Friday’s failure had become Sunday’s celebration. The transfer from rotary to fixed-wing aircraft took place as scripted. Battered and bruised, Team Uniform was racing toward the Ronald Reagan.
"What now, Cap?" Kyle Stanley asked. "Going to Disney World?"
"Naah," he sighed through the pain.
"We’ll avenge the death of the Sea Hawk pilots, yes?" Yacob’s eyes betrayed a grim determination. The flight crews had tried valiantly to conceal the bad news, but they were lousy liars.
"No, revenge isn’t the answer. We’ve gotta make sense of this somehow." It didn’t sound much like a guy who had just kicked serious terrorist butt.
"Good grief, Cap!" Stanley shot back, feeling almost alive. "That’s what I’d expect the witch to say." Kyle was in way too much pain to feign respect for his Pacifist-in-Chief.
"That’s Madam Witch to you, Lieutenant," Yacob Seraph quipped, though he too was surprised. "You going soft on us?"
"No, not hardly. But if all we know is revenge - an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth - we’ll end up blind and livin’ on oatmeal."
Moshe was in no mood for philosophy. After a lifetime of looking over his shoulder for suicide bombers and signs of impending Arab invasion, revenge sounded just fine. "So the ch-chopper pilots get m-murdered hanging from their p-parachutes, and we’re just going to l-let it g-go?"
Yacob looked at Moshe, alarmed. He knew he had battled stuttering all his life, finally conquering it - temporarily, it now appeared. Why had the torment returned? Were old hatreds forcing their way to the surface? Yacob had heard the stories of how Moshe’s parents had been horribly disfigured by a terrorist’s car bomb. Only his father’s mangled body had saved him from the brunt of the blast. Unlike his parents, Moshe’s scars were on the inside. For Captain Keceph, the pain was personal.
"They didn’t die in vain, Moshe." Kyle struggled to get the words out. He understood the Mossad’s mission of making sure no crime against Jews went unpunished; it meshed nicely with his own military code of honor. "They got Sumner out. We got the world’s number-one bad guy and sent forty terrorists to Allah. I’d say they’re avenged."
"No! N-not until Kahn Haqqani dies." Despite the outburst, Moshe appeared a little calmer. "W-what would have happened if the C-captain hadn’t saved our b-butts?"
The question stung Adams. "I led us right into a trap."
"Don’t be blamin’ yourself, Cap’n." Kyle understood his friend’s torment. "Whatever trips those boys’ triggers is way beyond any of us."
"I’m gonna figure it out," Thor said. "I swear. That’s better than revenge. It’ll make the suffering count for something. We’ll never stop ’em until we know what makes ’em crazy."
"It started as a family feud." Yacob was a student of history, his history. "This has been going on four thousand years. You know the story?"
"You mean about Arabs and Jews tracing their heritage back to Abraham? I thought that was just symbolic, you know, folklore."
"It’s history, Cap."
Bloody and broken warriors discussing ancient scriptures was hardly an everyday occurrence. But this wasn’t an average postmortem. Something about a crucifixion shuffles one’s priorities.
"Maybe. The historical accuracy of your scriptures is really some’n. Makes you wonder if the Bible might be...."
Adams was having trouble completing his sentence. He was a historian, a soldier, not a philosopher - definitely not a believer. Outside of chapel at the Academy, he had never seen the inside of a church. His world was historical documents. He had only just started to grapple with this uncomfortable conundrum.
"Inspired. That’s the word you were searching for," the Israeli warrior said. "It isn’t possible to explain any other way."
Thor tried to roll to his other side, but it screamed out in pain.
"Its prophecies are freaky stuff," Yacob reported. He and Kyle both knew that the Old Testament was a treasure trove of predictions.
Kyle stared at his bandaged wrists. "The rise and fall of nations were foretold long before they happened, Cap’n. When it was predicted that Egypt would quake at the sight of the Jews, the idea was absurd."
"But it happened in ’67. The Six Day War." Thor knew his history, especially military history. Moshe and Yacob knew it too. Every Israeli reveled in the scope of that victory. A tiny nation had turned away the combined wrath of the Arab world. Their stunning victory over the Muslims was a miracle by any standard.
"In Psalm 102," Yacob reflected, "God even predicted the Holocaust; then he said we’d return to Israel. That’s what happened."
"Three thousand-year-old intel. Is that crazy or what?"
"No k-kidding. But if you w-want to find out what happened b-back there, you’re going to have to s-study Islam’s scriptures."
"He’s right," Yacob agreed. "If you want to find your way around hell, you can’t use a roadmap to heaven."
Stanley turned to Yacob. "So tell me about Psalm 102. That’s a new one on me. It actually predicted the Holocaust?"
As the words left his lips, the Viking pitched down. The flaps were extended and the throttles retarded. The gear doors opened to the sound of rushing air and whining hydraulic pumps. The tail hook was released moments before the controlled crash onto the deck of the Ronald Reagan, catching the center pendant. This time the men were prepared. Already bruised, no one wanted to keep flying after the airplane had stopped.
Safely on deck, they were happy to be one step closer to home, nearer to getting some relief. But to a man, they were more curious than they had ever been.
"Anwar, have you gotten a blower to work?"
"I thought you’d be calling, sir. I cannot believe they captured Halam."
"We will make them pay," Omen Quagmer said with grim resolve. "Now, how are you coming?"
"The prototype works fine. We received the funds you promised from Charlie 3. The first machines will be ready within a week." Abu was good at his job.
"Charlie" was code for "candy." Charlie 3 represented the drug money from the sales of narcotics to American college students. The "3" was code for the third initiative deployed during the current year. The leaders of al-Qaeda figured that by using American-style nomenclature they would be less noticeable. It was the hide-in-plain-sight mentality.
"When will you be ready to receive Bravo 3?" "Bravo" stood for the biochemical ingredients to be used in Plan 3.
"Whenever. We’ve built the containment facility. Allah is great."
"I want to send Echo 3 out just as soon as you’re ready," Omen told his American agent.
"Your execution team can pick up the first six blowers in two or three days. Where are they going to go, sir?" Anwar Abu shouldn’t have asked, and he knew it. Only Omen knew the full extent of every plan.
"That’s of no concern to you," Quagmer answered coldly.
"Death to the infidels," Anwar replied, not knowing what else to say.
"That was Quite a performance, Captain Adams," the President choked out. This was the last call she wanted to make. The video of Thor’s bravery and of his men’s ordeal was now being broadcast around the world by every network, translated into every language. There would be no erasing the tape, no turning back the clock. Adams had become a living legend.
"Thank you, Madam President, but I’m no hero. My plan failed." The Captain was still angry at himself for having stumbled into a trap, for underestimating his enemy. And while miffed at the President, he was unwilling to blame her publicly for failing to provide proper air support.
"Well, Captain," the President continued from the Oval Office, "now that you’re a modern-day Colonel Doolittle, what’s next?" To her chagrin, it had turned out just as she’d predicted.
"I want to understand this enemy, ma’am." He wasn’t seeking glory. Thor dreaded the limelight he knew awaited him.
"Who?" They were evidently fighting different foes.
"Madam President," Adams replied, "the enemy we encountered is unlike any other. We’ve got a serious problem. I’d like to come back to the White House and brief you on what we experienced."
"No, Captain, that won’t be necessary. I’m already better briefed on this than I’d like to be."
The President hung up and turned to her advisors. "Now what?"
"The nation is crying for a retaliatory strike, Madam President." Hasler was standing behind the blood-red sofa, his arms behind his back.
"More killing? Is that what they want? Does everyone have a death wish?"
"Yes, ma’am, apparently." Secretary Ditroe was in her usual position, swallowed by the overstuffed upholstery.
"This morning’s poll numbers aren’t terribly ambiguous. Ninety percent are in favor of killing terrorists, any terrorists. They don’t care where we bomb. They just want us to blow something up."
"The outcry to punish them is universal," Hasler reported. The General wanted to send what was left of Afghanistan back to the Stone Age and then return to bloody Iraq some more. The behavior of the Islamic faithful had frustrated him.
On the way to the briefing, he had read one of the many leaflets Muslims had spread around Afghanistan. Although they were "impoverished" and begging for aid, they were offering hundred-thousand-dollar rewards for the capture of American soldiers. And if that wasn’t incentive enough, they threatened to kill anyone aiding the West, calling them un-Islamic. It irked him.
These pamphlets were designed to fan the flames of racial hatred. The one he had read this morning claimed that American soldiers had used biological weapons on hundreds of thousands of Muslim women and children. And while the bogus claims angered him, what scared him most was that Muslims believed them to be true.
Susan sat up a little straighter. "If the American people had their way, Madam President, they’d dispense with the trial. They want Halam Ghumani crucified." No longer a pacifist, the Defense Secretary agreed.
"This is a nightmare." The President was deeply troubled. Securing Halam Ghumani was supposed to be the highlight of her resume. Bringing him to America for trial should have been proof that her policies were superior. But it had all backfired.
Seated in a wheelchair, Captain Adams was mobile enough to make the rounds. With an antibiotic drip dangling from one steel IV pole and pain meds hanging from another, he rolled from bed to bed in the Ronald Reagan’s onboard hospital. It did him good.
Kyle was asleep and Isaac was in surgery, so his first visit was with Cole Sumner. The Major explained how the pilots had jumped for their lives, only to lose them in midair to an enemy they never even saw. It was cathartic. The two men quietly cursed the lack of air support that made the tragedy possible, then praised the heroism of the Cobra crews who had risked death to bring their fallen comrades home. With some prodding, Sumner related his story of personal agony as he dragged himself to safety, hiding from the pursuing Muslim militants.
Down the hall, Adams knocked on Major Seraph’s door, rolling in next to the Israeli’s bed. They compared broken bones and body piercings. Yacob won.
"In a couple weeks, after you’ve had a chance to heal," the optimistic one said, "can I come visit?"
Yacob grinned broadly. "My home is your home, sir."
"I need to learn more about this ‘family feud,’ as you call it, and figure out what the deal is with Islam."
"Sure, Cap. We all need to bone out on this."
Yacob’s errant Americanisms were becoming legendary. Thor was having a hard time keeping a straight face. "You mean ‘bone up?’"
"Yes. Study. Punch the books."
"Right," Adams laughed. "Last time I read the Qur’an, I was amazed at how often Allah slimed the ‘People of the Book,’ your book. It’s like Allah - or maybe Muhammad - had an inferiority complex."
"Nothing’s changed, sir."
The ride home was considerably more comfortable than had been their cramped journey into hell. The Air Force had arranged for G-5s, as they’re called by civilians, to fly each country’s team home from an airbase in Bombay. These Gulfstream jets were second only to the Global Express in providing first class international travel to politicos, corporate bigwigs, and top military brass. At forty million dollars a copy and an operating cost of over five thousand dollars per hour, they weren’t normally used to ferry lieutenants, majors, and captains. But these men were no longer ordinary. This was a flight of heroes.
The four Americans seemed unimpressed with their cushy in-flight surroundings. After a hot meal, a cold beer, and a few minutes of curiously pushing buttons, they fell asleep. The flight attendant, a pretty Air Force Private, fussed all over the bruised gladiators. But the men were oblivious.
The sleek powder-blue mini Air Force One set down in Great Britain for fuel. It was nearing two o’clock in the afternoon. They were halfway home. As they taxied to the ramp, the Americans were surprised to see a great crowd. The British contingent of Team Uniform was enjoying a warm welcome.
Their British friends wanted the Americans to take a bow, give a speech, accept their gratitude. All Thor and team wanted to do was take a pee. Forget adulation. As great as the beer had tasted, it was now a liability.
There was a head on the luxurious jet, of course, but it was too small for men in casts to successfully navigate. With shattered feet, shot up and broken limbs, pierced wrists, and more bandages than King Tut, they were unable to stand up on their own, much less negotiate the narrow passage. Back in Afghanistan, desperation and adrenaline had enabled them to carry on, to do their duty. Now there was only pain.
In a way, their frustration was indicative of how their lives would be for the foreseeable future. The men had so little left to give. They wanted to pull the sheets up over their heads and sleep for a month. Yet an adoring public wanted to put them on a pedestal.
The captain of the G-5 solved the first problem in a practical but somewhat less than elegant manner. He loaned Thor his "Range Extender," an emergency device he, like many pilots, carried under his seat. The red plastic container with a two-inch opening, white screw-on lid, and handle would hold about a quart of fluid waste. With an embarrassed smile, Thor capped it and handed the golden fluid to the hostess, who flushed it down the onboard head. Without comment she handed the life-saving device to the next man in line.
"You’re gonna have to pass on Stanley," Thor told the Private. "It’s not big enough. Why don’t you give it to Sumner."
"Hey, I represent that statement." Kyle pretended to be indignant.
"You shouldn’t. I didn’t say what wasn’t big enough."
"Somebody’s had a little too much morphine," Kyle chided his pal.
After a good laugh, the less-than-ambulatory men relieved themselves, one after another. Now if they could only figure out how to get down the stairs and wave to the assembled throng....
"They’re on their way, Sarah. Took off from England an hour ago."
"Thanks, JT," she said, putting down her coffee. "How’d it go?"
Her assistant grinned. "Just like you said it would. Heathrow was a zoo. Four hundred thousand Brits waving the Union Jack and tying up traffic for miles around. Your counterpart at MI-6 told me that Team Uniform was, I think he phrased it, ‘warmly received’. You’ve gotta love British reserve. ’Course, he said the crowd went stark-raving nuts when your Captain Hunk peeked his head out of the airplane."
"I’d say he earned it, wouldn’t you?" Sarah ignored the innuendo.
"C’mon Sarah, face reality."
"He was talking about you. You’re his heartthrob."
"Please, JT. No way. You’ve read his file, remember? Thurston ‘Hunk’ Adams belongs to no woman. He doesn’t even phone his mother."
"You’re in denial, boss. Admit it. Look me in the eye and tell me you’re not going out to Reagan National like everybody else east of the Appalachians. You know you’re the one."
She grinned sheepishly, blushing ever so slightly. "Y’really think so?"
"Sarah, for an intelligence officer, you can be really dense. Didn’t you see the way he looked at you, the way he’d move his chair a couple of inches closer to yours at those pre-op briefings? I don’t know how you feel, but he’s got it bad."
She was really blushing now, but being too much of a lady to stammer, she said nothing.
"Look," JT carried on, "Barnes already said you could go. Heck, half the office has already left. So go. I’ll watch the store."
"Thanks. You’re the best." Sarah turned to leave, but her pal stood in her path, arms crossed, rubbing his chin.
"You’re not wearing that, are you?"
She looked down at herself. Tailored navy suit. The skirt reached her knees. Off-white blouse. Sensible shoes. In other words, invisible. "Okay. I may be dense, but I’m teachable. I’ll stop by my apartment and change. I’m sure I can find something that’ll make me stand out in a crowd of a million crazed hero worshipers."
It seemed like the perfect place. Partially crippled since 9-11-01, Reagan National was being readied to receive the most famous men in the world. Two of the three runways had been closed to make room for the enormous crowd. There were thousands of flags, large and small. Most every high school and college marching band within driving distance of Washington had piled into their buses and made the trek.
Americans in greater numbers than could be imagined were making a pilgrimage. Nothing had stirred the collective national spirit more than the images of sacrifice and heroism they had seen on their televisions.
Over the past three years, the airport had been throttled back. Each of its three runways intersected some place of national prominence. The approach to one-five was directly above the Pentagon. Less than a minute from the threshold of runway one-nine, directly under its extended centerline, was the White House. Not to be outdone, a straight-in approach to runway two-two was over the Capitol. To keep planes from violating the prohibited airspace above these national shrines, they were required to make unnervingly steep turns down low and on short final. But today, the powder-blue G-5 with United States of America painted on its fuselage could do loops and rolls over any of the three buildings and no one would care.
As Team Uniform approached, the bands played and the dignitaries found their places. As they had for the post-9/11 memorial at the National Cathedral, Members of Congress and White House staffers had boarded busses to attend the gala event. A giant grandstand had been erected for them. A special stage, draped with red, white, and blue bunting, was constructed with a ramp to accommodate the wounded men.
One would have expected to see a few uniforms since the airport was only a minute or two from the Pentagon. But every military contingent within three hundred miles of the nation’s capital had arrived in force. They were there in the tens of thousands: Navy, Marines, Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, and National Guard troops with their bands and color guards. It was an awesome spectacle.
And then there was the media. A quick scan of the surrounding area revealed more cameras, cables, spotlights, and satellite trucks than had ever been gathered for any event. It was like the Super Bowl, a Presidential Inauguration, and Lindbergh landing in Paris, all rolled into one.
As they crossed the Chesapeake Bay, the hostess offered Thor, Kyle, Bentley, and Cole an assortment of toiletries so they could freshen up - attempt to awaken from their drug-induced slumber. The G-5’s captain explained that they were headed for Reagan National, not Andrews, and that there might be a greeting committee.
Thor looked down out of the left side of the aircraft. While the crippled Washington Monument looked like he felt, the Capitol, the White House, and the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials looked beautiful with their gleaming white stone washed in the golden light of the late-day sun. As they turned toward the final approach to runway one-five, Thor began to wonder why the pilot hadn’t lowered the gear, extended the flaps, and finished his descent.
Peering out the window, it became obvious. The airport was covered with a sea of people. Millions of Americans appeared to be waving as the Gulfstream circled overhead, making the tarmac, from Thor’s vantage point, seem to writhe and shimmer.
"This is Blaine Edwards reporting from Reagan National Airport in the nation’s capitol. Flying overhead in the light-blue Air Force jet is the world’s most famous man, Captain Thor Adams. With him are the three American members of Team Uniform, Kyle Stanley, Bentley McCaile, and Cole Sumner. As you all know, Lieutenants Stanley and McCaile survived crucifixion at the hands of al-Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan while Major Sumner heroically eluded near-certain death in the disputed territories between India and Pakistan. Gentlemen," Edwards said standing in front of the camera, "welcome home."
The fighter escorts peeled off, and Blaine Edwards turned to look over his right shoulder as the roar of the G-5’s jet engines began to overwhelm the sounds of the battling bands. With the Lincoln Memorial gleaming in the background, the Air Force jet began its flair over the threshold. The giant turbines were brought back to idle, and the craft settled down gently, slowing to taxi speed.
A tug attached a boom to the front gear of the Gulfstream, and it was towed into position. The door was opened while the crowd held its collective breath. A lift, decked out in red, white, and blue, was brought up into position. With the help of the flight crew, Cole Sumner, the most ambulatory, emerged first. The crowd went wild.
"First out is Major Sumner," Blaine broadcast. "The images from his helmet cam thrust this story onto center stage. The nation, I dare say the whole world, will never forget his words as he told the pilots of the Sea Hawk helicopters to fly away and leave him there, surrounded by enemy troops." They weren’t troops, but it was more politically correct than calling them Muslim murderers.
Edwards looked back over his shoulder. "That’s Kyle Stanley, and yes, Bentley McCaile is right behind him. To look at them brings it all back. See how their feet are in casts; their wrists are bandaged." The camera zoomed in on the two Americans, showing the pain on their faces as they were placed in the wheelchairs.
"There he is...Captain Thurston Adams." No one heard what the FOX commentator said next. A million voices were raised in celebration.
The four overwhelmed heroes were carried to the stage on the aviation lift. The bands played the National Anthem and millions sang along. Even nature appeared to be celebrating. The sun seemed to salute as it sank below the western horizon. The high clouds gradually morphed from white to yellow, through pinkish orange to an intense patriotic red.
Under the lights, the guests of honor were rolled off the lift and onto the stage. The men were surprised to see the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Speaker of the House, and the Senate Majority and Minority leaders. The nation’s most popular vocalists were there, too. One after another they sang America’s treasured songs, culminating, as they had in the National Cathedral following the bombing of the Twin Towers, with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Once again, it was a call to war.
This time, however, unlike the 9/11 gala event at the National Cathedral, when the Islamic imam got up to read a prayer and passages from the Qur’an, someone had the good sense to shut off his mike. They recognized that asking an imam to say a prayer here was like asking Hitler to give the benediction for Auschwitz. Average citizens were coming to realize what their politicians missed: Allah was America’s enemy. Had Thor been able, he would have choked him.
Following the last eloquent prayer for peace, the President moved toward the rostrum. Someone scrambled to attach the Presidential Seal as one act finished and another began.
"My fellow Americans," the President bellowed. A chorus of boos drowned her out. "Thank you," she said, thinking she was being cheered.
The boos grew louder. The crowd waved their arms, signifying that they wanted her off the stage - out of their lives. Pacifists, it seemed, had gone out of style.
Undaunted, the President turned to her prepared speech. She stared directly into the teleprompter. "Join me in welcoming our men home." The audience nearly shouted her down. At this moment she would have given anything for an SFG suit, one that would make her invisible.
"I approved this mission because I wanted to show the world that we could solve our problems peaceably. My administration promised to bring the terrorists to trial and let justice take its course. I am proud to...." She had to pause. The audience was angry.
"I am proud to inform you tonight that...." Their boos stopped her again, drowning out her amplified voice. "...that we have Halam Ghumani in custody and will force him to stand trial for his crimes."
She wasn’t finished, but no one was interested in listening to her. Flustered, she turned in disgust and sat down. That created a problem, for the President was scheduled to introduce Team Uniform.
Recognizing the dilemma, General Hasler walked up the inclined ramp and onto the stage. He shook the men’s hands as he walked by. Reaching the rostrum, he began: "We are here to honor four brave Americans."
The crowd went berserk. It was hard to tell if the audience was celebrating the fact they had forced the unpopular President to sit down, or if they just wanted to let their wounded know they were appreciated.
One at a time, the four warriors were wheeled up front. They were given a mike and asked to say a few words. Bentley began. "I thank God we are back home. Back with you. This is so much more than we...." The celebrants cheered, drowning out McCaile’s words. Unable to compete, he concluded by saying, "There’s a terrible evil lurking in the world. America, we have a problem."
The enormous crowd burst into another ovation. They wanted their voice heard, their will understood. They didn’t want to deliberate; the verdict had already been rendered. They craved revenge.
Kyle Stanley was next. "It’s great to be an American - great to have all of us united against this enemy. It helps to make what we endured somehow worth the pain." Even in his wheelchair, Stanley was an imposing figure. He thrilled the crowd. "Our pilots died serving you, serving a nation that now must serve the world by cleansing it of a horrible disease. Neither terrorists, nor the regimes that encourage them, should be allowed to live. For if they live, we die."
The audience applauded wildly. America’s mood had come full circle.
Cole Sumner shared similar insights. The multitude was equally gracious. But as he concluded, a giant swell of energy swept through the audience. The applause became rhythmic as the drums played percussion.
"Thor. Thor. Thor," they chanted.
Adams swung his injured leg off the wheelchair and struggled to his feet, leaning against the armrest and using his left arm to prop himself up. He stood on his strong leg and limped with the help of General Hasler to the rostrum. It was shades of Roosevelt though the Captain looked more like Kennedy. Everyone was mesmerized. Even the White House staffer responsible for removing the Presidential Seal from the rostrum was frozen in the moment. "If I get out of line and say more than I should, General, blame it on the pain medication, okay?"
Hasler looked Thor in the eyes. "Give ’em both barrels, son."
With that endorsement, Captain Thurston Adams turned to address the crowd. "It is good that we honor our fighting men," he began. "The world is full of evil, and our enemies would like nothing more than to break our spirit, crush our economy, and steal our freedoms. But we must not let them. To protect these things, to endure as a great nation, we must not flinch. I realize that there will be a cost - and that the price is high. But freedom is worth any sacrifice. The pilots of the downed Sea Hawk, Steve Wesson and David Smith, paid the ultimate price."
The crowd hung on every word.
"You have seen the spirit and courage of the men who comprised Team Uniform: the Americans - Kyle Stanley, Cole Sumner, Bentley McCaile; the Brits - Blake Huston, Lad Childress, Ryan Sullivan, and Cliff Powers; and the Israelis - Isaac Newcomb, Yacob Seraph, Moshe Keceph, and Joshua Abrams. In honoring them, we honor America, Great Britain, and Israel - the world’s proudest democracies."
The ovations that followed the mention of these now-legendary names were genuine and heartfelt. Aside from the President, who felt more slighted than proud, there wasn’t a dry eye among the million in attendance, nor among the hundreds of millions glued to their televisions.
Adams had purposely presented his men without rank. There had been no real hierarchy on the mission, and there would be none now that they were home. Courage knew no rank.
"Do not forget the men who brought us into and out of harm’s way. They risked everything in service to you, to all Americans. I especially want to thank the HALO jumpers. Without their bravery and skill, none of us would have made it through the night." The ovations were so great that Adams found himself bracing his wounded frame against the incessant roar. The waves of adoration seemed like they might blow him off the stage.
"America, we have a terrible enemy, one who has us directly in their sights. This enemy is, by any definition, evil. We must come to understand them, for they are a clear and present danger." Adams scanned the crowd, looking for a familiar face. "We will not, we cannot, prevail against this foe by attacking the wrong enemy or by fighting a limited war, for they recognize no limits. There is no end to the terror they are willing to inflict. From what I can tell, we have not fought them wisely or well. All we have done, I’m afraid, is create martyrs, increase their numbers, and strengthen their resolve."
Having unloaded one barrel, the Captain discharged the other. "We have witnessed the utter failure of homeland security. All we have done is handicap our citizens and burden our economy. I believe this battle must be taken to the enemy, not fought here at home." The crowd was overjoyed. "We have witnessed the failure of a politically correct war built upon international alliances and hopeful compromises. There was no cessation of terror. I have learned...."
The roar of millions literally took his breath away. He wanted to raise his hand as he had seen others do to quiet the assembly, but he didn’t have one to give. His right was strapped to his side. His left was holding him up as he leaned against the rostrum.
He tried again. "I have learned that this enemy knows no honor. Based upon the lies they promulgate, their pledges are worthless. We must save our breath and our noble ideals for reasonable people, for those who are capable of living peaceably in a civilized world. In my judgment, nothing will dissuade Muslim militancy other than a fierce determination and a steely resolve. Harsh words will not cause them to repudiate terror. They will cower only at the point of a sword."
Thor knew he had grossly overstepped his bounds, but thought that this might be his only chance to speak his mind. Even if he were relieved from duty, it was worth the risk. The sacrifice others had made to bring him to this place deserved no less.
However, the world interpreted these words as a one-man declaration of war. They knew that Thurston Adams was just a captain, unable to set American policy. Yet at this moment, it was the President who was incapacitated; the Captain was standing tall.
"I pledge to learn about this enemy, to discover what vile doctrine drives them crazy, and somehow I will find a way to end their reign of terror. Give me time..." the Captain said, swept along by the exuberance of the multitude, "and I will...."
Suddenly, he saw her. Thor’s repeated scan of the crowd had found the one face, the one smile, that had carried him through it all, to hell and back. A million faces, but there she was.
"Sarah!" he shouted out. "Sarah!"
Nottingly raised her hand, signaling the Captain to forget about her for the moment and finish his speech. Then she smiled and winked, telling him without words that she would be at his side when he was done.
Adams turned back to the crowd. "Please excuse my lapse; it’s just so good to be home." They went wild.
"Give me time, and I will learn about this enemy, understand their history, their beliefs, and their motives, and their means. And I promise, I will find a strategy to thwart them. For the sake of those who have died, for the sake of the families who have suffered, I will find an answer!"
These were not the words of a mere captain. They sounded altogether presidential, or at least like the words of a serious candidate. But no one resented him for saying them. America knew he had earned the right. They wanted him to succeed. They needed to know why. These challenges were as important as any in human history. The world’s fate literally hung in the balance.
Then, in words that surprised even him, Thor Adams lifted his good arm, waved to the crowd, and shouted, "God bless America!"
With that the bands struck up an uncoordinated but somehow beautiful medley of patriotic songs. Millions stood proudly, placed their hands over their hearts and sang along. But Adams didn’t hear them. He was again searching for Sarah. She was no longer standing where he had last seen her. His heart sank.
Nottingly, however, was on her way. After telling the military guards around the stage that she was Sarah, the Sarah, they let her through. The fact that she had a top security clearance and a badge that proclaimed her status as a CIA bureau chief didn’t matter. She was Sarah.
Wearing an electric-blue dress with a red and white scarf, she was more than beautiful. As she leaped toward the center of the stage, the Captain let go of the rostrum. He would have fallen had she not caught him, wrapping her arms around him. As he leaned against her, as she held him, time stood still. It was as if they were alone, just the two of them. Sure, the whole world was watching. So what?
Captain Thor Adams, Academy grad, fighter pilot, and Navy SEAL, had never felt better. He knew it now. He was falling in love.
General Hasler moved back to the rostrum, smiling broadly. More had been done to strengthen America’s military during the last five minutes than had been accomplished in all the years since Ronald Reagan had led the nation back from its malaise. The military the President wanted so desperately to dismantle now had a gargantuan advocate.
"My fellow Americans, it gives me great pleasure to introduce our newest, bravest, and most famous Admiral. The Chairman’s voice boomed. "Rear Admiral Thurston Adams." Congress, eager to align themselves with the hero, had quickly approved his appointment.
The Captain heard his name, but being in Sarah’s arms was making his head swim. It was all a blur.
"Captain, I mean Admiral," Sarah whispered in Thor’s ear. "You’ve just been promoted." She helped him turn around.
The General reached out and handed Thor Adams his Admiral’s stripes. Nothing could have pleased the crowd more.
To an inspiring medley of patriotic songs, a grateful nation celebrated by launching more fireworks than anyone could remember. Sarah stood at Thor’s side and looked skyward. Their arms were touching as they pondered their fate.
"Would you consider having dinner with me tonight, Sarah?" The newly minted Admiral asked.
She smiled. "Are you asking me out on a date, or is this a debriefing?"
"Would you come if it were a date?" He was more nervous now than he had been stalking terrorists.
"Do you always answer a question with a question?" she teased. "I suppose you’ll have to muster the courage to ask, Admiral."
"You’re not making this easy."
"Good. You’ve probably filled your quota of women who fit that description." Her expression was flirtatious enough to encourage him on.
Just then a spectacular series of fireworks exploded overhead. Thor felt the percussions permeate his body. "Beautiful," he said. He let Sarah think he was talking about the fireworks. "It’s a date. I’m asking you out on a date. Will you join me for dinner this evening?"
"Yes." She reached for his hand and squeezed it.
As if coordinated by heaven above, the grand finale burst into the night sky. Washington was all aglow. So was Thor.
Omen Quagmer and Kahn Haqqani were not amused. They watched the proceedings in Washington with disdain.
"The infidels must pay for this travesty." Kahn’s fist was clenched.
Their surprise party had backfired. Terror had driven the Americans to the brink of capitulation, but al-Qaeda’s cruelty had now precipitated an about face. The terrorists had won so much of what they had sought, only to see their gains evaporate. Allah’s advice on crucifixion hadn’t worked out as they had expected.
Of course, what the President had wanted to give them wouldn’t have been good enough. It never is with people this insecure. A concession is only as good as a drug addict’s latest fix. If there were no infidels in Arabia, if all of Palestine were conceded, even if every Jew were slaughtered, they wouldn’t be satisfied. If every foe on earth were conquered and every coveted treasure plundered, it still wouldn’t be enough.
Omen turned and spoke to Aymen Halaweh. "I want you to go to America, Aymen. The blowers I have told you about are too small. Operating inside the air-conditioning systems of buildings is good but not nearly good enough. Not now."
"What would you like, sir?" the Palestinian engineer asked.
"I want blowers large enough to infect entire cities."
Kahn’s eyes lit up. "We could carry them on helicopters or fly them strapped to the bellies of airplanes. We could spray millions of people."
"I don’t think it’s possible. Something that large would destroy the aerodynamics," Aymen explained. "And it would be entirely too heavy for a helicopter."
"We did not bring you here to tell us what we cannot do, Halaweh." Kahn spoke as if he had paid for his education.
"Yes, sir. If Allah wills it, I will find a way."
"It is Allah’s will; of that I’m certain," Kahn replied.
Omen nodded. "Now, before you leave, lets get Anwar Abu on the line." It took less than a minute.
"I want you to stop making the small blowers, Abu. You have six complete, right?"
"Yes. I have components to build thirty more," Anwar answered.
"Has Bravo 3 delivered the ingredients?"
"We have more than enough for the first six blowers. The powder is of excellent quality."
"Then you can expect Echo 3 within two days. Give them the blowers and the spores, excuse me, ingredients."
Omen seldom slipped like that. There was no way of knowing when a phone call would be intercepted by the NSA. He was angry at himself. So much was at stake.
Their hosts, the Iraqis, hated America as much as they hated Jews. And they were all too eager to reward those who killed them. But they also hated being embarrassed. With the aftermath of the crucifixions, al-Qaeda had done just that.
"I will arrange for another visit, Anwar. This one from Charlie 4. The contribution will be considerable. I want twelve, no, thirty-six giant blowers, big enough to condition great cities."
"That may take some time, sir. Just how big do you want these?"
"I want them so big that two or three will be large enough to condition places the size of Los Angeles and Chicago...America’s greatest cities, that’s how big, Abu. I am sending you a helper, an MIT-trained engineer. Make it happen."
"I will pray to Allah for understanding."
"Susan, I have never been so embarrassed. We’ve got to stop this."
"The country’s smitten with Admiral Adams, ma’am. I don’t know how to stop the rising tide. People want war."
"We must regain control, get our agenda back on track.
The President and her Secretary of Defense were in the White House. They were eating in the Officer’s Mess, downstairs in the basement near the OEOB. The Old Executive Office Building is the ugly five-story structure just west of the White House, the one that looks so out of character with the rest of the city.
The dining room was deserted. Most feared the President’s legendary temper, and they knew she would be on the warpath. Ironically, the two were eating in the Officers’ Mess because misery loves company.
"We need to schedule a news conference." Susan Ditroe was Secretary of Defense, not Chief of Staff, but at the moment she appeared to be the President’s only ally, the only one whose personal agenda still meshed with the boss’. "America needs to know that you’re in control. Even if the people aren’t supportive, you know the press will be."
"Who can we count on to help us?" the President asked between bites of her Greek salad.
"How ’bout Katie Couric on the Today Show? She loves you."
"Sure. We could start off the day shaping the news. ’Course, what if they’ve already asked Adams to be on their program? Y’know they will."
"Couric is one of us. She’ll bump Adams even if it impacts ratings. I’ll call her when we’re finished."
"What am I going to say, Susan?"
"Stick to your guns. Tell them we can put an end to this whole sorry mess by placing Jerusalem under the auspices of the United Nations. It should be a peaceful and holy city, safe for the entire world. Who could be against that?" the Secretary asked.
"I suppose I can give lip service to Team...what did they call it?"
"Team Uniform, ma’am."
"Yes. I’ll tell everybody how grateful we are that they screwed up their mission and became a thorn in our sides. Then we’ll talk of investing in a more peaceful world, like we did on the campaign. Maybe it’ll still work."
Susan put down her fork, turned to the waiter, and ordered dessert. Crafting the President’s message wasn’t going to be easy.
"How about the Capitol Grill?"
Sarah was driving. The restaurant wasn’t her favorite, but she figured Thor would like it. They served red meat in every cut, size, and description. Actually, she didn’t have a clue what he liked, other than her. She was just guessing.
"Considering my condition, I’m going wherever you’re going."
Sarah pulled her car up front. A valet opened her door. "You’re that girl. You’re Sarah!" he said loud enough to draw a small crowd.
"’Fraid so," she smiled, as she handed the valet the keys. "I could use a hand." She gestured toward her passenger.
"Admiral Adams! It’s such an honor, sir." He helped the disabled warrior extract himself from the confines of Sarah’s car. It wasn’t easy. She had a hot set of wheels, a Jaguar convertible, an XK-8 roadster. The seats were low and snug, barely big enough for the muscular SEAL. Light blue, it matched her eyes.
The Maitre ’d stepped outside. "Admiral!" he exclaimed as he rushed to Thor’s side. "It’s such a privilege to have you here." Sarah was all but brushed out of the way. She hoped this wasn’t the beginning of a trend.
"Thank you," he answered, a little embarrassed. Adams looked over at his date, who was now following a couple of steps behind. He liked leaning on her better.
"We don’t have a reservation, but...."
"My restaurant is your restaurant. Please, just one moment. I will prepare my best table. Your dinner will be on the house, sir." He scurried off to the back corner of his elegant establishment.
A party of four was enjoying prime rib and New York strip when the Maitre’d arrived at their table all excited. "Excuse me, Mr. LaTourrette. Admiral Thurston Adams is here tonight, unexpectedly. You could do me a great favor, I mean, I’d like to give him...."
"Yes, your best table. Absolutely!" the gracious patron said as he stood, placing his napkin on the tablecloth.
"Where would you like us to move, Jacques?"
Just that quickly, the back corner booth was reset, and the Admiral and the Agent were escorted to the restaurant’s most intimate setting. Along the route, they were heralded with a chorus of greetings: "We love you," "Thank you, sir," and "God bless you."
For Adams this was quite a change. He had gone from being shot at to being a national treasure over the last three days. While he would have liked a little more privacy, he was grateful in a way for his new celebrity. In all the commotion, he had forgotten his wallet.
"You sure know how to impress a girl, Admiral," Sarah said.
"Oh, don’t be too impressed. Soon enough they’ll forget all about me. I’ll be the same old guy you gave your briefs to."
"Not likely. I don’t wear briefs," she teased.
Oh dear god, what have I gotten myself into? he thought, but said, "Sarah, I’m glad you said yes. I thought a lot about you. The blacker things got, the more I remembered your smile, your kind words." He wanted to say "your kiss," but he didn’t have the courage. Sarah was different from every woman he’d ever met - or least his reaction to her was. Sometime during the countless hours they had worked together preparing the mission, he had been ambushed by Cupid.
So had she.
"I’ve been praying for you ever since you left." It wasn’t the most romantic response. "If you didn’t get back soon, I was going to have calluses on my knees."
"So you’re a Christian?" Thor asked. "I thought you might be."
"Yes, are you?" Sarah’s voice must have raised two octaves. She was encouraged by the question. She had prayed for his safety and his soul.
"No. I’ll bet that saddens you. I’m an agnostic."
She tried to hide her disappointment.
"But I’m curious," he added with a disarming grin.
"Fair enough, Admiral. I’ll take that as a challenge."
Adams nodded. "Well, if that’s what makes you so...well, you, then I’d like to know more. After what I’ve seen in the last few days, I’m as open minded as I’ll ever be." He smiled at her. "But only if you promise to call me Thor, not ‘Admiral’."
"Okay, Thor." She reached her hand out across the table.
Adams looked down, then back into Sarah’s vibrant blue eyes. His left arm felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. He was petrified. She was so beautiful, so inviting, he almost melted into the booth as he gathered the courage to touch her fingers. Some hero. She slid her hand closer, placing it on top of his. He parted his fingers and she let her glossy red nails fall between the gaps. There was enough electricity to light the room.
Thor had known scores of women, but falling in love was new territory. He felt like a teenager on his first date, and like an adult who’d been around the block, all the same time. This wasn’t a game. Sarah wasn’t a conquest. Thor didn’t quite know what to do. His skin tingled. His face was flushed. He was short of breath. Nothing hurt anymore.
"Are you feeling what I’m feeling, Sarah?" he asked, a bit bewildered.
"It is kind of warm in here."
She owned him. Thor just stared. "You are so beautiful." There must be a God, Thor thought. I’m in heaven.
"Thanks sailor, but I’ve read your file. It says your eyesight isn’t very good." Sarah was smitten, but cool.
"There’s nothing wrong with my sense of touch," he responded, caressing the inside of her palm with his thumb.
Sarah wasn’t crazy about the line. She cleared her throat, pulled her hand back, and shot him a look. This left Adams’ hand alone on the table. "Sorry, Admiral. That ain’t gonna happen. Not with this girl."
"Do you have a boyfriend?" he asked, wanting to change the subject.
"No, do you?" she smiled.
Thor relaxed. He had recovered. "I’ll never tell."
The Clinton Administration’s ridiculous "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy had been a running gag for years. Sarah played along. "I’m told you have a girl in every port."
"That was in another life," Thor answered. "I was young and foolish when I was young enough to be foolish."
"Oh, so you’re a changed man?" she inquired.
"Yeah. There’s nothing like watching your buddies get crucified to shift your priorities."
Sarah reached out for his hand again. She felt like a fool. He was a different man. Nothing would ever be the same. Once again her fingers interlaced his. This time she rubbed his palm with her thumb.
"My comment was insensitive. I’m sorry. I just don’t want to be this week’s conquest, that’s all. You’re going to have women throwing themselves at you. I can’t compete against that."
Thor knew she was right. If he wanted to, he could bed a new girl every night. They would be standing in line. But he didn’t want them, not now.
"I’ve been with my share of women. There’s no denying that. But it’s overrated, really."
"You just haven’t been with the right girl." She placed her left hand on top of his. "I may not be an expert like you, but...." I’m plenty flirtatious, she finished the sentence with her eyes.
Thor’s whole world disappeared into her shimmering crystal blues. He studied her face. He looked at her hair, her lips, her neck. There was more woman looking back at him than he could hope to explore in a lifetime. God, if you’re there, please don’t let me screw this up.
"You didn’t answer either of my questions," she said, breaking the silence. "That’s not fair. I answered yours."
"No girlfriends, certainly no boyfriends." He laughed.
Adams sat up a little straighter. "But this week’s conquest? I like the sound of that, and hopefully next week’s, and the week after that...."
"Wow. A three week stand with the most admired man in the world. That’s quite an honor."
"Okay, I deserved that. But I can do better."
She lifted her left hand and used the polished red nail of her index finger to draw circles on the back of his. "I’m listening," she said with a smile that would have melted all the snow in Afghanistan.
He wasn’t very good at this sort of thing. If he said too little now, he feared, she would view him as shallow and insincere and walk out of his life. If he inferred too much, if he came on too strong, she might get scared and run.
He took a deep breath. Sarah looked like a goddess in the soft light. Thor knew he was in trouble. His stomach was full of butterflies.
"I surrender," he said.
She looked quizzically at him. Surrender to what, to whom? Why was the toughest, most heroic man in the world surrendering? "I don’t understand. What do you mean, surrender?"
"I...I like you. You’re different. I want to get to know you. With other women it’s been a game, a contest. Not with you." He paused for a moment and summoned some courage. "I want to figure out what makes you, well, you. So between now and the time you’ve had your fill of me, I’m yours." He looked up, hopeful.
Sarah shifted in her seat, flustered and a little confused. She didn’t really know him, although she wanted to. Sure, there was a spark, but that was only natural. He was movie-star handsome. He was a naval officer - an admiral no less, strong, intelligent, and famous. But there was more, she sensed. Any woman on the planet would have loved to be in her shoes.
"Sarah, I’m sorry. Did I offend you? You seem to have gone away."
"No! I...ah...I’ve never had a man, you know, surrender before." It was Sarah who was blushing now. "I don’t quite know what to say." She lifted her hand and covered her cheek. Yes, it’s definitely warm in here.