Kip James, National Editor at the Washington Post, noted the look on Teddy Rothstein’s face as he passed by his star reporter’s desk.
“I don’t know where to start, Kip, I read the transcript of his last speech and I am beginning to wonder if I really know the General the way I thought I did.”
“I thought you knew the General inside out, Ted?”
“No one knows Helmut Reinhardt except the General.” Rothstein answered turning his question around. Despite the weeks spent with General Reinhardt on the two dangerous missions he’d gone with him, he knew that he didn’t truly fathom who or what he stood for. He thought he knew, but he wasn’t certain anymore.
“Don’t you see Teddy” Kip said, “he’s positioning himself as a national security hawk, after the King Presidency, the GOP will need someone with the real chops to find solutions to the problems we face with the Russians, the Chinese, and the North Koreans to name but three impossible to solve strategic problems.”
Reinhardt certainly had charisma, but in four years, 2024, he would be 74 years old. Still, he didn’t look his age and didn’t act his age. Moreover, he had gained rank rapidly through ability and charisma. On entering a room, he dominated it totally. Rothstein, in his best-selling books, covering the two dangerous rescues he’d accompanied him on, made him into a Caesar-like character, a natural polymath, as able to engineer a bridge to cross the raging Rhine, as win a battle against fearful odds while fighting on the front lines thus turning a battle lost into a major victory as he had done in Spain against the remaining troops of Pompey. And yet the General seemed to everyone from the newest recruit to the Grandees of the American economic-political establishment to be approachable. Like Julius Caesar had done two thousand years in the past, the General made enemies of men and women less capable, fearing the demigod in him. Rothstein knew him as well as anyone, and yet he could not describe Reinhardt’s true beliefs. He trusted him with his life, but would he trust him with his country?
Shutting down the workstation, Ted walked the few blocks to Lafayette Park, across from the White House gate. A cold wind blew across the park, and he shivered. That same bitterly cold wind had been blowing when he’d laid flat against the metal of the downed copter wondering if he might live to see morning. That trip to the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan had been his first experience with real war. Later he would face the same challenge with Reinhardt again at the tail end of the Iraq War when he’d accompanied the General to Iraq only to find himself dragooned into a dangerous rescue mission across the poorly marked border between Iraq and Iran to rescue that company of lost Army support troops. But it was the first time, in the wild, cold mountains that marked the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan that his baptism by fire had linked him, for all the rest of his days, to the General, where he had seen his true metal, and his greatest secrets. His book about that mission had landed at the top of the New York Times Bestsellers list for more than 28 weeks.
His mind wandered to that first night when the copter lurched from side to side, spinning and losing altitude fast. He could almost smell the sickly sweet odor of the hydraulic fluid leaking from overhead piping, where 50 caliber rounds had pierced the thin skin and made junk out of the engine. He could hear the gears fall apart, as the blades started their counter rotation in an attempt to slow the copters fall to earth.
“Bit of a problem,” Reinhardt said flashing a grin as he looked back from the cockpit at the soldiers pressed against the wall, their faces masked with fear. Ted watched, nervously, as the General patiently nursed the copter down, slowing the fall with the counter rotation of the blades, almost willing it to find a soft spot to land. They landed in a hail of bullets that ripped through the copter, killing several of the men instantly, wounding several others as they tried to get seat harnesses off.
The terror of that night would remain with him until he died. Sometimes, even now, he woke up in a cold sweat recalling the way the darkness was shattered by flashes of weapons discharges illuminated the inside of the copter. As the casualties added up, Reinhardt became a one-man army. Ted watched amazed as hardened Special Ops troops huddled behind rocks as shell shocked as any First World War soldier. But the General wouldn’t let them cower; he forced them to follow him up the hill protected by his own aura of invincibility. Later, when he and Ted were making their way to the Moktar’s village to get help for the wounded, Reinhardt had explained why he was fearless in combat. “Many years back, not far from here, a Sufi holly man read my fortune. He told me the manner and place of my death and it wouldn’t be from a stray bullet or ordinary bomb.”
Kip James was waiting for him, standing impatiently at his desk, when he walked back into the newsroom.
“Where the hell have you been?”
“Thinking,” he said taking off his coat.
“All hell is breaking loose. Reinhardt made a speech this morning that roasted the incoming administration real bad. The Lady, Kirsten Anderson, our next President, not surprisingly, is yelling and screaming for Reinhardt’s head early.”
“Reinhardt will resign just before Christmas,” Ted said taking off his coat. “He’s throwing his own retirement party at the Mayflower. It must be costing fifty thousand dollars at least.”
“Here’s this morning’s speech Ted,” James said dropping the printed transcript on the desk.
Ted read the transcript. It followed along the same themes – America must never let its guard down. And then there was the theme that America was exceptional, a special nation with unique rights and duties to the world at large. It alone acted while the other nations only talked. It was another call for pre-emption of threats compared to the oft repeated strategy of the incoming administration for cooperation with allies and working through international organizations to solve global problems.
He stuffed copies of the speech into his briefcase and left the office. It was a twenty-minute walk from the Post to the Adams Morgan row house he shared with his college roommate, a poorly paid employee of a defense watchdog group.
“Dinner’s in the fridge,” Randy yelled as Ted came in the door. The room was a minefield of papers and documents on the thin paper on which Congressional committee reports was printed. Randy sat on the floor in the midst with his yellow notepad trying to make sense of his mess.
“Don’t you have a desk?”
Randy pointed towards the desk in one corner of the room piled high with papers.
“Find any hidden treasures today?” Ted asked sitting on the couch, pushing the piles of papers there to one side, he studied the too thin roommate he’d inherited when he rented the two bedroom apartment.
“One thing,” Randy said looking up from the Congressional Record he was reading.
“Okay, I’m listening.” Randy was forever giving him hints of conspiracies none provable and Ted typically ignored most of what he told him in deepest confidence. .
“Your friend, General Reinhardt testified in secret before Congress, about fourteen years ago, about some ‘black projects’ that were run while he was head of Air Force Systems Command in Akron. At the time, he mentioned, in passing, a Project NorthStar, but gave few details to the Committee. Does the name mean anything to you?”
“No. What’s so interesting about it Randy?”
“Apparently, after the briefing, an Arms Service staff member did a follow-up with Reinhardt and managed to get a bit more in the way of details. He talked further about Project NorthStar. The Steering Committee was made up of key players from Los Alamos, JPL, Lockheed Palmdale, and Drapper Labs.”
“And the significance of this little known fact,” Rothstein asked knowing he would get an earful from his roommate.
“Los Alamos designs, or, depending who you speak to, builds nuclear weapons, while JPL manages satellite programs. Lockheed’s Skunkworks builds things that we don’t want anyone to know about. Drapper makes guidance systems for warheads, especially nuclear warheads. You figure it out, Ted. NorthStar is some kind space based offensive weapon. It’s a direct violation of the peaceful use of outer space treaty that we signed back in the Sputnik days.”
“What’s your source?” Ted was always amazed at what Randy managed to dig up without using the Freedom of Information route despite its obvious limitations as to content.
“You don’t want to know,” he handed Ted the handwritten notes, “but it is curious isn’t it?”
“What year?” Ted asked trying to see the date.
“The testimony was given sometime in 2006.”
Reinhardt ran Air Force Systems Command in Akron, Ohio during that time. Six months later, Ted was in Afghanistan with him on an inspection trip. That was just before he received his forth star and became Vice Chief of Staff for the Air Force.
He remembered something that Reinhardt had said when they were on their way to Afghanistan. “Reinhardt told me on the way over to Kabul that he had to be back by mid-June for an important test. Anything more on some test in June of that year in the back story you have.”
“I don’t think it was completed or made operational. By 2007 the paper trail disappears, nana, nothing.” He added for emphasis, “Usually, they list the programs, even the black projects just so the incoming administration doesn’t get blindsided when some smart ass in Congress gets wind of it. I checked with a couple of good sources who worked on the Toure transition in last 2008, there was no mention of Project NorthStar. It was as if it never had existed, at least that’s the assumption, and yet with Reinhardt leaving and given the hints about the US needing a secret, operational, deterrent to deal with rogue regimes and terrorists, something like NorthStar, if it is the project I imagine it to be, might just be something that our future President Reinhardt might want to have in his back pocket.”
“Or,” Ted argued because it was fun to go counter-factual with Randy, “as you say, most military projects are costly failures, maybe NorthStar, whatever the hell it was, is another costly failure.”
“I don’t know, but check this out Ted.” He handed him a document with the Top Secret stamp clearly visible.
“Doing a bit of espionage, are we now, Randy? Don’t show it to me, I want plausible deniability when they come and arrest you.”
“Like so many other top secret documents, Ted, it just has to do with how much something will really cost. It’s meant to keep the truth from snooping Congressmen wishing to make a point by showing how fiscally responsible they are. See the parts that are underlined.”
“How could I miss them,” Ted smiled. Randy had a habit of underlying in black ink, then running a yellow highlighter across the paragraph for further emphasis. “So they spent $ 13 billion on it, and it blew up in space, what else is new.”
“No one mourned the loss. Aside from the GAO reference, and the one official notification to the Congress in 2005, there’s no paper trail.”
If you’re right Randy, then NorthStar was the blackest of the black programs. Many people knew about the two stealth aircraft they built back in the early 1980’s, long before they became public knowledge. You’re saying that somehow Project NorthStar managed to remain a deep, dark secret from everyone now for almost fifteen years?”
Randy stood up, went to the refrigerator, and grabbed two beers. Coming back he handed Rothstein a bottle. “Some good news too, Teddy,” he said sitting down on the couch, oblivious to the stack of reports. “I talked to Judith today. She’s offered me the job as Special Assistant for the Budget and Defense Guidance once she’s confirmed as Secretary of Defense.”
“That’s great. Does this mean that you can finally pay half the rent?”
“Of course, you’ve been great, couldn’t have done it without you buddy, but my goal is to get the hell out of here. It’s hard to get laid in a bedroom just big enough for a single bed. Your reward, for losing my pittance of contribution, is that I can get you inside dope from the E-ring.”
“That is, if Judith Wilson survives the vultures circling for the kill. And you, my skinny friend, better learn to bulk up and work out at the POAC, if you want to survive in the puzzle palace. I wouldn’t put it past someone to put a contract on your head.”
“You think she’ll be eaten alive?” Randy asked. His own opinion was that Judith Wilson was a tough old bird. She’ll survive and so would he.
“Slow cooked, then served slightly warm.”
“She’s tougher than you think.”