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One Second Past Midnight

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The line of tracers from the hovering gunship arced towards him like a torrent of red sparks as Kamal desperately sprinted towards the shelter of the mud wall. At the last minute before the stream of hot metal intersected with his path, the far away infidel gunner redirected the aim point towards a new, less challenging target which was promptly vaporized into a bloody mist of bodily fluids and bits of flesh.

“Praise Allah” Kamal thought as he leapt over the wall into relative safety and cover. Three of his fellow mujahedeen had just been turned into tomato puree but they were expendable; the information he was carrying was worth the lives of a thousand jihadists. He quickly made his way through the warren of tight, trash-strewn alleys and open sewers that made up the streets of the small town in Kandahar province. There was soon to be a meeting of senior Taliban, foreign fighters, and government traitors. He needed to bring the new information on the disposition of insurgent fighters he had so painfully and at great cost obtained to this gathering without delay. A very special guest was expected to be present tomorrow night. Something big was up.

There was a girl’s school near the central square that hid the gathering place the insurgents would be using for their meeting; the leadership knew the infidels were reluctant to hit that building in their crazed devotion to political correctness. Any structures that were the pet projects of bureaucrats hidden in offices half a world away were reliably safe non-targets.

The Taliban fully exploited their knowledge of this flaw, using girl’s schools, health clinics, mosques and similar locations as meeting places and logistics centers. In the almost 40 years of continuous warfare that raged in Afghanistan, the tribal warriors had displayed an ability to adapt and learn how to level the playing field with the most advanced military forces in the world.

Much of the recent military success of the Taliban was also due to foreign assistance and competing interests; after all these centuries, the great game continued unabated. Some of the players were new but the goals were always the same. Kamal and his people were nothing more than pawns and proxies for the foreign powers but as always, the enemy of my enemy is my friend…

Advanced weaponry poured into the country from every known source. From wealthy Saudis who couldn’t be bothered to get their hands dirty to foreign powers wishing to field test their latest weapons, everything was available. Prepackaged remote detonators for IED’s all the way to portable SAM systems could easily be found in every town; Afghanistan was now a one-stop shopping bazaar for killing.

Pakistan and Iran would still be key locations for advanced training, as Kamal knew; he had visited both countries to receive instruction in advanced demolitions and IED construction and deployment as well as preparation in intelligence gathering. And now he finally had the opportunity to combine that training with weapons that matched what the infidels possessed in destructive power.

At age 19, Kamal was already a veteran of many combat operations and was considered a rising star in the insurgency. He was a tough, wiry man with icy green eyes who looked far older than his actual age. Every bit of the cheerful boy he once was had been burned away by years of combat and privation. How different it was from just three years ago…

Kamal was born the fifth son a village elder in an isolated tribal village high the mountains of Helmand province. His father was now on his third wife as the previous two had succumbed to complications arising during childbirth. There were 14 children in his immediate family and all were expected to contribute to the household from the time they could walk. Unlike most of his peers, he received a rudimentary education that included reading and writing before assuming his career as a goatherd in the family business. He was exceptional in another way – even compared to the adults around him, Kamal was physically far tougher than was average in this tough land and he was a virtuoso with the weapons that were common to his tribe. He was skilled with everything from the antique Enfield bolt-action rifle to the latest AK pattern assault rifle.

The tribal elders were well aware of his prowess and he was mentioned around the council campfires of the Taliban as one who would be an asset to their cause. Then something occurred which radicalized the young man to a degree even they hadn’t foreseen.

When Kamal turned 16, he was considered eligible for an arranged marriage. As the second son, he was not expected to get any great prize in terms of bride price but he had received something even better – Setara.

Setara was the oldest daughter of the village potter, a man whose craft had been rendered obsolete by the flood of cheap Chinese cookware which had penetrated even the most isolated places on earth and thus left him impoverished and without a trade. He did have plenty of children to sell. Kamal’s father negotiated a price that befits the fifth son of his loins. The equivalent of $150 and four goats was exchanged as the bride price.

After the long and painfully boring marriage ceremony, Kamal was finally alone with Setara and was able to unwrap his gift. She was staggeringly beautiful. Some vagrant noble gene from a long ago ancestor passing through on his way to somewhere else had survived hidden for many generations until at last manifesting itself in her physical being. Her eyes were a shade of cobalt blue that compared with the summer sky, her unbound hair a rich chestnut hue, and her delicate features were reminiscent of those last seen on a fresco painted on a palace wall a thousand years ago. She had just turned 15 years old.

“My husband” she shyly whispered, her eyes downcast.

Kamal was instantly smitten; blood pounded in his ears far louder than the sounds of the celebratory gunfire outside of the mud brick hut.

“My wife” he replied, reaching for her when suddenly all hell broke lose…

The chubby E-4 named Eric Williams sitting in a Colorado bunker on the other side of the globe knew none of this and he probably wouldn’t bearable to make sense of it if he had; the Air Force was the only option for a Ritalin addicted kid from a broken family severely lacking in social skills. Oddly enough, the military had become a substitute for the stable home he never had as a civilian, He had 6 months left on his enlistment and fully intended on re-upping. He planned on living large as a NCO in the near future but right now, he was a tightly focused electronic messenger of death – a stone cold killer with his joystick.

The surveillance drones had detected a large gathering in the remote village with FLIR detection of automatic weapons fire. This intelligence was presented to the review panel that quickly determined a large force of armed insurgents was present and this potential threat needed to be neutralized. Upon this decision, the order was given to the Global Hawk on station some 70 miles from the village to reposition and launch on command.

Williams nearly jumped with excitement on receiving news of this development; finally something to break the monotony that consumed most of his shifts. Years of conditioning through playing first person shooter video games had blurred his cognitive abilities to the point where the real time display was indistinguishable from the latest version of “Call of Duty”. He had wasted hundreds of people with as much compunction as you would have swatting a fly. His gaze flicked between the displays on drone system status and high-resolution real time views. At 12 miles out, the view was sharp enough to make out individual facial features. No system warnings pinged him that any high value targets were recognized and he was about to comment about the dancing and large bonfire when the OIC uttered a one word command “Launch”.

With the aiming point centered on the bonfire, four missiles streaked towards the target and reached it in a matter of seconds. Navigational software maintained the course with unerring accuracy, not deviating a centimeter from the mark.

On impact, the monitor went white for an instant as the optics system adjusted for the brilliant flashes of the simultaneous explosions. When it cleared, all that remained of the group of huts was a smoking crater surrounded by heaps of bricks and a few piles of burning rags.

Back in Colorado, the E-4 celebrated with the others in the control room as they whooped and high fived at a mission accomplished. All ordnance expended, the drone was reprogramed for a return to its secure base, thousands of miles distant, where it would be prepared and re-armed for its next mission. The specialist looked forward to a well-deserved snack of Mountain Dew and Cheetos.

The impact of the missiles instantly killed the majority of the celebrants by the bonfire with the blast wave taking care of the women and children inside the mud huts. The force of the explosion blew Kamal right out the doorway and through thatch walls of the pen that the goats were housed in. This random, lucky movement had saved his life, leaving him stunned but largely uninjured.

Kamal painfully regained consciousness from the sensation of goats gently butting him. In the near distance, the sounds of women wailing, children screaming, and babies crying was the devil’s orchestra playing loud in his ears. He slowly regained his feet, trying to remember what happened. Setara! He jumped back through the opening in the wall and bounded into the remains of the hut to search for her.

As his eyes adjusted to the relative darkness and dust, Kamal spotted Setara almost immediately. He made his way to her and saw that he had found her head – the rest of her body lay a few feet away, A large piece of shrapnel from a missile had neatly severed her neck, leaving her features unmarked with only a startled look on her face. Kamal knelt and gently kissed the top of her head. He rose and wiped away the last tears he would ever cry and made his way out towards the other survivors. The hatred and thirst for revenge that now burned in his soul could only be quenched with the blood of infidels – many infidels. Kamal was going on jihad.

For the next three years, Kamal’s tale was one of unending warfare. He had quickly joined the local mujahedeen group and proven himself on his first mission. He and three others had infiltrated into what the infidels had thought a secure area and hidden themselves inside a small health clinic. As the foreign workers had arrived in the morning, they were met by a fusillade of small arms fire and cut down as they entered the building. A knife wielded by Kamal dispatched two women from the Philippines who had thought they had reached safety. He severed their heads with a chainsaw while his act was recorded by one of his fellows with a smart phone, vowing before Allah that every infidel he encountered would meet the same fate.

This bloody act secured Kamal’s reputation, ensuring he wouldn’t end up as a suicide bomber or other through away cannon fodder role. As time passed, he accumulated more fame by the sheer audacity of some his raids. He learned how to defeat the surveillance technology the infidels used or find the gaps in its coverage. He turned their weapons against them and there was no way they could match his savagery bound by their rules of engagement.

On one raid, Kamal used goats to mask the heat signature of he and his men to sneak past the infidel’s IR sensors to enter a village and subsequently slaughter the foreigners. On another mission, he joined the Afghan defense forces, feigning hatred of the Taliban. His skill as a soldier and native intelligence quickly put him on a fast track with the leadership and he was assigned to a trusted position as a liaison and interpreter on an American airbase.

After several months in cover, the foreigners thought of Kamal as one of them, socializing with him, sharing their food, and helping him with his English. He was allowed access to even the most sensitive parts of the base as he was thought as “one of the good guys”. He acted the part of a groveling heretic willing to do anything for the Americans. How foolish these infidels were…

On the first Thursday after the end of Ramadan, Kamal struck. His first act was to slit the throats of the two soldiers supervising the Afghans standing guard at the main gate. He used a knife one of the infidels had given him for this task, a long curved blade called a “strider”. He laughed at the look of confusion on the face as the boy who had thought of Kamal as a friend. He vainly tried to stop the blood spurting from the severed arteries in his neck until the flow ebbed to a stop along with his life. No time to behead these fools; there was more important work to do…

The Afghans standing guard had fled and Kamal quickly raised the gate, allowing a cargo truck packed with heavily armed mujahedeen onto the base. As he greeted his fellow fighters, he grabbed a RPG and with a cry of “Allah Akbar”, launched a rocket into the central guard tower, turning it and the men it contained into a flaming coffin. The fighters quickly split up into teams; some headed towards the airfield where they managed to destroy six of the jets parked in the open. Others set up a mortar and thanks to Kamal’s pre-work in setting up known ranges to targets, were dropping rounds on the buildings which housed the foreign invaders in a matter of seconds.

In less than 10 minutes, scores of the enemy were dead and millions of dollars worth of their modern weapons were burning piles of twisted metal. Kamal shed his uniform and hopped on his motorcycle, leaving his fellow fighters to achieve martyrdom by covering his escape. He had earned his title that night; he was now known as Kamal the Avenger. Tonight was a just a warm up for the payback due the infidels…

At the Chinese embassy in Kabul, a mild featured plump young man, closed his laptop and made his way out to the front courtyard. He passed the fierce Albanian mercenaries standing guard and entered the 4th vehicle in the row of 5 identical black Mercedes G-wagons parked behind the front gate. Colonel Chun Liu of the Peoples Liberation Army did not take chances on even an ordinary trip to the airport. He would be meeting PLA General Wei Zhang who would be wheels down in about 15 minutes and he wanted to make a proper impression. The aged General would not be getting off the jet; his stop was intended to finalize the transition of a plan into action that had been years in the making.

The General had survived the purges of the great leap forward and cultural revolution and proven himself to be a tough and ruthless opportunist with an almost maniacal desire to see Chinese primacy before he joined his ancestors. He had done many hard things in his life and was prepared to do a few more to accomplish his life’s work.

It was rumored that he was maintained alive through careful medical supervision that included stem cell treatments and whole blood transfusions. With geopolitical events soon reaching a climax, his life’s goal was finally in sight…

Colonel Chun represented the new mandarin class that was rapidly replacing the current group of oligarchs who ruled China. At just 32 years of age, he was Harvard educated, fluent in English as well as three other languages, and had already amassed a fortune from his stake in ownership of a score of corrupt contracts and enterprises run off the abundant slave labor in his country. Other than his fondness for Russian prostitutes and bourbon, he had no interests or vices outside his mission.

Chun’s success in industrial espionage while a student in the US had caught the attention of senior management which he leveraged into further success leading to his assignment as the PLA’s country manager for Afghanistan.

He found his assignment ridiculously easy; he was used to paying far more to buy off government officials in other countries - these barbarians could be had for a song or at least a pale young boy. He was determined to reach the end goal of making Afghanistan a wholly owned colony of the state and there was plenty of money to be made on the road to that destination, one step on the road to world domination that his nation would need to survive. He, unlike General Zhang, had never done the hands on wet work of killing enemies. Some operational experience would look good on his resume.

China was dying; the devil’s bargain the state had made at the behest of the satanic henchman of the American president over forty years ago was coming due; the one child policy was proving to be a demographic disaster and the very land, air, and water would soon be too poisonous to support life itself, let alone high tech manufacturing operations. The entire economy was a corrupt house of cards with no real depth and only maintained by financial sleight of hand. A reset was needed.

China needed free resources to expand and a clean way to rebalance the population; the new mandarins had a plan that would do both. However even the longest journey starts with a single step so now to the immediate business- the de facto conquest of Afghanistan.

The five blacked out Mercedes SUV’s quickly reached the airport and were passed through by security after a scan of credentials, As soon as General Zhang’s jet had stopped moving, four of the vehicles took up positions at the cardinal points with the mercenary teams setting up immediate security. Chun’s continued up to jet, stopping by the fuselage door while he waited for the entry gate to roll up. He had no qualms about his security arrangements; the Albanians were all from the same village and closely related. In addition to being very well paid, they had a complex code of honor, although seemingly stupid and incomprehensible to outsiders, the Albanians took it seriously to the death of either their enemies or themselves.

The unmarked Boeing 747 offered no clue as to its identity or purpose; a trace of its tail number would indicate that it was owned and operated by China Heavy Industries and nothing more. A knowledgeable observer would recognize the aircraft was equipped for inflight refueling and external missile defense pods.

Inside the jet was much more interesting; it was packed with the latest secure communications and electronic countermeasures technology. It also contained a luxurious VIP suite and lounge area staffed with beautiful young girls hand selected by the old General himself. Quite a venue for a short meeting Chun thought.

The gate in position, Chun bounded up the stairs and entered through the now opened door. He was quickly and efficiently frisked by a pair of the General’s bodyguards; two blank featured brutes who may have been twins given their similar appearance. He passed the inspection and was directed through the bulkhead into the lounge area. It was one of the most opulent rooms he had ever seen.

Every wall was clad with highly polished rosewood and ebony panels inset with elaborate hand carved jade and ivory decorations depicting every manner of mythical beast from China’s long history – from regal dragons to cavorting foo dogs. The floors were covered with subtly colored hand-woven silk carpets that Chun was sure he was sinking in up to his ankles.

Along one wall, a massive carved wet bar stood stocked with the finest liquors including Chun’s personal favorite, Pappy Van Winkle 21. His stomach rumbled as he registered the enticing scents that emanated from a sideboard covered with steaming platters of rare and expensive delicacies. Completing the setting, six lovely young girls stood in a line, identically dressed in starched white blouses, tight miniskirts, and high heels. The first approached him with a silver platter bearing a single crystal champagne flute that he wordlessly accepted.

“Please accept the General’s apologies as he needed to complete an urgent conversation,” she demurely said. “In the interim, he asks that you partake in these simple refreshments”.

Chun downed the vintage champagne and made his way over to the sideboard to sample the tidbits on display. “A guy could get used to this life” he thought with an inner laugh.

Meanwhile, back in central Kandahar, Kamal was holed up in a tiny dank room underneath the girl’s school. He had managed to find some drinking water to go with the dried goat meat and rice he carried in his satchel. He cleaned his worn Makarov pistol that his grandfather had taken from the body of a soviet invader he had killed over 30 years earlier; the surface of the pistol was so worn it looked like polished silver and it was now highly engraved with curlicues and rosettes that had been added over the years.

After wiping down the magazines with a rag spotted with used motor oil, Kamal loaded and cocked the weapon and replaced it in an inner pocket of his blouse. He prayed that the pistol would have the opportunity to be the instrument of dispatch for many more infidels. He leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes but sleep would not come; excitement about tonight’s meeting and his role had him on high alert. He and his fellow warriors had gathered in mass in the villages and cities throughout Afghanistan after receiving the word the day they had long awaited was coming – the holy massacre of the infidels that had overrun his land would soon take place…

At the same time Kamal was finishing his noon prayers, Chun was on his second plate of spiced prawns and dumplings. He was about to try a shot of the bourbon when the door panel in the rear bulkhead slid soundlessly open. He dropped the plate on the sideboard and hurriedly made his way through the doorway into a large room equipped as a high tech conference chamber.

A large rosewood table dominated the center of the room. Large flat screen panels displayed streams of symbols and maps, some recognizable, others totally cryptic as to their meaning. Seated on one side were four senior PLA officials that he recognized from previous meetings. All were out of uniform and dressed much like Chun was - decked out in expensive hand tailored Italian suits. Each had an identical Macintosh laptop open in front of him. “Ah, America” Chun thought “We will kill you with your own technology”.

At the head of the table, General Zhang sat. The old man was dressed in a simple military style tunic devoid of decoration. His bald head was bowed as he closely studied his i-phone. Without looking up, he beckoned Chun to take the seat opposite the four officers.

When Chun was seated, Zhang raised his head and spoke. “Welcome comrades, tonight we take the first step in the great march of conquest. The dragon has fully awakened and will soon make its wrath known” he began.

“Through years of tireless work, our operatives and shadow enterprises have infiltrated to the very heart of our greatest enemy. We have penetrated every network, compromised every system, and are now ready to begin operation “Rampant Dragon”.

“At precisely midnight local time, Phase one of the operation will begin. PLA computer specialists will take over the American defense network, scrambling all communication to between command and field elements. In the ensuing chaos, we will strike”

He paused to take a sip of water from a crystal tumbler before continuing.

“In Phase two, our first target is the command and control centers of US and NATO military forces throughout Afghanistan. With all communications blacked out, our next step will be the take over of UAV’s operating in all zones. We will repurpose those UAV’s to fire their weapons on all headquarter and embassy sites for US forces. We will add to the confusion by selecting some allied sites for targeting, sowing fear and distrust among their forces”.

“Phase three will be the administration of the death stroke by the local Taliban forces. Through Comrade Liu’s most excellent work, we have bought and paid for their short term loyalty. They will swarm into the leaderless and chaotic military bases and complete the massacre. What happens to those useful idiots who survive the night is yours to decide”. The General’s meaning was clear; once the operation was complete, the Taliban were to be exterminated.

“We will have our foot on the throat of America. In one stroke, we will have rendered them a paper tiger for the world to see. They will be powerless to stop us as we roll up Taiwan, Korea, and Japan into the greater Chinese sphere of influence and render India helpless through loss of their allies. America will retreat with its tail between its legs - beaten and totally dependent on whatever crumbs we allow them. The world will be helpless before us and it all starts tonight. A new world order and the beginning of the age of China’s rightful dominance”.

“For your part in this success, you will be appointed managing director of the Badakhashan gold fields and promoted to general officer” the General added. He did not need to voice the understanding that Chun would receive a large cut of the revenues that would be generated from the mining activities, it was implicit in all high level PLA dealings. The General continued:

“Generals Ping, Wang, Dong, and Zhu have operational responsibility for command and coordination of activities world wide” The four men acknowledged their roles by nodding their heads in unison.

Zhang continued “This aircraft will be the command and control center for the operation and will be on station over Tibet during the initial actions. You will personally meet with the Taliban and government officials to give them the orders to begin their attacks on the Americans. You will communicate back to us through the secure network confirming this and ensure the Taliban leaders issue their attack commands through the encrypted satellite phones we have provided them with ”.

For the first time in the meeting, Chun felt a wave of unease pass over him. He was bureaucrat, not a field operative. He knew to voice such a concern would make the General see him as a coward unfit to be part of the mandarin class that would rule the new order. He had worked too hard to reach this point when billions were literally in his grasp. With a smile, he smoothly answered, “I would be greatly honored to lead this endeavor your Excellency”.

“Good” the General replied. “You will board a Chinese commercial mission helicopter at 1900 hours for the journey out to Kandahar. A four man team of specially selected operatives from the PLA special forces will be your personal security detail. Your only baggage will be this” gesturing towards an aluminum container the size of an ordinary brief case. “It contains the secure communication device for your verification and acknowledgement. Upon arrival, you will be met by the local intelligence chief and escorted to the gathering of senior Taliban. Once at the location, everything else is up to you. It is imperative that the Taliban and militia forces launch their attacks immediately. Any questions?”

“No your Excellency – the mission and orders are clear. I will not fail in their execution” Chun confidently responded while at the same time, his mind raced thinking of a million things that could go wrong with this delicately constructed plan.

“That will be all then. Let us adjourn to have a toast to our victory” the general said while rising and heading towards the lounge. Chun vowed he would succeed in this mission; there was no alternative if he didn’t…

Half a world away, SSG Eric Williams was starting his 12 hour shift as NCOIC of the Air Force UAV Command war room. The last few weeks had been uncannily quiet for this season. Taliban and general insurgent activity were ridiculously low, with almost no ambushes or IED’s reported. The surveillance drones indicated that most of the fighters had come out of the hills and seemingly vanished into the mud brick mazes that made up most of Afghanistan’s cities. Were they finally giving up he wondered.

A long holiday weekend was in progress Williams had volunteered to pull coverage so his married peers could spend the Memorial day with their families. Williams was still a plump and pasty young man with a now receding hairline. Despite his technical brilliance at his job, he did not have the respect of his fellow airmen. They had nicknamed him “Sergeant Pugsley” and constantly subjected him to ridicule and practical jokes that the awkward young man good naturedly tolerated. He spent most of his free time playing video games with enlisted men. He was looking forward to a quiet shift, some rack time, and a return to the online gaming community. At least on this shift he would have the company of two equally socially inept E-4’s: Specialists Bradburn and Ward.

Other than the color of their skins, the two airmen were nearly indistinguishable and subject to equal amounts of teasing; Bradburn now bore the nickname of Urkel while Specialist Ward was known as Frodo. Both men were extremely competent at their jobs and well known as experts in the computerized systems the Air Force depended on. Williams felt at ease with them on his shift.

Regardless of what the intelligence from the field indicated, the military command had a full staff present in the war room. Eight heavily armed global hawks and numerous smaller UAV’s including predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles orbited Afghanistan. A hard lesson from over 70 years ago had taught the military never to let their guard down. This lesson was even more emphatic after the near disaster of the Yom Kippur war in 1973 and the events of 9/11. No one wanted to see a repeat of Pearl Harbor on their watch.

After General Zhang’s jet went wheels up, Chun had spent the last two hours rehearsing his mission protocol while sitting parked on the Kabul airstrip. He reassured himself that the mission was unstoppable and there would be no failure but try as he might, he could not shut up his tiny inner voice of doubt.

At precisely 1900, a sleek French made Eurocopter touched down next to where Chun’s convoy was parked. The helicopter wore the colors of China State Industries and was a civilian version of a military model in high demand. The research division was busy reverse engineering a copy for PLA use but it was a bit of a ways off. This one was available now.

The copter had been modified to include armor but had no external armament. As soon as it was two feet from the ground, four lithe men dressed in an unusual coyote brown and sage green camouflage pattern jumped out and rushed towards the waiting SUV’s where Chun was hidden. They were identically armed with the latest Type 95 bull pup rifles, side arms, and copies of PVS-14 mounted on their lightweight helmets. Chun stepped out carrying the briefcase and the men instantly formed a box around him and rushed towards the waiting chopper. It was a four hour flight to their destination and no one wanted to be late for the gathering.

Darkness was falling as Kamal opened the hidden door from his hiding place. The building was as quiet as tomb and for a panicked instant he wondered if he had missed the meeting. A glance at a wall clock indicated he had several hours before the start of conference. Reassured, he made his way into a larger inner room that would serve as the venue. He would do a security check and make sure all was in readiness.

At 2300, the Eurocopter touched down in the parking lot of the bakery that now served as the headquarters for the Chinese mission in the area. A Toyota Land Cruiser immediately roared up to the bird and the five men jumped in. As soon as the last passenger door closed, it tore off down the road with another Land Cruiser following closely behind.

Inside the vehicle, the local diplomatic attaché quickly explained the local situation detailing their route. These should be no danger tonight; the local militias and Taliban were both paid to avoid any contact with the Chinese and given activities related to tonight’s mission, traffic would be light. They should reach their destination in less than a half hour.

At 2330, three vehicles pulled up to the girl’s school and parked behind one of the side buildings. Six men got out of each vehicle but only three, one from each vehicle, entered the school.

The first was a gaunt grey bearded giant wearing black robes and headdress. At least a half dozen weapons were visible on his harness. This was Sheik Barzim, leader of the largest affiliation of the Pashtun tribes in the region and a man who had grown extremely wealthy playing both sides of the fence. He had the reputation as a man without honor, who loved gold more than Allah. In a nation know for pedophiles, He has a particular reputation savage reputation for cruelty. The sheik looked around wordlessly with a tight-lipped gaze that combined anger and annoyance.

The next man was a smiling man with a slim build and average height. White teeth shone brightly in his dark face as he looked the other two men over. This was Sheik Tarek from the west, another man with a long history of forming shifty alliances and taking money from whoever paid the most, no questions asked. He bowed deeply and greeted the other two men: “Greetings, my friends. May tonight’s activities benefit us all”.

The two sheiks had already been in close contact with Chinese agents with large cash deposits made in secure accounts in Switzerland and other places already made. Their participation in tonight’s meeting was merely a formality; they would launch their attacks as soon as the order was given.

The last man through the door was a glowering dwarf with a red beard and redder face. Mullah Amir, the spiritual and political leader of all Taliban forces operating in the country had arrived. He gave each of the earlier arrivals a look of distain but warmly greeted Kamal: “Praise Allah this day has come. The sacred soil of our country is about to be washed clean with infidel blood. Bless you my son for being the instrument of Allah’s will in helping this come to pass”.

Kamal bowed and replied “It is my duty as a Muslim to rid our land of the profane infidels, I shall not rest until the last one has been beheaded and they have been driven from the holy lands for all time. This I swear with my last breath”.

The squat Mullah beamed at these words and then turned to glower at the other two men “You would be well to follow the example pious young Kamal has set”.

Before the other men could respond, the door swung open and the last of the attendees arrived. The security team quickly took up positions while Chun made his way to a position in front of the Afghanis where he gave a slight bow and greeted them in their own tongue “Salutations my honored hosts, I bring greetings and great tidings from General Zhang. Your hard work and faith will be rewarded on this night. With this device, we can attack Americans without fear from their unseen weapons and will drive the invaders from your land, permitting this country to become the paradise on earth it is meant to be”.

Chun groaned inwardly at his speech; the words sounded phony and insincere. The Afghanis looked at him skeptically and aluminum case he carried. The two sheiks were bought and paid for but the Mullah and young Taliban warlord were the fanatics he needed to convince.

Kamal spoke first: “What manner of fantastic device do you possess that will drive our enemies away. A jinn that will magically appear when you open it?”

Mullah Amir laughed loudly at these words and added “Yes, show us your magic”.

“It is something far better than magic” Chun replied as he set the case on a desk and opened it up. He quickly switched it on and extended the small dish antenna, pointing it directly east. A map of Afghanistan instantly appeared on the display with colored dots indicating the locations of every military installation in the country. A steady blue dot marked their current location.

Kamal, who had studied some technology while in Iran, instantly recognized the function of the device, “You have a GPS targeting device. Now what?” he said.

“Its more than that” Chun replied, pressing another button on the display. A swarm of golden dots instantly appeared. “These are the positions of every infidel drone flying overhead right now. We will take control of these and set the weapons to target Americans. We need your Taliban forces on the ground to finish the invaders off”.

Both the Mullah and Kamal were intimately familiar with the destructive power of the unmanned aircraft. The thought of turning the Americans greatest weapon against them was a delightful concept.

Kamal considered this bold statement. He had heard of such things and had even participated in the transport of drones captured whole that were sold to PLA agents. He had even watched the video feeds from the primitive Iranian drones that the Taliban sometimes operated on surveillance missions.

Chun glanced at his Patek Phillipe wristwatch; the time was now 11:55. He needed to close this deal quickly. He turned another switch on the display and a view of the heavily fortified American embassy leapt onto the screen. With another twist, the view changed to inside the walled compound.

Kamal could clearly see American men and women brazenly strolling about on the video display. Beautiful Setara appeared before him, the vision caused his mind to go black and his only thought was to make the infidels suffer as badly as he had,

“By the prophet Mohammed” Kamal screamed “Let this be done and if you play us false, I swear to Allah you will welcome hell after I am done with you”.

Kamal quickly retrieved his satchel and removed the satellite phone that linked him up with every commander in the field. He powered the phone up and made a terse transmission “Authorization code KDX12RS25. Operation Prophets Sword is launched”. The message was relayed and repeated to ensure every field force received the notification. The hidden Mujahedeen forces instantly began to move and join up with tribesmen, government workers, and anyone else with a grudge to settle.

Chun turned another switch that sent a preprogramed burst transmission to General Zhang’s aircraft. The time was precisely midnight.

At the Air Force UAV Command war room, an almost unnatural stillness filled the air, the only sounds were the hum of the air conditioning units and the careful whispering of the drone operators seated at their consoles. Suddenly, a piercing alarm sounded and all system status lights went red. The unthinkable had occurred – every drone in the sky over Afghanistan was no longer under US Air Force control.

“Get Colonel Baker down her NOW!” SSG Williams shouted.

The OIC arrived a moment later. “What the hells going on here” he barked.

“System wide coms failure. We have tried rebooting the system multiple times but to no effect” SSG Williams replied. “And it just got worse. Someone has taken control of our birds”.

Baker stared at the screens for a few moments and confirmed that the UAV’s were now under control and returning to their bases. Others were headed in different directions. He turned pale and shouted “Blow ‘em! Right Fuckin Now”

Every operator in the room quickly entered the authorization code and sent it out but nothing happened; they tried again and again with the same result; all the drones appeared to be steadily continuing on their new missions.

Williams felt like vomiting with the sick sense of anticipation as he knew what was coming: American weapons were about to target friendly troops with a degree of accuracy the Taliban could only dream about.

“Get the Base Commander and call the Pentagon” Baker shouted.

“All coms are down” Williams replied. “We can’t even get a cell phone call out”.

“FUUUUUCK!!!” The Colonel screamed. “What can we do?”.

Everyone fell silent trying to think of a way out of this terrible predicament. No solution appeared likely.

“There is one thing we can try” a low voice piped up. Everyone instantly turned to look at the speaker. It was Specialist Bradburn, a.k.a. Urkel. “Me and Specialist Ward have been playing around with a program that parallels the security systems and overrides it at the source, cutting it off and allowing another user access to the system. We mostly did it to hack into gaming networks”.

Williams mind raced; if they introduced the hack directly into the main system, bypassing all the external security protocols and firewalls, it might work. He was familiar with the program, having used it himself to gain revenge on adolescent gamers with their online smack talking. At this point, what other options did they have?

“Give me your device right now” he ordered. Bradburn sheepishly handed the Samsung mini tablet to the NCOIC knowing full well that even bringing it into the command center was an Article 15.

Williams plugged the device directly into a system com access port and quickly located the correct file and transferred it to the system control program. He rebooted the system and waited the seconds that seemed like an eternity for the system to come up again.

After what was in reality less than 2 minutes wait, all status lights turned green and the air was filled with standard military communications traffic. They were back!

“Colonel, better take a look at this!” someone shouted. The big display flashed up a new real time image of swarms of armed men creeping towards dozens of American installations in Afghanistan. It took the Colonel less than three seconds to process the image and realize what was going on.

“Flash transmission to SWAC! Tell them to get everything they have in the air and prepare for danger close fire missions” Baker shouted.

Responses acknowledging that their transmissions were received were instantly relayed back and everything that could fly was rapidly being readied for missions. “Reposition all UAV’s and target every available system on those insurgents” Baker ordered.

The Base Commandant had joined Colonel Baker at the command chair. He was still wearing his golfing outfit. “All possible means and weapons are authorized “ he growled. “Waste those mofos”. Every operator in the room instantly tightened their grip on the targeting joystick at that command. It was time for payback.

At less than 5 minutes past midnight, the first drones acquired their targets and began missile after missile at every insurgent in the open. Once the large concentrations were eliminated, operators began targeting individuals scattering for cover. One particular site appeared out of the ordinary; fighters were streaming like ants into what was purportedly a girls school. Bradburn and Ward each had one missile left. The men looked at each and launched almost simultaneously.

SSG Williams was astonished how quickly the troops in the field had responded with everything they had from small arms to attack helicopters. Tonight was a turkey shoot and it would be years before the insurgents could begin to recover, if ever. He turned his attention to the intelligence reports streaming in, particularly the SIGINT, trying to determine point of origin of the cyber attack. There was an usual signal triangulating a point in central Afghanistan, the Chinese mission in Kabul, and a location hundreds of miles to the east. He began the computational analysis to break down the transmissions.

“Colonel, we got something else” he called out a few minutes later. “The original signal triggering the hack and source of the UAV override signals is here” he said pointing to a display picturing southwest China.

“It appears the signal is coming from here” A crimson dot was slowly moving over the high plateau of central Tibet. The Base Commandant joined the two men at the display and stared at the screen for a few moments.

“That’s Chinese territory right there. We can’t just go in and start World War 3” Baker groaned. “We have to notify the Whitehouse and open up diplomatic channels”.

“Do that son. I have to make a call” The General replied as he headed to the secure room. He knew the imposter in chief would at best issue a sternly worded apology at what any sane person would consider an act of war. He did have one card left to play though, he thought as he punched a number into the phone. An old warrior was about to be recalled but there were some logistical challenges to make his plan come alive.

Colonel Frank Wheelwright, USAF retired was about to go fishing when his phone rang. He glanced at the display and instantly recognized the number.

“What can I do for my country today” he said in laconic drawl. A few minutes later, he was headed towards Elgin AFB in his Porsche GT2 at nearly triple the speed limit. His bird was going to fly again.

At the girl’s school, Chun anxiously awaited the first drone strikes on the American bases. He glanced again at the display on his device and did a double take. His mouth gaped as he realized the UAV’s were all back under US control and headed around for missions on the insurgent forces. What the hell had happened he wondered? He would never learn that the greatest scientific minds of the PLA had been defeated by a chubby computer geek with a GED. He needed to get out of there right now or he wouldn’t live to see breakfast. He surreptitiously signaled to the security team and they closed in on his position as he snapped the lid of the case shut.

“It’s time I return back to my base and plan the celebrations for our glorious victory” Chun said with as much cheer as he could muster. The instantly suspicious Afghanis stared at him.

“What is the hurry, friend? Don’t you want to witness the destruction of the infidels first hand?” Mullah Amir questioned.

Before Chun could answer, Kamal’s phone began to ring. He answered it with a look of annoyance that quickly changed to the blackest anger. He turned and threw the phone directly at Chun. “Traitor” he screamed. “We are being slaughtered like dogs! You are the flea bitten son of a whore!”

As Kamal spoke, the distant thump of heavy artillery began amid a growing roar of small arms fire.

“Wait” Chun pleaded. We can work this out to both our…”

Kamal’s long arm shot out and drove his knife into Chun’s open mouth. Chun was about to say something important but never had the chance as blade erupted from the back of his neck, severing his spinal cord and leaving him paralyzed on the way out. His bowels emptied explosively as he dropped to the ground like a limp doll. Kamal released his grip on the knife and drew the concealed Makarov, double tapping the two Chinese soldiers closest to him with shots in the face.

Mullah Amir attacked the third soldier, slicing him open with his scimitar. He then busily set to work at pulling the man’s intestines out of his belly with his bare hands. The soldier was able to shoot the dwarf in the sternum before collapsing in a heap of his own guts. The fourth soldier managed to get off a burst, stitching Kamal up the side with a row of 5.8 millimeter holes.

As Kamal fell, he fired again, hitting the soldier in the bridge of nose. The effect of the shot was almost comical as both the man’s eyes popped out of his head due to the hydrostatic forces generated by the bullets expansion as it entered his skull. It gave him the appearance of a demented, bloody jack in the box.

Kamal landed heavily on the floor next to Chun, his face only inches away from the would-be mandarin. Although completely paralyzed, Chun was still alive. He was thinking furiously about how he would get out of this predicament and come out on top but his brain started shutting down like a series of doors being slammed shut before he finished figuring it out. His last thoughts were about the tasty shrimp he had eaten earlier that day. He never did get a shot of that bourbon.

Kamal’s body was also shutting down. He couldn’t move and the spectacle of the Chinaman’s stupid face with his empty staring eyes and the hilt of his knife still sticking out of mouth was right in his face. The stink of blood, piss, and shit fouled the air but he could still smell the garlic from Chun’s last meal. He shut his eyes tightly and prayed to Allah to be merciful and grant him a quick death and proper burial. Suddenly the dimly lit room was flooded with orange light. Kamal opened his eyes to the sight of a Tomahawk missile’s nose entering the front door of the school. No burial would be necessary for Kamal…

High above the earth at boundary where space began, Frank Wheelwright was a happy man. The General had delivered; he was back in the lead sled, cruising at better than Mach 5, a speed that allowed him to reach anywhere in the world in less than three hours time. He dimmed the lights in the cockpit to point where pale white star glow reflecting off the instrument panel was more than enough for him to clearly read his gauges.

The SR-71 was a marvel of engineering. Nothing like it was ever built and it was unlikely that anything approaching it would ever be constructed again. Every time the bureaucrats wanted to retire her, it was quickly realized that there was nothing that could approach the capabilities of this wonderful bird.

The Blackbird was built in a time where the sky was the limit to American ingenuity and everyone expected to be living on the moon and tooling around in flying cars in a few short years. Frank wondered what had happened to those dreams and how his country had gotten so far off track… Enough musing; he had a more urgent mission approaching.

The “Spike” had been developed in the same era as the Blackbird. Its intended use was an anti-satellite weapon for a deep space warfare program that had never materialized. A ten-foot long tube of a copper-titanium alloy filled with sintered zirconium, it had no explosive charge just a simple optical guidance system. It wouldn’t need a warhead at the speeds it struck its target at…

Frank was now rapidly approaching his target that lay deep in the atmosphere many thousands of feet below him. The Chinese had recognized his signature and launched scores of SAM’s at his position; most feebly burnt out in the lower atmosphere with the others were simply unable to catch him at his current speed. Once he got in range, he merely had to drop and fire the small booster on the missile. A nearby USAF satellite would handle navigation to target. Release time approaching in 3, 2, 1. FIRE!

On board General Zhang’s private 747, the crew was desperately trying to shake the missile on its tail. It was an exercise in futility; the lumbering jet couldn’t outmaneuver or outrun the missile and none of their state of the art countermeasures worked on the simple electronics of the old Spike. Escape by landing the plane was not an option; there were no airfields close by.

Zhang felt no fear, only anger and frustration that he had failed. He was cheered by the knowledge that an entire young generation shared his vision and would continue his plan. He headed back to the lounge. A drink was in order. He was just reaching a crystal decanter of some rare brandy when the Spike entered the rear of the fuselage travelling at better than Mach 3. On impact, it instantly transformed to a fountain of white-hot plasma, burning through the jet from stern to stem, vaporizing both men and metal. In less than a second the jet was turned into a rain of debris with the largest pieces the size of a baseball. Not even the aircraft’s black box transponders had survived the fury of the plasma burn.

Frank didn’t even witness the impact; the Blackbird was travelling at better than a mile per second. A terse “Target neutralized” was the only acknowledgement of the accomplishment of his mission. Time to go home. He wicked up the power; he had a date tonight.

Four hour later, Frank was back in Florida preparing for another mission – a mission to catch fish. On returning to Elgin, he made secure contact with General Kirby and relayed the mission result to him personally. There were no records of the payload nor of the targets destruction. As far as anyone else knew, this was an ordinary scientific flight. The mission log stated the flights purpose was to measure the impact of global warming in the Himalayas. And that was that…

An exhausted SSG Eric Williams made his way back to the NCO quarters. It seemed like he had spent a week locked down in the command center; crashing from adrenalin high did that to a man. He entered the NCO day room and glanced up at the big screen where a new program was on. He stopped dead in his tracks and stared at the screen.

The female newscaster announced, “In other news, China is today mourning the loss of one of its most revered public figures, General Wei Zhang. The General was killed along with the entire crew in a plane crash in Tibet. The crash occurred during a thunderstorm while flying through the Himalayan mountains on a humanitarian mission. Chinese aviation officials say a lightening strike that destroyed the planes navigation systems was the cause of the crash. Efforts are being made to reach the wreckage but due to the ruggedness of the terrain, this will be extremely difficult”. The male announcer broke in with a somber “Well Cindy, that’s terrible news”. His demeanor instantly changed to cheerful idiocy as he continued on “Stay tuned to find out about next seasons American Idol contestants…”

Williams took a last swig of Mountain dew and headed for bed. He considered celebrating with an adult beverage; maybe bourbon would be appropriate…

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