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Op-Center Headquarters, Fort Belvoir North,
July 1, 2019, 7:30 A.M.
“Will there be vegan hot dogs?”
Meteorologist Gary Gold turned from his laptop to the speaker, Dongling Qui. Gold had been reviewing the morning’s low-orbit satellite views of Poland, where NATO maneuvers were scheduled to begin that afternoon. He regarded the young woman with his pleasant blue eyes.
“I don’t know,” Gold said, folding his arms. “I think we did have turkey burgers last Fourth of July.”
“A turkey is meat,” Dongling pointed out.
“Yes, I know that,” he replied. “But what I’m saying is—there’s a diverse menu. I’m sure if you ask, Aaron will make sure he has some.”
“I wouldn’t want to impose after just a week on the job—”
“Dongling, it’s a tradition,” Gold assured her. “Everyone shows up, invited or not. And their plus-ones. You can be mine, if you feel like you’re forcing yourself.”
She made a face that reflected her ongoing hesitancy.
“How about this: I’ll ask,” Gold offered. “And I promise you: frankless-furters will be served.”
The twenty-eight-year-old geologist smiled gratefully and returned to her examination of soil analysis from Syria. She was tracking the movement of soldiers based on samples scraped from the soles of dead ISIS fighters.
Gold lingered for a moment in the silence she left behind. He wasn’t sorry he brought up the annual bash thrown by his boss, Aaron Bleich. Dongling was new, just a week on the job, and was coming in early to acclimate herself. Beijing-raised and educated, the daughter of a U.S. diplomat and Chinese embassy worker, she was one of the few women who worked in the Tank, the electronic and scientific brain-center of Op-Center. Along with former U.N. translator, linguist Salim Singh, he and Dongling were also the only people here at this hour.
“All I can tell you is that it’s like working as a hedge fund guy,” Gold had told his parents when he was hired seven months before. “I’ve gotta be there when certain European markets open.”
The European “markets” were the Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium, Meteo France, the Irish Meteorological Service, among dozens of other facilities around the globe. It was Gold’s job each morning to study the world’s microclimates, searching for sudden events that could not be explained by the weather: for example, suboceanic thermal signatures that could be North Korean midget submarines and not whales, or decreased pollution over Beijing or Shanghai that might indicate downtime and thus decreased production for Chinese factories. There was also a need for actionable global weather reports, since Director Williams never knew when and to where it might be necessary to dispatch the Joint Special Operations Command out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. JSOC was Op-Center’s military wing; military “fist,” as their commander, Major Mike Volner preferred to call it. Volner was an observer assigned to the Polish drills. Williams liked to know whether his people were in sun or storm and the most efficient way to reach them in a crisis.
The staff of mostly twenty-somethings trickled in over the next hour, bag-breakfasts in hand and dressed as if they were going to a university protest. Williams and most of his senior staff did not approve of the informality but concessions were the only way to get the sharp, millennial talent Op-Center needed. The sole exceptions to the lazy conformity were three women: Dongling, in her white blouse and black skirt; cartographer Allison Weill, who was said to be descended from one of the noncoms who journeyed west with Lewis and Clark; and thirty-four-year-old Kathleen Hays, a Hollywood computer graphics designer who was discovered, by Aaron, at a comic book convention nearly eight months before. Hays was Op-Center’s visual analysis specialist, a shy, private woman who favored black pantsuits that matched her raven hair. Her station formed the third piece of the triptych with Gary Gold in the center. There were no cubicles in the small but open Geek Tank: the stations formed a rectangle with the fourteen “geeks” facing inward. Only Aaron had his own office, though a small one was being carved out for Charlene Squires, the RES—reverse engineering specialist. It was being constructed on the same spot from which her father, Charlie Squires, had commanded Striker, the military arm of Paul Hood’s Op-Center. Charlie was KIA—killed in action—on a mission to Russia with the team.
Gold’s row faced the door and he saw Aaron arrive.
“Six for six,” the meteorologist grumped inside as he saw the network leader smirk in his direction. The first day of Dongling’s employment had been orientation, which had been handled by Deputy Director Anne Sullivan. From day two onward, Gold had made it his personal responsibility to help the new hire in any way possible, from walking her to the fast food outlets on the base to understanding the pop culture references and ever-changing slang employed by most of the geeks. Though Dongling was seemingly oblivious to Gold’s solicitous attention, Aaron was not. There was no competition for her attention, such as it was. As everyone at Op-Center learned in their post-employment, pre-assignment orientation, proximity to target was nine-tenths of any effective land campaign.
Gold did not look forward to telling his boss why he was asking about the Fourth of July menu. He decided to wait for an opportunity rather than make one. For one thing, Bleich was distracted by all that had to get done in the week before his annual summer vacation. For another, officially, there was a no-dating policy among coworkers at Op-Center. Fraternizing at parties and barbecues was permitted, but pillow talk was not conducive to keeping divisional secrets. These boundaries were strictly enforced even in a confined space like the Tank, when the parties were seated side-by-side. Confidential data was sent to SmartWare, eyeglasses that read the irises of the users before divulging and then destroying the information. Unofficially, however—to the disapproval of Anne Sullivan—Chase Williams looked the other way at minor infractions. He had told his deputy he would rather know who was seeing whom rather than have it occur in secret.
To Gold’s left, Kathleen Hays nodded good morning to her neighbors and began scrolling through the results of the International Facial Scan program that was automatically run overnight. Until six weeks ago, this kind of research was time-restricted because Op-Center was piggybacking on the NSA’s mainframe. Then Aaron and Joe Berkowitz, a technical support associate, cobbled together what they called OpPrime—a nod, she later learned, to Optimus Prime and their affection for the universe of the Transformers. Part official, part dark ops, the system was designed to cobble together everything they needed from a variety of sources, without proprietary constraints or permissions. The efficiency of Kathleen’s work had increased exponentially.
The IFS was a program that constantly sifted through all social media postings from around the globe, performing facial scans and comparing it to Op-Center’s vast database of suspected terrorists. If there were an urgent match, she would have been notified by smartphone and a member of the skeletal evening staff would have accessed the data via SmartWare. Absent that, the morning update fell into three categories: F3, nationals from hostile nations who were posing at monuments or crowded clubs, markets, or sports venues; F2, intelligence service “watch list” individuals who were spotted anywhere; and F1, known terrorists who showed up in an image. The highest level of alert, F0, was for fugitives. That was how Op-Center helped the National Intelligence Agency of the Kingdom of Thailand find the assassin who shot and killed an imam in Sungai Padi: he was spotted on a tourist’s Instagram video taken at a halal restaurant. Though he had been masked during the attack, his clothes and bodily proportions matched exactly security camera footage of the killing.
While there was a generally predictable flow of images from around the world, two places had experienced upticks in the last six months as tourism grew. One was Costa Rica, thanks to its emphasis on ecotourism; and the other was Cuba, now that it was directly accessible from the United States.
The world was relatively quiet, though there was an interesting F2 hit from Moscow. She didn’t need the glasses to read it. And the classification was F2B, a subset which meant that the identity was “confidently suspected” but with an uncertainty factor.
Kathleen opened the attached dossier.
Konstantin Bolshakov, she read. Former naval officer who became an arms dealer after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
There were no warrants or indication of recent activity, just two photographs: a thirty-two-year-old image Interpol had taken when he met with drug dealers in Berlin; and this new image, during the May Day Parade, only just posted on Facebook. The “aging” program applied to the older photograph made for a convincing similarity and a 79 percent certainty that it was Bolshakov.
Kathleen flagged the name and asked for a priority follow-up. That meant that security cameras to which Op-Center had access in and around Moscow, and at many Russian airports, should be searched as well. If the man were still active in gunrunning, he would be a useful bargaining chip if Moscow had anything the White House needed.
Almost at once, the scan returned with an update. Two weeks ago, Bolshakov had flown into an international airport in Russia’s frozen northeast. No departure had been noted.
Kathleen dutifully marked the location for further scrutiny: the frozen port city of Anadyr.
Copyright © 2018 by Jack Ryan Limited Partnership and S&R Literary, Inc.