Menelik’s was named after its proprietor. Located in the northern outskirts of Addis Ababa, Menelik’s little bar had been a favorite stopover for travelers coming to and from the city for 29 years, since he first opened the place at the end of the Ethiopian Civil War. His business had been doing better than ever for the past sixteen months or so, since the Chinese construction titan Gezhouba Construction Group begun building a mine a few miles to the northwest. Despite the money they brought in, Menelik and many others in the community were wary of the Chinese and their colossal strip mine, which was noisy, ugly, and catastrophic to the local ecology, including the ecology of human communities.
Ma Bufang was one of these Chinese interlopers, but Menelik liked him because, unlike many of his compatriots, he spoke Amharic, not fluently, but well enough to hold a conversation. What Menelik did not know was that it was Ma Bufang’s job to be just nice enough to be liked, and then forgotten. Like most spies, he was trained and conditioned to be charming, but unassuming.
Ma burst through the bar’s double doors in a huff to find his contact seated at a table, in heated discussion with a man and a woman.
Colonel Emanuel Iyasu of the Ethiopian 206th Commando Brigade was an older man, heavyset, typically wearing a pair of big aviator sunglasses, which now sat folded on the table beside a half-finished beer.
Upon seeing Ma enter the bar, the Colonel cut short his conversation quickly, and bid his companions farewell in Arabic.
The Colonel’s strange friends passed Ma on their way out. They were dressed in plain work clothes, covered with dust and dirt. The man; tall, olive-skinned, buzz-cut and muscular, managed half a smile for the Chinese spy. The woman, almost as tall and equally muscular, glared sternly as she passed.
“Hello Freddy!” The Colonel greeted Ma as he sat down at the table. “You’re late.” He added with a slight grin.
Chief Ma ignored the Colonel’s barb. “Who were those people?” He demanded.
“That is not what we are here to talk about. That is my business.”
“And what business would that be?”
The Colonel let loose a breath of air, somewhere between a laugh and a sigh. “Freddy, Freddy, Freddy, always so tense. Do you want anything?” He signaled to a waiter. “Beer? Something to eat?”
“What were you talking about so heatedly in Arabic?” Ma pressed the Colonel.
“Tsingtsao, and another Harar for me.” The Colonel told the waiter in Amharic. “It was nothing official, just catching up with some old friends.”
“We’re spies, we don’t have friends.” Said the Chief.
“I am a soldier, not a spy!” Declared the Colonel. “And I have many friends.”
“Hm.” Grunted Freddy. “Good for you.”
“I thought you were my friend, Freddy Ma.” Said the Colonel, leaning forward and looking Freddy in the eyes.
“Very funny.” Said Freddy.
“I’m serious!” Said Emanuel. “You saved my life back in Somalia, not once, but twice! Those are the actions of a true friend.”
“No, wait, I saved you three times!” Freddy contested.
“Twice!” The Colonel repeated with firmly, underscored with a wave of his hand. “That last one doesn’t count, because your unit got us into that mess.” He pointed a scolding finger at Freddy.
“Ok, fair.” Said Freddy. “Twice, then.”
Their beers arrived on the waiter’s tray.
“I didn’t come to Ethiopia to drink Chinese beer.” Said Freddy as the waiter placed his Tsingtsao on the table.
“No, you didn’t, you came to safeguard your country’s mining interests and ensure that the plunder of our minerals continues smoothly.”
“We’re getting better at it, soon we’ll be as good as the Americans.” Freddy joked.
The Colonel didn’t laugh. “That’s the last thing Africa needs.” He said, shaking his head.
“Hey man, those decisions are above my pay grade.” Said Freddy.
There was a long pause, silence hanging between them. The Colonel took a big gulp of his beer. “You really don’t think of me as your friend?” Emanuel asked.
“Emanuel, come on.” Said Freddy. “You know this business.”
“I know about life!” The Colonel declared. “And I know we don’t do it alone. We all need friends.” He gestured at Freddy with his beer. “Even men like you need friends.”
“Emanuel, you sound like a kid.” Said Freddy.
“Do you have kids?” Asked the Colonel.
“No.” Freddy answered, taken aback by the question. “What kind of question is that? You know I don’t have fucking kids, I’m not even married.”
“I know, I was rubbing it in.” Emanuel said with a smile. “I have kids, you know. Two little ones. Sometimes I think they are wiser than us.”
“Well then change my diaper and call me a genius, Dad.” Ma deadpanned.
The Colonel let loose a bellowing laugh. “Freddy Ma, I value my friends very much, and I certainly count you among them. As a token of this goodwill, if you admit to me here and now that you are my friend, I will tell you one of the names of my other friends, in whom you have taken such a keen interest.”
Freddy’s eyes narrowed. “What’s your angle?”
“No angle.” Said the Colonel. “Straight as an arrow.”
“Don’t play games with me, Emanuel.”
“No games Freddy.” Said the Colonel. “I trust you, that is all, and I will speak truth to you, even against my better judgement. You see, deception is like an ocean. It can take you far, but without the shore, without limits, without trust…you are simply lost at sea.”
“You should be a poet.”
The Colonel brushed off the barb. “I trust you, Freddy Ma, and that is not something I say lightly, especially to people who lie for a living. But now the question is: do you trust me?”
“As much as anybody else in this town.” Said Freddy.
The Colonel said nothing, his mouth set in a line. “So!” He said suddenly, clapping his hands and holding them out towards Freddy as he made his offer. “What’ll it be? You want to know that name?”
“Yes.” Said Chief Ma. Emanuel leaned forward slightly, eagerly awaiting his little victory over Freddy’s pride. “My friend.” Freddy added begrudgingly.
“See, that wasn’t so hard!” The Colonel said with a wide smile. “One of my friends, the man, his name is Hisham Ghazi.”
“Ok.” Said Freddy. “I’ll look him up later tonight.”
The Colonel pursed his lips. “Freddy, I must warn you…” He paused for thought, scratching his chin. “How do I put this…if you chase something down a hole, there may not always be a way back out.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Demanded Chief Ma.
“There’s only one way to un-learn dangerous information.” The Colonel said, pantomiming a gunshot with his thumb and forefinger.
“Is that a threat?” Freddy asked angrily.
“No, no, no!” The Colonel assured him, a look of shock plastered on his face at the suggestion he would threaten Freddy. He leaned in close and lowered his voice to a whisper. “I myself am in danger, this very minute. I don’t want you to get wrapped up in any of this.”
“Any of what?”
“I just said I don’t want you to get wrapped up in it!”
“And what if I want to get wrapped up in it?”
“Trust me, you don’t.” Emanuel said. “Your job’s already dangerous enough.”
Chief Ma was intrigued, hungry to know more. But it was clear that he’d gotten everything he would get from the Colonel, and he would have to wait until he could log on to the Ministry for State Security’s database to learn more..
“Ok, so lets talk Shabab.” Said Freddy, getting down to their official business.
“Yes, yes.” Said the Colonel. “They are numerically small in Ethiopia, we’ve managed to stop most of their infiltrations along the Somali border. They only have a few scattered cells concentrated here in the capital.”
“What about hardware?” Asked Freddy.
“They’re very well armed.” Answered the Colonel. “Al-Qaeda captures weapons from the Americans in Yemen and sends them over to Shabab.”
“Yeah, ‘captures’ weapons…” Freddy scoffed. “You really don’t think the Americans are arming them?”
“As I have said before, it is the official position of our government that the United States does not support terrorist organizations.”
“Naturally.” Freddy said with a wave of his hand. “Any intel about Chinese targets?”
“No.” Said the Colonel. “They seem to be focusing on us. As their next-door neighbor, they can hit us harder, and we’re already the largest troop contributor to UNISom, so there’s not much for them to lose by antagonizing us, since we’ve already escalated as much as we can. I don’t think they’re trying to anger China more than they have to.”
“Ok Emanuel, I’ll let you know if I come across anything.”
“I’ll do the same.”
The two men rose from their seats and exchanged a firm handshake.
“Take care of yourself, Freddy.” Said Emanuel.
“You too Emanuel.”
Freddy left the bar, got in his dusty white Toyota SUV, and drove back to the MSS station, located in a sturdy prefabricated concrete house on the northern edge of the Gezhouba Group compound. The house had a walled-in courtyard where Freddy parked his car. A large antenna stood beside a tin shack in the southeast corner.
He went into his office on the second floor and closed the door. Peeking out from the papers and general clutter of his desk was box of donuts. Freddy wasn’t sure how old it was, but he’d made his peace with risk long ago.
Chief Ma ate several slightly stale donuts while he unwinded to some Miles Davis and absent-mindedly surfed the web. A late-summer breeze drifted pleasantly through the open windows.
With his security clearance, Freddy was allowed to use Facebook. Under a fake name, and strictly for intelligence purposes only. But as far as he knew, there was no official punishment for looking at memes on the people’s time. He chuckled to himself at some ‘sassy socialist memes’ as he scrolled through his newsfeed, before opening a new tab to read some news. 2020 was an eventful year, and the news was gripping, though often grim.
Polls Still Tight as United States Elections Draw Closer
With less than three months remaining until the American Presidential Election, there is still no clear favorite among the frontrunners. Incumbent Donald Trump is neck-in-neck with Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), at 28% and 27% respectively, followed by Ambassador Nikki Haley at 25%, and Governor John Kasich trailing with 11%. The remaining 9% is split evenly between the Green Party and Kanye West.
Al-Qaeda Bombing in Aden, Yemen; 87 Killed and Over 200 Injured
Among the dead were 22 American soldiers. US troops have occupied the war-torn country alongside Saudi Arabia and the UAE since March 2019. The war has led to a surge in Al-Qaeda recruitment and saturated the area with weapons, posing a danger to the security of neighboring states. Over 40,000 Yemenis have been killed since the fighting began.
United States Completes Withdrawal of 10,000 Troops from Venezuela
43,000 remaining American troops control the major cities and highways, but the US has failed to subdue insurgents in the jungle since invading in May 2020. One out of every six US soldiers deployed to Venezuela is wounded, and one out of every twenty is killed. Upcoming elections and a ballooning military budget are named by US officials as reasons for the withdrawal. President Trump himself has refused to comment on the matter.
40,000 Saudi Troops Enter Al-Hasa Governorate Amidst Bitter Fighting
The arrival of the 4th and 7th armored divisions brings the number of Saudi troops in the majority-Shiite eastern province to over 80,000. Since the start of the violence in July, 1,362 Saudi soldiers have died, along with 914 militants and at least 2,000 civilians. “This is not a civil war. This how you deal with terrorists, this is law enforcement.” Said a senior Saudi official, who also called international estimates of civilian casualties “wildly exaggerated”.
United States to Coordinate Somalia Operations with the United Nations
The United States has agreed to begin operational coordination between its forces in Somalia and the United Nations Intervention Force (UNISom). The Blue Helmet force, with troops from China, Ethiopia, Kenya, India, Egypt, Uganda, and Canada has been in the country since February 2019.
Freddy opened another tab and logged in to the Ministry for State Security’s secure classified database. He typed the name “Hisham Ghazi” into the search bar and hit enter.
Sergeant Hisham Ghazi was a former soldier from Unit 999, a secretive elite formation of the Egyptian Special Forces. According to his MSS file, Egyptian security services placed him under electronic surveillance in May 2013, for posting tweets sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood. In August 2013, during the aftermath of a military coup against President Mohamed Morsi, Unit 999 was involved in the Rabaa massacre, in which over 800 people were killed. Captain Ghazi was dishonorably discharged and imprisoned for refusing an order to fire on protestors. In 2017, he escaped prison, but the file didn’t say how, nor did it speculate as to what he did next. That entry was the last available information on Sergeant Ghazi, and Chief Ma was left with more questions than answers.
Hisham’s file shed some light on the situation, but it didn’t even begin to explain what he was doing here, in dirt-crusted work clothes, drinking with Colonel Eyasu in Addis Ababa.
Freddy’s computer froze. “Shit.” he said under his breath. He clicked the refresh button a few times and waited. Someone knocked on the door of his office. “Come in.” Said Freddy.
One of the analysts stuck his head through the door. “Hey Chief, have you been having problems with your internet?”
“Actually yeah, it’s frozen right now. I figured we were just using a lot of bandwidth.”
“Well the rest of the tech team and I have been having problems all day, I was wondering if you could look into it.”
“Sure, no problem.”
The analyst left and closed the door. Freddy double clicked the icon for their local network’s security system control panel.
“Error: Program Files Corrupted.” Declared the computer. Concerned and irritated, Freddy tried again, and once again was met with a programmed rebuke. “Error: Program Files Corrupted.”
Before Freddy could launch a verbal attack on his computer, as he usually did before calling one of the tech support people up, the lights went out.
Freddy Ma sat in total darkness. After less than a second, though it felt like far longer, dim red emergency lights came on, accompanied by the high-pitched, air-splitting blast of an alarm which rang in the event of a serious electronic systems breach.
A loud “BOOM!” shook the building. The sound was deep, its sharpest tones were muffled as the blast’s energy dissipated throughout the building’s structure. The telltale signs of a breaching explosive. It was followed by the sound of gunshots, ringing out in rapid succession on the ground floor.
Freddy Ma opened his desk drawer, put in his earpiece, and loaded his pistol.
“Talk to me Wei.” He said, addressing the station’s head of security.
“We’re pinned down at the end of the hallway!” Wei answered, the hiss of his breath through a gas mask audible in the background. Freddy grabbed his own gas mask from the filing cabinet and put it on. Then, he reached below his desk and pulled out a little souvenir from his time in Columbia.
It was a 12-Gauge combat shotgun, an Italian-made SPAS-12, and Freddy Ma only brought it out when things got really serious. The weapon was a gift from a Salvadorian arms dealer, when Freddy was undercover as a triad drug kingpin. He received the gun in exchange for a great deal of cocaine, so it wasn’t exactly a gift, per-se.
Freddy loaded the shotgun with loud, distinctive clicks and clacks before he descended the stairs. The first thing he saw at the end of the hallway was a tall white man in military-style gear and a black kevlar vest. Freddy raised his shotgun and fired, aiming for the man’s face to avoid his armor. He didn’t miss.
The air was thick with white smoke. Freddy didn’t know if it was a nerve agent, a sedative, or ordinary tear gas. In fact, he had no idea whatsoever who the attackers were, or why they were here.
Chief Ma stood facing the hallway, which had a door on the left leading to the kitchen, and an open area to the right, which the spies had made their longue. The couch was knocked on its side, and Agent Wei sat up against it, clutching his AK-47. Mahjong tiles were scattered across the floor.
To the right of the lounge, the door to the bathroom was open. Freddy could see the shadow of another mercenary inside. He prowled to the left to get an angle on him.
Another mercenary flashed out from the kitchen and started firing, but Agent Wei was quicker, springing up to shoot him dead with a burst from his AK. When the mercenary in the bathroom leaned out to shoot Wei, Freddy gave him an iron welcome with his shotgun.
Freddy checked the kitchen while Wei caught his breath. “That’s the last of them in the building.” Said Wei. Due to personnel rotations, there were only five people at the station that night, four agents and an analyst.
“Where’s Chung?” Asked Freddy.
“The roof.” Answered Wei.
“Agent Chung, status report!” Freddy barked into his headset.
“Multiple hostiles on the north hill. They have armored cars!”
“Armored cars?!” Shouted an incredulous Freddy. “Who the hell are these people?”
“No clue, Chief.” Said Chung. Freddy could hear the bullets zipping past. “But they’re laying down a firestorm! There’s at least 30 of them out there, I can’t get a shot off!”
“Alright Chung, hold tight.” Said Freddy.
Four of their field agents were off on a long-range operation in the DRC with agents from the Kenyan Station. Djibouti, the location of China’s main base in East Africa, was close. But to send the PLA into Ethiopia on a moment’s notice was politically impossible. Freddy Ma pulled out his cell phone and called Colonel Eyasu. He bit his nails as it rang. When the Colonel picked up, Freddy exhaled as though a weight was lifted from his chest.
“Freddy, you know it’s very late.” the Colonel Answered.
“Emanuel, our station is under attack. We don’t know who they are, they’re some kind of mercenaries, and they’re heavily armed. There’s only five of us here now, we’ll die if you don’t send help.”
“Hmph,” grunted the Colonel as he weighed his options. “You are sure you will die?” He asked.
“Yes.” Replied Freddy.
“You know this is a big risk for me, to help Chinese spies.”
“If you help us, China and the Ministry will be extraordinarily grateful. Not just to Ethiopia, but also to you, personally, Emanuel.”
“Do these mercenaries look… western to you?” Iyasu asked.
“Yeah.” Chief Ma answered. “American weapons. My best guess; they’re from one of the big contractors.”
“At least 30.”
“Ok, my friend, I’ll gather some men and get there as soon as I can. Can you hold out for an hour?”
“I can come sooner but then I can only bring around 20 men. If you give me some time I can double that.”
“Do you think you can take these guys with 20?” Asked Ma. “There won’t be much of us left to save in an hour.”
Freddy waited while the Colonel made his calculations. “Yes.” He said firmly. “I will get there as fast as I can, expect us in thirty minutes.”
The four agents at the station were good ones. Agent Chung Tao was a marksman, survivalist, and assassin, who came to the MSS from the special forces. Agent Wei Zhou was a well-spoken demolitions specialist with what Americans would call a linebacker’s build, whose military life began in the infantry. Tech Specialist Ling Fang was a talented hacker and linguist from Hong Kong. She, like the Chief, was a career MSS agent. And, of course, there was Chief Ma himself. Despite his vices and eccentricities, he was, indeed, a very good agent.
Teachers called Ma Bufang a slacker. So did his professors at University, where he studied psychology and linguistic anthropology, receiving Bs in most of his classes, except for English and Spanish. His drill sergeant called him a slacker when Ma was kicked out of PLA boot camp for insubordination. And Finally, Freddy’s first MSS handler called him a slacker, on the morning they recruited him, after local police pulled him out of a gutter in Shanghai’s red light district.
But no one could argue with his file, which detailed a series of ambitious deep-cover operations carried out with courage and skill. He picked up the nickname “Freddy” on his first cover, as an engineering student at the University of California Santa Cruz. Then, he was rotated through Latin America for about three years, hopping between Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, and Venezuela as a field agent. Next, he was promoted to the head of an operations team attached to UNISom for a year. And finally, at age 27, he became the MSS’s youngest Station Chief, here in Addis Ababa.
Every agent chose a tactical specialization early in their training. Ma Bufang chose hand-to-hand combat. By his calculation, when you were undercover, conflict would start when you were talking to someone; close-quarters, with whatever weapons were at hand.
Freddy entered the closet which was wedged beneath the stairs. He pulled on a coat peg, and a square chunk of the wall slid down to reveal a keypad. He punched in a six-digit code and the concrete wall swung open, revealing a secret ladder leading to the basement.
The basement hosted the station’s emergency supplies, computers, server banks, and armory. Specialist Ling was frantically typing away at her computer, trying to regain control of the system. Helping her on another terminal was Jing Mei, who was, at the moment, the Addis Ababa station’s only analyst. They spoke frantically in technical jargon which was beyond Freddy’s comprehension.
Racks of weapons, bulletproof vests, radios, and crates of explosives were packed into the corner of the room which had been designated the armory. Chief Ma walked over and armed himself. He grabbed a menacing six-shot grenade launcher, which had been confiscated from Somali pirates and ‘lost’ on the way back to a UN depot.
“Jing Mei.” Said Freddy.
“Yeah?” He said, looking up from his computer.
“You ever fired a gun before?” asked Chief Ma.
“Chief, he can do more here.” Specialist Ling said firmly. “I need his help to purge the system.”
“Alright, good luck then.” Chief Ma replied as he took an RPG for Agent Wei and dashed up the stairs. He reached the the roof and threw himself into cover behind a short wall. Agent Chung crouched beside him, breathing heavily. Agent Wei sprang up through the hatch and took up a position to Chung’s right.
“What’s the situation.” Asked Chief Ma.
“We’re pinned between the armored car and a machine gun on the hill.” Said Chung.
“Ok, here’s what we’ll do. Chung, take out that machine gunner. Wei, if you miss that armored car, we’re all toast. And I’ll drop a few of these on ‘em.” Chief Ma said, patting the grenade launcher. “Ok, on three. One, two, three!”
The agents popped up from behind the wall which edged the rooftop. Wei fired, and the rocket streaked through the air like a firework, slamming into the armored car and sending it up in a raging ball of flame and smoke. Chung fired one shot from his sniper rifle. It hit home, and the machine gun, mercifully, fell silent. Ma’s genades arced through the air and fell upon the mercenaries with a series of rumbling explosions. The Chief grinned slightly as the fiery blasts flickered in his eyes. The attackers scattered, taking cover behind the rocks and small trees which dotted the hillside.
When they ducked back down, Chief Ma pumped his fist at their success. The three agents had just beaten back a veritable small army. “That should buy us enough time until the Ethiopians get here.”
Their moment of safety was shattered when a lone gunshot rang out in the night, and Agent Chung fell dead, struck in the head by a sniper’s bullet.
“Shit!” Shouted Agent Wei. “They’re still out there!”
They scrambled back inside, slamming the steel roof hatch shut behind them. They went to the big shared bedroom on the second floor. Its windows faced north, looking out over the gently sloping hillside. There, they could see more mercenaries approaching, followed by the second armored car.
There were more of them than Chief Ma had initially realized. He pulled out his cell phone to call the Colonel and warn him, but it showed no signal.
“Ling, I’ve got no cell signal. What’s the deal?” he barked into his headset. There was no response. “Ling, come in!” The electronic jamming these mercenaries were using was highly advanced. These were no common hired guns.
The mercenaries spotted Ma and Wei in the windows. They began spraying the side of the building with machine-gun fire, and the Chinese agents ducked down behind the wall.
“Chief, we should hole up in the bunker until the Ethiopians get here.” Suggested Agent Wei.
“You’re right.” Said Chief Ma. “Let’s go.”
Wei peeked around the corner of the staircase, gun in hand.
“They’re down there.” He warned Chief Ma.
“How many?” Freddy whispered.
Wei held up five fingers.
“We can take them.” Said Freddy. “Follow my lead.”
The Chief grabbed a concussion grenade from his belt. He pulled the pin and tossed it down the stairs. Ma and Wei buried their faces in their arms as the grenade clattered down the stairs, exploding with a debilitating blast of light and high-pitched sound.
Their ears rang as they moved carefully down the stairs.
When they reached the bottom, they saw the mercenaries, holding their ears, blinded by the light from the blast.
The Chief raised his shotgun and unloaded a clip, clicking and clacking with each shot, as he dove for cover behind an overturned chair.
Freddy shot three of the mercenaries dead, hit one in the vest, knocking him over, and missed one entirely. The man he missed was still blinded by the concussion grenade, and, luckily for Freddy, he’d dropped his assault rifle.
Freddy threw down his empty shotgun, sending it sliding and clattered along the floor. The Chief wanted to know what the hell was going on. For that, he needed one of the mercenaries alive.
The last man standing drew his pistol and fired off three erratic shots at the sound of Chief Ma’s footsteps as he closed in.
The Chief’s roundhouse kick lashed out like a coiled snake and struck the mercenary in the head, staggering him. Ma whirled around and hit the man with a follow-up back-kick to the stomach, sending him crashing into the wall.
The Chief heard shuffling behind him. He pulled back into his fighting stance and turned around to face the man in the bulletproof vest. The first thing Freddy saw was a flying fist, and he tucked quickly into a crouch to avoid it. He popped back up and lashed out with a swift spear-hand strike to the throat, followed by a mighty blow to the solar plexus, which sent the mercenary reeling, clutching his neck and gasping for breath.
Freddy pulled on the man’s left wrist and then brought his fist around like a hammer, directly into the mercenary’s elbow. The man’s cry of pain was mingled with a gut-wrenching crack as Chief Ma snapped his arm like a twig.
Freddy heard a rustling behind him, and turned to see other mercenary laying on his back, aiming a pistol right at him.
With a deft and practiced motion, Chief Ma put the brutalized, bone-broken mercenary in a headlock, positioning his unfortunate attacker’s body as a shield, while simultaneously swiping his handgun from its holster. The gun was a Beretta 9mm, US Army standard issue during the early War on Terror, a fact Freddy duly noted.
Bullets flew wildly across the room, smashing into the concrete wall behind Freddy and slamming into his human shield’s bulletproof vest. A bullet struck the man’s shoulder and he cried out in pain.
From behind the wounded man, Freddy aimed the Beretta at the mercenary’s head. He fired three times, tap tap tap, and that was the end of that.
Ma released the other mercenary from the headlock, holding him by the collar of his bulletproof vest. “Wei, take this piece of trash down to the basement.” The Chief barked as he pushed the mercenary towards Wei, who had to hold him upright to prevent the man’s collapsing from pain and blood loss.
Agent Wei dragged the man roughly down the stairs into the basement. Freddy followed, shutting the thick steel hatch behind them. In the basement, he turned his attention to the wounded mercenary, slumped against the wall. Ma crouched down so that their faces were almost level.
“Don’t worry.” Said Chief Ma, in almost perfect English, his voice calm and smooth like silk. “The Beretta’s small, high velocity rounds tend to pierce the soft tissues of unarmored targets and exit the other side, creating wounds which are often non-fatal and usually heal cleanly, lucky you!”
The mercenary just glared at him.
“I’m guessing you and your friend picked up an affinity for the Beretta in Afghanistan? Or Iraq, perhaps?” The man remained silent. “Or perhaps you were not friends, so sad. Don’t you long for the days when soldiers were comrades, and comrades were brothers?”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Asked the mercenary, dazed from blood loss and confused by Ma’s ramblings. The Chief was cultivating unpredictability, as he always did during an interrogation.
“Not a philosopher, I take it.” Freddy deadpanned. “Listen, buddy, your wounds are probably non-lethal so as long as you get medical attention soon you’ll be good!” He said, concluding with a slap on the shoulder that would have been a friendly gesture if the shoulder in question didn’t sport a gaping, bleeding gunshot wound. The mercenary winced with pain and groaned, then spat bloody spit in Freddy’s face.
Freddy smiled, saying nothing. He opened a foam-lined plastic case containing a syringe and a vial of purple fluid. He calmly drew half a syringe full of the liquid, which was a fast acting drug that made people very open to suggestion.
“That’s a cool tattoo.” Freddy said as he traced the needlepoint along the man’s red and black ink, which formed the logo of G4S, the world’s largest private security company, on his bicep.
“Go to hell!” The mercenary declared defiantly.
Chief Ma grabbed his head with one hand and stuck the syringe in his neck with the other.
“People tell me that a lot.” He said. “Hell sounds like a nice place. Filled with my kind of people.” He pulled a plastic crate across the room and sat down on it in front of the mercenary. “What’s your name, friend?” Freddy asked.
The mercenary looked up at Chief Ma as the drug hit his bloodstream. His eyes widened, and his face was struck with fear. “Why do you sound like you’re from New York?” He asked slowly, before laughing softly to himself. The drug had a range of psychological effects.
“My English teacher in high school was an American from Brooklyn.” Answered Ma, his voice cold and calm. When the Station Chief interrogated someone, he favored a psychological approach. He usually wouldn’t torture prisoners, though he was trained do so. Chief Ma found that torture yielded bad information just often enough to make the risk unacceptable, and bad information meant dead agents.
“What’s your name?”
“You work for G4S?”
“Yes.” Said the mercenary, now in a trance-like state.
“What is your mission?” Asked Freddy firmly, but without raising his voice.
“To use the mind…” The mercenary said before he made a face like a deer in the headlights. “No!” he shouted, his voice full with equal parts defiance and fear.
The mercenary began to twist and turn, wincing as he disturbed his wounds and pain shot through him. Chief Ma stood up.
“No amount of money is worth your life. Neither is this operation.” He said, his voice like a stone. The mercenary was on his knees now, clutching his broken arm, and he recoiled before Chief Ma’s menacing stature.
“The sun rises in the west!” The mercenary spat his words, spraying saliva and blood through clenched teeth, before biting down on a cyanide capsule embedded in one of his molars. The powerful toxin did its job quickly, and he was dead within seconds.
“Shit!” Yelled Freddy. “What the fuck…” He’d seen a lot in his time as a spy, but he had never seen a mercenary take their own life. You can’t spend your pay if you’re dead.
Something here didn’t add up.
Chief Ma heard a loud crash from above; the sharp ring of metal striking metal. The sound came again seconds later. It sounded like the mercenaries were trying to bash their way through the door with a sledgehammer. What a bunch of idiots. Thought Freddy. The doors on Chinese military bunkers were, predictably, built to withstand far greater impacts.
The hammering continued for about ten minutes, and the noise grew maddening. When it stopped, everyone in the basement was grateful, until a muffled explosion rumbled through the walls and sprinkled them with dust from the ceiling.
The mercenaries were trying to blow the door open with C4. Another explosion shook the bunker. Now, Chief Ma was worried they might get through.
This would be a bad way to go, thought Freddy. Killed by an unknown enemy, and I wouldn’t even know why.
His thought spiral was interrupted by the sharp clatter of gunfire from above. He heard shouting in English, followed by a grenade blast and more gunshots. And then, silence.
Someone knocked on the hatch. Knock, knock, knock. The sound echoed through the concrete confines of the basement. The room felt like a submarine, and it seemed as though water would pour in to drown them all if they opened that hatch.
Freddy climbed the stairs and pulled back a sliding steel plate on the hatch, which covered a small window of thick plexiglass. He pressed his eyes against the door, and looked up to see Emanuel’s frowning face through the glass.
The Colonel jumped back as the hatch swung open.
“Colonel.” Freddy greeted him. “It’s good to see you.”
“Likewise.” Said the Colonel. “I was worried you might be dead already.”
Emanuel stood in front of a squad of eight Ethiopian commandos, wearing dark green camouflage fatigues and carrying AK-47s, their eyes covered by thermal-vision goggles.
“I thought you were bringing more men.” Said Chief Ma.
The Colonel scrunched his eyebrows. “And how about a ‘thank you’?”
“Thanks.” Said Freddy.
“You’re welcome. I’m happy to help a friend in need.” Said Emanuel. “These men were all I could muster at short notice.”
“How’d you manage?” Asked Freddy, glancing down at the bullet-ridden bodies of mercenaries strewn around the house and the driveway.
The Colonel tapped the thermal vision goggles on his helmet.
“They were using night vision. We throw a few smokes and flash grenades, bam, they’re blind. But we can still see them.” He explained with a satisfied smile.
“Nice work.” Said Freddy. “I almost thought we were done for.”
“You and me both.” Said the Colonel. “Yes, we made quick work of them. And I am only lightly wounded. Overall, a success.”
“Oh shit.” Freddy exclaimed, looking down at the Colonel’s left thigh, where The bloodsoaked pant cloth was torn and the flesh pierced by a bullet. “Do you need medical attention?”
“Eh, at some point.” Said the Colonel. “It missed the arteries and veins.”
“You’re a tough guy, Emanuel.” Said Freddy. “That’s good, because you seem to get shot an awful lot.” He added, needling the Colonel.
“That’s because I face my enemies head on, like a man! No sneaking around!” Emanuel shouted back.
“Well, Emanuel, you’re a soldier, and I’m a spy.” Said Freddy. “It’s a tradeoff: you have no subtlety, and I have no honor.”
“Well said.” Replied the Colonel. “Any idea who these guys are?” He asked, gesturing at a dead mercenary with the barrel of his gun.
“G4S.” Said Freddy.
The Colonel’s eyes widened.
“Yeah, my thoughts exactly.” Said Freddy.
Emanuel glanced around nervously. “Freddy, we are still in danger.” He warned earnestly. “We need to get to a secure location.”
“And where might that be?” Asked Freddy. “The most secure location for a Chinese spy in Ethiopia just had its population reduced to three agents and an analyst so I can’t say it’s very secure anymore.”
“You’re a smart guy, you’ll figure something out.” Said Emanuel. “But first, there’s something you need to see.”
The Colonel led Chief Ma out into the driveway, where one of the mercenaries’ armored cars sat, inert and abandoned. It was an LMV, a light utility vehicle used by several Western European armies and mercenaries across the world.
Where it would normally have a machine gun, the LMV was fitted with a large antenna. They walked around to the back of the car and pulled open its steel plate doors.
They couldn’t have imagined the diplomatic and technological storm they were about to unleash. Freddy and Emanuel didn’t lay the powder, but they were about to drop a match that would ignite a global electronic arms race.
A strange device sat on the floor of the passenger compartment. It was made of tan-painted plate metal, shaped like a triangular pyramid with the top cut off. The device’s top and front were both embedded with hinged panels. The top panel was open, with telescoping antennas of varying lengths and two thick cables protruding upwards. One of the chords was connected to a laptop which sat closed on one of the seats, the other connected the device to the car’s power supply.
Freddy opened the laptop, and was confronted with a password lock-screen. He tried several passwords; 12345, password, and, in a flash of insight, am3r1ca. None worked.
“Shit.” He cursed under his breath as he closed the laptop. The Chief could press people’s buttons easily enough, but technology was another matter.
The panel on the side of the device was closed. Chief Ma pushed it gently inwards, and when he drew his hand away, it fell open, revealing a keyboard and a small screen. The screen displayed a grayscale map of their area, with their own location marked by a blinking blue dot, and the Chinese station mainframe shown with a red one.
Text engraved above the screen read M.I.N.D. mk II.
“What the hell is this thing?” Asked Emanuel, who peered over Freddy’s shoulder at the computer-like device.
“I couldn’t tell ya’.” Answered Freddy, slowly shaking his head. “Agent Ling, status report.” He barked into his earpiece.
“Chief, we’ve got computer control back.” Ling told Freddy on the radio. “The mercenaries used some kind of portable network projector to hack us. It must be very powerful to have overcome our system.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m looking right at it.” the Chief said through his headset. “Send a message to MSS headquarters informing them of our status and request further instructions.”
“Yes sir.” Said Ling. “Message sent.”
Just then, Chief Ma saw the faint outline of an aircraft in the night sky, heading directly towards them. Two tiny flashes of light flared from its wings, one coming a second after the other.
“Get down!” He shouted at the top of his lungs, frantically gesturing with his arms toward the stairs. “Get to the basement!”
He hastily unplugged the device and scooped it up in his arms, running for dear life towards the house..
The roar of a Lockheed-Martin hellfire missile slashed through the air like thunder.
Freddy was the farthest from the door, and he made it to the basement just in time. The hatch slammed shut behind him just as the first missile hit. He tripped as he ran and tumbled, dropping the strange device which rolled and crashed down the stairs alongside him.
The missile slammed into the communications shack, which exploded in a plume of smoke as its mangled four-story antenna creaked and fell into the side of the house.
The second missile sailed through the open window of Freddy’s office, hit the wall behind, and exploded, utterly obliterating his office and reducing the house to rubble.
When the dust settled, Freddy opened up the basement hatch and poked his head out.
The hostile aircraft shot past overhead, turned, and flew away to the Northeast. Freddy could just make out the distinctive tail fins of an MQ-1 Predator drone. He cast his eyes down from the sky to the ruins of the station, which had been destroyed completely by the blast.
“Shit.” He said under his breath.
Ma let the hatch fall shut and walked back down the stairs.
“Yes sir!” She said, jumping to her feet and saluting. “What do you need?”
“You can ditch the rituals, Ling. The only thing I’m Chief of now is a pile of rubble.” Freddy lamented.
“There’s still the basement!” Ling replied optimistically.
“She’s right.” Said the Colonel, sitting on the ground with his back against the wall. “You still have the basement. It looks like all the important stuff is down here anyways.”
Despite his hard-boiled exterior, the Chief was still processing the loss of the station and the death of Agent Chung, all under his command, on his watch. “Fuck!” He said to no one in particular, placing his hand on his forehead, brushing back his wild long hair. “Shit!” He yelled, shaking his fists in the air. “Goddamnit!”
Ma always liked English curse words. There was nothing that let out your anger like a few good curses in American English.
“You good?” Asked Emanuel.
“Am I good?” Freddy repeated the question sarcastically, his eyes wide. “Am I good? Do I look like I’m good, Emanuel?!”
“Relax, man. I have blood seeping from a hole in my leg, but you don’t see me freaking out.” Said the Colonel. His voice was calm, but the wear of a long and eventful day was evident.
“Ling, take a look at this thing.” Ma ordered with a gesture towards the strange device on the floor. “I want to know everything you can tell me about it, starting with exactly what the fuck it is in the first place.”
“Yes sir.” Replied Ling. She picked up the MIND and plopped it down on her desk. The screen’s reflection floated on the surface of her glasses and her eyes widened as she began to type. “Wow, Chief…” Ling began. “When I tell you this is a powerful computer..”
“Yeah, context clued me in on that one.” Freddy interrupted.
“Freddy, let her talk. Wisecrack some other time, preferably when I’m not bleeding like a stuck pig.” Snapped the Colonel.
“This computer is magnitudes more powerful than any current technology, at least any that I’ve heard of. What I mean is, computers with this kind of capacity exist, but they fill rooms. This is a true portable supercomputer…its awe-inspiring…”
“Who built it?” Asked Ma. He was unsettled, and it showed in his voice. Freddy was itching to know, he needed to know, at last, who was behind it all. He could feel the lust for information grip his body, his breath quickening, his muscles tense.
The greatest ecstasy Ma Bufang experienced in his life came from knowing something that someone else didn’t. The intrigue, the power; he relished it. If someone could be addicted to information, that someone was Freddy Ma.
The same traits and tendencies which made Freddy one of the MSS’s best spies also made him obsessive, indulgent, and vindictive in his personal life. Ma Bufang didn’t have many friends. “Who?!” He loudly and angrily demanded once more.
“I don’t know yet.” Ling said, the look of awe on her face turning into an expression of intense focus, her brow knit, and her mouth set in a grim line. “But from what I can tell so far…” She paused to make sure what she was about to say was true. “It has silicon valley’s fingerprints all over it.”
“Holy shit.” Said Emanuel.
“Tell me more.” Freddy demanded.
“I need more time.” Said Specialist Ling. She plugged the MIND into her computer and began to type, typing on her computer with her left, and trying to hack the MIND with her right, looking back and forth between the two screens.
“What would be ideal would be to bring all of this to a lab, and then we could really get into it.” Ling said with a grin. “I hope I get assigned to reverse-engineer this.”
“I have a question.” Said the Colonel. “What does MIND stand for? Because it really does sound like an acronym the Americans would come up with.”
“It stands for Multi-source Internet Network Distributor.” Said Ling. “I think it’s designed to work with other MIND units and project a mobile network, but I’d need to hack this thing with a supercomputer to be sure.”
“Wait a second.” The Colonel said, wincing with pain as he stood up. “This device was captured in Ethiopian territory, and paid for in Ethiopian blood. This is not to say China cannot take possession of it, but they must share whatever they find. The fate of this device must be decided by our respective leaders.”
“Yes, of course.” Said Chief Ma. “Besides, do you think that the four of us could seize it against your will?” He asked, gesturing at himself and his compatriots.
“You four are not the only Chinese people around!” The Colonel countered. He was not smiling.
“You’re right.” Admitted Freddy. “I’ll pass that up the chain when I’m debriefed.”
“Good.” Said the Colonel with a smile. “Freddy Ma, it was an honor to fight beside you again. Now, I will go to the hospital.” He hobbled up to the Chief and extended his hand for a handshake.
“Let me help you up the stairs.” Said Freddy. “Comms are down so I need to go outside and use the sat phone to call for extraction.”
Emanuel put his arm around Freddy’s shoulders as the spy helped the soldier up the stairs.
“Thank you Freddy.” Said Emanuel, turning to walk away.
“Wait!” Shouted Freddy. “Who’s that?”
He pointed at the ridge, where the outlines of two standing figures were barely visible in the moonlight.
“Get down!” Freddy shouted, dropping into a crouch. Emanuel did nothing. “Wei, binoculars!”
Agent Wei trotted up the stairs and handed Ma a large, bulky pair of night-vision binoculars.
Freddy peered through them at the figures standing on the ridge. He turned a knob and they came into sharp focus. Ma could just make out their faces; the faces of Emanuel’s two companions from the bar.
Freddy drew his gun and aimed it at the Colonel’s head.
“You’re gonna tell me what the fuck is going on.” He demanded. “Right now.”
Emanuel took a step towards him. “What are you doing?” He asked angrily. “Have you gone mad?”
“I see your ‘old friends’ up there on the hill!” Freddy shouted, pointing off towards the ridge. “What am I supposed to make of that, huh?”
“They are working nearby.” Said Emanuel.
“And what kind of work would that be?” Asked Freddy.
“They are digging for something, something very important.” Answered Emanuel. “That’s all I can say.”
Freddy pulled back the hammer of his pistol. “Not good enough.”
“Freddy, stop this! Put the gun down!” Yelled the Colonel. “You saw with your own eyes who attacked you, it was not them!”
Freddy’s face twitched with anger as he looked down the gunsights at his friend. At last, he lowered the gun, letting lose a heavy sigh as his arm fell.
“If they aren’t behind this, I need to find out who is.”
“I’m afraid I can’t help you with that.”
“You seriously expect me not to investigate this?!” Freddy exclaimed. “What the hell kind of spy do you think I am?”
“A smart one!” Emanuel shot back. “One who understands how lucky he is to have even survived this night!”
“I need to know who’s behind this, Emanuel.” Said Freddy. “I need to know the truth.”
“I have a bullet inside my leg!” Shouted the Colonel. “I am going to the hospital, and then, if I can, I’m going home to sleep in my own bed. Goodnight!”
“Wait!” Freddy said again.
“What?” Emanuel asked. He looked tired, and sounded irritated.
“Do you have a cigarette?”
“Why don’t you have a cigarette?”
“They were in my office.” Freddy said, pointing to the empty air where his office used to be.
“HAH!” The Colonel let out a deep, bellowing laugh, throwing his head back and slapping his belly. “Hahahahaha!” His frown melted back into an easy smile.
Emanuel reached into his left pocket, just above his wound, and pulled out a ragged pack of cigarettes. “They are a bit bloodsoaked.”
“I don’t mind.” Said Freddy.
“You are a strange man, Ma Bufang.” The Colonel said. “Listen, my friend, do not go searching for answers tonight.” He advised, his voice calm, but earnest. “Once you’re involved in something like this, you can’t walk away. They won’t let you. You’ve had enough trouble for one night.”
“Who’s ‘they’?” Asked Freddy.
“You don’t want to know.” The Colonel said, shaking his head.
“Is it G4S?”
The Colonel said nothing.
“Their client?” Freddy asked. “Who is it?”
“Even if I knew, I would not tell you.” Said the Colonel. “You need to call for extraction and go to Djibouti. Go to your Chinese base there, where you will be safe. Be happy you are alive and leave it at that.”
“No way Emanuel, I’m getting to the bottom of this. Tonight.” Freddy declared. “Right after this cigarette.” He added as he held the half-crushed, bloody cigarette between his lips and lit it, shielding the flame from the wind with his free hand.
“Very well then, Freddy Ma, you always were a nosy bastard. I guess that’s why you’re such a good spy. Good luck, and try not to get yourself killed.” The Colonel said, slapping Freddy on the back. With that, they shook hands, and Emanuel and the other commandos clambered into their jeeps and drove away into the night.
Freddy finished his cigarette, ground the butt beneath his shoe, and set off to search for answers in the darkness.