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The President of the United States was treating himself to an early breakfast of bacon and eggs. Why not? If a Commander in Chief couldn’t ignore his doctor’s orders on his 70th birthday, why bother to have the job at all?
“Ready, Mr. President?”
“Go for it, Harry.”
Adlai Stevenson Harrison was the President’s Director of National Intelligence. He was also one of his oldest and best friends, and therefore one of the few advisors the President invited to join him in the family’s private quarters on the upper floor of the White House.
Harrison took the Daily Brief he had completed a half hour before from his briefcase and handed it across the breakfast table as the President put on his reading glasses.
“Hmm. I see you’ve moved Korea to the top position. What’s new since yesterday? Have they gone and sunk another South Korean boat?”
“No, nothing that dramatic. And as usual, we can’t know anything for sure. But we’re worried that this time the North might push the envelope a lot farther than usual.”
“Because?” The President sampled his eggs with appreciation.
“We’re receiving reports that last year’s crop failures were far worse than previously thought. The winter’s not even half over, and we now estimate that famine conditions prevail over more than 65% of the country. With Kim Jong-il looking frailer each time he pops up, we’re concerned the inner circle have decided they need a more dramatic international crisis than usual to distract the population and keep a lid on things.”
The President put down his fork and sat back with his coffee.
“’May need?’ According to the DB you handed me, the Dear Leader is now saying he’s going to turn Washington instead of Seattle into a “Sea of Fire” if we back the South on this sinking. What’s the latest on their missile program?”
“The truth is, there are some new developments we’re watching closely. You’ll recall, the North tried to launch a satellite back in April of 2009. They used a three stage missile, and at least the third stage failed. That stage and the payload hit the ocean about 1300 miles down range. Of course, back home they claimed the launch was a complete success.
“That was a Taepodong-2 missile. And with a full-size warhead, they could have hit Alaska, if all had gone according to plan. With a warhead half the size, we expect they could have hit one of our west coast cities. In today’s speech, Jong-il claims they’re ready to not just test, but to deploy a new version of the Taepodong – and that this one could hit the east coast.”
“What do your folks think about that?”
“Well, the Taepodong-1 test back in 1998 blew up a few seconds after launch. The Taepodong-2 got off at least one stage, and maybe two, with good success. So they’ve learned a lot along the way. And their friends the Iranians have been doing very well with their missile program. We know that North Korea has sold nuclear secrets and equipment to the Iranians before, so it’s not a reach to think the North may be swapping nuclear technology to Iran now in exchange for help with their missile program.”
“But have we seen such a missile?”
Harrison felt uncomfortable. He wished he’d delivered the next piece of information in yesterday’s Daily Brief.
“Our most recent satellite images are telling us the North is preparing their two most sophisticated launch pads for action. We can’t tell yet what they’re going to be sending up, but I expect we’ll know more in the next day or two.”
“So they could hit us anywhere in the U.S. if this new missile works. What about a nuclear warhead, though? Both their first nuclear tests fizzled, right?”
“That’s what we’ve always concluded. According to our seismic data, the yields were pretty low. But the devices clearly worked, and that’s the hard part. Once you’ve succeeded in refining fuel to the point of sustaining fission and demonstrated the ability to trigger that process, the rest is all details – and those details are a lot more available than we’d like to think. We’ve got to assume that they bought every piece of information A. Q. Kahn was willing to sell.”
“So?” The President thought he knew where this was going, and he didn’t like his conclusion.
“The other possibility is that the tests didn’t fizzle at all. We know the North hasn’t been able to produce much weapons-grade fuel from the reactor they have – maybe enough for six bombs, tops. With the two tests we’ve monitored, they’ve therefore used up at least a third of their stockpile of enriched uranium. They can’t afford to run many more tests without losing the strategic value they just gained by demonstrating that they’ve got a nuclear capability.
So maybe those weren’t proof of technology tests after all. Maybe they were tests of light weight, missile-deliverable warheads. If that’s the case, they’ve demonstrated twice in a row that they can make a missile-deliverable warhead that works.”
Outside, it was starting to snow, but Harrison couldn’t tell whether the President was aware of it as he stared out the window, tapping his teaspoon quietly on the tablecloth. Finally, he asked, “What do we calculate the odds are of that being the case?”
“Well, Mr. President, there’s no country where we have less reliable intelligence to work with than North Korea. That means that just about everything we have to work with is by way of inference, not based on direct information. So we’d be kidding ourselves if we even tried to come up with anything like a percentage estimate.”
The President turned and looked at him, slightly annoyed. “OK, let me make it simpler. When I walk into the Oval Office today, can I assume that I don’t have to take the Dear Leader’s threat seriously or not?”
Harrison had expected this question, and for the last twelve hours had struggled with what he would say in response. When North Korea had followed the last missile test with a second nuclear test only a month later, Harrison had divided his analysts into two teams: one to argue on the data for a credible nuclear threat, and one to contend that the North’s technology wasn’t yet capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the U.S. He’d spent half of last night reviewing the resulting position papers over and over. But he’d finally gone to bed without reaching a conclusion.
Outside, it was growing darker rather than lighter. It was snowing heavily now, and the spectral branches of the bare trees on the White House grounds were tossing in the wind. Harrison felt like he could see the answer to the President’s question in the turbulence of the darkening world outside, and realized he had been resisting that conclusion since yesterday. Not for the first time, he was grateful that his friend sat behind the desk in the Oval Office and not him.
“I’m sorry, Henry.”
The President tapped his teaspoon a few more times, and then set it down neatly next to his plate. Harrison noticed that most of his eggs and bacon were uneaten.
“Well, that’s that then,” his boss said quietly. He pushed a button on the phone on the table and a voice instantly answered.
“Yes, Mr. President?”
“Virginia, what times today can I cancel a meeting without the press catching on?”
“10 to 11:45, and 1:30 – 3:00, Mr. President.”
“Good. I’ll want a meeting of the National Security Council this afternoon. Do what you need to do to clear everyone’s schedule as much as possible. And I want to have that meeting somewhere where we won’t attract too much attention. Can you do that?”
“I’m sure we can work it out, Mr. President. I expect that many of the Council members are out of town, so we’ll need to videoconference them in anyway.”
“That’s great, Virginia. Thanks.”
He was reaching for the speakerphone button when Virginia spoke up again.
“Happy birthday, Mr. President!”
Harry saw the President’s head nod once with what might have been a small, silent chuckle. Then his old friend looked at him with a tired smile and said, “Yes, Virginia. Happy birthday to me.”
CIA agent Carl Cummings was on a tear. Much too loudly, he was talking over his cell phone to his detailer back at headquarters.
“Look, dammit, this is the second time in ten days you haven’t been able to give me anybody.”
“C’mon, Carl, what do you expect me to do? I can’t work miracles here.”
Carl clutched the phone to his ear as he stared out at the street. “Do you know where I am? I’m standing behind a tree in Georgetown half a block from Saxby’s, that’s where I am. I’m getting covered in snow and I’m stamping my feet to stay warm and kids with backpacks are giving me weird looks. I’ve had about all of this I can take.”
With that, his detailer decided he’d had enough. His voice switched from conciliatory to cold.
“Listen Cummings, let me give you some friendly advice. Pull out your ID and look at your hire date. You’ve got five years with the Company, maybe. And in case you’ve been too busy admiring yourself in the mirror to read the papers, we’ve got a couple of wars on and hotspots boiling over out the wazoo. Some people around here have real work to do, got it? So why don’t you just quit whining and get back to tailing your mark?”
Carl turned back towards the sidewalk. He had been about to unleash a blast into his phone, but found himself frozen in place with his mouth open. This was because he was now looking directly into the eyes of Marla Adversego, standing not two feet away with her arms crossed and a look on her face that would drop a bull in full charge.
He opened and shut his mouth twice, and then swallowed.
“Gotta go,” he said into his phone.
Marla dropped her arms to her side as Carl stuffed his phone in his coat pocket. He noticed that her hands were rolled up into fists. Involuntarily, he took a step backwards.
“You’re following me, aren’t you?”
Carl tried to think fast, but found that his brain was temporarily out of order.
He gave up. “Yeah. Yes. Yes I guess I am. ”
Marla stared at him for what seemed to him like a full minute.
“OK, then follow me!” she turned on her heel, and walked off at a rapid pace towards the Georgetown campus.
Carl stood still for a moment, mouth open once again. Then he cursed to himself. Dammit – what choice did he have? That was his assignment.
For a couple of blocks, Carl followed 100 feet behind Marla, feeling like an idiot. How far behind someone who knows you’re following them do you walk, anyway?
Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore. Half running, he struggled to catch up to Marla. When he got close, he called ahead, “Look, I’m sorry. This isn’t like you think it is.”
Marla whirled around.
“Oh really? And exactly what do you think I think it is?”
Carl was immediately tongue-tied. What actually did he think she thought it was?
She jumped in. “You think I think you’re following me because you’re interested in me? Is that it? It is, isn’t it? You know what? You’re pathetic!”
She spun around and walked off once again, more briskly than before.
Carl stood stock still for a moment, and then began chasing her, angry and bewildered at the same time. Was that what he had been thinking she was thinking?
He called ahead again. “Alright, alright – I don’t know what you think this looks like. But please – stop for a minute and let me explain.”
They were standing in the middle of the Georgetown quad now. It was too early for many students to have ventured out, so they were alone in the falling snow. Finally, Marla stopped, crossed her arms, and stared ahead without looking at him.
“Look, I know that your father isn’t behind what’s going on. I didn’t know that at first, but I do know that now.”
Marla turned around with a furious look on her face.
“Then why the hell hasn’t anyone told me he’s in the clear so I can tell him? What’s the matter with you people? Do you even know what you’re doing?”
Carl felt helpless, and then made some quick decisions. “I’m sorry. I can’t tell you why no one’s talked to you. All I can tell you is that we assume that whoever is behind the Alexandria Project must know about your father’s reputation in security. If that’s so, then we also have to assume they’d assume we’re using your father to help catch the hackers.”
Marla still looked hostile, but she was listening carefully now.
“Marla, everybody knows your Dad is the best there is. Whatever the game is that’s going on here, we’ve got to assume that the bad guys are playing for keeps. That means that they’ll do anything to get to your father and stop him from discovering who they are.”
“So why are you following me?”
Carl looked briefly around them, and then said more softly, “Marla, I just said that they would do anything to get to your father.”
Marla suddenly felt detached rather than angry. She wondered what time it was, and turned to look towards the clock tower on the side of the quad. But it had dissolved into the falling snow. Only a single tree was half visible, half invisible in the near distance; everything else was a grey void out of which ghostly, individual snowflakes swirled in her direction. She noted with surprise that each flake looked darker, and not lighter, than the silent backdrop of the storm.
With a start, her mind returned to what she had just heard. She turned back and took a hard look at Carl.
“OK,” she said. “I’m listening.” Then she turned and started walking again. But this time, she moved more slowly, allowing Carl to walk at her side.
Unable to sleep, Frank was pacing back and forth in his clearing, waiting for dawn and for someone to take his bait of doctored iBalls. It was snowing in Nevada, too, and he wondered whether he’d be able to get out of there if he wanted or needed to. He’d had to fold up most of the solar panels, too, because he was worried they couldn’t bear the weight of the snow. If it stayed cloudy, he’d have to use his gas-powered generator to keep his systems running.
Lost in thought, he didn’t notice how deeply the snow was building up next to the path he was trampling in the snow. In the background, he could hear a muffled heartbeat, steady at 72 beats per minute, floating through the falling snow like the very life force of the wilderness that surrounded him.
No surprise, there, however. With little to relieve the anxiety of waiting to see if his master plan would work he had turned to playing with his electronic toys. One game he’d come up with to amuse himself was to program in a new sound every day to alert him when the Alexandria Project eventually (he hoped) tried to breach his honeypot again.
But day after day, the alarm failed to sound. Frank had been up there for weeks now, and couldn’t help wondering if this whole enterprise wasn’t a ridiculous farce. After his email exchange with Yoda he’d been confident that he’d come up with a fool-proof plan. Now he was consumed with self-doubt. As he paced, he reviewed that plan over and over, questioning every assumption upon which it was based.
Abruptly, he realized how cold he felt. How long had he been walking in the clearing? To his surprise, he saw that the snow was nearly a foot deep.
Frank crossed his arms and shivered. He looked around the clearing for a sight of anything in the pitch dark, but there was nothing to be seen. The only sensations he could detect, besides the piercing cold, were the frigid needles of snowflakes as the wind drove them into his face, and the throbbing heartbeat from the all-weather speakers. Just like that night when he had driven north on the endless road that disappeared into the distance of the moonlit, desert night, he felt lost in space and time, only this time suspended in a void of nothingness.
Suddenly, the sound of the heartbeat became distorted. Muffled by the snow, Frank could no longer tell from which direction the sound was coming. He turned to his right, and then to his left, confused. Was he still hearing a heartbeat now, or was it muffled drums?
Then, one by one, the slow, austere notes of horns swirled around him like the snowflakes – the soaring opening notes of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.
Suddenly laughing like a madman, Frank floundered through the deepening snow in what he hoped was the direction of the Solar Avenger.
Someone had taken his bait.
Carl can’t follow Frank on the run, but you can, on
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