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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.