No Place to Die

Zhao Xin, the only child of China’s ruler, has defected. Her father believes her body, her stealth fighter and her stolen war plans are on the bottom of the Yellow Sea, but he’s not certain. America has hidden her on a lunar colony, disguised as an astronaut—but Chinese agents are now searching for her everywhere.

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Zhao Xin, the only child of China’s ruler, has defected. Her father believes her body, her stealth fighter and her stolen war plans are on the bottom of the Yellow Sea, but he’s not certain. America has hidden her on a lunar colony, disguised as an astronaut—but Chinese agents are now searching for her everywhere.

After a harrowing flight of nearly 3,000 miles, Zhao Xin lands her plane at Andersen Field in Guam. Xin is a defector on the run, and she’s come bearing gifts: Her plane, a J-20 stealth fighter, is one China’s crown jewels. A flash drive containing stolen war plans. And finally, herself. Xin is the only child of China’s President for Life, an unparalleled source of insight into and leverage over the leader of America’s No. 1 rival.

Xin’s father believes her body, her plane, and the secrets she stole are on the bottom of the Yellow Sea. But President Zhao is suspicious and has tasked his personal enforcer to either confirm his daughter’s death or find her and kill her.

In order to keep Xin alive, the CIA has come up with an audacious plan to hide her in plain sight by sending her, disguised as an American astronaut, to America’s lunar mining colony. As an additional precaution, Xin is assigned a personal protection detail led by Jan Worker, a Delta Force operator. However, on Earth, in space, and on the Moon, Xin and her guardians will be dogged by President Zhao’s enforcer and his team of hardened commandos.

Chapter 1

Combat Air Patrol, Liaodong Peninsula to Yalu River

What was she? A thief? A spy? A traitor? A patriot?

She shook those thoughts from her head. All that mattered right now was she was a fugitive and she needed to run.

“Lead, I have a problem.”

Her flight leader responded immediately. “Copy. What is it, Mulan?”

The spy cringed every time she heard her call sign. Mulan, according to the famous ballad was the daughter of an aging, ailing, warrior. Disguised as a man, she took her father’s place in the imperial army and heroically helped defeat an invasion by a barbaric horde which, contrary to the Disney movie, was not assisted by a shape-shifting sorceress. She certainly didn’t choose “Mulan” and it was not bestowed by her fellow pilots. Rather, her squadron leader gave her the call sign and did so, no doubt, at the urging of the 1st Fighter Division’s political commissar, who assuredly was acting on instructions from Beijing. So, there was nothing she could do about it. As the only child of China’s President-for-Life, she had enjoyed a great deal of freedom, much more than many of her countrymen. But no one was ever completely free of the Party and what it determined was in its best interest.

“It’s my displays. They’re flickering in and out.”

It was a lie. Her screens and the passive sensors feeding them a steady stream of data were performing as they should.

“Which display?”

The J-20 Mighty Dragon had two large, liquid crystal touchscreen displays situated side-by-side in the center of the instrument panel and three smaller auxiliary LCD screens arranged at the panel’s edges. There was also a wide-angle holographic heads-up display projected on the front of the canopy.

“All of them.”

She gave her flight leader a few moments to contact ground control but didn’t let him get too far into describing the situation before she upped the ante.

“Lead, I’ve lost my connection.” Her data connection–uplink, downlink, and crosslink–hadn’t failed. She had disabled it.

Her J-20 fighter had an advanced communications suite that allowed it to share information with nearby friendly platforms, such as her flight leader’s plane, ground controllers, and the airborne early warning drones the Chinese air force had seeded in the air along its borders. With no datalink, her commanders would have no way to verify what she was about to tell them. For the first time in her life, she was almost free of state control.

“Mulan, there’s a civilian field outside Zhuange. It’s short, but Control thinks you can safely set down there.”

“Copy.”

“I’m turning on my nav lights. Follow me down.”

“Roger. Following you now.” She had no intention of following her flight leader anywhere.

The J-20 was a twin-engine, single-seat, fifth-generation multi-role stealth fighter. The plane was so stealthy that during training or transits between bases, it had to fly with detachable radar reflectors to reduce the risk of collision with other aircraft. The plane was invisible to any radar if flown well and if flown without its big external tanks.

Tonight, both her plane and her flight leader’s were outfitted with two drop tanks each, one under each wing. The bulky auxiliary tanks robbed the planes of their stealth capability, but on a long combat air patrol, like the one being flown tonight, emphasis was on endurance, not invisibility. Should a threat emerge, the planes could disappear from radar screens just by shedding the extra fuel tanks.

She and her flight leader were flying race-track ovals hour after hour because the Yellow Sea, always crowded with commercial shipping, was now packed with warships from six different navies, all covered by their respective air forces, all trying to make a political point. The signing last weekend of the Sino-Russian military alliance had caused the United States and its regional allies, Japan, and South Korea, to engage in an immediate and unmistakable show of solidarity called Operation Resolute Shield, a massive joint training exercise in the approaches to the Yellow Sea. Such a provocation, of course, could not go unanswered. Elements of the Russian Pacific Fleet and China’s North Sea Fleet left port to shadow the American-led forces. Unwilling to be left out of any military confrontation, North Korea sortied a flotilla. To do what was anyone’s guess, but they too, were in the mix.

Right now, she couldn’t care less about the naval posturing. Nothing mattered except escape. The first step to freedom began with her shaking loose of her flight leader.

As Zhuange and its suburbs appeared on her displays, she stole a quick look at the rising moon. The odds were good she would never see it again.

She throttled way back on her port engine and dropped her left wing. She fell rapidly away from her leader and disappeared into the clouds beneath her.

On his displays, her flight leader could see her fall toward the earth. “Mulan, what’s going …”

She cut him off. “Lead, I’ve lost my port engine.” With her right hand, she pushed the control stick forward, pushing the plane into a dive. “I’m losing altitude.”

“Mulan …”

As she sank down through the clouds, rain began to patter her canopy. Good, she thought. The rain squall will blur whatever cameras might be angled toward the sea.

She eased the throttle back on her starboard engine too, letting gravity do most of the work while reducing the plane’s heat signature. “My starboard engine is failing. I’m declaring an emergency.”

She kept her voice crisp, her words clear, and her tone calm. All business. No emotion. She was playing to the voice recorders on the ground and on her flight leader’s plane. When the tapes were played back, she wanted to make it sound like she was a hero, worthy of her call sign.

She angled the plane away from the lights of the city rushing up towards her and toward the looming void that was the Yellow Sea. “I’m going to punch out over the water … if I can make it that far.”

“No, Mulan, don’t!” Her flight leader knew at this time of the year, she’d be dead from hypothermia long before rescue could reach her. “Do not ditch over water. Eject now.”

She switched over to the UHF command net. Both her regimental commander and the division’s political commissar bellowed at her flight leader, telling him they could not “lose” the President’s only daughter, if they did they would all be stood up in front of a wall. She toggled back to the VHF intra-flight channel.

“No, Lead. I’m not going to that. Too risky. The starboard engine could shut down at any moment. I won’t risk civilian casualties.” She increased the plane’s angle of attack.

“Mulan, this is an order …”

The digital altimeter was unwinding quite fast as the plane screamed down out of the sky. The dark sea filling the view forward. The rain was heavier, the sound of the drops hitting her ship like a roll on a thousand snare drums.

“Both engines gone now,” she lied.

Eject, Mulan! Eject now!

“Negative. I’m still over the city.”

She made her voice sound a little ragged, a little breathless. But not too much. She wanted a new ballad of Mulan sung about her. It would be good cover when she was “dead.” The Party didn’t waste valuable manpower looking for dead heroes, not when there were so many other threats. Besides, a new hero would be useful to a one-party state trying to recover its legitimacy from the bloody upheaval of the last few years.

She pushed the nose of her plane down a little more. Then a little more still. This had to look good. Better yet, it had to look real.

As the blood gathered in her head from the negative g-forces, everything she looked at had a reddish tinge. Her ass was no longer in her seat and her shoulder straps were cutting into her.

“Tell my father I did my duty,” she rasped, no longer faking.

She risked a quick glance at the HUD. Checked her altitude, airspeed, and angle of attack one last time. She was cutting it close. Damn close. But she had to, if her escape plan was to work.

As the plane tore through the winter sky and out past the coast, the spy could see long, steep swells and lots of white caps. The sea was running higher than the weather report had predicted. That would be a problem. Sweat was rolling down her back, soaking her g-suit.

Another fast look, this time at one of her main displays. Her leader was behind her but not close. The island was just ahead. She took a breath and tightened her grip on the control stick.

“Long live the People’s Republic,” she said over the radio, as she pulled back and to the left on the stick and at the same moment released the two drop tanks.

If the sea had been running any higher, she would have caught a wave with a wingtip and gone somersaulting into the water, disintegrating on impact. Because the J-20 had delta-shaped canards–movable forewings positioned just aft of the cockpit–it could change direction quickly and, as the J-20 tore past the wave-tops with only a few feet to spare, maintain lift.

As the plane heeled into a sharp climb around the far side of the island, she felt something besides the g-forces. A sharp spot of pressure on her left hip. It wasn’t a flaw in her contoured ejection seat or her hydrostatic, self-contained flight suit. It was a slim flash drive sown into the waist band of her panties. A reminder of the stakes, not only for herself but millions of others.

She switched radio frequencies. Over the command net, she heard her flight leader describe a huge splash as one of the commanders on the ground began swearing.

✽✽✽

Chapter 2

Beijing

President-for-Life Zhao Wujun stood out in the hallway, one hand on the knob of the door leading to his daughter’s room, looking in. The gears in his cold, analytical mind slowly turned.

Heaped in a corner on the floor were a dozen dresses. Elegant and expensive dresses. Chic and stunning dresses. The very best offerings from China’s leading designers. Dresses other women would have treasured and protected by hanging them on padded hangers in sturdy garment bags. His daughter, however, had discarded them without a second thought after wearing each of them only once. Hanging neatly in his daughter’s closet were the uniforms she had worn as an officer cadet and later as a second lieutenant. Even though it had been years, each uniform was pressed and encased in the dry cleaner’s plastic wrap. His daughter had worn both the smooth silk dresses and the scratchy wool uniforms in service to the State. She treated only one with respect. Her choice surprised the President.

A week before she died, he summoned her from her duty station to act as official hostess for the endgame negotiations with the Russians. Lunches. Cocktail parties. Formal dinners. It was a role she played many times before, had been forced to play since her mother’s death. A role she played well. She had inherited her mother’s knack for putting strangers at ease with a word and a smile, getting rivals to laugh and put aside their differences for an evening, and for making him look more imperial just by standing at his side.

This time around she didn’t have to do much but smile demurely, laugh politely, and look pretty. For four days, she had been dressed in the shimmering best China’s fashion-forward designers could offer. A colorful contrast to the dull grays of the two presidents and their civilian aides. A fashion foil for the earthy greens of the generals and the somber blues of the admirals. A necessary prop for the news cameras. Judging by the jumble of haut couture on the floor, playing hostess was a duty she performed brilliantly but without joy. Something he had not realized before. Something she had hidden from him.

The President’s eyes roamed the room stopping at each framed photo. Photos of her and her mother at a park, the beach, the mountains, the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, and Statue of Liberty. Nothing from Beijing. Always somewhere far from the seat of government, always when mother and daughter were “off duty.”

There were no pictures of him. Not even one of the three of them. Pictures of the three of them and of just him with her existed. The press office had dozens and dozens. Some lined the credenza in his office downstairs, but none of them were to be found in her bedroom. Like a disgraced party boss from Mao’s time, he had been exorcised from her history. It was something he had never noticed before. Yet another thing she had kept from him.

The wheels in his mind spun faster.

The one thing he had learned about his daughter since hearing of her death was she was a keeper of secrets. The only question for the President was what other secrets had she kept from him?

He shut the door to her room and went back down to his study.

Waiting for him was a man dressed in foul weather gear that was still dripping. The man was neither short nor tall. Neither broad nor thin. Neither handsome nor ugly. The one thing that did become apparent, if you chanced to look at him long enough, was his eyes were as hard and unyielding as his physique.

The President did not greet the man, offer refreshment, or wave him into one of the armchairs facing the massive desk. Instead, the President let the man stand as he sat at his desk.

“Well?”

The man gave a small shrug. “The same as before. Nothing conclusive has washed up. Just bits and pieces. Most seem to be from the drop tanks.”

The President waved his hand impatiently. “Don’t talk about what’s washed up. Tell me about the plane itself.”

The man gave the President a slight shake of his head. “We haven’t found the wreck yet.”

What?”

“From the radar plots, we’ve got a good idea where to search but we’re talking several square miles. It’s not like looking for a needle in a haystack, but it’s not far off. We’ve tried magnetometers, but there’s too much metal on the bottom. A lot of wrecks–ships, planes, fishing boats. Plus, a lot of trash. To make matters worse, the winter storms have churned up a lot of sand and grit. We’d need a week of patient grid-searching with underwater drones to find it.”

The President shook his head angrily. “Why are you talking about magnetometers, drones, and grid searches? The plane had a ‘black box.’ Its beeping should lead you right to it.”

The other man didn’t respond right away and when he did, he spoke quite deliberately. “The plane had a flight recorder, right enough. It has yet to activate.” A pause. “It should have activated as soon as the plane hit the water.”

The man waited for the President to react because he expected a reaction to the possibility his daughter faked her own death and defected with one of China’s crown jewels. When no reaction was forthcoming, the man asked, “You were expecting this?”

The President looked up from his desk and met the man’s frank look with one of his own. “It’s a possibility I’ve only recently come to consider.”

The man listened to the rain lash the windows for a long moment. He went to the drinks cart and from a crystal decanter poured them each two fingers of whiskey. As he set a tumbler in front of the President, the man said, “Show me.”

The President jiggled the mouse and the computer on his desk awoke. Instead of typing a password, the President used a biometric scanner, one for each finger, to unlock it. With a few clicks, he brought up the activity log. He scrolled and highlighted a series of entries dated three days ago. The downloads occurred between 11:34:42 and 11:36:14 p.m. One of the downloaded files was massive.

“The computer is air gapped?”

The President nodded. “Whoever downloaded those files was here. In this room.”

The man knew better than to ask about the contents of the downloaded files. If he needed to know, the President would tell him. So, Jing stayed in his lane, the President’s personal enforcer.

He looked across the room at the double doors. “There’s an electronic lock. Who knows the code besides you?”

“My daughter and my majordomo. My daughter hasn’t been in here on her own since … since she was a teen. She only comes when I summon her.”

The President paused for the briefest of moments as his mind replayed his words, the words transporting him back in time to when he was younger, and both his wife and daughter were alive. When he returned to the present, he spoke quickly, annoyed at allowing himself to be distracted.

“My man lets the maid in once a week, and she is always accompanied by someone from my security detail.”

“Cameras?”

“Not in here. Not anywhere inside the house. The house is ‘swept’ every week to make sure there are no unauthorized recording devices.”

The man lowered his head and nodded at the computer screen and the highlighted entries on the activity log. “Where were you when these files were downloaded?”

“In the Hall of Purple Light, chatting with the President of the Russian Republic. We were celebrating the signing of the alliance.”

“And your daughter?”

“Presumably in the Hall as well.”

“Isn’t she always by your side at these things?”

“This was a private conversation, about next steps. Just me, the Russian, and our interpreters.”

“She could have been in the Hall.”

“Or she could have been right here.”

One of the things the other man admired about the President was he never, ever backed away from bad news. He met adversity straight on and attacked it. It’s why he had become emperor in all but name.

Jing straightened and stepped away from the flat screen. “Well, it’s a good thing you’ve spent billions on cameras, AI, and facial recognition software. We’ll find her and track her movements everywhere she went that night.”

The President shook his head. “At present, it’s not that night I am most concerned about. First things first. Find the plane.”

The man downed his whiskey in a gulp and walked toward the door. Halfway there, as he zipped up his slicker, he turned back. “What about the funeral?”

A massive state funeral was planned for two days from now. Hundreds of thousands were expected to pack the streets around the Forbidden City. The funeral would be attended by hundreds of heads of state and statesmen. The United States would send its Vice President and Secretaries of State and Defense. Russia’s president, who had only just left Beijing following the signing of the Sino-Russian pact, would return with his key ministers to pay his last respects.

“It goes forward as planned, because no matter where or when or how you find her, she is already dead to me.”

Chapter 3

Langley, Virginia

“Are you shitting me?” The woman looked down at the letter, studied it for a heartbeat, and then looked at the man on the other side of her desk. “You’re shitting me, right?”

“No, I am not. The plan is not only a ‘go,’ but it has begun.” John Wu, Assistant Director in charge of the CIA’s Special Activities Center folded his arms across his chest. “The 14 other candidates have been selected and the offer letters have been sent.”

The woman brandished the letter at Wu. “This has already gone out?” She shook her head in disgust and sat back. “Fuck me.”

The man sitting next to her shook his head and gave his boss a lopsided, half-apologetic smile. “I know, right? Looks like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth and yet she routinely makes sailors blush.”

It was true. Stephanie Signorino had that All-American, girl-next-door look of innocence. Sassy-short, dirty blonde hair and big, brown doe eyes. A flawless, sun-kissed complexion, dimples, and a dazzling smile. A compact but curvy body. The only thing to suggest she might swear like a stevedore was her dirt-poor West Texas twang, which appeared only when she was excited or pissed-off.

Jan Worker looked the exact opposite. He looked like a brigand. Thick dark hair and ice blue eyes. A small but wicked scar on his left cheek. Another one around his left eye. Tall, almost 6’2. Broad shouldered, thin-waisted, hard muscles everywhere. But he spoke in quiet tones and polished cadences, more professor than pirate.

“Notwithstanding the … ah, bluntness of my partner’s choice of language, she’s got a point,” continued Jan. “If you put Xin out in public, she will not go unrecognized.”

Jan nodded at the flat screen TV behind Wu’s desk streaming footage of the funeral in Beijing. At that moment, President Zhao was pinning a medal, the Order of August First, China’s highest military decoration, to a flag-draped coffin. In the corner of the screen, was a stock picture of a smiling Xin in her flight suit, her pilot’s helmet cradled in the crook of her arm.

“Billions of people around the world are watching. Her face is plastered all over the ‘net and on the front pages of magazines and newspapers around the world. ‘The brave beauty who died so others might live.’ You won’t be able to hide her in plain sight. Not after this.”

Wu swiveled his chair away from the TV. “We’re not going to hide her in plain sight of the world. We’re going to hide her in front of a few dozen people, some of whom will be members of the intelligence community or the military, all with high clearances and strict instructions.”

“What about the others?” asked Jan. “The ones without clearances and government paychecks. The teenagers. Fourteen internet-obsessed teenagers.”

Wu waved Jan’s concerns away with a flick of his hand. “If those teenagers are anything like my two boys, they’ll forget about Xin as soon as the next social media eruption occurs, which will probably happen tomorrow.”

“Bullshit.” Stephanie dug in her backpack for her computer tablet. She searched the web, then found what she was after, and scrolled through a series of photos.

“Have you seen these?” She turned the tablet so Wu and Jan could see the press photos from the recent Sino-Russian summit. “This girl is fucking gorgeous. I’d kill to look that good. She looks like a goddamn model.”

“She was a model,” said Wu. “When she was at Stanford. She even made the cover of some minor fashion magazine before her father put an end to it.”

Steff leaned forward. “That’s exactly my point. There are a lot of teenage girls, and teenage boys, who will see these glammed up shots and be captivated. She’s got that ‘it’ quality. Like Princess Di and Taylor Swift, Xin has it. After this tragedy, her image will be imprinted on their minds. Which means she will be recognized.”

Wu leaned back in his big leather chair, arms crossed. “We don’t think so. We have some good people in OTS. They’ve cut her hair. Colored it. She looks different.”

Technical Services?” Steff’s eyebrows rose. “You let OTS style her hair? How pissed was she afterwards?” Steff snatched up her tablet and pointed at a photo of Xin with her long, raven hair coifed atop her head. “She goes to salons where the tip is more than I make in a day.”

Wu ignored Steff’s snorting incredulity. “OTS is also in charge of her new wardrobe. She won’t be dressed like she is in those photos. No high heels. No shimmering gowns. No perfect makeup applied by artists. Once she’s in the program, she’ll be dressed in drab, utilitarian clothes. Clothes that will be just like the clothes everyone else around her is wearing. She’ll blend in. People will see what they expect to see. Which, in this case, is a run-of-the-mill high school senior.”

“She’s not a high school senior,” said Jan. “She’s 25.”

“And,” said Steff , “a 25-year-old woman walks, talks, sits, stands, waves her hands … does everything differently than a 17-year-old kid.”

“Technical Services is working on that, too.” Wu skipped past the sexual innuendo with a little throat-clearing cough. “Not ‘everything’ obviously. They’re focusing on a couple of changes. Little tells. ‘Cues and clues’ TS calls them. Those little gestures and movements that confirm on a subconscious level what we’re seeing is exactly what we expected to see.”

Jan shook his head. “I don’t care if Professor Henry Higgins works for TS. This is not My Fair Lady. You can create a passable false legend on social media, but you can’t rewire who she is. And she is nothing like an American teen. Any American teen.”

“Y’all got that right.” Steff began ticking points off on her fingers. “One. She grew up like no American kid ever grew up. She grew up among the one percent of the one percent of the one percent. It wasn’t wealth that set her apart from almost anyone else on the planet. It was power. By the time she started elementary school, her father wasn’t just a Party bigwig. He was the Minister of Public fucking Security. Do you know what that means to a kid? Her dad was the one who could have all her friends’ fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, and cousins disappear into a gulag prison system and never, ever re-appear. All her friends knew it too. Think for a moment just how weird that must have been.

“Two. She’s not only been to college, which these kids haven’t yet, but she’s graduated from Stanford, one of the elite universities with a degree in fucking aeronautical engineering. Three. By her senior year in college, her father emerged from the shit storm of The Great Turmoil not just alive, but President for fucking Life of the second most powerful country on Earth.”

Steff raised a fourth finger. “After college, she came home, joined the air force, and served in some design bureau like her old man wanted until she said ‘no’ and enrolled in flight school. Not only did she survive, but she clawed her way to the top of her class. She didn’t just qualify to fly jets, she qualified to fly China’s premier fighter jet. I don’t care who your daddy is, no air force in the world is going to hand over the keys to its top-of-the-line fighter unless you have proven you have the chops to fly it.”

Steff made a fist with her thumb sticking up. “And then, … and then, she pulled off the fucking stunt of the century. Ditched her wingman, pulled the wool over the eyes of China’s air defense, snaked across North Korea without tripping any alarms, picked her way down the east side of the Korean peninsula without being detected by South Korean naval or air assets, threaded the needle through Japan’s very dense air defenses, then, after she eluded a carrier battle group, made it to Gaum where she landed during a squall on one engine and with hardly a drop of gas left in the tank. And she did it all by herself.” Steff took a breath. “That girl is a bad ass. She will stand out from whatever crowd you put her in.”

Wu sighed and then said patiently, “You’re not seeing the plan for what it is.”

“With respect, sir, we understand the plan,” said Jan. “We just don’t think it will work. It won’t work because of who she is, what she’s seen, and what she’s done. She’s going to be light years different than the human camouflage you’re going to use to cloak her from the Chinese.”

Wu gave each of them an acknowledging nod. “I share your assessment of Xin and how different she is from the kids who will surround her. But here’s the thing, we have to keep Xin alive and hidden in such a way that her protection doesn’t give her away. Moreover, the work that needs to be done to keep her safe over the long term will take time.”

Wu rapped his finger on the letter. “This plan will buy us the time we need to arrange her long-term security. It will allow us to have two teams of bodyguards within a few feet of her at all times but without them ever being seen for what they are.”

His finger tapped the letter again. “This plan allows us to physically isolate her from the forces hunting her without making it look like that’s exactly what we’re doing. It’s something we couldn’t achieve by squirrelling her away on some isolated military base.

“Under this plan, she’ll be protected and isolated and, at the same time, hidden in plain view. The Chinese will see what we’re doing and never guess a thing. If they do suspect her ‘crash’ was a ruse, they will use their formidable electronic and human assets to look for her in all the wrong places, safe houses and remote bases. Why? Because that’s the standard play with defectors.”

Wu took a breath, leaned across the desk, and lowered his voice. “We have to keep Xin alive. Forget for a moment about all the things she can tell us about her father, the J-20, its upgrades, the Chinese air force, and the backstabbing that goes on among members of the Politburo. The very fact she is alive is of immense value.”

Wu waved his hand at the TV. “How long do you think President Zhao would last if it were revealed his daughter faked her own death and defected to China’s No. 1 Enemy, bringing with her China’s prestige weapon system and a treasure trove of secrets?”

Wu sat back. “But take it another step. What if we let just Zhao know his daughter is alive? What kind of quiet deals would he be willing to make to stay in power? To stay alive?”

After he let the possibilities and implications of Xin’s defection sink in, Wu put both hands flat on his desk. “Keeping Xin alive is so important, you are my first choice to head up her protection detail. But if you have too many doubts about the mission ….”

Jan sat up straight. “You can count on us, sir. All the way. We’ll keep her safe or die trying.”

“Thank you. Steff?”

“Semper fi.”

The secure phone on Wu’s desk buzzed. “Yes? … Now?” He looked at his watch, then at his two top-tier operators. “Now would be perfect. Thank you.”

He stood up and moved to the door, the other two following. In the hallway, Wu paused to let a secretary pass before continuing. “No electronic comms. No emails. No texts. No cellphones. Need to call me? Call on a hard line. Need to meet me? We do it face-to-face, no video conferencing. Need to send a memo? Put it in the mail.” He put up a hand to forestall their protests and questions. “The Chinese, with Russian assistance, have made a breakthrough in quantum computing. We cannot assume our encrypted systems are secure.”

“Did we learn about this …”

“Yes. Just one of many things Xin advised us about.” Wu looked each operator in the eye before he continued in a low, resolute voice. “We owe Xin. If the Chinese come for her, they will come to kill her. That is not going to happen. I will not let it happen. You will not …”

Wu broke off as two people stepped off the elevator at the near end of the Seventh Floor’s executive corridor. One was a uniformed member of the Office of Security. The other a young woman.

Wu’s whole being changed, from commanding to loving. “It’s “Bring Your Daughter to Work Day,” he explained with a proud smile as he greeted the girl with a hug.

His daughter was dressed in a long, baggy, black sweater and tight gray leggings. Her straight auburn-hued hair ended just short of her shoulders. Bright red Chuck Taylor high-tops were on her feet, a baseball-style cap with the name of a pop star bedazzled across the front was on her head, and a pair of designer glasses perched on her nose. A battered backpack hung from one shoulder. Around her neck was a visitor’s badge. She wore a little makeup, probably the maximum her parents would allow. Her handshake was timid and most of the time she looked at the two strangers from under her bangs, but she had a good smile and was polite when introduced.

“Honey, I need to finish up with my colleagues. Go on ahead to the dining room. I’ll catch up with you in a minute.” To the armed guard, he said, “Thanks, Mary.”

As Wu walked Jan and Steff to the elevator, he picked the OPSEC conversation back up. “I was half-joking when I said to send your memos via the U.S. Mail. All written reports prior to launch will be on paper, but a dedicated courier with jet transport will be available at all times. Whatever you send me from Houston, I’ll read in three hours.”

Steff pushed the elevator call button then squinted at Wu. “I didn’t know you had a daughter. I thought you had two boys.”

“We’re in the process of adopting. For the moment, we’re her foster parents.” The elevator chime sounded as the doors opened. “She’s a runaway from an abusive home.” Wu stepped back and waved them into the elevator.

The doors were almost closed when Jan’s hand shot out. As the doors retreated, he peered past Wu at the two distant figures at the far end of the hall. Jan closed his eyes, hung his head, and muttered a blistering obscenity under his breath.

Steff stared at Jan and then followed his look. She watched Wu’s foster child and escort disappear around a corner. Half a beat later, she narrowed her eyes at Wu. “Are you shitting me?”

“No,” said Wu. “I am not shitting you.”

As the doors closed again, Wu said one last thing. “Technical Services has done their job. Now it’s time for you to do yours.”

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