No one pinpointed exactly when the draw down began, or exactly what factor discouraged them, but as time passed, and it did at an agonizing pace, money, the liquid medium of value, stopped moving into militant causes. The financiers, whoever they may have been, simply no longer saw value in the things their terror-wielding proxies believed in. Without sponsors, the erstwhile proxies gradually withered on the date trees, lacking the funds to keep apace in the arms race.

In June 2004, Roger Gordian sensed it, felt the will of his rival serving as the enemy's financer fade. He leafed through Xeroxed photos of the still smoldering war machine a shadowy man in Chechnya had washed away a fortune for. Fifty-year-old steel tombs of T-55 tanks, the last Stalin-era main battle tank, finally stopped smoking some time in May of that year, unwrapping the shroud that had covered the extent of the upgrades the chassis had gone over. Plenty, it turned. Plenty of fortune. Plenty thrown away to crush one facility. Roger felt the foreignness of the Soviet-style armored cavalry charge, and open-desert rush into combat that really wasn't foreign at all. He'd read of American tanks charging through the desert to disastrous effect in 1943 on the Saharan fields, taking a beating from anti-tank guns of the Afrika Korps. He also remembered the more recent 1991 VII Corps swept into Southern Iraq that ended much better. How do they do that? How do you drive ahead, not clad in protective terrain, and have faith a hail of missiles won't collide with you?

That sensationalist reporter, that Geraldo fellow, had a rough cut of his documentary finished, streaming online after airing in an abbreviated fashion on television. I have hair growing from my nose, Roger lamented, seeing a still image of his own face on the television. Several white hairs. Ashley would have picked them out, mashing her fingernails around each follicle and yanking, if no better tools resided in the folds of the cavernous purse she had strapped by her side.

But she remained safe- safer- in the lower forty-eight states, far removed from this new death den that takes the worst from Columbia, Somalia, the West Bank/Southern Lebanon, and Northern Ireland into one California-sized state. The kidnappings were the same as Lebanon and Columbia, and a measure worse in their presentation. Columbia's FARC didn't need filmed executions, they just needed the immediate families, grieving banks, to provide funds. Here it worked differently. The captives were drama as often as investments.

There was no way Roger Gordian would die passively. Here, in Baghdad, The Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) crowded him as he shuttled through the shut in buildings of the loose fortress on the Tigris, the Green Zone. They were just some green kids on Temporary Duty (TDY), but he could trust them with not letting him fall to a kidnapping squad.

Two held close to him, sitting on a flan sofa of considerable age and wear. No eyes, just Rayban aviator glasses watched nothing in his room. Their pinstripe suits gave the illusion of starvation in the thin agents, a subtle way to hide the soft vest armor under the jackets.

The remainder of their kits were largely Swiss, SIG-Sauer P228 pistols holstered, and Rolexes that appeared to be authentic makes. They were both Caucasian men, lean, and of slightly taller than average height. The better to absorb incoming bullets. One had freckles, while the other bore the scars of acne. Both looked like they'd continued efforts to bulk up, but have avoided the temptation to try performance enhancing substances.

"I have hair coming from my nose, dun I?"

The two jointly peeked at one another, and again faced their "principal," the guy they took a duty to protect, reminiscent of the agents from that Wachowski Brothers movie that took so much from William Gibson.

"The Matrix."


"You think we come straight out of The Matrix."

"Yeah," Gordian agreed. "Is there hair in my nose now?"

Shades glued hypnotically at him, presumably dutifully at his nostrils, but Roger's mind ventured away, toward the Caucasus Mountains. Presumably, that man responsible for shouldering the insurgency walked and breathed there, if Jay Gridley's tracing of the proxy routing had been accurate. Surely. Probably. Maybe. The police work in Maryland, and their conclusions, meshed too perfectly with the geek work. Going after him, into "the Stans," fell on the duty of men like those facing Roger at that moment, the DS boys. They were the guys for it, a fact that would deeply surprise the folks back home, folks that believed everything hinged on the secretive fellows at the CIA. No, assuming these governments would apply a façade of cooperation, diplomatic security would have an active hand in apprehending those that threatened American citizens with terror.

Colin Powell still had troops, even as he wore his diplomat hat.

These regions lie far away, in lands locked from the open seas, and reaching them would take help. Roger may have been staring at America's, and by extension the West's, primary soldiers in the nation's most isolated war front since the Northern Russia Campaign against the Bolsheviks from 1918-1920.

If Turkey doesn't cooperate, even the most extreme Special Operations Forces plans may by necessity have to give way to covert wet works through the CIA and the DS, for logistical reasons. The future of the Stans are shaded in monochrome, a tone the Russian Hegemony has grown accustomed to for many centuries.

That fight will come sometime later. For now, may the marshes prosper, safe from evil and misery.

Ah, the Russian merchant of death, or Chechen, or whoever he is, he will now have to live a restless lifestyle of safe house hopping, like the Saudi rich kid, like the Jordanian butcher, and like others who've already hopped their last time, like countless Hamas leaders, some Libyans, the original PLO-aligned Black September gang, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Ramzi Yusef, Adolf Eichmann, Hermann Goering, Slobodan Milosevic, Uday and Kusay Hussein, as well as their father, and Uday's 14-year-old son, who died aiming a Kalashnikov at a soldier. Since 1945, and certainly since the end of the Cold War, justice, or karma, or whatever mechanism that weights disincentives on being a murderous pig, is expanding. They no longer get to die peacefully in the privacy of their Fuhrerbunkers the way they did from 1945 to Mao's quiet end.

May Pol Pot be the last one to pass gently from this world. Ayman al-Zawahiri or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi will no doubt bolt wide awake one night wondering why their flesh is on fire, and what the heck happened to their eardrums and nasal cavities.

There are two ways to go, Pilgrim, you can surrender peacefully like Pinochet, or like Pablo Escobar. Your world is bleak and binary now, not ours.

Roger un paused the rough cut of the documentary, and reviewed the events. Geraldo Gutierrez had a nice groupware system on his personal website that allowed any registered user in the world to edit his stock footage and present a more-or-less customized video on a personal diary, or pass on for further revision on an open groupware page, but Roger wanted to put his own remarks on the film before the big theatrical release. Sadly, pathetically, he felt with full gravity, he needed heavy airbrushing. He was, normatively, factually, unavoidably, a blemished old man.

Vanity aside, the movie grabbed him. No documentary could match the visuals of actually being on the receiving end of an artillery barrage, or had access to hours of multi-angle digital security footage of a massive firefight, until Roger's Sword unit released it all to the journalist, to supplement his camera crew. The terabytes of audio and video, hosted in a loss-less digital format, has spawned thousands of, Roger could hardly believe, music videos and montages that became voted up to the front page, e-mailed and instant messaged, and embedded a hundred thousand pages across the net. As Roger watched the limited-release DVD, Gutierrez's lawyers negotiated an affiliation program with a loop-based music editing company for music scoring event, which an open-source music editor had already opted in.

Very well, he thought, in this rough cut, the music sounded like stock recordings taken from the racist classic, The birth of a Nation, just muted down a little. Hopefully, the emergence of a thousand amateur sound editors and musicians will elevate the project further, beyond the tired method of scoring Wagner's Flight of the Valkyries in the big rescue scene. The world has moved beyond DW Griffith, and everyone involved wants to reflect that. Good luck with that.

On his desk lay a laptop, with an unfamiliar word processor document open. AbiWord, what in the sands of Arabia is that? Whatever the enigma, the rookie geek, Gridley, forwarded a memorandum that made computers harder for everyone in the company proper, UpLink, and the Sword team throughout the world. Microsoft boiled garnet and ornery over it, and the electronic troops didn't much like the transition, either. Reportedly, they even missed an episode of Dragon Ball Z when taking the time to figure the workings of the new software. That provoked grumpiness.

The blasted program felt unfamiliar, how it scrolled in a radical fashion from, uh, Word or whatever it was, but he figured out how to write and save a note with it. Mr. Gutierrez, Mr. Scull, Ms. Breen, he headed his letter, I look like a pitiful old man. I'd be appreciative if I could look more presentable to the viewers of these films. I am a public figure, after all, and the managerial head of a great number of people. Would the lot of you kindly consider airbrushing the worst out of my skin?

What's the use? The guys wanted grit, and grit is an ugly and damaged thing, something an audience will see as tanned and battered. The more hardboiled he looks, the more he fits in with the tone of the program. Bloody it all. He revised the request, liberally tapping away at the backspace, and filling in a more reasonable critique. It didn't match how he felt, but it better matched what a leader ought to write.

He mailed it. At least the mail program worked simply. Whatever the end product evolved into, it came with his consent. He liked how it thread together. Approved.

"What's the time?" He stretched, felt his old shoulder blades pop in the middle of his back. Oh, there's the time on the laptop. An agent shared the time, just as a scheduled message warned him of a deadline. The brief was a short time away. Scuttlebutt had it the handover from the Coalition Provisional Authority would come tonight. Paul Bremer would then silently board a plane, and disappear. Before then, Roger needed to appear there for a brief on the progress of the marshes.

Mikhail Ruzhyo also tapped into the local scuttlebutt.

The boss thankfully kept a tentacle in the Baghdad electrical streams, piggybacking on the satellite uplink responsible for switching State Department emails from the land of two rivers to Foggy Bottom. Wheelman thinks the handover comes tonight, in order to avoid planned attacks set for the scheduled handover on the thirtieth. Well, imagine how it looks when the civilian leadership retreats under fire. That's precisely what Plenkanov dispatched Ruzhyo for that night, moving the Chechen to a well-disguised drop point, a burnt orange flower pot under a sienna balcony in Sadr City, where an old yet capable S-4M derringer type pistol with 7.62x63 silent ammunition, and a Browning Buckmark .22 Silhouette target pistol, loaded with some quality match ammunition. Both rested wrapped in a bubble wrapped manila envelop, which he tore apart rapidly.

Both pistols concealed easily enough for a town where mortar crews and Capone-style death squads routinely passed through the streets, picking up collaborators or lobbing shells near the police or the bubble, but he anticipated trouble would come getting into the convention center. Getting through that would depend on Vladimir's little doodads, some more arcane high tech for the warrior to apply to the anti-art of rapid deconstruction. His aptitude outmatched any he knew, and he'd personally frozen the animation from more people than anyone save Paul W. Tibbets Jr. and a few others, and accepted that as his natural role. Moving to the field he felt most organically fitted for merely positioned him into a function occupied by many other natural forces, as common and routine as the Karachi masque explosion that killed twenty early that June, or the five aid workers killed in old Northern Alliance Afghan country. Sometimes they don't die right away; somehow the British averted the June 3rd airline deaths Vladimir had planned when killing the air traffic control computers, but they'll all eventually meet a conclusion, whether it happens young and violent, like the five ambushed here in Sadr City, or after a long life and silent, that the enduring giant Ruzhyo remembered on state TV long ago, Reagan. That seemed impossible, but it happened, without any help from an RG-14 revolver. It didn't matter that he did what Clostridium difficile did to ninety Canadians that month. Death was hard coded omni directionally into the world, he simply did it mercifully and quickly, and to those most suited to push the eventuality further into the future than most. He simply leveled out the inequality in the timeline of what people call the great equalizer. By leveling another rate, he served the same function as a progressive tax scale. For the death rate.

He had become another utility, another collector in the waste management business, like a militant janitor.

This janitor had barriers to cross, like T-Walls, the finest barriers now in existence, topped with razor wire coils. These bleach white concrete slabs can absorb any missile, any car bomb, and demolition kit, at least once. An exaggeration, maybe, but they're working, and they're expanding from the original few blocks that made up The Bubble (Green Zone) to the police stations, barracks, and even the shops and homes of Baghdad. A maze of them had nearly trapped him in a Marsh Arab village a couple months back, and if he hadn't crawled through a sewage canal…

They'd been routed, just. Acceptable, given the target was secondary on Vladimir's agenda. From that wizard's mind, acceptable. Not everyone in the team used their craft well. Gospel and Scimitar died clearing a house, bullets striking them from through the reed walls, after they entered. Regrettable. Those two belonged on the team.

Ruzhyo's legs began to tremor as he walked in line at the bus stop. Humanity of all demographics clumped together, chattering nervously together, overlapping a swell of observations about the heat, the fuel lines, the power breaks, and those completely evil foreign fighters, those likely to attack buses.

"And those sons of dogs (Americans) recline behind their tanks and planes while we get decimated, and melt under the heat," groused a mother, fanning her partially exposed face with a stack of colorful dinars. She angrily gripped the lithe bronze arm of her little boy, a kid that looked Lebanese to the Chechen behind her. "We aren't dumb, we know if the power failed in America for five hours, those Army Engineers would truck through a warpath of raging Indians to flip the switches back."

Some males assented, and riffed on some more problems. The petrol lines, of course. No matter how many bullets Jay Z or Ice Cube put through a town, a do-ragged boy pointed out, some fat white guy would park a tanker truck at the petrol pump the next day. Americans don't need to ration, they get shipped all the oil.

"I lost my husband to a Marine checkpoint, and I had to berate the provisional office every day for a month before I got my check!"

As Ruzhyo finally found a seat, he overheard the same woman mutter "George Bush doesn't care about Arabs." The driver introduced himself as Afmad, and urged everyone to sit down, before he flipped on his CD player.

"Late at night in summer heat, expensive car…empty street…" the driver sang in perfect English to Sting and rapper Twista a favorite song. The boy that admired Jay Z exclaimed approval, rapt.

"Hey, Twista! That's one straight up thug!"

"So here I am in a stolen car…"

Mikhail Ruzhyo almost lost himself in new Arab communal tradition of admiring American gansta rap culture about "a poor boy…in a rich man's car." It somehow felt normal to the cosmopolitan assassin, who had seen an untold statistic of such oddities.

The big Greyhound finally sputtered and screeched on the breaks at the bus stop walking distance from Al Jumhuriya Bridge. Some filed out, but Ruzhyo and some of the older individuals remained for the cruise across the bridge to Yafa Street, where the Chechen caught his first glimpse of the big pine guard tower with the machine gunner at attention. An M1A2 main battle tank kept it's 125mm smooth bore gun on the flank of the bus, in case it started to race at the checkpoint.


In the dead of night he'd access each depositor's account
And from each of them he'd siphon off the teeniest amount.
And since no one ever noticed that there'd even been a crime
He stole forty million dollars -- a penny at a time!

-John Foster, "The Ballad of Silicon Slim"

Vladimir Plekhanov tiredly watched XML documents update a scant duration from his last peek. Newswires dynamically morphed into fresh intelligence, and it pleased him. YUKOS, the largest Russian oil company, wonders where its money went, while Putin is preparing to arrest Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky. That will prevent them from sending the authorities after Plekhanov for skimming profits out of fractions for all these years.

"Now, I never considered myself a thief
GM wouldn't miss just one little piece
Especially if I strung it out over several years."

He sang along with Johnny Cash in the only song he knew of about salami slicing, the slow theft of fractions from various accounts over years to earn a massive aggregate in the end. Vladimir had taken from YUKOS and YUKOS stockholders, employees, and pension plans every time they moved from one tax shelter to another, every time they made a purchase, and every time they actually paid taxes, property, withholding, income, corporate. Eleven years, and they haven't discovered it, just as the space agency didn't notice, and the Red Army pension office. Half a kopek from every Russian employee that once worked under the Soviet Union.

Under the circuited visor he wore in the sensory-deprivation chamber he floated in, "The Chechen Idoru," as the American-led coalition called him, grinned at how he hid his mischief. If you want to hide your out misdeeds, imprisoning those pursuing you works best. He mentally categorized the YUKOUS tax evasion case as an insurance policy that pushed back discovery of his skimming another three to five years. The beauty of it, lost on anyone not in Vladimir's head, is that now that Russian tax auditors are looking over YUKOUS records, the oil company's accountants will actually unwittingly assist the thief, with all their ingenuity, in in obfuscating the accounting records. A perfect crime.

Another newswire document blinked to life. Another attack in the Green Zone. That's the one. Other developments also transmitted down the newswire. Mikhail had rampaged.

Outside the Convention Center

Thomas Ricci and Peter Nimec both wore black UpLink tees and jeans when they entered the ruby Chevy Suburban with their boss. Both kept FN P90 Tupperware submachine guns (or 'personal defense weapons,' if one prefers) strapped tightly on their chests, much the same way British paras packed on Sten guns when dropping on the Nazis.

After saying hello, Nigel Braun, driving, lamented the ballistic properties of their bullets.

"I'll take them over the weak-arsed pistol shots of the MP5, but I don't like the 5.7 x 28 mm. Give me a Colt Commando, and I'd be comfortable on this ride."

Deep breath, Rog, just settle down.

"We've been through this, Nij, our forces agreed to field test different weapons that haven't yet been…blooded…in actual combat, in order to win a small contract. This arrangement is helping us pay our way here, and avoid buying extra weapons and ammo for continued operations-"

"You make a great logistics officer, Sir," interrupted Nimec, grinning. Ricci mirrored him. "We appreciate the arrangement, but I have my own concerns about the weapon. I like the SS190 round, or in my case, the SS191 tracer round," mischievous grin, "but I'm worried about the tritium night sight." Ricci scoffed at him.

"He's afraid some enlightened soul will shine a police spotlight at us, washing out the value of the sight. But," he held out his hand to preempt cross-talk, "our ancient human eyes will also be blinded in that event." Nimec fumed.

"Excuse me, but we've had an enemy outthinking us since we got here and-"

"We beat them."


"We beat them," repeated Ricci, "and we'll beat them again. I for one enjoy the luxury of having small defense weapons like the P90 and the Five-SeveN that can pierce the soft armor some of the hadjis are strapping on now."

From the side of his mouth, Nimec muttered "you got your data from the Brady Bunch," alluding to the Brady Campaign against "cop-killer" bullets.

"Did not!"

"And voted for Clinton."

"No way!"


Complete silence.

"Really?" The whole car ballooned with laughter.

In a few minutes, Nigel handed his ID over at a checkpoint.

"Y'all have a nice evening," said the Sergeant at the sandbag ring. "You too, Sergeant Howard," replied the South African driver, reading the man's label in the dim evening. He then drove on, as per Howard's instructions, while a few enlisted men handled mirrors to check the chassis for munitions. They seemed nonchalant, as did the German Shepard on a leash.

A minute later, Braun had the Chevy parked beside some white sedans, and the party signed into the conference. Pete wished Roger luck, while Ricci scowled at the DS agents that confiscated their P90s. I'm just glad we retained the Five SeveNs, Nimec sighed, as he resumed scanning the crowd. He spotted former Mukhabarat assassin Iyad Allawi, a citizen of both Iraq and the United Kingdom, and current Interim Prime Minister. Amazing they let assassins become heads of state over here. Well, at least he could handle the insurgents. Then again, if Nimec understood his role correctly, he was merely the emergency surgeon for hit teams. Whatever.

Braun shuffled over, partaking from a kabob tray offered him by a Turk caterer. Nimec gently refused one, and diligently spied his boss pass through a sea of 42-inch waists to the podium, where he planned to go through his scheduled Power Point slide show, augmented by Geraldo Gutierrez's video presentation.

"Hey there, Mate, are you drifting to sleep?" Pete confirmed the South African's query by resting his head on a banquet table.

"I've seen this play rehearsed enough. Heck, I was part of the historical event that inspired it." Braun took the succeeding yawn to mean "go away," so he stalked the kabob man.

Thomas Ricci more anxiously watched the aptly-label brief, fidgeting as he paced back and forth from the entrance, where some parade-uniformed US embassy guard Marines inexplicably arrived at the posts some DS security men were leaving. The arrangement must have something to do with the handover ceremonies, but the Marines, in his mind, only served to remind him of his comrade being held in detention. Paul Evens had returned to America bound by chains after the four months he served here. Roger promised a rescue, but such a thing would require a spade full of that nuance thing that's fallen into the public culture lately. Nuance, the attitude that simple actions must be treated with a superfluous amount of lingual attention. Like literary criticism. Alchemy can be done by simply pouring chemicals together. There's no need for all the colorful enigmatic doodles that go with it.

Now they're handing over a country with a moderate amount of fanfare, but to the Italian-American, even this much seemed unnecessary, until an elected government grasped the helm. They're serving kabobs! CNN and FOX are here, doubtlessly beaming live feeds! Tom Glared for the Al Jazeera camera, giving them his finest movie gangster pose. 'What's a good gangster sign?' Maintaining his stony expression, Ricci gestured "I love you" in American Sign Language. 'There, Al Jazeera, I'm bad.'

His antics passed enough time that by the time boredom set in, Rog and the two DS pukes exited the podium, to the pool of hand-shakers. Ricci "watched for Sirhan," as he always put it, having already seen some Mukhabarat members in the room… and plenty that fit the profile of young Arab males. Yeah, but are any of the hadjis Mr. Sirhan?

Roger chatted with Bremer as they meshed with Ricci's detail. "An hour from your flight, how does it feel to finally turn away the journalists, Jerry?" Applause for Allawi drowned out the response, but his reaction seemed positive. No people on the planet make more noise when happy than Arabs, so Ricci flashed his gangster sign again.

"I'm already engaged," quipped Peter Nimec, humoring the procession. An exceptionally tall Marine, SSG Dicob of the embassy service, guarded one white gloved hand over the hilt of his Mameluke Sword while Bremer ducked toward the open sedan door.

Across the street

Wire mesh circumscribing it, the weapons still functioned lethally, even with an electric currant coursing through it. The derringer didn't bark, because the pistons in the silent ammunition absorbed the acoustic energy, and neither Army reservist saw the Chechen aim from two meters away. From the hip, hand hardly burrowed in his pocket, Mikhail triggered both barrels of his KGB pistol, the S-4M, point-shooting with his index finger aim, at the femoral arteries of the guards. The hot and sticky liquid drenched him, clinging his pants to his skin. At 37 degrees Celsius, it felt mildly hot in the cool evening air, but would soon cool in the chill.

He caught both bodies, resting them gently, while feeling the Browning Buckmark .22 press where he taped it. He reached, pulling it clear, wrapping his hands around the wire mesh Vladimir put on it. Degaussing a gun to pass through a metal detector sounded like voodoo, but he made it, and isolated before the door opposite from the departing diplomat, felt ready for plinking.


The thought felt pleasing, like watching your tormentor's house blaze. The dispatch had little, so he spied an open video feed from the Palestinian Hotel. Turner's old network, and Rupert's, and the newer Microsoft/NBC collaboration, trained cameras and sound booms at the ceremony. Bodies spread behind a Cadillac seeped out claret syrup from cranium drillings. Young and white, in stripe charcoal suits, the Russian expat to Chechnya knew them as diplomatic security.

Ruzhyo, you made it, but where's Bremer? The tires kicked off broken rubber treads as the armored vehicle raced away, toward the north exit, while a Bradley fighting vehicle raced after, angling the little gun turret west. Thus ends a very good day.

Firstgov, the gateway of the Americans online, forwarded more news of more strikes. A major browser exploit let him play maestro worldwide, as he collected more email addresses from his coalition of crush sites. Teens got emails, asking for addresses of the person that held a secret crush, and the poor youngsters complied, giving the Russian a massive list of valid addresses to continue the list with. The web pages they visited dropped a packet of script through every browser that struck the "IM (instant message) this list to your admirer!" Millions of British, Canadian, American, Russian, and Chinese teens, using America Online's Instant Messenger and Internet Explorer, moved the worm faster than any "I love you" email virus ever contracted on the web.

Faster than herpes in an Atlanta suburb, it saturated the consoles kids linked together with, then opening a new window, and logging to a peer-to-peer network, where it took instructions to send eyeballs to a page made of pixel ads, where it registered as a unique set of eyeballs, then accepted new directions from the P2P network. Around the world, millions of computers replicated the process, giving millions of unique hits to tens of affiliated pixel ad sites, before human users figured rebooted their machines. To them, they knew a browser window opened, and that the mouse and keyboard froze, but their protection software didn't register a new virus.

Vladimir monitored his accounts in real time as digit stacked onto another digit. They collected in the savings accounts of those listed in obituaries in United States newspapers, those that have recently passed on, and wouldn't mind identity theft. They all had valid social security numbers and birth certificates, which courthouses held on to in their cabinets.

Eventually, the Department of Defense would uncover the embarrassment of learning their own fallen made up hundreds of the exploited dead. In death, they served the enemy, a grave dishonor. It pleased the hacker the way the widow of a soldier would please Genghis Khan. He laughed when the calculator added a quarter billion in nascent assets.


He triggered the tool machine-stamped from aircraft aluminum, an Olympic-grade piece for an Olympic-grade "wet works" agent. The small red-dot scope superimposed over a DS agent's eyebrow when the firearm lightly recoiled from the subsonic .22 LR rimfire round, a heavy slow bullet. A high velocity round trail it's wake, allowing Ruzhyo to hit two targets simultaneously with a time-on-target attack…from a pistol. Two DS agents collapsed as triggered at the bowing cranium of an agent pushing the diplomat firmly in the car.

Behind, Grigory, the Russian that entered the Green Zone with only a ceramic knife, extracted his blade from a casualty's jugular, and groped the M9 Berettas from the slain men's holsters.

The sedan doors shut, and the driver smothered the pedal when The Snake aimed his 9mm Italians guns, raking the back tire. Ruzyho coarsely ordered him to stop while still firing light ammunition.

"Snake, get the sentry gun!" From the Russian's pocket came a pulsing laser pin, one three times more powerful than any constant-beam laser pen. He trained it roof ward, where hanging from an arm, a heavy robotic rifle aimed at their stoop. "Blind it!" It did. The pulse lanced over the inorganic retina, blinding the first rifled responder, while the former Soviet Union's finest pistol shooter plinked side armed diplomatic soldiers. The marine with the saber retaliated from a prone position, triggering successive shots, low but correcting. They barked higher and higher, but the Olympian bided the time to aim, piercing the marine's left firing hand, which shielded much of his face.

"Flash him!" Mikhail shouted, upon seeing a somewhat swarthy civilian contractor cradling a P90 at the door. The penlight beneath one Berretta flashed, raking in an arc like a Capone massacre, until the intense white spotlight washed out the night sight.

Submachine guns. He cursed. The half-rifle ammo in the little guns altered the odds. He double-tapped the white-haired civilian's back, which had curled up protectively, but had a pistol muzzle flashing from beneath the armpit. Sneaky fellow.

The light-skinned contractor kneeling by a thin rose bush double-tapped an FN Five-SeveN pistol, striking Grigory in the abdomen, a darkening event. Mikhail stuck his target pistol in his waistband after snap-shooting that man's torso armor, and fled southeast as parked cars exploded in a domino effect.

The woman agent, the one with small dabs of semtex, must have lit multiple fuses in the parking lot. Good. A bottle cap worth on a fuel tank would do fine. Bang! A louder one lifted a vehicle, as Grigory laid down some cover fire with his 15 round magazine.

Mike spoke into his lapel radio. "Hero, lay down some CR gas." The gas, still not labeled a chemical agent, burns as much as ten times worse than the regular CS tear gas, as demonstrated by the pro-apartheid South Africans in the '80s.

"Roger," he said, hidden in the foliage, before the 'pop' of a CO2 propellant sent an oversized grenade leaching a heavy vapor over Ruzhyo's escape path. The Chechen deftly sacked his head in a sealing plastic as it poured over, and aimed one pistol round at the sentry gun he walked under.

"And for my next trick…" The former Spetnez agent unbuttoned his shirt, inverting it to display the three color desert pattern of the US Army, and "pursued" an imaginary enemy to the riverbank, with his Army-issued M9 pistol aimed downward with both hands. The heavy machine gunner in the tower, restrained from firing.

An Executive Cabin, 41,000 feet over Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

The date is July 20th, 2004, thirty-five years after Apollo, and the war on Islamic terror networks has it's center of gravity shifting westward into Lebanon, where Hezbollah is losing some early battles with the Cedar Revolution, a movement in favor of expelling Syrian forces, and more representation of the individual in government. A Texan would call that democracy.

Operation Web Tryp's big sting goes off in hours, thereby ending one of the many online funding methods the shadowy Russian or Chechen hacker/money man behind the mercenary upsurge in the Middle East. It won't make waves, but Colin's plan to boldly announce the killings by Janjaweed in Darfur as genocide. 'Just wait until that fat filmmaker points out past American administrations supported Chadian Janjaweed against Libya in the 80s.'

'Relax. What Colin is doing will outweigh the fat man.' Alone in his comfy recliner, the President of the United States indulged in a private laugh, while skimming the contents of a pardon Big Time drafted for him, after talking it up with Gordo when mallard hunting in the summer brush. The pardon looked plain enough, being for a marine responsible for many heroic actions in wars dating from the Persian Gulf to today, and throwing the molester of children into traffic. He seems like a nice guy, and if Big Time thinks he should be free, maybe there's something to it.

He shifted the legal paper on his desk, idly thinking it over. In Austin, he'd upheld the law firmly, as he promised to do swearing in four years ago, but…beneath the pardon, a yellow note lay dog eared. In contained the summary of a debriefing, with several signatures, including Jerry and that journalist named Geraldo. The claims seemed to good to be true, but they all came footnoted to more complete works, and referenced a contract.

'This is a quid pro quo,' thought he, remembering the favorite Latin phrase of career politicians. The pardon enclosed a provision that this marine must continue an extended service that contributes to catching that fiend residing in the Caucasus Mountain Range.

'So be it. I'll be the decider,' he indulged, taking the pen and carrying out his most routine business motion.