A Tribute

As I sit this Memorial weekend, remembering those that paid the ultimate price for our freedom, I think of Arlington Cemetery and its 400,000 graves – flags wavering in the wind at each site.  I also think of the long, winding black wall that commemorates the 58,220 who gave their lives in Vietnam so many years ago.

Those of you who have read Esperance, our first (co-written) book, know that the story centers around a Naval Captain who commanded the U.S.S. Boise, a Brooklyn Class light-cruiser that was in service during World War II.  We spent 7 years doing the research for this story and, as we documented our facts, we felt compelled to remain true to the history of this ship and its involvement during World War II.  While all of our characters are fictitious, we strived to captured the honor, pride and dedication we felt these men had at the time of their service.

In October of 1942, the Boise took her position alongside 9 other ships that made up Task Force 64, just off the Solomon Islands in South Pacific.  The Japanese had been sighted making runs up and down what was commonly called “The Slot” (an area running through the Solomon Islands) redeploying ground troops and dropping off fresh supplies on a nightly basis.  They called these runs “The Tokyo Express” and they were a real thorn in the Allies’ side.  Task Force 64 was sent to disrupt and destroy the shipping lanes.

The battle engaged in a place just off the Cape of Esperance, near Savo Island.  It was a brutal, bloody battle that left the Boise taking 9 direct hits, resulting in a 10-foot hole in her side — 9 feet below the water line — and the loss of [gun] turrets #1 and #2, along with the men who manned them.  But in spite of her damage, the Boise got her licks — in 27 minutes, she and her crew had sunk 6 Japanese ships.  107 men aboard the Boise had given their lives that night in the service of their command and their ship.

The ship was so badly damaged that it had dropped out of the firing line of the Task Force and attended to its first priority – to remain afloat.  While urgent repairs and other acts of improvisation were put into place, she drifted away from the Task Force and for some time was considered lost at sea.  She eventually made her way to New Caledonia for much-needed repairs.  While not all bodies were recovered, she did stop en route to bury 65 sailors at sea, before resuming her trek.  Once there, the sailors that had been interred in Turrets #1 and #2 – all 42 of them – were buried in New Caledonia.

I leave you this Memorial weekend with the words Captain McCullough spoke at New Caledonia, as they should resonate in each of us even today:

“There is no greater price – or higher honor – than that this fine crew displayed on the night of October 11-12, 1942.  We know that – we were there.  But for those that come after us, they will not know or understand the meaning of this sacrifice.  I cannot think of a more fitting legacy for these fine men, than to entrust each of you with this story and the responsibility of carrying it forward in helping those that follow us understand the magnitude of their courage, strength and selfless devotion to their shipmates and, indeed, to the United States Navy.  God rest their souls.”


 [Esperance, ©2011]




Beginning A New Chapter

Yeah, I know — radio silence lately.

As many of you know, I have worked for many years in the legal community — in fact, my first job was in 1968 — for you trivia folks, that was the year before Woodstock.  Our world was shaped a great deal different then.  There was the war in Vietnam; protests all over the country and violence shown at Kent State where innocent students were gunned down by the National Guard.  It was a tumultuous time.  But in business, our beacon was straight in front of us — the client.  Everything began and ended with the client.  They were the sole reason we were there and we were crystal-clear on what our purpose was.  People for the most part were honest.  We performed the work — they paid the bills.

Fast forward to today, May of 2017.  Today in the legal world (and I suspect we are not the only field in which this is true) — a higher purpose has come into focus — and one that clearly drives the train.  It’s not about the client anymore — it’s all about the money.  I have always been proud of my profession, but not-so-much anymore.  The greed of a few in corporate offices far away have eclipsed our purposes, hobbled our talent, and have clearly left the client behind.

So, with that being said, I now speak to you from a retired standpoint — and I’m good with that.  I’m looking forward to new beginnings … fresh new thoughts … and great ideas for my books to come.

For our friends in Israel, let me apologize in advance for our President <sigh>.

For everyone else — until we meet again …

Shalom  … Peace be with you.

Easter — Thoughts of Peace

Easter Sunday with the family.  We enjoyed a good meal and were good company for each other.  Thoughtful.  Caring.  Sharing.  That was how I was brought up. And if I ever forgot that, I have 20-something cousins that would surely bring me back to reality in a heartbeat.  You know, I like that about family.  We all were taught to be sensitive and thoughtful about each other.  And, above all, to take care of each other.   There’s not a lot of that in the world today.

Well, today’s headlines clearly aren’t for the faint of heart.

Kim Jong Un is like a defiant two-year old who’s missed his nap and is becoming angrier as we speak.

President Trump — who did the right thing by responding to Bashar al-Assad’s horrific chemical weapons attack against his own countrymen, women and children — apparently felt so empowered by that move that he decided to drop the “Mother of  All Bombs” in Afghanistan.  Be careful, Mr. President.  All that power can easily go to one’s head.

Trump is still looking for a win — and it is becoming more desperate as the days go on.  Be careful, sir, that little men like the petulant Kim Jong Un doesn’t end up playing you.

It’s too bad, Mr. President, that you don’t have a family like I do and, like a lot of people around the world do.  You know, the ones who will step out and right your sails for you .. because they care … and at the same time, in an ever-so-humble way, point out what could have been done better.  A moral compass, you might say.  We all need that for each other .. related or not.  We are all in this together.

May peace be with you and your family this Easter Sunday … from my heart to yours …. shalom.

A Line In The Sand

Of course I’m going to talk about it.  How could you not? That would be like not talking about the elephant in the room, right?  So, let’s get to it …

On Thursday, President Trump stepped away from his normal demeanor, perhaps at the urging of his military strategists, and concluded two days’ worth of discussion concerning Syria’s unconscionable use of chemical weapons against their own citizens by sanctioning a limited airstrike in Syria.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Bashar al-Assad gave a nod to this military action.  He’s tired of the war.  He’s running out of money and running out of resources.  He sees the war as an obstacle to a life of wealth that could be attributed to Syria’s vast oil reserves.  Syria is, after all, the only significant oil-producing country in the Eastern Mediterranean region (which is Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories).  And with that wealth, of course, comes power — perhaps even a seat at the world table.  But, first, he must end the relentless, entrenched ground fighting that has paralyzed his country for six years.  And it’s complicated.  As of January this year, his government held 34% of Syria, ISIL held 33%, the Syrian Democratic Forces held 20% and 13% was held by rebel forces.  Talking wasn’t getting it done.  Brut force wasn’t getting it done, either.  But chemical weapons?  The perfect way to obliterate all and begin again. A shortcut, you might say.

But he didn’t count on America’s response — America’s very calculated response. We didn’t go after personnel — to the contrary, we gave Russia a big head’s up, enough so that they could extradite their personnel and aircraft.  And you can bet that Russia gave al-Assad the head’s up, as well.  We were counting on that. But what we did go after was their aircraft and reports are that 20 were destroyed.  Syria does have as many as 450 more Russian-made jet fighters, so our success was minimal in the overall picture — but it spoke volumes in its wake.

Should we have stood up and sent a message?  There are legitimate concerns over being sucked into a political war that has no level playing field.  Understood. But when is it that you stand up for innocent victims — not just soldiers who have volunteered to be in harm’s way  — but women and children, as small as babies, that are utterly defenseless in these circumstances?  They are trapped in a life of daily bombing, sniper attacks, lack of adequate food and medical supplies, left behind in a war that they cannot gain from.  How could we not respond?

We did what we had to do — for humanity — no apologies.  This time, it is America that has drawn a line in the sand.


Things Here … and There

Knowing they didn’t have enough support (or even enough of their own party’s support), Paul Ryan and President Trump finally threw in the towel late this week and pulled the health care repeal bill from the floor — and well it should have been.  Screwing 24 million Americans out of health insurance, increasing costs to a segment of the older population who mostly live on fixed incomes, telling mothers that their maternity-related costs would no longer be covered and oh, by the way, did we mention that they could no longer depend on Planned Parenthood for help with reproductive choices, not to mention the exclusion of the pre-existing clause? It should go without saying that only a politician with no conscience whatsoever could stand in front of the American people and propose the passage of such a bill.   And speaking of conscience, while some part of me would like to think it had something to do with the actual outcome here, I suspect that the reality is more likely that the bill’s lack of support had something to do with the fear of losing an upcoming election. <Just saying …>

So, President Trump now moves on to tax reform — which I guaranty you will only benefit the top 1% of earners in America who will see what amounts to an increase of somewhere near a 20% boost to their income, while the rest of the American population would only see a boost of somewhere between 1% and 10% to their income. Does that sound like equality to you?  Forecasters at the Tax Foundation and the Tax Policy Center have predicted that what then-candidate Trump previously proposed during his campaign as his plan for tax reform would add trillions (yes, that was with a “t”) to our deficit.  How long would it take us, as a country, to dig out of that?  And is this what we want to leave to our next generation?  A precedent of inequality and a lifetime of paying off the debt? To the benefit of whom?

And while all eyes appear to be on Washington and our controversial President, be aware that tensions are escalating around the Straight of Hormuz, a Straight only 21 miles across in one area, where one-third of all the oil shipped by sea must pass through.  Politics are very much in play in this region.  Iranian hardliners may be trying to put pressure on Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is the subject of an election this May.  As I have mentioned in my blog before, these hardliners are thought to be behind many of the ever-increasing provocative actions that have been carried out against U.S. and other vessels as they enter and pass through the Straight in international waters.  Previously, President Trump has warned Iran that any challenges to our ships would result in Iranian vessels “being blown out of the water.”  However, just this week, as the USS George H.W. Bush passed through the Straight, Iranian vessels appeared yet again — all weapons armed — and came within 940 feet of our carrier while our armed sailors stood at the ready.

For the sake of many nations, let us hope that we are not provoked into being the catalyst that throws gas on what appears to be already-glowing embers — in a very volatile region.

Shalom, my friends.  Stay vigilant.  And speak loudly – with One Voice.

Our Voice

Once upon a time … long, long ago …. America had but one voice — whether we faced outwardly — toward the world stage in alliance with our neighbors and friends — or whether we faced an internal challenge among our own countrymen.

It was a voice that was truthful, measured and compassionate, and yet firm in its conviction.  Most of all, it was all-encompassing.  No one was excluded.  No one was left out. Democracy is about strength — and it’s about courage.  And it’s about having guts.

Since the era of George Washington, we chose one person to speak and be that voice for us … even when we didn’t agree … because, after all, we were one, with one collective voice.  It was important that we faced our allies with strength and understanding and were able and willing to lend a helping hand.  To those who were adverse to us, we offered to listen.  We offered to negotiate our differences.

On that very foundation, we began to shape our collective identity as Americans. Able to rise, ready to roll up our sleeves every morning, and get our jobs done.

Since January, we have seen and experienced divisiveness, deception, turmoil and near-chaos from our President and and his so-called administration.  The very fabric of our country — our beliefs, goals and ideals — are systematically being dismantled — each one held up like a trophy before being gleefully shattered on the ground before our very eyes.

It makes me sad and it makes me mad.  I am one of those people who have for more years than I care to share, gotten up every morning and put my best foot forward.  “Not On My Watch” has always been my motto.  And, believe me, I know there are plenty of us out there — currently working or not — that gladly contributed to that great fabric and provided some of the strength behind that great voice we have.  I am angry that our President and his self-serving, billionaire Wall Street appointees have such little respect for what we contributed — and in some cases, what we continue to contribute — every day.

And for those great, self-less men and women of America, who put their husband or wives, families and careers on hold while they served our country — what an affront to those people!  Do they not know that thousands upon thousands of people have died protecting that fabric — that belief system?  What more could a country ask?

I feel as though I need to write a letter of apology to Japan, who was the first to extend its hand in friendship to this nightmare of an administration.  And to China who has generously offered to mediate in relations regarding North Korea. To Germany for being willing to meet our President in spite of her personally being the subject of his hostile, tweeting rants in the past.  And to Great Britain, whom we just outright insulted because our President just makes things up because it might make a good headline and it’s always a good diversionary tactic.

Yes, we do have to ride this ugly, old, bumpy, paint-peeling, wheels-falling-off wagon until the bitter end for whatever the future holds for our country.  It is what it is.

But if you have the opportunity to speak out — to add your voice to ours — speak out loudly with strength and conviction.  Let us all be The Voice that doesn’t stop speaking about truth <a concept our President has yet to acknowledge>, our compassion and lack of sectarianism <obviously towards a religion that scares the Be-Jesus out of him>, and our American honor <instead of proving to the world that he has none and never will have>.

Yes, please join Our Voice — the Voice of America — who speaks the truth — even in the darkest of days.  Our Voice can be the beacon of what’s right with America.

Shalom …

Comments Welcome!

Now that we’ve closed the book on Serenity: Full Circle by publishing its final two chapters last week, please use the Comments feature here on the blog if you would like to give the author some feedback.  Good feedback tells the author where he or she could have done it better and, without that, it is always more difficult to hone the craft.

For those of you who have written, you know that it’s a labor of love — something that comes from your spirit and demands nothing short of being set on the page — to become finally free.

It will keep you up at night if you have wandered too far from its course and — likewise — it will give you immense joy when you know you’ve hit it right-on for the character or story line.

It’s when you see, hear and feel the characters and their emotions that you know that you are simply the scribe in the process.  It’s the characters who really tell their story — through you.

Until we meet again … shalom!


Serenity: Full Circle – Chapters 28 and 29


The Turkey Shoot

By midnight the next night, a Blackhawk helicopter containing Jon and Bob landed on the deck of the U.S.S. Markel, a Guided Missile Frigate.  Cliff and Dara remained at Osan. The ship was located ten miles off the coast of the South Korean peninsula just southeast of Seoul, in the Yellow Sea.  The plan was to cruise 250 miles around the west coast of North Korea, to a location 50 miles off the coast, and 85 miles to the west-southwest of Pyongyang.  This would be the jumping off point for the mission.  Right after the helicopter departed, the two drones with Marc and Akil at the controls, landed.

During the transit overnight, the team got some much-needed shuteye.  At the mission briefing the next day, Jon pulled out all the stops. He had full, detailed satellite photos of the parade area including the position of the review seating area.  During the meeting, a live satellite feed of Pyongyang came up on the big screen. Jon pointed out a small soccer stadium almost straight in-line with the review seating.  The soccer field had stadium stands with a large parapet roof elevated over 100 feet. The field was 1.86 miles (2,990 meters) from the target position.  The brother in-law of the contact on the ground, was the manager of the field and also the secondary contact.  The information that Jon had was that the field was in disrepair and had not been used for six or eight months. The entire civilian work force had been diverted from civil work, commandeered to prepare for the Fat Boy’s coronation of sorts.  Nobody actually knows what the parade is for, but that the Fat Boy wants it.

As they studied the maps, the flight route revealed itself.  The Korea Bay is a natural inlet where the Taedong River spills into the Yellow Sea at Namp`o.  With the exceptions of a few twists and turns, it leads directly to and through Pyongyang.  The river gorge is a natural fly way for migratory birds. The flight in at nighttime was a given.  Flying at an altitude that would allow them to both see the river below, but high enough to avoid both the vision and ears of the civilian population, would be an optimum situation.  The one real advantage was that the drones, being tubular, had a radar reflection of a flock of birds at most and had absolutely no heat signal at all.  Arriving at the city, finding the stadium at night, would not be too difficult using the night vision capabilities of the integrated helmet.

At midnight, they all met on the Hilo flight deck. Bob had outfitted the drones with extra battery packs. The weight factors were negligible considering the hybrid design.  This would add a life line to the mission’s success potential.  Bob was on the ship’s intercom talking to an Ensign in the conning tower.  The conversation was about the latest weather observations.  Jon could tell by the expression on Bob’s face, something was up.  When he was finished with his conversation, he moved the mic away from his mouth, and said, “Jon, we have a marine layer moving in up the river, it’s a 500-foot ceiling now, but it going to drop even further. If we go now, they’re going to get their feet wet before they get to Pyongyang.”  Jon, turning back to Marc and Akil said, “Guys, you heard him; it your decision.”  Just then, Bob cut in saying, “There’s one other way to go about this.  If I program the flight computer, it can take them over the mountains. The highest peek out there is only 400 to 500 foot, tops.  That’s only in one place, the rest is sub-100 foot.  Akil, looking a Marc, said, “I’m game.” Marc just smiled.  Bob was already plugging in his lap top to one of the drone’s data link ports.  Before 0100 hours, they were strapped in and ready to lift off.  As they disappeared into the fog, Jon chimed in on their frequency saying, “I want to see both of you back here this time tomorrow; no excuses.”

After ten minutes of flight, it was almost difficult to stay awake.  The vibration of the craft combined with the drone of the electric motors and no visual stimulation created a surrealistic experience.  The only activity that had any meaning was the heads-up display in the helmets.  The satellite down link was feeding a topographical map to the helmet display, based on their GPS location. Marc was thinking to himself, it was one thing to have an automobile’s computer direct you in traffic, but quite a different matter to have it fly you through pea soup.

The air speed read out was indicating sixty mph, evidently the Bluetooth contact avoidance units were doing their job, he hadn’t seen Akil since lift off.  There was no problem with anyone picking up the radio com between them, it was a modified Bluetooth channel with a max range of 200 feet. Just the same they kept the talk to a minimum.  One hour and fifteen minutes into the mission, the lights of the capitol began illuminating the sky directly ahead of them.

As they approached, they gained altitude but remained under the threshold that the migratory bird flocks maneuvered within.  Now over the actual city, the clouds were broken and visual gaps were prevalent.  The city was not bright like most others, it was easy to see that electricity used fuel, and fuel was a strained commodity in the north.  This, luckily, was one more thing to take advantage of.

The arrival time was set at 0230 hours to meet the contact.  They were to land on the roof of the grandstand, within an area, surrounded by a parapet.  The contact had a portable Bluetooth transceiver with a pinging beacon at equal range.  They were to both descend as quickly as possible, in tandem; the less noise and time, the better.  The Korean contact’s name was Han-bin.  He was the overseer of the stadium grounds and was chosen to be there for their arrival.  Using a flashlight with a green shroud over the lens, he was to flash it skyward three times in quick secession, as an all clear signal, after keying the Bluetooth radio beacon.  The infrared night vision goggles built in to the helmets were extremely effective.  They could both clearly see that the contact was alone, and that no other heat signals were present anywhere in the vicinity.  They dropped down from 150 feet above the roof very rapidly flaring out just before making contact with the roof, then hitting the kill switches as quick as possible once touchdown was achieved.  The silence was almost deafening, minus the constant droning.  This, along with the feeling that they had just experienced a two-hour full body massage, resulted in Akil was finding it a bit difficult to walk with a regular gait.

Once out of their equipment, the man approached them cautiously, not saying a word.  Marc, reaching out his hand in a gesture to shake hands, was instead greeted with a shallow bow, and a smile.  After a minute, it was obvious the man could not speak a word of English.  Marc repeated Han-bin’s name several times, before he began to acknowledge it with a head gesture and moving his hand to his chest, indicating that it was him.  Marc then said the name of the primary contact, Myung-hoon.  The man, pointing to his watch, held up his hand displaying four fingers.  Marc was hoping that he was referring to four a.m. rather than p.m., as the parade was to take place at 10:00 a.m. the next morning.  They would know soon enough; it was now slightly after 0300 hundred hours.  Han scampered away, then returned carrying a large bundled tarp, nearly half his size.  They helped him unfurl it, then covered both drones.  Ten meters away from the parked drones was, what appeared to be a utility shack.  Following Han’s lead, they moved their equipment to the shed.

Marc, using his rifle scope at the edge of the parapet, braced it and focused in on the parade square.  The area was immense, wide open and only two buildings were remotely in the flight path to the viewing area.  He had seen pictures of prior events in the square, but the sheer enormity was lost in translation.  As he tweaked the adjustments on the scope, the primary viewing box revealed itself.  Even at this hour, two guards stood next to the large double door opening up onto the viewing veranda.  He could now see, at best, an upper torso would be the only exposed targets available.

A few minutes later, he heard footsteps approaching across the rooftop.  Looking up, a vague image of two men began to resolve out of the darkness.  Akil, now sitting with his back to the parapet, got to his feet quickly, placing his hand on his side arm.  Sound from the two men talking was muffled, but it was obvious, Korean was the spoken language.  As their vision began to clear, it was evident that one of the two men was Han-bin.  As they walked up, Han pointing to the other man said, “Myung-hoon; Myung-hoon.”

Marc, not knowing for sure how to greet the man, nodded his head with a gesture of a bow, saying, “Myung-hoon.”  To his complete surprise, the man answered in near perfect English, remarking, “Mr. Bracken, your deeds precede you.  It’s a pleasure to meet you.”  Then, looking a Akil, he said, “And, you, sir, are?” Akil answered, stating his name proudly.  Myung looking at the rifle, now propped up on the parapet wall said, “Marc?  May I call you ‘Marc?’  Just how accurate are you with this amazing rifle? I will be sitting on that balcony when the event unfolds.  It’s a very long distance.  Well, you understand, do you not?”  Marc’s response was, “Just don’t stand closer than three feet from the Fat Boy.”  Myung’s North Korean indoctrination showed, as he raised his hand to cover his mouth, shielding his amusement at Marc’s comment.  Now Marc was a bit torn between saying anything about Major General Kwan, his primary target.  He asked Myung’s opinion of Kwan.  His reply was quick, with a look of distain, saying, “He is egotistic and ruthless, without measure.”  He also added that he would be standing next to Fat Boy, on his left. This solved Marc’s quandary in an instant.  At this point, he went on to tell him of the plan to eliminate the both of them.  Myung asked why Kwan was also a target.  Marc’s reply was, that he owed a very good friend a debt that needed repayment.  Myung did not understand, but did not inquire further.

The questions that Marc had for Myung were many and varied.  Things, such as how long the event may last, and what angle the sun would be in the sky as the parade went on.  He knew that the sound of the rifle would not be heard over the crowd.  However, he was not so sure about the surrounding area.  Myung assured him that the extremely few people that were not either in the parade, or at the proceedings, would think it was just part of the usual fireworks that are common at day, around the event.

It was nearing 0500 hours when Myung and Han departed for the parade site.  Both Marc and Akil tried to cat nap under the tarp covering the drones.  By 0830 hours, the noise from the parade area was beginning to filter out to their position.  A massive crowd was already present and hundreds of vehicles scurried around.  According to Myung, the parade itself would be a three-phase event. First would come the men’s military marching units, then the female units.  Second, would be the civilian groups. Then, the third and last, would be the wheeled weapons, tanks and rocket launchers and truck loads of soldiers, saluting.  This would be the prime time for the take down.  Most of the antiquated track vehicles do not have rubberized pads to protect the roadways, as European and U.S. units do, so the noise would be at the threshold level.  Nightfall was around 1900 hours.  They would wait until at least an hour or so after that, before taking to the air.

The loudspeakers were now blaring propaganda rhetoric at a level that could cause bleeding eardrums.  Both Marc and Akil were busy, constructing a shooting blind, after moving the drones close to the parapet’s edge.  They used the large canvas to bridge the drones.  This created a covered area large enough for both to have a shooters position with overhead visual protection.  Akil collected foliage debris, which was prevalent on the roof from the surrounding trees.  He spread it over the canvas, making it to appear as though it had been there for some time.  After completing this and moving back under the blind, the parade had begun.

The scopes were doing their job; they could easily make out the Fat Boy, and Marc’s indelible memory of Kwan, rendered him identifiable in an instant.  Jon had asked for Marc to be the one to target the Fat Boy, but he and Akil had changed that decision.  Marc had a mandated duty to perform, and some things such as this, were not negotiable.

As they watched and waited, some of the things that were being displayed got Marc’s creative juices flowing.  Like the mere fact that this self-proclaimed, child-king, was driven by sheer ego.  If a world power really wanted to take him to his knees, all that was needed was to wait for a day, like today.  One Cruise Missile, with a limited 5 Kilo-ton yield could take out seventy-five percent or more of the DPRK’s military and 99% of the ruling party, including the Fat Boy.  All this exposure for his child-like ego.

They rehearsed the firing sequence several times.  Akil would fire first, with a one second delay, then Marc.  During the first segment of the parade, the Fat Boy gave a speech that continued for over an hour, delayed by cheers several times. By the time the marching units had finished, Marc had revised his earlier estimate, maybe all the army was here for the parade.

The sun had now moved overhead and was shading the review area where the politicians were standing.  Between their position and the target, Marc could see no less than six flags of varying size and color.  Once again, taking advantage of one’s environment is a given.   He could tell that, at most, he had a constant three to five mile-per-hour breeze, left to right.  He entered the information into the handheld firing computer, then corrected his scope with two clicks of left deflection. The air temperature was stable at 81o.  The elevation was equilateral, however Marc adjusted the scope one negative click.  This was to compensate for the rising heat signature, generated by twenty-five thousand-plus participating parade civilians, standing beneath the last 500 meters of the bullets’ flightpath.

The tracked armaments were now rolling by, in front of the review area.  They both settled into their firing positions and began to synchronize, using a down count starting at five, called out by Marc. As he said the number “two,” Akil stopped the count; there was movement on the veranda’s right side, adjacent to the primary.  The man moved next to Fat Boy, saying something into his ear.  He then moved off, and exited the viewing platform into the building.  Akil spoke, saying, “Re-set.”  Marc started the count again. “Five, four, three, two, at one!”  Akil fired, with Marc following suit one second later.

Akil, drawing from all the reserves that were at hand, held the scope’s laser on the Fat Boy’s center of mass. A millisecond later, the wall behind him turned a bright crimson red.  The upper torso of the Fat Boy that had been in view, quite simply disappeared.  Before Akil or Marc could react, the second bullet arrived at its destination.  It was slightly high, but just as effective, as Kwan’s head exploded, like a ripe watermelon.  They both withdrew their rifles and dropped down, settling in for the interim.  Marc looking over at Akil, with glistening eyes said, “Don’t ever let them tell ya that revenge isn’t worth it.”

At first, there was a strange silence, as the crowd was trying to grasp what had happened.  Then, the silence was overtaken by the wailing and jeers, as they began to comprehend what had just happened.  Over the next hour, the sky filled with aircraft.  The streets began to repopulate, surprisingly not with so much military, as with the civilian population.  Everything near the square, appeared to be in total chaos; the perfect order of the prior assembly, now seemingly devoid. Closer to the river, across which the bullets traveled, they could see high-rise buildings being searched; they were more than a mile away from their position.  It would appear that they could not fathom the reality, that the shots had originated from such a distance.  It was clear now, no one had reported seeing anything in their vicinity.

Back on the U.S.S. Markel, Jon and Bob were already hearing news reports of a major event coming out of the country but, as yet, nothing with respect to Fat Boy.  Jon received an encrypted message from the Company requesting information as the disposition of the mission team.  He had no reply, as yet; they were due back on the ship around 2200 hours.  Ten minutes later, a message from Cliff with Dara’s fingerprints all over it, came in.  It seemed that South Korea was on full alert.  All along the northern border, small weapons fire was being reported.  As yet, nothing seemed like an organized event.  The entire D.M.Z. along the entire 38th parallel, was lit up with search lights and troop movements.  Jon, using an encrypted satellite communications system, told them what he knew, which was effectively nothing.  He had expected this to ruffle some feathers, just how many was the question. Over the next few hours nothing seemed to change, the news was strangely quiet, considering what he was hoping, had happened.

In Pyongyang, the sun had set thirty minutes earlier; both men had been busy checking out the batteries’ charge status and preparing their individual drones.  Before lifting off, they checked and re-checked all equipment, making sure everything was accounted for, right down to the spent rifle casings.  Nothing was to be left to chance.  Now, with the western horizon totally dark, they suited up and moved quickly through their preflight check list, and then strapped in.  They opted for full flight control until they were fully clear of the city.  After one last visual of the air space around them, Marc lifted off, followed by Akil.  As they circled around slowly gaining altitude, as to emulate a flock of birds rising, Marc could see a lot of activity on the streets.  Once they had reached two-hundred and sixty feet, they leveled off and tracked toward the river.  Everything seemed to be going well at this point.  Reaching the river, they turned to the south and maintained speed at a migratory altitude.

The lights of the city now behind them, they both toggled the autopilot switch, then took a collective deep breath.  If all went well, they would see the coastline below them in approximately thirty minutes.  The night was devoid of the low clouds and mist they had experienced the night before.  Marc was now looking down at the Taedong river, when small red flashing light appeared on the heads-up display. At first, he had to concentrate to comprehend why it was there.  The light signaled that an over-write was being entered into the auto-flight path mechanism.  They had been briefed on the possibility.  Bob had been monitoring the telemetries from the ship, and when they had switched to auto-flight, he made the decision to modify the flight plan.  They could both now feel the drones banking to the west away from the river over the foothills.  Both had studied the topography in the area and knew the turn would hasten the return trip.  Fifteen minutes later, they could see the coastline, almost directly below them.

As they moved past it, their attention was quickly drawn to tracer bullets passing by in close proximity. The gun fire was from no less than three different positions along the beach.  They both switched to manual control and angulated the drones to full-forward momentum pushing them to the absolute limits of the craft’s capability.  A minute later the gun-fire had ceased; neither had taken any hits. After five more minutes, they returned to auto-flight control.  In ten minutes, they would be over international waters and both would breathe easier.

As things settled down, the view was reminiscent of the deck at Serenity on a balmy night.  The thoughts brought back the memories of when he and Eyan were the team.  The door to then was now, only half-shut; the last man standing was now in Marc’s sights.

It had been almost twenty minutes since passing over the coastline, both he and Akil were ready to get some rest, it had been 48 hours on a cat nap at this point.  According to the heads-up, the E.T.A. was ten minutes out.  Marc flipped the switch on the Bluetooth com and said, “Hey, buddy, I’m buyin.’  Does a cold one sound good?”  But, before Akil could answer, Marc’s drone violently dipped and shuddered, as an air-to-air missile, streaked by, nearly touching his leg.  They both switched back to manual control again and started evasive maneuvers.  Akil was able to catch sight of the perpetrator as he veered to the right, banking hard.  It was an attack helicopter, overtaking them at twice their airspeed.  As it passed, the turbulence was horrific.

Akil pulled out his G17, but was severely limited as he was flying with his right hand and typically used that hand to shoot with.  As the chopper was turning around, Akil keyed the com-link, and said, “Switch to auto-flight, at least we can shoot back.” Marc keyed his receiver twice, in response. What he didn’t say was how he regretted Dara’s advice.  Firing a Glock 380 at an attack gunship, even an old one like this, is like pissing up wind – it’s not very satisfying. As soon as the chopper had leveled off, both he and Akil, started firing as fast as they could.  With the aid of their infrared helmet display they could actually see the bullets sparking as they ricocheted off the craft.  They were both in the process of returning to manual flight, when the gunship exploded into a ball of flame. Luckily, they were not in close proximity to the blast, but could hear various pieces of the aircraft hurtling by.  They both put the drones into a maximum climb rate to avoid any other possible debris.  As the fireball subsided, they could the ship’s lights about two miles, directly ahead of them.  They were cleared for touch down five minutes later.

During the debriefing, both sides of the table had a myriad of questions.  The first from Marc was, “What’s the official line on shooting down a North Korean gunship?”  The ship’s Captain, sitting across the table, remarked, “Simple. While in international waters, during a regular patrol of the north China Sea, an unidentified military aircraft approaching at night, was deemed a threat after firing a missile and numerous automatic weapons at or near the U.S.S. Markel. The aircraft was neutralized in response to the imminent threat.”  The missile that nearly grazed Marc’s leg had continued on toward the ship.  The ship’s auto defensive systems had activated the Phalanx, CIWS, (Close In Weapons System) destroying the missile.  The second question from Akil was, “What was the fall-out from the events in Pyongyang?”  The answer was more than interesting.  The wire services were reporting that Major General Yeon Kwan had been responsible for the briefcase bomb that had killed the Fat Boy, and he had been executed, immediately, on the spot, by the senior military personnel present at the event.  The country was now in an official state of mourning.  Akil said, “The people really just accepted that, after what they saw?”  Jon’s answer was, “Akil, they never question the official governmental statement; you don’t do that in the North.”  Akil continued on, “It also seems like people in the western world weren’t the only people happy to see this asshole disappear.” Jon said, “We received a brief encrypted message from Myung-hoon. All it said was, “All is good, thank you.” All around the table, people were smiling, but none more than Marc.


Now, There Were Two

Twenty-four hours later, the ship had returned to just off the coast, where they had started.  A helicopter landed on the flight deck exchanging Cliff, for Jon, Akil, and Marc.  Back at Osan, Dara was more than relieved to see the duo safe and sound, as they disembarked from the chopper.  As she walked up to them, she high-fived both, before asking, “Did ya get ’em?” The reply was, “We got ’em both,” from Marc, as he gave her a hug.

Around the dinner table that evening, Marc asked, “Jon, what do we have on this white guy you’re helping us with?”  Jon was more than surprised, saying, “Whoa, I haven’t filed my report on this mission, yet.”  Marc’s reply was, “You’d best get on it, cause we’re in the air tomorrow and your ass is ours until we get this guy.”  He said it with a slight smile, but Jon knew he wasn’t kidding.

Before noon, they were aboard the G150 taxiing for takeoff to Madrid, Spain. They had been in contact with Aston Stiles at Martin’s Villa De Martini.  He had, with Martin’s connections, managed to collect more information on the data that was at the crux of the assault on the facility in Sweden.  From the conversation, the primary factor that he was able to glean was there was no overt connection between Viktor Karlsson, and the primary perpetrator behind it all.

Arriving in Madrid, Stiles had sent a car to pick them up at the airport. They were now at Villa De Martini; it was almost like home to Marc and Dara, and for Akil, in a lesser fashion.  Jon, on the other hand, was most certainly not used to the opulence.  They were all given rooms by the pool. Dara and Marc had their old casa right on the back side the main pool.  Akil and Jon had one on each side of theirs.  Jon was not as exhausted as the rest, which worked out fine.  There was plenty of paperwork, then there was the matter of tracking down Viktor Karlsson and honoring the commitment that had been promised by the Company early on in the alliance.  Some down time was in order, but by the next afternoon the prerequisite of sleep had been fulfilled. Marc and Dara had spent their time wisely and had renewed a relational vow – much needed by both.

They were all hanging out around the pool at three in the afternoon the next day, while Martin was at a conference on global warming he would return the following day. Stiles, now joining them from the main villa for a reunion of sorts, began by asking if the shakeup in North Korea had their fingerprints on it.  He was half-joking, until he noticed their surprise.  His reaction was a casual, “No shit?”  He had worked with the team in the past but was still taken a bit off guard at this realization.  He was formally introduced to Jon, and the conversation continued.  The information Stiles brought to the table, helped them understand the reason for the Sweden raid.  He laid it out in the order in which Martin’s contact had offered it.  Antwan Lagos who had perished at the hands of the Serenity team aboard the ship Orion’s Cradle almost a year and a half prior, was replaced in the hierarchy by Viktor Karlsson, upon his demise.  Now the missing piece was who is at the top of the food chain.

Once Martin was able to ascertain what had been taken in the data theft, the footprints led back to his Die-Hex corporate branch, and the security coding of the NCC-5.  This special coding was a breakthrough in security management; it was placed all around the globe to protect financial institutions, as well as major corporate intellectual properties and museums.  The NCC-5 can protect data from electronic theft and physical theft when set up on vault doors or entry ways.  But, in this case at Martin’s data center, it was defeated by the fact that they took the physical container of the data from behind the armed security personnel, circumventing its base structure.

The information in the data block that had been taken, was partial, at best.  Martin had said to Stiles, “It would take a flat-out genius to retrieve it, and then make use of it.”  Stiles continued on by saying that Martin, using his pull with Europol, has all the European countries using facial recognition at borders, large civil events and all centers of transportation searching for Karlsson.  Nothing has surfaced as yet, but with this type of surveillance, something was bound to show up – hopefully sooner, rather than later.  Marc, hesitant to say anything about Jon’s employer, was shocked as Jon threw his cards on the table, adding that his connections at the Company had reported sightings of the man twice in the last 48 hours.  The first, in the small lakeside community of Nora, to the west of Stockholm, Sweden.  Then, late last night, an unsubstantiated report, in a suburb of Helsinki, Finland.

The majority of the effort to locate Karlsson was now centered in and around Helsinki.  At this point, the Company seemed to be holding up its side of the bargain that Marc and Jon had struck, prior to the Korean event.

It was now five in the afternoon.  Stiles had the villa chef and his crew move out to the pool area cooking facility.  The conversation was flowing freely, in general; the group, as a whole, needed some down time while they waited for news of Karlsson.  Stiles opened the wine cellar and was now playing bartender in the sunken bar next to the pool.  As the night set in, everyone was truly relaxing and even Jon’s lighter side became evident.  He was, as they discovered, intuitively amusing.  His comedic timing was impeccable as he recounted some of his lighter, prior escapades with the Agency.  After an amazing meal, they were all deep in conversation when Stiles’ phone rang.  He answered, and then the talking stopped.  Martin was on the line.  Stiles listened for a short while, and then said, “We’ll pick you up in Barcelona.  I’ll text you with an ETA as soon as we’re on our way.”  As soon as he put the phone down, he looked up, saying, “We have multiple confirmed sightings in Helsinki.”  After a short meeting of the minds, they decided to regroup in two hours and head out to the airport; Stiles flying Martin’s G-280, and the Serenity group in the G150.  After leaving Barcelona Martin and Stiles were to meet up with the group in Helsinki.

The eastern sky was showing a slight glimmer of the new day, as Marc reached up, toggling the landing gear switch.  Dara and Jon began to awaken in the aft cabin, as the gear doors opened, and the wheels extended.  Twenty minutes later, all four were walking across the tarmac to the private air terminal.  They were finishing their breakfast in the terminal, when Stiles, Martin and his second-seat pilot, walked in.  Martin’s security team from Stockholm had arrived just after midnight.  As the group exited the facility, the four-man security team was there to greet them with two large SUVs for transportation.  The most recent reports had Karlsson at a location in the northwest quadrant of the city.  As they drove to the area, the senior security member was briefing the team.  Street video cameras had recorded him at a drugstore and also a housing complex nearby.

Dara and Akil volunteered to watch the drugstore, while Marc and Jon began surveillance at the last-reported sighting within the housing complex.  Martin and Stiles, along with two of the security team members, were parked in the area and were constantly monitoring Europol’s com link.  The other two members of the security team were walking the area, searching for Karlsson on foot.  By late afternoon, everyone was growing both anxious and tired.  This was a recipe for disaster if things were to get ugly.  A plan was set to break off the surveillance at 10:00 p.m., providing nothing had developed by then.  The important thing that was drilled into everyone involved, was that Karlsson was needed alive.

Just before 8:00 p.m., everyone’s coms came alive; one of the security detail members had spotted Karlsson walking toward the drugstore.  As he turned the corner and was walking up the street, Jon and Marc arrived in the area.  They assumed he was returning to the drugstore, however, he stopped short and entered an Italian restaurant.  He took a seat in the back of the room, facing the door.  Jon said, “He’s no beginner – someone has trained him.  His pistol is on the table to his right side, under the newspaper, and he didn’t sit back there because he likes the kitchen noise.”

Marc, in talking to Martin, asked him to have his security detail stay in the vehicles, unless called upon.  After some gruff mumblings, the detail complied.  Marc didn’t want anybody getting gun-happy.  Marc and Akil, now paired up, walked past the restaurant and up the street, paying no attention to Karlsson.  Jon and Dara, working as a couple, were prepared now to approach from the opposing direction.  One of the SUVs was parked across the street with a view of the interior of the restaurant and had the ability to keep tabs on Karlsson.  Now they waited.

Forty minutes had passed, when the com units crackled to life.  Stiles said, “He’s on the move, approaching the cashier.”  Whichever way he turned outside the restaurant, they were prepared.  It was almost nine in the evening, when he stepped out of the building and turned back in the direction from which he had come.  Jon and Dara were approaching from the frontal position; Marc and Akil portraying two over-indulged drinking partners, talking loudly, walking behind him in an effort to draw was much attention away from the obvious frontal take-down.  Just as he approached Dara and Jon, Marc yelled out his name.  Karlsson spun around, raising his hand with a gun already in it.  But, before he could fire it, Jon, using a telescopic steel baton, and summoning all the power he could muster, swung it around, smashing it against Karlsson’s right arm, causing him to drop the firearm.  Dara, using a move from her Europol days, kicked his upper thigh just above the back of the knee, causing him to drop to his knees.  She stepped forward, placing a head-lock around his neck, as Jon secured the firearm.  He struggled for a short while before passing out from lack of oxygen.  Before Dara released him, Marc was standing at her side, pulling his hands back behind his back, and placing handcuffs on him.  Two of the security detail quickly moved him to the back of the SUV and secured him to the rear seat mount bolted to the floor as he regained consciousness.

Thirty minutes later, they were entering one of Martin’s warehouses near the West Harbour, Munkkisaari docks.  Marc asked Martin to release his security detail, and then suggested that perhaps he and Stiles would be better off at some other location for a while.  Both men understood the innuendo and took leave of the situation.

They were now sequestered in a small office in the corner of a rather large warehouse. Victor Karlsson was strapped to an old-style, oak office chair.  There was no one in the facility as it was off-season for shell fish.  Akil and Dara had been babysitting the man, while Marc and Jon had acquired some tools from the machine shop.  Upon returning to the office, Marc sat down directly in front of Karlsson and with a glaring look, said, “Viktor!  That smarmy smile of yours!  Where has it gone?  You remember, that look you had on your face as the chopper lifted off from the Die/Hex data facility outside of Stockholm.  You do remember, don’t you?”  Viktor’s response was gruff, curt and loud. “What do you want from me?”  Marc and Viktor’s dialogue carried on:

“Everything, Viktor!  Who were you working for?”

“I work for myself.”

“Viktor, I don’t think for one second that you even know what that NCC-5 code can do – or better yet – how to modify it.”

“We are all professionals here.  What do you want?  I can pay you more than that company will pay you.  How much?”

“Viktor, you have one chance to not end up like your buddy, Kwan.  Tell us who’s behind this, or you will die – very slowly.”

Marc reached out to Jon, as he handed Marc a battery-powered Senco finish nailer.  He turned toward Viktor and fired one three-inch nail into his right kneecap, pinning his leg to the oak chair.  This elicited a pro-active, visceral response.  Marc’s reply was, “Viktor, I’m not liking what I’m not hearing.”  As he pointed the nail gun just over his right shoulder imbedding another nail, halfway through the top of the oak chair.  Once more, he drew Viktor’s attention to the question at hand.  Marc, becoming annoyed at Viktor’s reluctance to talk, stepped over next to him, placing the nail gun in his crotch, saying, “We both know you’re not going to make it through alive, so if you tell me what I want to know, I’ll make it quick and painless, so what do ya say?”   Viktor, looking down at his now blood-soaked knee, looked up and said, “All I know is that they call him ‘The Facilitator.’  He lives on Sahajӓrvi Lake on an island outside of the city, about twenty-five kilometers to the northwest.  Nobody knows his real name.  He pays in gold coin; nobody asks questions!”

Marc and Jon stepped outside the door for a brief conversation while Dara and Akil did the babysitting.  Marc asked Jon if he could arrange for the Company to take out the garbage, referring to Viktor.  Jon, asking if he was truly done with him, said, “Will he be permanently attached to the chair when he’s finished?”  Marc replied, “I’ve gotten all I want from him; do what you want with him or ask Martin – he may want second dibs.  But keep him handy for a while, just in case he’s feeding us a bunch of bullshit.”

Jon stayed behind, as the others went to meet up with Stiles and Martin at his Helsinki office in midtown.  It was late in the evening as the conversation got underway.  Martin volunteered his helicopter to do a fly-over the lake in the morning.  He then arranged hotel facilities for the entire group next door to his offices.  His usual penthouse at the hotel was available year round, as he spent a reasonable amount of time there in season.

Around 8:00 a.m., they were all having breakfast in a private meeting room at the hotel.  The first order of business was the surveillance flight over the lake.  Martin had, at the pilot’s suggestion, arranged to have several HD video cameras mounted on the chopper overnight.  The flight was set to leave within the hour from the Hilo pad atop the office complex.  Stiles was to pilot the excursion with Akil, Dara and Marc along for observation and camera operation.  Dara was slated to ride in the co-pilot’s seat; she would also operate the video cameras.  Both Akil and Marc would take still shots of anything of interest.

Ten minutes off the flight pad, away from the city, the sky was beginning to clear somewhat.  Approaching the lake, still off in the distance, they readied themselves for the overflight.  Both Marc and Akil put on chest harnesses and connected themselves to eye-bolts, before opening the side doors and positioning themselves to photograph the compound.  Dara checked the video feed from the video cameras on the connected tablet.  Stiles trimmed the craft, slowing the air speed down to fifty knots.  The plan was to make a pass south to north at 800 feet, and then wait ten or fifteen minutes, and cross from west to east at 400 feet; hopefully, not drawing too much attention to the events.

The still-cameras were Nikon 810 FX/DSLRs with 150/300 mm lenses at 36 MP; very good equipment with more than enough capability for the job at hand.  As the area was largely covered with tall trees and some undergrowth, it was evident on the initial pass, that the perimeter had been cleared and a rather tall fence encircled the entire lake and island.  A long bridge, perhaps fifty meters in length, was the only connection the island mansion had to the shore.  Akil set his camera to auto-drive shooting – five frames per second.  Marc tried to shoot only things that overtly caught his attention.  After the pass-over, Dara, looking over the review on the tablet, said, “We have at least five security personnel; one on the island where the bridge attaches, the other two on the land side, also guarding the bridge entrance.  Then, about two hundred meters to the north, at the main entrance, there looks to be two more, by the steel gate.  This guy takes his security seriously; he has an S-type curve in front of the gate.  So much for getting in that way.”  Marc was busy shuttering back through his pictures, searching for other avenues of approach.

Stiles made a very wide and elongated turn to the west, making sure the sound of the chopper blades were well beyond the hearing range of the compound.  Everybody else prepared for the final pass at the lower altitude, as he turned back in that direction.  Stiles dropped down, almost on the deck just above the trees, for the approach.  This would muffle the approaching chopper’s sounds until they were almost over the island.  As soon as he had a visual on the lake, he pulled up to the predesignated 400 feet altitude, and once again slowed his air speed.  On this occasion, Marc and Akil shot pictures of the lake’s shoreline and surrounding perimeter fence and roads.

They had returned to the office high-rise landing pad before the clock struck twelve noon.  Within the hour, they were all back in the meeting room going over the video and stills from the excursion.  A short while later, Jon arrived, having handed Viktor over to his cohorts.  Their attention was quickly diverted from the screen to Jon, when he said, “The guys in cybercrime at the Company call it ‘Sheridan’s Island.’”  Marc’s reply was, “And what else does the Company know?”  Jon answered, “Cybercrime has been tracking this guy for years.  They’ve never been able to connect him to anything directly, or even connect his real name, which is ‘Matt Sheridan,’ with the covert name ‘The Facilitator.’  This all sort of fell out when I ran a check on the pseudo name.”  He placed his computer on the desk and fired it up.  After a more than brief sign-in, he spun it around on the table, saying, “Meet Mr. Matt Sheridan,” as the computer flickered, and a picture flashed on the screen of the man.  Jon went on to say, “It seems that we, unknowingly, stopped a plan in progress that was intended to disrupt the global financial world.  The North Koreans were the sponsors of the plot; Martin’s NCC-5 code was the key; the brain was this guy, Sheridan.  In the last twenty-five years, this guy has been associated, but never really linked to, so many international crimes it would make your head spin.  But now, for some real news, the satellite surveillance over the last 18 months show a pattern, we think.  Every time the atmosphere cooperates and we have a clear sky over the lake, this guy takes a walk around the island between eight in the morning and noon, almost every day, without fail.”  You could almost hear a collective sigh around the room as the realization began to sink in.  Martin now knew what all the turmoil in his life was all about, from his granddaughter’s abduction, to the data facility incursion.  The Serenity group now had what they needed to fulfill the destiny set forth with Eyan’s death.

Marc, now turning his attention back to the videos, started searching for a point of ingress to the property.  There was a highway to the south of the perimeter about a tenth of a mile away, that could be utilized.  He cranked up a computer and returned to the Google Earth program.  Zeroing in on the area in question, be began to memorize the shape of the perimeter fence and the lake.  As he progressed, he hadn’t noticed that Akil and Dara had joined in, behind him.  They knew how Marc approached problems and had adopted his method, over time.  Stiles was on the phone having the equipment the team had brought from Madrid, delivered to the office location.  Before dinner, a plan had been devised to infiltrate the compound by the next morning, providing the weather was agreeable.  They would arrive pre-dawn and breach the perimeter, then set up an outpost and wait for dawn.  After Stiles had the equipment delivered, he was going through it, checking off the items he knew they would need.  Marc walked up behind him and said, “I don’t think we’ll need this much gear for the three of us.”  Looking back over his shoulder, Stiles said, “Four of us.  He was my friend, too, Marc.  Remember, I was at the data center that day.  I helped carry his coffin to the plane and flew it back to Serenity.  Four of us, Marc.”  The meeting broke up, but only after all involved had committed Matt Sheridan’s picture to memory.

They all had an early dinner and tried to catch a few hours of sleep, most to no avail.  All were still in their rooms at midnight, when wake-up calls rang in their rooms – as if anybody needed it.  By 1:00 a.m., they were in the SUVs and on the road to the lake compound.  Shortly before 2:00 a.m., the vehicles rolled to a stop, as the drivers killed the headlights.  The road was extremely rural; the only sound was an occasional owl or nighthawk.  They were all to enter the area together, but had very different agendas.  Marc, ultimately, was to make his way to the edge of the lake.  Dara was his back door, thirty meters to his rear as a backup.  Both Stiles and Akil would filter out in opposing directions, watching for any surprises.  As had been the plan, all were using night vision equipment and the usual voice-activated com system.

Marc had noted that the distance across the lake to the island was less than 150 meters.  He had chosen to use a Timberwolf .338 for the task.  It was relatively light-weight and extremely accurate when teamed with match-grade ammunition.

As they set out, Marc was the first to reach the clearing where the eight-foot tall perimeter fence was located.  The fence itself was not too impressive when under closer examination, it revealed its secrets.  It had integrated into it a system of horizontal wires that, if cut, would certainly set off a warning.  At the top was the obligatory razor wire.  Stiles dropped his pack and retrieved a breaching mat that he quickly threw over the razor wire, and then threw a knotted rope over the top.  Reaching carefully through the chain links, he grabbed the other end, tying it off to the fence bottom.  Five minutes later, they were all over the fence and into the tree line.  Once into the trees, they knew that the lake was less than fifty meters away, directly ahead.  They split up; Stiles and Akil moving off; Dara following Marc a bit further, before settling in to wait.

Marc, with his night-vision goggles, moved in total darkness, but slowly, being very diligent.  Everyone was carrying side arms with sound suppressors; the three back-ups also had suppressors on the automatic rifles.  When Marc reached the lake, the position was not what he was hoping for.  He moved to his right, about ten meters, before finding the spot he wanted.  He keyed his com unit and alerted the others to the lateral movement.  If a hasty retreat was necessary, it would be no fun getting shot by your own back-up.  Marc settled in at his chosen spot and began to wait until morning.

As daybreak approached, he used his binoculars to scan the shoreline of the island.  In some areas of the irregular shoreline, he could see a beaten pathway, perhaps the one Sheridan would use.  The sun was now topping the trees, its rays beginning to dance on the far end of the lake’s water.  He looked at his watch – it was just after 8:00 a.m.

Stiles had noticed a pathway through the trees that looked as though it was regularly traveled.  Noting this, he set up a position to be able to see both directions, not knowing which way it would be traversed.  He passed this info on to the rest of the team, mainly alerting Akil.  Dara had chosen her spot carefully, behind a fallen tree, with her back toward Marc’s position.

Akil was well-covered in deep brush, when he heard voices back toward the clearing.  He moved in that direction swiftly to the tree line, but quietly.  Reaching the clearing, he saw two guards walking along the fence 25 meters short of where they had breached the fence, moving in that direction.  Neither of the men, deeply in conversation, had noticed the fence-breaching equipment.  Without a thought, he took aim and fired twice, neither of the men having time to react.  He got on his com as quickly as possible, telling the others that all was clear.  Both Dara and Stiles had heard the gunfire, but Marc had not.  The forest was thick and was a natural sound barrier.  Marc started to key his com to say something, when he noticed movement on the island.  He raised his binoculars and watched.  It was Sheridan.  He traded the glasses for his rifle’s scope, and began to track the man around the island’s edge – watching him, as he walked along without a care.  At a rocky outcropping, he stopped and reached down, picking up a stone, then skipping it across the water, until it sank.  Sheridan paused for just a moment; Marc’s finger trembled slightly as he squeezed the trigger.  Sheridan stood frozen, for what seemed like an eternity, then fell to his knees and then falling forward, face down.  Marc got to his feet, picking up the still-smoking spent cartridge, putting it in his pocket for safekeeping.  As he turned to leave, he stopped, looking back at the now-lifeless body.  He said to himself, “Mr. Sheridan – meet my friend, Eyan.  I’m sure he’ll have some choice words for you.”

[The End]

Copyright © 2016; All Rights Reserved

The Pot That’s Bubbling On The Back Of The Stove

I know, it’s been a while since I’ve posted.  Frankly, it has taken me some time now to wrap my head around our new President and the daily bombing that’s happening in Washington.

Every day, I drive to work listening to 1A on NPR radio as the usual BMW, Lexus and Escalade drivers do their lane-crashing thing as they approach 200 feet of their parking garage.  What? They’ve never driven there before? It’s not that.  It’s just that the rules of the road don’t apply to them — never did.  Our President appears to have the same thought process.  In his mind’s eye, his election was akin to any other corporate conquest he’s achieved.  After all, it’s not like this is a republic formed by the people and for the people.  Hell no.  He Inherited A Mess, he says, and he’s The Only Man In America Who Can Fix It; the Only Man That Can Make America Great Again. He’ll Bring Manufacturing Jobs Back To America.  Let’s stop there.  I’m sorry, Donald, but that train has already left the station.  Come on!  Look around the world.  We’re not the only country experiencing that issue. It is a natural by-product of invention and ingenuity.  High school educations aren’t going to cut it anymore for our young people.  They are going to have to find new ways to contribute to our forward movement and that will likely mean achieving advanced degrees.  How can a man who has been in business as long as Donald Trump has, not see that?  Perhaps it’s a natural by-product of living in an alternate reality.

Let me be honest.  I know why people voted for him — I get it.  People are tired of the same old politics in Washington.  The ones that have produced a paralysis that has gripped and polarized our elected officials to the point where nothing gets done anymore.  Change is good — I agree.  But change for the sake of change is what we got instead — and that kind of change is never productive.

It’s only the first month of Trump’s administration — and personally, I don’t see much “administering” going on.  He’s buried in mire of accusations about his Russian investments which could (and should) suggest at the very least a quid pro quo situation.  He’s refused to produce his tax returns.  Refused to divest himself of his business dealings — clearly dismissing conflict of interest issues.  He’s taken aim at the media because he doesn’t like what they say.  And the people he has chosen to surround himself with? Let’s see how that’s working:

Flynn’s already taken a bullet for the team which has resulted in a sad end to a long career when he was offered up after lying to Pence about his Russian contacts.

Priebus was the next one selected to take one for the team by reaching out to the FBI asking them to publicly disavow news reports.  His career will be short-lived, no doubt.

And don’t count on Rex Tillerson to bail things out overseas.  He is a very savvy and well-seasoned businessman who didn’t get where he is by being a yes-man. Tick him off and he’s liable to turn around and hand back the Secretary of State position and move on.  You know — like mitigating your losses?

Mattis, on the other hand, may be the only stabilizing force out there.  A military officer who, it is reported, often left his ribbons behind for casual wear and who regularly mixed with the enlisted men in his command, generating some strong, vocal (and long-lived) respect.  Trust me, the voices of reason are counting on him to be the only cool head in a sea of turmoil.

Our allies across the seas are sitting with their hands to their mouths like an Oscar audience that just witnessed someone tripping up the stairs.  What will happen next, they wonder?  Well, that’s hard to say when you’re tethered to the coattails of Donald Trump.

There are bad men in the world.  Look at Kim Jong-un, who saw nothing wrong with ordering the death of his half-brother in a public airport using a nerve agent and who is itching to push the button that would launch a Hwasong-10 intermediate-range ballistic missile, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, that has a range of 1,550 miles.  And there are subversively bad men in the world like Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB agent, who is ever-so-familiar with the concept of coercion in order to achieve his goals for Russia.

One would think that our President’s thoughts should be more centered on how he keeps America and Americans safe in such a world.  One would think he would have a larger agenda than resorting to picking who is in the press audience.

For the sake of all Americans, Mr. President, get your head out of wherever it is — and start acting like the leader of the greatest democracy in the world!


Serenity: Full Circle – Chapters 26 and 27

I hope you have been enjoying my husband’s new book Serenity: Full Circle. Here are the next two Chapters!


Into The Black Hole

Late evening, two days later, both aircraft were on approach to Osan Air Base, South Korea.  Marc was at the controls of the G150 after just receiving clearance from the tower and given approach headings.  Dara was along for the ride on this mission.  She had drawn the short straw, and was to be the communications liaison in the Company’s facility at the air base.

After touchdown, Jon rounded up the group and ushered them off to a trademark large, black SUV.  After darting between several hangers and small buildings, they arrived at a medium-sized hanger.  As they pulled in, the doors rolled to a close behind them.  The hanger was obviously not what it appeared to be!  As they exited the vehicle, a large double door swung open, two men (sans jackets), wearing shoulder holsters, greeted Jon by his Company name.

The team, now consisting of five, including Cliff and Bob, followed the others into a massive, dark control room.  It was ablaze with multiple ten-feet tall video displays.  One was dedicated to the entire Korean peninsula; others appeared to be live-streaming from multiple aircraft, assumedly drones.  The entire room was manned by only five people, including the two that had answered the door.

It was a totally self-sustained facility; the upper two floors contained the galley, bed and bath for all operatives working within the building.  A large planning room was on the main floor next to the control room.  Jon gave the group a quick tour, ending at the galley, so they could all have a bite to eat.

Afterwards they all gathered around the meeting table in the planning room.  Cliff took the lead, giving the team a synopsis of the hybrid drone and some of its capabilities.  The unit was large enough to have a payload in excess of three hundred pounds.  The real impressive features were its speed, vertical takeoff and landing abilities.  One of the extra features was onboard flight control.  Cliff inserted a flash drive and launched a top-secret video, shot in the Nevada desert.  Each unit was about eight feet across and in the center was a sling seat with support straps and a flexible joy stick capable of right or left mounting.  Attached next to the seat was a light weight helmet equipped with a heads-up display.  It also had infrared night vision and radio capabilities, both long-range and Bluetooth-limited range.

At the table, Marc and Akil were putting things together.  Jon spoke up saying, “The two drones will be delivered and assembled by tomorrow morning.  We start the flight training in the afternoon.  For the time being, here’s manuals we’ve thrown together.  Bob and Cliff will work with each of you, one-on-one.  They have been on this project since its inception; no one knows more than they do about how these things work.  They’re the only ones to ever fly in them, so I suggest you listen up.”

Bob took the lead saying, “OK, we can do ninety percent of the flying from this control room.  When it’s time to land, considering it will be nighttime, no moon and, more than likely, total cloud cover at this time of year, you’re going to be at the controls.  These units are fully autonomous drones and can fly themselves home, even without Cliff or I.  All it takes is flipping one switch, then sitting back and enjoying the ride or stepping back, watching it disappear in the distance.  Now, I know you’re both pilots, but these things are downright touchy – more so when the ground effect comes into play.  We should be able to train you in a day, maybe two.”  After an hour of Q&A, they adjourned to their sleeping quarters and hit the manual until late in the evening.

Dara and Jon started going over the general logistics of the mission and listing equipment that might be needed.  The list was short and light for obvious reasons.  Based on the earlier meetings, two of the first pieces of equipment were M107 (LRSR) – Long Range Sniper Rifles – with Leupoid 4.5 x 14 variable power scopes.  Dara, then got on the Sat phone and called Akil’s uncle, Ricardo Ruiz, requesting an overnight shipment of 500 rounds of match grade Nammo, Raufoss, MK211 ball ammunition.  This ammunition, more precisely shell casings, could not be traced back to U.S. as they were manufactured in a Norwegian / Finnish military complex.  This ball-type ammo is considered to be the most accurate long-range 50-caliber round available.  After placing the order with Ricardo, she stopped by the galley for a hot cup of green tea, before joining Marc upstairs.

The sun was still only a promise of the new day, when the team gathered their chairs around the large conference table in the main meeting room.  Cliff and Bob started their rundown on the reading material from the previous night with both Marc and Akil.  The modified joystick the controller used to fly the drone, was the crux of the night’s reading material.  They moved the training session to an area on top of the hangar where the drones were parked.  They were somewhat larger than either Marc or Akil had envisioned.  For fear of top secret drones being seen, the flight training had to be done between one and four a.m. at night. Considering the mission insertion would take place during nighttime hours, this would work out fine.

After the meeting, Marc and Akil, unpacked the new M107’s and began to neuter them, removing all markings, both letters and numbers.  The procedure also included refining the trigger mechanisms and then removing the mechanical sights and also mounting the Leupoid scopes.  They would only take two magazines for each weapon.  Each had the potential for ten rounds, however the optimum load was known to be eight.  Superstition runs deep with competitive shooters, not to rule out when your life is on the line.  By noon, Marc, Akil and Jon headed to a make shift range for some live fire.  Jon had pulled some strings, arranging for a special shooting range to be set up alongside the main landing strip taxiway.  From the brace position to the target was 2,750 meters, 1.7 miles.  As the competitive ammunition had not arrived as yet, they began with XM1022 military grade munitions.  The Leupoid scope had the latest computer circuitry with flash memory for the latest metro weather updates.  It also could compensate for earth rotational effects and local magnetic variations.  They would take turns firing, each time tweaking the handheld computerized information.  The microcomputer that was connected via Bluetooth to the M107’s scope was constantly compensating the ultra-human factors.

For Marc, to close on the target, was a matter of five rounds.  Akil was an accomplished marksman, but did not have the training that Eyan had.  It was necessary for Marc to spend some time coaching him.  Akil, as in the past, was a fast study; he knew that Marc was one of the best at this.  He listened and learned well.  Over the next hour, he began pulling his grouping tightly together.  At this range, that meant a four-foot circle.  But this was not good enough; he needed more time.  Perhaps the match grade ammunition would help, Marc thought.  Sometimes, minor adjustments make a big difference.  After three and a half hours at the range, it was time to pack it in.  A 50-caliber round has a way of quickly beating up one’s shoulder.

Just as they arrived back at the hangar, a delivery truck was pulling away.  Dara was standing at the entrance way checking over the order.  Ricardo, as usual, was dependable and efficient; the order had been doubled, just in case.  Dara had already conferred with both Cliff and Bob about the mission necessities and its load demands. Now it was time to scrutinize the equipment and weigh in the men themselves.

After this was completed, it was early evening.  Jon had slipped out for several hours before reappearing just before dinner.  As they sat around the table, the conversation turned to that of the firing range.  Jon asked how much time Marc thought it would take for Akil to come up to par.  After a short pause, Marc replied, “Two, or maybe three, weeks!” Instantly he felt Akil’s foot kicking his leg under the table.  It was Akil’s way of returning the comedic gesture.  Then Marc said, “Most likely by tomorrow afternoon.”

Jon, with a grin, said, “Two bits says he does it first shot and every shot he takes tomorrow.”  This was something that neither of them expected him to say – he was a man of few words and not prone to levity.  Marc said, “I’ll take that bet.”  Before anything else was said, he slid a fully loaded M107 magazine across the table, stopping just in front of Akil.  Looking it over, his first inclination was, OK, what’s this?  Then he noticed the weight of the Mag; as he looked closer, he noticed markings on the rounds he had never seen before. This was unusual, considering the fact he had been an arms dealer his entire adult life.   He snapped two bullets out of the Mag, handing one to Marc.  The look on Marc’s face was telling the same story.  They both looked across the table at Jon, who now sat with a full smile on his face.  He said, “Have either of you ever heard of a government agency called DARPA?”  Marc said, “Yeah, back when Eyan and I worked for the Secret Service.  It was some kind of think tank for developing military toys.”  This information was a bit left of Akil’s knowledge base.  Jon interjected, “OK, DARPA stands for Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, and you’re right – they make all kinds of special toys – like that bullet your holding.  By the way, I wouldn’t drop it.  It’s worth about $15,500 a round.” Marc replied, “Impressive price; what does it do?”  “Well, it’s called an EXACTO round – Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance.  Inside that 50 cal. is a microcomputer that controls steering fins that allows it to adjust trajectory in flight, keeping it on target even if the flight path is altered by wind or uncontrolled variables, like the target moving.  It works using optical sensors in the nose of the bullet to track the target and altering the pop-out fins’ angles to change directions.  Do you think these might help the mission?”  Marc asked.  “What time are we going to the range?  I’ll let you know ten minutes later.”

In May, the sun rises early in Korea, and one must rise even earlier when work is to be done.  The sky was just beginning to turn orange in the east when they arrived at the make-shift range about a mile from the hangar. It was just the three of them and they were all anxious to try out the munitions.  By the time they had traversed the distance to setup targets, then returned to the firing position, the day was bright. Knowing that most likely the firing position on the mission would from an elevated location, they chose to fire from a table.  This would eliminate the ground effect imposed upon the bullet as it exited the rifle’s barrel.  Virtually everything affects the flight of a projectile that is meant to travel such distances.  Late the prior evening, they had retrofitted the M107’s with new barrels, sans the lands and grooves, to facilitate the bullet’s requirements. They exchanged the standard scopes for laser scopes, as they were required to designate the targets for the new munitions.

Marc started off the shooting match, firing his first round about five feet to the right of the intended target.  As soon as he fired, he adjusted the laser scope on to the stationary target; this would be the reverse of an actual event where the target would have moved.  The bullet impacted on target, near center mass.  Both Akil and Jon were observing with field glasses.  The reaction was unanimous –grins all around.  Now it was Akil’s turn.  He repeated Marc’s footsteps, aiming away from the target, firing and then re-designating.  Once again, less than two seconds later, the bullet arrived center mass.  Marc turned to Jon standing to the far side of Akil, flipping him a quarter with his thumb and index finger, saying, “A bet’s a bet.” At this point they were all smiling.  After firing two more rounds each, Marc said, “I don’t see the need to play around with these any longer, not at $15,000 a pop; what say we pack it in?”  Jon’s reply, “Sure, as soon as I try one for myself.”  Jon was no sniper; however, he was no stranger to firearms either. Marc gave him a quick tutorial and then he fired his round with the same results.  After shooting, he said, “The word ‘sniper’ may disappear from the books with this type of ammo,” referring to the military tech manuals.

After dinner, at a meeting, Cliff and Bob were the center of attention.  Bob told them that at 01:00 hours, the first flying lessons with full gear (including firearms) was scheduled on the roof.  As the hour approached, Marc was in the quarters Dara and he shared.  He was laying out his gear on the bed when Dara came up from the control room.  She flopped into a chair, displaying her exhaustion.  Marc took one look at her, shaking his head, saying, “I know, we all feel the same; it’ll be over soon.  Jon said he thought the parade for this turkey is supposed to be in the next four or five days.  I hope we can learn to fly these buckets of bolts in time to get there.”  Dara, looking at the items Marc had laid out, said, “You should forget the 17,” referring to the Glock.  “Take the 43; it’s half the weight, so you can carry twice the ammo.”  Marc nodded in agreement with her train of thought.  Dara was, when it came business, a person of cold logic.  The next thought to come forth had even more depth. “When you were at the range, did you and Akil ever fire at the same time, what happens if both of the projectiles optic sensors home in on the same laser paint?  That would be extremely awkward.”  Now, Marc began to realize just how tired they all had become. Something so basic, but horribly impactive, and everyone but Dara had glossed right over the possibility.

Both Marc and Akil had spent in excess of ten hours of time on the makeshift simulator flying the drone with the joy stick.  Now it was time to apply that to the real deal.  Just after midnight, they all assembled on the upper deck where the drones were now moored.  They had been fully double-checked and then flight tested by Bob the previous night.  They started the evening out with a re-briefing.  Then, one at a time, they began by powering up and learning to hover at three to four meters above the deck.  The power cells were a hybrid lithium paste, infused with polymorphic gel.  Neither of them really understood how it worked, but they were told the batteries had the ability to regenerate to one hundred percent within eight to ten hours, without the need of external interaction.  The units were able to sustain full powered flight for just over three hours at maximum load capacity.  By the time both men had achieved a reasonable core competence at hovering, more than two hours had elapsed.  It was now approaching a twenty-hour day for all involved.  The decision to knock off for the day was welcome.

Marc had voiced his concerns to Jon about the lack of rest and Dara’s point about the ammunition.  The next morning’s schedule was pushed back several hours.  With lunch behind them, the crew headed off to the firing range.  After firing the first set of rounds, it was more than obvious that a problem was at hand.  As Dara had thought, both bullets had homed in on the same laser, several times.  As they worked on an answer to the problem, it became clear, if the two targets were closer than six to eight feet from each other, the risk of duality existed.  They needed to find an answer, and quick.  By late afternoon, reality had set in.  Marc would need to revert to conventional munitions.  This would also necessitate changing out the barrel of the weapon and also added weight, which was at a premium.  A decision was made for Akil to use the EXACTO munitions and Marc would use the conventional type.  That evening Marc re-fitted his rifle with the standard barrel and scope before going up for the night’s flight training.

Cliff regurgitated the flight protocols again before the flight.  Both Marc and Akil suited up and loaded all the gear aboard, then proceeded to lift off.  After they were airborne, using the headset communications, Marc remarked, “OK, Akil, let’s see what these things can do.”  An immediate response from Cliff came blasting over the system saying, “This is only a basic flight, proceed around the hangar’s perimeter and land back here.” To which, no reply was returned.

Marc keyed his mic three times indicating to Akil to go up two radio frequencies channels.  This was one of the basic operational practices that the Serenity Group had adopted for live-fire field use.  Akil checked back in as soon as he was up on the channel.  Marc began, saying, “How does yours feel? This one handles like a Convair 240 in a cross-wind.  Akil just said, “Copy that.”  After thirty minutes, both were getting more adept at the quirkiness of the drones.  As they approached the hangar, they returned to the base frequency and announced their impending landing.  After landing and shut down, Cliff was in Marc’s face immediately, starting to say something that he could regret.  Marc raised his hands, palms out, saying, “Cliff, whose life is on the line here?  No disrespect, but you fly a desk; we deal with this kind of shit on a regular basis. We don’t have the time nor the inclination to always play by the rules.  Get it?”  Cliff with a stern look, said, “Got it.”  Jon was standing on the far side of the landing platform watching the confrontation with a subliminal smile.  This was one the things he liked and respected about Marc and his whole group; they were all business.

As they made their way down the stairs, Marc was saying to Jon, “We need an hour in the morning to hit the range.  I need to zero in the scope and barrel I replaced, and check the match ammo Ricardo sent us.”  “OK, do you think we can be ready to move this show out to the ship by tomorrow night?” Marc, stopping on the stairs, said, “We’re as ready as it gets, Jon.”

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