Today marks the publication date of Marc Guggenheim’s thriller, Overwatch. Equal parts legal suspense and espionage thriller, Overwatch follows CIA lawyer Alex Garnett as he unravels a worldwide conspiracy, a hazardous path that leads him directly to his own superiors within the intelligence community. Below, read the harrowing opening, which takes place in an Iranian hospital—across the world, but only one button away, from Washington, DC.
OVER YAZD, IRAN
2330 HRS. ZULU
The desert sand stirs for a moment before coiling up like smoke in the direction of the blowback created by the Sikorsky MH-53J’s titanium-and-steel rotor blades. The Sikorsky sails just a few feet above the sand dunes, flying low to avoid radar detection. In whisper mode, the helicopter makes a sound more evocative of a golf-course sprinkler than a 38,238-pound troop carrier. Inside, the men of the 21st Dust Devils Special Operations Squadron of the 352nd Special Operations Group wait without a word of chatter passing between them. This silence, however, is not tactically mandated. This silence is a function of the fucking heat. On a night like this, the stale, hot desert air can push the mercury well over one hundred degrees, which is uncomfortable, at best, when one is completely naked but almost intolerable when wearing thirty pounds of ordnance and Kevlar. Even with years of training, these soldiers have to concentrate simply to keep from passing out. That kind of effort takes focus that’s best not wasted on talking.
Not that the Dust Devils have much to talk about in any case. The pre-op briefing they received in Iskenderun has been repeated and reviewed so many times, the mission objectives are as familiar to them as their home phone numbers. These objectives were applied to the general insertion-and-extraction scenario the men have drilled on so often that muscle memory will do more than half the work for them. So long as the hostages are where the intel indicates they are, the Dust Devils think, this op will not be unlike going to the grocery store to extract a quart of milk, a confidence shared by every man in the unit, even the more historically fluent who recall Captain Edward A. Murphy’s famous remark “If anything can go wrong, it will.”
But then, Captain Murphy was air force, not Special Forces.
The Sikorsky’s two rear wheel sets kiss the roof of Ardakan Charity Hospital. A falling leaf makes more noise. Less than two seconds later, five pairs of boots spill out. In one fluid move, Sergeant First Class Robert Gundy takes the point as his men fall into a standard two-by-two cover formation behind him. The deployment is only slightly more coordinated than a ballet you might see on any given night at Lincoln Center.
Gundy shoots a look to his right to find that the roof-access door is precisely where the briefing given by his CO said it would be. With a sharp jab of his finger, he gives Sergeant Bellamy the signal to unlock the door, which Bellamy does with practiced efficiency and the aid of a hydrosulfuric acid mixture that bubbles and hisses through the lock like a destructive Alka-Seltzer. After a few seconds of chemical activity, Bellamy pops the lock as easily as if he were walking down a flight of stairs.
The Dust Devils navigate the utility stairwell, taking the steps two at a time, and arrive at their designated floor. Gundy places a gloved hand on the bar that their briefing indicated would open the door into the intensive care unit, the lone barrier now separating him and his men from the rest of a hospital staffed and occupied mostly by civilians. He hopes he won’t have to kill any of them but knows that such hope is futile. The thought gives him pause for maybe half a second.
Gundy pushes the door open to reveal the ICU. The room is both dark and quiet, two things no hospital anywhere in the world is. Shit’s wrong, Gundy thinks. Too damn quiet for a hospital. A hospital in the States, at least, he corrects himself. No electricity’s just SOP for a BFC like Iran. “Standard operating procedure” for a “backward fucking country.” He gives the signal for the men to don their AN/PVS-22 Night Vision goggles.
Gundy taps a button and the view through his goggles shifts from murky blackness to the ethereal green light of infrared. Activating the infrared also toggles the settings on the mini-cam mounted to each man’s helmet, so the video feeds transmitted via WiFi back to the Sikorsky are simultaneously shifted to Night Vision. The Sikorsky, in turn, uploads the data—after encrypting it—to a KH-11 satellite flying in geosynchronous orbit directly overhead. It takes approximately 1.68 seconds for the bird to decode, re-encrypt, and relay the video back to Earth, where the data stream can be unencrypted yet again and displayed on an LCD flat-screen. “As good as the feed is, it’s not much good,” a professorial-looking Paul Langford mutters, scrutinizing the video.
Behind Langford, the Operations Center is abuzz with focused activity. A cadre of a dozen men, all wearing nondescript business suits, dutifully attend to their jobs at workstations consisting of computer displays, ebony keyboards, and touchpad interfaces. There is no reason other than personal habit that Langford is peering at the LCD monitor. The same footage plays on a matrix of flat-screens arrayed on the op-center wall, almost as large as a movie screen. With the overhead fluorescents dimmed, the green-tinted night-vision imagery provides most of the lighting in the room, casting the entire space in a ghostly emerald hue.
Watching the images come in from Gundy’s helmet cam, Langford takes all of eight seconds to verbalize his misgivings, which he does in three syllables: “Call it off.”
“Misplaced your balls, Paul?” William Rykman, a taciturn man five years Langford’s senior, says. He has a military bearing to go with his thick, marine-like physique. A Brillo pad of hair tops a severely angular face that frames eyes as cold as a New England winter. He’s got a knack for simultaneously criticizing Langford and challenging his manhood with the most economy of words.
Langford and Rykman aren’t on each other’s Christmas-card lists, but what they lack in friendship, they make up for in mutual respect. They share a bond that’s closer than blood, even closer than marriages lasting for decades. It’s the type of bond born of holding another man’s intestines inside his torso with your bare hand while concussion grenades explode over both your heads.
“Balls have nothing to do with it, Bill, and you damn well know that. Something’s not right here.”
“We’re not going to get another chance at this,” Rykman reminds him in a level voice.
“Jahandar got wise to what we’re trying to pull, Bill. It’s time to go to plan B.”
“Agreed. Soon as we get the men from plan A back.”
“Those men are acceptable losses. An entire division of Special Forces troops is not.” Langford tries to keep his voice as even as Rykman’s but can’t quite pull it off. At the end of the day, that’s what really distinguishes the two men: Langford’s heart may have grown cold decades ago, but Rykman’s has always been at absolute zero. Assuming he has one to begin with.
“I hope I don’t have to remind you that I’m in command here,” Rykman replies. “I make the tactical decisions. I define the acceptable level of loss.”
“Green light.” Rykman says this not to Langford but to Tyler Donovan, a short but stocky crew cut of a man who had any trace of independent thinking removed by time and training long ago.
Donovan glances over to Rykman’s seat, slightly removed from the table, before repeating the “Green light” order into the system that keeps him in real-time communication with the Dust Devils, half a world away.
Those two syllables are all Gundy needs. He flashes the signal to commence the next stage of the operation, extraction: His index and middle fingers in a V-for-victory sign, he points to his goggle-clad eyes and then pulls the fingers down. Night Vision off.
Bellamy is up next. He throws a flash-bang grenade down the hospital corridor. The hallway lights up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve, blinding and disorienting the armed guards keeping watch at the other end. It takes only three silenced shots—which sound like someone spitting out watermelon seeds—to send the guards to Allah. The corridor now secure, the Devils continue their practiced attack, moving down the hallway and into the room where their pre-op briefing told them the hostages would be.
Gundy switches on his Maglite, tacitly giving his men permission to turn on theirs. The high-wattage flashlight beams cut the room into sections. Light dances around before coming to rest on the faces of six men, all strapped to gurneys. Faces, however, would be inaccurate. One of the men has been relieved of his right eye. Another is missing a nose. A third has had his skin peeled off, and an eyelid, which exposes a milky white sphere that glows in the reflected light. The eye, like those of the other men, has no spark of life.
None of the Devils blanch. They’ve seen worse done to men, and worse still done to women and babies. If they have an emotional response at all, it’s not disgust or sorrow, but rage. And the rage is fueled not by the depravity done to their countrymen but by the realization that comes too late: They’ve been had.
Marc Guggenheim practiced law at one of Boston’s most prestigious firms before leaving to pursue his dream of writing for television. He is currently the co-creator of the hit CW show Arrow and lives in Los Angeles.