It had just gone from forty-seven minutes and eight seconds to five minutes flat.
Another booby-trap that they had engaged, perhaps by removing the cover.
Puller reset his detonator for the only time he could.
Less than five minutes.
He closed the lid on the bomb and he and Cole raced over to Roger Trent. Puller used his KA-BAR knife to cut the bindings and they got him to his feet and then ran like hell to the filtration shaft.
“John!” screamed Robert Puller’s voice from the phone.
His brother didn’t answer. He’d dropped the phone next to the nuke.
Now all that mattered was getting out of the Bunker.
But even as he ran next to Cole, both of them propping up Trent beside them, Puller knew one thing for certain.
AS THEY RACED along a groggy Trent said, “What’s going on? Who are you?”
“Just shut up and save your breath for running, Roger,” snapped Cole.
They made it through the filtration system far faster than when they had to come the opposite way, even with Trent in tow. They raced up the steps, through the firehouse, and out onto the concrete drive in front. Puller and Cole had no time to stop and shed their hazmat suits. Their sweaty hair was plastered to their faces. They had stopped sweating so much only because their bodies were running low on fluids.
Trent’s face was flushed and he was breathing heavily. “I think I’m having a heart attack.”
“Keep going!” yelled Puller. He ripped off his glove and glanced at his watch. Nearly four minutes had passed. They had less than one minute. Maybe five hundred tons of TNT. A million pounds. The potential blast radius was far greater, even with the containment dome, than the distance they could run in the next minute, even if they were Olympic athletes. And if it went nuclear, in about fifty-five seconds there would be nothing left of them except vapor.
Cole saw him glance at his watch and noted the expression on his face. Puller sensed her watching and looked over at the woman. Their gazes locked even as they sprinted along.
“Nice working with you, Agent Puller.” She managed a weak smile.
“Been my privilege, Sergeant Cole.”
They had thirty seconds left to live.
In that time they managed to cover another twentieth of a mile. The dome was clearly visible behind them. Puller didn’t look at his watch again. He kept running. He picked up his pace. So did Cole. So did Trent. The fresh air had helped revive him and he had somehow realized that they were running for their very lives.
Puller wondered briefly what the shock would feel like. He was about to find out.
Inside the Bunker the dynamite stick detonated.
Robert Puller’s method worked, however. The staggered explosions, off by only milliseconds, allowed a seam to develop in the sphere and the pit shot right through it.
There would be no thermonuclear explosion.
Now it became just a bomb.
But it was a big bomb. And Drake County, with all of its coal mining over the years, had never witnessed a detonation such as this one.
The earth trembled beneath their feet, but they felt that for only a second, which was the length of time their feet were actually on the dirt. An instant later Puller, Cole, and Trent were thrown twenty feet in the air. They slammed into the dirt, and were rolled head over heels by the concussive blast coming from the Bunker. They ended up separated and nearly a hundred feet from where they had last stood. Puller barely missed colliding with the trunk of a pine tree.
Debris rained down from the sky.
Puller, dazed and bloody, slowly rolled over. Somehow his MP5 had stayed with him. The barrel had struck him in the face when he’d hit the ground. His cheek was cut and swollen. Every part of his body was screaming in pain, both from the force of the blast that had hit him and from being thrown all that distance and hitting the earth with wicked velocity. As a chunk of flying concrete nearly took his head off, he spun around and looked back at the Bunker.
It was no longer there. At least part of the top of it was gone. Chunks of concrete were flying through the air. Smoke and mist were rising up through the Bunker’s new hole. Part of its side had also been blown out. That must’ve been the source of the concussive force that had knocked them heels over ass. It appeared to Puller to be a man-made volcano on full eruption.
He heard no screams from the adjacent neighborhood as debris slammed down on the houses. There were fifty-seven people squatting in the old houses that had once been home to the plant employees. Cole had earlier that evening directed her deputies to mass-evict all of them, on the pretense of unlawful trespass. The explanation given was that the law-abiding citizens of the county had had enough. These people were in shelters asleep instead of in these homes, which were now being crushed under a maelstrom of flying concrete and rebar. Right now, it looked like a damn good call.
He didn’t know if the stuff belching from the Bunker was radioactive or not, and at the moment he didn’t care. He had to find Cole.
He found Roger Trent first. Unfortunately, he had collided headfirst with a tree far harder than he was. Half his head was gone. The mining mogul’s financial problems, along with his life, were over.
Puller looked frantically around as another explosion rocked the area, sending more debris into the air.
Then he finally spotted her.
Cole was nearly a fifty yards from him. She was struggling to get up.
“Stay down,” he cried out. “I’m coming.”
He sprinted through the debris-filled air, dodging chunks of concrete that were as lethal as fifty-cal rounds. He was fifty feet from her when it happened. The mortar-sized chunk of concrete hit Cole directly in the head. She fell back to the ground.
“No!” Puller screamed.
He started to run faster as concrete and rebar and things he could not identify hurtled down at him. It was like he was dodging death once more in Kabul or Baghdad.
He reached her and knelt down.
The back of her head was bloody. He saw bits of her skull.
He gently turned her over.
Cole looked up at him. Her eyes were unfocused. Her brain was shutting down.
He reached out helplessly to her.
Her eyes stopped moving and her gaze hung on him for a second. Her lips parted. He thought she was going to speak to him.
She gave one last shudder, one last gasp of breath.
Her eyes grew still.
And Samantha Cole died.
He sat back on his haunches.
Not once had John Puller ever cried over a fallen comrade on the battlefield. Not once. And he’d had many opportunities to do so. Puller men did not cry. That was Rule One.
Yet as Sam Cole left him the tears trickled down his face.
THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT invaded Drake, West Virginia, with the force of a rampaging army. And in a way, that’s exactly what it was at this point.
The Feds shut the town and especially the area around the Bunker down. Every inch of ground was examined by teams of experts wearing the very latest protective gear. Air and ground tests were conducted. Robots ran in and out of ground zero 24/7. The media was kept in the dark throughout. The government had gotten quite adept at that over the years. The official story was that an odd combination of methane gas and some old World War II–era storage canisters had combined to give that part of West Virginia an unscheduled fireworks display.
The air and ground contamination turned out to be far less than feared. No mass evacuation had to be ordered. Sophisticated imaging showed that the barrels Puller had rolled into that mineshaft had been effectively sealed under millions of tons of rock. The government wasn’t sure whether they would go in to get them out, or let them remain right where they were. Puller’s way had saved them a lot of money in storage costs after all.
Remains of the plutonium pit and the bomb were found and taken away. The cleanup process began and would continue for a while. The government outright lied to the media and the good people of Drake every step of the way, and they did so with a smooth confidence.
John Puller had been ordered by a string of generals and civilian brass to keep his mouth shut. He was a soldier and so he did what he was