The Taliban started in the 1960's with Saudi and American support in our fight with the Soviets ...Our story continues
THE RINGS OF ARMAGEDDON From the dry mesa’s of Los Alamos to the dangerous mountains along the Afghan-Pakistan border, The Rings of Armageddon is a fast paced thriller from the author of the Phoenix Year. Secrets from the past must remain hidden if General Helmut Reinhardt the soon to retire Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, winner of two Congressional Medals of Honors for daring rescues in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, is to become the next President of the United States. Deeply buried in his command biography is his four years leading the American mission to the Afghan Mujahedeen where he worked closely with the future leader of Al Qaeda and the Taliban? The second secret is far more dangerous to the stability of the world system of nuclear deterrence. Just after 2001 he was asked by the new administration to develop an ultra-secret weapons system, NorthStar, a polar orbiting stealth satellite with 50 nuclear weapons with the command and control in a portable computer terminal. After the Secretary of Defense realized the mistake he’d made in approving NorthStar, and the danger that NorthStar represented, he ordered the console placed in the JCS vault at the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon and the nine rings needed to initiate a launch distributed to the only nine men who knew the true purpose of the NorthStar system. Now, more than ten years later, questions are being asked about Project NorthStar that General Reinhardt can’t afford to answer. Reinhardt also discovers that a few of the scientists who worked on the development of the system are beginning to talk openly, he acts to silence them and gather up the rings and the console as insurance for some future emergency. When Ali Hassan, Qatari banker, secret financier of terrorists groups and long-time friend of the General, learns of NorthStar and the likelihood that his old comrade from their days working closely together in Afghanistan may be the key to turning Al Qaeda into a nuclear power, he develops a plan to force the General to bring the terminal to him in their old camp high in the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan. Ali Hassan gathers leaders from more than twenty major terrorist groups together to witness the handover of the NorthStar terminal to his control; he makes an ultimatum to the United States demanding a complete withdrawal from the Middle East. To demonstrate his resolve, he starts a countdown launching a warhead against a target somewhere in the United States. As the countdown clock ticks towards zero, broadcast live to the world, the President of the United States must decide if General Reinhardt is a traitor or possibly, just possibly, a hero.
14. A Question of Balance
Sarah made the final cut to the meteor story the day before she left for Washington and sent it to the editors for review. She included the discovery of the sphere and the eyewitness account of the kidnapping of Molly Spenser including the eyewitness account of that night.
“They’ll cut it that part from the show for sure.”
“I sent a memo to Randall with an outline explaining what we found and what I planned.”
“He knows you Sarah. He didn’t want an explosion, so he waited until you were out before making the changes. It’s a story that’s literally too hot the handle for the network. They depend upon the government too much to risk offending or violating national security laws in some way for something that happened more than a decade ago. Besides they were Sanders cheerleaders and might not want to think their hero, a fellow Republican, could stoop to something as dangerous as NorthStar.”
“Then we go to Plan B,” she said hopefully. The only chance of finding Molly was to bring the entire incident at the ranch out into the open. “I resign, and you write it up. I’m counting on you to get it into the public record.”
“We have to find someone, not an old Indian, who was there with the Air Force that night, or who can confirm that the program existed and that they had an accident during one of the tests. We start with the photograph of the principles on the project. We know at least two people in the picture. We need to identify a few more to make the story creditable.”
They watched the show that evening, when it ended with Winnie telling how often they never found anything at a site because the meteor burned up on impact, Sarah threw her shoe at the set.
“The show was about meteors, not about an Air Force cover-up Sarah.”
“Whose side are you on Teddy Rothstein?”
“Yours,” he pulled her towards him. “Sarah, you turned up something that would put the network at risk for disclosure. They don’t fuck with the military. And, it was probably an accident. Accidents happen, it’s no one’s fault.”
“Except,” she said pulling away from him, “they kidnapped a three year old girl, what happened to her? That’s not a trivial question is it?”
“We have to find out more about NorthStar. With more facts then we can pressure some people, like Reinhardt, to tell us the truth. You have the guidance module with you here.”
“I have out-takes from the show too,” Sarah said pleased with working with Teddy on this.
“Good,” Rothstein said thinking out loud. “Send Randall an e-mail telling him how upset you are with the way they cut the show and left out the important parts. Ask for a package to leave quietly.”
“The money was so good Ted.” Sarah said without thinking.
“Money or Rothstein, make your choice Sarah. Last chance, you decide.”
“Rothstein,” she said, pulling him close.
“What’s next Ted?”
“Have babies,” he took her by the hand and led her to the bedroom.
Sarah looked into the mirror. She was in her late thirties and wasn’t sure about having children at this late age.
“Let’s talk about babies after we get married, Teddy,” she said sweetly, “now come and talk me into it.”
They slept late on Christmas morning, and brunched on eggs, potatoes, and Bloody Mary’s. Late in the afternoon, still drowsy from the night before and the drinks, they sat down to plan their attack.
“We’ll start with Draper,” Ted suggested, “after all, they can’t deny that they were involved. The picture’s the key. And we can look on the Los Alamos website. There could be photograph of senior staff that might give us a clue to one of the men in the picture.”
They found a match on the Los Alamos website easily. “Arnstein, Chief of the Nuclear Engineering Branch. That fits.” Rothstein said triumphantly.
“A weapon, perhaps,” he said thinking out loud, “but it could also be some kind of trigger for a high powered laser used to knock down in coming warheads.”
“That kind of system would not have a guidance module would it? But there’s another possibility too,” he thought of his roommate’s worries, “still, even after 9/11, would they have dared?”
“What are you thinking,” said Sarah mulling over the possibilities in her head. A weapon in space, a nuclear armed satellite capable of hitting any point on earth with a 90 minute time frame, would violate one of the oldest and most sacred of treaties, the 1967 Treaty keeping nuclear weapons out of space.
“Sanders, Clark, and Forrestal, they didn’t give a hoot about international treaties.” Rothstein said finally. “NorthStar is an offensive system,” he added, “a dangerous precedent and worse, a threat given the ability of countries to hack computer networks. No wonder they buried it deep in the records, expunged the memory so to speak.”
Sarah returned to New York later that week. Randall was only too happy to buy her out. Relieved at how easy it was to leave, she took the shuttle back to Washington.
Teddy was waiting impatiently for her the Friday before New Year’s just outside the gate at Terminal A of Reagan-National Airport in Washington.
“Okay, what’s the surprise, the Caribbean, Tahiti, something warm and romantic, right?” she asked thinking about the passport and the bathing suit she had carried with her from New York.
He looked at his watch. “We’ll have to hurry.”
“We’re going somewhere? Right?” she asked.
He reached into his jacket and handed her two tickets as he headed up I395 in the direction of Dulles Airport..
“London? Why not the Caribbean” she asked.
“A good friend at the US Embassy invited me to their New Year’s Eve Party. The Post offered a ticket and a couple nights’ stay if I covered the party. I traded the B-class seats for two in economy and we have the hotel room for the weekend, through Tuesday.”
Dulles was bustling, Rothstein had to park in one of the outer lots. They just made the flight.
“Are you happy now, Sarah?” he asked, as they squeezed into the middle two seats in the rear of the tourist cabin.
“Couldn’t you afford to upgrade these to first class Teddy; you must have made a bundle on those books?”
Rothstein smiled. There was the Sarah that he loved, sarcastic, slightly angry, but adorable anyway.
“I don’t waste money on things that are over I a few hours Sarah. I always fly couch when it’s my on dime, besides I didn’t want you to think I was trying too hard.”
Now that,” she said taking his hand warmly, “is an argument that I fully understand.”
“Okay,” he said returning to the original point as the aircraft taxied down the runway, “are you happy now?”
“Yes,” she admitted.
“Why the hell did we wait?”
“When you left for London and then took the Middle East position, I thought it was your way of ending things. We could stay as friends, but you were telling me, I’m not the marrying kind. When the WNN job came up, I jumped at it Teddy, but I never stopped thinking about you, I had a kind of empty feeling inside that I had turned down something that I shouldn’t have turned down.”
“Will you marry me now, Sarah?”
“Is that a proposal, Teddy Rothstein?”
“No, it’s an ultimatum.”
Sarah leaned back in the cushioned seat. She looked away at the fading light as the aircraft headed into the night. Turning, she reached her hand up and ran it across his cheek, looked him straight in the eye, and smiled – all was well with the world.
15. Strange Meetings
“Are you certain you want me to go with you to the Embassy, Helmut?” she asked thinking about the New Year’s Eve party later that evening.
“Who else would I take?”
“I’m sure I’m on some watch-list, somewhere,” she said.
It was hard, Reinhardt knew, being a revolutionary in a conservative world.
“I don’t think there will be a problem.” He pulled her towards him. She tensed at his touch.
“You remember the last time I came to America?”
“Many people get questioned at the airport.” He remembered well that time. There were a lot of stupid laws and stupid enforcers too. Kate Reinhardt was no more a threat to the country than he was.
The American Ambassador’s residence was in the Wingate House in Regents Park. Inside, the rooms were richly decorated for the holidays with abundant greens and the warm light of candles, with the Marine Guards, in their dress red and blue uniforms, adding additional ornaments to the scene.
“It’s quite a setting,” Kate looked at the elaborate holiday decorations feeling totally out of place here.
Reinhardt took her arm leading her towards the Ambassador’s receiving line. The Ambassador, a political appointee, went out of his way to praise Reinhardt. It took a few minutes of nodding agreement with his risky solutions to how to deal with the terrorist threat before they could break away.
Reinhardt saw Mustafa standing near the bar. Taking a drink, he guided Kate towards the aging Afghan diplomat.
“You look as young as when we first met,” Mustafa said gripping Reinhardt’s arm tightly.
“I don’t feel as young as I was,” said Reinhardt remembered their first meeting. It had been a sweltering day in a tiny room upstairs above a café in Peshawar more than thirty years before. As the two men began to talk in Pashtun, Kate looked around the room. She felt completely out of place, like a duck out of water.
Mustafa sensed the girl’s unease. He broke off the conversation and switched to a heavily accented English.
“ My friend this is not the place to remember other days. Come to lunch tomorrow. Please bring your friend. It is rare that an old man gets to spend some time with as beautiful a young woman as you are.”
Rothstein’s invitation to the party had come through an ex-girlfriend from when he was based in Qatar and reporting on the Middle East. She was now Second Secretary at the US Embassy in London.
“Fran, Sarah,” Ted introduced Sarah to Fran Walsh. By Fran’s look, Sarah could tell she was disappointed.
“So this is Sarah. You should have heard him sing your praises at the Sheraton bar in Tel Aviv years ago.”
Before Sarah could respond, a man came up and whispered in Fran’s ear, and she excused herself.
“How serious was that one?”
“We spent some time together when I covered the Middle East.”
“She’s upset you know.”
“I think she expected something to come from the invitation. Let’s not let this spoil our evening,” he took her hand and led her into the main ballroom.
Near the open bar, Ted spied Reinhardt with the heavyset gentleman from the Middle East.
“If you look behind you, Sarah,” Ted said whispering in her ear. “You’ll see Reinhardt.”
She turned around slowly. “Who’s the woman?”
“I don’t know,” Ted said, “but the man is Mustafa. I met him last year in London before going off to Afghanistan to cover the elections there. He’s an old Mujahedeen. Probably a comrade of General Reinhardt’s from his days supplying weapons to the anti-Soviet fighters during the early 1980’s.”
“Let’s go over while you still have courage, Sarah.” Ted suggested.
“Later,” Sarah took a wine glass from the bar, “after a little more wine; anyway, he’s quite busy at the moment.”
Ted had tried, unsuccessfully, to get close to the General so it was almost midnight when Sarah cornered Reinhardt’s date in the powder room.
“You’re Kate Reinhardt,” she recognizing her from the TV footage about a lone German woman working to help Palestinian girls get a modern education.
“ What was it that the correspondent called you?”
“The mad German of the West Bank?” Kate said with some bitterness, then turned to face the woman directly. “Who are you?”
“Sorry, Sarah Fisher,” Sarah answered embarrassed by the tone of the German’s voice. “At least you try to help, that is harder than making up stupid names. I’m sorry that I insulted you. Please forgive me.”
“No, no, it is a fair assessment of the hopelessness of the girls and the impossibility of finding a just solution to the Arab-Israeli problem.” Kate answered carefully. “There are many injustices that a woman of conscience should be angry about. It is enough to make a person mad? Yes?” She smiled.
“You’re with the General?”
“My cousin, Helmut.”
“I am with Teddy Rothstein.”
“The reporter, yes, I read both books. I think,” Kate said thinking out loud, “that he captured the real Helmut in those stories.”
“How?” Sarah asked fascinated.
“His lack of fear, his belief in his invincibility, they are his strengths and I believe too his weaknesses. A man must know his limits and Helmut does not.”
“Katherine can you help us get close to the General, Ted’s been trying to say hello all evening.”
“Talking, laughing, joking, but never alone,” Kate said with a laugh, “but I think I can break the logjam. Come with me.”
Teddy waited impatiently; he could not understand why Sarah was taking so long.
“Teddy,” Sarah said, coming up and taking his arm, “Kate Reinhardt, Helmut’s cousin from Germany.”
She was a handsome woman, not quite beautiful, too thin for his taste with sharp features, but attractive in other ways. Reinhardt must be at least twenty years older than his cousin. “I was with Helmut in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
“Of course, Mr. Rothstein; I very much enjoyed your books.”
“Call me Ted, please,” Ted now remembered something the General had told him about the girl during that first long hike through the mountains. “Your cousin told me once that what he liked best about Kate was that you never gave up when you set your mind to do something.”
“That’s an exaggeration, of course, I’ve given up on many things” She was surprised by what he’d said, she didn’t believe she figured so much that he would talk to a stranger about her.
“Come,” she said coming back to the present, “let’s rescue Helmut from that pack of fools and, what is the English word, sycophants, yes? I am certain that he would like to see you again.”
Kate led the way. Reinhardt stopped speaking to a Turkish General, excused himself, and walked in their direction with a broad grin on his face.
“You’re the last person I expected to see tonight Rothstein, and this must be Sarah Fisher. Am I right?”
Sarah was surprised at how charming he could be. It was easy to see why Ted was drawn to the man. Reinhardt had a natural charisma that was infectious.
“And, I see that you’ve met Cousin Kate too. Kate is my conscience, Sarah. When I stray too far to the right, she pulls me back towards the left.” He placed his arm around her, pulling her close.
“You did talk a lot about Kate,” Ted reminded him.
“She’s like a little bull dog really,” Reinhardt hugged her affectionately then added, “she came to stay with me for her college years, a wonderful cook, not much of a cleaner, and very, very difficult, out spoken, opinionated, and I love her in ways I shouldn’t.” He grinned and she blanched, embarrassed as she thought of the hours just before the party spent in his bed.
“I was eighteen,” Kate said sharply, “and quiet as a mouse. Besides, you were just as difficult to live with. You never kept regular hours and I never knew when you would be home for dinner. After one of your poker games, it would take me days to straighten up and rid the apartment of the smell of cigars.”
“How long are you in London?” Reinhardt changed the subject.
“We go back on Tuesday. And you Helmut?”
“Katherine turns into a pumpkin on Tuesday. She returns to Palestine where she’s a sitting duck for anyone who wants to get back at America or at me personally. Tell her, Rothstein, about the danger she’s in. You worked the Middle East for five years.”
“I think Kate knows that it’s not safe for a woman especially a woman who could prove useful as a hostage.”
“I don’t feel that way, besides it’s my life, not yours Helmut.”
“She’s German, you know, and Germans can be stubborn. I’ve tried to convince her to give up the ghost of the failed state and come back to America. I want to make her a proper offer, if she’ll let me.”
Sarah, not Ted, noted the look of surprise on Katherine’s face.
Reinhardt continued. “I’ve told her that no matter how useful she is to them, she will always be an Infidel, a Christian in an Arab world, unappreciated and in danger too.”
“As I said before, we all take risks, some more than others. Helmut is right about one thing though; I am in greater danger because of who he is.”
“I read the London Times story on the way over,” Sarah said. While it was a favorable article, it seemed to dwell on the link between you and the General.”
“Of course, that makes a good story, yes, but my work with the school is important. Have you been to the Palestine?” She asked Sarah.
“No, unfortunately not, but Ted has.”
“And you Ted, what do you think?”
“I agree with Helmut, Kate,” Ted said looking at his friend, “it is time to get out, before it’s too late.”
Sarah felt obligated to come to the girl’s defense. Without worrying about the consequences if something went wrong.
“Kate knows the danger, but it’s her choice, not yours Helmut or Ted’s.”
“That’s easy to say from here,” Reinhardt gestured and pointed at well-dressed men and women enjoying themselves in comfortable surroundings, “but back there the situation is anything but safe.”
“She’s a big girl, she can decide for herself.”
“Then, I hope she decides to leave,” Reinhardt said, ending the conversation. “I don’t want people to use Kate to blackmail me.”
“Helmut, I was thinking about leaving at the end of the school year anyway.” Katherine took his arm to reassure him. “If you’re free tomorrow Sarah, Ted, we could meet for dinner. Is that okay Helmut?”
“We’d love to,” Sarah answered before Reinhardt could respond. “Do you have a place in mind?”
A few minutes later, at midnight, the room exploded. Noisemakers were everywhere at once, as the band started to play Auld Langsyne. Couples embraced and toasted the New Year with champagne. Sarah looked at Reinhardt and Kate.
“He loves her,” she thought, surprised, “I didn’t think a man like that could love anyone.”
“Lighten up;” Ted said glancing over, “he’s human like the rest of us.”
She was thinking about Molly and the phone call she had had with Susan earlier. The news from the doctors wasn’t good.
13. Farewell to Arms
Reinhardt didn’t trust his friends to organize the type a farewell suitable for his future ambitions. It wasn’t like his successor had been appointed to head the JCS, so there was no formal exchange of command ceremony either. Instead he reserved the Mayflower Ballroom, invited 300 guests from all spheres – government, corporate, his fellow military officers, and the working press—to a party to celebrate his more than forty years in service of his country. It was being covered by both WNN and C-Span both. Sarah had begged Randall to let her go, promising not to slam the General in her follow-up.
Sarah watched Reinhardt with new eyes seeing beyond his current positions on national defense and the seriousness of the terrorist threat to the American way of life. Watching him stand now for his formal speech, ramrod straight, against a backdrop of a large American flag draped on either side by the battle standards of every unit he had served in and or commanded, he was the picture of what a military hero cut in the mold of a MacArthur or a Paton, a man to be admired, turned to in time of need, and honored when the conflict ended. Dressed in formal blues, with rows of medals and awards covering his chest, including the two Congressional Medals of Honor draped around his neck with their conspicuous ribbons, he seemed to Sarah, no fan of the General, a Prometheus in the flesh.
“He looks like George C. Scott at the end of Patton, doesn’t he?” Sarah said to Ted as she wrote notes for her later analysis.
“Only thing missing is the flag-bunting and the Reinhardt for President signs.”
“You’re biased, Teddy Rothstein, but I agree, he does look like a winner. Still he’s been apolitical for most of his life, not a natural Republican or Democrat. To run he’ll need the Party, which ever one needs a winner, to come to him and offer him the crown. A threat from Young Kim or another terrorist attack might be enough to overcome the natural reluctance of the establishment Republicans to take a chance with an outsider. Also, I suspect he will not poll that great with the woman or the ethnics either.”
Reinhardt allowed the applause to die down before he started.
“Forty-two years ago on a crisp fall day, I swore an oath, a sacred promise to the American people, and to my God, that I would uphold and defend the American way of life against all dangers. It has been an honor to serve this great Nation in time of war and in time of peace,” he paused, caught his breath, and waited for the room to be still again before continuing.
“I am a soldier who has seen war first hand – first in the hot damp jungles of Vietnam and then in the dry mountains of Afghanistan fighting against the Soviets for the freedom of Afghanistan as a young man, and I have observed how politicians have led us into long, drawn out wars, only to see no clear way out, no victory, but no defeat, just continuous deployments of precious human resources. I have seen war close up and from high above and I have seen the damage it has done to people trying to live in peace only to face dangers from errant bombs and IEDs. And I have seen the mistakes made in the name of national security that have cost thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of dreams crushed by sending brave young men and women into harm’s way.”
“Slow, a little trite too, isn’t it?” Sarah said thinking about other speeches the General had recently made.
“It’s his money,” said Ted. “He showed me the speech, it gets better, even surprising near the end Sarah.”
“ From the time I started this journey America has been at war – big and small, provoked or convenient, and now we are in battle for the very heart and soul of our nation, that tests the very limits of what is right and what is wrong, that pits our freedom against ideologies drawn from ancient times. After September 11th, the rules of engagement changed radically. The enemy can metabolize in the heart of our cities driven by propaganda distributed across the World Wide Web. No longer can America depend on military power alone for our protection. Globalization has made us far more vulnerable to economic and social collapse elsewhere. One small nuclear bomb destroying an area of less than 10 square miles in Southern China would wreck our economy, as well as those of our trading partners and allies. Business leaders and politicians have encouraged reliance on supply chains stretched across the far Pacific, ignoring the obvious dangers of dependency on foreign suppliers, putting us at risk as at no time in past. This has been done in the name of efficiency, but in truth in the name of short-term profits. For too long our country has ignored the risks these globe-spanning umbilical cords pose. For too long we have allowed private greed to overwhelm public responsibilities. For too long we have a growing gap between the successful and the unsuccessful. For too long we have seen the market as the panacea for all problems despite the evidence that the market driven solutions rarely work as promised or are not able to be gamed by the rich and powerful. And for too long we have ignored the poverty of our small towns, our rural communities with their hopeless despair a by product of the failure of capitalism driven by the God of self interest to insure that every American can prosper in this Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. It is time,” and here Reinhardt paused, he looked at the audience, then slowly added “to put America First when thinking about moving a job overseas or closing a plant in a community already hurting from the failure of capitalism. It is time to see the needs of our country as important to the needs of others who may depend upon us. It is time that government and business leaders work together to achieve a growing eco-system in this country and worldwide with fair wages and opportunities for people from the humblest rural community to the best neighborhood in our urban centers.”
Rothstein watched the faces of the audience on the split monitor. They were mesmerized by Reinhardt’s talk, even as he insulted their keen intelligence. “You know, Sarah, he’s laughing at their greed and stupidity and the bastards are lapping it up.”
“How, then, can we, as a nation, survive and prosper in this world we have fashioned? We have gambled our very futures to maximize personal wealth and private profits at the expense of our public needs demanding improvements while working hard to minimize and eliminate the taxes to pay for these needs. How can we shore up our industrial base while remaining committed to globalization so important to securing a peaceful world? These are the issues of today. They must be solved if we are to see tomorrow’s promises become a reality. America has sown the dragon’s teeth in a thousand places in the world. Bitterness and envy are mothers’ milk for terrorists and extremists of all ideologies and religions. We have approached the world at large in arrogance and blind belief in the rightness of our cause, our own infallibility in our judgements on the actions of others. Let us get our own house in order before we can lecture the rest of the world. How has a nation that believes it is doing well, often as not, done great evil? ”
“Amazing speech,” Sarah said surprised at her own words. He was turning the tables, reversing the course; and the same audience that had cheered his right wing diatribes, was now cheering his more middle of the road, even progressive fare.
Reinhardt allowed his words to sink in. “Listen to me closely friends for I am speaking truth to power. There will come a time in the future when all of our assumptions of right and wrong will be tested. Our enemies are weak, seemingly defenseless, without armies to challenge or to defeat. In that very weakness is their strength. How should we respond to these challenges? How can we deter terror when men and women willingly go to their deaths to weaken our resolve or destroy our confidence? Must we be, like the one eyed Cyclopes of Homer made blind by Ulysses strike out at all in fury without reason or hope of finding our tormentors. And in our very blind fury would we not seed the ground with hatred and loathing for all we stand for. It is from that fertile soil springs more terrorists and more victims. I say no to this. We must find a path between Moses and Jesus, between an eye-for-an-eye and turn the other cheek. Finding that path will not be easy, or without risks, but these are risks that we must be willing to take if we are to preserve the America we love and an America that can be respected by the world.”
The General laid in his final words, cementing his position in stone, opening his bid for the moderates of both Parties when the time came. “My friends, dependence on carrier battle groups or squadrons of half-billion dollar aircraft is not appropriate in today’s world of asymmetric threats. Our need is more for linguists and foot soldiers able to blend in and infiltrate terrorist groups. We need flexible response capabilities not dependent upon pre-positioned forces. Weapons that take hours to reach their final destinations will always fail. And, finally, if and when we strike, the destruction must be complete and total. There is no second chance in this war.”
Pausing, he waited until the audience was hanging on his next words before finishing. “That is the challenge we face. Ever rising defense budgets and high tech weapons will not save us from extremists who may live in our midst and who are willing to die for the cause they believe in. Sinking more gold and treasure in military toys is not a solution to the quagmire we have dug for our nation. There are no simple solutions; no silver bullets that can be used to turn the clock back to before September 11th. Our task, the task I’ll gladly take up now that I’m retired, is to make certain that men of ill-will are not tolerated by civilized societies. Unlike Macarthur, this old soldier will not simply fade away. God bless you all and God bless America.”
It was over, all except the rounds of applause from the crowd that was standing and cheering. Sarah let the camera’s roll for a few more minutes with a mild voice over commenting on the audience’s enthusiastic response to the General’s address. She added a short summary of what he had said. Outside, with the Mayflower’s distinctive canopy in the background, she gave a positive commentary on Reinhardt’s speech.
“You want to meet Reinhardt?”
“No,” she answered emphatically, “despite the fact that he didn’t sound dangerous, I still don’t trust him.”
Ted found a cab waiting outside the door of the Mayflower. It was too cold to walk and neither had taken a topcoat to the affair. The driver grumbled about the short distance, but Ted over compensated him with the tip. Inside, Sarah kicked off her heels; curling up on Ted’s sofa.
“What was Reinhardt hinting at when he called for a flexible response?”
“Vaporize the leadership in Tehran, without warning and with extreme precision, but then deny you had anything to do with it, blame it on extremists. Don’t waste American lives or treasure in nation building or wars that lead to quagmires. I guess he was thinking of the ultimate decapitation in which you don’t assassinate one leader, but simply destroy an entire government in a single blast.” As he said this, the thought came to mind, NorthStar.
“That you or Reinhardt speaking, Ted,” she said taking his arm playfully. “Come on it’s getting late.”
Reinhardt carried the NorthStar console, in its leather-bound case, with him the next evening when he left on BA 23 out of Dulles bound for London. It was the first civilian airliner he’d flown on in four years. Out of uniform, he was not recognized.
Once airborne, and at cruising altitude, the Senior Pilot, an old RAF fighter jock, opened the door from the cockpit and entered the First Class cabin. He had seen Reinhardt’s name on the passenger manifest and wanted to say hello.
“Enjoying the ride, General?”, the Captain asked.
“No comparison between BA’s hospitality and the USAF. Sit down Captain,” Reinhardt pointed to the empty seat next to him, “I’ve flown lots of aircraft, but never a 777.”
“What about the B-2? Must be a treat to pilot a flying wing?”
“Hardly worth the effort with the pilot there to insure that it doesn’t run out of fuel every few thousand miles. The B-2 was expensive to build and probably unnecessary. It mainly kept a few contractors in business for a few years longer, and helped out a few Congressman get re-elected by keeping jobs in their districts.” Reinhardt said with a cynicism born from years of working the Pentagon and seeing, first hand, the dynamics of the military industrial complex and its close relationship with the Congress.
“I caught your farewell address. Interesting ideas,” the Captain said looking at Reinhardt for confirmation.
“Which one,” Reinhardt said with a sheepish grin, “must have set a few of the corporate chieftains wondering if my heart’s in the right place.”
“Destroying the vipers suddenly without warning would be hard to do unless you already had lethal assets on the ground ready to strike silently. Aircraft are noticed, even drones.”
“Not as hard as you might think,” Reinhardt laid his hand instinctively on the briefcase-like console at his feet, “not as hard as you might think.”
Reinhardt took advantage of the BA First Class Visitors Lounge at Heathrow to shower and change clothes. He picked up a copy of the Times; there was a two-column article on his farewell address, as well as the article by Charles Smith on Katherine Reinhardt’s crusade for Palestinian girls. The article on Kate, he thought, drew attention needlessly and included the connection between Katherine Reinhardt, the Mad German of Palestine, and General Helmut Reinhardt, the retiring Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He worried about her safety in the Palestinian territories. He would have to talk to her, but Kate was sensitive and would not be told what to do.
“The Astor’s near the Strand, isn’t it sir?” The hack asked looking back at the American and almost hitting the cab in front. Reinhardt leaned forward speaking through the partition.
“Haven’t a clue; wasn’t my choice.”
“Not a bad hotel, if I recall, but quite small and out of the way, very British,” the driver answered.
“Perfect,” sometimes Katherine did things right, not often, but often enough to make him love her.
She had entered the Reinhardt family through an accident. She was orphan at eleven. Her mother perished trying to get out of East Germany. She’d crawled over the wall and had been rescued by a passer-by who had heard the shouting and gunshots and had risked his life to save the girl. Reinhardt was thirty-five at the time; he’d been assigned to the F-15 squadron as Deputy Wing Commander at the big American airbase at Ram Stein near Frankfurt. On his first leave he’d gone to Munich, where his father’s brother had a large house, he met the girl they had adopted. Kate walked into the room, shook his hand like a proper German lady should, and then stated in halting English that she was going to marry this handsome American someday. He was captivated. Everyone laughed as she sat down across from him and looked on adoringly at him.
“She likes you Helmut,” Uncle Hans had said after his Aunt had shooed her outside to play with the other children, “she doesn’t like many of our friends.”
“Who is she?” he asked.
“Her mother died trying to get out of the East. Some friends in Berlin asked if I could find a good home for the girl. Well, you know Aunt Hannah and I never had the child we had hoped for and now, quite late in life, we are blessed with Katherine.”
Seven years later, she’d arrived in America to attend Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. Reinhardt had offered $ 250,000 in contributions to their special fund on Defense Technology Studies that insured she was accepted.
“I would much rather live with you Cousin Helmut, than in some stuffy dorm with a nasty priest on each floor,” she announced on arrival after he’d had to beg for a place on campus for her.
He reluctantly agreed.
Katherine had come at the start of his third Pentagon tour. Reinhardt had taken the job of Deputy Director Regional Studies on the JCS staff. He’d pinned his first star on, well ahead of the rest of his class from the Academy. Short of a disaster, he was on his way to becoming Chairman by the time he retired. That was long ago in the past. The little girl he had met in his Uncle and Aunt’s house had grown into a striking beautiful, but quite mad, German liberal.
As the cab made its way through London’s narrow streets, Reinhardt recalled the first time he noticed Kate was a full-grown woman. It was a Friday afternoon when Tom Maddox had poked his head into the cubical that Major General Reinhardt called his own.
“You’re wanted at the White House, Reinhardt, something about Afghanistan and Mujahidin,” the Director, a Two Star, shouted, angry that this upstart General was going to the meeting there. He’d been working in the JCS now for more than two years and he made it into the Tank for a briefing only twice, and this cocky Air Force hotshot was being called to the White House.
“You sure they want me, Tom?”
“The call came from the Chairman’s office. What gives Reinhardt? You’re how old, not even fifty, and I’m close to sixty-five...” he left the rest unsaid noting that Reinhardt had made his first star ten years before him.
“Pays to take chances with a career when you’re young, Tom,” Reinhardt said knowing how conventional Tom Ballard’s career had been.
“I suppose you did?”
“I studied Arabic at the Academy. I didn’t need to be a genius to see that the place where we get most of our energy from will be damn important to our future, Tom,” he added sending the knife deeply into his colleague’s already wounded ego from his three years buried in JCS just waiting for retirement. “And, I then learned all the words for fuck in Pashtun from my Afghani girlfriend. After flight school, I volunteered for Special-Opts training and was a forward Air Controller in Nam.” Reinhardt smiled, enjoying the put down of this stupid, gone as far as I will ever go, Army officer “and I speak a passable Russian.”
He gathered up his papers and shoved them into the top drawer of the safe, twirled the combination lock, and hurried down to the River Entrance where a car was waiting to take him to the meeting. The dinner party, long planned by Katherine, to introduce her dashing cousin to her new friends from school, was forgotten in the excitement.
He came home later that night exhausted. Kate was waiting for him in the living room, wearing only a thin nightgown, and holding a large goblet of rich red wine that she handed to him as he entered.
“Cousin Helmut, I thought perhaps we might discuss your late appearance at my party in a more intimate setting.” He ignored the obvious and simply sent her to bed. Their actual affair started ten years later.
Reinhardt arrived at the Astor at 9 in the morning. While it was still the middle of the night in Washington, he felt refreshed; he’d managed to get three hours sleep on the airplane.
The desk clerk looked up from the newspaper he was reading as Reinhardt entered the lobby. The hotel was old, built before the Second World War; the lobby reminded him of a mausoleum, heavy, with dark brown wood paneling and too much history. Reinhardt felt uncomfortable; he preferred a spacious, light filled, modern hotel. Nor, was it a typical hotel for Kate; her tastes were simpler, hostel not hotel. She felt out of place in expensive, exclusive hotels.
“You have a reservation, sir?”
“Yes,” Reinhardt barked.
“Your wife is, I believe, still is in the room sir,” the clerk handed him the key.
She was waiting for him in bed. She turned back the covers when the door opened.
Kate felt safe with Reinhardt next to her. She ran her hand across his chest. She studied each scar, wondering about the stories that accompanied these old wounds. He had come when she’d called proving again that she was still important to him.
“Gut, Helmut, yes?” she reverted to her native German.
“Very good my little Fruelein Katherine,” he looked at her closely. She had aged in the years they were apart. The desert sun of Palestine was hard on her fair skin. She was far too thin too, but what worried him most was her nervous tick and the dark rings around her eyes. She was worn out.
“What’s wrong Kate?” he asked, after they had both showered. Wrapped in plush, terry cloth robe, Kate remembered another hotel room in another city. She’d slept with Smith when he took her to Tel Aviv two weeks before. She pulled out a cigarette, but found herself unable to light it around Reinhardt. She put the cigarette down and tapped on the table nervously.
“Everything really,” she paused, caught her breath and composed her thoughts carefully, before continuing. “For twenty years, I’ve blamed everything on Israeli aggression, but, now, I don’t know if anyone really wants peace or prosperity. You know what, Helmut, I think, everything in this world is crazy fucked up.”
“Kate, Kate,” he said holding her tight, rocking her back and forth as if she were a child again. “Your heart is in the right place. You try so hard to help. Now, let me see what I can do to make you happy, at least for this week.”
There was a good Pakistani restaurant near the hotel and he watched as Katherine picked at her food. Not a good sign, he thought, she has no appetite. After lunch, they walked for hours around the city and stopped for coffee near Hyde Park, later that afternoon. Kate poured out her frustrations. He listened, worried, almost for the first time, about her.
“What do you feel like for dinner?” Reinhardt asked, after they returned to the hotel.
“I want to go to the most expensive and best restaurant in London.” She smiled for the first time that afternoon.
“What’s happened to your proletarian roots, my dear Kate?”
“For this week,” she pressed her body against his, “I don’t want to think about the huddled masses, the misery, or the heartaches, of the world.”
He made reservations at the Savoy, just off the Strand. She wasn’t prepared for Christmas dinner at the Savoy, but she made do pressing her best dress and tied a colorful Palestinian sash around her waist. Walking into the restaurant, lit with holiday candles and decorated with silver and gold, she felt whole again for the first time in years.
“We can go to the theatre too? Yes?” She asked excitedly.
“Of course,” he said pleased she’d asked, “and an Oratorical Society Concert if we can get tickets. This week is yours Katherine.”
10. In the Defense of the Nation
Reinhardt looked at the briefcase that sat in the corner of his office. He had removed it from the JCS vault earlier in the week, leaving in its place a case full of documents of no great worth to anyone. The NorthStar command console had been locked-up in the JCS vault since Forrestal shut down the project, ordering all technical and procedural documents to be shredded and the nine rings distributed to the main players to make it impossible to use the console without joint consent. That was in September, 2007 a year before the 2008 election. Reinhardt had not protested the sleight of hand that made it disappear. He understood the risks of even saying that the project to place nuclear weapons in space had been researched would open a Pandora ’s Box. The fact that NorthStar existed and was nearly operational was a danger to the security of the nation.
Reinhardt left the Pentagon at nine. He met no one on his way out the River Entrance. When he arrived home, he stored the console and the four rings in the safe. Outside, the streets had turned icy in Georgetown. Snow arrived early this year. With Christmas approaching, he could almost taste his freedom. His retirement was to begin on December 23rd and he was paying for a farewell party at the Mayflower that was being covered live by both C-Span and WNN.
He poured himself a glass of wine, and sat down ready to kick off his shoes, when the phone rang. It was Rothstein.
“How long has it been since you slammed me in the Post, Ted?”
“A couple of hours, but I’m laying off you for few weeks, at least until after your retirement party Helmut.”
“What do you want?”
“A favor, Helmut, nothing too much I think.”
“What kind of favor?”
Reinhardt sat back on the couch and studied the snow coating the window. It had been treacherous driving home from the Pentagon, but likely more dangerous talking to a reporter like Ted Rothstein.
“Beer and dinner for old times.” Rothstein suggested.
“Tonight, we can meet at Clyde’s on M Street. I’ll even buy dinner.”
Clyde’s was packed, but the owner was an admirer of the General so a table was quickly found near the rear of the bar area.
“Okay Teddy, what gives, no bullshit either about a book you’re writing. I read the last piece. You’ve lately been making me sound like a fascist. You know me better than that.”
“You’re starting to sound like one to me Helmut. Why the sudden interest in right wing politics? Next thing I know you’ll find religion and be born again or going down the route taken by the last Republican nominee and insult broad swaths of the American electorate. It never works when you pander to the far right, they’re the biggest group of hypocrites I know, and you know that too. You’re anything but a hypocrite.”
“Now,” he smiled remembering the times they had almost died together with some fondness, “you’re my political and spiritual advisor.” Reinhardt laughed. “Thanks, but I think I can handle the politicians just as well I handled those terrorists. Not much difference between the two groups really. And, pandering, as you call it, to the far right worked quite well for young Sanders didn’t it? Honestly it’s the only damn way to get nominated in the new Republican Party.”
“Then you’re running?”
“Don’t you think I would make a good President Ted?” Reinhardt asked. “After all there are lots of bad guys left in the world despite what the Kirsten Anderson and her husband might want to believe, I simply reminded the incoming administration that the risks remain and have to be dealt with. They are real and not imagined.”
“Don’t you think Kirsten Anderson knows that too?” Rothstein asked.
“One mistake, Rothstein, and it’s over, you know how dangerous the world is now that we’ve planted the dragon seeds in such fertile soil.”
“The mushroom cloud again Helmut? I get it; you don’t like the incoming administration? Still, you’ve worked for both sides over the years. Why the sudden switch from neutral to partisan. It’s a little late for a coup d’état don’t you think and the next blow-up, at least legally, is four years from now.”
“I don’t believe they’ll be tough enough. They’re too trusting.”
“Judith Wilson isn’t as dovelike as you portray her, General”, Ted countered.
“She’s likely to get her tits stuck in the door if she tries to merge the services. Fuck, Ted, you know traditions are what cement lifelong relationships. Men fight for their brothers in arms; they take pride in the units they belong to. That’s why we spend time teaching soldiers traditions and unit histories. The Romans knew that. Gaius Marius, back in the first century B.C. used Silver Eagles to inspire men to face certain death to protect them. It turned headcount, rabble, into the best fighting units in the world at the time. To lose an Eagle was to dishonor all the men who had ever served and died under its wings. Frankly,” he laughed, “I’d love to see her tell Bull Stanton that she’s going to turn the Marines into the Ground Infantry and see his reaction. It would be priceless.”
Ted changed the subject. “Does Project NorthStar mean anything to you Helmut?”
“Nothing,” Reinhardt answered, but far too quickly. He was taken off guard by the question.
“Really? I’ve seen some records listing you as Project Manager when you ran Systems Command back in 2003. Quite an honor, the head honcho as a lowly project manager. Something very secret and very dangerous I would bet.”
“The records are wrong. There was no Project NorthStar. Change the subject Ted, for your own good.”
That was confirmation enough for him.
“Remember when Clinton went after Ibrahim at that Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan Ted?”
“Thirty cruise missiles against some tents?”
“They almost got him, but he’d been warned. Cruise missiles and aircraft are too slow and too noisy. From launch to impact it was more than three hours. Predators are easily spotted and have too limited firepower to make much of a dent unless you happen to get lucky. ”
“Granted,” Ted said motioning for more beers.
“Imagine, Ted, a weapon system that didn’t leave a trace, that was silent as the wind, with a kill radius in miles rather than feet.”
“Sounds like some kind of strategic system, something nuclear, something too dangerous to use Helmut.”
“I’m talking about something that could do the job, not fuck it up, Ted. Nukes or high explosive, it doesn’t matter, that’s the kind of weapon we need to fight these bastards, not in New York, but where they hide and plan and wait until we let our guard down. Americans want security, but fear surveillance. Toure had to limit the NSA after all those revelations, but at what cost. We’ve been lucky so far, but our luck will eventually run out. We let ISIS metabolized in Raqqa and Mosel long enough to spread their filth all over the world because we were too worried about collateral damage, but Russia didn’t have any qualm about killing civilians. Now the cancer has spread, far and wide, and it’s too late. And, Ted, you are aware that I know what the hell I’m talking about. And what about the nut case in North Korea, Young Kim, with his nukes and his ballistic missiles and goal to reach the US mainland? We made a mistake when the Korean War ended, we let them rebuild Seoul too close to the DMZ and in range of long-range artillery. Even if this were a purely conventional conflict, he could kill a million men, women and children in Seoul in the first hours of the war from guns too deeply buried to be reached with conventional weapons.”
Reinhardt stopped. He knew he had said far too much to a man, like Rothstein, a reporter with understanding of military strategy, already.
Rothstein understood the reference, but he let it pass. That was part of the past that he’d agreed to keep hidden. “The system you just described would have to be able to reach a target quickly. No aircraft could do that, cruise missiles take too long to get there even if their launch platforms are close to the target area. Am I right? Launch a ballistic missile and you start World War III. Has to be,” Rothstein guessed, “something so dangerous that it was abandoned, something in space I guess. Am I right?”
He watched for some response from Reinhardt, but the General didn’t raise an eye brow, but it was confirmation all the same. ”
“Are you really prepared to royally piss off everyone, Helmut? It would be destabilizing to the strategic balance.”
“I’d piss off God, if it helped save American lives, Ted.”
“Was that what Project NorthStar was about?”
“No! No! No! Not NorthStar. NorthStar was a failed communications and electronic intercept program. A stupid idea that we spent too much time and too much money on trying to make it work as advertised. No administration, not even Sanders had had the balls to put nukes into space.” He smiled and went back to looking at the menu.
11. Sarah’s Dilemma
Sarah tried to make sense of what had happened at the Ranch that night as they flew east After she’d put Susan on a flight back to DC and promised to help her find the girl, Molly. Susan was sick, with what, she didn’t know, but given the symptoms it was likely cancer, the kind that women get and from which if left untreated too long leads only to one conclusion, death.
“Two things,” Sarah said as they had waited for their flights, “Here’s three hundred dollars; go to a doctor and find out what’s wrong. Do that for yourself. If you need more, call. I have money. And second, about Molly, someone screwed up; there was a cover-up for sure, but I promise we’ll find her and get her back.”
Susan took the money and hugged Sarah. She didn’t feel so alone and helpless anymore.
The visit to the ranch, however, had opened a Pandora’s Box. No longer was the story simple and straightforward. It involved a secret government program and a major cover-up, including the kidnapping of a child. Randall didn’t like to take chances. Moreover, WNN made money from far right advertisers and it’s commentators were known for their lies and half-truths and twisting of word. They took pride in the fact that they could influence elections seeing their ‘slant’ as in the cause of free market capitalism and conservative principles of limited government interference and oversight. In the minds of the suits upstairs, mindful of the significant advertising from defense companies, DoD and decorated four star generals, like General Reinhardt, could do no wrong. The mysterious object they found was not a meteor, but it was possibly evidence of some secret government program long buried. Yet, without pushing for the truth as to what happened that night so many years before, how could they hope to find Molly or know what really happened that night.
“How’s it going?” Randall asked a week after her return.
“Okay,” she said without explaining.
“Ten thousand dollars and you came up with nothing, Sarah. It’s damn hard to take,” Randall groused.
“Tough luck Ed,” she had, after all, warned him that might be the result. “We have some good footage of the process they go through. Winnie says they often don’t find anything at a site. We both knew it was possible that we’d come up empty on this one.”
“Yes,” he said with a laugh, “you did warn me, Sarah. Try to finish up by next week; things get hectic around the holidays.” Randall walked a few feet, stopped suddenly and looked back. “Had an argument with my son last week? He told me that a meteor, 10 kilometers across, striking the earth is equivalent to setting off a 100 megaton bomb.”
“Try 10,000 megatons, Ed.”
“Now, that’s something we should be worried about.”
“Very low probability, but not so long ago there was a near miss, and if it had hit it might have wiped out the West coast of the United States. I met some people at JPL that are working on some technical solutions. A little shove,” she pushed him away slightly, “and they’re off to terrorize some other planet or reporter.”
“Have graphics mock up a demo of a robot in the image of that actor who played in the movie, what was the movie’s name, something with Failsafe in the title. Check with legal to get permission to use the image. Should be a great show,” Randall was now fully distracted by her earlier comment and the thought of life-ending events. Then he remembered why he had called her into his office. “I’ve got you lined up to talk to the advertising guys tomorrow at nine. We want some short segments and voice-over to get some public interest. The show will run it at 8 p.m. Christmas Eve and then several times during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Even the European guys are willing to kick in for some of the costs.”
It was close to ten o’clock when she walked into the apartment. An early winter snowstorm had come from the south dumping nearly a foot of snow on the city. She was cold and her feet were wet. She dropped her coat on the floor, happy to be home at last. The apartment, like her life lately, was a total mess.
The phone rang a minute later. Sarah searched for the receiver under old newspapers.
“Teddy!” Sarah recognized his voice.
“Who else calls you? I understand from some good sources that you’re now taking up virginity as a profession.”
“It’s been a while.”
“What’s wrong?” He sensed something missing in her voice, confidence, invincibility, he could hear doubt, self doubt, the kind that led to depression or worse.
“I have lots of problems.”
“Where the hell should I start?”
It had been three years since she sent him packing without an explanation. Something he said had set her off and, then it was over. Nice guys like Teddy are too precious to waste in relationships that usually end badly. She needed him more as a friend, than lover. They lived together for five years after graduate school before he went off to Europe on assignment. When he returned, the magic between them seemed over. He left New York for Washington taking the foreign affairs position at the Post, and she accepted the job at WNN. He’d told her then that it would be the kiss of death for her career as an investigative journalist.
“Come see me, Ted. If you love me, come see me now.”
She waited anxiously on the platform at Penn Station for the ACELA high-speed train from D.C. to come to a stop. Rothstein was easy to recognize, even from a distance. Tall, ruggedly handsome, he walked with a sturdy gait. He didn’t slow when he approached her, so she fell in next to him.
“Okay, what’s for lunch,” he took her hand as they walked. Sarah noted that even as he took her hand, he turned his head slightly to follow with his eyes two young girls rushing down the stairs in their tight fitting jeans, trying to catch the northbound train.
“You never grow up Rothstein, do you?”
“I wanted to grow up with you, Sarah” he said mournfully.
“What about Marco’s?” She answered his first question about lunch. It was instinctive, Marco’s, where they had first met and had spent long years over overly starched, but cheap, Southern Italian cuisine.
“You are getting serious,” he laughed. She loved his laugh. Nothing seemed to bother Teddy Rothstein, life rolled off him like water off a seal. “Come on. I’m hungry.”
Marco’s was a West Village hangout. The first restaurant Ted had taken her to when they started graduate school at Colombia. It had been three years since they’d last been there.
A carafe of house red on the table, neither Ted nor Sarah needed to look at the menu. It had never varied in all the many years they’d been coming here.
“So, we’re back here. Why? Change your mind? Offers have time limits, Sarah. Words have consequences.” He hated saying it after he said it.
“Don’t start Teddy. I made mistakes. I’m sorry.”
“I’ve noticed, Sarah, that when times are tough, you call on old reliable Ted. That’s right, isn’t it?”
“Stop it,” she said, realizing how she must have hurt him. “It never was about you; you’re smart enough to know that it was about me. It’s about the secrets I carry inside.”
“What’s changed, Sarah?”
She didn’t answer. The truth was that she was scared about growing old and being alone. But that was not the real reason. He was worth a hundred of her, she had thought, I’m too much a burden with my fears and worries. What she loved about him was what she would, not immediately, but in time destroy. And so she had broken off their affair. But that was then, and this was now. Finally, after a long introspective pause that he noted, she answered simply. “I made a mistake. I’m in love with you Rothstein, always have been, but I’m not really that much in love with myself.” She smiled and looked down at the fast dwindling bowl of marinara and began to eat fearful to look directly at him.
After lunch they walked through Washington Square Park, under the arch, and up Fifth Avenue towards Gramercy Park and mid-town. For a long time they didn’t speak; the cold wind and drifting snow dampened conversation, and the heavy clouds added to a feeling of impending doom. Despite the weather, Sarah was happy to be with him. She felt, for the first time in months, safe even though nothing between had been resolved.
They stopped for coffee around 28th street.
“Okay, why now? What’s changed?” Rothstein asked. Since Marco’s in the Village the question had been turning over and over in his head.
“Something unexpected happened in New Mexico that set me to thinking,” she tried to find the words to explain the confusion she had felt about why he wanted her and her alone. Despite her looks, her success, she had never felt that she was worth much. And it was that lack of self-respect she felt about her own self that had stopped her from letting Ted get close enough to see her fear of losing a friend to gain a lover who would, she was certain, lose interest and hurt her. Sarah had needed a friend more than a lover at that moment, but now, now with her fortune at its lowest, she needed a man who had stood by her in good times and bad.
“I listened to Susan Spenser talk about the ranch, about her parents. I thought about why any relationship, much less one with someone who I truly loved and cared for and didn’t want to be hurt, was something to be feared, stopped, before it went too far. I was afraid, Ted, to love you. I was afraid that I’d wake up some morning and you would be gone. So I couldn’t let myself get too close to anyone I truly cared about for fear of losing him and going to pieces for the loss.”
After a long monologue that rambled in free form from one poorly defined reason to another, he took her hand and held it tight, looking into her eyes. “That’s enough of a confession. What’s happening with your job?”
“WNN is too right of center for me, and it doesn’t let its hosts interact with its commentators like other networks do. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to do investigative work again, but I want to try, I want to believe that my work has meaning.”
Ted knew enough to change the subject. He was curious what else, other Susan Spenser’s belated confession about her child, which had set Sarah afire. “At the ranch,” Ted asked finding it easier to move the topic away from the personal to the professional, “what did you discover that shocked you?”
“It wasn’t a meteor. It was a missile test that must have gone terribly wrong. We found a guidance module in the ground that the Air Force missed finding when they came that night to clean up. But, Ted, there’s more, when Susan was a junior at Smith, she became pregnant. She left Smith at the end of her junior year, gave birth to a daughter; her parents were raising the girl as their own daughter. ”
“What happened to the child? Did they find the body?”
“No, apparently, she was in the barn when the warhead struck. There was a witness--an old Indian who had worked for Mr. Spenser. He told us that she was brought to a man he called ‘the Chief’ and flown away in a helicopter that night.”
“You have all of this on tape?”
“Yes, but as sure as the sun will rise, they won’t touch the story or the truth with a tenfoot pole. I’m including it, at the end, but Randall will cut it for certain.”
“WNN is in the pocket of the special interests and right wing billionaires; they wouldn’t touch this with a ten-foot pole especially if it turned out to embarrass a Republican administration.” Ted reached across the table for Sarah’s hands. They were ice cold.
Outside the snow had started again. It was freezing cold. He remembered another cold, blustery day, a dangerous day along the Afghan – Pakistani border and another hike in cold, forbidding mountains, but this time with General Reinhardt setting the pace.
At the apartment, Sarah struggled to find her key and open the door.
“Haven’t changed a bit, have you?”
“No, what can I say, Ted. Like old times,” she stopped herself from saying more.
He looked around the apartment. She would never be a housekeeper.
Sarah poured two glasses of decent cognac and handed one to Ted before sitting down. Kicking her shoes off, she settled down on the couch.
They sat together watching snow fall just outside the window. Sarah finished her brandy and stood up. She walked to the sideboard and picked up the sphere and handed it to Ted.
“Know what this is?”
He studied the ball for a few minutes.
“I could use some more light.” He now could not read the words engraved on the nameplate.
“Drapper Labs,” he noted on the label with the MilSpec numbers, “probably an inertial guidance module. Where did you find it?”
“Buried, a foot and a half deep, under the house. It didn’t show up on the metal detectors either.”
“That is interesting, probably made out of titanium.”
“What’s interesting Ted,” she happily squeezed down next to him.
“NorthStar, I asked Reinhardt about it yesterday.” He showed her the nameplate.
“Reinhardt was involved,” Sarah, said, “I saw his picture in Carlton’s office. It was a souvenir from the program that he kept tacked on the wall. Why did you ask him about it?”
“Randy asked me to ask Reinhardt. Reinhardt was the project manager considering he had three stars and was running Systems Command at the time so it is highly unusual. Must have been something very black for when I asked about NorthStar, it was as if I had hit him with a cannon ball.”
“Let me show you some footage, shot in California two weeks ago.”
He stood up and followed Sarah to her home office.
“You know who Roger Carlton is?”
“JPL, works with robotic devices in space; he gave a talk on the use of robots in unmanned space vehicles at the Press Club last year.”
“Fifteen years back Carlton was hard at work on Project NorthStar.” She stopped the frame with the photo on the wall clearly visible and enlarged it to fill the screen. “Recognize anyone?”
“Reinhardt’s in the middle, just behind the NorthStar project logo. Carlton is on the one on the far right, but the others, I haven’t a clue. Is there a date on the picture?”
It would have been cutting it close, but Ted and Reinhardt had made it back from Afghanistan by June 10th of that same year. Taking the brandy, Ted walked back to the couch. He had much to think about.
Ted had met Reinhardt at the start of the Afghan war. Three years later, around 2007, Reinhardt organized a trip to inspect Air Force units deployed there; the General was transitioning from Systems Command to Vice-Chief of Staff. They landed at Kandahar just as the Army had lost an Apache Attack helicopter while working with troops from the Tenth Mountain Division, along no-man’s land on a ridge of high mountains separating Pakistan from Afghanistan.
“You can’t say I’m not qualified, can you Colonel?” Reinhardt smiled, “I certainly outrank you by a long shot.”
At that point the Army Colonel gave in, but there would be hell to pay if a three star Air Force officer died trying to rescue two Army warrant officers. Reinhardt quickly organized the rescue mission–a single copter, flying at night, with Reinhardt at the controls, and a squad of Army and Air Force Special-Opts troops. Reinhardt shoved Ted into the copter, as if this was just part of the job for a Washington Post reporter.
“Think of it as a chance for a Pulitzer,” he’d shouted over the din of the helicopter before pushing him into the back with the Special Opts troops.
“I remember the sound of bullets hitting the copter. The noise was terrifying; when a few rounds cut the fuel lines the engines sputtered then stopped, but Reinhardt was able to nurse the copter down by counter-rotating the blades.” He had no time to recover from a ‘miracle’ safe landing before 50 caliber machine gun rounds were turning the thin aluminum shell into scrap metal. As he sat, next to Sarah, in the darkened apartment, the terror of that moment came back in full.
“Get the wounded out of the copter, Rothstein, now,” the General ordered as he came back to inspect the damage. “Wouldn’t look good to have a Jew killed by Islamic extremists would it? Okay move.” Reinhardt lifted one of the injured to his side, while shouldering his pack and weapon. “And, guys, make sure we get all the equipment out. That side looks less dangerous.” He pointed to the side door. “I want you three out there first and lay down a field of fire use the copter as cover, when we’re all clear we move back to those rocks just to the left. Now get a move on it.”
Ted knew then what others knew now that Helmut Reinhardt was one of a kind for there was no hesitation as to what needed to be done. He was in command, unfazed by the steady gunfire that raked the side of the copter.
“At that moment I knew who he was,” Ted said to Sarah remembering the vision, “he was Julius Caesar reincarnate and he had Caesar’s luck, and that luck would save me again.”
“They’ll try to come in for the kill and get what they can from the aircraft,” Reinhardt explained, settling Rothstein down behind rocks. “Bunch of vultures, unless you’re their guest, then, they’ll kill anyone who tries to harm you. He handed him the extra AR-16. “Rothstein, when you see a bad guy in the sight, which you will, shoot to kill please. They’re bad, they will kill you if they can, and you need to kill them first. Understand!”
Reinhardt moved on to the next position. Ted sighted towards the heights above. He looked over at Reinhardt, joking with the troopers, as he scurried from rock to rock.
“Despite his bravado,” Ted said coming out of his dream, “I knew that we were pinned down, probably out gunned too. If he realized that, he didn’t show it. ” His mind wandered to what happened next.
“We have two men badly injured from the crash, another two when they shot up the copter, so we can’t stay here. Radios were shot when they hit the copter and the guy with the spare is back in the copter that, if I’m right, will blow at any moment, so we have to find a way out on our own.” Reinhardt motioned to the others to come closer. “We’ll have to get the wounded to a place so the doc can have some time to work on them. Not far from here, on the other side of the mountain, there’s a good, easily defended, cave. Before we can do anything, we’ll need to get rid of these vultures. Let me see what kind of munitions we saved before the copter burned.
“What happened next?” Sarah asked for Teddy had never told her the story in such detail although she’d read the book’s account. She let her hand ruffle his hair. She could see the tension in his face, as if he were still hunkered down behind the rock.
“It was strange. Once Reinhardt set his mind on the problem, he solved it. There were five good soldiers left, six if you included me, but I wouldn’t put my skills in their class. Three went up the left side; Reinhardt and I covered them, and the last man took a roundabout route, almost crawling up a near vertical incline, taking his time and remaining hidden from the men shooting at us. Once he was above the insurgents, the rest was simple. It took all of fifteen minutes, but the route was cleared. There was no doubt in his decisions, no second guessing, no panic, and the men reacted to his calm with a professionalism that I’m certain no other officer, Army or Marine, could command”
As he talked to her, he re-lived that first night in Afghanistan. He could see the cave; he could hear Reinhardt calling out orders, asking questions, all the while filling one pack with what he and Ted would need.
“ Morris, Spenser, Roberson -- keep anyone from getting within fifty feet of here, unless they know who won the World Series last year. Ted and I will go and get help. It’ll take at least three days, one day out, one day to organize and one day back. Chris, you’re the senior man in charge. If we’re not back in five days, then try to make your way to the closest friendly village on your own. I marked a couple reasonably safe ones on the map. Ready Ted?” Reinhardt threw a half filled pack in his direction, then picked up his own. He saluted the men, went to each of the wounded, offering a few words and, they were off into the night.
“He knew the land, the people, the customs, and the language. He shed blood with these men, along with sharing bread and salt. There was a sense of invincibility about Reinhardt, as if he could not be killed by ordinary means.” Ted recalled.
“Here,” Reinhardt explained, as they hiked up narrow, twisting trails, through hidden slot canyons high above a roaring river, “hospitality is everything. Pashtun honor demands that they protect guests. So, don’t worry,” Reinhardt, grinned, “we’ll not be murdered in our sleep.”
Sarah let her hand rest on his, she ran her other over his face and pulled him back to the present. He had that faraway look again. She’d seen it before. Just after he’d come back from his first trip to Afghanistan.
“You’re thinking of Reinhardt, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” he stood up, “something he told me last night.”
Pouring two more cognacs, he walked back into the room and handed one to her, then sat down.
“What did he tell you?”
Ted stretched out, resting his head against the back of the couch, and looked up at her. “You’re so beautiful, Sarah Fisher, you are so beautiful,” he let his words drop off and he started to close his eyes. “And, I think I still love you.”
“What did he tell you,” she shook him. “What?”
“It’s a long story, and it’s not for now, not for tonight Sarah, tomorrow we have time to think. Too much cognac, too little sleep,” he mumbled.
She helped him to the bed. He undressed slowly as she watched. It felt good to have a man close again.
The complete story, The Rings of Armageddon, can be purchased for a small amount at Amazon Kindle either in e-book or print formats.
9. Ghost Ranch
Sarah was about to give up hope of finding Susan Spenser, then she came across an old address book with a slip of paper inside that held Susan’s name, address, and phone number.
She called the number expecting the phone to be disconnected, but instead a woman answered. She had been Susan’s landlord years before, but she had another number, more recent, with a DC area code to try.
Susan Spenser put the phone down. She surveyed the cluttered, one room efficiency that she could barely afford in Wheaton, Maryland. She imagined Sarah lived in a nice apartment with a view of the New York skyline complete with a boyfriend or even a husband. By now she might well have a few children with a live in housekeeper or nanny. Things might have been different for her if she had not been so damaged by the time she had left New Mexico for college.
Her problems, however, had started long before she met Sarah at Smith. It began in Chicago, when she was fifteen years old. Her parents uprooted her from the comfortable life on Chicago’s Lakeshore Drive and transported her, kicking and screaming, to an isolated sheep and goat ranch in the middle of the Jemez Mountains of Northern New Mexico. After the accident, the ranch a burned out hulk, her parents and the little girl dead, she’d moved often, rarely holding a job for longer than a year at a time. Between the drugs and the abusive boyfriends, and the lack of close friends or relatives to set her straight, she fallen into the trap of poverty.
Susan didn’t have the guts to tell Sarah that a trip to New York was beyond her financial means. Instead, she borrowed the $ 15 for the one-way ride on the Chinatown bus to the city. Whatever money left to her after her parents death, was long gone. The ranch remained unsold and the property taxes unpaid for years.
“You look great,” Sarah lied noting the chalky color of her complexion and the sadness in her eyes. They were the same age, but Susan looked ten years older.
“I don’t feel great.” She was always tired and there was a pain that would not go away in her lower abdomen. Without health insurance, she hesitated to see a doctor.
“Come on, let me show you around,” Sarah was excited to see Susan after so many years.
Sarah took her first to the Top of the Sixes for drinks, then to a small restaurant near Gramercy Park for dinner. Once back at her apartment, they both kicked off their shoes. Sarah talked – about the job, about Teddy Rothstein, about living in New York. Susan listened quietly. She had barely said a word since dinner.
“Still the wild one, Sue?” Sarah probed as she sat comfortably on her over stuffed couch, her legs tucked underneath, sipping brandy.
“I barely can afford a movie, much less a bar Sarah,” she answered letting her voice trail off. “It’s as if I’ve fallen into a deep well and every time I am almost to the top, I fall back in and have to struggle to climb out again.”
Sarah didn’t quite know what to say. Her world was filled with successful people, not failures, even if she felt sometimes like a failure herself.
“You’ve done well Sarah.” Susan looked around at the expensive furnishings.
“I’m getting too old for the work; this show is a wake-up call for me. Soon, I’ll be on the graveyard shift; then, it’s time to quit.”
“The networks like pretty new faces; I’ve been around too long. I’m getting stuck with the early morning shifts; next year, it’ll be worse. I’m too much a reporter to want to be an actress mouthing other people’s words. And I’m too liberal in spite of my rather conservative up-bringing for WNN’s rather more right wing, corporate, viewpoint. WNN isn’t a network that takes chances, letting its show hosts make up their own questions for the talking heads they have on unless they are fully in the mold of the owners, the Markson brothers Libertarian philosophy of limited government, low taxes, and Republican-Calvinism. Let me see,” she paused thinking about why she hated her job, at least the one she had now, “I’m also bored, tied from getting up at two in the morning five days a week, lonely,” then she added, “but of course the money is good, but there’s more to life than money.”
“Money would be nice,” Susan said with a laugh looking around with a bit of envy.
“After you left school, what happened?” Sarah asked.
“It’s a long story, how much time do you have?”
“All the time in the world,” pouring another glass of brandy and handed it to Susan.
Winnie brought along shovels, rakes and several handheld GPS devices to map the exact locations of the meteor fragments. She also carried a high quality digital camera to document the site and collection baskets. Sarah had a budget of $ 10,000 for the segment, which was more than WNN usually spent on human-interest stories, but objects falling out of the sky had recently become bigger stories after the latest sighting of a meteor that had caused panic across the entire North American continent until it landed harmlessly in the North Atlantic. The trail of bright light had been seen by more than 50 million people. She rented an RV in Albuquerque that slept four; Winnie and the students would sleep in tents for the trip to the ranch about an hour and a half away.
Sarah flew Susan Spenser in from Washington to Albuquerque. She even convinced Randall to pay Susan $ 1000 for the use of her property and the loss of pay too.
“Look familiar?” Sarah asked Susan as they turned off the main highway and onto Route 4, a narrow road that wound its way up through the Jemez Valley towards Los Alamos fifty miles away. They passed through dirt-poor trailer parks that sat between the road and the river. Route 4 wound through the Jemez Pueblo with its adobe houses and grinding poverty. The road climbed gradually past soaring red rock walls and into a forest of junipers, pinion and ponderosa pine. Susan, however, had only painful memories of long hours spent with her mother traveling through these mountains to get groceries in Los Alamos fifty miles away or to shop in Albuquerque, another fifty miles. As they climbed higher, following the river, towards Jemez Springs, bright sun gave way to gray storm clouds, further darkening Susan’s mood. As they passed into the higher elevations the trees become tall and substantial as Pinion Pines gave way for Ponderosa Firs and Aspens. Susan stared mournfully when they passed the entrance to Jemez Regional High School. There she had been a duck out of water – an Eastern snob among sometimes barely literate New Mexicans, Anglos, Indians, and Mexican immigrants children. She couldn’t remember a single name or face in her graduating class. The education had been second rate, and the graduation rate had been in the low 50’s with most dropping out in their junior year. She was admitted to Smith as a legacy from her mother and the nearly perfect straight A’s from this New Mexican high school.
“Odd looking place, New Mexico,” Don Evans, one of the two cameramen, remarked as the large vehicle negotiated the twisting, turning, narrow road. It was his first time in the Land of Enchantment, and he was less enchanted by the spiritual nature of the varied landscape of the high desert and mountains, with perennial bright blue skies than trying to keep the large vehicle on the road.
“Gets worse,” Susan said sharply recalling her first look at this moonscape so many years before. For the first weeks, when her parents were working to fix up the ranch and get her settled in, she’d barely spoke to them. She’d moped around the dilapidated old sheep ranch. Sometimes, she’d climb to the top of the rise, just above the ranch, and sit for hours, staring blankly into space at the distant dry peaks.
Don Evans, who was driving the SUV, missed the turn-off for the ranch. They had to turn around and ask directions in Jemez Springs. Recent rains rutted the unpaved dirt forest road, so it was slow going for the big van up the steep incline. After two miles of rough driving, they came to the rusted metal gate. Susan had the key and unlocked it. Three quarters of an hour later, after covering less than three miles, the road made a sharp turn to the right and started to descend. Susan asked Sarah to stop the van on a low rise just above the last quarter mile to the ranch. Getting out, Susan stared in the direction where the ranch house had once stood down below.
Sarah motioned to the others to wait and remained next to Susan.
“I don’t know if I can do it Sarah.”
“I was such a shit to them, to Molly too.”
“You were young.”
“No fucking excuse.” She rubbed the tears from her eyes and turned towards Sarah. “I’m okay now. We better get down before it gets dark.”
The light was fading as the sun set behind the cliffs that, at one time, surrounded the house and barn.
The vans made their way slowly down the road choked with native grasses and brush.
“Where shall we set up the tents?” Winnie asked.
“You decide. The house was over there and the barn behind it.” Susan pointed out the obvious.
“What’s wrong?” Sarah asked noticing Susan clutch her abdomen, then let go.
“Nothing, just a pain, comes and goes,” but the words didn’t help. Her period was late again. She felt bloated and had put on weight over the past year. She had read articles about ovarian cancer in women in age.
“You okay?” Sarah asked.
“Nothing really, I’m just out of shape.” She found a seat on an old log that had been left at one end of the property. Sarah sat next to her.
“You didn’t like living here, did you?”
“I hated it.”
Winnie marshaled the students like a General. One large tent for collection and examination; a second tent was for sleeping. The third tent open on three sides, housed the cook stove and folding tables. A small electric generator provided light and power to the electric cook top and thermoelectric refrigeration unit. By seven o’clock, Winnie had cooked a hot meal.
“Not bad for roughing it,” said one of the camera crew sitting down near Sarah on a folding chair. He stared at one of the undergraduates openly.
“This is business, not pleasure Freddy, so keep hands off the co-eds.”
“You’re no fun boss.”
And she was the boss. If this failed to produce the desired ratings, it might be her last hurrah too.
After dinner and conversation, the group broke-up. Sarah watched Susan walking alone at the edge of the ruins of the ranch house. There was only some rotting wood. The summer monsoon rains that fell in torrents and then disappeared almost immediately into the parched ground had driven the ashes into the soil. The foundation of the house was still there; adobe bricks take a long time to return to the earth from which they were formed.
“Not much left, is there?” Sarah said quietly.
“Only the ghosts,” Susan walked back towards the campsite.
The next morning work started in earnest almost at first light. Using stakes and strings, Winnie laid out a search grid. Stakes were placed along major axes of the house and string, drawn from opposing stakes, creating a matrix of ten-foot by ten-foot squares covering the entire surface where the house had stood. Don Evans filmed the work. The other cameraman filmed Sarah interviewing Winnie about her past experience in hunting for fragments from Greenland to Antarctica. Susan wandered off lost in her thoughts as she remembered all the hours of her lost childhood stuck in this semi-wilderness, angry and upset at her parents and at her lot in general.
Hours passed, and so far nothing of importance had been found. The burned timbers were carefully moved away and the debris cleared layer by layer. Using metal detectors the students combed the ground, their eyes searching for the telltale fragments of ferrous rocks.
The failure to find anything worried Sarah; she paced back and forth nervously. Winnie had warned her that often the shards were almost micro sized and difficult to discover. Much of the falling space rock was lost in combustion disappearing before it reached the earth.
“Find anything?” she asked hopefully.
“Lots of stuff, but none of it makes sense, I’m afraid. Looks like some kind of impact,” she pointed to how the top of the roof had caved in, “but the house was burned afterwards. I guess to make it look like the meteor destroyed the entire structure, still smells of less like kerosene more like aviation fuel.”
“What are you saying? It was arson that destroyed the house and the barn?”
“Might have started with the hot rock, but after that someone put a torch and some kerosene to it to make sure there was nothing left. I’d bet a thousand dollars that the barn was destroyed afterwards by kerosene, probably some kind of jet fuel, likely JP4 or JP5, I would guess.” Winnie pulled a piece of charred timber from the rubble and held it to Sarah’s nose. It still smelled of kerosene, we’ll get it analyzed when we return to school.”
“That was clearly arson.”
“You say that it was blown apart from the air, and then burned?”
“That’s my guess.”
Sarah felt suddenly sick. Randall would have her head. “I’m sorry to have dragged you out here.”
“I could be wrong.” Winnie said staring at the students still searching in the debris. “What’s odd is that something fell on the house, blew it apart. If it wasn’t a meteor, then it was something like a meteor. Maybe some space debris that someone or some government just didn’t want to be held responsible for. ”
They worked until dusk and then the students, exhausted from the search, collapsed on their mattresses until dinner. Sarah dished out the food that she and Susan had prepared. Without any evidence of a meteor, there was no reason to stay on tomorrow.
The next morning Winnie sent the students to clear the middle part of the fallen structure more carefully. Susan was nowhere to be found. Don Evans put his camera down. He walked over to where Sarah watched.
“Lots of film, not much to show,” he said. “Randall will be pissed.”
“I warned Randall; but he wanted to do it. His problem, not mine,” Sarah stated but she suspected that Randall would conveniently forget that she had warned him of the risks of not finding anything.
It was after lunch that Sarah noticed a sudden knot of students around Winnie near the center of the grid, where the middle of the house had once stood. Winnie was studying the ground on her hands and knees.
“Did you find something?” Sarah asked, as Evans came running up with the camera.
“Something, don’t know what,” she pushed aside the ash and dirt. “Look at that?”
Sarah looked. It was a small round object not much larger than a grape fruit. It was about a foot deep in the dirt.
Sarah moved away describing what she saw as Evans pointed the camera towards where Winnie held the object they’d found. Sarah hoped there would be enough light for a clear shot, but she would take more shots once they were back in the tent.
“What is it?” Sarah asked Winnie.
“Damn if I know, but it was part of what hit the house.”
Sarah knelt down into the dirt as Evans filmed. Winnie, kneeling next to her, dusted off the last remaining sand and lifted the sphere from where it lay. It was surprisingly heavy for its size. She studied it in the bright light of the noonday sun.
“Weighs about seven pounds, perfectly spherical,” she showed it to the camera. At one end there was something that was decidedly un-meteor-like; it was a round socket into which an electrical connector once fit. “Let’s get this thing cleaned up. Chris, Laura,” Winnie called out to two of the students. “I want you to work backwards from this spot, about ten feet in all directions, pick up everything that isn’t dirt or ash, mark where you found it on the grid sheets. The rest of you come with me.”
She led the small group towards the command tent. Winnie brought out solvents and started to clean the carbon off the sphere.
“Definitely man-made,” Winnie examined it under the halogen lamp in the collection tent.
Winnie carefully cleaned the outside of the sphere with solvents. “We’ll do some more tests, but there’s no evidence of high explosives in the debris, so it was simply kinetic energy in the warhead that collapsed the roof and started the fire.”
“How do you know?” Sarah asked.
“If it held explosives, then this would not be in intact and we’d get some residue on the wood. My guess is that it was a missile test gone badly,” she said, continuing to clean the surface. Winnie showed Sarah what was engraved on the surface. Sarah read the words slowly -- Drapper Labs, MIT, Project NorthStar, Mil Spec. SSGS12-3.
“Get a good close shot of this, Don,” Sarah pointed to the sphere. “I’ll add the voice-over later when we edit.”
The name NorthStar was familiar, but she couldn’t recall why. Only later did remember the picture on the wall in Carlton office.
“In what quadrant did you find these in?” Winnie asked, as the two students came in with small pieces of blackened ceramic material.
“B-10 and B-13 both are about fifteen feet from the point where we found the sphere.”
“Good work. You have a map, Laura?”
Laura showed her the diagram. It looked like a crude version of a spider web. Each square had a mark. Winnie studied the points and the pattern. Then she looked up. “Reminds me of the Columbia accident,” she said thinking back for that wild goose hunt in the deserts of West Texas, “we hunted for weeks for scraps this big.”
“We’ll do some simulation analysis back in Ithaca, but I’d say it had a very steep trajectory and was traveling very fast when it hit. Unlikely to have come from an aircraft Sarah,” she looked at the sphere as she spoke, “hardly enough kinetic energy to have destroyed the house like it did. And the burn marks we found on the upper rafter timbers could only come if the heat shield was burning. These are bits and pieces of heat shield. Likely, whatever struck the house started out well beyond the atmosphere?”
“What do you think Susan?” Sarah asked after leaving the tent.
“I came out after the accident. I didn’t spend more than an hour walking around here with the Sheriff. They only found two of the three bodies, but I didn’t care. I accepted the possibility that my sister was likely buried under the rubble or had burned up in the fire. It was over. I was free of them at last. Fuck!”
Susan stopped. The time to lie was over. “My sister, strange isn’t it, how you try to forget the bad things Sarah. She was not my sister; she was the child I had when I dropped out of Smith. Of course I wasn’t her mother, I had met her only twice or three times in my life after giving birth. But I think you know the truth don’t you? She wasn’t my sister. You of all people should know that.”
It all made sense now. Susan had left pregnant, it was too late for an abortion. The girl was three when the accident had occurred.
“She was your daughter, wasn’t she?”
Sarah placed her arm around her friend and hugged her tight.
“You remember when I left Smith at the end of our junior year?”
“You were pregnant,” Sarah answered having figured out the truth, “why didn’t you just get rid of it.”
“It was too late; really I wanted an excuse to leave. I was failing there. God only knows who the father was. Could have been a half a dozen boys from Amherst or U-Mass, I wasn’t selective about who used me. I had the baby, and I handed it to my mother and left. I came back once when Molly was three for a few days, about six months before the accident. Some mother, right?” She was shaking. Sarah tightened her grip, but it didn’t help. It didn’t stop the sobbing.
Sarah moved her cot outside; the cold night air was bracing. She buried herself in the mummy bag, pulling the straps tightly around her to try to keep warm. A rustling sound caught her attention. There were black bears in the area and the last thing they needed was one in the camp. Sliding out of the sleeping bag, she reached for the flashlight.
At first, she saw nothing in the darkness, just a vague shape near a pile of black plastic trash bags thirty feet from the RV. Sarah pointed the light towards the garbage dump and she saw him, a small man, hunched over the bags. He started to run.
He tripped on the cameraman sleeping under the stars fifty feet from where he started his escape. Sarah caught up and knelt down to help him. He was an old man, by his looks, an Indian.
“Are you okay?”
He didn’t speak, but instead held his hands up over his face.
“Let him go Sarah,” Susan said coming up quickly, “I know him.” Behind her came Winnie and a few of the co-eds. “I know him.” She repeated.
“Ben,” she said kneeling, so that she was on eye level with him, “it’s me, Susan? Do you remember me?”
He looked at her through dimming eyes. How many winters had passed since the child went away? She was the young girl who he had called Thunder because of her anger, but she was too old to be the child that was taken away.
“I see your face,” he said starting to rise, but then stumbled. Susan helped him to stand.
It was late when Sarah asked the old man the question that had been left unsaid while he ate. “The night of the accident, were you here?” She could see him tense. He didn’t speak, as if he were trying to remember or to forget that night. When he spoke, he spoke, his voice was a mere whisper.
“The wind was blowing hard that night. It came down the canyon, I saw the light streak across the sky from the north, then the sound, like thunder rolling, but there was no rain. The night was clear, only the wind. Fire lit the sky.” He looked around at the ruins that were just beyond the edge of the row of cars and camper buses. “The roof was gone; your father always said it would kill them someday. I tried to get them out, but it was too late, they were buried, dead in their beds.”
“And the barn?” Sarah asked.
“It was there,” he looked over towards the ruins, hidden in the dark shadows and only lit by the light of the full moon, where the barn had stood.
“What happened next?”
“Noise, like beating wings, fast from over the mountains, many copters came from the sky. I ran from the house, hid over there, in the pines, and watched. Thump, thump, thump,” Ben repeated the sound of that night etched deeply into his memory. “The fire died in the house and they searched the building. They had strong lights. It was like day. They looked through the house first, then the barn.”
Susan saw him stare at the barn.
“The girl was in the barn. They brought her to the Chief.”
“The child?” Susan asked shaken, “Molly?”
“The girl with golden hair,” the Indian said adding detail, “they carried her to the Chief. He flew away.” Ben pointed towards where the helicopter had gone to the West.
The next morning Sarah made him retell the story to the camera.
Kareem Al Sadawi was a minor link in the global chain of terror. Years before September 11th, he worked in the United States. After that date, the Americans declined to renew his visa, forcing him to leave his job at JPL and return to Lebanon. He felt betrayed by his adopted country and was willing to do something to avenge his honor.
On his return to Beirut, he had taken a position as Professor of Engineering and Computer Science at the American University. The pay was one third of his former salary, and he was frustrated by life in Beirut with its own problems with extremists and the look of a moonscape in some parts of the city due to the Israeli-Lebanese War of 2006 that saw Israel laying ruin to Hezbollah strongholds in the city’s urban slums. .
For the past five years, he’d worked secretly to develop an “intelligence gathering” cell to collect information that could be of some use to Hamas or Al Qaeda using dedicated software to search the world wide web for clues as to what the Americans were up to in the Middle East not reported in the New York Times. In truth he was a frustrated man trying to become important.
“What are you doing Kareem?” his girlfriend asked. She lay on the bed waiting impatiently for him to come over as she watched Ali’s fingers fly over the keys.
“Searching for critical information,” he turned to look at her and wondered why he bothered with these immature creatures uninterested politics.
She came up close, placed her hands on his shoulders, and pressed against his back with her breasts. He kept typing. Then looking back, taking her hand as he stood up, he led her back to the bed with its bedsheets all ajar, and the heavy scent of recent sex laying a thin veneer on its synthetic surface.
“Go home.” He said after settling her on the bed once again, “time for children to leave.”
She chose not to move; she was too comfortable. He had enough of the girl; he stopped mid-way and returned to the bed, reaching down, he rolled her out of the bed. She spit at him as he gathered up her cloths and pushed her out into the hallway slamming the door almost in her face.
Kareem went back to the computer. Years before, he managed to break into the JPL computer system; after all, he helped design the firewall before the FBI had discovered things about his past and his current company that had led to his loss of a security clearance and being booted out of the country with his name placed on a No Fly List that made it hard for him to even get to Western Europe now. Rarely was there anything except office gossip in these e-mails, but from time to time there might be something of possible interest too.
Preceding through the new e-mails accumulated in his JPL file he saw several exchanges between Roger Carlton and a man at the Los Alamos labs.
Reading the traffic between Carlton and Ben Arnstein, who headed a Weapons Research Group at Los Alamos, he grew excited. There were references to General Reinhardt, to Lockheed’s super-secret ‘Skunkworks’, to Stanley Marks at Draper Labs, and to a ‘Project NorthStar’. He added these names to his watch list and set his internet-spiders to work searching for more clues.
Taking what he’d discovered with him, he went to work. In between classes, he met with a carefully selected group of students committed to bringing down the American Empire in the Middle East. They held the United States responsible for Assad remaining in power in Syria and the Russians becoming more entrenched in the Middle East. Either the United States acted like a mouse, as it had in the beginning in the Syrian war, or as a lion, with equally disastrous results for the defense-less peoples of the Middle East and Central Asia.
“So what do you think,” he asked finally.
“It’s part of the Star Wars defense system,” one student suggested, “probably has something to do with lasers. They might use a small nuclear weapon to create sufficient energy to destroy a warhead at the highest point on its trajectory.”
“A weapon that they abandoned,” another suggested. “You see the reference to the failure to activate in Arnstein’s e-mail to Carlton. You see when Arnstein says it would have led to a new arms race and that it was impossible to defend against the meaning is clear.”
The only woman in the group, Hannah, pulled the bits together, her theory made the most sense.
“They placed nuclear weapons in space,” she said with a smile, “but didn’t complete the project. Something stopped them before they made it operational.”
Kareem watched the others nod in agreement. The immoral Americans were capable of almost any hypocrisy.
“We will have to spend some time thinking like an American.” He said as he started to leave.
“And, then what?” Kareem asked.
“We will find someone, perhaps General Reinhardt himself, who knows the truth.”
Katherine “Kate” Reinhardt stood outside her trailer with sweat pouring down her face and soaking her dress leaving permanent stains. She’d come to the Palestine Territories, Israel’s Occupied West bank, two years before with a goal of starting a school to prepare young women for the modern world. Her goal was to teach practical skills. But, after a year fighting the Israeli’s and the Palestinian authorities for permission, and this year trying to enroll enough young women to make it useful, she was tired and exhausted. In the end, she’d yielded to the authorities so the curriculum was light on practical skills, her original goal, and heavy on religion and politics.
Approaching her trailer after a day of teaching, she stopped suddenly for there was a tall, well-dressed man standing just outside, smoking a cigarette. When he saw her, he snuffed it out and approached with a broad smile.
“Who are you and what do you want?”
“Just a few minutes of your time, Miss Reinhardt” he said coming closer.
“Press or the police?” she asked.
“Charles Michael Smith,” Smith handed her his card. “I write for the Times of London, The Guardian, and when I’m lucky the New York Times.”
“Are you going to call me the ‘Mad German of Palestine’, or has that been copyrighted already?”
“No, not at all; it was rather catchy, but I’m afraid I’m less stylistically flamboyant. My style has been described as fact-based pedantic, but I prefer to think I simply write good readable prose. ”
The longer he spoke, the more certain she was that he wasn’t a journalist, although she didn’t doubt that was his cover, more likely he was another foreign intelligence operative sent to keep an eye on her while she was on dangerous ground probably as a favor to her cousin, Helmut. Still he was handsome, in an angular, English, sort of way, and she welcomed the friendly banter in English, far easier for her than Arabic.
“Perhaps, if it is something serious Charles, we should go inside.” She recoiled from the blast of hot air as the flimsy door of the trailer opened.
“I have a far better idea. It’s too hot in this paradise for beggars, thieves, and murderers. Gather your passport and we will adjourn to the Israeli side of the Green line.”
“Is this a trap?” Katherine asked, quite wary of Israeli intrigues.
“No, does it seem like that, just an invitation to dinner where they know what an air conditioner is and how to mix a dry martini.”
He didn’t look dangerous and she was exhausted from months in the heat. “Let me freshen up and see if I have anything to wear.”
The trailer doubled as the headquarters of her NGO; the money came from her family and friends, and occasionally, from strangers too. Her goal in coming to work on the West Bank, in Israeli occupied Palestine, was to set up a school to teach practical skills to Palestinian girls. But working here was like no other place on earth. People were caught in a web of hatred and were told half-truths to keep them fighting. It was a losing battle against Israeli’s and the Palestinian’s own leadership. Of course she realized the futility of the task, trying to teach skills for the modern world when the men only wanted to make them into cannon fodder or slaves.
Katherine changed into the one good dress she brought with her when she came back from Germany six months before. She had never worn it here. The fabric was a fine silk weave that followed the lines of her body, stopping just above her knees. She was tired of covering up, wearing long dresses in stifling heat, covering her head and hiding her hair.
The trip to central Jerusalem, from just outside Ramallah, should take no more than 30 minutes. To cross the border required an additional two hours. They waited in a long line watching armored vans and buses carrying settlers quickly pass through special authorization gates.
The Israeli border guard studied her German passport and the visa that allowed her to live and work on the Palestinian side. Katherine watched nervously as he made a few calls. After what seemed an eternity, he returned and handed her back the passport.
“You’ll need to renew your Visa in a few weeks Miss Reinhardt,” he studied her face carefully before handing it back.
“Does that happen each time you cross?” Smith asked with a laugh.
“I’ve only tried it twice since I’ve been here.”
“No, but I will get the damn thing extended. They don’t dare deny me a visa. I think there are people in Israel who also worry about me,” she said knowing that many Israeli government people didn’t like the idea of having a close cousin of the American Chief of Staff living in the midst of extremists and terrorists.
“Not surprising. You are, after all, writing stories of your experiences and posting them on your website. But, I suppose they are concerned about your safety. ”
“Why is that Mr. Smith?”
“Your relationship to General Reinhardt, of course, they wouldn’t want anything to happen to you that might jeopardize their good relations with him.”
She was certain that she wasn’t well liked by either the Israelis or Palestinians. Whatever contribution she could make to the lives of the girls in her school was destroyed by the facts on the ground. There were no jobs after graduation.
“Katherine, or should I call you Kate,” Smith asked as they approached the Sheraton.
“How did you know that?” she asked, surprised by his use of her nickname.
“I interviewed your cousin in Washington. He’s quite worried about you.”
“Helmut?” she suddenly felt a rush of adrenaline. “Why did you interview him?”
“He’s running for President next time around, he’s taken a somewhat less sympathetic approach to the Israeli-Palestinian divide than you apparently have. I thought you might like to give the other side of the picture to his views.”
“Don’t do me any favors, Charles,” Kate pulled away, “it will make my life a bit harder than it already is.” She walked into the hotel agitated by the thought of another article published in a British newspaper calling attention to her work.
“Perhaps,” he said catching her inside the lobby, “a different approach might be better. Truce,” he stuck out his hand.
“No more mention of Cousin Helmut, okay?”
“A deal,” he said, “come on Kate, I promised you a meal, but I would bet you’d like a bath first, that trailer didn’t look like it had any proper facilities.”
She was hungry for attention, the kind paid by a man, almost any would do. And the idea of a proper bath in the cool comfort of an air-conditioned room was alluring. She overcame her normal reluctance to accept anything without knowing the full cost involved, and followed him into the elevator.
“What did Helmut say about me?” Kate asked, curious about her cousin’s true feelings about his young cousin. The relationship, like other things about her life, was complicated by Reinhardt’s celebrity and the wide difference in their ages.
“He said that poor Kate was confused about right and wrong, but that your heart was in the right place. He also said that he loved you, and worried about you.”
“And what’s your opinion, Charlie?” She kicked off her shoes and sat down on the overstuffed armchair.
“You’re the archetype of a self-loathing German. You carry German guilt despite the fact that the events were long ago. It’s your excuse for embracing the world’s problems as your own. That’s the standard definition of someone like you Kate, but I suspect the reason is not so textbook and clearcut.”
“Did my cousin have the same opinion? What did he tell you about me?”
“He said you were adopted, that your life, before you came into the family was difficult, but that he’s known you for a long time.”
“Did he tell you that we were roommates at one time?”
“When?” Smith asked.
“I was nineteen. I was in school at Georgetown. Helmut was kind enough to put me up, in exchange for my quite excellent cleaning and cooking skills.”
Smith saw something more in her look as she talked about Reinhardt. There was a story there that went beyond big brother-little sister.
After a long shower, Kate felt better. Before leaving the bathroom, she cracked the door and peeked out at Smith. There was something ruggedly attractive about this Englishman.
Smith took her to one of the better restaurants in Jerusalem. Perhaps he’d planned it that way or it was simply chance, It was too late to return to her trailer by the time they finished.
“Okay Charles, let’s be brutally honest with one another,” she said once they had returned to the hotel room. There, dressed in only his pajama top, she leaned against the pillows on the oversized bed luxuriating in the cool air.
Smith poured two glasses of cognac from the bottle he had had sent up earlier. Handing her one, he sat on the bed next to her.
“Friendship,” he suggested raising his glass, “just that.”
“Are you queer?” She smiled wondering.
“No! It’s simply a matter of good sense. I like you too much to abuse our relationship. I’ll take the other bed.” He said moving over to the second bed in the room.
She had not expected that from him.
“I’m flattered that you like me, but there’s more to this than simply a story, isn’t there? I’m a big girl and I can take the truth.”
“I’m researching a book. My thoughts are to interview young women who have taken up causes, usually hopeless ones, but continue to pursue them despite the odds, sometimes even beating the odds, succeeding.”
“I suppose it’s the Mother Teresa syndrome?” Kate said sipping the drink and letting the alcohol to take effect. “And why do you believe women, especially Germans, are attracted to these hopeless causes. Am I right, Charles?”
“Post-war guilt,” he repeated the stock answer trivializing her commitment.
“I was born long after the war ended. Besides, I’m working on the wrong side of the Green line for that theory to hold. Try something else.”
“Extreme confusion, perhaps” he suggested with a laugh. “After all Arabs hate other Arabs just as passionately as they ate Israelis. Nor do all problems come with a ‘Made in USA’ label’ or perhaps you really don’t like your cousin?”
He offered a smile as if he were making a joke, but for Kate, it wasn’t a joke, she wasn’t sure about Helmut and her relationship to him, it bothered her too.
He dropped her off the next morning at the border crossing with a promise to take her to the beach near Tel Aviv next week. It was something to look forward to despite her doubts about who, exactly, Charles Smith was working for.
Some of her anger at the unfairness of life in the Territories returned as she watched Israeli guards harass Palestinian workers returning home. Still, Smith had made some good points suggesting the problem came from entrenched positions on both sides of the border. As she crossed into Palestinian territory she looked up as two Israeli F-16’s fly high overhead, their high-pitched roar drowned out the hubbub and noise at the crossing. At that moment, she thought of Helmut and smiled.
Sarah had not seen the movie Twenty Minutes to Failsafe, a story about a massive asteroid on a collision course with the earth before it’s shoved off course by a bunch of roughnecks led by a burley former pro-wrestler, turned actor, when it came out back in the early 1990’s, so she rented it to watch at home that evening. After seeing it, she had nightmares for almost a week.
“No Miss Fisher,” the Space Guard public affairs officer chirped happily when she called California, “no problem setting up a meeting. We can also provide you with a short video that show what a kilometer or larger NEA might do if it made its way into the atmosphere. Sure won’t be a pretty sight.”
Sarah thought of the over muscled actor who was the lead in the movie as the Air Force officer spoke earnestly about the risks.
“What’s a NEA?”
“Near Earth Asteroid, little pieces of misery over one kilometer in size. It could literally wipe out life, as we know it. Hit a point just off the East coast and good by New York and Boston.”
“Like killing all the dinosaurs,” Sarah laughed nervously.
“More like killing all humans,” the Air Force officer said in sotto voce. “So far we’ve not found any that large, but it’s always possible that one will make it through undetected. We think we’ve caught about half of the ones out there in deep space that might get close. Frankly, there are lots of gravitational slingshots that can change a benign orbit into a dangerous one.”
“What’s a gravitational sling-shot?”
“Each planet, moon, and our sun, has a distinct signature in terms of its attraction to objects in motion, you know, Isaac Newton 101. If you get more than two lines of gravitational pull working together you increase the speed of the object and change its direction. If they are working against each other, then you slow it down. Astronomers and geophysicists spend a lot of time trying to figure out what all these forces do to the orbits of deep space objects.”
Sarah had nodded off just after he made it to gravitational pull, but she awoke enough after he stopped droning to set up a time to bring a film crew out to JPL in Pasadena. While watching the actor in the asteroid movie destroys the asteroid one more time, she started plan an approach that would be both scientific and also spark human interest. After a couple of hours, she realized that she needed more information on asteroids and the real danger they posed to the planet. The JPL space search group had a vested interest in frightening people, if for no other reason, than to insure next year’s budget was appropriated. The theme had to be more down to earth, more personal in order to vest viewers in the show. One way was to show that if a meteor strikes it can kill; and that it’s not so rare an occurrence or improbable Australia was just too far to travel for the show. What she needed was an event that ended someone’s life that was closer to home.
In the middle of a nightmare about total destruction in which the actor in the movie was holding it back with one hand while stroking her thighs with his other, she remembered why the story had seemed familiar to her. Susan Spenser, her roommate from college, had called her, about fifteen years back, asking if she could give her a reference. She’d dropped out of school the middle of her Junior year, obviously pregnant, and returned to New Mexico, to her families ranch somewhere in that state. While they talked, Susan babbled something about meteor striking the house and killing her parents and her sister. It was a long shot, but unless she could find another human side to the story, then Susan Spenser’s story might have to suffice, that is, if she could find her.
“Where do I go to talk to an expert about meteorites and asteroids?” she asked Connie Smith, the WNN librarian the next morning.
“Dr. Winifred Thomas at Cornell,” Connie answered without a second’s pause.
“Anything you don’t know Connie?”,
“Jameson asked for information on super nova’s and other cosmic things for a special we did last year, so I did a bit of research on the subject of meteors and other objects in space. She’s a disciple of Carl Sagan. Straight shooter, quite down to earth for a college professor, you’ll like her Sarah.”
When she told Ed Randall about needing to interview an expert on meteors at Cornell before she went to see JPL in California, his eyes lit up.
“I’ve got a great idea. Let’s see if I can get you to do an interview with Judith Wilson when you’re there. I bet you that little lady needs all the good publicity she can get right now.”
“Typical male testosterone,” Sarah responded with some anger, “Judith Wilson is no more for peace than other Secretaries have been for war. What Secretary of Defense is for war? ”
Randall laughed. “Let me see what I can do with arranging a meeting with the Dr. Wilson, and you call that other Professor, what’s his name?”
“It’s a woman, Winifred,” she turned on one foot and marched out of the office still angry.
Back in her office, she thought again about Susan. If she hadn’t lied to her about the cause of the accident that killed her parents then ending the segment at the ranch with Susan showing them around the burnt out structures would add the personal to the scientific. So, it was time to dig up Susan again. Where should she start to look? There must be a hundred Susan Spenser’s in the United States assuming she kept her last name the same.
The next Secretary of Defense, Judith Wilson, was seated in her cramped office surrounded by a pile of student papers waiting to be graded. Years before, as a young Assistant Professor of Political Science, she founded Cornell’s Peace Studies Department in response to the belligerent, super-Americanism of the Kelly administration that alternated between calling the Soviet Union the “evil empire” and negotiating treaties to reduce the number of nuclear warheads pointed at each other. Graduates had gone to work in many fields, from law to diplomacy. Some even became military officers, many had populated NGOs dedicated to peace and justice.
She stood by the window looking out at the wet falling snow falling on the gothic buildings of the Cornell campus. She hated to leave. After twenty-five years the view was a familiar. Yet she knew she had no choice. Here was a chance to reshape the military-industrial complex and to shake-up the Pentagon.
She was also well aware that the task before her might not be achievable. McNamara was probably the last to do so successfully only to use this new organizational structure with its modernized logistic chains to fight an unwinnable war 10,000 miles away in Vietnam; Forrestal tried but became bogged down in Iraq. One thing she did know was General Helmut Reinhardt, whose departure was rumored to be before the New Year, had crossed the imaginary line and had to go. She was hardly naïve as to the threats facing the country and the world and she resented the idea that either she, or the new President, Kirsten Anderson, were so stupid as to now see the obvious, as General Reinhardt had said, ‘we live in a dangerous world’.
The knock at the door startled her. Her part-time secretary, a harried graduate student on a work-study grant, looked in.
“They’re ready for you in the conference room Dr. Wilson.”
Straightening her suit jacket, decidedly different from the jeans and work shirt she normally wore to the office on the days she didn’t teach, she walked down the hallway towards the lion’s den.
Sarah stood up when Judith Wilson entered the room. She was a short woman so Sarah towered over her. Ron Evans, the cameraman, quickly touched up her face before switching on the lights.
“Now that you’ve made me into something I’m not,” she smiled, “let’s get this over with.”
“Dr. Wilson your appointment was not universally applauded,” Sarah asked. “Does this bother you?”
“No, not really,” she leaned forward. “I expected that reaction. And no, Sarah,” Judith smiled brightly, “I’m not planning on trying to change the name from Defense to Peace. All nations, free or totalitarian, have a right and duty to defend their sovereignty. We all live in dangerous neighborhoods.”
“Then you won’t try to cut the defense budget?”
“Let’s put the defense budget into perspective. America spends roughly the same amount on defense as all the other countries in the world combined. Even if we reduced our expenditures by one half, we would still outspend every other country individually. I’m not calling for significant reductions, only redirections towards much needed equipment maintenance and supplies. At the present time we would run out of munitions and spare parts within three or six months with little chance of replacements coming from cold production lines. We have too many orphan systems. I want to see our military buy only what is needed and maintain it so it can be used and there is a sufficient logistics tail to sustain a long duration conflict if necessary.”
“What kind of force mix are you looking to build Dr. Wilson?” Sarah asked sounding more knowledgeable than she knew she was on the subject of force mix and strategic doctrine.
“Forrestal started the process. I have to give him credit for forward thinking, but he got waylaid in the task by having to fight wars we were ill prepared to fight. I want to encourage the military to think seriously about how to fight insurgencies and then propose force structures that meet that challenge without losing sight of how to deter our old adversaries, Russia and China. Right now we are invested mainly in Special Operations training and troops just as President Piroshky begins the modernization of the Russian conventional forces in Europe, we need a better balance between these two extremes.”
“You once suggested getting rid of the service designations and combining existing forces into functional commands. Do you still want to do this?”
“Honestly, if I were Queen, then I would do it. Realistically,” she paused and thought for a moment, “it would fly against traditions long ingrained and accepted as precedent. But, I would take the management of procurement from the Services and vest control in a professional organization dedicated to managing complex projects in the interests of the American people, not for the personal gain of senior military officers after they retire. The Department is the largest business in this country. It could benefit from having professional managers rather than amateurs drawn from the three services.”
“General Reinhardt apparently has given a series of speeches that are highly critical of you. Will you replace General Reinhardt if you are confirmed?”
“General Reinhardt is a great American.” Judith chose her words carefully, knowing that this part of the interview would make it to the air tonight. “His rescue of trapped soldiers at Al Alhambra during the Iraq War was brilliant. And I also know that only a soldier of his caliber and leadership skills could have saved the men downed by the Taliban along the Afghan-Pakistani border. He’s perhaps the most accomplished military officer of his time or possibly of anytime, but he’s not infallible. He has made a mistake if he believes that either I or Kirsten Anderson are any less aware of the dangers that we face as a nation especially during these very trying times, then he is mistaken. The General, however, now has stepped over the line and become a partisan. That is unacceptable. I understand that he is retiring as of December. We will find a new Chairman who meets our needs.”
“Good interview, ” Ronny Evans congratulated her as he started to pack up the equipment, “ that part about General Reinhardt will make news for sure.”
Dr. Winnie Thomas’s office was cluttered with examples of meteors, sky charts of both hemispheres, and large framed pictures taken by the Hubble telescope. Sarah noticed photos of Winnie and Carl Sagan prominently displayed as well and she pointed these out to the cameraman.
“So you want to learn about meteorites Miss Fisher?”
“We’re doing a show on the dangers coming from outer space. Question to you Dr. Thomas, should we be afraid?”
“Probably not; still, it’s a random phenomenon, quite unpredictable no matter what they tell you out there in Pasadena.”
“We’re going to California next week. How did you acquire the title ‘Meteor Lady’, Winnie?’”
“I search for fragments after an impact. I’ve hunted for these all over the world. The fragments help geologists and geophysicists understand how the earth and the solar system developed out of the cosmic dust. In Antarctica, I found a meteor that we believe might have come from Mars eons ago.”
Winnie explained her techniques for collecting fragments. It was similar to that used by archeologists or dinosaur hunters. Sarah saw Winnie as part of the ranch sequence, scouring the ground for the meteor that destroyed killed Susan’s parents and sister. She could bring some students with her too. Co-eds, digging in the ground, with shorts and t-shirts, might make the show a little more interesting. .
“What are the chances of a meteor striking a house, Winnie?”
“Very unlikely, but as I said before, a meteor hitting a house is a random occurrence and so it can happen.”
“What if WNN flew you out to a site that has never been searched? We could then film you and your students as they hunted for fragments.”
“You have a site in mind?”
“Yes and no,” Sarah stammered thinking about Susan Spenser again.
Winnie looked at the calendar on the wall. “It’ll have to be after the term ends in early-December.”
Sarah’s interview with Judith Wilson caused ripples in Washington. Reinhardt went on a rampage. The right wing talk show hosts at WNN had a field day about how Professor Wilson had denigrated an authentic hero, winner of two Congressional Medals of Honor.
The Republicans, especially the neo-conservatives, saw enemies everywhere – from the crazy North Korean dictator with his growing arsenal of missiles and nuclear weapons, to more traditional adversaries like Russia, China, and Iran, and even from a close allies like Germany and Japan. They were organized and far from shy about shading the truth, and ignoring facts. Randall, however, was elated by the interview. He received many requests for excerpts from other news channels and was able to market it and recover his sunk costs from sending Sarah and the cameraman to Cornell.
”What about the meteorite story, Ed? Have you looked at the budget I submitted.”
“The what?” He’d forgotten about her original assignment entirely.
“You know the one about lurking dangers from outer space, something to scare the shit out of parent and child just before Santa arrives.”
"Oh yeah, I remember, tell me what you’re planning...”
The Air Force Space Guard Program was part of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California. Its mission was to find all near earth objects, map their orbits, then identify the ones that could pose a risk. They estimated that they’d found only about half the objects that could pose a potential danger to human life.
“Isn’t there a theory about a large meteor striking the earth and leading to the dinosaurs’ extinction?”
“That theory is one of many for the extinction, but in any case the destruction that such an impact would cause would make any of our recent problems seem mild. It would create either a massive tidal wave or worse or if it struck land, throw up as much debris as a nuclear war creating a haze that would make growing crops nearly impossible for possibly decades and cause worldwide extinctions of animals and possibly humans as well.”
Sarah hoped that Ron Evans, the cameraman, picked up the man’s facial expressions accurately. She saw fear in his eyes. Good, she thought, that’ll make people sit up and listen.
“What are the odds of something like that happening?” Sarah asked.
“Million to one, but it’s still more than we can afford. But even smaller objects, like the one that just a few years ago was visible as it crossed nearly all of the Eurasian landmass can be dangerous. Shock waves alone are quite destructive. So we have to be prepared to deal with these as best we can. Unlike the dinosaurs, we have means to nudge a bad rock in the right direction so it misses us. Don’t you think?”
“I suppose you’re working on some solution that would enable us to destroy one of these monsters. Right?” Sarah asked hopefully.
“Of course, but that’s more of an engineering problem and not an astronomical one. If you want to talk about remediation, then you need to meet with Professor Carlton. He’s heading up the Special Engineering Studies Department here at JPL. ”
“Robots or trained roughnecks” Sarah asked with a smile.
The Air Force officer barely cracked a grin.
It took another day to arrange a meeting with Roger Carlton. He had a joint appointment at JPL and Cal Tech, where he taught Mechanical Engineering. He didn’t like to interrupt his normal routine. After many unreturned calls to Carlton, Sarah turned to the Director of the Lab for help.
“I don’t know what the hell I can add to your story, but apparently someone here thinks it would help the Lab keep it’s meager budget,” he barked at Sarah, as she and the cameraman entered his cramped office.
“This won’t take long Dr. Carlton. After all your work might be the difference between extinction and continued life.”
“Get that over muscled idiot of an actor who played that B movie about an asteroid,” Carlton said with a laugh, added, “frankly, the only damn menace circling our planet are things that go bang in the night and are manmade.”
“What?” Sarah asked surprised. Don Evans continued to roll the tape.
“Old idea; stupid government boondoggle that I was dragged into long ago,” he stopped suddenly. “I must not say any more. Loose lips sink careers.” He smiled. “Forget that last remark, Miss Fisher, for my good and for yours. Now, what can I do for you?”
“They tell me you’re working on the design of a prototype robotic device that could land on an asteroid to set-off explosive charges that would break it apart. Is this something that is feasible?”
“Quite, but it will take money to build, and probably will need to already be in orbit to be effective. So far, it is not high on NASA’s wish-list. There are some private companies that want to tow an asteroid, hopefully one with valuable minerals, closer to our orbit to mine it, but I think that is a pipedream and could turn out to dangerous too if the rock decides to go ‘rogue’.” Carlton laughed.
The phone rang. While Carlton talked, Sarah walked around the office. There were a few mementos, a couple of NASA plaques that she’d seen in other offices, and a framed 8x10 glossy photo on the wall. She recognized Carlton, and she also recognized Helmut Reinhardt standing at the center of the group. Sarah read the sign one of the men held in his hands. It read “Project NorthStar, In Defense of America”.
“Interesting photo Dr. Carlton,” Sarah pointed while Don Evans filmed.
“I’d like to forget the entire experience.”
“It was a stupid concept, bad idea, dangerous too, and a waste of taxpayers’ money as it was buried deep and forever once the powers that be decided it was just too damn dangerous to have around.”
“And General Reinhardt, what did you think of him Dr. Carlton?”
“That bastard pushed it through. Eventually, even Secretary Forrestal got cold feet and I think he was the one who verbally gave the task to Reinhardt. ” He stared at his ring finger. Sarah noticed and saw the gold ring. It was on the wrong hand to be a wedding ring.
“Enough said on bad things in orbit around the earth. Despite my reservations, it’s been a pleasure.”
Sarah spent a good part of the flight back to New York working on the outline of the half hour segment. There remained the problem of finding a live example of something similar to that meteor hitting the house in Australia in the United States so that Winnie could hunt for fragments and Ed Randall would agree to the added expense. That meant that she’d have to continue to look for Susan Spenser. The three names she found in her search had turned up to be dead ends.
Halfway through the flight, she nudged Don Evans awake. “You have the entire discussion I had with Roger Carlton, including when I pointed to the photo on the wall?”
“Sure,” he yawned and then slipped back into sleep.
She shook him awake again.
“Can you stop action to see the photo clearly?”
5. The Reporter
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.”
He built his house a thousand feet above the bottom of the mesa. The site had been chosen because it was remote and almost unknown by any but the few Indian and Hispanics who had lived there. From his living room Ben Arnstein could see open sky on three sides. Sometimes, a violent thunderstorm roared past his window, other times the clouds drifted almost at eye level. A good-sized thunderstorm produced the same energy as a thousand hydrogen bombs, leaving a trail of destruction worthy of anything Los Alamos could create.
When he had accepted the government’s offer in the 60’s, his friends from graduate school ostracized him. Working within the military-industrial complex was a career killer if he had wanted to switch back onto the academic track, but he hadn’t cared. His graduate thesis had been on weak nuclear reactions propagation through plutonium. Where else could he continue that type of research but at a nuclear lab with one of the fastest supercomputers in the world and tons of plutonium to work with?
Los Alamos was working on developing smaller, less lethal, warheads allowing a single Minuteman III to carry up to 10 warheads each independently targeted. Now, just a year from retirement, he was a Division Director without warheads to design or build. But these were still city busters, but the last warheads he’d designed and even built were far smaller, almost micro in size, and produced in complete secrecy in a hidden underground facility, more than a decade before. Now the talent was focused on something called “Stockpile Stewardship” which was just another name for waste of valuable high priced talent as they tried to estimate the likelihood that the existing stock of warheads would work if ever used. Half of the people working under him spent more than half their time playing video games for lack of anything really constructive or interesting to focus on. Deciding if a twenty year old nuclear warhead will actually explode when fired without trying one out was nearly impossible. Any enemy must assume that an American weapon will likely do what it’s supposed to do irrespective of reading a thousand page report filled with graphs and charts.
“Ben?” Marty Robinson asked stopping his car beside the road. Arnstein stared at a point just across the open space at the lab’s well-guarded Site 58, where plutonium metal was stored for use in making the next generation of plutonium triggers for newly designed hydrogen bombs. The facility might never be finished. It was already billions over budget and years behind schedule. Turning, reluctantly, he walked to the car where Robinson waited.
“Are you going to the meeting tonight?” Robinson asked.
“I wasn’t planning to, why?”
“Mike Stetzer is speaking on the advantages of small sample statistical analysis for plutonium pressure tests. Roger Carlton from JPL is coming too and promised to give a short briefing on his project to snag an asteroid and tow it back into lunar orbit. I remember you said you and he worked on something ten years ago. Right?”
“Yes,” he answered thinking about that time and how exciting it was to work on Project NorthStar, and yet how destabilizing the NorthStar project was to the delicate balance between the major powers that had kept the peace for more than sixty years.
Ben watched Roger Carlton get hemmed in by some of the younger engineering types who idolized him and probably wanted jobs at JPL rather than Los Alamos. It had been nearly ten years since they last met. Carlton’s expertise was robotics, the art of crafting machines that could assemble or repair satellites in space, or shut down nuclear reactions inside hot zones. He was visiting Los Alamos, at the request of the director, to discuss developing better robotic arms for the assembly of new plutonium triggers.
“How many years has it been?” Carlton asked once the lecture started and he could break away.
“Ten, no almost fifteen,” said Carlton recalling the last time they had been together. They’d been at Vandenberg watching the last of three NorthStar modules launched.
“There’s a Starbucks down the block from here.” K
Over coffee they talked about family and children, but not their work. Security personnel were everywhere.
On the way back to the meeting, Carlton asked the question that had been bothering him for years. “You said something that confused me when the third bird went up,” Carlton said remembering the question he’d carried in his head for ten years.
“Won’t they be surprised,” Ben said with a laugh recalling the moment.
“And what the hell did that mean?”
“Exactly that,” Arnstein said without explaining more, “won’t they be surprised.”
It was time to change the subject.
“You still have the ring?”
Arnstein held out his hand. The gold ring was there on the opposite hand from where he wore his own wedding band.
Carlton held up his own hand, flashing his own, nearly identical ring.