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Jun 11, 2014


A photographer learns a borrowed CIA camera may be capturing more than peoples’ photographs — it is stealing their souls, as some religions believe. So when his best friend dies in a surfing accident, he vows to use the images to bring him back to life. But when the agency learns of his discovery, so does a powerful extremist cell. And they will do anything to obtain the technology. Thrust into a world of quantum physics, spies, and extremists, the odds are stacked against the photographer as he tries to save his friend in time.
Jun 11, 2014

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JPEG - Patrick McLaughlin


Chapter 1

A bead of orange trimmed the horizon and began its crawl across the silent Mojave blackness, and with the sunlight came heat, promising to melt the desert frost and deliver another sweltering day. A dark, eight-armed, spiderlike craft rose up from the shadows of an ancient creek bed. Its two propellers hosted sixteen blades slicing through the dry air. The bright red eyes of the octocopter scanned the desert, intently seeking its target. The mechanical creature darted first in one direction, then another. Its motion as swift as a dragonfly, it bolted only a few feet above the surface, narrowly zipping past brush and cacti, sensing and avoiding every obstacle along the way.

Beneath the head of the aerial platform hung an advanced imaging device where deep within the camera were both optical and thermal sensors sandwiched between prisms of glass. Grey slices of tungsten rapidly opened and closed at over 12,000 times per minute to control the rate and volume of energy colliding into the sensors. With each passing millisecond, heat from the thermal-infrared signatures and visible spectrums of light were sucked into the camera’s abyss, smashing against the electro-optical sensor. The recording device instantly acknowledged, absorbed, and deciphered billions of data bits with the aid of bio-genetically engineered receptors. This was not your everyday camera.

A translucent dome at the core of the aerial platform housed a gyro-driven motor, stabilizing the surveillance device by delivering continuous, synchronized commands to each of the eight extended arms. To make the craft self-aware and to reduce collisions, an advanced radar package containing an electro-optical sensing device and global positioning system was mounted on the aircraft. Remotely-piloted, the unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, was created by an Australian company for filming in the Outback. The U.S. government had purchased all the associated patents and brought the entire research development team to the U.S. for further expansion of the craft’s capabilities. Millions more dollars were poured into the design. The final fusion of technologies created the most stable platform in avionics and was known as the world’s most advanced unmanned surveillance craft.

As the drone arched above a bluff, the sun came up and reflected off the titanium body, clearly highlighting the symbols SXII etched deep into the metal camera housing. It rose another eighteen inches, turned a few degrees south and then froze. Only seconds later, from the belly of the device, a pen-sized rocket blasted towards a target in the distance, ripping the silence with an explosion lighting the landscape for miles.

In all three headsets came a voice: Target acquired, identified, and terminated as ordered. Major Craig, with your authorization, I’d like to move to the next test phase.

Thomas Craig acknowledged a nod from the woman beside him before answering. Affirmative, he said.

The woman was his government-contractor counterpart and essentially the first in command during this live test drill. They both fixed their gaze on the hi-definition monitor mounted on the side of the tactical Humvee.

All go. Isolate biological subject, minus the theatrics though, Craig ordered. No need to kill anything if it’s not part of next phase requirement.

These words broke Dr. Sally Evans’ focus and she glanced abruptly at Craig. His words contradicted what she knew of him from the few bits of information she gleaned from talking to other intel officers in her field. At best, Craig was a professional assassin, or in more politically correct terms, an operator. Though she suspected him to be dangerous, she could only find fleeting documentation of his past. For all intents and purposes, he simply did not exist anywhere in the U.S. Government’s Intelligence or Department of Defense arsenals.

Sally had looked even deeper to discover all Craig’s missions were financed with black money or funding approved by secret congressional committees. She only uncovered one file about Craig on a gnome server within CIA titled, OP_TC_Yemen_A:NTR. But its content remained inaccessible. The acronym NTR, though seldom used, meant in the DoD mission descriptions Never to Return. It was Craig they sent when the extermination of a dangerous international adversary was more important than the life of the agent.

Craig confirmed the handy-rocket, as they liked to call the tiny projectiles loaded with punch, had detonated directly on target and reported this back to mission headquarters. Sally wondered why the man would care about the killing of a wild animal. Maybe there was more to this deadly hard-ass than her intel revealed.


Major Thomas Craig, Ethiopian by birth, had become a U.S. Citizen as a teenager after his entire family was whisked out of Africa by the State Department. During the ‘80s, when Ethiopia turned towards the Soviet Union, the United States recalled its Ambassador, along with the entire diplomatic mission.

Prior to closing down the embassy, and while taking inventory, Department of State analysts realized Craig’s father was a unique national asset. The elder Craig had been enlisted as an in-country contractor responsible for network and communications management, part of the ambassadorial practice of hiring local nationals to keep peace with the host nation. The talented Mr. Craig designed a communications protocol which effectively created an encrypted tunnel for secure traffic among worldwide embassies. His encryption protocol was now utilized throughout State, CIA, DIA, NSA and the rest of the three letter agencies which maintained stations within the embassy compounds. Then, as the World Wide Web started to consume society, the threat of internet-tapping became real. Very simply, those at State who knew what needed to be known understood the senior Craig possessed the vision necessary to protect their communications infrastructure for years to come.

So it was goodbye Ethiopia, hello Beltway, as they cast aside their family names in exchange for Craig, one more common to protect their identities. All six children were re-baptized with Christian names in a Coptic ceremony to help them melt into the international madness of Washington, D.C. In the many years to follow, Craig’s father left their home in Manassas each morning with a laminated picture ID dangling from his shirt pocket. He crammed into a twelve-seat commuter van for the tortuous drive into Arlington, where State maintained numerous secure intelligence offices. Ah, life was grand in the U.S.!

Of all his siblings, Thomas Craig was the only one to inherit his father’s remarkable IQ. While his siblings read the comics in Sunday’s Washington Post, he scoured the international pages. By eight years of age, Little Tommy held his own during his parents’ political conversations. On frequent occasions, dinner guests would find themselves pinned down by young Tommy and quickly discovered whatever information went into his head, stayed in his head. More astonishingly, Tommy’s logic was clear and concise. He methodically built his library of knowledge as one would build a house, laying a foundation, dropping the needed cinder blocks in place, and then constructing each floor. Each fact was interpreted, organized, and always at the ready for the moment he needed to make a point and later, as an operator, to save his ass.

At Yale, Thomas Craig carried a double major in the departments of Political Science and Psychology yet bored easily maintaining a habit of frequently popping his head into lectures in other fields of study. Dubbed Terrible Tommy by his rugby teammates, he surgically removed larger opponents from play via nimble yet decisive attacks, taking out key players to secure yet another Yale victory.

One CIA recruiter, who was a former rugby player himself, had heard of a brilliant but tough Ethiopian at Yale who manipulated the entire rugby field of play. During Craig’s junior year, the recruiter made a point of stopping in to see the young Thomas compete in an early-season scrimmage where he expectedly carried his team to victory. The agent had caught the last ten minutes of play and afterwards cornered Craig at the end of the field away from his teammates. Listening patiently to the recruiter’s pitch, Craig heard the words your actions on the front line of our nation’s clandestine operations will help shape the world landscape, and secure our freedom at home. He then accelerated his course load and completed his last two semesters in just three months after which, he headed directly south to Langley, Virginia.

Once he completed all of the required testing, clearances, and paperwork, he was shuttled off to spy school, or basic spook training, at The Farm near Williamsburg, Virginia. Quickly mastering the disciplines of secrecy and deception, his stay was extended twice, but not for further training. True to form, Craig not only perfected the stealthy spy craft techniques, he went on to intuitively improve upon them. His training interrogations yielded unheard-of results. He excelled at improvised weaponry. He conquered and absorbed all they threw at him until inevitably, the student became the teacher.

The instructors at The Farm had even tried to delay his leaving a third time, but the terrorist attacks of 9/11 brought to bear the harsh realities of the new world order, and he was called into action. Langley could not afford to keep their most promising agent in the classroom while U.S. citizens, both stateside and abroad, were threatened by al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

Craig was at once thrust into a three-month, two-prong preparatory schedule. Starting with training alongside the 3rd Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he then went on to Georgetown University in D.C. for further polishing of his linguistic skills. Craig soon went hot and for seven years no one knew (or if they did know, they wouldn’t acknowledge it) his assignments or whereabouts. The heads of terrorist cells vanished, drug cartel leaders were found in oil drums, and not a single successful terror attack was carried out on U.S. soil.

During his deep and dark CIA career, his ultra-secret success, known only by a few, drew the attention of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Even before he landed after his last mission in Pakistan, DIA had requisitioned him, and he was ordered to report to the DIAQ (Defense Intelligence Headquarters) at Bolling Air Force Base, just outside of D.C. Thomas Craig, the U.S. government’s most elite operative, would now be applying his skills on a broader level — against entire enemy cells.


Refocusing on the task at hand, Sally’s smile faded, and she continued to observe Craig, recognizing that up until his last comment simply being in his proximity scared the hell out of her. She had been intimidated by the rumors — particularly the Amsterdam incident (never confirmed) where Interpol was directed to a well-developed, fully-cocked sleeper cell. By the time the authorities arrived, it was told, each terrorist had been neatly executed, and their digitally-recorded confessions had been transmitted over the very network Craig’s father had created decades ago.

But now she decided to cut him some slack and open up a bit. After all, her involvement in the application of the Sentient Project was just beginning, and you never knew when you might need someone like Craig on your side. Sally would just have to suck in her pacifist leanings for now and stash away some survival insurance for if and when she needed him.

Sir, Sentient indicates life form 142 clicks, 12 degrees down. No clear visual yet, only strains of light-capture with a slight level of biological particles within the stream. No, wait, we have it! Looks like a jack-a-lope, ah, excuse me sir, just a joke. I’m from Wyoming you know.

A frown crossed Craig’s forehead.

Actually, Major, it’s a black-tailed rabbit. Confirmation should register on your screen as well as ours. Particle density and depth capture AOK at over 103%, if that is possible, sir.

The outdoorsman in the young operator again surfaced. It would’ve made for a tasty lunch Major Craig, if we could have found the body parts, sir.

With the mission accomplished, the testing phase was now complete. The drone came to a hover over Craig and Sally, and then it gently rested between the two trucks. As the motors faded the virtual Air Force pilot back in Hampton, Virginia removed his headset, rolled his hand off the joystick and satisfied at a job well done, headed home from his early morning shift at Langley Air Force Base. He wondered how many U.S. citizens understood how much of the air war against foreign enemies was conducted from this underground concrete bunker. Well, that’s not mine to worry about; maybe if I get some quick shut-eye, I’ll be up for a BBQ and coleslaw lunch at the County Grill. There, he and his buds would compare the hazards of war, such as the joystick jamming or someone burning the coffee they drank by the gallons to stay alert.

Back in the desert, Sally, with a solemn look at the resting drone, took a breath, leaned towards Craig and whispered, Your new Sentient is ready, Major. Fully-tested and operational, she’s all yours — for whatever comes next.

Without taking his eyes from the screen he replied, I have a few ideas.

Chapter 2

Shawn Pérez leaned into the monopod and stretched, dropping his shoulders while both hands clasped the camera housing and lens. Arching his back to relieve the tightness down his spine, he never took his right index finger off the shutter release. He was always ready to shoot, and although his head dipped between his arms to loosen his neck muscles, his eyes were still open, scanning the water and beach. He never thought about all the great images he had taken over the years. It was the photo opportunities he missed that tortured him.

Raised on the tough side of Rincón in Puerto Rico, he thought about the stone seawall where he sat in the sweltering heat, watching the gringos arrive to surf. With each year’s arrival of spring break, stateside families came to the western tip of the island drawn to some of the best waves in the Caribbean. Rental cars carried young surfers who emerged with tiny tri-fin rockets tucked under their arms. Dads and moms yanked classic longboards from atop the vehicles, all with pale white skin lathered with sunblock.

For a long moment, Shawn recalled these families, thinking about how each usually had a designated amateur photographer tasked to capture their group’s surf action. With pitifully inadequate cameras, they would attempt to photograph surfers queued up far from shore, snapping aimlessly at the ant-sized specks rolling up and over the incoming swells. Shawn knew better, and it pained him.

He remembered those early years. He would wait for professional photographers who timed their arrival with the waves, hoisted massive tripods strapped onto black hard-sided cases from their cars, lugged them across the sand and set up for long grueling hours in the tropical sun. They came alone or with pro surf teams and generally kept to themselves, assigned by surf magazines to chronicle major worldwide swells. These were the masters of high-speed, telephoto, sports photography. And with their professional, digital single-lens reflex cameras and enormous lenses, they could touch their subjects more than 500 to 1000 yards in the distance as if they were only a few yards away. Shawn was consumed with a thirst to know all about this new world of digital photography and the visiting photog’s were his professors, whether they wanted to be or not.

Shawn always knew he loved light since his first sneak to the beach with his abuelo’s ancient 35mm Minolta. The U.S. Navy had gifted the camera to his grandfather after a two year Combat Camera tour as Photographer’s Mate in Vietnam, a practice usually reserved for military snipers and their rifles, but with some exceptions occurring amongst other uniformed specialists. Before the sun had risen, he had slipped out from the cramped shack where three generations of the Pérez family lived and bolted shoeless to the beach, with neither film in the camera nor any idea of how it worked. Tucked away the entire morning in a secluded spot near Maria’s, a beach in Rincón famous for its giant left-breaking waves, he snapped away with a dreamlike pride and confidence. Phrichit, phrichit, phrichit. Shawn imagined the remarkable photos he took, albeit without film. Later, when a few pros spotted him nearby, being the bros that they were, they acknowledged him with a wink and a smile.

When his grandfather died, there was no question in the family who would get the old Minolta. Thomas kept it with him every day and quickly mastered all the tired classic had to offer. He barely covered his film and developing costs in the beginning, though he managed to earn enough to save up and buy a 200mm zoom lens which finally extended his reach out to the surfers’ take-off zone. But without a digital high-resolution camera body, his surf images looked washed out and grainy compared to the rich, detailed fullness of the advanced multi-million pixel images.

Then one afternoon, while shooting from his perch at Maria’s, Shawn saw two vans charge into the dusty parking spaces closest to the reef. At once the sliding doors of each van exploded, ejecting young surfers who stopped just long enough to strap the leashes attached to their boards onto their ankles before charging out into the surf.

Soon after, a few mothers followed, aligning beach chairs to the sun, numb to the commotion, settling down for a day of wine coolers and paperbacks. Finally, and lagging behind, were most often the too cool for school dads feigning indifference to the unforgiving crushing lefts crashing on the reef. On this particular day, one father made love to his nose rider, caressing the board’s top surface with Sexwax, more to delay his first paddle into the massive overhead sets, less for the purpose of stickiness.

Shawn’s eyes drifted from the fearful father to a final lingering passenger climbing out of the vehicle with two industrial black Pelican cases in hand, which he then placed precisely in the center of a large blanket, both as far from the sand as possible. Popping the lid on one, he efficiently mated two Canon DSLR cameras with telephoto lenses: one a 400mm f/2.8, which Shawn had seen before and recognized instantly as a favorite of the pros, the other a monster of over three-feet long with a camouflage exterior. His attention remained on the giant lens, one he had never seen in person, but had only read about in a Spanish-language photography magazine: a new introduction by Canon as the first ever 1200mm telephoto lens with an f/2.8 f-stop created for serious naturalists and bird photographers. This guy is special, Shawn thought. What, with all this gear!

After the man secured the 1200mm onto a hefty tripod, he moved beside it with the 400mm mounted on a monopod (similar to the one Shawn was now leaning on) and at once began to adjust the camera’s internal settings. As if the new lens wasn’t enough, what really blew Shawn away were the dozen or so remaining lenses nestled securely within each case. This man had every Canon professional lens currently available and then some; Shawn had never seen anything like it!

Shifting from his position, Shawn slowly edged up closer and smiled meekly at the guy. Speaking little English and figuring the American spoke even less Spanish, he continued to grin in an attempt to establish a line of communication without seeming like some kind of a Puerto Rican pervert until the man noticed Shawn with a brief glance. The guy then reached down for another big-ass camera to attach another big-ass lens, and then laid it directly into Shawn’s hands.

Shawn pulled back a bit. Who the hell would do this? Hand over something this expensive to a homeless looking punk knowing I could take off with his shit! But gear dude, as Shawn referred to him, must have picked up on the young Shawn’s positive vibes because he dedicated most of the morning to furthering Shawn’s photo education by pointing out to his eager student, via intuitive gestures, the valuable features and innovations of his collection.

Around midday, with Shawn in tow, they set up on a sandy point and for the rest of the afternoon stood side by side, sharing while comparing techniques. Shawn beamed when gear dude grasped one of his favorite skills — waiting for the exact moment the light provided by the setting sun from behind a wave formed a halo of light around a tubed surfer.

Gear dude was astounded by this and a number of other natural methods Shawn used. By the end of the afternoon, it dawned on Shawn what he lacked in technical knowledge and equipment, he made up for with his instinctive understanding of light and motion, with the two behaving as one. He seemed to see things others could not see or maybe chose not to see. He often questioned his ability to observe a bird in flight as though it were still. He would follow it with his eyes, noticing every distinct flap of its wings, its darting eyes, its tail adjusting with the wind. His mind’s eye was able to freeze the bird in mid-flight, then visually select the optimal moment when movement, color and light melded to create a beautiful moment in time. Shawn’s need to share these visions was the driving force behind his desire to photograph.

As the sun dipped below the horizon, the spent surfers wrapped up their afternoon session with one final stoke wave before reluctantly paddling back to the beach. As this remarkable day in Shawn’s life came to a close, he took special note of gear dude’s obsessive method of packing up his equipment. Once certain no sand contaminated the equipment cases and just before jumping into the back of the van, gear dude, his newfound mentor, handed Shawn a small card with his e-mail address. With some translation help from a nearby surfer, gear dude said to Shawn, Mr. Pérez, sir, if you save up one thousand dollars, I’ll sell you this camera so you can begin the journey in life for which you are destined. You and I are now friends. Send me a message when you are ready.

Shawn’s jaw dropped and he started to think of all the ways he could earn cash to speed the delivery of the camera.

Nine months later, when the Canon Mark II 1d arrived, it was the first time Shawn felt he had the tools he needed to bring his visions, not simply photographs, to the world of surfing.


Shit! Snapping back into reality, Shawn captured his subject in a perfect barrel, ripping and rumbling across the reef off this tiny island in the Tuamotu Islands chain of French Polynesia. Since the day he first lifted the Canon Mark II 1d, Shawn’s rough and tumble reputation had grown and he was now the acknowledged go-to photographer for pro surfers. He smiled. In the last fifteen years, he had come a long way since the days he spent in Puerto Rico, sitting behind the gritty sign he planted at such great breaks as Gas Chambers, Domes, or Maria’s, inviting: Great pics, you Surfing. He was inevitably discovered when his images, submitted by publicity-hungry surfers, began appearing in surf magazines around the world.

Unbeknownst to him, Shawn’s surf photography eclipsed the work of most of the current pro surf photographers of the day. In just a few years he was being hired to shoot big-wave surfers such as Irons, Slater, and Machado. One time, Transworld Surf even flew him to France for a session with the legendary Tom Curran. His life had become a whirlwind of opportunities until, physically and emotionally drained, he gladly ended his freelance days when Deep Surf Apparel, the number one surf brand, offered him a permanent gig as their head photographer. At first communication was a challenge, except, of course, with the Southern California staff where Mexicana’s outnumbered gringos. But with most of his English grammar and vocabulary picked up as he went, he was saddled with a hodgepodge of expressions and clichés. Even he never knew what would fly out of his mouth.

Regaining his focus after this long day in the sun, he watched a shabby skiff hop across the near shore sets of waves with three bronzed surfers hanging on for dear life. The inner waves were one-third the size of the outer reef break, yet sizeable still, so the boat picked its way carefully as not to overturn. The boat hit the beach at full throttle and the outboard kicked up violently when it hit the white sand only a few feet from where Shawn stood, the prop still spinning and screaming above their greetings.

Yeeehaaah, we are gonna blow minds! Shawn whooped amidst mid-air high fives, knowing today’s session was an epic one and sure to bring accolades from Deep Surf and surfers alike. His camera this day was a battered and worn prototype provided by a friend and substantially more advanced than all the Canon Professional DSLRs he had ever shot with. Along with the capable 800mm telephoto lens extending off the front, he felt as if he was holding a weapon rather than an imaging device. The lens hood was held tight by yellow crime scene tape he snagged at Fa'a'ā Airport, in Papeete. Shawn was tough cosmetically on his gear, but the lens glass was always spotless. Didn’t have to be pretty, just had to work, he mused.

Once ashore, the three tube studs slid their boards into padded travel bags while playfully slapping each other around when unexpectedly, five ghostly figures emerged from the jungle bordering the beach. Of the five, the one in the center seemed to be the leader as the only tribesman holding a long spear. His nose, ears and breasts were pierced with small bones of animals or at least they all hoped they were the bones of animals.

When they spotted the island inhabitants, the youngest of the three surfers yelled to the others, Yo, I think these native-type guys wanna have us for dinner! Dinnaaaah is served!

Shawn at once thought, Powers!

Drake Par Tee Powers, at age fifteen, was the cockiest surfer of the three and with a mouth to match. Drake had rocketed into the pro surf scene as some kind of surf savant but, thus far, his maturity fell far behind his physical prowess. Shawn didn’t even have to turn to know who had uttered the words. Hot damn, what the hell is wrong with that kid? The others also turned to look as Shawn motioned with his open hand for silence, but not before his guide Tagoga erupted in terror, Time we go now, Mistah Shawn. We go now!

Whoa Nelly, are you shittin’ me? We are gonna celebrate with a toke of doobie and some rum crushers and now that we have some local flavor to join us, what’s the rush pal? Shawn said. Look, they’re smiling — and it seems like they’re as amused with us as we with them.

Tagoga shuddered as he begged Shawn, No, no! We go now Mistah Shawn!

Shawn couldn’t help himself. The light, placement, and stature of the tribesmen were way too much for the artist in him. Hold on my bronzed buddy, oh man, this is waaaaay too cool and groovy, shit!

With little hesitation Shawn swung his camera around, but this one action sent Tagoga into a tailspin causing him to lunge for the camera Shawn held, screaming, Aiweeeeeeee noooooo, dey no like!


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