The woman waiting for the lift was dead before she knew she was dying.
Morgen Bredell glanced at her watch, and sighed in frustration when she saw the time: 10:18 PM. Working late hours was always taxing, despite how much she enjoyed her current assignment with Portanus. Having to work late just twelve days before Christmas only added insult to injury. But the worst of it was having to work late twelve days before Christmas in Graz!
Morgen had come to believe that if there was ever a country made for Christmas, it was Austria, and of all the cities and towns in Austria where one could spend Christmas, Graz had to be the best. She’d found the city enchanting from the moment that she arrived, a feeling that had yet to evaporate. As she stood at the lift doors, she found herself humming “Kling, Glöckchen,” a seasonal song she’d never even heard in her native United States; it had been one of the first holiday songs she’d learned in Graz.
Being Austria’s second city, Graz reveled in not being Vienna, where the business of having fun was taken very seriously indeed. More than a century after the Austro-Hungarian Empire had vanished in a puff of smoke and ink, Vienna still lived under the shadowy burden of having once been the Imperial capital. Graz had no such pretensions, so the business of fun was… well, fun – the typical Grazianer, unlike their Viennese brethren, could never see the point of working hard at having a good time. In Morgen’s opinion, “Wiener Schmäh” came in a poor second to Gemütlichkeit of Graz.
Which was why, as she stood on the sixth floor of the Fachärztezentrum, impatiently punching at the call button for the lift, she resolved that she and Stephen would spend tomorrow night strolling the Stubenberggasse and the Schmiedgasse. They would finish their Christmas shopping – buying gifts for eight-year-old twins wasn’t as easy as some people thought: simply getting two of everything just didn’t work any more – and end the evening at one of the little cafés on the Hauptplatz.
The alert chime for the lift “dinged” twice and the doors slid apart. The interior of the lift car was unlit, and Morgen sensed more than saw the figure inside it, reaching toward her with its left arm, the strangely elongated forefinger pointing at her face. She never heard the two short, sharp barks or saw the twin flashes of light that accompanied them: her brain was a shredded mass of inert grey tissue by the time the neural input from her ears and eyes reached it. Soundlessly, she slumped to the floor in a sprawl that resembled nothing so much as a marionette whose strings had been sheared away.
The figure in the lift stepped forward, semi-automatic pistol still at the ready, and with his free hand reached down to pull the shoulder bag off Morgen’s body. A quick glance inside confirmed its contents and, satisfied that he now possessed what he’d come to acquire, the man stepped back into the lift and pressed the button for the ground floor. As the doors closed he gave Morgen Bredell one final glance.
“Bloody amateur,” he muttered.
“Thank you so much for coming to see us, Ms. Crabtree. You have no idea how much it means to Bill and myself to finally meet you!”
There was genuine warmth, though it was tinged with sadness, in Elaine Hone’s voice as she opened the front door of her home. She held out her hand to Radome – otherwise known as Trish Crabtree – and graciously drew the slender, platinum-haired woman into the house.
“Thank you, Doctor Hone. Lakewood is only six hours from Phoenixville by train, and the scenery is nice the entire way, even in December. So I won’t pretend it was a hardship for me.”
“I’m pleased to hear that. Here, let me take those,” the older woman said, reaching for Radome’s heavy coat and knitted hat, hanging them on the hall tree by the door. “We can sit in the dining room – provided I can drag Bill away from whatever sportsball game he’s watching.”
“My pet name for team sports, they all sort of blur together for me, baseball, basketball, what-have-you-ball. I think he’s watching football at the moment.” Elaine raised her voice and called into the next room, from which the sound of cheering fans and referee’s whistles was emanating. “Bill, turn that noise down – or better yet, turn it off, and get in here! We have a guest!”
The sound of the game being streamed to the household’s vidscreen was muted almost instantly, and a few seconds later a man Radome took to be William Martin Hone strolled into the dining room. He and his wife weren’t so much a study in contrasts as they were an essay on compliments. Mrs. Hone, of medium height and build, had a deep mahogany complexion, her face sharp and angular, with the most startling green eyes Radome had ever seen; her husband, his face fuller, his features more rounded, had eyes and skin that were almost fearsomely dark. Elaine was somehow able to be elegant in jeans and a bulky knit sweater, whereas William, tall and rangy, looked rough-and-ready in his khaki-tan twill workshirt and trousers. They wore their years well – Trish knew that both were in their late fifties or early sixties – as they manifestly had taken care of themselves, not out of vanity, but pragmatically, knowing that good health was something not to be squandered.
Bill offered Trish a firm, dry, no-nonsense handshake, and said, “Pleased to meet you, Ms. Crabtree. Having a chance to talk to you in person about Gerry means a lot to us.”
Trish demurred. “Given what Gerry did for me, Doctor Hone, it’s the least I could do.”
“Please, call me Bill, and my wife is Elaine.” When Trish raised an eyebrow at this, he explained: “I dislike forced bon hommie and familiarity as much as the next man, but with her MD and my PhD, whenever somebody says ‘Doctor Hone,’ it can get a bit confusing as to just who is being ‘doctored’ at the moment.”
Trish smiled at that. “In that case, I’m Trish. Fair enough?”
“It is at that,” Bill replied with a curt nod.
Just then Elaine returned, having briefly bustled off into the kitchen. She came bearing a tray holding three steaming mugs and a plate of chocolate chip cookies. Setting the tray on the table, she looked to the windows, where a heavy fall of fat, fluffy snowflakes could be seen, ensuring that Christmas in Lakewood, eleven days hence, would indeed be a white one. “It’s almost a reflex with me,” she said, half-apologetically, “when it starts snowing, I always make hot cocoa. Bill baked the cookies yesterday – he’s a much better cook than I am. It probably comes from his being an engineer.” She passed a mug to Trish, who smiled her thanks to the older woman and then took a sip.
“I’ve gotta tell you, this isn’t the reception that I expected,” Trish said, easing into one of the side chairs and putting her mug down on the table. Bill settled into his chair at the head of the table and gave her a considering look.
“You expected to find a pair of grief-stricken parents, weeping, wailing, and gnashing their teeth over the death of their child.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Well, to some extent, yeah, I was,” Trish confessed.
“We’re not as detached as you might think us to be,” Elaine said, reaching for a cookie. “I’m not about to try to feed you any B.S. about us having ‘moved on,’ or ‘we’re doing our best to get on with our lives.’ We are still grieving. Bill and I both have tough days, sometimes together, sometimes separately.” Her sigh was eloquent with the pain of a broken heart. “Parents aren’t supposed to outlive their children.”
Bill spoke up. “It’s just that, when we got the news about Gerry, well, we’d both already resigned ourselves years ago to someday getting a phone call like that.” He made to say more, then suddenly found the depths of his cocoa mug to be intensely interesting.
“You mean after what happened to him in Iraq?”
“No, Trish, long before that,” Elaine said, shaking her head slowly. “Gerry had two brothers and a sister. He was the second son, and he was always our ‘wild child.’ Not a bad boy, mind you, just forever marching to a drummer that only he could hear. A straight-A student in high school, but never had any interest in going to college. Bill offered to buy a brand-new motorcycle for him on his sixteenth birthday, and instead Gerry bought an old rattletrap of a motorbike on his own, then rebuilt it from the ground up until it was better than new. In the summer, he’d jump on that bike and disappear for days, sometimes weeks on end – but he always came home. He knew every member of nearly every gang in Compton when we lived out there, but somehow never got on the wrong side of the law. He loved adventure, and yet he always knew where the boundary lay between ‘adventurous’ and ‘foolhardy.’ Even so, Bill and I always worried that sooner or later something would get out of control and, well, we’d get a phone call….”
Bill stirred, looked back up at Trish. “He joined the Air Force a year after high school, right after we left California for good. They were thrilled to have him, they probably thought they could make some kind of PR mileage out of having one of the sons of the president of Orbital Fabrication Systems – that’s me, by the way – wearing their uniform as an ordinary line zoomie. Then he went and volunteered for the Air Scouts, that special joint-service command the Pentagon set up for the Obsidian operations in ’21.” He gave her a rueful half-grin. “I hate admitting it now, but it was the perfect place for him. Every man and woman in his unit was a misfit to some degree, and there was just enough danger in ‘hauling hold-out hadjis from their hidey-holes’ – that was what Gerry called his mission in one of his emails – for it to be sufficiently edgy for him.”
“Then that incompetent colonel managed to get half of Gerry’s unit blown up.” There was an unmistakable edge of anger in Elaine’s voice. “At least that bast – that idiot got what he deserved. We thought we’d well and truly lost him then, but the Air Force surgeons did a remarkable job putting our boy back together afterwards. I should know, I’m an orthopedic surgeon myself. But once he was finished with the surgeries and the rehab, it was… it was… it was as if no matter how well they rebuilt him, there was still something missing.”
“Anyone with two functioning brain cells to rub together knows that war changes people, but the way it all changed Gerry was upsetting, to say the least.” Bill reached for a cookie, dunked it his cocoa, then bit off half of it, chewing slowly before he went on. “Sometimes people who survive that sort of ordeal come away thinking they lead charmed lives, but not Gerry. The best way I can describe it is that he seemed to know that, after what happened north of Basra, he was living on borrowed time. It wasn’t that he didn’t recognize the boundaries anymore, it was as if he’d decided that they just didn’t matter, and he started ‘pushing the envelope’ further and further, as it were. He began moving in some pretty questionable circles. As far as I know, he never saw the inside of a jail cell, at least not for more than day or two at a time, but then we never knew everything he was up to. Sooner or later the odds were bound to catch up with him, though. It just didn’t matter to him.”
“And in the end, he took up with that dreadful vigilante, that ‘Blade’ person!”
Trish’s lips compressed into a thin, tight line and she regarded the older woman steadily across the top of her cocoa mug. “Elaine,” she said flatly, “don’t believe everything the newsies and screamsheets say about Blade. In fact, don’t believe even a quarter of it. I can tell you from personal experience that MacLaren is definitely on the side of the angels. Not that the angels are likely to be particularly thrilled about the idea, mind you. He has a rather, er, direct way of dealing with problems, people, and problem people, to say the least. But Gerry believed he was straight-up – and Gerry willingly followed his lead, so that should tell you something right there. Truth be told, if it wasn’t for David MacLaren – that’s his real name, by the way – I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you right now. I would be dead, and everything your son did for me would have been for nothing.”
“In that case, Trish, why don’t you tell us about what really happened in Atlanta,” Bill said. There was a hint of skepticism in his voice, but he was at least willing to hear her out. “In fact, tell us everything, from the very beginning, about how you and our boy came to be… working together.”
Trish did exactly that, taking the next two hours to recount the events of the last days of August past, five days she spent in the company of a man she first knew only as “Compton,” but who, when he died saving her life, had become her friend, Gerry Hone. She spared no detail, left nothing out, from the moment the late and utterly unlamented Brian Bridelow recruited her help in an attempt to break into the data center of DisCom Corporation’s research labs, to the last minutes of Compton’s life, when he literally placed himself between her and the men who were trying to kill them both.
She did a remarkable job of maintaining her composure, despite how intense, dangerous, and downright agonizing were the experiences she described to the two Doctors Hone. She told them of the confrontation in DisCom data center, where she and Gerry had first encountered the enigmatic redhead, Scarlett; the ambush in Orlando and the flight up I-75 to Atlanta; the firefight in and breakout from Atlanta Underground; their perilous journey into the mountains of north Georgia; their capture and torture by Nakajima Hideki. It was only when she was telling them of the last moments of Gerry’s life, when they had been trapped in the Spayth Tower, that her sang-froid finally deserted her.
“The last – the last thing he said to me,” she stammered, her voice suddenly husky, tears filling her eyes and falling onto her cheeks, “was ‘Hey, Trish, it was fun, y’know? Glad you made it.’ We – we tried so hard to save him, but he had nothing left. And there was just so much blood, and we couldn’t stop it! But… but there was something in his voice, in his eyes, when he said that. It was like a valediction for him. He was proud of what he’d done – he’d kept me alive until Blade got there, and he knew I was going to get out, even if he wasn’t going to make it. I know there were things in his past that he wasn’t proud of, he never mentioned them, but I sort of read between the lines when he talked. But at the end, he knew he’d done something he could be proud of, and that was all that really mattered. He was… he was…,” she stopped, drew a deep breath, did her best to settle her emotions, then began again. “He was special. He was my friend, and I don’t have a lot of them. But that’s how I’ll always remember him. My very special friend, and I’m alive today because of your son Gerry.”
Elaine was openly weeping, silently, but with a raw grief on her face. The tears had yet to spill from Bill’s eyes, but they were there for Trish to see, along with a quiet pride in the deeds of his son in the last hours of his life. A long silence settled over the trio seated at the dining table. Trish sipped her cocoa, hoping she’d done justice to Compton, wishing she knew if her words had been any comfort, brought any measure of closure to the two grieving parents before her….
It was Bill who finally spoke. “Thank you, Trish. I suspect that it was no easier for you tell us all of that than it was for us to hear it, but Elaine and I both know a lot more now than we did just a few hours ago. I’m sure you knew that we didn’t have a body to bury, at least not really, after that building burned down. It was a closed-casket funeral, and it was hard – hell, it’s still hard, for both of us – to really accept that the charred lump of carbon inside the casket was really Gerry. The authorities haven’t been able to tell us much, or so they say. ‘The investigation is ongoing,’ they tell us, but it’s been almost three months and we’re still getting what I think is the run-around.”
Elaine had produced a small pocket-handkerchief, and was busily drying her eyes. “I agree with Bill. Thank you for… telling us all that. I won’t call it ‘sharing,’ that’s just the wrong word for what you did – it’s too benign. I could see in your face, in your eyes, how difficult it was for you to tell us about Gerry.”
Trish just nodded slowly, for the moment not trusting herself to speak without losing what self-control she had left. A hush settled over the room once more, one not quite wholly comfortable, that lingered for several long minutes before Bill finally spoke.
“You know, I wonder if Gerry had a premonition of what would happen to him…,” he said diffidently. When Elaine and Trish turned took at him in puzzlement, he went on, “I mean, I got an email from Gerry about a month before… before he died.” He looked at Trish and explained: “Gerry never lost touch with us, you know. We’d hear from him from time to time, usually by email, sometimes by commlink. He was just somewhat… erratic about it.”
“What makes you think he had a premonition, Bill? Whatever it was, it wouldn’t have had anything to do with the DisCom job. That was laid on only about forty-eight hours before we all left for Orlando.”
“No, no, it wasn’t anything that specific, Trish. What he said was something to the effect that lately people from his old unit were taking that old motto to heart, the one that says, ‘Live fast, die young, and leave a damned good-looking corpse.’ I didn’t think much of it at the time, but after Gerry died, I did a little digging and found out that in addition to Gerry, fifteen other survivors of the 1024th Composite Squadron died this year.”
Trish caught the odd timbre in his voice, as much imagined as heard, and she felt the hairs on the back of her arms start rising. Looking intently at Bill, she and softly asked, “There’s something else, right? I mean, there’s something about it that bothers you.”
Almost reluctantly, Bill nodded. “Yes, yes, there is. All but one of them made no sense. There was no rhyme or reason to them.”
“The one exception was a captain who died at Walter Reed. It was bone cancer, and it metastasized faster than they could treat it. But of the fifteen, his was the only death from ‘natural causes.’ The others all died in accidents of one sort or another.” His face gathered into a frown. “Five auto accidents, two house fires, a private plane crash, three drownings, two muggings, and a skydiving accident. The youngest was thirty-six, the oldest was forty-nine. All of them occurred within a three-month time-span.”
Trish began softly drumming the tabletop with the fingers of her left hand, her expression suddenly pensive. “Compared to the whole of that age group, fourteen accidental deaths like that wouldn’t seem unusual, but….”
Bill nodded. “As you say, ‘but.’ I made a few discreet inquiries with some friends in the Air Force – now that the Space Force is a going concern, my company does quite a bit of work for the Defense Department, so I have some contacts there – and I learned that less than a hundred-fifty of the 1024th’s people came back from Iraq in ’22 – one hundred forty-seven, to be exact. Twenty-one of them – not counting the fifteen I just mentioned – have died in the past thirteen years, less than two a year. Now, all of a sudden, out of the remaining hundred and twenty-six, fifteen of them die in less than ninety days. I find that more than a bit strange, Trish.” “What you really mean is that you find it suspicious.”
“Well, yes, I do,” Bill admitted. “Don’t you?”
“In my line of work, I tend to find a lot of things suspicious,” she replied, somewhat tartly. “At the moment, I’m wondering why you’re telling me all of this.”
“Because you’re the only person I know who’s in your line of work, and because you do ‘tend to find a lot of things suspicious’.”
“Then you should know I’m also a great believer in coincidence. Of course,” she went on, softening her tone a bit, “there’s coincidence and then there’s coincidence.”
Bill nodded an unspoken understanding of her meaning. “Then try this on for size,” he said. “According to one of my contacts in the Pentagon, six weeks ago, at the direct instruction of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force, all of the 1024th’s personnel records – their 201 files – and all of their after-action mission reports have been classified ‘Top Secret, SCI’, with instructions that they aren’t subject to review for reclassification anytime in the next seventy-five years.”
Trish’s eyes went wide. “Holy crap!” she exclaimed softly.
“Indeed,” Bill said, nodding in agreement as he saw the dawning comprehension in her expression. “Someone at what Gerry fondly called Fort Fumble noticed that the survivors of the 1024th have suddenly begun dropping like flies and decided to seal up every single official record related to the squadron until all of the survivors will be safely dead, whether from natural causes or from… accidents. Now, tell me, Trish, just which sort of ‘coincidence’ you think it falls under?”
This has to be the most pointless exercise ever imagined since someone invented watching cars rust. The airheads got it wrong again, the real target isn’t here, my bosses will be pissed off about that, and I’m totally wasting my time out here in the goat’s arse-end of nowhere when I could be back in Basra, trying to charm my way into Hana’s good graces – or at least her knickers.
It wasn’t the first time these particular thoughts had run through Ibrahim al-Sahaf’s mind in the last four hours, and he was quite certain it wouldn’t be the last. He was a young man, just twenty-eight years old, possessed of an agile brain and equally active imagination, which meant, naturally, that he was easily bored. At the moment he was, unquestionably, monumentally bored. Then again, there were few tasks as boring as mowing the lawn, which was how he found himself occupied on this particular December afternoon.
“Mowing the lawn” was, of course, a figure of speech, as there are precious few – as in none at all – lawns to be found anywhere two hundred miles west-northwest of Basra, past the fringes of the vast Ramaila Oil Field. Basra, the port city incongruously sited some thirty miles inland from the northernmost reach of the Persian Gulf, was currently the Administrative Centre for the British Mandate of Mesopotamia, which was how the southern half of what was once the nation known as Iraq, now usually called “Old Iraq”, was presently styled, and also the home of unimaginatively-named Basra Oil Company. A petroleum exploration and production firm whose origins dated back to the creation of the ill-fated Kingdom of Iraq, shortly after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the Great War, BOC had more-or-less survived in a half-dozen different corporate incarnations, private and national, and currently carried some 13,000 employees on its payroll. Four of those employees were the occupants of the Unimog 6000’s custom-made cab, and also the reason why they were out in al-Sahaf’s figurative “goat’s arse-end of nowhere,” mowing the lawn.
What they were actually doing was conducting a search, using the ten-foot square wheeled platform that was being closely pulled behind the Unimog. The method of their search pattern required them to make repeated passes over a carefully defined area at a speed of no more than twenty-five miles an hour, each successive pass adjacent to and slightly overlapping the one previous, to create a continuous display of what lay beneath, up to a depth of several thousand feet. Anyone who had ever trudged behind a lawnmower would have immediately recognized the pattern and methodology, hence the nickname “mowing the lawn.”
The actual searching was done by the equipment mounted on the towed platform, which was known as the “lead sled.” It contained the transmitter and receiver for the latest generation of ultra-low-frequency ground-penetrating radar, or GPR, while the bed of the Unimog carried the processing and recording equipment, as well as a powerful cooling system. In this region, even in December, while the ambient temperature might be downright mild and pleasant, the sand and rock that made up what locally passed for soil absorbed and retained an astonishing amount of solar heat.
Monitoring the GPR cooling system was the responsibility of Faruza Abboud, who sat in the back of the cab, on the offside, across from al-Sahaf, who sat directly behind the driver. Faruza also did double-duty aboard the Unimog as the navigator, something for which she had a gift. A twenty-three year-old graduate student, working on her master’s thesis in exploratory geology at the University of Basra, she was pretty, vivacious, with bright eyes and a dazzling smile, the darling of the other three members of the crew, who were uniformly in awe of her fierce intelligence even as they treated her – protected her, really – as if she was their little sister.
It was Faruza’s ambition, once her treatise was complete, to become a field surveyor – an oil prospector – for BOC. While the world and circumstances had not been kind to the former Iraq in the past half-century, even in 2035 the thirst for petroleum among industrialized and developing nations remained unslaked, and there were still vast reserves of oil waiting to be discovered, tapped, and exploited. Faruza desperately wanted to be one of those intrepid individuals who spent their lives searching for those hidden reserves, and whom she saw through the romantic prism of youth as half modern scientist and half old-fashioned explorer.
If Faruza was the baby sister of the team, the Unimog’s driver was its patriarch. His name was Karim – no one really knew if that was his first name or his last, or if it was actually his name at all, as it was the only name he ever answered to – but to the occupants of the big Mercedes-Benz lorry, he was simply Amo – “Uncle” – and he seemed perfectly content with that moniker and status. His leathery, sun-burnt and wind-scoured complexion, together with his salt-and-pepper beard and hair and deep-set, hooded eyes, gave no hint of his age – he could have been forty years of age or eighty, or anywhere in between, although his movements and reflexes were hardly those of an old man. He handled the unwieldy, sometimes downright clumsy Unimog with consummate skill, belying years of experience behind the wheel of heavy trucks of some sort. He was the sort of man who never spoke unless he had something worth saying; on those occasions when did so, wise individuals paid close attention.
The quartet in the cab was rounded out by the mechanic, who gloried in the name of Maxwell Jameson. Slim and wiry, with sea-green eyes and ginger hair and beard, he was an expatriate son of the Emerald Isle, fully possessed of the Irish gifts of charm and blarney, both of which had stood him in good stead when he talked his way into employment in the Iraqi oil industry. He also had a reputation for inspired and imaginative field fixes on hardware, both mechanical and electronic. He was somewhat less than stellar, however, when attempting to improvise patches to twonky software, despite constant reassurances to his co-workers and supervisors that he truly knew what he was doing. For that reason, al-Sahaf, who was the overlord of the electronics suite aboard the Unimog, did his best to keep Jameson as far away as possible from the processors, modems, monitors, keyboards and blinkenlights of the GPR system whenever Jameson had one of those moments of “inspiration” – as he fondly believed them to be – regarding the unit’s programming.
As the hours passed in uneventful monotony, however, it was becoming steadily more evident that there would be little if any call for Jameson’s talents, such as they were and what there were of them, on this particular outing into the desert. Al-Sahaf, to all appearances increasingly exasperated by what promised to be a fruitless search for hitherto undiscovered pockets of crude oil, was beginning to feel the tiniest twinges of concern that this entire excursion was wasting the qualifications and abilities of everyone aboard the Unimog, save for Karim, of course, who was maneuvering the lorry back and forth along the two-mile-square target area with his usual consummate skill. Al-Sahaf toggled a switch that split the image on his monitor, one side showing the current scan, the other the results of the series of passes the lorry had made in the last hour – and saw absolutely nothing that looked like a positive return.
Making certain his expression of manifest disgust was in place, al-Sahaf shifted in his seat behind Karim, swiveling away from the monitor to face the young woman who sat on the off side of the cab’s rear section, and called out, “Hey, Faruza, just how confident were those rotorheads that their bird actually got a good hit on the target position they gave you?”
“Normally, I’d tell you it was probably the flyboys’ usual ‘we gotta do something to keep our jobs’ camelshit, but they were pretty adamant, Ibrahim. They sounded like they really had found something. This time.” Faruza clearly shared al-Sahaf’s disdain – it wasn’t quite contempt – for the tilt-rotor crew who flew the preliminary scouting missions, using an airborne GPR system to locate likely targets for more detailed ground-level surveys. That radar system, however, while nominally more powerful and wider-ranged than the GPR carried on the Unimog, had been designed for use at altitudes between 8,000 and 10,000 feet, in order to cover a much broader swath of ground on each pass, which meant that it lacked the resolution of its ground-based counterpart. False returns were as common as those which were genuine, but each one had to be investigated and confirmed one way or the other, which translated into a lot of snipe hunting for al-Sahaf and his team, hence their manifest lack of confidence in the reports from their high-flying colleagues.
“We’re well within the outer boundary of the search area – at least a half-mile inside it,” Faruza went on as she worked her computer’s cursor ball to bring a chart of the aerial survey on her monitor and overlay it on the GPS display. “You should have seen some small discontinuities by now – assuming there really is an upper-strata trap here.”
“I know, I know! Let’s keep working at it, though. We really don’t have much choice, anyway. I mean, it’s what they pay us for, after all.” He gave what he hoped was a philosophical shrug and smiled thinly at Faruza, who nodded back at him.
“Hey, you’re the boss, Ibrahim,” she replied agreeably.
Al-Sahaf breathed a silent sigh of relief at that – this was not the time for anyone on his team to start feeling pessimistic about this search and begin urging him to cut it short. Doing so might lead to them asking awkward questions, to which al-Sahaf had no answers – or at least, no answers he was allowed to give them – when he inevitably refused to do abort the search.
What he couldn’t tell Faruza – or Karim or Jameson, for that matter – was that the target wasn’t really a possible trap, a naturally-formed reservoir, of crude oil deep beneath the surface at all, but something far smaller yet infinitely more valuable. None of his three companions knew that al-Sahaf served two masters: the Basra Oil Company and the Ansar al-Ahlu Sunna. The once-powerful extremist group had withdrawn entirely into the shadows in the months following the staggering retribution the West had visited on Iraq after Black Christmas, but it had been quietly resurgent over the past decade, rebuilding, reorganizing, and recruiting, the latter being focused around Mosul and Erbil, near al-Sahaf’s home in the north.
Al-Sahaf had joined the Ansar al-Ahlu Sunna willingly enough when he was on the cusp of his adult years, and at the age of eighteen had been sent south to Basra to live among the Shi’ite enclave there, adopting a deep cover while he finished his education and waited for the time to come when he would be tasked with an important mission. He’d never imagined that, when the day came, his assignment would be anything like this, or that people whom he had come to treasure as friends would be caught up in it, however unwittingly. He shied away from thinking about what could – and probably would – happen to Faruza, Karim, and Jameson if this search was successful and the Ansar took possession of –
Al-Sahaf’s train of thought was derailed as the image on the screen in front of him flickered and shifted. Ground penetrating radar does not, as if often assumed, produce an actual image of the object it scans; instead, a series of stacked black-and-white horizontal bands are displayed on a monitor, the width of bands, depending on the equipment’s settings, showing the approximate depth at which that object is buried. Changes in the width and density of these bands are called “discontinuities,” and are usually gradual to some degree, as the returns from subterranean rock formations shift and change. In this case, however, the discontinuity was so sharp – and at such a shallow depth – that there was no indication of its existence until actually appeared. There was no mistaking it for anything else, however – the GPR on the lead sled had detected what was unquestionably a man-made object and not a geological feature.
My God, we found it!
Al-Sahaf reached forward and twiddled the knobs controlling the display, the better to refine the returns he was getting. The anomaly, whatever it might be, was small, at least to a geologist, measuring barely twenty yards in length. He looked over at Faruza and grinned in spite of himself.
“Got it!” he called out to her, drawing the attention of Karim and Jameson as he did so. He looked up into the rearview mirror and caught Karim’s eyes; the older man was smiling back at him.
“Keep going, Karim, finish the pass and keep to the standard pattern. Now’s not the time to cut corners!”
“Will do, Ibrahim. How big does it look?”
“It’s pretty small, but I think we’ve just caught a corner of it.” Karim nodded, and concentrated on maintaining a straight line to the end of the search area. Once the big lorry reached the grid boundary, he swung it to the left through 180 degrees and picked up the line left by his last pass, returning in the opposite direction.
After five more such passes, al-Sahaf could see that they were crossing over the target diagonally, and that it was indeed as small as he’d expected, perhaps twenty yards in width and forty in length – it was difficult to tell exactly, as GPR wasn’t given to precise measurements. Faruza, meanwhile, was double-checking the target’s GPS position; once she was satisfied it was correct, she saved it to an electronic packet that was shunted over to al-Sahaf’s console. There his personal laptop encrypted and attached it to a message he’d already formatted and queued up. Once he’d confirmed that everything was in order, he thrust an outstretched finger toward the “Enter” key to pass the message on to the satellite uplink.
The TM-62M anti-tank mine had been lying in wait for a long time. It had been emplaced in December of 1990, when the long-departed and hardly-lamented Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, was preparing for the onslaught of the Allied Coalition in Operation Desert Storm. In vast tracts that were often poorly charted and badly mapped, some four million mines had been buried on the Saudi-Iraqi border, in the sand and rock of Kuwait, and along what the Iraqi army suspected would be the Allies’ routes of advance. This particular patch of mines had been sited in the mouth of a broad wadi in which al-Sahaf and his team were searching, to guard the approach to a rough desert road that ascended the ridgeline to their north, giving access to what had then been a major north-south route from Najaf to Hafan al-Batin in Saudi Arabia. Ultimately passed by in the fighting of Desert Storm – or its sequel twelve years later – the minefield and its boundaries had been forgotten – until now, when the four occupants of the Unimog discovered it the hard way. Not quite a quarter-mile west of the “hit” recorded by the GPR unit, Karim swung the lorry to the right to begin another pass, and as he did so, ran over the long abandoned anti-tank mine.
It was the misfortune of al-Sahaf and his crew that this particular mine had been fitted with a mechanical fuze, rather than one worked by magnetic influence. The latter relied on an internal battery to power a processor circuit which reacted to the change in the earth’s magnetic field caused by the close passage of a very large ferrous-metal object, such as a tank or armoured personnel carrier. These batteries decayed at such a rate that, within ten years of their activation, they could no longer provide sufficient current to power the processor, and so the aforementioned large metal objects could pass near to or even directly over them with impunity. Had this been the case with the mine in question, al-Sahaf and his people would have never known of its existence.
As it is, a mechanical fuse can, under the right conditions, retain its functionality indefinitely, a cruel fact demonstrated to the four people inside the Unimog when its left front wheel ran directly over the mine. The tilt-rod fuze worked perfectly, instantly detonating the mine’s eighteen pounds of TNT filler. As with the mechanical fuze, time had been no enemy to the explosive compound: the soil in that particular section of the Iraqi desert was functionally inert both chemically and biologically, such reactions being the two greatest threats to TNT’s long term stability. The net result was that the mine functioned exactly as designed: it exploded with a thunderous “BANG”, most of the resulting blast being directed upward, a consequence of the careful tamping of the earth around the mine’s casing when it had been laid forty-five years earlier.
Karim was killed instantly, as the left front section of the cab bore the brunt of the blast and was shredded by it. Maxwell died a fraction of a second later. He had been looking directly at Karim when the mine detonated, his mouth open to speak words that never came; the steering wheel, sheered off its column by the explosion, caught him squarely in the teeth, ripping the top two-thirds of his skull away from the rest of his body. Al-Sahaf was partially shielded from the blast by Karim’s seat and his own console, but it wasn’t enough to save his life, as fragments from the mine itself tore into him at the same instant the shock wave of the explosion slammed his body into the rear bulkhead of the cab, crushing his ribcage. That same blast struck Faruza with such force that the impact of her body tore the door beside her off its hinges; she landed, alive but unconscious and grievously injured, some twenty yards from the wrecked lorry.
Gouts of black, oily smoke began rising from the remains of the Unimog, rising high into the noon sky, while in the back of the vehicle, untouched by the explosion, an emergency beacon began beeping urgently, its electronic plea for help reaching out feebly across the empty desert….