8

Washington, DC, USA
November 12—0900 Hours GMT–5

President Sam Adams Castilla put his feet up on a heavy pine coffee table he’d brought with him from the governor’s mansion in Santa Fe. The d?cor in the Oval Office had evolved since he’d first moved in, objects from home being slowly replaced with things he’d received on his official travels. A reminder of the magnitude and scope of his responsibilities.

“Any questions, sir?”

Lawrence Drake, the director of the CIA, was sitting across from him in a wingback chair that had been a gift from the French — a people that would immediately declare war if they ever saw the native American blanket it had been reupholstered with.

“About North Korea?”

“Yes, sir.”

Castilla frowned thoughtfully. It seemed like these intelligence briefings got more complicated and more depressing every time he sat down to one. China, Russia, Israel, the Middle East — impossibly complex individual pieces intertwined into an utterly unfathomable whole.

“No, let’s move on, Larry. What’s next?”

“Iran.”

Castilla’s frown deepened. There was only one thing he wanted to talk about that day, and it seemed they were never going to get around to it. He waved the DCI on impatiently.

“Thank you, sir. The antigovernment demonstration last week in Tehran numbered at least ten thousand—”

“Were there casualties?”

“Our information is a little shaky, but we’re estimating a little over a hundred injured. Two confirmed dead — one person was trampled after tear gas was thrown by government forces, and one died in the hospital from injuries sustained in an attack by riot police.”

“I saw the video on CNN,” Castilla said. “A lot of chaos for a country that likes order.”

Drake nodded gravely. “Iran’s destabilizing faster than anyone anticipated, sir. Ayatollah Khamenei is getting more and more hard-line in the face of the opposition. We have reports of the secret police going after dissidents’ families all the way out to cousins. And there are rumors of an upcoming purge of government workers who’ve been deemed too liberal. We’ve seen this a thousand times throughout history. When the paranoia hits this pitch, collapse can’t be far behind.”

“Time frame?”

“Hard to say. There are a lot of variables and we’re fairly blind in that country. Having said that, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw it happen within the next eighteen months.”

Castilla drew in a long breath and let it out slowly. “Can’t say that I’ll be sad to see them go.”

The edges of Drake’s mouth tightened perceptibly.

“What?”

“Sir?”

“I know that look, Larry. What?”

“The enemy of our enemy is not necessarily our friend.”

“Farrokh.”

Drake didn’t bother to hide his distaste at the utterance of the Iranian resistance leader’s name. “The sanctions we put in place have been somewhat effective, but much more important is the fact that the government just doesn’t have the support of young people or intellectuals. And let’s face it, building a nuke without those two groups can be pretty time-consuming.”

“But Farrokh does have the support of the youth and intellectuals.”

“Yes, sir. We still don’t know much about him, but we know he’s a wizard with technology — particularly cell phones and the Internet. The way he uses music from alternative Middle Eastern artists and historical video to drum up support would put most Western campaign consultants to shame. What we have to focus on, though, is that his message isn’t pro-West. He wants change, but at his core, he’s a nationalist.”

“Come on, Larry. You can’t be suggesting that having a progressive democracy in there could be worse than what we have now.”

Drake didn’t answer immediately, and Castilla waited. He’d made it clear from his first day in office that everyone was free — in fact obligated — to speak their mind inside the walls of the Oval Office. The best way to lose your job in his administration was to hand out politically sanitized information that caused him to get caught out in front of a camera.

“Sir, fundamentalists tend to be backward-thinking people who can be played off each other, isolated, and bribed. Farrokh is different. Under someone like him, Iran could very easily get over the technical barriers keeping it from becoming a nuclear power. But that’s not all. So far, Khamenei’s success in using the region’s instability to increase Iran’s influence has been fairly limited. People are suspicious of the Iranians, and the Sunnis aren’t anxious to see an increase in Shia power. Farrokh is seen as being much less divisive by the people trying to shake up the status quo — and I’m not just talking about liberals and progressives. There’s a very real danger that, under someone like him, we could see the Middle East unify into something resembling the Soviet bloc. Only with a much more convenient and effective weapon…”

“Oil.”

“Yes, sir.”

Castilla leaned back and sank a little deeper into the leather sofa.

Farrokh was a ghost. In fact, many people in the intelligence community didn’t even believe he existed, hypothesizing that he was just an avatar for the people pulling the strings of the Iranian resistance. As a career politician, though, Castilla knew better. Composites couldn’t take the reins of power — that was something reserved for individuals. And whoever this Farrokh was, he wanted his hands on those reins something awful.

The truth was that as unstable as the region looked, it was actually worse. The Iranians were financing any group sympathetic to them or antagonistic to the United States, the Israelis had their fingers hovering over the button, and the few remaining stable Muslim governments were using back channels to urge U.S. military action. Of course, if America did move against Iran, those same governments would provide little more than a quiet thank-you while publicly declaring jihad on the Christian invaders.

“The devil you know, right?” Castilla said finally.

“I think we need to consider that a takeover by Farrokh might actually turn out to be detrimental to our interests. And in light of that, I think we should act on—”

Castilla held up a hand. “We’ve been over this before, Larry. I’m not going to keep an entire country in the Dark Ages over a bunch of ‘maybes’ and ‘coulds.’ Change can be dangerous as hell, but it can also provide opportunities. Giving up the possibility of a decent relationship with a democratic Iran in favor of perpetuating the current disaster is too defeatist for my blood.”

“Is it defeatism, Mr. President? Or realism?”

Castilla folded his hands over a belly that seemed to expand and contract with his stress level. “I figure that when you have no idea what you’re doing, you’re better off not doing anything. Now, let’s move on.”

“But, sir—”

“We’re moving on, Larry.”

As usual, Drake’s face was an impenetrable mask — something that had always made Castilla uncomfortable. He relied on his gift for seeing through people and it made him nervous when he couldn’t.

“The only thing we have left on the agenda is the matter in Uganda.”

Castilla’s feet slid to the floor and he leaned forward, focusing his full attention on the DCI. “Have we figured out what happened?”

“Apparently, the same thing that happened to the force the AU sent to track down Bahame. We believe our entire team was wiped out, though it’s possible that the team leader survived. We have people waiting for him, but honestly, I think we’re wasting our time—”

“Like hell we are!” Castilla said, his voice rising to something just below a shout. “No one saw that man die, and we’re not going to abandon him.”

“I wasn’t suggesting we should, sir.”

The president stared down at the carpet for a moment. He’d sent those soldiers in against everyone’s recommendation. As much as it horrified him to get into bed with Charles Sembutu, the atrocities being perpetrated by Caleb Bahame had become too grotesque to ignore.

“I’m sorry,” Castilla said when he finally looked up again. “I know that’s not what you were saying, Larry. And I know you were against this from the start.”

Drake watched Castilla settle back into the sofa again. Politicians liked action without consequence — to create a show that would please their constituents but not actually cause anything to happen that would be tangible enough to garner criticism. And while Castilla was more impressive than most, he was no different. Sometimes you rolled the dice and lost. Sometimes you sent men to die.

“Did you watch the video?” the president said finally.

Drake didn’t allow himself to react but felt the anger well up inside him. Kaye. That overambitious navy hack had made an end run around him and sent the raw feeds from the soldiers’ cameras directly to the White House.

“Yes, sir. I reviewed it this morning.”

“Have you ever seen anything like that? What the hell was going on out there? Have your people been able to come up with an explanation?”

Drake considered his answer carefully. The information he’d been feeding the White House on Uganda was carefully massaged to include only the bare minimum necessary to keep the CIA from looking like it was withholding — and even that had been enough to get them into this pointless and extremely inconvenient skirmish. Did Castilla know more than what was included in the agency briefings? Did he have other sources?

“I’m sorry, sir. An explanation?”

Castilla’s exasperation was obvious and expected. “Our top special ops team was wiped out by a bunch of unarmed Africans, some who looked like women and children to me. You don’t think that demands some sort of explanation?”

There was nothing in the president’s demeanor that suggested he was suspicious, and Drake had no choice but to move forward based on that very dangerous assumption.

“No, sir, I don’t. Bahame was tipped off that they were coming and he sent some of his soldiers to intercept them.”

“Soldiers? Those weren’t soldiers, Larry.”

“I respectfully disagree. That was a typical representation of the army Bahame’s put together by raiding villages and giving the people living in them the choice of dying or fighting for him. In the context of Africa, this isn’t new.”

Castilla was clearly shaken, as anyone who saw that video would be, and Drake decided to take advantage of the president’s momentary weakness.

“Sir, Bahame is as bad as they come, and you tried to help. I feel for the Ugandans, but this is an African problem. What can we do? Send a battalion? Neither the AU or Sembutu are going to go for that, and even if we could convince them, where would we get the troops? We’ve been down this road before, sir, and it doesn’t lead anywhere.”

“So you’re telling me that you don’t think there’s anything on that tape that’s unusual?”

“I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t. Our men were outnumbered eight to one by a bunch of people brainwashed into thinking Bahame is some kind of god. To some extent, a small team’s survival in this kind of a tactical situation hinges on generating fear — if you shoot enough people, the others will break and run. That didn’t work in this case.”

“Your recommendation?”

“We bury our dead and walk away.”

Castilla nodded slowly but didn’t speak.

“Is that all, sir?”

“Yeah. That’s all. Thanks, Larry.”

Alone again, President Castilla walked to the windows behind his desk and looked out at the clouds boiling over DC. He didn’t turn when the side door to his office opened. “You heard?”

“I did.”

“Thoughts?”

“I gave you that video because I knew you’d want to see it, Sam. But in this case, I have to agree with Larry.”

Castilla turned and watched Fred Klein settle into a chair. He looked a lot older than he did a few years ago — his hair had receded another inch and he’d lost so much weight that his suit seem to swallow him. Being the president’s most trusted friend wasn’t an easy job.

“I sent them there, Fred. And now everyone just wants to forget about them.”

“No one wants to forget. It’s just that this is a fight you’re never going to win.”

“You’ve spent most of your life in intel, Fred. Tell me you’ve seen something like that video before.”

Klein took off his glasses and wiped them on his tie. “I can’t say that I have.”

“Something isn’t right here,” Castilla said, taking a seat on the sofa across from him. “I want you to use your resources to look into this for me. I need to know what happened, Fred. I need to be able to sleep at night.”

A nearly imperceptible smile flickered across Klein’s lips as he continued to polish his lenses.

Castilla’s eyes narrowed. “God, I hate being predictable.”

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