My latest story, The Jakarta Breach, is a Mil-SF/Mystery story set in my loosely connected Inflection Point series. The story features Parker McCloud, a US military officer seconded to a United Nations anti-terrorist unit. In a world ravaged by climate change and out-of-control technologies, terrorism is the new international arms race.
The story is my Reader Magnet, which means it’s free for people who sign up for my newsletter at Newsletter Sign-Up. It’s also available in print form at the book-selling events I have scheduled. It won’t be available from online retailers until August, 2024 (by which point I will assuredly have a new Reader Magnet).
Enjoy this preview!
1. MISSION BRIEFING
>>> AT-7 HQ, Tanjung Priok, Jakarta, Indonesia
Tuesday, 17:00 WIB (Waktu Indonesia Barat – Western Indonesia Time)
I yawned and tried to get comfortable in the standard military-issue metal folding chair while I waited for the briefing to start. Welcome to Action Team Seven (AT-7) of the UN Emerging Threats Tactical Response (ETTR) organization. Now hurry up and wait.
About forty chairs had been set up in precisely measured rows, complete with an aisle down the center in a hastily constructed briefing room that had been partitioned off from the main part of the floating warehouse where the unit’s gear and vehicles were stored. The chairs faced a low stage with a podium on it. Most of the seats were filled by personnel from the various international organizations supporting the operation, including representatives of the Indonesian Air Force, Detachment 88 (the long-standing Indonesian counter-terrorism force), the Emerging Threat Group (ETG) intelligence, some flyboys off the newly commissioned USS Ticonderoga, and, of course, my fellow members of the tactical response team. Conspicuously absent, local law enforcement, which was notably corrupt and leaked information like a sieve.
For VIPs whose duties precluded their attendance in person, a forty-foot by eight-foot sheet screen dominated the left wall of the room. About ten people were looking out at the room from that huge screen; the only one I recognized was Captain Charlotte Hamilton, commanding officer of the USS Ticonderoga, the aircraft carrier whose flight assets would be assisting in the upcoming operation if necessary.
I wrinkled my nose. This warehouse may have been taken over by the ETTR for the last eight months, but the smell of spoiled fish, exotic spices, sawdust, and diesel fuel still lingered in the air.
Somebody touched me on the shoulder. I looked up. Nancy Watts beamed down at me. “Hey, short-timer,” she said, her Scottish origin evident in her accent. “Good luck with the wee mission tomorrow.” This new operation was going to be my last one with the AT-7 as part of my two-year US Army assignment to assist the UN with its counter-terrorism activities.
I’d be rotating home in about a week.
“You’re supposed to say, ‘Break a leg,’ you know.” I patted her hand on my shoulder. “It’s considered bad luck otherwise.”
“Well then…” She paused, then said in a really bad faux Boston accent, “Break a leg, ya damn Yankee.”
I winced. “Needs some work, I think.”
“Well, poop, there goes my dream of being an international actress.” She laughed and then moved off to sit next to the pretty Asian intelligence analyst that she was dating.
“That really was an awful accent, yeah,” Jumail el-Kaleel whispered as he settled into the chair next to me. His own accent was carefully clipped British, with a slight Arabic overlay, though I’d heard him use a much thicker Arab accent on our previous operation together.
He was a thin man with artfully trimmed facial hair and penetrating blue eyes. His slightly effeminate manner, the unexpectedly deep knowledge of women’s fashions that he’d exhibited on several previous occasions, and his obliviousness to the women who’d sometimes flirted with him had made me pretty sure we weren’t playing for the same team, so to speak. His two minders sat in the row behind us. I’d never been sure whether they were bodyguards or jailers. They certainly weren’t ETTR and they weren’t interested in mixing with the rest of us.
I’d been unable to penetrate the veil around Jumail to learn any more about his background. I had been able to find out that he’d participated in at least five infiltration missions, which meant he either had a death wish or had no choice but to participate.
I’d also verified that he knew the field of virology like nobody’s business and he shared my passion for chess.
“She knows,” I replied. “It’s part of her magic.”
“It’s a curious thing,” I said. “But she makes people around her better. She laughs, she tells horrible jokes, she smooths things over between people and she’s never less than super competent. She doesn’t crack orders or use any sort of command voice, but people just shape up and try to work as efficiently as her when she’s around.”
“Interesting.” Jumail cocked his head. “And you? What’s your talent?”
“I kill things,” I said, smiling tightly. “And in a clutch, I’m really, really good at figuring out the shortest, most brutal way to do it.” That shut Jumail up for a moment and left him looking at me thoughtfully. We’d worked together before, so he’d known I was a soldier with some extensive training in fieldcraft. Clearly, nobody had filled in regarding my specialty.
Once upon a time I’d thought I was just a regular person. But the Army had shown me, much to my surprise, and a smidge of horror, that I had one supreme talent above all others. I was a gifted killer who functioned in a jam like nobody’s business. On top of that, I’d also qualified as a sniper.
There was a squeal as Colonel Briggs tapped the mic that had been set up on a podium facing all of the chairs. Conversations stopped all around us and there was a rustle of movement as people turned to face the podium.
“All right, let’s get started,” Briggs said. “Some of you are already up-to-speed on the op. That’s fine and dandy, but we got a bunch of people here today who don’t have that background yet. So, some of you are going to have to hold your horses while we get everybody orientated.
“Our target is a terrorist group codenamed the Twisted Poodles. Apparently, they look at themselves as a spiritual successor to the Heritage Legion, an eco-terrorist group with fascist leanings. So far, they’ve been more of a research group than an action group, but they’re apparently trying to change that.” He gestured to a man standing about ten feet away and slightly behind him. “Here’s Wallace with more details.”
“Right,” Wallace said, taking position behind the podium. As the head of the Intelligence Group spoke, holographic images appeared on the stage near him, mostly pictures of Heritage Legion attacks from about twenty years ago. “From an ideological perspective, the Poodles believe that environmental and social collapse is inevitable and that only in the wake of such a collapse can a true civilization—based on their enlightened principles, of course—arise in balance with nature. Given that, they’re perfectly happy to help bring on that collapse as soon as possible. The Poodles appear to have specialized in virology, which puts them at a potential threat level considerably higher than most eco-terrorist orgs.
“As best we can tell, they’ve put together some rogue specialists from Kenya, Taiwan, Tibet, and Korea.” Three-dimensional images of the faces of several researchers appeared in the air, their names floating beneath them. “These aren’t cutting-edge guys, but they’re competent enough to do some dangerous things with pathogens. We think they’re running a lab somewhere in Indonesia, probably near Jakarta.”
Technology had been a huge boon for terrorism. Need some esoteric piece of equipment? Just print it. All you needed was a properly coded blueprint and a 3D printer. Heck, even seventy years ago, a high school student could build an atomic bomb; the only limiting factor had been obtaining fissionable materials. But there were no significant limiting factors on cyber threats or, say, biological warfare. Oh, it might be hard to score a smallpox sample, but Ebola and lots of other dangerous viruses were readily available.
There was always some nut, or group of nuts, trying to create a zombie virus, a doomsday virus, or a targeted ethnic virus. Hey, let’s see if we can mix Ebola with the transmissibility of measles and screw with the whole world. Prove that humans can be better at creating new diseases than bats and birds and pangolins.
In my opinion, if the Twisted Poodles were running a virus lab, it was probably a mobile lab on a boat. Nobody would notice a boat in Indonesia, a country scattered across seventeen thousand islands.
This wasn’t exactly new thinking. The intelligence folks were as aware of this as I was. And there was precedent going back to the twentieth century. In the 1990s, Iraq had hidden biological “weapons of mass destruction” from UN weapons inspectors by keeping all the critical components on trucks that could simply drive away at a moment’s notice.
“Here’s where we come in,” Wallace said. “The Poodles have apparently completed Stages One and Two.” There was a stir as everybody contemplated the ramifications.
Stage One in the development of a biological weapon was simply to acquire the necessary materials and equipment. Stage Two was to alter the native pathogen (or pathogens), say Ebola or MERS-36, to imbue the bioweapon with a desired capability. That required time and technical know-how, but was more easily done today than it ever had been before, especially with advanced computer modeling. Completing Stage Two meant that the Poodles believed they had a viable biological weapon.
Wallace continued, “They’re apparently having some problems with Stage Three, so they’ve called in an expert. We managed to intercept the expert and substitute Jumail el-Kaleel in his place.” Beside me, Jumail took that as his cue and stood. He waved desultorily at the other attendees, then sat down again. On the stage, an image of the man Jumail had replaced appeared; there was a superficial resemblance to Jumail—they were both thin, bearded, and of Arab descent, at least-—but not much more.
Stage Three was about preparations for delivery, such as scaling up operations to produce enough of the pathogen for use or solving technical issues related to deployment. For example, a fragile virus might break down too quickly to maintain efficacy as a weapon; this was the stage where problems like that were addressed.
“The Poodles have arranged a rendezvous with Jumail at 2:00 PM tomorrow, local time. The location is a well-known café in the Muara Baru district, near the Fish Market. However, they know him as Nabeel al-Naderi, a virologist of Jordanian descent. Nabeel’s family moved to Turkey when he was a young teen. College in the UK, then a job studying crop-related pathogens in Thailand.” It was widely believed that China had initiated the spread of the biological agents that had decimated Thailand’s agricultural industry, as a punishment for its overly close ties to the United States. “His family joined him in Thailand after his father was ousted from his Turkish government position in a political purge. Nabeel went radical about two years ago after he lost his family in one of Thailand’s food riots.”
A woman raised a hand.
“Yes?” Wallace said, pointing at the woman.
“Does Jumail have the technical knowledge to impersonate al-Naderi?” Based on the question, I pegged her as Detachment 88.
I glanced over at Jumail and saw him roll his eyes at the question. The operation would never have gotten to this stage if he’d been unqualified.
“Indeed,” Wallace replied. “I am assured by our experts that Jumail has got more of a background in virology than al-Naderi himself or anybody else in this room. He won’t be tripped up by a technical grilling.”
After a few more questions, Wallace wrapped up and Colonel Briggs took over again. “These guys may be new on the scene, but there’s no doubt that they’re dangerous.” Briggs paused and swiveled his head slowly to eyeball everybody in the audience. “Whatever they’re planning, whatever they’re targeting, we need to stop them cold. At a minimum, we want to shut down their lab and stop whatever they’re planning. Ideally, we’d like to secure intel so we can roll up their organization.”
The rest of the meeting was logistics, priorities, rules of engagement, and assignments. I thought Colonel Briggs relied a bit too much on tech. Don’t get me wrong. I like tech as much as the next person, but tech doesn’t always work. And, in my experience with combat in Africa and in these types of semi-military ops, the more complicated the tech, the more the chance of a critical failure.
I’d preferred working with Briggs’ predecessor. He’d been a paranoid SOB like me, and a good boss. Sadly, Briggs had his position because a Jama ul-Mujahideen hit squad had blown up his predecessor’s armored limousine with a Russian anti-tank missile.
I held up my hand. Briggs grimaced. “Yes, Lieutenant McCloud?”
“I see lots of drones and some reaction forces,” I said, emphasizing my Texas drawl because I knew it irritated Briggs. “But I don’t see any feet on the ground tailing Jumail to the rendezvous.”
From the sidelines, Wallace said, “We don’t think there’s going to be a problem at that stage.”
“With all due respect, sir, I see this as a green light plan.” I stood up. “If things go wrong, the reaction forces are all three to five minutes away. Jumail needs backup on the ground, on the way to the meeting.”
While Briggs glowered at me, Jumail said clearly, “I agree with the lieutenant, sir.”
“Fine,” Colonel Briggs replied after a moment. “McCloud, you’re it. Pull together what you need.”
“Yes, sir,” I said politely and sat down.
Jumail leaned over and whispered, “You really think that’s necessary, yeah?”
“Hey, paranoia’s kept me alive so far.”