- Jake Shu saw the afterburners kick in, the flight of four F-35 Lightning II aircraft leave the gravity of earth and head into the night sky. It was but one of many flights leaving the airbase, a stream of lights bursting into the night one after the other, some headed out over the Pacific Ocean, others over the Sea of Japan, but this one was special. Special to him. The cold began to seep in under his trousers, an unrelenting contact from the iron park bench he was sitting on, as if it was asking him to leave. But he could not. He had a mission here, and he would see it through. The airbase in Misawa was about as far north in Japan as one could get on the main island, leaving him in the upper echelons of cold weather on the spit of land, but the April chill wasn’t bad enough to drive him inside. He was too invested in a small bud in his ear. Connected to a scanner tuned to the open-net air traffic control frequencies emanating from the tower behind him, he was listening intently. So much so he actually had a bead of sweat on his brow in the forty-degree air. Like a scientist conducting an experiment in a controlled environment, he was unable to alter the outcome once it was started, but he wanted to see the results. All that remained was to watch and wait. Or in his case, listen. The initial contact from the aircraft sounded normal, which was not what he wanted to hear. He had a lot invested in this particular experiment, and if it didn’t work, he would be the one paying the bill.
The F-35 jet, known as the “Lightning II,” was the most advanced fighter aircraft ever envisioned. Capable of unimaginable things, from stealth penetration to combat control of synchronized drones, it was unstoppable. With construction on each airframe ongoing in more than twelve countries all over the world, it was the finest fighter aircraft ever to take to the skies. The ultimate killing machine, but it had an Achilles’ heel. Jake worked for a company called Gollum Solutions, a subcontractor of a subcontractor for BAE Systems—a common occurrence in the byzantine world of military procurement. You’d be hard pressed to find a military contractor who didn’t take the profits first and then subcontract out, but in this case the subcontracting company’s name had a double meaning. It was derived from the riddle of the ring in J. R. R. Tolkien’s novels.
Built solely to gain the contract for the F-35, Gollum Solutions promised to solve the riddle through software, and in so doing make the F-35 invisible. Just as the ring could do. As enticingly clever as the name was, what the owners never realized was that there were two sides to the ring, and they would pay a price for it. The ring in Tolkien’s world was corrupting, with anyone who wore it turning against his nature to serve a different master, and the name Gollum would prove prophetic. Which is where Jake Shu came in. A Chinese American, he was well placed to create havoc for money. A Gollum in his own right, he had worn the proverbial ring, and had been corrupted. Two months ago, he’d been detailed from his company in Australia to the F-35 final assembly plant in Japan—an unexpected advantage. Japan had the only such plant outside of the United States, with all other F-35s being built in Fort Worth, Texas, and because of it he had an opportunity. He’d helped with the byzantine assembly process, his expertise being in software integration.
He’d done the job he was asked—along with a bit more—and was now wondering if it had worked. Sitting in the cold outside the control tower, now it was time to see if his inject actually mattered, because a human being was behind the controls. At the end of the day, he could alter the sensors of the plane, but the pilot was king. And yet that man only did what his sensors told him to do. At least that’s what Jake hoped. His inject was simple: Change what the pilot thought was correct. There was ample reason to believe that his alterations would work. Plenty of pilots crashed because they thought one thing and the unforgiving earth thought another. The difference in those cases was that they chose to disbelieve what their instruments were telling them. What if the instruments themselves were telling the pilot something different? The helmet of the F-35 was a monstrosity—a four-hundred-thousand-dollar piece of gear that offered the pilot innumerable feeds, showing him everything that was occurring within his airspace.
He could read the world in real time, gaining an unrivaled capability to defeat anything that chose to fight. The pilot read all of those feeds and trusted them explicitly. And it was all software driven. The pilot controlled cameras that could detail everything around the aircraft, allowing him a 360- degree view that would be impossible without the helmet. He had feeds telling him every threat near the aircraft within a hundred miles. He had sensors that detailed when to fire his weapons, only locking on when the computer told him it was correct, giving him an unparalleled ability to prevent collateral damage in modern warfare. He had more control over his destiny than any pilot in history. But what if what he was seeing was wrong? If his actual experience wasn’t what was happening? What if his helmet told him one thing, and reality was another? Jake heard the control tower say, “Comet four-two, Comet four-two, go to thirty-one five. Inbound aircraft at thirty-seven.” He heard, “Yes.
Understood.” He waited with bated breath, conflicted. If this worked, he was murdering a person he’d never met. He heard, “Comet four-two, you just passed through twenty thousand feet. I instructed thirty-one five. Are you understanding?” Most of the Japanese airbases used by the United States were manned and operated solely by Americans, a symbiotic relationship that Japan allowed because the country fell under the U.S. umbrella of protection. Misawa was different. It was the only combined airbase in the Pacific theater run jointly by both Japanese and U.
S. personnel, and as such, had been chosen as the base for the first Japanese F-35s to showcase the partnership between the two countries. Jake knew that the men inside the control tower were Japanese, as was the man in the aircraft. They spoke English, because that was the air traffic control language the world over, but it was still a little surreal. Especially since he wasn’t Japanese. The pilot responded, a little miffed, “Yes. Knock it off.” Jake heard nothing for a pregnant second, and then the voice from the tower showed its first bit of urgency. “You’ve passed through fifteen thousand at five hundred knots. Acknowledge.
” “I understand. I have it.” Nothing more. Then the voice from the tower became frantic. “You’re at two thousand feet and going six hundred knots. Acknowledge. Acknowledge.” Jake waited, but heard nothing else. He knew the radar track ended at one thousand feet. He stood up, glanced left and right, and then saw the first indicator of his success—five men rushing out of the tower.
He waited a beat, then sat back down, wanting to hear the tower’s calls. There was nothing else broadcast, the plane lost to radar intercept at one thousand feet. The recovery of the aircraft would take four months, the body of the pilot itself not found until a month after that, with the United States concerned that the Chinese would attempt to find the top-secret information lying on the ocean floor. The final report was that the pilot had experienced spatial disorientation flying over the Pacific Ocean at night, where the horizon and the ocean joined seamlessly into one. There was a lot of chatter among the pundit class about the Chinese stealing the vaunted technology of the F-35 by submarine or other means, but they failed to realize that the Chinese had no intention of diving into the depths of the Pacific for technology that had been destroyed by a plane flying at six hundred knots straight into the ocean. Why should they? Since Mao Tse-Tung, they had been the masters of unconventional warfare, and this was just one more moment of their success. Why find an aircraft at the bottom of the ocean to learn its secrets when you can make every single one of them irrelevant? Jake dialed a number on his cell phone and said, “It’s done. And I think it worked.” Chapter 2 December 2019 Amena spiked the ball and I dove for it, barely able to get it back into the air. A floater that I knew she was going to smash.
She leapt up and hammered it again with a little bit of rage. I didn’t even try, watching it bounce away. I looked at her and said, “Really?” She gave me a little impish grin and said, “I thought your reflexes were quicker. Sorry.” We were in our small driveway on a narrow lane in Charleston, without even a net, and I knew she’d done it on purpose. All we were supposed to be doing was tapping the ball back and forth, like before a volleyball game, and she had decided to turn it into a contest. I wasn’t sure if it was because she was mad about being forced to leave the house, or upset at herself for agreeing to the plan in the first place. At thirteen years old, she was taller than most girls her age and was pretty athletic. I’d decided to get her interested in volleyball, because the school she was set to attend had a pretty good team. I’d paid for a couple of lessons, and in so doing had turned her into a monster.
A refugee from Syria, I’d collided with Amena on a mission in Europe after her family had been slaughtered by some very bad men. She’d ended up being pretty critical to saving a lot of lives, and after the loss of her family, she was all alone. So I’d brought her back to America after it was over. Okay, that sounds like I’d gone through the wickets with the U.S. Department of State to introduce a foreign refugee into America, but I hadn’t. I’d basically smuggled her into the country using a covert aircraft belonging to the organization I worked with. Called Project Prometheus in official top-secret traffic—but just the Taskforce to all of us minions —its sole mission was protecting the United States from attacks that others in the Department of Defense or the CIA couldn’t prosecute, which is to say it operated outside of legal bounds. And therein lay the problem. I’d basically turned an enormous covert infrastructure into my own personal coyote operation, but instead of bringing a load of Salvadorans across the Rio Grande in the back of a pickup, I’d flown Amena into the United States on a Gulfstream jet leased to my company.
It was bad form all the way around, not the least because it could have exposed the entire organization, and with it our less than stellar following of the U.S. Code, but she was worth it. She had prevented a catastrophic attack at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, and she’d deserved the rescue. Of course, the higher-ups in the Taskforce hadn’t taken that view. Called the Oversight Council, they supervised all Taskforce activity, approving each mission on a case-by-case basis. Except for this one. When they found out what I’d done, they tried to slip her back out of the country and introduce her into the refugee flow out of Syria, but I was having none of that. The odds of her ever showing back up in the United States were marginal at best, and she’d earned the right to be here, regardless of the less than legal means I’d used. Amena ran into the bushes beside the driveway and grabbed the ball, knowing I wasn’t going to chase it after that hit.
She handed it to me and said, “If this isn’t a honeymoon, why can’t I go?” I took the ball, knowing she was playing me. I said, “It’s not a damn honeymoon. Quit saying that. You can’t go because you have school. You’ve been begging to go to school for months, and today’s the day.” “But that was before you taught Jennifer to SCUBA dive. Before you planned a trip to Australia. Before the choice was being stuck inside your house or going to school. Now it’s going to Australia or going to school. I’d rather go to Australia.
Unless this is a honeymoon for you two . ” In the end, me and the National Command Authority of the United States agreed to a compromise, which is a polite way of saying I took on the president of the United States over Amena’s fate. It had been a little bit of a fight, but they’d agreed to wash her documents as having been sponsored by a global company that engaged in worldwide protection of antiquities. A company that was a do-gooder on the world stage, protecting what was honorable and just in the sands of history. My company, Grolier Recovery Services. It was a unique solution, because in truth, while my company did in fact run around the world saving old pottery shards, its sole purpose was to put a bad guy’s head on a spike. But I’d agreed. The sticking point was that the sponsor had to be something more than a company. It had to be a family unit, with actual names. Which is where Jennifer Cahill, my partner in crime, came in.
If I had a Facebook page, under relationships it would say, “It’s complicated.” Jennifer and I were business partners first and foremost, but we were definitely more than that, if either one of us had the courage to admit it. We’d danced around the commitment to our relationship for years, sometimes falling back onto just the business partner side of things, but always with the benefits side of the house, if you get my meaning. My feelings had slipped out on occasion, as had hers, but we’d conveniently forgotten those instances, like an embarrassed family member who doesn’t discuss what the drunk uncle blurted out at Thanksgiving. The truth was I loved her and had just been too damaged to commit—and she had been the same way. Amena had short-circuited all of that angst, forcing us to face reality. Something I was happy about, but I wasn’t so sure about Jennifer. Because of the immediacy of her situation, Jennifer and I had actually tied the knot at the justice of the peace, becoming officially married, but Jennifer thought it had a veneer of corruption around it. When she’d said “I do,” she’d expected a wedding, but there wasn’t any time for that. We needed to be a family unit immediately—but she was still expecting a ceremony.
Which is what Amena was talking about. We couldn’t be taking a honeymoon when we hadn’t had an official wedding ceremony. I batted the ball to her, saying, “Stop that talk. You’ll just get Jennifer wound up. You’re going to school, and we’re going to Australia. It’s just a vacation.” The truth of the matter was we were leaving the country solely to make Amena rely on the boarding school she was attending. In effect, to take away her ability to call us every night or come running home for support. I was forcing some tough love, but I couldn’t tell her that. She hit the ball back, this time with a soft lob setup, and I leapt up and smashed it, driving it past her head and causing her to flinch, the volleyball bouncing into the street behind her.
I hit the ground grinning and then heard, “What in the world was that? Are you crazy?” Amena now sported her own grin, knowing I was going to have my ass handed to me. I turned around and saw Jennifer on the stoop of our Charleston single with a suitcase, looking like she wanted to gut me. I said, “Hey, wait a minute. You didn’t see what she did earlier. I was just acting like a front line on the court . She asked me to do it.” With a pious look, Amena said, “It’s hard practicing with him. He is very mean.” My mouth fell open and Amena broke into a smile, chasing after the ball. She came back, stood next to me, and gave me a small hip bump, both of us looking at Jennifer, waiting on the pain.
Jennifer shook her head and said, “I can’t deal with two children. One is enough. Help me with the suitcase.” Amena lost her smile and said, “Why can’t I come with you guys? If it’s not a honeymoon?” Digging into her purse for her car keys, Jennifer looked up in surprise and said, “Honeymoon? Who said that?” She looked at me and I pointed to Amena, then picked up the suitcase, hustling to get out of the blast radius. Jennifer said, “Amena, go inside and make sure you’ve got everything you need. You won’t be able to come back here until we return in a couple of weeks.” Amena scowled, but unlike she would do with me, she listened to Jennifer and went back inside. Jennifer came over to me and said, “What was that about?” Cramming the last suitcase into the back of her little Mini Cooper, juggling the other bags, I said, “I’m getting that Jeep I saw online yesterday. I don’t care how much they’re charging. This is a clown car.
” My ancient Jeep CJ-7 had been destroyed almost a year ago, and we still hadn’t replaced it because I was a picky shopper and hadn’t found one I liked, forcing both of us to use her little midget vehicle. But my attempt to deflect the question fell on deaf ears. She repeated, “What’s Amena talking about?” I sighed, closed the hatchback, and said, “She thinks she can’t go because I’m taking you on a honeymoon. That’s it. She came up with it all on her own.” Jennifer snorted. “We’re not having a honeymoon until we have a real wedding. You can’t weasel out of that by taking me to Australia and then calling it a honeymoon after the fact.” I raised my hands and said, “That’s not from me. That’s from her.
I didn’t say a word. You know the only reason we’re going is to get her settled at school. That’s it.” Amena came out carrying a small satchel and Jennifer squinted at me. I lowered my voice and said, “Enough talk about why we’re going.” Jennifer whispered, “If you think going to Australia and hanging out with some old Taskforce guys is my idea of a honeymoon, you’ve got another thing coming.” I grinned and said, “Hey, he’s giving us a free place to stay. We’re diving the reef. That was your idea.” Amena came up and asked, “So? Is it a honeymoon?” Jennifer looked at me and I said, “No, it’s not.
We can’t have that until after a proper ceremony.” “What’s a proper ceremony? You guys go to Australia and I’ll never see you again.” Jennifer laughed. “That’s not going to happen.” I said, “What are you talking about? We’ll be back in two weeks.” She became earnest. “Trouble follows you. It always has. You’re going to get in trouble. And I’ll be left alone.
” I knelt down and said, “That’s not going to happen, doodlebug. It’s not.” She took my hands and said, “You promise?” “I do. It’s just a vacation. That’s all.” She looked into my eyes and said, “Until the bad man shows up.” And I knew what she was telling me. She’d seen the bad man more than once, and was convinced it was the natural way of things. The bad man just always showed up. I said, “Don’t worry about that.
You’re in the United States. The bad man is gone.” I saw her eyes tear up and she said, “The bad man is always there. Even here. Don’t leave me to him.” It broke my heart. I hugged her and said, “Hey, come on. There is nobody out to get you here. You’re going to be in good hands. It’s what you wanted.
” She broke my embrace, looked into my eyes, and asked, “If the bad man finds you on vacation, you’ll kill him, right? Come back to me?” That took me aback. What kid thinks her parents are going to be attacked on vacation, and then wishes that the parents would kill the attackers? For the first time I realized that this was more than just a foster-parent relationship. We were never going to have a normal family, because we most decidedly weren’t normal, as much as we wanted to be. She’d seen me operate—had seen me kill— but because of her love for me, she couldn’t get it around her head that I was, in fact, worse than the evil she’d encountered. There was nothing on earth that would keep me from protecting her. I looked at Jennifer and saw a tear in her eye. I hugged Amena and leaned into her ear, whispering, “I am the bad man. Remember that.”