16 August 2014

Read the opening of ZERO POINT, a near future science fiction thriller


London, United Kingdom
1st February. 3:14PM GMT (Greenwich Mean Time)

            Trafalgar Square. The crowd was massive. And squeezed.  Fortified rows of riot police wielding batons, tucked behind long plastic shields, surrounded angry, squashed civilians, heaving and rolling and shouting.
            “We want work! We want work!” they chanted, some shoving fists into the air, others waving banners emblazoned with pound signs crossed with skulls.
            The crowd was everywhere. Swathes of angry, shouting demonstrators were hemmed in all over central London and the City. Regents Park. South Kensington. Hyde Park. Westminster, outside the Houses of Parliament. Canary Wharf. Kings Cross. It was the biggest mass protest in the UK, ever.
            What had begun as a series of disparate demonstrations inspired by the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon - supposedly defeated decades ago - had spontaneously snowballed from a single occupation of Parliament Square into an unprecedented, city-wide mass rally.
             Then riot police were in amongst the writhing crowd, shoving with shields and lashing out with batons. People ran and screamed, some drenched in blood, others throwing bottles and cans at the officers. Cars were aflame, shop windows cracked.
            London was ablaze.


"It became necessary to destroy the town to save it."
An unnamed major in the US Army on the decision to bomb and shell the town of Ben Tre, Southern Vietnam
New York Times (8 February 1968)

"The same commander who had given us the mission issued an order that everyone wearing a black distasha [long garment] and a red headscarf was automatically displaying hostile intent and a hostile action, and was to be shot. An hour or two later he gave another order, this time that everyone on the streets was considered an enemy combatant."
Sergeant Jason Lemieux, US Marine Corps infantry officer serving three deployments in Iraq 2003-2006


2nd February. 8.32 AM

On Marylebone Road, my police motorcycle raced off the A40 minutes ahead of the Prime Minister’s car, clearing the traffic so the convoy could travel without the disruption endured by normal commuters. Two other bikes were hot on my heels.       Tensions were high. The previous day, authorities had used rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas to disperse the new-fangled "Occupy" protestors. The operation had been a success - in the sense it had temporarily cleared the streets. But there were dozens of casualties, seven young people in critical condition, and two deaths. And the police were out in force – not just heavily armoured riot units, but even rapid response fire-arms units were on the streets, setting up check-points around the city where Occupy protests had originally gathered.
            We turned left off the main road onto Lisson Grove, accelerating up the street. The third and last bike slowed, separating from the two speeding on ahead, then braked to block off the first right-junction leading toward Park Road. Its rider held out his arms, signalling the traffic to stop from both directions.
            I soared past him down the road. We’d soon be caught up by a stream of heavily armed specialist police vehicles, large black Range Rovers, a couple of BMW 7-series, plus more police motorcycles, forming a moving square round the Prime Minister’s limousine.
            As I drove, my radio crackled in my right ear, “Control to Charlie Echo Team. Assume your positions to clear Lisson Grove and Abbey Road. Over.”
“Roger that, Delta Alpha out”, I replied, tensing over, sweating inside a florescent police jacket as my motorbike accelerated, then slowed to a halt at the main junction where Lisson Grove crossed over St. Johns Wood Road. My bike blocked the incoming lanes to the right. I held up my arm. The cars coming toward me slowed to a halt, as another officer parked his bike on the other side of the road, blocking the traffic from the opposite lanes. Within a minute another police bike sped past us to head off Abbey Road.
            I waited, glancing down at my watch. 8.36 AM. Two more minutes before they’d catch up.

            "Latest estimate is over 2 and a half million people." Timothy Bunton leaned against the leather backseat inside the Jaguar, fingers sliding away at the tablet on his lap. He was a thin, wiry man, in his late-forties, with half-moon glasses that kept sliding down to the end of his nose, and greying hair that was receding. He pushed his glasses an inch back up his nose.
            Prime Minister Daniel Carson shook his head and sighed, leaning back as his chief of staff re-played the footage of yesterday's riots. At forty-two he was younger than Timothy, with brown wavy hair and sharp, dark eyes. “This was the biggest protest we've had all year,” said Daniel. “What is it, the tenth one? When is it going to end?”
            “I don't know but it's making the markets jittery," said Tim.
            Daniel looked away and gazed out the window, trying to focus on the trees and the passersby. Although the riots were now the big thing on the political agenda, there were deeper things at play that required his attention. “So you were going to tell me about the consultant's latest report. What exactly is he forecasting?”
             Timothy grimaced. “Nothing new, except he's now revised forward his original projections. He thinks we have anything between a few months to a year before a catastrophic supply short-fall could destabilise the economy. If he's right it would make this year’s stock market slump look like a walk in the park.”
            Daniel sat very still. "A few months? I thought that kick-starting Iraqi oil production again would alleviate the problem, at least a little. That's what the Working Group told us. How wrong they were."
            Daniel Carson didn't blame the public for their anger. Over the last decade - on his watch - far from recovering, the economy had sunk into the deepest depression the country had ever known. Unemployment was rocketing at 12 million. Inflation was at record levels. And the country's national debt had more than quadrupled to £5 trillion - 200 per cent of a diminishing GDP. Now it looked like all that was merely a bitter foretaste of worse to  come.
            "Can it really be a coincidence that the Working Group keeps getting it wrong, every time?" continued Daniel. "I've told you this before. They’re compromised."
            Timothy coughed to clear his throat, before speaking carefully. “Possibly. The consultant warned us the Group's forecasting was too conservative, but as you know sir, I had no remit to do anything.”
            Daniel glared. "We should've disbanded the Group. Set up a new one."
            "Little chance of that. Roy is besotted with their findings. He would've vetoed any such move, and as Home Secretary he'd have the clout to make it stick."
            "Fair enough. But that's why we've got to make this meeting a success. We have to fast-track our negotiations. Otherwise, this country is going to implode. Look at what’s happening. We need to buy more time, and Iran can help us do that. The stick isn’t working. It’s time for carrots.”
            Tim nodded. "Well let's just hope the Iranians see sense this time."
            “They will. It's in their interests to accept a deal. Don't forget, they came to us. They're tired of isolation. This is their ticket into the international community, if not global leadership. We strike this deal now, we can craft that outcome, and be well-positioned in the aftermath.”
            Tim froze. The tablet slid off his lap, clattering to the floor of the car.
            "Tim?" Dan reached over, alarmed. "Are you alright?"


            It was damn good weather for mid-February. The sky was clear blue, bright with sunshine, the air sharp and cool, but not uncomfortable – which made a change as recently the British winters had seemed longer and stormier, the summers shorter but hotter. It was normal to get a lot of snow this time of year, though so far we'd been lucky. Passers-by on the pavement had stopped, staring to see what lay behind the police presence, as they always did. I watched them watching me, talking amongst themselves, two guys dressed in jeans and anoraks, a group of three women pushing prams across the road. Long, serene oak trees along the sidewalk loomed overhead, their leaves swaying in the breeze, concealing the apartment blocks that lined the road.
            I took a deep breath and glanced at my watch again. Thirty seconds and counting. I’d been with Specialist Protection, SO1, for two years now, and it was the only job in security I could just about stand. Far more comfortable than roughing it out in the Gulf as I’d done years ago in Army intelligence, it still made some use of my skills without being too stressful. Most importantly, it didn't involve killing people. I was done with that. Instead, I was just keeping my country safe. The pay was crap, of course, but I figured I was better off than most. Though it was all too easy to get bored. Which was exactly how I liked it.
            I glanced at my watch again, frowning beneath my visor. 8:39, plus 47 seconds. A little late. Not outside the security time buffer, but rare for the transport to be more than 45 seconds late for a check point - unless something came up. I glanced around, turned back and gestured at my fellow officer, Sergeant Brian Turner, on his motorbike on the opposite side. Brian just pointed at his watch and shrugged.
            Then my earpiece crackled.
            “Control?” I said. “Control?”
I looked back at Brian and pointed at my right-ear. He just patted the side of his head, a quizzical expression on his face. I inspected my watch again. 8:40, plus 32 seconds. Almost a minute had gone. Where was the Prime Minister’s car?
            “Control? Delta Alpha to Control, come in, can you hear me?” I kept pressing my earpiece. The line was dead.
            I turned back to Brian and waved at him, wondering what had happened to my earpiece. Something was wrong. If there was a delay, it was protocol for us to be immediately informed by HQ. Instead the radio had gone down. I flipped up my visor.
“Brian! All channels are down on my radio.”            
Brian, keeping one arm facing the traffic on his side, flipped up his visor with the other hand, looked at me, and shouted, “Yours too? What the hell’s going on?”
            “I don’t know”, I shouted back, glancing at my watch again. One minute and thirty. “Where the hell’s the PM’s car?”
Brian shook his head. “Something’s wrong, Dave,” he shouted. I reached into my leg pocket, pulled out my mobile phone to call Control.
Tyres screeched. I glanced back in surprise, then watched, stunned, as the white sedan at the traffic lights behind Brian’s bike lurched forward into him. Brian catapulted into the air as his bike tumbled to its side, skidding across the ground. The white car swerved round his bike and disappeared down Lisson Grove in a cloud of dust. Brian landed headfirst on the ground with a crack, his body bending unnaturally.
I kicked my engine into gear, slammed the phone into my leg-pocket, and grabbed the handlebars. People were screaming as my bike shot forward, its roaring engine drowning out their cries. I flipped on my sirens, then flicked my wrist, careening the bike up the road. I glimpsed the white car, an old Mitsubishi Lancer, already several hundred yards ahead. Still clutching the handlebar with my left arm, I reached under for my holster with my right and swung out my Glock 19 pistol.
The Mitsubishi swung expertly round two police Range Rovers heading toward us, then hurtled toward the Prime Minister’s black Jaguar behind them. The Range Rovers braked and skidded, one smashing into the other, conjoining in a mass of twisted, wailing metal that plunged onto the right-hand pavement.
The wind stung my eyes. I knocked down my visor with the butt of the gun, then aimed ahead. I steadied my arm, right-eye lining up my sights, barely noticing the panicking passers-by scrambling frantically from the scene. I roared past the wreck of police vehicles on my right, squeezed the trigger, once, twice, thrice. The back window of the Mitsubishi shattered as I closed in.
Too late.
A deafening boom reverberated out as the car crumpled into the black limousine in front. For a moment, all I could see was a blinding white light as my ears went blank. Then a ball of fire exploded upwards and outwards, shards of black, white and blue ricocheting into the sky as the shockwave drove the air from my chest. I instinctively swerved the bike to the right and threw myself off as a river of flame cascaded across the road. The heat engulfed me as I braced myself for the impact, anchoring my arm round my chest and rolling as I hit the ground.
I rolled about fifteen to twenty metres before staggering to my feet, waves of smoke and heat whipsawing around me. I heard yelling and screaming as I tripped over something and fell through a hedge. I collapsed onto the ground, hitting grass and soil, rolling around in a frenzy trying to put out the flames, coughing and spluttering. I struggled to my knees, pulling off my helmet, and looked around. I was next to a large apartment block standing in a front garden area behind a broken hedge. I shoved through the hedge back into the road and peered at the inferno about 50 yards away. Suddenly the ground erupted, blood and soil filled my mouth, and everything went black.


            It was a matter of minutes before dozens of police cars, ambulances and fire engines had congregated around the explosion zone. Police helicopters circled overhead as St. John’s Wood was cordoned off by groups of armed officers wielding MP5 submachine guns. Twenty minutes on, and an even larger circumference - a huge swathe of northwest London - was locked down by police barricades. Intertwining sinews of static traffic rippled out from around the area, amidst a mass of terrified, frenzied people running, shouting, crying, standing agape.
            Chief Superintendent Heather Jones watched the chaos unfold on a wall-mounted monitor from her office in Scotland Yard, as she screamed down the phone, “All available units to round up the cabinet for transport to PINDAR. Once they’re safe, all standby armed units to deploy immediately as per emergency protocol Clean Sweep to every Potential Target Area.”
            She slammed down the phone, grabbed her body armour from the rack against the wall, and ran out the room. Whether or not the Prime Minister had survived the attack, there could be further attacks. Standard procedures meant that the number one priority for Specialist Operations was the protection of all ministers.
As Heather slipped on her body armour, her mobile rang. She slapped the phone against her ear and snapped, “Commander Jones.”
            “Heather it’s Paul.” Paul Stuart was Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Anti-Terrorism Branch.
            “I’m on it, Paul”, she said, running down the corridor. “What I want to know right now, is how the hell did this happen?”
            “I don’t know Heather, obviously we’re trying to figure that out.”
            “It doesn’t make any sense. Who else knew about the Prime Minister’s route today?”
            There was a pause on the other end. “Well, frankly, I was about to ask you the same thing.”
            “What’s that supposed to mean?”
            “Well, you’re Specialist Protection. If anyone’s going to have an idea how this happened, it’s you.”
            “You know as well as I do that we run a tight ship here. The only way this got out is through someone Prime Minister Carson knew. It could be anyone - his advisers; hell, it could have been the people he was en route to meet.”
            "Perhaps. And who were they exactly? Who was he meeting?"
            She cleared her throat. "The Iranian Ambassador."
            "The Iranians? Bloody hell. Well you make sure you’ve got your house in order, because someone’s going to take the fall for this - if the shit's gonna stick, it better not be on our bloody arses.”
            “OK Paul. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”

            I opened my eyes. Shapes blurred and shimmered, before coalescing. I was on the ground.  I squinted against the burning sunlight. The back of my skull ached. I lifted my head, and winced as a sharp pain travelled down my neck.
            So much for my hopes for a life of boredom. What I'd give to have that life back.
            I groaned as I lifted myself, slowly, gingerly, from the cool grass. I was on the communal lawn of an apartment block. I rose to my feet and I peered over the hedge in front of me.
            The street ahead looked like it had been ploughed up from underneath, a wreckage of shattered concrete and rubble. In a flash, everything rushed back. Brian, his body broken, in the air. The white Mitsubishi smashing through the Prime Minister’s escort convoy. The blast, rippling out, incinerating the Prime Minister’s car.
            I stepped out, feeling slightly dazed, onto the unstable, cracked pavement into a bustling crowd of onlookers. Some of them covered in blood, wailing, crying, or just staring into space. The emergency services were obviously overwhelmed, still finding victims, casualties, in the rubble. The sight re-conjured familiar images from Iraq and Afghanistan – scattered limbs, heads, torsos.
The war’s coming home.
I shook my head vigorously, trying to clear my mind.
Ahead, I could see the police line around the crash site where Carson’s car had exploded. There wasn’t much left. Apart from some large twisted shards of white and black metal scattered around the centre of the blast zone. Smoke and steam rose from the crumpled mounds of steel and aluminium where firefighters were still putting out the last remnants of persistent flames.
            I glanced at my watch. I’d been out for about an hour. I probably hadn’t been found by the paramedics while I was unconscious because of the sheer number of casualties.
This shouldn’t have happened.
I needed answers.
I was probably in shock. Probably concussed.
As I stepped through the crowd toward the police line, I tried dialling HQ on my phone – the line was busy. Not completely surprising, but frustrating. I plunged the phone back in my pocket. A group of police officers beside a row of four police cars, armed with HK MP5K submachine guns, stood in front of the lines keeping people at bay.
            I pulled out my ID as I walked toward them. One of them stepped toward me as I approached.
            “Constable”, I nodded. The guy peered at my ID. “Sergeant David Ariel”, I told him. “With Specialist Protection.”
            “Come through Sarge”, he said, letting me pass. I darted under the white and blue tape toward the smouldering mess that was left from the collision.
            A forensic team was already on the scene, photographing the area. I walked up to the woman firing orders to her co-workers, while speaking intermittently into a small audio recording device, who I assumed must be the lead investigator. Like her colleagues, she was clothed in a stark white crime scene suit, complete with goggles, gloves, and a mouth and nose mask which she’d pulled underneath her chin.
            “Excuse me, Ma’am”, I said from behind her. She stopped speaking into her mic and turned to me. I flashed her my badge.
            “Hi, I’m Sergeant David Ariel.”
“Sergeant,” she nodded. I could barely see her brown eyes from behind the reflective glare of her goggles. “I’m Dr. Meria Stafford, Special Investigator from the counter-terrorism forensic team. You’re not the SIO here so what can I do you for?” She spoke sharply. SIO was the senior investigating officer.
“Look I was here when it all happened. I’m a member of Carson’s escort unit. Do me a favour and let me know what the hell’s going on here.”
She shrugged. “We’re still trying to find that out Sergeant. Bomb disposal only secured the area about 20 minutes ago. Now I need to get on with this.” She turned back toward the wreckage.
“Wait. Have you identified the bodies yet? Is anyone alive?”
Her demeanour softened and she glanced back at me. “It’s a mess, Sergeant. We haven’t been able to recover bodies from the wreckage yet. Let alone identify them.”
“Shit”, I muttered. It was all I could say. I wasn’t just thinking about the Prime Minister. What about the rest of our convoy? The blast radius was several dozen metres – enough to have probably hit most of my colleagues in the escort team around the PM.
“Any idea about the explosives? Who could've done this?”
She shrugged again. “Like I said, I’ve been working the scene for 20 minutes. I know nothing. Literally. What I can tell you is that whoever did this knew what they were doing.” She paused and gazed at the scorched crash site in front of us. Most of the scattered remnants of car that blossomed out from the crater in the road were charcoal black. What looked like soot or ash was caked all over the area. “Funny you ask about the explosives. I don’t think they were conventional.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at the way the metal has melted and burned. I mean it’s all scorched through, and a lot of it has disintegrated.”
I thought about it. “Why’s that weird?”
“Even a tonne of conventional military-grade explosives won’t do that. There’s either some kind of added accelerant, or this is a different type of bomb entirely. I’m not sure. Maybe DU? Obviously DU isn't an explosive, but if added to a conventional explosive, it might have this sort of effect. But I'm just guessing.”
Depleted uranium? I scoured the scene around me in disbelief.
And then I was on the outskirts of Baghdad. I’d just exited our Challenger-2 battle tank to investigate an electrical fault with our communications equipment, putting my engineering degree to good use. “C’mon Davey, for Chrissakes get on with it,” moaned Jeff in my earpiece. Jeff Donald was the staff sergeant of our unit, but we’d been on duty together so long we were virtually on first name terms, though we still addressed Jeff as sir.
“Yessir”, I said. I was a young infantry soldier and the 2003 Gulf War had already started. The sun was an unyielding blaze against an empty desert sky as I grappled with the cable on the side.
I could hear the drone of an incoming American F-117A stealth fighter as I tried to identify the cause of the problem. A minute later, the craft swept over us and sliced open the horizon with a wave of bombs. I ran for cover as I screamed into my radio.
“Sir, incoming! Get out of the tank! Get out of the fucking tank!” They didn’t make it. Three soldiers were incinerated by a wall of liquid flame, trapped in cages of twisted metal that boiled them like obscene ovens. I watched, unscathed.
It was hours before we were found by another patrol. I don’t remember much, except the carnage that the attack had left behind was nothing but a blackened, smouldering lump. Months later, we learned that the attack was another case of mistaken friendly-fire. The stealth-fighter had dropped a load of depleted uranium shells on us, which had been used to obliterate Saddam’s ground forces – or what little he’d had of them. The internal inquiry had blamed a faulty laser targeting system. Perhaps that was true, but as far as I was concerned, it was besides the point. What the hell were we doing in Iraq in the first place? Why were we bombing the shit out of the place with depleted uranium?
“Sergeant?” Dr. Stafford’s voice echoed in my head and the vision of Baghdad faded. I was back in London, but the scene before me hadn’t changed a great deal, and the horror of having watched my fellow soldiers killed by friendly fire was a permanent echo reverberating around the inside of my skull.
The war had definitely come home.
“Depleted uranium?” I repeated. “Are you serious?”
“Well like I keep telling you, right now we just don’t know. It’s a guess, possibly a bad one. We’ll only know for sure after testing samples.”
“Sorry Sergeant, can you come with me?” a voice came from behind me. It was the constable who’d let me through the police line.
“Yes constable?”
“Sarge, I’ve been asked by the SIO to request you to leave the crime scene. Only authorised investigators are allowed on scene. Apologies, Sir.”
I wasn’t surprised, but I had hoped to learn a bit more while I was here. “That’s fine by me, constable.”
“Thanks for your help”, I told Dr. Stafford, who nodded and hurried back to her colleagues.
“Who’s the officer in charge, if you don’t mind me prying?” I asked as we strolled back to the police line.
The constable nodded discreetly toward my right at two blokes in dark pinstripe suits at the far-end of the blast-zone, just inside the police line.
“SO15, Sarge. Bloke called Wilson.” SO15 was Scotland Yard’s Counter-Terrorism Command. “He wants a chat with you, Sir, not right now but in a bit – I told him you were with Specialist Protection. So I’m going to ask you to hang around a bit if that’s okay.”
I could tell the constable felt awkward passing on the orders – I had senior rank to him. “Alright mate, I’m good,” I reassured him. “I wanted to talk to him anyway.” I sat myself down on a relatively stable piece of broken pavement, and waited in the midst of the carnage, my head still reeling.
I began to worry about the flashback. I hadn't had any for at least a year. I really shouldn't be having them now. I blinked, as if each squint of my eyelids would squeeze my anxieties away. The truth is, I knew what had just happened was a major trigger.
I'd assumed this job was going to be run-of-the-mill. I really didn't need this.
Across the road, I noticed another dishevelled copper sitting on the ground, leaning against a half-shattered red brick wall. It was John Croft.  I got up and jogged over to him.
            “John!” I yelled, then coughed, my throat dry.
            John looked up at me in a daze. His forehead was covered in a bandage going half-way round his skull. “Dave.” He clambered to his feet and placed a hand on my shoulder. “How’s it going mate?”
            “I’m alright, all things considered. You don’t look too good man. What happened?”
            “Not sure. After the radios went down I came straight back. Something hit my head in the explosion. It knocked me out for a bit, but the paramedics sorted me out. I might have to go the hospital later, get checked out properly, but right now they’re overwhelmed. Too many victims.”
            “Your radio went down, too?” I asked.
            “Yeah”, he grimaced. “Doesn’t make any flipping sense. What d’you make of it?”
            My frown deepened, but I shrugged. “It doesn’t add up. Whoever did this took our radios down to make sure our internal comms were fucked. I’m not sure we could’ve done anything anyway, but that guaranteed our response would be slow and confused. My question is, who could do that?”
            “We need to speak to HQ. Talk to the super.” He was referring to Superintendent Heather Jones, our boss and the head of Metropolitan Police’s Specialist Protection unit.
            “Shall we call her now?”
            John paused. “What about Julia? You should call her asap.”
             “You’re right – but let’s call Jones first.”
Julia Stephenson was my girlfriend, a journalist I’d met by accident during my stint in Iraq. But the priority was getting in touch with HQ.
            I pulled out my phone and noticed that Julia had texted me.
            it read
            I typed back:
Then I pulled up the number for HQ. “I haven’t seen anyone else from our unit Dave”, said John. “Do you think -”
“We don’t know”, I interrupted, slapping the phone against my ear as it started ringing. “I spoke to forensics earlier. They’re still trying to find people. We just don’t know yet.”
John rubbed the palms of his hands over his face and sighed. Despite my attempts to avoid the issue, we both knew most of our unit had probably been killed in the explosion. It was difficult to believe.
“Heather Jones”, came the super’s voice over the phone.
“Ma’am, this is Sergeant Ariel. I’m calling you from the scene of Carson’s assassination.”
“Ariel? Thank God you’re alive. What the hell happened?”
“Not sure, Ma’am. Someone just collided with Carson’s car. They broke through our formation and just went for it.”
“What about everyone else? How’s the team?”
Once again, for a few moments I was lost for words. “There’s me and Croft here”, I stuttered. “We can’t find the others. We’ll know more soon I’m sure.”
There was an unnerving silence for about half a minute.
“Ma’am,” I said. “The radios went down before it happened.”
“The radios. They went down before the car came through. I was right there. Brian was in front of him, then the guy just smashed into him and went past us. About a minute before that all our radios went down, just like that.”
“Oh my God. Brian..." For a moment, there was silence.
"It's okay. Still here. Well no, the radios going down - that doesn’t make sense. I’ll look into it. Maybe it's a technical problem from our end?"
"Maybe. Kind of convenient timing though."
"Yes, very odd." She paused again. "Look, you and Croft, get some rest. I’m coordinating the escort operation to get the Cabinet underground. I’ll be in touch later.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Listen, before I go. You should know, they’ve cordoned off a whole chunk of St. Johns Wood. It’s all locked-down. They’re not letting anyone in or out.”
“What, you mean, not just the crime scene?”
“No, not the crime scene, I’m talking about the local area, it’s all been locked down. I’ve been told there are lines of riot police making sure no one leaves. They’re trying to secure the area and interview as many people as possible before they let people go.”
“Really? That’s heavy.”
“I agree. But what’s just happened is heavier. Anyway, you guys will obviously be fine getting in and out, but I just thought you should know. We’ll speak soon.”


Balad, Iraq
9:45 AM GMT / 12.45 PM AST (Arabia Standard Time)
            Julia Stephenson wiped the sweat from her brow as she stalked down the corridor of the American military base, her holdall clutched in her right arm. Her dark, shoulder-length locks were tied up tight into a bun and concealed beneath a black baseball hat. A pair of fake designer glasses rested on the bridge of her nose. She shuffled in her disguise - a grey jumpsuit, standard uniform for junior staff of the contractor which provided technical services for the base.
            Backing up her cover as a junior contractor, the ID pass she'd been sent by her source had worked so far. Her contact had rigged the system from inside to grant her the highest level of security clearance on the base. She wasn't surprised about that, as her source had turned up trumps several times recently. But this story, she'd been told, was big. Really big. And that was all she'd been told. The information was too sensitive to be shared in any way. If she wanted it, she'd have to get it herself. All her informant could do was give her a helping hand, and she'd have to do the rest herself.
            Everything she'd needed to infiltrate the facility had been arranged, piecemeal, by her contact on base - a senior US military officer. The plan seemed foolproof, but Julia had no illusions that things could go pear shaped fast if she wasn't careful.
            She nodded at the group of officers in fatigues strolling down the corridor in the opposite direction, their voices raised in casual banter. One of them winked at her, grinning. She smiled back, continuing down the corridor.
            It took her a couple of minutes to arrive at the temporary intelligence archive room that had been set-up for the local JSOC unit - Joint Special Operations Command. She glanced at her watch.
            12.47 PM. She exhaled, and wiped her brow again. She was on time. She'd been guaranteed that the room would be empty for an hour - all JSOC officers would be at a mission brief at a separate part of the facility. She whipped out her pass again and swiped it through. The reader beeped, and the little square flat screen beside the door flashed bright green. She leaned forward, allowing it to read her right eye. It beeped again, and the door hissed, sliding open.
            She stepped in and glanced around. The door slid shut behind her. It was a small room, packed with dozens of filing cabinets. There were a couple of computer terminals on desks in the centre, but apart from that there was little else in the room.
            Julia strode toward the far end and scanned the subject-headings on each filing cabinet drawer. Electronic storage was all well and good, her source had told her. But it was a legacy of the long defunct Wikileaks movement that for the most sensitive communications and memoranda, any form of electronic transfer was viewed with extreme suspicion, and files were transported in secret by armed courier.
            She stopped.
            NATO Allied Command Transformation. She tried to ignore the pounding sensation in her chest as she pulled open the drawer and began flicking through the internal dividers, searching for the right header.
            United Kingdom - okay, nearly there. She kept flicking. UK: Threat Assessments. Okay, okay. Ah hah. She found the section dated this month, and snatched the file out of the drawer, slammed it shut, then smacked the papers onto one of the desks. She opened the file and began reading.
            Her eyes widened.
            She should really read this somewhere else - preferably far away from here. She unzipped her holdall, and carefully planted the file inside.
            Then the door opened.
            Julia froze. 

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