((this is an EXCERPT from a book by my alter-ego, Nick Hallum, a dark fantasy novel set in the 9-11 era, with the War on Terror at the heart))
WILDERNESS OF MIRRORS
by Nicholas Hallum
NIGHT MUSIC BOOKS
New York, NY
September 16, 2001
The towers tumbled on the television over and over, the plane striking in silence, the plume of smoke and dust and explosion coming a moment later, and then the structure itself sliding apart, crumbling to bits.
He felt in shock as he watched the television. He had not turned it off for the last fourteen hours, since the moment he had first watched the towers fall, in stunned and horror-stricken disbelief.
What was worse, for Peter, was that when the first plane hit, he could feel a twinge behind his breastbone, as the djinn in the tall tower was first struck with division and then died a painful death. Peter remembered the moments he had touched the frame with the djinn inside – and when he had watched it dance in the smoky rain down the vast Manhattan avenue towards the building site.
More than half the shock he felt now was at that twinge of recognition, the feeling of death coming into him, reverberating in his knowledge. For he had not known that a djinn could die. There had been only rumors, ancient case files read by veterans and whispered about years later in drunken early morning confessions. Old Robinson Gale had something to do with a djinn death, said the rumors, sometime after World War II. Was it true? Had Gale killed a djinn? Was that the goal of the airplanes striking the towers?
Six days later, Peter watched as Tim Russert interviewed the Vice President on television. Dick Cheney, the man Peter had met the year before in Washington D.C. – the man called ( C ) by everyone else in the room -- there he was, live on television. Peter was too sleep-deprived to really care. But he listened.
“I’m going to be careful here, Tim,” said Cheney. “Because I…. clearly it would be inappropriate for me to talk about operational matters…”
Peter’s attention drifted, but Cheney hadn’t finished. “We also have to work, though, sort of on the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows.”
Peter saw then, in Cheney’s set jaw and unblinking gaze, exactly what the man meant. Nausea rose in his throat at the memory of building that tower, of what he’d tasted that night. The dark side, if you will.
Peter stood up, shaking off his sleep. The television kept blaring behind him as he turned and stumbled through the kitchen. He pulled the bottle of Tequila out of the bar behind the counter. He took vigorous swallows, trying again to wash that nauseating taste from his throat, out of his mouth.
Cheney blathered on, but he hardly heard the man. “That’s the world we live in now, Tim. The world these folks operate in… so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal.”
Peter glanced at the clock. It was almost seven p.m. Nearly ten o’clock on the East Coast. Military shuttles arrived at McChord Air Force Base here in Washington state at eleven p.m. every night from D.C., and would depart for the East Coast before dawn came again.
He slammed the half-empty bottle down on the counter. He couldn’t feel anything anymore from the alcohol except a terrible burning in his throat.
Peter retrieved his suitcase from under the bed and began placing carefully folded sweats and military-issue uniforms into the compartments. He would need shoes for outdoors, and desert gear. Possibly even a raincoat.
He was packed within the hour. He stood there afterwards fully dressed and prepped, his gray hair long, but combed and neatly parted. He waited then in the darkened living room, his fatigues and expedition boots lit only by the bright glow of the television as he watched over and over the news channels, waiting for more of a hint about (C)’s intentions.
The call for activation came forty-nine minutes later. As he had suspected, he was being sent to the Pentagon, and from there to Langley and points east.
September 16, 2001
The SKYRISE briefing at 0400 hours was conducted in a vast hanger in Annapolis Maryland that looked to Peter like it could hold an entire Navy fleet, dry-docked and all. To one side, Peter was sure he could see something that looked like a nuclear submarine, but it was so far away and so shrouded in shadow, he couldn’t be sure. One corner of the huge facility was lit with a set of incandescent klieg lights, and in that corner stood the men and women who had been selected for the mission. Some were younger desk jockies, which concerned Peter. They were noticeably out of shape, pasty from desk cubicles and overweight from sitting too long. Analysts, on a field adventure? And then there were some hardened field agents, people with weathered skin and toughened physiques. But there were only a handful of them, and Peter was one of the fittest among them, despite his long gray ponytail. The fit ones were the oldest, all in their fifties or even early sixties. Experienced, but slow reflexes, out of service for decades some of them, by the look of the long hair and the beards he saw around him.
Peter glanced around, expecting to see – hoping to see – a seasoned SWAT team or Army Ranger team that would join them, supplement their mis-matched ranks. Why only desk analysts and over-the-hill field agents? Why no one from a current active duty corps? Perhaps this was the support staff group for the targeting mission personnel.
A group of people were approaching out of the gloom, and Peter stared expectantly into the darkness. Perhaps these were their saviors – the ones who would really perform the mission – the ones they would be supporting. But as they came closer, his heart sank. It wasn’t a set of hardened battle Rangers at all. The men moving forward wore ranks of ribbons, in formal dress uniforms – except for one old bald man in a bland suit, who led the way. A civilian with expertise or orders to share. These were the briefing staff, the ones to give them their orders. They were, in fact, the ones they’d been waiting for. The men around him were, in fact, the ones who would be committed to the field. His heart sank.
As the group moved closer, he saw that the old man in the bland suit was, in fact, Cheney himself. His hair had disappeared entirely now, and his face was a little more war-worn than last he’d seen the man. But he hadn’t changed, it seemed. Cheney was, as always, blunt to the point of rudeness. He started talking before the men around him had even come to a halt.
“Men,” he said. Then he saw the single woman in their midst, and inclined his head with that enigmatic grin. “And ma’am.” Then he paused, looked at all of them, met their eyes.
“I have heard from some – ” Cheney gestured at a group of military men standing to his right. “That we should not engage in this type of pre-emptive action, and especially not in the unorthodox action we are about to ask you to engage in. But I disagree. My response has always been – ‘Tell me what terrorist attacks you would have let go forward, because you didn’t want to be a mean and nasty fella – are you going to trade the lives of a number of people because you want to preserve your honor? Or are you going to do your job, and do what’s required?”
“Today, I ask you to keep first and foremost your responsibility to safeguard the United States of America and the lives of its citizens. You will be wondering why you were selected for the most critical mission after this terrorism attack. We are sending you – all of you, even the ones who have never done field work before – because this mission requires a particular kind of expertise, and those who have that expertise have never been needed in an active deployment of this magnitude before. You are on a specialized mission for the Circle. You are here to take their chief agent of destruction from their ranks. Not an assassination, oh no, not at all. This is a mission of recruitment and enticement.”
A tingle came over Peter. Everyone here had been selected for their affiliation with the Circle. It came over him that he had never known there was much in the Circle beyond Angleton, Gale, and himself. There was more to the picture, much more. But who – or what – would they be recruiting?
“To recruit this entity, you will be prepared to offer everything we can offer – we are willing to offer much more than Saddam has ever been able to offer. We want this thing on our side, and to get it here, we are willing to sacrifice. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” came a resounding call, the sound echoing for long minutes in the recesses of the hanger.
Peter hesitated. He recalled the ancient Chinese texts he’d read at Yale. The single victim at the border, to secure the kingdom. What exactly were they offering to this entity? What did they have to give?
The colonel stared down at the floor like a bashful child. “Saddam Hussein al-Takriti spent years trying to nail down a djinn to serve his country’s needs. He did everything he could to bend it to his will: whole villages wiped out in sacrifice – nearly all the Marsh Arabs wiped out in the swamps of Eastern Iraq. It looks like he nearly succeeded when we sailed in.”
Fatigue weighed Peter down, he could hardly concentrate. He heard the rest in scattered words and phrases.
“The entire world is our combat zone now, open for free fire.”
Finally, someone spoke up, some young female lieutenant with a chip on her shoulder: “With all due respect, sir, I’m not sure I agree.”
“Oh really? Our people on 9-11 in New York were in a combat zone, and they didn’t even know it. We will take our power to them. A pre-emptive strike. They’re in our combat zone now – they just don’t know it yet.”
When Peter next blinked his eyes open, he realized the colonel was speaking quietly just to him and a man with a beard close at hand. Everyone else had left the room.
“Peter? Mr. Fisher?” Peter roused himself and nodded, trying to appear attentive. “Look, I’m trying to tell the two of you that we found out why the 1991 attempt with Professor El-Amin here didn’t work.”
The colonel looked over at the man with the beard. “You were surrounded by steel – cold iron – and you really had no bargaining chips – nothing to pull their attention away from what Saddam was providing every day.”
The professor opened his mouth, about to interrupt, but the colonel continued brusquely. “This time you are going out with no steel, no iron, and you’re not trying to draw them out – you’re not trying to attract it to you in any way. Instead, you are going in – you’re going in as bait into their jaws. And you’re taking bargaining chips with you.
“We are?” said Peter. This was a surprise to him.
“The professor here you’ll be working with – have you met Mahmud El-Amin? – this academic here, will brief you and this time he’ll be empowered to really make this happen.”
Peter glanced over, and the Islamic man with the beard nodded solemnly. He spoke in a quiet voice. “They will listen to this, if it is given with surety, and in the tongue they speak.”
The colonel clenched his jaw, as if in dislike of what El-Amin had said. “Look, gents, don’t trust in any ‘tongues’ – if this thing chooses to come out to you, then I’d advise you to retreat to the tanks that will be there with the Stryker patrol.”
“How will we – ?” Peter began, but the colonel continued, unperturbed.
“You’ll go in on a camel. We’ve got bargaining chips to offer, but your companion, Professor Mahmud El-Amin here – he will be making all those offers, negotiating.”
“I speak Arabic.”
“Yes, but this is an archaic form, that stopped being used about 3,000 years ago. El-Amin here is an Arabic scholar at al-Azhar – the famous university in Cairo.”
“Three thousand.” Peter said it slowly, not sure if he had heard right.
“On day 3, if all goes well, we’ll extract you.”
“With a helicopter?”
“No, we’re worried about putting something into the air that close to the entity. We’ll be sending in a tank battalion. If you give the ‘go’ signal, then American forces will exfiltrate you out through the Kuwait battleline.
“By Day 3, I’d advise you to retreat to the tank and Stryker scout patrol front line. There will be a Delta Force contingent there, and they’ve been told they are here to retrieve you and an artifact that may have WMD capabilities.”
“What about the professor here – Mahmud El-Amin?”
“Oh, of course.” The colonel swallowed, hard. “Yes, of course, him too.”
October 5, 2011
Secure Briefing Hanger
Peter was struck, as he looked at the Vice President, how much smaller he appeared in person than on a television screen. On screen, his face always seemed about to sweat, and an element of scorn seemed nearly ever-present, as if behind the scenes, he really was that Dark Force that the Democrats loved to hate.
But here, in person, the Vice President was shorter than he was, and he seemed nothing more than an unusually driven and focused elderly grandfather, his hair gone now, his face a little wrinkled with cares, and his eyes looking out from behind broad glasses, more sad and world-weary than malicious.
Dick Cheney had seen a lot in his time serving the United States of America, and without quite realizing it, Peter found himself asking the Vice President about his experience. At first, the man’s answers were guarded and evasive. But slowly, he seemed to warm to Peter’s hesitant questions, and after a time, Peter found himself in a sort of conversation with the man that even Gale only, ever, called (C).
“What branch did you say you serve?” said the old man.
“The NSA,” Peter replied. Then looking at him, he thought better of his answer. “The Circle,” he nearly whispered. “The – ”
The elderly man held up a hand. “No, no, I heard. No need to repeat. So, you know the inner workings of SKYRISE. Yet you were asking about why we do what we do.”
“Yes, sir,” said Peter.
“Well, look at it this way – the United States is the oldest stable government in the world. Like Rome, in its time. Stable for the ages, indivisible before God.”
“But…. But, what about France, China, or even – ”
Cheney put down his drink, to wave a hand at Peter’s comments in the air, to wipe them away. “Since 1776, France has had multiple revolutions, destruction and restoration of monarchies, a European empire and a puppet government run by the Nazis. And that’s even before you get to the socialists and their upheavals and near-coups.”
“So you mean government as an organization,” said Peter slowly.
“Much more than that. A governing principle. Look at China, to cite your other example. China has gone through endless paroxysms and birth-pains. Cultural revolutions, internal genocides, party struggles. Not a single consistent governing principle. Not a single consistent governing element.”
“You mean – ”
“Of course.” Cheney blinked at him. “Of course I mean that. We in the United States, have suffered nothing in the way of internecine warfare or revolution since the 1800s, when the Civil War tore us open – and at great cost – we used that tragedy to build the first home for one of them here. The first palace for another entity. The first obelisk in Washington in that time was the tallest building, as you know – and it is still the tallest freestanding stone structure known to man, or to the others.”
Peter shivered, remembering a day from his childhood, a time when he could not walk up the steps that others walked, when he could not move from fear.
But Cheney was still talking, and he gave his attention to the Vice President once more.
“… that obelisk welded our nation together – and part of its power is found in the currency that unites us today – the image on that bill reflects its power. In fact, that linking image creates a great web of sustenance.”
The old man turned and picked up his glass from the side-table, giving that sideways smile that so many of the media mistook for a malevolent sneer. “Now, of course you don’t see Him much outside the obelisk – but his power reverberates everywhere American dollars are spent. We united ourselves by sacrificing to him in the War Between the States – and in return, he guards us still.”
Richard Cheney raised his glass to the heavens, toasting the invisible.
If you’d like to know about Nick Hallum’s book and the new novel WILDERNESS OF MIRRORS, you can subscribe for updates »