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Authors: Dale Brown

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Tehran, Iran
One day later

T
HERE WAS NO GRAND FUNERAL FOR
R
AFI
L
UO, NO FINE
oration or long march to the mausoleum trailed by weeping women and bereft children. Like the majority of people who had died in the Coliseum, his body was eventually dumped in a potter’s grave, unmarked and unremembered. The Rome authorities would never know who he was, let alone why he had been killed. As far as they were concerned, his death was an insult and an expense, nothing more.

His demise did not provoke a great deal of emotion from his business associates, either. Many of them did not even know he was dead for quite some time. Only one of his partners was aware that Luo was bound for Italy, and his initial reaction was both selfish and completely in character: profit would have to be shared one less way.

Luo’s demise did, however, provoke the interest of one man. His name was Bani Aberhadji, and he had never met Rafi Luo, though he was Luo’s greatest benefactor and even, in a sense, his protector.

Bani Aberhadji drew a paycheck as a low-ranking functionary in the Iranian ministry responsible for motor vehicles, ostensibly helping to oversee the registration and inspection
of trucks in the port city of Bushehr. Unlike many of his coworkers in the ministry, Aberhadji came to work every day, and could usually be found at his desk immediately following morning prayers. This made him a singularly punctual motor vehicle clerk, and not just in Iran. In fact, Aberhadji was unusually precise and efficient in his duties. A person with a registration problem could not expect him to bend the law, but he could at least receive a prompt answer to any request. He would not have to proffer a bribe to receive it; in fact he would find that a bribe would neither be welcomed or accepted.

Aberhadji’s official duties consumed perhaps thirty minutes of his time on the busiest days. The rest of his office hours were spent on his second job—coordinator of special projects for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and as a member of the Guard’s ruling council. He was also the commanding officer of Brigade 27. It was in this capacity that he had dealt with Rafi Luo, though never directly.

The Revolutionary Guard—or Pasdaren—was established following the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. The Guards’ role in the country’s vanguard had been cemented during the 1980s war with Iraq, when thousands of volunteers defended the country against Saddam Hussein. Its political influence, however, had begun to wane over the past few years, until many in government considered it completely irrelevant.

The government’s recent signing of the nuclear disarmament treaty was seen by many, even inside the organization, as the ultimate sign of its fall from influence. Aberhadji had a different view. To him, it showed just how necessary the group was. The Revolutionary Guard was the country’s—and Islam’s—last hope against the encroaching Western forces of decadence and apostasy.

It was critical in these difficult times for members of the organization to adhere strictly to the tenets of their religious beliefs, to perform all of their duties as effectively as possible, and to appear as model citizens in all ways. These requirements suited Aberhadji perfectly. He had been pious from the womb. Many called him imam, or teacher, though in fact he
was not formally attached to any mosque and did not, as a general rule, lead prayers when he attended. Piety was simply part of his being.

The people he generally dealt with were anything but pious. Brigade 27 did not have a regular base or even regular members. It was concerned with spreading the Revolution beyond the geographical boundaries of Iran. Its forebears had funded and encouraged movements among Shiites in several places, most notably Palestine, Lebanon, and the Horn of Africa. Today, its most successful project was in the Sudan, where the long-running Revolution showed signs of spreading to Egypt, long a goal of the deeply committed.

Luo was one of several dealers whom Aberhadji had funded, through middlemen, as part of the general campaign to help the Sudanese Brothers, the umbrella organization of the Shiite freedom fighters. But his interest in Luo’s network had gone further than that. For Aberhadji had made use of his network in his other capacity as head of special projects.

Secretive even for the highly secretive upper echelons of the Guard, Aberhadji’s project had a singular goal: the creation of an Iranian stockpile of nuclear weapons to replace the ones being signed away by the government.

This, of course, was forbidden by the agreement the government and the Grand Ayatollah had signed. But Aberhadji and others among the Guard’s elite believed the agreement was illegal, and they had evidence that the Ayatollah himself wanted them to proceed. There was no question that the agreement had been signed under duress. Iran was suffering from the worst depression in its history, with famine rampant thanks to an embargo on oil sales that made it impossible for Iran to sell its petroleum at market prices. It still sold, of course—China was more than willing to break the embargo if the price was right and the transactions were carried out in secret—but the severe discounts forced on the country hardly made it worth pumping from the ground. The United States, the Satan Incarnate and the Revolution’s traditional enemy, had engineered the boycott, changing its own energy poli
cies to dramatically reduce its dependence on oil and make it possible.

Luo’s demise did not directly threaten Aberhadji’s project. His organization supplied only a very few of the many items required, and it had been months since Aberhadji used them. Many people would have cause to kill Luo, including his own associates. But Aberhadji immediately began making inquiries.

Aberhadji’s main agent in Africa, a slightly disreputable yet ultimately reliable Guard member named Arash Tarid, had checked into the murder only hours after it happened. He believed the Egyptian secret service had been involved. But that belief appeared to be based only on rumors.

Aberhadji decided that he would take the opportunity to visit his deputies involved in the special project. He was due to make his rounds within a month anyway; doing so now, to make sure everything was secure, would put his own fears to rest. He’d pay special attention to the posts in the Sudan, even visiting the facilities personally.

And so he went to see his superior at the motor vehicle bureau to ask for unscheduled time off.

Like many in the ministry, Rhaim Fars had gotten his job because he was related to someone in the central government, in his case an uncle who was close to the Iranian president. That president had left office nearly a decade before, but Fars retained his position for several reasons, not least of which was his generosity and benevolence toward those he suspected had better political connections than he did. Still, Aberhadji’s request for an indefinite leave tested his goodwill.

“Perhaps we should put a limit on it,” said Fars, gesturing to his underling to have a seat. He poured him some water, then took a sip of his own. Fars did not know that Aberhadji was even a member of the Revolutionary Guard, and would have been surprised to find out how important he really was.

“I am not sure how long my business will take,” said Aberhadji.

“And it’s of a personal nature?”

Aberhadji said nothing. He would not lie, but he would also not say anything that would reveal either his position or his interests. Obtaining the vacation time was merely a matter of being persistent.

“We are approaching our renewal time,” said Fars. “There will be demands for our paperwork.”

“Mine are in order.”

The true issue for Fars was not the paperwork, but the inspections that followed; the minister liked to see the entire staff at his welcoming party.

On the other hand, Aberhadji would not contribute to his “present”—a sizable amount of money that would be presented “spontaneously” at the party. This was little more than a kickback by the employed to maintain their status. To smooth the waters, Fars had made up Aberhadji’s share the last two years. And come to think of it, Aberhadji had left very early the year before, so early that the minister surely saw him go—something more noticeable, and therefore more insulting, than his not showing up at all. So Fars reasoned that perhaps it was not important that Aberhadji be there after all.

“You have personal time accrued,” said Fars, deciding he would find an excuse that would allow the vacation. “That was my point in asking the question. You have not taken any time to tend to your family, and a man like you, a pious man, has a great deal of obligations, thanks be to the Prophet.”

Aberhadji nodded. He had no immediate family and had had none since he was young. His father had died in the war against Iraq, and his mother passed away a year later, mostly out of grief.

“Well then, let us put you down for a week. The matter is decided,” said Fars.

“It should be stated as indefinite.”

“Yes, well, we will say two. If, at the end of two weeks—”

“It should say indefinite. It may be less than two.”

“Well then, two weeks can cover it for the moment.”

“It should say indefinite.”

Fars could not grant someone an indefinite leave except for a medical emergency. Aberhadji’s honesty was a problem.

Fars decided it need not be. He could prepare two versions of the request—one for Aberhadji to sign, the other for the Tehran bureaucrats. Problem solved.

“So, indefinite. And should we put down that the business is a matter of a personal nature? Clearly, you’re not going on a vacation. I only have to ask,” Fars added, “because you know I have to make these reports each week to Tehran. In this economy, I think they are always throwing problems in to keep us on our toes.”

“It is a private matter. Certainly.”

“Good,” said Fars, choosing to interpret that as personal. “I will take care of it,” he added, rising. “Don’t worry. Take whatever time you need.”

McLean, Virginia
Three days later

D
ANNY
F
REAH FOUND HIS EXCITEMENT GROWING AS HE
made the arrangements to take the new Whiplash assignment. It had been quite a while since he had been involved in a “black” or secret project, and he’d forgotten just how quickly things could move once they had that imprimatur. Breanna assigned one of her assistants as a facilitator, taking care of the paperwork and everything else necessary, even finding him a condo to rent.

“It won’t be much,” she warned, “but you won’t be there very much anyway.”

Actually, the apartment had its own terrace and a view of
the river. The bedroom was about twice the size of the living room he had been renting in Kentucky. Best of all, he could afford the rent.

The only problem was that the moving company he’d hired to cart his furniture couldn’t arrange to pick up everything and deliver it for several weeks. Danny spent the weekend packing and taking care of last minute arrangements. After a Sunday afternoon good-bye party that stretched well into Monday morning, he hopped in his rental car and drove straight back to Washington, D.C., stopping at a McDonald’s to shave and change into his uniform. Parking at the Pentagon without a permit these days was a fool’s errand, so instead he returned the car to a rental agency at Reagan Airport and took the Metro. As the train reached the stop, he thought of the prim and proper woman he’d seen the last time he was there. He couldn’t help wondering if he’d run into her again.

As it happened, he did run into her—and a lot sooner than he’d thought. For when he reported to Breanna Stockard’s office as directed, he found her manning the secretary’s desk.

“You’re Mary Clair Bennett?” he asked, extending his hand.

“Colonel Freah. Prompt. Very good,” said Ms. Bennett, who did not take his hand.

“I, um—we met,” he told her.

“I
am
sorry. I do not recall.”

“On the train.”

“Train?”

“It’s not important. That’s a great apartment you found me. It’s fantastic.”

“Naturally.”

“I want to thank you for all your help with these arrangements. I don’t know what I’d have done without you.”

“It is my job, Colonel.”

“Ah, Danny, I see you’ve met Ms. Bennett,” said Breanna, coming in from the hall.

“Me and M.C. go way back,” said Danny.

Breanna had never heard anyone, including Ms. Bennett herself, refer to her as anything other than Ms. Bennett. She glanced at the secretary, who was glaring at Danny.

He didn’t notice, and wouldn’t have let on if he did.

“Let’s get you situated,” Breanna said. “Ms. Bennett, you can reach me via text. I’ll be gone for most of the day.”

“Yes, Ms. Stockard. Of course.”

“Where’d you dig her up?” Danny asked as they waited for the elevator.

“She’s wonderfully efficient, if a little stuffy.”

“That’s like saying the North Pole is a little cold.”

“I don’t need a friend,” said Breanna. “What was with the M.C. bit? I think you better lay off that.”

“I’ll get her to thaw. You’ll see,” said Danny. He was already planning to send her flowers as a thank-you for the apartment and everything else. “How long do you think it will take to get a Pentagon parking permit?”

“You won’t need one. You’re not going to be working here. You won’t even have an office here.”

“Oh?”

Forty minutes later Breanna presented Danny to a plainclothes CIA security detail at the entrance pavilion of the CIA’s campus in McLean, Virginia. Known as Langley, the headquarters complex was among the most closely watched and guarded area in the world. Despite the fact that he already possessed a high-level military clearance, the CIA security people had him sit in a special biometric chair that “read” 114 different biometric aspects, measuring everything from his weight to the size of his ankles. While this was going on, a machine in the corner analyzed the DNA from a scraping in his cheek, and another machine took stock of his saliva.

“So am I who I think I am?” Danny asked when the technician in charge of the measurements told him they were done.

“You are Daniel Freah, according to the computer,” replied the technician. “Though I have no idea if that’s who you are.”

A woman in the next room gave Danny a small bluish-red ring to wear on his right pinky. It fit perfectly.

“That has all your biometric data in it,” she told him. “You don’t need any other ID while you’re here.”

The ring had other functions, as Breanna explained while they walked back to her waiting car. An integrated circuit allowed it to be used as an encryption device in a dedicated communication system. It could also be tracked via the same satellites, allowing it to be used as a backup locator. The system would also recognize if it was removed from his body, or if his pulse stopped; while it could still be tracked in that case, it would no longer function as an active ID.

“Basically, we’ll know where you are at all times,” said Breanna. “There’s no escape.”

She meant it as a joke, but already Danny was feeling as if he’d gotten into a little more than he’d expected. They drove past the main CIA building, continuing around to a nondescript office building at the far corner of the complex. The building looked as if it dated from the 1950s or perhaps early 1960s, but in fact was only three years old. A single story structure, it had no external markings or any other identification. This was not unique at Langley; anyone who didn’t know where he or she was going didn’t belong there.

After Breanna and Danny passed through an automated security system in the lobby, Breanna led him to an office diagonally across from the reception area. The guard standing at the door nodded but didn’t step aside until the door, operated by its own sensor, swung open behind him.

Danny was expecting to find a standard office inside—his office, he thought. But instead he found an empty room with a narrow staircase to one side. Breanna led him to the staircase, gesturing that he should descend. He did, and found himself staring at a steel door.

“State your name,” said a mechanical voice from somewhere behind the door.

“Danny Freah.”

“Rank?”

“Colonel.”

“What is your favorite color?”

Danny thought of answering that he didn’t have a favorite color, but decided he had better play it straight.

“Blue,” he said, and the door opened.

“Are you going to ask my favorite color?” Breanna asked, following him inside.

“Just thought I’d lighten things up for the colonel,” said a short woman dressed in a black pantsuit as she stepped out from behind the security station opposite the door. It was her voice that Danny had heard. “I watched
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
last night. I could have asked you what the aerial velocity of a swallow carrying a coconut was,” she added, pushing the mike of her headset away. “But I was afraid you’d get it wrong. Then I’d have to kill you.”

“This is Sergeant Mercer,” said Breanna. “She’s going to do a weapons check on you, even though that door wouldn’t have opened if you’d had a gun.”

“Procedure,” said Mercer. “Lighten up, Colonel. I promise not to hurt.”

Mercer took what looked like a lipstick holder from her pants pocket and waved it around Danny.

“He’s clean. Likes the Yankees, though. Might be a problem.”

“Your little wand told you that?” said Danny.

“We have our ways, Colonel. Welcome aboard.”

The room they had entered was a long, rectangular space that held a security station and an elevator to a lower level. The elevator had no visible controls, nor did it work by voice command. You simply entered and were whisked downward. Danny found that mildly annoying.

“What if I changed my mind?” he asked Breanna.

“Then you get out at the bottom and get back in,” she said as the door opened on the lower level. “But I don’t believe anyone has ever changed their mind. Come on.”

Danny had expected a hallway similar to the laboratory areas at Dreamland, most of which were also located in un
derground bunkers. Instead the door opened on a wide, open space that looked more like a parking garage than a science lab. Thick steel girders ran overhead, supporting a network of beams and pipes. The floor was cement. Girders punctuated the space at regular intervals.

Cabinets were clustered around the girders at the far end. These were computers, most working as massively parallel units in so-called “cloud” arrangements. Thick cables snaked across the floor, connecting them to different peripherals and in some cases to each other.

Overhead lights came on as Breanna and Danny walked, then faded behind them. Finally a set of spots came up on a black wall. There were no doors or windows in it; no visible opening of any kind. Breanna strode toward it. Danny followed, expecting at any second that the panel would move upward or back, that some hidden opening would appear to allow them to enter. But it didn’t.

He stopped a foot from the wall.

Breanna passed through it.

Danny had seen many incredible things at Dreamland—aircraft that flew themselves, blimps that could disappear, controllers that could be manipulated by thought. But disappearing walls was beyond anything there.

He put his hand forward, touching the surface of the wall. It felt solid, as solid as any of the walls in his house. He tapped his fingernails against it, made a drumming sound.

I’m losing my mind, he thought.

“Danny?”

Convinced he was about to wake up from the most involved dream he’d ever had, he took a short step to his left, aligning himself with the exact spot Breanna had used to go through the wall. Then he took a short breath and stepped forward.

Into a well-furnished reception area.

He turned back around. The wall was a solid, a darkish beige color on this side.

“It’s nanotechnology,” said Breanna. She was standing near him. “It
is
a wall. And an opening.”

“Is it really there?”

“Absolutely. Touch it.”

“I did,” said Danny. He did again, drumming his knuckles this time.

“But you can move through it, if you move deliberately,” she said. “And if it recognizes you. Like this.”

Breanna put her entire arm through, then turned and smiled at Danny, half in, half out.

“Parlor games are difficult to resist,” said a familiar voice.

Danny turned and found Ray Rubeo frowning at him.

“Doc!” said Danny. “You’re here?”

“Apparently,” said Rubeo. There was a slight bit of gray around the temples, but otherwise very little about him had changed in the past fifteen years, including his frown. “Though in this place you never really know.”

Rubeo was no longer a government employee. But several of his companies were under contract to the Office of Technology, and when Breanna had offered him the opportunity to brief Danny Freah on Whiplash, he had decided to take her up on it. Rubeo had always liked Freah and the Whiplash people personally, though he found many of their security procedures annoying. The pinkie rings had been his idea, an easy way of eliminating many of the delays imposed by the security checks and constant surveillance. Like everyone admitted to Room 4—the code name for the basement facility on the CIA campus—he, too, wore one.

“I suppose you want an explanation about the nano wall,” said Rubeo.

“Well, yeah.”

“Very well. It’s a parlor trick.”

The wall worked by arranging energy within certain frequencies; to put it crudely, it was as if molecules were iron shavings in a child’s Etch A Sketch game, and used to draw a wall. The field could be broken by movement at certain speeds, but not others; the wall could not be penetrated by bullets, for example.

“So it could protect against a missile?” asked Danny.

“Concrete is just as effective.” Rubeo waved his hand. “There are perhaps some uses for camouflage, that sort of thing. Or very expensive walls.”

It also made a high-quality projection screen.

“Have a seat,” said Breanna, gesturing to one of the nearby club chairs. “And I’ll show you what it can do.”

The wall morphed into a crisp video display, the sharpest Danny had ever seen, demonstrating its prowess with a scene from last year’s Super Bowl.

“Another parlor trick,” said Rubeo, this time with a touch of pride.

The video ended abruptly, replaced by the seals of the CIA and the Department of Defense.

“The Office of Technology is involved in a lot of projects,” said Breanna. “We work very closely with a number of government agencies. Some of us work for the Defense Department, and some of us for the CIA. You might say our responsibilities are intramural.”

The CIA still had its own technology department, separate from Breanna’s operation. The Wizards of Langley were responsible for a host of innovations, everything from supersonic spy planes to microscopic bugs. But changes in the organizational structure of the intelligence and military communities, along with severe budget cuts, had moved a great deal of their work over to the Defense Department. Some research had always been outsourced in any event, and many of the changes simply meant that the scientists, engineers, and other technical experts simply had a different paymaster.

Whether directly funded by the CIA or through the Defense Department, the problem wasn’t coming up with new technology. It was getting it out of the developmental labs and into the hands of field agents. Breanna, with her Dreamland background, had been picked to make that happen. One solution was to simply eliminate much of the bureaucratic infrastructure. Where once layers of liaisons and department
managers had fought over turf in both Defense and Intelligence, now a handful of people worked with her and the scientists directly.

“Is Whiplash going to be a CIA command?” asked Danny. “Or military?”

“Neither,” said Breanna. “It’s more like a hybrid.”

“How?”

“We’re going to work that out. You’re going to help.”

“OK.”

Breanna glanced at her watch. Reid and Nuri Lupo were due to meet them in a half hour.

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