Men are useless." A shortish blonde woman, in roughly the same shape as the office she occupied, leaned back in her chair. She plopped her size tens on what otherwise was an elegant mahogany desk. Madam President wasn’t happy this morning. She squinted up at the eagle carved in the ceiling and continued to rant. "I’ve had it with the lot of you."
That was true in more ways than one. The first woman to hold the office, she had arrived on the backswing of the political pendulum. The previous occupant of this noble house had been devoted to family and faith, a simple man of simple ideas. But this President had divorced her husband, albeit after the election, and within days of her inauguration had shocked the nation by announcing that she was a lesbian. Tough as steel and just as cold, this new breed of president seemed to have faith in nothing but her own invincibility, and to fear nothing but anonymity.
The man she had narrowly defeated the previous November had been something of a hawk, forced by fate and circumstances to focus his attention upon military matters. Terrorists, most of them sons of Ishmael, all of them Islamic, had consumed his presidency. He would be remembered for little else than this seemingly unwinnable war into which he had been plunged. His ninety percent approval ratings in the early years had eroded over time as America grew weary of it all. Even with a clearly defined protagonist, an irresistible show of arms, and the "unwavering" support of the American people, the battle had not gone well. The country had sent cruise missiles after phantoms, bombed boulders until they were no bigger than pebbles, and pummeled its share of two-bit terrorists. But in the process, America had managed to manufacture far more of them than it had killed.
Ever fickle, the American people had elected a dove, a peacemaker, or so her campaign had promised. She was schooled in political correctness and all manner of new-world-order solutions. Everything she said sounded so reasoned, so civilized. Well, in front of the cameras, anyway....
"This is your last shot," the President hissed.
The assembled uniforms and suits cringed.
"Screw this up and I’m going to solve this sorry mess once and for all - my way."
"We’ll get ’em this time, Madam President," the newly minted Chairman of the Joint Chiefs oozed. The uniform was as hollow as his promise. General William Hasler was as unpopular among the troops as he was in the halls of the Pentagon. He had "earned" this position with his outspoken support of the President during her campaign. It had been a reward, not a promotion.
Knowing something of the General’s past, the President knew she could browbeat him. "Yeah, right. I’ve heard that before," she said, glaring out the windows toward the ellipse. "I’ll believe it when I see it on FOX News. They’ve got better intel than you have."
That last remark made the Secretary of Defense sit up a little straighter. Susan Ditroe had been thrilled by her cabinet appointment, but while she agreed with the President on every conceivable issue, she now felt a twinge of guilt: shouldn’t she be defending the once proud institution she had sworn to serve?
Secretary Ditroe’s turmoil was not only moral; it was visual as well. A slender brunette wearing a powder blue pantsuit, she looked ridiculous on the blood-red overstuffed couch that now dominated the Oval Office. The furnishings the previous administration had commissioned had been too small, too traditional, too white, for the new occupant. The new furnishings - and the new president - were far more colorful.
The woman in charge had made it clear that the military was no longer a priority. Her campaign had promised a new paradigm in which political solutions, not guns or bombs, would shape America’s future.
"Fail this time, General, and your funding will go down with your mission." It was going to anyway, but the decline would be more precipitous if she had a good excuse.
This attitude was nothing new. When nations shortchanged their supply of bullets, their adversaries often sensed this vulnerability and attacked, causing them to expend an inordinate amount of their children’s blood. 9/11 had been a wake-up call, as yet unanswered.
"If I may speak freely, Madam President." Chairman Hasler’s back was straight, his chin was up, but his pride was on the ropes. "Our readiness is already at an all-time low." Trying to muster a little backbone, he recounted America’s alarming reality. He was fighting for whatever little sustenance she was willing to give the military. "We have gone from an active fleet of six hundred ships to less than half that. Our merchant marine flotilla is mothballed. It took us five months to ready ourselves to fight Iraq in ’90 and even longer in 2003. To move an equivalent amount of men and material today, we would need a very patient enemy."
The room grew cold. Hasler was treading on thin ice.
"To keep our planes in the sky, we’ve had to scavenge parts from other birds. If it weren’t for duct tape, our B-52s would have disintegrated. We’d struggle to field five Army divisions. We’ve even shortchanged our technology."
With a divided Congress, a fluctuating economy, and the constant smokescreen of political maneuverings, America no longer knew if it was coming or going. Military readiness programs were started, cut off, reinstated, diminished, and then convoluted to the point the nation was equipping its soldiers with million-dollar coffins.
"That’s just it," the President snapped. "It’s all boys and their toys. You can’t protect the American people, General; you can’t even find the enemy. Invading Iraq again was senseless, a bloody disaster."
All one had to do was peer out the window, as the President was doing, to confirm the harsh reality. The Washington Monument stood wounded, half toppled, the victim of yet another terrorist event. The once proud obelisk was now an unmistakable symbol of America’s impotence.
Airplanes had come down, offices had been bombed, fuel depots attacked, power grids sabotaged, and anthrax was sent through the mail. Sites both strategic and symbolic had been pummeled. Predictably, metropolitan water supplies had been contaminated. Suicide bombers and murderous snipers, common for years in Israel, were now blasting the nation. There was no denying it: the United States was vulnerable. Paralyzed by the confusion between racial profiling and common sense, America allowed the death merchants to operate with impunity.
"Bill," the President continued, "I don’t want to hear your tale of woe. With this economy we inherited, you’re lucky to have a job!"
Business, the engine of the nation’s industrial might, had shriveled under the onslaught. The markets were deflated. Travel was hit hard and consumer spending was anemic. Threats of an oil embargo had caused gas prices to rise. The terrorists had won the first round.
The American public had no clue why they were being attacked. And this was the biggest problem of all.
Slumped in the overstuffed sofa, Secretary Ditroe tried to defend the boss. "Bush’s war on terrorism was a bust. There was no end in sight. Every time he killed one terrorist, ten more scurried in behind."
Curiously, America had, in a way, created its assailants. Every time the United States had bombed a village suspected of harboring al-Qaeda members or Saddam loyalists, it had made more of them. It was like Vietnam in the ’60s. There, the Viet Cong had only needed to point to the insignias on the B-52s to convert those caught in the crossfire.
By sending smart bombs and cruise missiles, the nation looked cowardly to young men willing to die for the honor of representing their god. But that wasn’t the worst of it. America had managed to kill its share of religious clerics, plenty of gun-toting Muslim militants, thousands of innocent bystanders, and a few United Nations workers - anyone but a meaningful number of actual terrorists.
Hasler tried to deflect criticism away from the military’s prior failures. "This is a tough battle, ma’am. Our would-be targets don’t wear uniforms or name badges. With the exception of a few dozen leaders, nobody even knows what they look like. Well, that’s not completely true. They look like everybody else in that part of the world."
The President swept a stray blond hair behind an ear. "Bush spent five billion dollars a month, yet captured only a fraction of the militants al-Qaeda trained. Regime change in Iraq cost two hundred billion, and we got nothing for it but a black eye. Even if you knew who our enemy was, General, the economics are unforgivable. Our aim was good enough, but it took five million-dollar cruise missiles to take out four thousand-dollar sheds."
What the President did not know, or at least was unwilling to accept, was that neither Saddam nor al-Qaeda were the real enemy. One was a common tyrant, the other just one of a hundred terrorist clubs operating around the world. She, like so many, refused to recognize that they were merely symptoms of a much larger problem.
Failure had become predictable, almost inevitable. Bush II had announced his attacks months before he made them. W, like his father before him, was great with people, so he did what came naturally. He formed international alliances. Initially, it appeared that he had even gotten some of the "moderate" Arab nations to go along. It was a triumph of political correctness.
But that in itself merely exacerbated the problem. By the time the alliances had been formed and all the permissions properly requested and duly received, the majority of terrorists were long gone. Islamic warriors were particularly good at hiding among their children and under the dresses of their women. So in the first round, when America bombed the "terrorist training camps," they splintered some wood, blasted some rocks, stirred up some dust, and no doubt scared some camels to death, but that was about it - except for congratulating themselves on the fine job they had done removing the Taliban, the Pakistani-backed Islamic warlords, from power. In reality, that had only paved the way for Iranian-backed warlords to take over. It was the terrorists’ version of musical chairs. More concerning still, by forcing al-Qaeda into Pakistan, America had destabilized the only Muslim nation with nuclear weapons. Best-laid plans....
Round two in Iraq had been more futile still. Changing regimes without first dealing with the underlying problem of Islam was like replacing Lenin with Stalin in the old USSR without first neutering Communism. Saddam’s hero was Hitler. He simply followed his fuhrer’s lead. Hiding in a Baghdad bunker he equipped Muslim youth with his most lethal weapons. Inspired by promises of direct admission into the lustful Islamic paradise, such boys willingly sacrificed themselves, becoming martyrs. While they did not fight for Saddam, they were zealous crusaders for Islam and Muhammad. And their bullets and pestilence didn’t much care why they were fired.
Unlike Desert Storm, this war, predictably, had been fought in the cities. Hussein was a tyrant, not a fool. By not allowing his troops to play in the open desert, Saddam had given America two equally horrendous options: bomb civilian centers into submission - and in the process kill tens of thousands of innocent women and children - or send in troops with guns like America did in Mogadishu and have them die instead. The world was not tolerant the first option and America didn’t much like the second. As a consequence, America’s spirit, conscience, and prestige became the war’s greatest casualty. Islamic terrorism had scored yet another victory.
Reagan, unlike either Bush, had isolated his target. He had hit first and asked questions later. When he suspected Libya of foul play, he promptly pulverized the place. The Arab world squawked, the Communist regimes griped, and the French whined, but Kadafi kept his head down for decades.
"Intelligence. That’s where we need to invest our money," Ditroe asserted, not recognizing how futile this was. Listening to the prevailing wisdom, America had already tried doubling its $30 billion intelligence budget. But the results hadn’t matched the promise. Consistent with the international outcry for more "human" intelligence, the CIA had tried to recruit Arabs to serve the cause. Not surprisingly, those crazy enough to take Uncle Sam’s money were too crazy to be of any value.
Suitable candidates were few and far between. The bad guys typically recruited overly religious sixteen-year-old boys from troubled Arab neighborhoods. Americans obviously didn’t have the stomach for enlisting children to do their dirty work, and even if they had, it’s unlikely that the GI Bill and a little spending money would have been enough to persuade someone ready to die for "Allah’s Cause" to turn against the home team.
Besides, Uncle Sam was a cheapskate. The Islamic states paid the families of suicide bombers more than America paid its president.
Secretary Ditroe tried again. "We know we must do more with less militarily, but the Chairman is confident he has a good plan." Susan Ditroe, a five-foot-six ex-IBM exec, had just celebrated her thirty-sixth birthday. The brunette crossed her skinny legs and waited for the President’s response.
"You’ve missed the point, Ms Ditroe. Militarily, we will do less with less. I want to rein in the military. You haven’t been listening."
"Yes, ma’am," the Secretary squirmed. She knew that the President’s rise to power had been the result of a carefully crafted strategy of investing the peace dividend - one funded by a policy of peaceful coexistence. The plan took money earmarked for the national defense and reallocated it to the President’s constituents, rewarding them for their support.
The populace, accustomed to being coddled, may have been gullible, but they weren’t stupid. They had learned that they could vote themselves a raise, and they had. America had begun a decline into an abyss littered with the carcasses of decaying civilizations.
Madam President’s plan, her party’s plan, had been ingenious. Over the course of the last couple of decades, the left side of the aisle had virtually eliminated federal taxation on the preponderance of their supporters. At the same time, they had increased the burden on the most successful Americans, recognizing that they represented a smaller, and thus less significant, voting bloc. The party called it "paying their fair share." It sounded reasonable at first blush, but in reality it was just a modern-day version of Robin Hood: stealing from those they deemed rich and giving the plunder to those more numerous voters they deemed poor.
"Ma’am," Hasler interrupted, trying to refocus the conversation, "we have Captain Thurston Adams waiting in your conference room. He has a PowerPoint presentation we’d like you to see, a combination intelligence briefing and game plan." The general was a tall, handsome man in his early fifties, with short grey hair and a neatly trimmed moustache.
"A captain?" the President asked, putting her feet back down on the floor. "I thought you had a gaggle of generals over there."
"Yes ma’am, we do. Captain Adams is a Naval officer, so his rank is equivalent to an Army colonel, just below rear admiral." General Hasler, who had only recently acquired his fourth star, was familiar with the President’s contradictory attitude toward titles. She hated the military but was nevertheless impressed by rank. "He’s the leader of our best anti-terrorism team, Task Force 11."
The President let out a groan as she stood, letting her minions know she was not eager to endure a thirty-minute briefing. It was ironic, she thought, that as the world’s most powerful person, she had less control of her time than anyone. Every moment of her day was scheduled by others. Resigned, she walked past the elegant domed bookcases, behind the seating area across from her desk, and out into the hallway.
The president’s conference room has two doors. The main entrance adjoins a reception area commonly used by members of Congress. The attendees waiting to address the President had arrived through this door. Diagonally across the room is the president’s entrance, only a few strides from the Oval Office.
Inside, portraits of the Roosevelts, Teddy and Franklin, adorned flanking walls. Battle ribbons from each service hung from flags near the common entrance. From Yorktown to Gettysburg, Midway to the Persian Gulf, they quietly proclaimed that our freedom was anything but free. Today they were just collecting dust.
The President made no attempt to greet the sea of strangers already ensconced as she made her way into the room. She plopped herself down in a chair at the end of the long table. The Chairman and Secretary, after shaking hands with their colleagues, sat next to her. Captain Adams stood at attention at the far end of the room. He had a remote control clicker in his left hand. A laser pointer sat on the table in front of him. He was flanked by an Admiral, the Director of the CIA, and a member of his staff. A portable screen had been erected in the corner.
"Madam President," General Hasler began, "This is Captain Thurston Adams, Navy Special Forces. He will be presenting his plan for the capture of Halam Ghumani, leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist network. You know Mr. Barnes from the CIA. He will be providing the intelligence briefing. Standing next to him is Ms. Nottingly, Middle East Bureau Chief, who will be assisting him. Admiral Gustoff, Atlantic Fleet CINC, will explain the logistical components of the mission. Director Barnes, you may begin."
"Good morning, Madam President. May I have the lights dimmed, please. Captain, the first slide. As you can see from this satellite photo, we have reason to believe that the al-Qaeda network is rebuilding a training camp in the Hindu Kush region of northeastern Afghanistan."
That in itself was remarkable. America had bombed the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban into submission only a few years back. And while they had promised that Allah would make America’s missiles go astray, Allah had never been in the miracle business. The Taliban had been summarily pounded. Like most bullies, they had cowered when confronted.
Unfortunately, the bully pulpit was all the Afghanis knew. In the vacuum of leadership America had created, Taliban rule had been temporarily replaced by another, more "moderate" group of thugs. This drove the "extremists" into hiding up north, where the moderate rebels had once been confined. Al-Qaeda, evidently having an affinity for caves, had retreated to this hostile, remote land, moving across the porous border with Pakistan. In the mountains they were once again harbored by sympathetic Muslims.
"Next slide, please." The CIA Director continued his presentation. "This picture was taken yesterday, 21:30 our time. Notice the framework for an obstacle course of some sort. We’ve become accustomed to seeing these things on the recruiting videos we’ve intercepted."
James Barnes had been on the job only a few weeks. His confirmation had not gone smoothly. Embarrassing questions about his personal life, his indiscretions, had been raised. The conservatives had tried to use his past to compromise him, to blackmail him into bowing out. But the furor had mysteriously died down when it became apparent that the Chairman of the Senate Committee, a Republican, had been no less indiscreet. As a result of his ordeal, Barnes was eager to prove himself.
"Next slide, please, Captain. As you can see, there has been some digging - here and here," Barnes said as he pointed out the two locations. ‘We assume the holes are for protection against our bombs."
"What is it you think they’re building, Mr. Barnes?" the President asked, raising an eyebrow.
Sarah Nottingly, noticing the "help-me" look on her boss’s face, answered. "They’ve erected camouflage netting above these areas, Madam President, so we aren’t certain. We’ve seen a track hoe, a dozer, and several dump trucks in the area. As they move equipment around, they’ve been careful to sweep up their tracks. We’ve seen them hauling dirt away and returning with a variety of materials, construction goods: wood beams, plywood, concrete, some industrial canisters, HVAC equipment, even a generator. The barracks they’re building are ramshackle affairs, poorly constructed. The obstacle training course makes little sense to any of our analysts. For some reason they’ve built everything at right angles, which is quite unusual. And they’ve done all of this out in the open, in a high mountain ravine, not hidden in caves like before." At twenty-nine, Sarah was the youngest person in the room. She was arguably the most intelligent. She was easily the most attractive.
Chairman Hasler turned to face the President. "These are the first real targets we’ve had in some time, ma’am - at least in a country we’re willing to attack. We caught them rebuilding. They must have thought that since we’d pulled our forces away from Afghanistan and focused them on Iraq, they’d regained some measure of anonymity. But we’re on to them."
The President acknowledged the intelligence coup with a begrudging grunt. Al-Qaeda had been her predecessor’s enemy. "Ms....what did you say your name was?" she asked, eyeing the CIA Bureau Chief. The agent had legs Michelangelo couldn’t have improved upon. Both the President and the Captain seemed to be enjoying the artistry.
"Agent Nottingly," Sarah answered.
"Yes, Ms. Nottingly. What can you tell me about al-Qaeda?"
Sarah stepped closer. "The network emerged out of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan back in 1979. A Palestinian academic, Abdallah Azzam, established the ‘religious organization’," she said, using her fingers to form quotation marks, "to provide Islamic instruction to the Mujahadin - ‘Allah’s warriors’. It was funded by Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda grew even stronger when an Egyptian physician, Ayman al-Zawahiri, merged his anti-everything-he-didn’t-like organization, al-Jihad, or ‘holy war’, into Azzam’s. Shortly thereafter, the Palestinian founder, the Saudi financier, and Egyptian logistician were joined by another Palestinian, Abu Zubaydah, who became responsible for their international operations. He’s now a Guantanamo Bay detainee, ma’am."
The others were all dead, or at least really quiet. Eliminating them had cost the United States a scant ten billion each. But in a world rife with bitterness, inflamed by religious zeal, and fanned by insatiable hatreds, replacements had been a dime a dozen. That was the new math.
The President dragged her eyes away from Sarah’s legs and focused them reluctantly on General Hasler. "So you want me to approve spending...what? Another thirty million bucks for a couple dozen cruise missiles to eradicate an exercise course, some plywood barracks, and a few holes in the ground? You must be crazier than I think you are." With that, the President pushed her chair back. She was ready to leave.
Secretary Ditroe placed a hand on the President’s arm. With her other hand she motioned for her to stay a moment longer. They shared a glance. More than a glance. "Madam President," she said. "We’ve managed to plant an operative inside al-Qaeda. He’s reporting that Halam Ghumani and his lieutenants Omen Quagmer and Kahn Haqqani are overseeing this camp. Personally."
"Really?" That tidbit was tasty indeed. Even a dove would gain kudos acing three of the baddest boys on the planet. The President sat back down. "Go on."
Susan Ditroe motioned to Admiral Gustoff. Dwight Gustoff filled the uniform. Fit and muscular at fifty-six, he was all man, having served his country admirably in the Gulf War. He was now Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet. "No cruise missiles this time, ma’am. The plan Captain Adams and Agent Nottingly have developed calls for a small incursion force.
"Logistically, we are prepared to stage their operation here, on the Island of Diego Garcia." Admiral Gustoff used the laser pointer to highlight the spot on the satellite photo. "From there they will fly three S-3 Vikings to the Ronald Reagan, stationed near Bombay. They’ll refuel and fly northeast over India, landing at a remote airbase near Pakistan."
Shifting his weight, standing more erect now, the Admiral asked for the next slide. "Three Sea Hawk helicopters, each loaded with four combatants, two crewmen, and added fuel bladders, will fly through the deep valleys of the Himalayan Range." He traced the laser pointer along the route that had been projected on the screen. "They’ll enter the Hindu Kush and go on into the high mountain country of northeastern Afghanistan." He turned and looked at the President. "It would be prudent militarily, ma’am, to have some Warthogs, Sea Cobras, and a Spectre Gunship fly cover during this portion of the mission."
"Forget it!" the President bellowed. "You know better than that. I’m not going to let you boys send in an invasion force. You’re not going to blast us back into some insane war."
"Yes, ma’am, we thought you might see it that way." Admiral Gustoff was saddened by the President’s reaction, embarrassed really. She had no business being Commander-in-Chief. "I understand your position," he lied. "So we’ve worked out a second scenario that’s less risky politically. Would you consider allowing us to fly a simultaneous mission from the Ronald Reagan as a decoy?"
She waited for more information.
"When the Special Forces team departs, we could launch a diversion - a strike force of Sea Cobras and F-18s. They would fly over the task force, high enough to be picked up by Pakistani radar, and then divert to a fake bombing run, perhaps over the no-fly zone in Iraq."
"Why not? A fake bombing run doesn’t sound any different than a training mission."
The Admiral cleared his throat. "Yes, ma’am." It had been a small victory. "Now, Madam President, Captain Adams will brief you on the plan to capture Halam Ghumani and the core of al-Qaeda’s leadership."
Captain Thurston Adams was all of six foot two. His dark brown hair was curly, even wiry, trimmed short. A barrel chest, thick neck, and protruding movie-star chin were his most prominent features. He was thirty-nine years old but looked younger. As a result of his SEAL training, called BUD/S, he was in the best shape of his life. He was bright by any measure, having attended the Naval Academy in Annapolis, graduating second in his class, a history major.
Adams began, "We’re proposing a multinational force composed of British, Israeli, and American Special Forces personnel. The team will be using the latest technology: Special Forces Gear - SFGs. If I could have the lights back up for a moment."
Thurston, known to his friends as "Thor," stepped toward the door, less than two strides from where he had stood under Teddy Roosevelt’s picture. Turning the brass handle, he motioned for an oddly attired Lieutenant to enter the room.
Kyle Stanley had graduated from BUD/S with Thor. They had grown close. Stanley was a twenty-eight-year-old African American, handsome, six foot one, bright, and athletic. He wasn’t only a soldier; he was Thor’s best friend.
"This is Lieutenant Stanley," Adams said as he closed the door. "The suit he is wearing has been designed for special forces covert operations. Of particular interest is the video mini-cam mounted on his helmet. It transmits images on a private frequency to a PC/satellite uplink, like those you’ve seen on the network news. The difference is we’ll be wearing them, and the pictures will be transmitted to the White House via one of the NSA’s satellites in real time. In a sense, you’ll be able to go on the mission with us, Madam President."
"Your communications team can edit the footage as soon as the mission has been declassified," Agent Nottingly interjected. "You can control the release of information, rather than merely reacting to it."
"The pictures from the network satellite cams are awful. Are these going to be any better?" the President asked.
Unhappy being ignored, Secretary Ditroe interrupted, challenging the CIA Bureau Chief. "The video won’t do the President any good if the images themselves are bad."
"The helmet cams run at twenty-five frames a second, Secretary Ditroe. Near-broadcast quality," Sarah replied. She picked up on the tension: the Secretary was jealous. Uncomfortable, Sarah cast Thor a glance. His reassuring smile refocused her. "Madam Secretary, Madam President, it must be disconcerting for the White House when news agencies like CNN and FOX broadcast mission results even before the CIA and the Pentagon have been briefed." Scooping the media, she knew, would go a long way toward selling their mission. "This technology will solve that problem."
The President relaxed. Visions of political capital danced in her head. Edited by her own staff, video clips of the capture of Halam Ghumani would be the ultimate P.R. plum, the very grease she needed to lubricate the wheels of her personal agenda. For this reason alone it might be worth the risk, she thought, silently if not secretly. Everyone could see it in her eyes.
"The suit is made of woven Kevlar and titanium threads," Thor continued. "As you can see, it covers everything - from boot to head. Lieutenant, could you remove your helmet?" Jet black, it looked like one a motorcyclist might wear, wrapping around the entire head. It even had a visor that locked down into place, covering Kyle’s face.
"The suit is limber enough for Army Rangers to move freely on land, and both waterproof and insulated, so it works for Navy SEALs. It’s supposed to provide some protection against normal military ammunition."
Holding the helmet, Thor explained, "The H.U.D. is state of the art."
"The what?" the President asked.
"Heads Up Display. It’s integrated here, in the helmet’s visor. May I show you, ma’am?" The Captain and Lieutenant walked to the other side of the room and invited the President to put on the specially designed helmet. So as not to flop around on her head like an oversized bowl, Thor placed a piece of foam rubber Sarah had provided inside. POTUS’s head was big only in the figurative sense.
Curious but cautious, the President reached for the high-tech gear. It was tethered electronically to the pack Stanley was wearing, so Kyle moved alongside.
"Are there any photographers in the room?" she asked. "I don’t want to look like a fool, like Dukakis riding around in a tank. The world doesn’t need to see me wearing this thing."
Assured by her staff that the coast was clear, President and helmet became one. It definitely looked better on Stanley.
Captain Adams had taken the liberty of removing the video cam, placing it on the table facing her. Knowing that the President was more interested in her image than anything else, he moved it so that she could see herself in the Heads Up Display. Smiling, she adjusted her hair, what little fell below the bottom of the high-tech headwear. "What’s all this I’m looking at, besides myself, that is?"
"Data displays. The image you’re seeing of yourself is from the helmet cam. The video can be switched from normal to enhanced light...could I have the lights dimmed, please."
"Whoa - what’s happening?"
"This is the infrared mode," Adams said as Lieutenant Stanley pressed another button on his control unit. "It’s reading heat signatures."
"You all look freaky. Pretty neat toy, boys," she said as she removed it.
Thor used the laser wand to point to the image he had projected on the screen. "You noticed the built-in data display. We’ve got a GPS moving map, transponder, compass, ground speed, and bearing to target, as well as other essential functions."
"Even though the helmet covered my ears, I could have sworn my hearing was enhanced. Was it, Captain?"
"Yes, ma’am. We can amplify sound or even cancel it if the situation calls for it. It’s all controlled from the CPU here on the Lieutenant’s back." He motioned for Stanley to turn around. "Onboard computer, cooling unit, enhanced imagery, GPS, audio gear, even the chameleon mechanism."
"Yes indeed. Watch." He nodded to Stanley. The suit changed from jungle camouflage to shades of the desert, to snow white, and then to midnight black. "The outer fabric reacts to an electrical current. One uniform can serve more than one purpose. We actually have a couple of these that will change coloration to mimic the surrounding environment. They’re covered with a micro-thin layer of fiber optics. The wearer completely disappears."
"You don’t say. I’d like to have one of those," the President joked. "There are times when being invisible would come in handy."
"Yes, ma’am. The system was developed by the Israelis. The leader of their team will have one, as will I. The full chameleon function is still experimental, you understand."
"Did I hear you say ‘as will I?’ Are you planning on leading this mission yourself, Captain?"
Standing more erect and smiling, Adams nodded imperceptibly.
"My, my. A modern-day Colonel Doolittle. If I have my history right, he led the B-something raid, what was it...?"
"Yes, a testosterone-fueled B-25 bombing run on Tokyo a few months after Pearl Harbor - off an aircraft carrier. Made our boy a genuine American hero."
"Made him a General," Chairman Hasler noted.
"Got any political ambitions, Captain?" the President asked.
"No, ma’am. I just want to lead my men, get the job done. We haven’t fared real well on these missions, as I’m sure you know. We’re operating in their back yard, and we stick out like a sore thumb," he said, motioning to the map of Afghanistan. "Over there it’s hard for us to tell the good guys from the bad guys. It’s like Vietnam in a way - little boys shoot at us while their moms lob hand grenades."
"You said Israelis are going on this mission with you? Why? Don’t they know we’re going to vote against them at the United Nations?" The President was determined to exit the Middle East controversy. The United States would just walk away, giving the Palestinians what they wanted, their own independent state. It seemed the only prudent thing to do. During the previous decade, Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Iraq had accounted for a staggering forty percent of the world’s total arms purchases. There was clearly too much testosterone in that corner of the globe.
Besides, America’s staunchest allies were in lock step. For their part, they had little choice. Europe was under water, inundated with sympathetic Arabs. Young Muslim militants had found Great Britain, Germany, and France to be safe havens. These nations had turned a blind eye to fanaticism in return for having a source of cheap foreign labor.
America was losing control in the least likely place, her prisons. The Islamic Prison Ministry had quietly "recruited" some five percent of the nation’s 2,000,000 incarcerated felons, mostly African Americans and Hispanics, to do their dirty work. Disgruntled and angry, convicts had found Islam appealing.
"I’m a soldier, ma’am. I’m not privy to the Administration’s policy in the Middle East." Actually, Thor knew more than he was willing to admit, but he didn’t think it would be appropriate to share his opinion with his Commander-in-Chief.
Hasler spoke up. "Much of the human intelligence for this mission came from the Mossad, Madam President. They were a full partner in establishing the strategy we’d like to deploy. And they, with the Brits, helped us develop the SFGs. Fact is, ma’am, they volunteered."
It was a good thing they had. America’s intelligence was handicapped. Congressional leaders from the President’s party had seen to that. They had berated senior FBI and CIA leaders, threatening to curtail funding if they "profiled." The intelligence community had to promise not to single out and investigate Arabs or Muslims, even though they were the only ones attacking America.
The Captain and the Agent went on to brief the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs, and the other assembled suits on their plan. Many already supported the mission. Others were seeing their bold strategy for the first time. And for reasons as varied as their private agendas, they all came to the same conclusion: this might actually work.
After receiving a begrudging thumbs up from the President, Sarah Nottingly and Thor Adams, with Kyle Stanley a step behind, darted out the door and into the reception area. Making their way east through a maze of intersecting halls, they turned right and entered Sarah’s favorite room. She glanced to her left, above the fireplace, at the painting of George Washington. She admired the two hundred-year-old French wallpaper that adorned the room. It was so old that the artist had portrayed Native Americans as Indians, from India, turbans and all, not knowing any better.
Thor looked straight ahead through the French doors that were aligned with Washington’s other symbol, the first President’s wounded obelisk. He would soon be facing the same enemy who had been willing to die to bring it down. He hoped he and his team would fare better.
Bolting out the south-facing door, walking under the colonnade and across some of the most photographed gardens in the world, they reached the olive-green helicopter. Kyle climbed aboard, saluting the Marine Color Guard and crew. That left the Captain and the agent alone on the South Lawn.
"Are you going to wish me luck?"
She took a step forward and kissed him instead.
"How are you coming, Anwar?" The Middle Eastern voice was a bit crackly over the satellite phone. The English was stiff, but good enough.
"We are within days of having a working prototype. But we need the next installment to build all the machines you requested."
"Yes. I will inform Charlie Three. They should have sold their candy by now. It will be more than enough to build thirty-six units."
"And when should I expect the ingredients?"
"Bravo Three will bring them in due time. Allah is great."
"Yes. Death to the infidels."