst,” Smith said. “It’s a policy that’s always worked for me.”

He shaded his eyes from the sun and watched two men fail to climb a ten-foot obstacle course wall, then scanned right to a line of prone men having mixed success shooting targets at fifty yards. An instructor paced impatiently behind them, occasionally stopping to adjust a poor position or give a piece of advice. His face was shaded by a broad straw hat, but the athletic grace and pent-up energy were unmistakable.

“Will you excuse me for a moment?” Farrokh said, breaking off and heading toward a knot of men studying something rolled out on a collapsible table.

Smith nodded and kept walking, cupping his hands around his mouth as he neared the range. “Peter!”

Howell turned and then barked something at the men on the ground. A moment later, they were running in formation toward a scaffold hung with climbing ropes.

“I was starting to worry about you, old boy,” he said, taking Smith’s hand and shaking it warmly.

“I could say the same. But you don’t look any worse for the wear.”

“A cot and three squares a day. What more can men like us ask for?”

It was an interesting philosophical question, but one better dealt with later. “What have we got?”

“Forty-eight men with a few months of combat training and nine army veterans, two of whom have a special forces background. They’re like me, though — a little long in the tooth.”

“What about the forty-eight? Can they fight?”

Howell frowned. “They’re dedicated and smart as hell. But I’ll bet at least half of them are carrying inhalers, if you take my meaning.”

“You go into battle with the army you have, not the army you wish you had.”

“Indeed. Just make sure you’re behind them when they start shooting.”

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