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A Black Ops Mission
West of Yengisu, Xinjiang Autonomous Region, China.
1030 Hours Local Time.
Sam Phillips looked back across the tussocky desert landscape toward the tan speck that was the antique Toyota land cruiser, making sure for the sixth time in just under two hours that it still sat concealed behind a ragged row of poplar trees, far enough off the sparsely traveled two-lane highway to render it invisible to any traffic. He raised a pair of lightweight field glasses that hung on a soft nylon strap around his neck and rotated the knurled center knob until the boxy 44's driver, whose name was Shoazim, came into focus. For a quarter of a minute or so, Sam spied on the bony Uighur.
He had rented Shoazim and his vehicle in Ürümqi, the autonomous region's capital city. Like all official guides, Shoazim reported at the very least to the local police, or even more likely, to some department of MSS, the Chinese Ministry of State Security. And so Sam had kept the man at arm's length. If there was something sensitive to discuss, he did it in private, or in French. Still, the guide had been helpful, negotiating their way onto a number of sites Sam's three-man crew videoed for the travelogue he was ostensibly making.
Sam was pleased to see Shoazim leaning up against the near side of the vehicle, omnipresent cigarette between his lips, his right knee cocked against a tire, his right hand twirling the end of his long, stringy mustache -- all body language that indicated boredom. Though compact, the glasses were powerful enough so that Sam could watch Shoazim exhale a plume of smoke from one of the strong black tobacco cigarettes whose nasty stench permeated the Toyota, even though they always drove with all the windows open, even at night when the temperature dropped below freezing.
It was in the low sixties now. Despite the mild weather, Sam was sweating. Between the unremittingly blue sky and the warm morning sun, both his shirt and the rucksack he carried were wet clear through, and the dampness had spread to the waistband of his cargo pants. They were all sweating, the four of them, struggling under the weight of the video gear, which was made all the heavier because of the nuclear sensors concealed within the camera's bulky tripod legs.
The sensors were state-of-the-art, developed by a joint Department of Energy -- No Such Agency task force. There were three, and they had to be positioned in a gentle, precise curve at two-hundred-meter intervals to do the job for which they'd been designed. They'd been fabricated out of a space-age nonmagnetic titanium-scandium compound that was harder and lighter than steel and more durable than carbon fiber. They were self-powered, and could operate for years without recharging. And they were programmed to send their readings in secure, coded microbursts to a trio of National Reconnaissance Office SPARROW HAWK stealth satellites launched covertly during one of NASA's shuttle missions in 2000. The three invisible NRO birds sat in geosynchronous orbit twenty-two thousand miles above the earth. They were already receiving signals from other covert sensor pods, although Sam wasn't cleared high enough to know how many had been inserted, or where they might be located.
Sam dropped the glasses back onto his chest, crested the scrub grass of the dune, and made his way along the far side. The soft padded canvas case holding the video camera banged against his right side as he lurched precariously down a steep embankment of packed sand, rocks, and brushwood to catch up to the other three. At the bottom, he took a long hard look at the next series of dunes, which were taller, rockier, and more heavily brambled than the ones they'd just crossed, listened to the protestations coming from his body, and held up his hand to call a momentary halt. "Time to check our position."
"What's wrong, Pops, you need another break?" The sensor tech, whose real name was Marty Kaszeta, even though his Irish passport identified him as Martin Charles Quinn, was a mere twenty-six. He flaunted his youth, Sam thought, quite unmercifully, including the maddening way he insisted on wearing his long-billed Tottenham Hotspurs cap backward. Kaz's right shoulder was wet under the tripod case strap. But he'd set the pace for the whole group, even though his load was almost thirty-five pounds heavier than anyone else's.
So Sam chose to ignore the dig. Instead, he untied the blue-and-white kerchief from around his neck, exhaled loudly, and wiped at his face with the salty wet cotton triangle. He'd always considered himself in pretty good physical shape. But five kliks of packed sand and scrub had just proved otherwise, hadn't it? God, he was bushed. He reached around and dug into his rucksack for one of the three half-liter bottles of water he carried, took a long, welcome pull of the warm liquid, and consoled himself with the fact that he was so wiped because he was the Team Elder. The official CIA geezer.
The communicator, Dick Campbell, a sheep-dipped Marine captain who'd been TDY'd 1 from Langley's paramilitary division (looking far too Semper Fi, which gave Sam some anxiety), had just turned thirty-one. Sam liked to tell him he couldn't remember being thirty-one. At least the lanky, team security officer -- his name was Chris Wyman but he liked to be called X-Man -- was approaching adulthood: Wyman was thirty-fivethree years Sam's junior. He had the low-key approach to life you'd expect from a kid who'd grown up in Aspen, spending more time on the slopes than in the classroom. But Wyman was sharp, and thorough, and didn't miss much ... SOAR
A Black Ops Mission
. Copyright © by John Weisman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.