iBooks Thriller of the Year

Packed with intense fight scenes and dizzying twists and turns, this is an adrenaline-pumping debut by soldier-turned-author Farrugia.

iBooks EditorsApple

Farrugia! Bringin' the awesome from the first headshot to the last 'splosion.

John BirminghamAuthor of the Dave Hooper series

Farrugia is a past-master at writing fight situations. This is a page-turner, skilfully told. Farrugia really knows his craft.

Aurealis magazineAustralian Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Bechdel-Wallace rating: A

The Fifth Column: the world’s most powerful and secretive organization. They run our militaries. They run our governments. They run our terrorist cells.

Recruited as a child, Sophia is a deniable operative for the Fifth Column. Like all operatives, Sophia’s DNA has been altered to augment her senses and her mind is splintered into programmed subsets.

On a routine mission in Iran something goes catastrophically wrong. Bugs are beginning to appear in Sophia’s programming and the mission spins out of control.

High-speed chases, gun fights, helicopter battles, immortal psychopaths, super soldiers and mutant abilities are all in the mix in this edge-of-your-seat action-packed techno-thriller.

Perfect for fans of Matthew Reilly, THE CHIMERA VECTOR melds sci-fi with sizzling espionage action.

Chapter 1


Sophia did not exist.


Unofficially, she squeezed the trigger. The .50 cal round the size of a cigarillo punched through the Minister of Defense’s head, popping it like a grape. The empty shell jumped from her rifle’s ejection port and rolled across the rooftop. She ignored it, thumbed a new round into the ejection port and slid the cocking handle forward.

Through her scope, she shifted her aim from the decapitated body to a nearby parked motorcycle. She aimed for the explosives concealed on the bike and fired. The gases propelled the round through the free-floating barrel, out the muzzle brake and across downtown Tehran with a sound like a thunderclap. The explosives detonated, tearing open the Minister’s car and shredding everything around it. A cloud of dust billowed outward.

Sophia crawled back from the edge of the rooftop, taking her Steyr HS sniper rifle with her. The explosives would mask the assassination. On the other side of the world, the Fifth Column were busy inventing a previously unknown terrorist group to claim responsibility for what Sophia hoped would be regarded as a suicide bombing.

The rifle’s bipod detached in seconds, but field stripping the weapon took a bit longer. She rolled up the rifle components in her sleeping bag and stuffed it into her backpack.

Damien, one of the operatives under her command, was waiting for her with unblinking hazel eyes at the bottom of the stairs, backpack slung over his shoulders.

‘How was it?’ Damien asked.

‘Explosive,’ Sophia said.

He scratched his unshaven neck and slipped on a pair of imitation Ray-Bans. He moved for the elevator.

They took the elevator to the hotel’s second floor and exited the lobby slowly and calmly. They jumped on the second-hand Honda 125 motorcycles they’d purchased yesterday and disappeared.


Sophia’s team of three operatives slipped across the Iranian desert in an armored Land Cruiser, the Honda motorcycles stowed in the back. Headlights off, interior lights off. Nothing but the coal-black night. Sophia sat in the front passenger seat while Damien drove and Jay sat in the back.

Jay broke the silence with a tuneless song. Something about living in a pineapple under the sea.

‘SpongeBob SquarePants!’ Damien said.

‘Who died in an oil spill because of BP?’ Jay said.

‘SpongeBob SquarePants!’ Damien said.

‘Stop,’ Sophia said.

Damien drew the Land Cruiser to a halt.

‘No,’ Sophia said. ‘Stop singing.’

‘Oh.’ Damien picked up speed again.

Over her shoulder, Sophia noticed Jay had something bright purple on his head. ‘Jay, are you wearing a glamor turban over your helmet?’

Jay was suddenly still. ‘No.’

‘Take it off.’

A Citroën sedan peeled from the night, heading straight for them. Its driver seemed oblivious to their presence.

‘Oh good,’ Damien said, gripping the steering wheel.

Sophia leaned forward, peering through the darkness. ‘What’s someone doing out here at this time?’

‘You mean other than assassinating the Minister of Defense?’ Damien said.

‘Mickey-D’s run,’ Jay said, unwrapping his turban. ‘Someone’s hankering for a halal Happy Meal.’

Damien stifled a laugh.

‘Quiet,’ Sophia said. ‘They’re looking for us.’

If anyone spotted them over the Iranian border, the operation would be compromised. She knew what had to be done. She drew her pistol.

‘Damien, you’re playing sergeant,’ she said.

Damien nodded once. Jay rolled his eyes.

She’d chosen Damien because he wasn’t as likely as Jay to push anyone’s buttons. It was just for appearances. A woman commanding a security team was going to attract more attention than she wanted. She didn’t want any.

Jay opened his window, hauled his belt-fed Minimi machine gun onto his lap and pulled the cocking handle back. His way of saying he was ready.

The sedan’s windows were up, but Sophia could hear exotic stringed instruments and the undulating pitch of a female vocalist. Through the Citroën’s fogged windshield, she recognized faces from the street where she’d assassinated the Minister of Defense. They were Takavaran, Iranian Special Forces, the Minister’s personal guards tasked with protecting him. And if they hadn’t seen Sophia’s team at the time of the assassination, they certainly had now.

Jay rested the Minimi’s barrel on his windowsill. ‘What’s the call, Soph?’

‘It’s Sophia,’ she said. ‘Take them.’

The sedan’s back wheels kicked dust into the air, accelerating fast.

Damien pumped the brakes and pulled hard on the steering wheel. Sophia braced herself as he swung the Cruiser to one side, lining Jay’s Minimi up perfectly with the Citroën.

Jay opened fire. The sound was deafening inside the Cruiser. Empty cases from his Minimi bounced past Sophia, hitting the glove box. Through her driver’s window, she saw the sedan slow to a crawl. She hit the decocking block on her Walther P99 pistol—or ‘007’ as Jay insisted on calling it—then held the pressel switch on her throat mike. ‘Damien. Check the vehicle.’

Before the sedan came to a complete stop, Sophia was running toward it, her P99 trained on the shattered back window. Damien was on her right, his Colt Canada C8 carbine leveled as they rushed forward. The rusty hood looked like it was covered in crushed rubies. It was sticky and wet.

‘They’re toast,’ Damien said from the driver’s side, his breath fogging in the cold.

He indicated with his barrel to what was left of the two heads. In the back seat, three more heads, like split watermelons.

‘Lucky we saw them first.’ Sophia spoke into her mike. ‘Jay, plant one of our IEDs. Now.’

She opened the back door on her side of the sedan. A young man fell out, face down. His body glistened red. She looked through at the other door as Damien opened it. A young woman tipped sideways. Damien caught her mid-fall. Her head lolled. Strands of tangled wet hair stuck to his arms.

Trembling in the center of the back seat was another woman, her head still intact, her round face and white T-shirt dotted crimson. Sophia nodded to Damien. He leaned in to grab her. The woman resisted, clawing at him. He pulled her out and dropped her onto the dirt. She kneeled before him, screaming under his barrel.

Damien looked up at Sophia, his finger closing over his trigger. ‘Drop her?’

Before she could respond, he nodded to her nine o’clock.

Another vehicle. Wider, higher. Humvee. It pulled up twenty meters short, hip-hop music rattling hillbilly armor. A shortage of armor kits had forced the soldiers to improvise with scrap metal.

‘What are they doing over the border?’ Damien whispered.

‘Must’ve been nearby, heard the crash.’ Sophia said softly into her throat mike, ‘Leave the IED.’ She nodded at Damien. ‘The floor’s yours.’

Five US Marines climbed out and approached her team, dusted boots crunching on grit. They were dressed in desert camouflage, helmets fitted with night-vision monocles. Their M16A2 rifles gleamed in the moonlight.

‘Lemme guess,’ the staff sergeant said. ‘They don’t know a stop sign when they see it?’

His marines laughed like a cued audience.

They didn’t know the occupants of the Citroën were Iranian military, Sophia thought.

‘No kidding,’ Damien said, stepping in front of the Citroën so they couldn’t get a closer look. He spoke with a mild northeast England accent, as he’d been briefed.

American private security weren’t warmly regarded here, even by the US military. British security, on the other hand, made a point of not shooting every civilian vehicle off the road. They kept a low profile, stayed out of danger and consequently had better relations with the US military. Hence the cover story Sophia’s fireteam was running with: they were British private security and Damien was commanding the assignment.

‘What you guys doing out here, man?’ the staff asked.

‘Escort,’ Damien said.

The staff looked down at the surviving woman. His upper lip trembled into a grin. ‘We’ll go ’head take this girl in. Figure you wanna travel light.’

Damien shrugged. ‘Yeah, suit yourself.’

The staff’s lower lip jutted outward slightly. Tobacco was lodged in a wad between his lower teeth and lip. He angled his head away from Sophia. She caught him winking at Damien.

One of the marines seized the woman by her slender wrists and led her to the back of the Humvee. He was Hispanic and might’ve passed for Jay’s younger brother.

The staff shot Sophia a lingering glance, taking in her dark hair, desert cams and gray eyes. She knew what he was thinking. The scar on her right eyebrow was probably making him hard.

He scraped the stubble on his chin with a calloused hand. ‘Hey man,’ he said to Damien. ‘Ya night-vision ain’t on.’

Damien didn’t need it, but he turned it on. ‘Yeah, thanks.’

The staff drummed his fingers on his rifle in time with the beat from the Hummer’s CD player. Sophia noticed his M16 was shorter than it should’ve been. M4 carbine. Strange, she thought. Only marine officers carried those. Something about these marines didn’t seem right.

‘Let’s move.’ The staff started walking back to the Hummer.

In unison, his marines—also carrying M4s—shouted a guttural ‘Uh-rah!’

One of them pushed the woman into the back compartment of the Hummer. Sophia caught a glimpse of her face. She wasn’t Iranian Special Forces. She was just a girl, no more than ten years old. She hadn’t been on the street during the assassination at all. How had Sophia mistaken a ten-year-old girl for a woman on the street in Tehran?

She looked back at the Citroën, at the torn, ripped faces in the front seat. They hadn’t been on the street either. They weren’t the Takavar guard unit. No wonder they’d been so easy to kill.

She turned to Damien. His fingers were white over his carbine. His thick eyebrows pressed together, teeth clenched. Something was wrong, and it wasn’t the marines’ taste in music.

Sophia heard a faint click. The discharge of a suppressed weapon.

The staff stumbled and fell face-first onto the dirt road. Hard. Sophia heard the air rasp from his throat. He scrambled to his feet, snatched his M4. Spun around, eyes wide. Saliva, thick with tobacco, oozed down the staff’s chin and neck.

Two marines—the younger version of Jay, and an African American with a square jaw and a permanent scowl—rushed in to help him.

‘Mother . . .’ Sweat poured from the staff’s face.

Square Jaw moved in closer. ‘Staff?’

The staff shoved him aside. ‘Take cover!’ He ripped off his vest, then the buttons from his uniform. ‘Some raghead motherfucker just fuckin shot me!’

His eyes rolled up and he dropped to his knees, then his hands. His elbows buckled. His face hit the dirt.

The two soldiers rushed to him again. Square Jaw checked his carotid pulse, then saw the blood-soaked patch over his stomach. The other three marines—faces confused—dropped to their knees, rifles ready, snapping their night vision on to search the desert around them.

All was flat and featureless. There was nowhere for the enemy to hide. The marines wouldn’t stay confused for much longer.

Sophia dropped to her stomach and bent her right leg, giving her lungs room to breathe. Wind howled past, filling her nostrils with gasoline and the coppery tang of blood. With her peripheral vision, she could see Damien lying prone and holstering his suppressed pistol. He put both hands back onto his carbine. She’d realized what he’d done. She just couldn’t believe he’d done it.

‘I’ll put a goddamn bullet between your eyes!’ Square Jaw yelled into the night.

Sophia figured it would only be a few minutes before they figured out there were no insurgents. There was only one way out of this now.

She raised her pistol and squeezed off two rounds. Square Jaw’s rifle dropped. His mouth opened like a purse. Blood gushed down his neck.

The other marines took aim—not at her but at the invisible insurgent they thought had opened fire.

A marine’s head exploded.

The three remaining marines turned to Sophia’s team, carbines aimed. They knew they’d been had. They returned fire. Rounds cracked past Sophia. One broke the sound barrier inches from her head with the snap of a bullwhip.

From the Cruiser, Jay pinned the marines with heavy supporting fire. They dropped flat on their stomachs and shifted their arc of fire. Their rounds smacked into Sophia’s vehicle. Above the gunfire, the female singer informed everyone of the heat coming from the beat.

Jay’s Minimi continued its barrage. Sophia shifted on her elbows and found herself in line with one of the marines. Before she could squeeze off more shots, he folded into himself like a plastic toy. Damien had beaten her to it.

She rose into a crouch. All the marines were down. She got to her feet.

Damien was standing beside her, uninjured. With his trademark thoroughness, he swept his carbine over the dead marines a few times. There would be no survivors.

Sophia turned to check on Jay. It didn’t look good. The Cruiser was peppered with bullet impacts. None had penetrated the vehicle’s armor, but it was the bullets penetrating Jay that worried her. His Minimi was visible, but he was nowhere to be seen.

She marched toward the Cruiser, fingers trembling. ‘Jay? Call out!’ she yelled. ‘Call out!’

Jay’s Minimi almost fell out as he kicked open the door. ‘Yeah, I’m good,’ he said.

She watched his boots hit the ground. ‘Injuries?’

‘I said I’m good.’ He brushed dirt from the Minimi’s feed tray. ‘But this needs a clean.’

Sophia returned to Damien, who was busy checking the pulse of every marine. Jay stormed past and inspected the staff sergeant’s body. He rolled him onto his back and pried his clenched hands from the vest buttons.

‘I guess that’s the last time we let Damien run the show,’ Jay said.

Damien either hadn’t heard him or chose not to respond. Considering his enhanced hearing, it was probably the latter.

Sophia spotted movement at the edge of her vision. It wasn’t the girl. She was sitting in the back of the Hummer, still and breathless. Someone was in the front seat. They’d missed a marine.

He reached for a weapon. Sophia broke into a sprint, closing the gap. The marine was on the driver’s side. He wasn’t reaching for a weapon, he was reaching for a radio.

No time to draw.

He noticed her approach and drew his pistol. His arm leveled across the Hummer’s window. He would’ve had her too, if she’d been a step behind. She smashed his forearm down on the window frame. Bone shattered through the inside of his elbow. She cracked the stock of her pistol into the side of his neck. It struck his carotid sinus and sent a sudden surge of blood to his brain. In an instant, his body’s self-defense kicked in, slowing his heart rate and dilating blood vessels to drop his blood pressure. She watched him slump forward, unconscious, forehead hitting the steering wheel. The horn blared.

She reached in, cut the volume on the CD player. The girl sat in the back of the Hummer, trembling. Sophia opened the rear door and the girl scrambled away, lips quivering.

Sophia’s nostrils burned with the smell of sweat and urine. She opened her mouth but nothing came out. She wasn’t here to save the girl. She thought she’d killed a unit of Iranian Special Forces, but she’d killed a family and orphaned a terrified little girl. What the hell was going on?

‘Soph!’ Jay yelled over the horn.

A marine was standing two meters behind her. She couldn’t believe she’d missed another one. His carbine shifted in blood-coated hands. Rounds from the firefight had cratered the boron carbide plates of his vest, but hadn’t penetrated flesh. He’d survived by playing dead. Damien hadn’t made it that far to check his pulse.

Before the marine could shoot her, he hunched over abruptly, eyelids twitching. Saliva dripped from his chin. He collapsed.

Jay was standing behind him, teeth clenched, breathing heavily. He looked like he was in pain. Sophia checked him over. No blood. His hands were empty. The marine’s flesh smelled burnt, as though he’d been roasted with a taser. But Jay was more effective than any taser. He’d touched the back of the marine’s neck and discharged a high-voltage electric shock. His enhanced ability came in handy once in a while.

She checked her own hands. She was still holding her pistol. Their situation wasn’t looking too great. Their presence in Iran had been compromised only hours after she’d exterminated the Minister of Defense, and—

‘We just killed a whole bunch of marines,’ Jay said. ‘That can’t be good.’

‘I thought they stopped issuing M4s to marines. Sand jams them too easily,’ Sophia said. ‘These look new.’

Damien kneeled to inspect the toasted marine. ‘They like to keep their weapons well oiled, I guess.’

‘Or they were deployed at short notice.’ Sophia nodded at the pistol near her feet. ‘With Heckler & Koch pistols.’

Jay chewed his lip. ‘Right, you have a point. So who the hell are they? Private security? Special Forces?’

Sophia shook her head. ‘Whoever they are, I think we’ll need both IEDs after all.’

‘Too late for that,’ Damien said. ‘We have incoming.’

Sophia tracked his gaze to the west. Saw three vehicles crossing the Iraq–Iran border. They would’ve seen the firefight from there.

‘Orders?’ Jay said.

When she didn’t answer, he grabbed her shoulder. ‘Hey!’

His touch jolted her, but she stared through him. Her attention was riveted to the three vehicles. There was no time to escape.

‘Great,’ Damien said. ‘These guys probably saw us slaughter the marines through their night-vision.’

‘So either they shoot us or take us into custody,’ Jay said. ‘I’d like to think the latter.’

The screech of brakes. A spotlight splashed over them. The girl screamed from the back seat of the Hummer.

Two dozen marines poured from the newly arrived Hummers, barely silhouettes in the night. Whether they were real marines or dress-up marines, their spotlight made Sophia squint. Someone yelled at her, Damien and Jay to drop their weapons.

Sophia was the first to raise her hands. She showed her finger was nowhere near the trigger of her pistol, hit the decocking block and the magazine-release catch. The magazine fell out, landing by her feet. The marines kept their rifles trained on her as she placed the pistol on the ground and stepped back, her hands up.

In her peripheral vision, she saw Jay—who’d left his Minimi in the Cruiser and his pistol in his thigh holster—raise his hands in the air. Damien was out of her field of vision, but she heard him place his carbine on the dirt.

The marines rushed forward, rifles fixed on the trio. M4s.

‘Shit,’ Sophia whispered.

Two marines threw her against the side of the Hummer. There was no hesitation, no questions. They’d seen what had happened. She couldn’t talk her way out of this.

The girl screamed again.

‘Shut her up,’ someone yelled.

A marine pulled the girl out of the vehicle and put a bullet through the back of her head.

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