“I know terror,” Reinhardt paused waiting for complete silence before starting again. “I know terror first hand. I know terror from the ground and from the air, and I know that we must never let this madness take root here. We must forever guard our future against those who wish, fervently, to destroy everything that is good and great about this nation, be they home grown anarchists or foreign agents, be they right-wing sunshine patriots unwilling to accept this great country is changing its hues and colors, or from the left bent on redistributing wealth and property underlying our economy through their charity with the money and sweat of others. I will never let that happen, not on my watch, not ever!”
Next he carefully laid out the timeline of terror from the first bombings of our embassies in Africa to that fateful day when the Pentagon and the World Trade towers were bombed. He didn’t mince words laying blame on both parties for failing to act or for making the problem worse. No one could say that Helmut Reinhardt, the highest-ranking military officer and also the most decorated soldier in the history of the American Republic, waffled. He explained how even taking down Omar Ibrahim, the founder of Al Qaeda, did not stop others from seeking our blood and treasure. He knew firsthand how our actions over the past twenty years in the Middle East had sown the seeds of terror not just in that region but in every part of the developed and developing world. As he spoke, he thought of Ali Hassan, his old comrade from his days in Afghanistan in the 1980’s, was likely the secret face of Al Qaeda, far more dangerous than Omar Ibrahim had ever been because he blended in, he was accepted, a rich man using terrorism like play dough to enrich him and make him more powerful.
“Broad oceans no longer protect us from home grown terrorists or foreign saboteurs bent on the destruction of our very way of life. So, my friends, this old soldier will soon retire from the uniform, but not from the fight. I will not stop working to protect the American people from politicians who willingly open our doors by letting down our guard.” Reinhardt paused, looked squarely at the huge American flag hanging at the back of the Mayflower ballroom, placed his hand over his heart, and added. “God bless you all, and God bless the United States of America.”
He watched as the room erupted into applause. Once the cheering subsided, the General saluted the American flag that hung from the second floor balcony on the far side of the large room, turned crisply, and marched off the stage.
“How do you think it went?” He asked his aide, a full colonel, who carried the portable computer that tied directly into the National Military Command Center computers and served as a secure communications device from nearly anywhere in the world.
“You’re a natural politician General,” he said, then showed him the text message that had come while he was speaking.
“Seems,” he said with a kind of ironic smile, “I’m making even Winthrop nervous, and that takes something to do.”
“Some people, General, believe you’re planning a coup.”
They both laughed.
Hollis Winthrop’s secretary waved Reinhardt through to the Secretary’s office. Compared to Reinhardt’s office, buried deep in the JCS area, the office of the Secretary of Defense was huge. Winthrop was a caretaker. He’s moved up from Deputy when the Secretary of Defense had departed three months before the end of President Kings tumultuous term in office.
“You’re making quite a name for yourself General,” the Acting Secretary of Defense said with a chuckle.
“I’ll be gone soon enough Hollis.”
“If their campaign promises can be believed, this building will be turned into the VA hospital it was designed to be after the last Great War to end all wars. Appointing Judith Wilson has a lot of people looking for jobs.” Winthrop, a nominal Republican appointed by King at the recommendation of one of his donors said with a smile. He’d heard only complaints from anyone with a stake in the overpriced weapons systems from the F-35 to the ill-fated Army Fast Deployment flying carpet the M13 Ground Hugger.
“No doubt” Reinhardt had seen the look of fear on the faces of even senior military officers who were close to retirement. If Wilson could be believed she would enforce the conflict of interest rules that were mostly ignored, making it hard for these old warriors to get rich on consulting contracts once they retired.
“You have plans for when you retire?”
“Consulting, lecturing, and speaking out. It’s not money that I want,” Reinhardt left the rest unsaid knowing that Winthrop was well aware of his Presidential ambitions, “besides my mother left me a rather obscene amount of money when she died.”
“The Senate?” Winthrop asked.
“Takes too long to get ahead there, I’m thinking of something a bit higher.”
“You think the Party would turn to you Helmut?”
“Unlike some of the people they have turned to project “strength” I at least know when it can and when it shouldn’t be used.” He had lived through the years of the King administration working hard to stop him from doing anything stupid, crazy, and in his own mind, preparing to remove him from office before he started a nuclear war that would have left millions dead from Korea to Japan to the United States mainland. “Still,” he mused, “ if there were a crisis, say a terrorist attack with a suitcase nuke, then I think I’d win in a heartbeat. Also Kirsten Anderson will have her hands full just trying to get this country moving again after the October collapse given that the cookie jar has been cleaned out by the last Republican tax bill. So there’s a real chance and God knows I’m no racist, but the far right wackos love me anyway despite my known belief that we need to close the racial and economic divide on this country.”
Hollis Winthrop had known Helmut Reinhardt for more than twenty years. The General could be charming, and yet, there was something else about the man that made him uneasy too. Reinhardt’s route to the Chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had been quite unconventional for an Air Force officer. He’d gone from the Academy where he graduated near first in the class, to flight school before the end of the Vietnam War, and then taken the special operations course in the jungles of Panama and a dangerous forward air controller job during the last year’s of the war flying missions deep into enemy held territory as a forward air controller. He’d been dropped behind the fast changing lines during the last days of the war and called in air strikes to give the retreat from Saigon more time, and for that work he’d earned a Silver Star for bravery, the first of so many medals and commendations that many were left out of the numerous biographies and stories printed about him. Within thirty years of leaving the Academy, he’d reached the rank of Major General when most officers were lucky to have made Colonel. The rest of his career, Hollis knew, was the stuff of legends.
That was the official story. There was also a classified biography involving his four years running guns to the Afghan mujahedeen fighting the Soviets. He’d have to bury that deep if he wished to become President given the tendency of the American public to see conspiracies everywhere.
“Do you still see that reporter,” Winthrop asked thinking about the two best sellers that had made Reinhardt into a household name. The two deep penetration missions, one along the Pakistani-Afghan border in 2006 and the other about two years later near the end of the Iraqi war where he’d rescued a company of support troops that had strayed across the Iranian border, had earned him two Medals of Honor, a unique accomplishment especially as he was by then already a General officer and Generals rarely were placed in the kind of dangerous situations that Helmut Reinhardt craved.
“Teddy Rothstein? We had a falling out over that last article he wrote. He’s become a bit too critical of me for my taste.”
“After you made his career?”
“Yes, but that’s the nature of this business, isn’t it Hollis? Can’t always trust your friends, but you sure as hell can know your enemies will be coming after you.”
Winthrop was about to dismiss Reinhardt when he remembered the rings. It was one more loose end he wanted to clean up before the new team took office.
“NorthStar” Hollis asked. “Mean anything to you General?”
“NorthStar was my Waterloo, Hollis, a failure through and through,” Reinhardt explained with a sigh, “wasted about $ 13 billion in taxpayers’ dollars, all black money from over budgeting on purpose some of the new equipment.”
“What was it intended to do?” Winthrop asked, surprised by the answer. He’d earlier tried to find references to it in highly classified project files on “black program”, but without success. It was like it had completely disappeared. He’d had the search go back all the way to 2001 without finding any reference to it, and yet there were the rings and the note saying these were part of NorthStar command and control.
“It was a blue sky project to develop a satellite system to intercept cell phone transmissions. We tested the concept with one satellite in Polar orbit. If that worked, then others would be launched to supplement the system. Aside from the orbit being flawed, the equipment failed to perform as promised. When the satellite’s orbit proved unstable, we blew it up. We also blew up the paper trail on the project.”
“You spent thirteen billion dollars without Congressional oversight?” Hollis asked incredulously.
“Don’t look so damn surprised,” Reinhardt answered angrily. “You’ve worked here long enough to know how easy it is to spend that kind of money. Secretary Forrestal, you know Forest’s obsession with using near space orbit to our advantage, you know the guy who added the phrase ‘there are known knowns and unknown unknowns’ to our military vocabulary, well,” Reinhardt paused remembering the conversation well, “set me the tasking first day he took office. He and his Deputy Secretary Kramer had been thinking about how hard it was to get a good fix on cell phones in remote areas for intercepts by NSA, then after 9/11, they decided to make it happen. We had the first bird launched by 2004. We tried to use off the shelf technology, but it didn’t do the job. We killed everything once the orbit became unstable and electronic intercepts without a precise known orbit turned out to be worthless to the NSA. Before Toure took office, the lone NorthStar satellite’s orbit degraded so much it burned up in the atmosphere. So we buried the record deep so no ninny from the Congress could find know what the project was about. Honestly Hollis,” Reinhardt said with a chuckle, “its best forgotten.”
“What’s this?” Winthrop slid a small box across the desk. Across the top there was a picture of a star hanging over a globe and printed underneath the words ‘NorthStar’ in gold letters.
Reinhardt opened it carefully. Inside were two rings that looked like simple gold wedding bands.
“Souvenirs of the project,” Reinhardt said closing the box. “Mind if I keep this Hollis? I lost mine a few years back.”
“Sure, keep them. We were going to throw them out, but I had a hunch that you knew what Project NorthStar was all about.”
Reinhardt slipped the case into his jacket pocket.
He left Winthrop’s office feeling pleased. Getting the rings back had been high on his agenda before he left, he’d suspected that they had been somewhere in the Secretary’s office. Having them given to him so easily made him believe more strongly in the wisdom of his plan. Added to his own ring from the project and the one that the prior Chairman of the JCS had given him on retirement meant that he had four of the nine rings needed to make NorthStar operational.
It was a short walk to the JCS area that filled nearly one fifth of the building, starting on the second floor and going down through three or more sub-basements. At the very bottom, the National Military Command Center was located. It was hardened to, in theory; withstand all but a direct hit on the building. Deep inside the NMCC was the Tank, where the Joint Chiefs of Staff often met to discuss strategy and budgets. It was a small, tiered room, in which the four service branch chiefs and the Chairman could sit facing one another and hammer out policy.
Reinhardt opened the door to his office. His personal assistant, a young Lieutenant, fresh out of the Academy, had been fielding questions for the past hour from angry four stars waiting for Reinhardt in the JCS conference room, six floors below deep inside the National Military Command Center.
“You know how General Franks gets when you fail to show up for an Army briefing?”
“Who cares how General Franks gets, Mira? I was with Winthrop. Not surprisingly, he had a problem with my speech two days ago. Wait until he reads the transcript of this morning’s speech.”
“They’re waiting for you downstairs, General” Mira reminded him gently.
“Let them stew. Franks will argue for more money in the January budget. But it won’t make a difference, since the budgets dead on arrival. Twelve months of wasted effort. Judith Wilson will cut the goodies, including that stupid, rapid-mobility hovercraft that Franks has been pushing.” He paused and offered her one of his million dollar smiles.
“Okay, General, what should I tell them?” Mira asked. “Are you going down or not?”
“What, Mira love,” Reinhardt kicked the door shut, “if we simply went to lunch, and after lunch we retreated to my place and screwed?”
Mira blushed, and then opened the communications channel to the JCS meeting five stories under the Chairman’s office in the command post. The flat panel closed circuit TV along one wall showed General Franks, the Army Chief of Staff, standing ramrod straight in front of a podium.
“Helmut here, Bob,” Reinhardt said into the camera on his desk. He studied the on the other screen in his office. It showed the equipment levels projected for major commands by type for the next five years. As he did so, he motioned for Mira to come closer, pointing to his lap, while turning off the video feed from his office to the conference room. She chose a part of his large desk empty of papers and leaned back against it so she could see the the huge television monitor on the far wall of the office. She’d made that mistake with Reinhardt once too often.
“I think you’ll have to cut the M13 Ground Hugger program again.”
“Helmut if we don’t get that mobility platform then what the hell was the point of adding two divisions of light infantry to the active forces? How are they going to deploy without the Ground Hugger?”
“The way you used to deploy, Robert. March or ride in those fifty thousand plus Humvees or ten thousand plus Bradley’s, Styker’s, tucked away, safe and sound, in,” he hesitated as he tried to recall the exact number, “God only knows how many of those super-armored personnel carriers you just had to have for Iraq and Afghanistan. Who says soldiers need to ride into battle on a cushion of air Bob? And,” Reinhardt paused for effect knowing how it would infuriate Franks, “if you’d spent any time in combat, you’d know that a few grunts spread out is less of a target than twenty in one of those poorly armored Bradley’s or Humvees. You agree Bull?”
The Marine General, a fireplug of a man with a head that rested squarely on his shoulders, without seemingly the benefit of a neck, stood up as the camera turned to focus on his face. His nickname was ‘Bull’, because he never wavered in battle, always charging ahead at the front of the troops. It was a wonder that he’d never been shot badly.
“A’hh agree with the General, Bob,” his Tennessee drawl making him hard to understand. “You know, and I know, the Hugger never will get you the kind of mobility you’ll need, besides the fucker costs too much; and unless it’s going across a parking lot, it’s slower than molasses. We tested one, Helmut; damn thing only did about seven miles an hour across flat, open terrain, but then stopped dead when it came to trees. Heck, it just barely made it over shrubs and underbrush barely four feet tall,” he laughed. Then he added the final negative “the fucker uses fuel like an M-1 tank. Unless you have flying fuel trucks in the mix, Bob, then you’d run out of gas before you reached the battle.” There was just one final insult to be added to leave Franks fuming. “Course it sure looks great going over shrubs.”
This was a standing joke within the senior brass, guaranteed to royally piss the Chief of Staff of the Army. The Hugger had been previewed using a computer-generated simulation produced by the contractor when the system was in Phase I development. It showed the Hugger speeding across a field of low-lying bushes. Explosions were going off all around it without hitting a single one of the 100 thousand dollar Huggers.
The Army Chief of Staff, Bob Franks, knew the Hugger had problems. Yet, if the Hugger were cut from the force table, then he’d be living on only his pension when he retired at the end of the year. With the Hugger in the budget, General Defense would hire Franks as a consultant, at a six-figure salary to keep the program on track for more funding, and he could retire to the golf course and fund his grandchildren’s college to boot.
Until Reinhardt had interrupted, the briefing was going well, but now the entire force mobility strategy, on which next year’s budget was based, would need to be reworked. Franks glared at the Marine General, only to be met by an equally formidable stare in return. He didn’t need to be told the best way to lead his million men by a Marine Corp General, whose force consisted of just two amphibious divisions of barely forty thousand soldiers.
“Sorry to rain on your parade Bob, but I think you need to see how things look without the Hugger in there. Look for other transportation options that we can afford without sacrificing too much in the way of firepower to get them. I think I’ve heard enough. Anything more, Bob?”
Franks found it difficult to go on. Still, Reinhardt would be gone in less than a month. “I guess I’ll go back and see what we can do with what we already have in the pipeline, but the Hugger is still needed.”
Reinhardt threw him a bone. “Send me a report on what it will take to solve the technical problems. Price out a 1000 unit-buy assuming the technical fix is in and it can clear eight feet at 20 miles per hour.” Reinhardt knew that these were program goals that it was unlikely to meet no matter how much was spent. They were the original, pre-contract, minimums for the program. GenD ignored these goals after it won the contract. Trying to meet these had added at least a billion dollars to the development budget with no end in sight.
“Sounds good,” Franks saw a glimmer of hope for his post-retirement lifestyle.
Mira switched off the monitor. She watched Reinhardt pace the room. The man was an inspired liar. He lied to her all the time. He told her that he’d make her a proper offer someday when he was out of uniform, but she doubted it. She was caught between her ambition to move up quickly and being an attractive young woman.
“What do you think about the Hugger,” Reinhardt came close to Mira who was still leaning against the desk trying to push down her skirt. “Turn you on, Mira?” He reached and took her in both arms from behind, his hands pressing against each breast. “Now this, Mira, is a hugger that you can count on.”
She pushed him off, but he continued to caress her buttocks. She hoped that there wasn’t anyone in the outer office waiting. Reinhardt often became quite vocal and crude when they made love. So much for sexual harassment training of senior officers in the military she thought, still there was something almost hypnotic about the General that allowed her to maintain just enough self-respect to keep quiet.