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A metallic sound jerked Yunan Tao from his semi-doze. It came again, “Ding, ding, buzz.” A red square at the bottom right of his computer screen blinked impatiently. He clicked on the square.
It was 9 a.m. and Yunan, an audio-video computer tech, stationed in the basement of Beijing University, was bored. This was the fourth time the Afghan warning alarm had gone off since he came on duty at six. “Wo gan dadu, ta de lìng yigè tu ying,” he whispered—I bet it is just another darn buzzard. Yunan glanced at the clock to see how much longer he had to go before quitting time—four more hours.
A fuzzy image of rugged landscape appeared on his screen; it was the Hindu Kush mountain range in eastern Afghanistan.
He moved his mouse and clicked. The solar-powered camera, positioned on the northern slope of Noshaq mountain, responded to his command. This electronic instruction was relayed to the camera by way of a Chinese military satellite. The camera lens zoomed in toward the center of the picture. After a moment, the image stabilized and sharpened.
Yunan leaned close, squinting at something moving from left to right across the screen. Suddenly his eyes widened. “Jing!” he shouted. “Kàn kàn zhè.” Look at this.
Jing rolled out of his bunk. “Gaisi de gou shi, Yunan.” This better be good. Jing rubbed his eyes and stumbled toward his pal. They had been up late the night before at a Wudaokou club, up in the Haidian quarter, and both were trying to catch up on their sleep.
“I think it is a Reaper.”
“A Reaper.” Jing snorted. “They have not even been deployed yet.”
Yunan pointed with a tilt of his head toward a row of aircraft and missile photos spaced out along the wall above the computer. “Deployed or not, there it is, flying right for the Pakistanis.”
Jing glanced from the screen, to the photos and back again. “Wow, I think you might be right, Yunan.” He patted his pal on the shoulder. “For the first time in your life, you might be right.” He reached for the phone.
“Ha! I’m always right.”
Jing punched a number on the phone and waited. “Good afternoon, General Zunang,” he said into the phone. “I’m sorry to interrupt.” Jing listened for a moment. “Ah, so sorry. I am Captain Jing ha Peng on duty at…” He listened again. “Yes, Sir. Of course, you know all that. We believe we are watching a Reaper flying through the Hindu Kush on a course toward Pakistan.” Jing leaned down, pointing to an icon on the screen. Yunan clicked it and the view changed to wide-angle.
“A Reaper, Sir.” Pause. “Yes, the new American drone aircraft.” Jing nudged Yunan with his knee and Yunan looked up at his friend. Jing made a gesture with his finger toward his right temple and rolled his eyes. “Yes, Sir, we were also told they had not yet been deployed, but we are watching one now. I estimate the air speed at over 300 kilometers per…” He listened to the General, and then covered the mouthpiece and whispered to Jing, “Zoom in tight.”
Jing worked the controls and within a few seconds, the camera tracked the Reaper in a close-up view.
“General Zunang, we are seeing the starboard side of the aircraft and I can make out at least two missiles under the wing, I believe they are Hellfires. There is also something large mounted under the belly of the aircraft.”
The view on the computer monitor suddenly shifted to the left, and then jerked to the right.
“What is wrong, Yunan?” Jing asked.
“I do not know.” Yunan typed in keystrokes and worked the mouse frantically. “I have lost control for some reason. It is like a sudden windstorm is whipping the camera around.” The computer speaker crackled and squealed with noise coming over the camera’s microphone.
“We are trying to recover, General.” Jing listened for a moment. “The camera has gone crazy, but we cannot understand out what is going on.”
The view from the camera shifted 180 degrees. It moved so fast that it made Yunan dizzy just watching the mountains spin by.
“Hi, guys.” The camera’s view was now filled by a face. It was a man with a week’s growth of beard. He wore a military helmet and sunglasses.
The camera moved away in jerky motions, as if someone walked backward with it. The man’s shoulders came into view.
“American!” Jing whispered. Apparently, the general said something over the phone. “It is an American soldier, Sir, maybe two. They have found our camera.” He pulled the phone away from his ear and grimaced as the general yelled into the phone.
The American soldier took off his sunglasses. “How’s the weather in Beijing?”
“There’s no mic on this thing,” said a voice from behind the camera.
“Sure there is.” The first man reached forward and touched something below the lens.
A rustling sound came from the speaker on Yunan’s computer.
The camera rotated, and the second man came into view as he held the camera in front of himself. His face filled the screen; he was another American soldier.
“Could be,” the second soldier said as he gazed at the front of the camera for a moment. “So much the better. You ready, Redneck?”
The camera rotated back to the first solider who had a large rifle angling across his chest. “You boys ever see one of these babies before?” He patted the stock of his rifle. After a few seconds he said, “I take that as a ‘No’. We call her Kate, but it’s actually an M-24 Sniper Weapon. It can knock a man down at 800 meters, but up close, it would blow him to bits. By the way, before we demonstrate this little sweetheart, I’ll give you a bit of free advice. If you really want people to think your camera and transmitter are American, you might want to tell the guys who engrave information on the equipment, that it’s spelled ‘Copyright 2010’, not ‘Copywhite 2010’ and it’s ‘Los Angles, California’ instead of ‘Lost Ankles, California’”. He worked the bolt on his rifle. “Okay, Home Boy, it’s show time.”
The view on Yunan’s computer monitor swung slowly down to show the rocky ground and then rapidly up. And then it rotated in a full circle showing first sky, then mountains, followed by a quick image of the two soldier on the ground with one of them aiming his weapon up at the camera, then mountains again and…
The last thing Yunan and Jing heard was a loud bang and then they saw nothing but jittery lines weaving across their computer screen.
That evening, at 9 p.m. four Chinese military leaders and their staff met in Xishan, on the western edge of Beijing. The nondescript gray building houses the National Command and Control Center of the People’s Liberation Army. The facility functions as the C3I nerve center for all branches of the PLA and it runs at full operation twenty-four hours a day.
“How did this happen?” Chief of Staff, General Chen Bingde shook a Double Happiness cigarette from the red and white pack. Before the cigarette reached his lips, Captain Xu Qiliang reached from behind the General’s right shoulder with a flaming butane lighter.
“There is a simple explanation,” General Chang Wanquan, Chief of Armament, said. “Our glorious Intelligence Department has let us down…” He cut his eyes to the right. “Again.”
“We were told,” said the Chief of Military Intelligence, “that the Reaper could not possibly be deployed before December.”
“And yet, General Xiong, if flies to Pakistan today and delivers a GPS guided smart bomb with a magnitude we have never seen before.” General Chang folded his hands and leaned back. He shot a glance at the commander, General Chen.
“Perhaps, if the Peoples’ Army Department of Armament could provide our forward observers…” General Xiong glared at Chang, “with a simple shoulder-fired ground-to-air guided missile, we could rid ourselves of all the Reapers in Afghanistan, and—”
“Gentlemen.” General Chen blew a puff of blue smoke toward the ceiling. “This bickering is getting us nowhere. How do we stand on obtaining a copy of the Reaper’s guidance system?”
“Our cadre in the US is working diligently at this very moment,” General Xiong said and then tilted his head to the side as his assistant leaned forward to whisper something to him.
General Chen eyed the assistant. “Good. So I may expect results when?”
“Um,” General Xiong cleared his throat. “My assistant informs me that we actually have only two people working to obtain the guidance system.” He ran his finger along the inside of his too-tight collar, tugging it away from his sweating neck. “But we feel certain they will soon be successful.”
General Chen heaved a sigh that could have been interpreted as a reprimand. “Next Tuesday night…” he stood and the other men competed with one another to see who would be the first on his feet. “We will meet here at this same time to discuss results.”