20 miles north of Kaesong, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, aka North Korea.
Uldis Barznav had to be the only person in the entire base not panicking.
The tall, gray-haired man with a bulging belly strode through the underground corridors smiling in spite of himself. Soldiers and technicians and support staff polished tables and doorknobs, scrubbed windows, and straightened the colorful, supposedly inspirational portraits of the country's Great Leader and his late father, the Eternal President. All of them wore hurried, tense looks. Even Major General Sang, the base commander, had a noticeable sheen of nervous sweat on his forehead.
As much as he enjoyed this spectacle, Barznav supposed he couldn't blame them. The man coming here had the power of life and death over all of them. Technicians and maintenance personnel and security guards, and even generals, were all easily replaceable.
The same could not be said of Uldis Barznav. He was the most indispensable man in the entire country, save for the Great Leader.
Scratch that. His value surpassed even that of the Great Leader. Any half-wit could sit behind a desk in P'yongyang and run this dreary, militaristic, famine-stricken nation. Only one man in the entire world could do the things he did. And if the Great Leader wanted his plans to succeed, he wouldn't be so foolish as to stand Uldis Barznav in front of a firing squad because he got a little irritated.
Barznav made his way to a paved tunnel that led to the surface. An honor guard in brown dress uniforms with AK-74 rifles tipped with bayonets stood off to the side.
"Doctor." A stocky man with a weathered face nodded to him. Like the honor guard, he also wore a brown dress uniform, though a myriad of colorful ribbons adorned his left breast.
"General." Barznav nodded back to General Sang as he sidled up next to him. Neither man spoke, their gazes aimed toward the other end of the tunnel. Barznav rocked back and forth on his heels, wishing their distinguished visitor would get here already.
He didn't have to wait long. Barely ten minutes after he joined General Sang, a circle of light formed at the end of the tunnel as the entrance opened. Within seconds, two limousines appeared.
The honor guard snapped to attention. General Sang stood ramrod straight.
Barznav clasped his hands behind his back, trying not to look too bored.
The limousines rolled to a stop. The doors of the first one flung open. Uniformed bodyguards sprang out, clutching Type 56 assault rifles. They formed a cordon around the second limo, whose driver exited, stepped over to the rear door, and opened it.
And there he was, the short, paunchy man with puffed up black hair and glasses. The Great Leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea. The Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army. The Invincible and Iron-willed Commander, the Glorious General Who Descended From Heaven, the Bright Sun of the 21st Century, the Shining Star of Paektu Mountain, and the numerous other ridiculous titles the WPK'S Central Committee created for him.
Barznav had his own title for North Korea's ruler. "The Midget." Not that he would call him that to his face. As indispensable as he was, even he knew there were lines he couldn't cross, especially with the man who gave him all the money and resources, and all the pretty young girls, he asked for.
"Most Beloved and Respected General." Sang saluted as the Great Leader approached them. "Welcome. We are all honored to be in your presence."
"Thank you, General." The Great Leader's head whipped toward Barznav. "Is it ready?"
"Yes, Great Leader. All our tests have been completed successfully. We can commit it to your operation whenever you wish it to begin."
"Our forces are marshalling near the border as we speak. Everything should be in place in another two weeks. Now, take me to it." An anxious look came over the Great Leader's fleshy face. "I enjoy looking at it."
"Of course, Great Leader. This way."
Barznav took the lead, with "The Midget," General Sang and the heavily armed bodyguards in tow.
"You are certain it will not attack our soldiers?" inquired the Great Leader.
"We exposed it to the People's troops and tanks on numerous occasions. Every time, it obeyed our command and did not attack them."
"That is good to hear. And it is strong? It can withstand any attack the capitalists in the south and their Imperialist American allies can launch against it?"
"We have shot at it with tanks, artillery, missiles, and even detonated several 250-kilogram bombs around it. It emerged unscathed."
"And its control device?"
"We have it implanted deep in the ear canal. It is as well protected as can be."
The Great Leader barked out a laugh. "Good. Good. Then the invasion shall go forth as planned. My father's dream shall finally be realized. Korea will be united. I will even go beyond my father's dream. We shall decimate Japan, make them pay for all the atrocities they visited upon us. Then we shall go across the Pacific and turn America into ash and rubble. It will be the dawn of a new Korean Empire, an empire none shall challenge."
Barznav glanced behind him. "The Midget" smiled and puffed out his chest. "Two weeks, Doctor. In two weeks, we shall change the world."
He nodded without a word. "The Midget" could change the world all he wanted. Barznav didn't care. He just wanted to show everyone that he, the son of a minor government functionary from Latvia, could achieve what most would consider impossible.
Jim Rice spun in all directions. Darkness surrounded him. His breathing increased, as did his heartbeat. He had to find a way out.
A light caught his eye. He snapped his head to the right. The glow faded. He thought it looked like a teardrop, but he couldn't be sure.
More flashes erupted around him. Not flashes. Fire. Gigantic balls of fire. Rice held his breath, praying none of the fireballs struck him.
A noise arose from somewhere. A banshee-like wail of anger, or triumph, or both.
Where was it? What was it?
The firestorm intensified. Rice wanted to get out of here, to –
The world shook.
"Commander. Commander. Wakey-wakey time."
Rice's eyes flickered open. A stoic, black face hovered near his.
"Uh . . . thanks, Chief."
Senior Chief Hank Warthan nodded at him. "The pilot just started his descent into Seoul. I figured I better start waking everyone up."
Rice checked around the interior of the C-2 Greyhound transport plane. The rest of his SEAL team was sacked out in the rectangular, blue-padded seats. He rose to his feet and looked at his watch. Roughly 90 minutes had passed since they launched off the carrier USS George Washington.
He and Senior Chief Warthan went down the aisle, slapping the other SEALs on the shoulder to wake them.
"Damn, Commander." A barrel-chested man with fair hair rubbed his face. "You interrupted an awesome dream with me and Natalie Portman."
"At least you had a better dream than I did, Candaele," Rice said to the team's SAW gunner.
"What was your dream?"
The corners of Rice's mouth twisted. "I don't know. But I know Natalie Portman wasn't in it."
Petty Officer 2nd Class Brian Candaele chuckled as Rice headed back to his seat. The dream played in his mind over and over again. It wasn't the first time he had this strange, confusing dream. At first he tried to dismiss it. He'd never been too concerned about his dreams, or what meaning they may have. Some dreams were just so far out there who could figure out what they meant.
But this recurring dream, he kept thinking about it more than usual. A couple days ago, he actually considered keeping a dream journal, like his wife Rita. Yeah, right. He could only imagine what would happen if someone got their hands on it. Probably a psych eval. Probably removal from the field.
No way would he risk that. Therefore, no way would he keep a dream journal.
Fifteen minutes later, the C-2's wheels thumped down on the runway of the K-16 Air Base. When the plane finally stopped, the rear ramp lowered, letting in sunlight and warm air. Rice stood back and watched his team grab their gear and walk past him. Senior Chief Warthan went by first, followed by Candaele. Next came the lanky Felix Soto, their communications and tech specialist. He was followed by the tall, lean Stuart Engle, the corpsman, and finally the team sniper Mongkut, the son of Thai immigrants. Good men, all of them. They'd already been through all kinds of crap together in Afghanistan and Somalia.
The way things were going, they would likely be adding Korea to their list of battles.
The thought of war on the peninsula forced thoughts of his weird-ass dreams from his mind. He had more important things to focus on.
Rice picked up his gear and strode off the plane. He barely set foot off the ramp when a pair of boxy Humvees drove up to him and his team. A young South Korean soldier emerged out the driver's side of each vehicle. The one in the lead vehicle, who couldn't have been older than twenty, marched up to him and saluted.
"Lieutenant Commander Rice?"
"I am Corporal Young-Jae. I have been ordered to transport you and your men to SOCKOR Headquarters to meet with Captain Unser."
"Hey, what'd ya know?" Candaele smiled. "We rate our own limos. I feel special."
"Just don't expect a fully stocked bar in the back." Rice turned back to Young-Jae. "Thanks for the lift, Corporal."
They stowed their gear in the Humvees and got in. Rice gazed out the window, taking in the skyscrapers and tightly bunched buildings that stretched for miles and miles. He bit his lip. Ten million people lived in the capital of the Republic of Korea, aka South Korea, a capital that sat little more than thirty miles from the most heavily militarized border in the world. If the crazy Umpa-Lumpa with the bad hairdo decided to send his million-man army across the Demilitarized Zone . . .
Rice's stomach quivered as they crossed the Han River. He hoped this was just more bluster from the so-called Great Leader, that he wouldn't actually be stupid enough to go to war with the ROK, and by default the US. If not, he didn't even want to think of the suffering the people of this city would experience.
When they reached Camp Kim across the river, their Korean drivers took them to their temporary quarters, a Quonset hut that may have been here since the 1953 cease-fire. They dropped off their gear, got back into the Humvees, and were driven to a bland beige building. The headquarters for SOCKOR, Special Operations Command, Korea. Corporal Young-Jae escorted them inside and to a conference room on the second floor.
"Captain Unser," Young-Jae announced. "I have brought Lieutenant Commader Rice's SEAL team as you ordered."
Rice looked to the head of the wooden conference table. A portly, balding man with glasses and wearing a white US Navy uniform stood behind a chair. Captain Unser, obviously. Two other people were in the room with him, both Korean, both dressed in green-black-brown Battle Dress Uniforms. One looked to be in his early forties, though trimmer than Unser. The other had a hawkish face, a firm build and hair shaved so close he could be considered bald. The guy had the air of someone who worked in the field and not behind a desk.
"Thank you, Corporal," said Unser. "You may go."
"Sir!" Young-Jae marched out of the room.
"Lieutenant Commander." Unser walked around the table and shook his hand. "Captain Unser, head of intelligence for US Naval Forces, Korea. Pleased to meet you."
"Thank you, Sir." Rice couldn't safely say whether or not he was pleased to meet Unser. He'd always been wary of spooks. For him, they fell into three categories; the good ones, the ones too embarrassed or too prideful to admit what they didn't know, and the ones who thought they knew everything and couldn't be wrong about anything. It was that third type that tended to get SEALs killed.
"So it's Jim Rice, huh?" Unser inquired.
"Any relation to the baseball player?" Unser chuckled at his own joke.
Rice managed not to role his eyes. Like he'd never heard that one before. "No, Sir." Obviously not, since I'm white and the other Jim Rice is black. "Both my parents are Red Sox fans, and they both loved Jim Rice back in the day."
"Ah." Unser nodded before turning to the Koreans. "Let me introduce Commander Whan." He indicated to the older Korean. "He's with the Defense Security Command." His hand then moved toward the hawkish Korean. "And this is Lieutenant Myung-Dae, Naval Special Warfare Brigade. He'll be your liaison while your team is in-country, and will be accompanying you on your missions."
Rice's jaw tightened as Myung-Dae saluted him.
"I look forward to working with you and your team, Lieutenant Commander."
"Mm-hmm." Rice returned the salute, sensing lines of annoyance etching into his face. Great. Just what I need. A new guy on the team when we're on the brink of war.
Not that he had anything against the Naval Special Warfare Brigade, better known as the South Korean Navy SEALs. He'd cross-trained with plenty of them in the past. They were exceptional, tough-ass warriors. He had no problem going into battle with them.
At least, the ones he knew. And he didn't know Myung-Dae. Obviously he had to be a good warrior to be a SEAL. But Rice had no clue as to the man's experience, personality, temperament, strengths and weaknesses. Had he ever been under fire? How would he react to it? Those sorts of unknowns could jeopardize the lives of every man on the team.
Unser waved them to be seated. He then picked up a remote control and activated a large TV screen at the front of the room. A computer animated map of the Korean peninsula appeared. "I'm sure you're all aware that for the past two weeks, the North Koreans have been massing troops, armor and artillery near the Demilitarized Zone. The bulk of those forces, no surprise, are concentrated here on the western part of the peninsula, within easy striking distance of Seoul. Commander Whan."
The ROK intelligence officer rose as Unser tapped a button. The image magnified to show the shoreline from Suwan to Yonan on the other side of the DMZ.
"While our respective armies marshal along the border to counter the North," Whan began, "Defense Security Command is greatly concerned about enemy commandos and spies being inserted by boat or midget submarine near along this stretch of the coast." He ran a finger from Seoul south to the T'aean Haean National Park. "Any infiltrators will have easy access to Seoul, Inchon and Suwan, where they can gather intelligence or commit acts of sabotage to disrupt our national defense efforts. This must be prevented. Therefore, Lieutenant Commander Rice, your SEAL team shall be positioned here . . ." He took the remote from Unser. Seconds later, a jagged-looking piece of the Korean coast filled the screen. At the bottom several windows appeared showing photographs of a small beachline and the shrubbery bordering it from various angles. "Ten miles southwest of Anyang. This area is a known infiltration point for North Korean commando forces."
"Then why would they use it?" Rice asked.
Whan looked stunned by the question. A perplexed look came over Unser's face. "Pardon, Commander?"
"Well, I mean, if we know the North Koreans like to use this place to sneak into this country, don't you think they know that we know?"
Unser and Whan exchanged glances, like they didn't know what to make of it. Rice thought he saw Myung-Dae raise an eyebrow.
He waited for either intelligence officer to say something. Five seconds passed. Ten seconds. Still the two remained silent. Rice groaned and continued. "Let's assume this is the real deal and we're going to war. Recon will become all-important to the North Koreans, so will having commandos in place to ambush convoys or blow up bridges or sever lines of communication. You think they'll want to risk those guys getting captured before their army storms across the border? They'll probably look for new landing sites, places they've never used before. Hell, they probably scouted them out months ago."
"Not all areas of the Korean coastline are easily accessible by boat or midget submarine," Whan countered. "Plus the North will want to land any infiltrators as close to Seoul as possible. This small stretch of beach is idle for that."
"If possible," Unser spoke up. "Capture any infiltrators you come across. The information we glean from them could be invaluable should war break out."
"Sure, if they actually use this place to drop-off anybody."
Unser sighed loudly. "Commander, this is the mission that has been assigned to you by SOCKOR operations, and it is an important operation, and you will carry it out without further complaint. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Sir." Rice did nothing to hide the disdain in his tone, wondering if Unser was sharp enough to pick it up. He doubted it. The captain seemed living proof that military intelligence was indeed an oxymoron.
The briefing continued, with Rice and his team learning the specs of the vessels the North normally used for infiltration missions, the small arms commonly used by their commandos and spies, and specific terrain features of their area of operations. When they were finished, Unser ordered them to get some chow and rack time. "You'll be deploying at 2100 hours."
The SEALs headed back outside, with Lieutenant Myung-Dae added to the group. Their ROK drivers and Humvees were waiting for them and took them to the mess hall. Since dinner wouldn't be for another few hours, all the cooks had to offer were cold sandwiches and cold French Fries. Better than nothing, Rice thought. At least they had a frozen yogurt dispenser. Even military cooks couldn't screw up frozen yogurt.
Mealtime also gave them a chance to get to know Myung-Dae a little better. He hailed from Sach'on on the southern coast, had a teenage sister, and was a very good baseball player in high school, to the point professional scouts had looked at him.
Myung-Dae had been a South Korean SEAL for two years. So he's not a newbie. Well, that's good. As for his experience, all he would say was he'd had some, "interesting times." Rice wished Myung-Dae would give some details, but in the shadowy world of special operations, much of what they did was top secret.
As they headed back to the Humvees, Myung-Dae maneuvered himself alongside Rice. "I believe you are right."
He turned to the Korean. "About what?"
"Our mission. I do not believe the North will use that beach to land infiltrators. As you said, they must know that we know about it."
"So what would you do, Lieutenant?"
"Patrol a larger stretch of the coastline in vehicles, perhaps ATVs. They can go places Humvees cannot. Along with intercepting any infiltrators we may come across, we can also identify other possible landing sites the North may use."
Rice raised his eyebrows, then nodded. "Exactly what I would do, Lieutenant."
"Thank you, Sir."
A smile flickered across Rice's mouth. Myung-Dae was sharp, no doubt about it. Maybe he would work out with his team.
They boarded the Humvees and headed back to the Quonset hut. Rice stripped down to his underwear. As he laid down on his cot, he glanced down at the hook-shaped stone pendant he wore. His good luck charm. Or more accurately, the good luck charm his wife had given him the night he proposed to her.
He rested his hand over it as he closed his eyes, picturing Rita with her shapely body, long, curled jet black hair, and regal Latina features. He clenched the pendant tighter, hoping that Great Leader Umpa-Lumpa came to what little senses he had and pulled back his forces. There would be no war, and he could go back to Coronado and spend some much needed time with his wife.
Rice held the image of Rita's beautiful face in his mind's eye as he drifted off to sleep.
He found himself walking the beach at Coronado, Rita by his side. They held hands as they continued down the surf. Then Rice stopped and got on one knee, holding up a box containing a glittering ring. Rita beamed as tears ran down her cheeks. Just as he slipped the ring on her finger, her foot twitched. She bent down and picked up a hook-shaped rook.
"That's a weird looking thing," he said.
"I think it's beautiful." Rita rolled it around in her hand as she examined it. Her gaze returned to him. "You know what I'm gonna do? I'm gonna make this into a necklace and give it to you. It can be your good luck charm."
"C'mon, hon. You know I don't believe -"
"Jim, the minute after you propose to me, this . . . unique stone happens to wash up on the beach and we find it. There's something . . . special about it, I know it. Please."
All he could do was smile and nod. What else could he do? The stone meant something to Rita. Besides, it would be like having a piece of her with him whenever he deployed.
Suddenly the beach, and Rita, vanished, replaced by inky blackness.
"Rita?" He jumped to his feet. "Rita! Where are you?"
Fireballs streaked across the sky. Rice's head snapped up. Not again.
A mighty roar drilled into his ears, so loud it hurt. He grimaced and sank to his knees.
"Wake up! Everyone! You must wake up!"
Rice opened his eyes and found himself back in the darkened Quonset hut.
"What the hell, man?" Candaele groused. "I'm trying to sleep here."
Rice sat up in his cot and looked to the figure standing in the doorway.
"Corporal Young-Jae? What's going on?"
"Forgive me, Sir, but you all must wake up. The North is attacking all across the Demilitarized Zone. We are at war."
TO BE CONTINUED