Jerry left the warmth of the station building and walked out into the parking lot. Packed snow crunched beneath his Nikes as frigid air burned its way down his throat. He blew warm breath onto his hands and looked west, where the light of the setting sun illuminated the curves of the Tigris far below on its rolling plain. Hills and scarps obscured much of the river, leaving scattered loops of gilded water that were laced across the brown and white terrain countryside like fragments of some ancient Syriac alphabet graven on the land.
Rearing up above the Tigris were the spectacular crags of the Hakkari Dalary, all dark stone, white snow, and formidable black shadows. And above Jerry were the domes and antennae of the CIA listening station, perched here at eight thousand feet, with convenient electronic access to Syria, Iraq, and Iran, the Middle East’s perpetual stormy petrels.
Jerry had been delighted to learn that the Hakkari Dalary were also known as the High Zap Mountains, because the High Zap was what he and his partner had done four days earlier-reached electronic fingers down into the plain below and performed long-distance surgery on crucial electronics controlled by a clutch of malign foreigners.
The operation had been a brilliant success, at least until the news had come that had left Jerry stranded on the mountain.
Sunlight dazzled Jerry as a frigid wind numbed his cheeks. Tears leaked from his eyes. He wished he had been allowed to bring a camera to take a picture of the scene, but things were so secret here that cameras and cell phones were forbidden, even to station personnel.
This was simply the most beautiful and spectacular place he’d ever seen in his life. He’d been born in the flat Iowa cornfields and now lived outside Annapolis. Giant rearing untamed glacier-capped mountains were a completely new experience to him. He just wished he could leave the station and visit some of the towns he could see on the plain of the Tigris, far below.
On his one and only drive, coming to the station, he had looked out the window as they passed through the square of a small village and he’d seen old Arab women with tribal henna tattoos on their faces. It was like a visitation from another universe.
Being stranded up here at the station sucked. Totally.
Jerry flapped his arms and shuffled his feet for warmth. When he and Denny had flown out to Turkey, they’d had no clear idea where they were headed, and they hadn’t brought clothing suitable for living on a mountaintop in the middle of February.
The deep mountain shadows expanded as the sun neared the horizon. Jerry scanned the horizon one last time, then turned and shuffled his way back toward the main building.
The listening station lacked any trace of glamor. Four acres of windswept limestone had been scraped flat by bulldozers and surrounded by chain fence draped with rusting signs reading “Danger” in English, Turkish, and Arabic. The main building was a prefabricated steel structure that sat on a concrete pad. Two more structures served as garage and generator room. Above the main building were the huge golf ball-shaped domes that concealed the station’s dishes and antennae, their bulging geodetic surfaces an echo of the domes of the mosques on the plain below.
The air was glacial and snowfalls were frequent. The only reason the station wasn’t absolutely buried in frozen H2O was that the wind blew most of it away-though still there were drifts here and there, and occasionally the station personnel had to get on a ladder and sweep snow off the roof before it collapsed.
The gate was padlocked shut, and an old Mercedes truck, with icicles dripping from its bumpers, was parked behind the gate as a security measure-another obstacle that a jihadist car bomber would have to push aside in order to blow up the installation. But the gesture seemed halfhearted-the regular station crew didn’t seem very interested in the possibility of attack, and in fact Jerry couldn’t see the station as a high-profile target. You wouldn’t get many headlines blowing up an anonymous, prefab site on a remote mountain in some place called High Zap. Much better to blast a cafe in Istanbul or an embassy somewhere else.
Jerry walked into the main building, stomped snow off his boots in the anteroom, and headed straight into the ops room with its coffee machine. He took his cup-a souvenir mug from Perge, where he’d never been-and filled it with hot coffee. The coffee was unbearably strong.
“You know,” said his partner, Denny. “You can watch the sunset perfectly well from the window.”
“Not the same,” Jerry said. He had a hard time keeping his teeth from chattering.
Around him data flashed across flat-screen displays, intercepted transmissions from Syria, Iraq, or Iran. The material wasn’t analyzed here; it was encrypted, sent to a relay satellite twenty-two thousand miles above the planet’s surface, then beamed down to a facility in northern Virginia where it was either inspected or, most likely, ignored and filed away-in any case, the data itself wasn’t any of Jerry’s business.
Neither Jerry nor his partner, Denny, were members of the station crew, nor were they CIA employees. They were special contractors who had flown to Turkey on a special assignment eight days ago.
What had surprised Jerry was the discovery that, despite working at a CIA facility, none of the station personnel were CIA employees. They were all contractors working for one corporation or another. But then he’d realized that, in fact, they all were CIA-the corporate identities were just ways of sanitizing the identities of Agency employees.
He’d realized that when absolutely none of them expressed curiosity concerning the task that Jerry and Denny had been sent to perform. The lack of interest in the Zap had been professional all right, but it wasn’t in any way corporate.
But now Jerry and his partner were stuck here on the mountaintop. While they were engaged in their special assignment, transmitting the High Zap to sites below, the Turkish government had changed suddenly and violently. The prime minister, on a state visit to Spain, found himself deprived of his office by the military. The president was under arrest in an undisclosed location. The entire country was under martial law-particularly the Kurdish areas, such as those on all sides of the listening station.
The attitude of the military government to the U.S. installations on Turkish soil seemed ambiguous. On the one hand, Turkey was a NATO ally of the U.S. and its military had enjoyed a long collaboration with the Americans on security matters. On the other hand, the Turkish generals were ultranationalists who might view with suspicion any foreigners using Turkish soil for their own purposes-a suspicion enhanced, no doubt, by the possibility that the listening stations might now be listening to them.
The orders that came down to Chas, the soft-spoken engineer who was in charge of the station, seemed to Jerry to be contradictory. Chas had sent half his people away-it wasn’t clear where, exactly-and was now running the station with a skeleton crew of eleven. Jerry and Denny, by contrast, were forbidden to leave the station at all.
Jerry had asked Chas why.
“Because,” Chas said, “the regular personnel won’t be able to tell the Turks anything they don’t already know.”
Jerry and Denny were confined to the mountaintop by their own importance. They knew about the High Zap, and the High Zap couldn’t be allowed to fall into foreign hands.
Another frustrating aspect of the situation was that even though they were bored and had nothing to do and the station was now shorthanded, Jerry and his partner weren’t allowed to use any of the station’s regular equipment. Denny and Jerry weren’t authorized to use the station’s gear, any more than the station’s personnel were allowed to use the laptop that Jerry and Denny had brought with them from the States.
It left Jerry with nothing to do but watch the sunset. Or the sunrise, if the desire took him.
“Wanna play Felony Maximum?” Denny asked.
Denny was a short man of twenty-eight years. He’d been a fat kid and had grown into an obese adult, but two years previously he’d put himself on a severe diet that consisted solely of vitamins and an assortment of Progresso canned soups. Denny had lost seventy-five pounds and his body was now of svelte proportions, for all that he still had no muscle tone-he had managed to lose all the weight without any exercise at all, and even climbing a stair left him out of breath.
The odd thing about the diet was what had happened to Denny’s face. Its moon-pie proportions had shrunk, but the skin hadn’t ebbed to the same degree as his flesh, and the results were deep creases that hadn’t been there before. Jerry thought his partner now looked like a very intelligent monkey.
Despite the peculiarities of his appearance, the weight loss had nevertheless achieved its objective: it had given Denny the social confidence to court and marry a young woman named Denise, who was now pregnant and installed in a minimansion off in the Blue Ridge.
Right now Denny was sitting in the cubicle he and Jerry had been assigned, which featured a desk, two chairs, and a flat-screen monitor that hadn’t been connected to anything, because they weren’t permitted to touch any of the equipment.
“Felony Maximum,” Jerry repeated. Felony Maximum V was one of the two games Jerry had brought along with his Xbox, and the other, which involved World War II fighter combat, had already been played to death.
“Fine,” Jerry said. “Let’s play. But this time, I get to use the MAC-10.”
Jerry and Denny had managed to get the game’s convict protagonist out of Ossining and into Manhattan when they were called to supper-hearty lamb stew in the local style, fresh bread, and strawberry Jell-O for dessert.
Meals at the listening station were taken mainly in silence. If you were the sort of person who was a spy and who furthermore lived in a small near-monastic community on a mountaintop, you were also likely to be the sort of person who didn’t talk much. Jerry and Denny sat at the same table and chatted to each other about the progress of the game and how best to get revenge on the mafiosi who had sent the game’s protagonist to Sing Sing.
A phone rang in the ops room, and Mauricio, the short Dominican guy, answered. He called Chas in, and twenty seconds later Chas returned, his face set in a look of cold resolution.
“The army’s coming,” he said in his soft voice. “We need to erase or shred every piece of data in this place.”
There was a clatter of plates as the station crew pushed back their chairs and stood. Jerry stood as well, though he didn’t quite know why.
Chas looked at him.
“We need to get the two of you out of here,” he said. “Get your stuff together.”
Jerry left the remains of his dinner on the table and hustled to the little cell-like room he’d been assigned. He unplugged the Xbox and put it in its case, then began stuffing clothes into his duffel.
The laptop, with the High Zap encrypted on its hard drive, had waited in its case in the corner for the last four days. Once he’d understood that the contents of the laptop were what was confining him to the mountain, Jerry had asked permission to erase the drive, which would guarantee that it wouldn’t be captured by rogue Turkish generals or indeed anyone else-but to his surprise, his employers in Virginia had balked. He was supposed to return the program in the same condition in which he’d received it and otherwise not use the laptop except when authorized to do so. It was there in black and white-Jerry had signed a contract to that effect, a contract that included a twelve-page nondisclosure agreement.
When permission was refused to erase the hard drive, Jerry had realized that the program almost certainly contained a log on it that would inform his employers when and in what circumstances the program had been accessed. The return of that log intact would be the only way the Company would know that the High Zap hadn’t been misused or copied.
His bosses, Jerry realized, were too paranoid, or bureaucratic, for their own good.
Jerry threw the duffel on a chair and headed for the bathroom for his toilet kit. Chas appeared in his door, a set of keys in his hand.
“Take the VW,” he said. “Go warm it up now; then we’ll load it.”
Jerry took the keys and threw on his thin nylon jacket and ran out to the garage, through the ops room where the document shredder was already in operation, and past the techs bent over their keyboards, intent on zeroing every file on the hard drives. The Volkwagen’s door handle was bitterly cold to the touch. The plastic seats sucked the heat out of Jerry’s bones.
The car didn’t start the first try, the cold battery reluctantly heaving the starter over. Jerry swore, switched off, and then ground again and the engine caught. He shoved the heater lever all the way over to the right and turned up the fan as far as it would go. He put the car in neutral, set the hand brake, and stepped out into the still air of the garage.
The garage door shot up with a great boom and the high mountain wind roared into the building in a stinging swirl of ice crystals. Jerry gave a convulsive shudder as the cold hit him. Chas, looking warm as toast in a huge blue fur-lined parka, came into the garage.
“Open the trunk,” he said.
Jerry bent into the driver’s compartment again and spent a few useless seconds looking for the trunk latch. Chas reached in past his shoulder and popped the trunk lid.
“Okay!” he said. “The army’s coming up from Hakkari. You’ve got to get to the crossroads before they arrive.”
“Right,” Jerry said. The crossroads were a good ten klicks down the mountain, where the switchback road that led to the listening station met the two-lane road leading west from Hakkari. If the army got to the crossroads before Jerry did, there was no way the car could escape.
“When you get to the crossroads, turn left to?yrnak.”
“Here’s your stuff.”
Denny rushed into the garage, burdened with his carry-on and his suitcase. Denny was followed by Mauricio with other bags, including Jerry’s duffel. The luggage was heaved into the trunk, and the trunk slammed shut.
“When you get to?yrnak-” Chas began.
Jerry turned to Mauricio. “Do you have the laptop?” he asked.
Mauricio flashed a bright smile. “I took care of it, man.”
Denny opened the passenger door and dropped into the car. Chas leaned close to Jerry’s ear. “When you get to?yrnak,” he said again, “call your contact at Langley and ask him for instructions.”
Jerry stared at Chas.
“Call him with what?” he asked. “We weren’t allowed to bring phones.”
A savage grimace crossed Chas’s face. Jerry shuddered in the cold.
“Okay,” Chas said. “In that case, get on the E90 and head west till morning. Then buy a phone with prepaid minutes and make your call.”
Jerry decided that he officially no longer gave a damn about his instructions. He just wanted to get out of the freaking cold.
“I’ll open the gate and get the truck out of the way,” Chas said.
“Fine.” Jerry’s teeth were chattering. “Bye.”
He dropped into the driver’s seat and slammed the door. The car wasn’t any warmer, but at least he was out of the wind.
Jerry experimented with the VW’s dashboard controls while Chas got in the Mercedes truck and backed it out of their way. He put the car in gear and inched forward, then when Chas swung the gate open put the accelerator down. The tires spun on ice, then caught bare rock and hurled the car forward. The VW sped through the gate and began the long trip down the mountain.
The road had been plowed after the last storm, but the wind was ever present and there were new drifts everywhere. The road surface was stone or gravel plated with ice. There were no guardrails, and a mistake would send them over a cliff, or into a stand of pine where they’d hang suspended until they starved or someone came and rescued them.
The idiocy and danger of their situation drove Jerry into a fury. He attacked the mountain as if the Volkswagen were a tank rather than a reasonably priced coupe. Twice he skidded off the road and bounced the car off banks of snow piled up in corners by the snowplow. He smashed through drifts as if the car had a blade on the front. He cursed continually as he worked the stick shift, and in his terror and anger he forgot all about being cold.
“Jesus, Jer!” Denny said. “Are you sure you know how to drive on ice?”
“Better than you do, Florida Boy,” Jerry said.
Denny’s weird shrunken monkey face contorted with fear. “I went to MIT!” he said. “It snows in Massachusetts! Maybe I better drive!”
“You didn’t have a car when we were at MIT. You had a Schwinn. I remember.”
“Fuck!” Denny shrieked as the wheels spun uselessly on ice and the car began a sideways drift toward yawning, empty space… and then one wheel hit some gravel, gained purchase on the road, and the car lurched back onto the correct trajectory.
“Will you please take it easy?” Denny cried.
“Shut the fuck up.” The drive was taking too much of Jerry’s concentration for him to deal with anyone’s fear but his own.
The VW lurched and skidded its way down the mountain. Short of the T-intersections Jerry turned off the lights so that if the army was in the area, they wouldn’t see the VW turning off the road to the listening station.
“What the-” Denny began.
Jerry pulled up to the intersection, the darkened car skidding the last few meters, and then turned left and pulled onto clean, dry, two-lane asphalt. Denny gave a cry of relief.
“Look behind,” Jerry said. “See if they’re coming.”
Denny turned to peer through the rear window. It took a moment for the banks of snow on the side of the road to open and give Denny a view of the mountain behind them.
“Holy crap,” he said. “There they are!”
“Looks like four or five vehicles. Like a convoy. I can see their lights like a mile away.”
Jerry backed off the accelerator and downshifted. He didn’t want to have to brake and give their position away with a flash of the brake lights.
“Tell me what’s happening,” he said. The VW bounced over frost heaves.
Denny rocked back and forth to keep the vehicles in sight. “I–I can’t see them,” he said. “Trees in the way.”
The tires drummed through potholes as Jerry took the VW through an S curve, and then he ended up on a broad curve of mountain that provided a perfect view of the road behind them.
“I see them!” Denny said. “They’re coming up to the intersection!”
Jerry slowed again to let Denny keep the vehicles in sight.
“They’re stopping! They’re turning! They’re heading up to the station!”
Relief gushed out of Jerry’s throat in a long sigh. He accelerated and shifted into third and let a curve carry him out of sight of the vehicles behind. When Denny assured him that they were out of sight of the other vehicles, Jerry snapped on the lights and accelerated to eighty kilometers per hour, which was as fast as he was willing to go on a strange mountain at night.
“That was close!” Denny said.
“I don’t want you complaining about my driving again,” Jerry said.
Denny took several long breaths, like a runner at the end of a sprint.
“Can I turn down the heater? It’s really warm in here.”
It wasn’t just warm now; it was hot. Jerry hadn’t noticed.
“Sure,” he said.
Jerry drove on another ten klicks and then saw the sign for the Monastery of Didymus Thomas. The monks, ethnic Kurds, were Assyrian Christians, a sect of which Jerry had been completely ignorant until he’d been driven past the monastery on his way up the mountain. The monastery was literally perched on a cliff face, the monks living in caves hollowed out of the mountainside. The only way out of the monastery was to be lowered to the ground in a huge basket.
At the moment, presumably, the monks were all in their eyrie, shivering in their beds.
Jerry downshifted and swung the car into the monks’ parking lot.
“What’s the matter?” Denny said. “You want to change drivers?”
“Get the laptop out of the trunk. I want to zero the hard drive.”
Denny looked at him doubtfully.
“We’re not supposed to do that,” he said.
“Look,” Jerry said. “We’re going down into the Kurdish part of the country. There’s got to be a big Turkish military presence there, and I don’t even know if there’s a curfew or not. We’re very likely to get stopped, and I don’t want to get stopped with a software bomb in the trunk. We look suspicious enough as it is.”
Denny thought about this for a moment and then nodded.
“On your head be it,” he said, and opened his door.
Thanks a lot, Jerry thought, and sprang the trunk latch.
When Denny returned, Jerry saw the case and knew that they were totally fucked.
Totally, he thought. Totally totally totally. Totally.
Denny saw Jerry’s stricken expression. He looked at Jerry with his strange monkey face.
“What’s the matter?”
Jerry pointed at the case.
“Dude,” he said. “That’s my Xbox.”