Armageddon is about to happen, but it's not what you think. This war is not going to blow anything up; it's just going to turn everything off . . .
Arlington, Virginia: In a sub-basement conference room checked out to Colonel Kenneth Gustafson of the Joint Chiefs, thirteen people were seated around an oval table. The only light came from a low floor lamp in the corner. The occupants of the room were all male, all middle-aged or older, all white, all fairly prosperous looking. Most were somewhat overweight. The tone of the meeting was, for the moment at least, spiritual:
“How long, O Lord, how long?” Secretary Murdoch was cranking up his voice to the level of Medium Oratorical. He would soon be on his feet, they all knew, and in full swing. Lesser orators could use their eyes and hands and voices to make a statement; Murdoch, when he really got going, could also sweat dramatically. He was beginning to glisten now, greasily. “How long has it been, my Brothers, that we’ve been gathering together in these very rooms to pray, and plan for a brighter Tomorrow?”
There was a murmur of response, no one quite sure whether to reply with a number of years or the usual “Amen.” Marine Captain Courtenay simply echoed Murdoch’s “How long?”
“How long indeed, gentlemen? It has been long years. But they have been good ones too, years in which we have transformed the face of this wicked city. When we began, we were nobodies, powerless and out of favor. But we had Faith!”
“Faith!” Courtenay again.
“We were imbued with His Fire, the Gift of Tongues…” He lumbered to his feet.
“Yes, that’s good, Bill. We had the gift.” Nolan Gallant interrupted. The secretary gaped, jowls still quivering. But Gallant was not about to let him go on. There were things to get done and no time right now for endless Holy Roller preaching. Besides, it was Gallant who was the ordained minister, not Murdoch. “We had the gift of tongues and all that. And now we count among our numbers a special assistant to the President, a service Secretary, and a significant presence in the Joint Chiefs…plus others of you gentlemen who have risen to positions of authority and trust. We all know that.”
Gallant paused to look at each of the twelve, the twelve disciples as he thought of them. It was one of those pauses that invited no one else to speak. He stared them down. Bill Murdoch was still on his feet, reluctant to give up the floor. Gallant addressed him directly, “It’s time, I think, Mr. Secretary, to leave off the praying for a bit and get on with the planning for a brighter tomorrow.”
“Just my thought, Nolan. My thought exactly. I was just going to go on into the Lord’s intentions in this Time of Trouble, and the ways in which His plan for each one of us…”
“Yes. I’m sure you were.” The Reverend Gallant displayed one of his famous Inspiration Hour television smiles. He had a repertoire of such smiles from Delighted to Deeply Disappointed. This one was cordial but a tad strained. Murdoch took his seat. Gallant paused again. Off camera, as on, the Reverend Gallant had the air of a kindly and wise high school principal. His sandy hair and apple-cheeks made him look like a character right out of Norman Rockwell. He had a natural, fatherly authority, so that those around him tended to take on automatically the role of children awaiting instruction and correction. When he stopped to think his important thoughts, they just waited. At the moment, he was thinking of an old Jimmy Durante line, “Everybody’s always trying to get into the act.” Was it possible that being a preacher was so much more amusing than being Secretary of the Navy? How else to explain that Secretary Murdoch and even some of the others were inclined to try their hands at evangelical oratory whenever he let them? They were a bunch of frustrated revivalists. What a bore. He had to keep reminding himself that everyone in this room was useful and necessary to the grand plan. Otherwise he could have gladly dispensed with these now daily meetings. A glance at Rupert Paule of the White House staff. “Rupert?”
“Thank you, Nolan. Yes.” Paule picked up the sheaf of papers in front of him. He cleared his throat. “Well, nothing really. I mean just nothing has happened since this time yesterday.” He put the papers down again. “The President is…I think the right word is ‘depressed’ by the option we’ve put in front of him. I don’t want to psycho-babble you, but the truth is that he is using evasion tactics to avoid facing up to the responsibility. We had some Cub Scouts come through the White House yesterday, and the President had a few photos taken with a scout from Florida who had saved this little girl from drowning. The whole thing was booked for five minutes on the schedule. An hour and a half later he was still talking to those twenty cub scouts about American liberties and I don’t know what all else. He gave them almost the whole of the Abraham Lincoln at the Crossroads speech. I had the O.F.D. team waiting in his office, all ready to talk turkey. And he knew it. He held onto those kids until it was time for the Dutch ambassador. He just doesn’t want to think about what we’re saying.”
The words came out as a whine. Paule was used to squashing people who didn’t do what he wanted. He was adroit enough at coddling the President, but it could be frustrating work for a man of his natural inclinations. The White House advisor was taking out his frustration as he spoke on the metal clip of a ball point pen, working it back and forth in his hands. There were teeth marks as well, Gallant could see, on the end of the barrel, and now that he noticed, there was a tiny blue ink spot in the corner of Paule’s mouth.
“He is still agonizing over the way the Honduras affair backfired,” Paul went on, continuing to twist the pen. “He told me he has nightmares about it. I had to listen to the whole thing again yesterday. I swear he had tears in his eyes. He said it was supposed to be just like the Libyan incursion, just a nice simple surgical strike. BOOM—in and out before anybody even knew it was happening. One little hill town and a whole headquarters full of radical terrorists wiped off the face of the earth. And then he would be on television saying that the Gloria Verde leaders were big boys and they had to realize they were risking consequences when they fooled around with a superpower nation. They should have known we weren’t going to let them go moving into new territory and thumbing their noses at us forever. He had his speech all written. And then before the TV crews could even set up, there’s this obscene thing on Prince Edward Island. Prince Edward Island, for gods sake! What a stupid place for Texaco to have its stupid directors meeting anyway. It’s not even in America. We had to call the CIA just to find out where the stupid island is. So our goddam strike force is not even home yet and all of a sudden we’ve got the whole board of directors of Texaco blown away by a bomb.”
“Made to look like it was planted by some group of environmental crazies,” Gallant filled in the now familiar details. “Only it wasn’t an environmental group that set the bomb, of course. Was it?”
“Of course, it wasn’t. It was just made to look that way. It was the Cubans. As if we couldn’t guess. Same as the October incident. We take some action they don’t like and they hit back somewhere else, but all covered up so the public doesn’t see the connection. Only we know what they’re up to. A little slap on the wrist to make us stop. They’re goddam training us. We could eat them alive if they ever stood up to us directly, but who the hell was even thinking about Texaco? And our beautiful surgical strike simply ruined by…”
“That’s all water over the dam, Rupert. The President has just got to look at the future now, not the past.”
“That’s easy to say, Nolan. But it really shook him up. He’s going to go down in the history books as ‘the man who lost Texaco.’ That’s what he’s thinking.”
“He’s going to go down in history as the man who stood up to Evil. If, that is, if he does what is required of him now. It’s up to us to make sure he does what is required of him.”
He pause to scan the faces around the table. “We find ourselves at a rare moment in history, gentlemen, with our enemies in disarray. Of course they’re not helpless. But they’re weak. It is this country and this country alone that has capacity for strategic action. It is essential that we use this very temporary moment of ascendancy to cement our power. Because our enemies are not likely to be weak forever.” Gallant looked over at Colonel Gustafson, who obviously had something to say. “Ken?”
“It hurts me to say this, Nolan: The President is the shakiest part of our Cuba plan. He’s our President and I love and respect him, but I wonder if he’s up to it. The man gets all fired up when he talks about the heroes of America’s past, particularly Lincoln. Only you get the feeling that he really doesn’t aspire to be a Lincoln, he would be content to be a Tyler or a Fillmore. We’re asking him to make some hard decisions. What he’d really like to do is muddle through without making any decisions at all and then retire to write his memoirs.”
There were sad nods around the room. “We’d all like to avoid these decisions,” said Nolan. “They are the bitter cup that will not pass, in the words of Our Lord.”
Gustafson once more: “We’ve just got to stiffen his resolve. I think you’ve got to go in yourself and talk to him again, Nolan. The man has got fervor that needs to be brought to the surface. You can make him see the inevitability of what he has to do. Inevitability is the key. That will be very comforting to him, to see that he is being steered by the hand of God. It won’t be his decision at all. The last time you got to him, he was a David, looking for a Goliath to slay. He had lights in his eyes.”
“That was, unfortunately, just when he gave the go-ahead on Honduras,” said Paule sourly.
Gallant exploded. “Don’t give me this ‘unfortunately’ shit! The whole Honduras / Texaco incident has worked out exactly right for our purposes. We couldn’t have planned it better if we’d tried. If the Cubans had just stood back and let us get away with wiping up their surrogates, we could end up pussy-footing and surgical striking for the rest of our lives. Meanwhile the bleeding hearts would be plundering the defense budget. We’d never get on with our mission.”
Captain Courtenay had his hand up. Courtenay was part of the White House security team, and for some reason was also something of a confidant of the President. During his bouts of insomnia, the Chief Executive would wander down to the little dormitory that had been made up in the basement for security people, and wake Courtenay up and pour out his thoughts to him, sometimes for hours at a time. These conversations were dutifully reported back to Nolan Gallant and the disciples. Gallant gave him the nod.
“Thank you, sir. The President is depressed, just like Mr. Paule said, sir. You might think that what has got him down is the carping of the press or of the left liberal Democrats. But he doesn’t really bump into very much of that. I mean, the summaries he receives in the morning have been pretty well cleaned up, and he doesn’t read them anyway. What gets him down is anything from inside the administration that contradicts what we’re telling him. If we could keep the State Department people out for instance…” There was a grumble of annoyance around the table. “Well, that would be a help. There is also this Cornell business. That’s really got him down.”
At least half the people in the room looked blankly at Courtenay. They weren’t all in the know about the Cornell project. Gallant looked to Colonel Gustafson again to fill them in.
“The Cornell Project,” Gustafson began. “Right. Simula, they call it, a big computer program that is supposed to guide us through disarmament negotiations. They designed it to tell us how many MXs, for example, it’s worth giving up if we can get such and such a number of SS-24s destroyed in return.” Gustafson was shaking his head. “I still can’t believe we did this to ourselves. It’s our own goddamn project, the brainchild of one of General Buxtehude’s young hotshots. The guy goes off to a seminar on the wonders of computing and comes home convinced that we have to build ourselves a computerized ‘crystal ball.’ He says it will be able to predict the relative strength of all the powers for any given level of reduction. Anyway, Gordon gets this professor at Cornell to undertake the project. The professor had submitted a funding request for a couple of million dollars for a computerized study of…oh, I don’t know what, the sex life of beetles or some such thing. But Gordon makes him accept this other project too. Because the guy is an expert on simulation. Anybody else would have taken the money and never bothered us with any results, but, just our luck, this professor actually builds the crystal ball.
“What he comes up with is a kind of computerized war-game. We tell it what weapons are left at each stage of reduction, and then it figures out whether we come out ahead or behind if there is a conflict just then. It simulates all the possible ways the weapons might be used. We get a printout of each scenario it considers. The printouts are very detailed; they show losses of people and equipment and cost. Some of them are really grim. The purpose of the program is to evaluate the balance of power with changing force levels, but it can also be used to test out any kind of strategic hypothesis.”
Murdoch looked perplexed. “So what? What does that have to do with anything?”
“The trouble is that the program is a hell of a lot more inventive than any of the real players. It imagined up this whole idea of strategic arms being transferred to off-shore groups. Suppose there’s a nominally independent terrorist group, it says, and some old Red Army generals slip a few missiles to it. Suppose they let the group be controlled by the Cubans, just to obscure responsibility. Then the old generals drop a hint to the Cubans and the Cubans drop a hint to the proxies, and the proxies act. The result is that there is an effective counter to actions that we might take, just like the old days. And the generals and the Cubans retain some power.
“Of course, there’s no proof that the groups have strategic capability,” Gustafson went on, “but it is possible. The program assumes it’s true and then simulates what kind of response there might be to any action we take. It used to be the President would ask Gordon or ask me when he wondered what kind of grief we might get from the other side for doing X, Y, or Z. And we would tell him, ‘no sweat.’ But now he looks at the scenarios that the Cornell program prints out. The result is that the President is increasingly unwilling to do X, Y, or Z. He’s unwilling to do much of anything, because of the projected responses.”
“Can’t we get them to stop sending in the results?” This commonsensical piece of advice came from Paule’s assistant, Taylor Hodge.
“Well, that’s the idea,” said Gustafson. “We are dropping some broad hints. But you know how these things work. The universities tend to be pretty independent. We obviously can’t assassinate the professor and his staff.” A long silence. He looked around the table uneasily, sensing that this might not be obvious to anyone in the room except himself.
Captain Courtenay picked up again. “Anyway, the results of the Cornell simulations are really taking the stuffing out of the President. We could tell him to ignore the reports, we could say that they aren’t accurate, but unfortunately, they ran a simulation of the Honduras strike just before it happened, and the computer predicted almost exactly what happened. It said the Cubans would act immediately to discourage us from such actions. It predicted they would use an independent group, probably an extremist environmental organization, to attack some part of our private sector. The public would think it had been the radical greens. But we would know. It would be a message to us that this is the kind of thing that will happen whenever we move onto their turf. Just our luck, the State Department had a copy of the simulation scenario and was looking at it prior to the attack. The Secretary of State keeps reminding us of that, reminding the President, I mean.”
“The Secretary is a coward,” Murdoch muttered. He seldom missed a chance to say a bad word about State.
Gallant agreed. “He is a coward and an atheist. Maybe those two terms are synonymous.” The twelve chuckled dutifully. “I think I know what you’re going to say next, Captain Courtenay. But go ahead and say it.”
“Yes sir. Well, there are all these scenarios that Cornell has sent in since Honduras. They project the response to our Cuba Libre plan…”
“Of course the Cornell people don’t know anything about Cuba Libre. I am right in assuming that, aren’t I?”
“Yes sir. They don’t. But they have some ideas of their own for what we might be considering, and one of them is nearly bang on. When the President sees what the projected response is to our plan, well he is…” Courtenay paused at the distasteful word, “frightened.”
“Mmmm. What is the projected response, if I may ask.”
“Uh…” Captain Courtenay hesitated. He was having a moment of doubt about the propriety of sharing the details.
Gallant snapped at him. “What is the response, Captain? Let’s have it.”
“Yes sir. They’re projecting that if we did proceed with Cuba Libre or its equivalent, one of the off-shore groups would react. They would, um, target a small nuclear missile on one American city. They’d tie it directly to our action and give a long enough warning to empty the city. It would be a kind of…of punishment.”
The room had the uneasy feel that comes when people stop breathing all at once. Gallant hurried to fill in the silence. “I don’t doubt that this is what the Cornell group is predicting. It will never happen, however. The response to Cuba Libre is going to be total confusion in Havana. We all know that in this room, no matter what the little professors are saying. I wish the Cubans would try to take out one of our cities. That’s when they’d get a rude shock. They have no idea what state the Shield is in.”
The words effected a sudden transformation of their mood. The reminder of the Shield, their secret triumph, brought on a righteous gladness to replace the tension of the last few minutes. Murdoch settled back with a contented smile and folded his hands on his ample stomach. “A rude shock indeed. One minute an attacking missile, armed and soaring, and the next minute nothing. And then…”
“And then…” Gallant took over, “then, how the world is changed, my friends. From that moment on, it’s 1950 all over again. We can strike and nobody can strike back. That’s hegemony, gentlemen. With us in control. And the forces of Evil made impotent.” Gallant was still smiling. He was always smiling. Yet everyone in the room knew that he was angry. He spit his words and still did not stop smiling. “They will feel our wrath. In the words of the Lord to Moses, I will spend my arrows upon them; they shall be wasted with hunger and devoured with burning heat and poisonous pestilence. What a different world that will be, gentlemen. Triumph for our beloved nation, and ‘burning heat and poisonous pestilence’ for our enemies. Not just for Cuba, but for all our enemies. And we are going to make it happen.”
“Hegemony,” Murdoch rolled the word off his tongue. It had a narcotic effect on him and on the rest of the room. “Jesus. We really are going to turn this poor old world around after all. Put it back the way it was intended to be. We really are.”
There was a chorus of agreement, a swell of sound as they all began talking at once. Several of the disciples were on their feet. Edmund Tolliver from the National Security Council had his hand on Gallant’s arm. Gallant smiled on solidly. He hated to be touched. Tolliver was grinning like an idiot. Gallant looked him square in the face and the man blushed. He mumbled ‘Amen’ and turned around looking for his chair. Over the years, you learn the techniques of prying their hands off you with nothing more than a look.
Gallant slapped the table for their attention. When they had quieted themselves, he went on. “The Shield, gentlemen, the Shield that we have labored so long and hard to see to its current state of efficacy, it is the Shield that will be the instrument of His hand. The Shield that you have breathed life into will be for our generation the Ark of the Covenant.” He was aware of some excess of metaphor there, but the others were caught in the enthusiasm of the moment. Courtenay repeated, “The Ark!”
Only the day before, the Reverend Gallant had picked up a slender handbook of meeting management at the People’s Drug Store on Wisconsin Avenue. He had read it cover to cover before turning in last night. The book emphasized shaping each meeting to its objectives, and Gallant went over his objectives again now as the others waited. He lifted his hands, palms upward. “We are the Bearers of the Shield, my friends. They laughed at our ‘Star Wars’ defense, but we did not flinch. They canceled our funding, but we persevered. We did without and steered secret funds into the project. We steeled ourselves against their rebuke, against their ridicule. And now we have placed into orbit three truly Heavenly Bodies.”
He paused for them to appreciate the nice turn of phrase that described the Hard Body laser interceptor satellites as ‘Heavenly Bodies.’ They chimed in their sounds of approval. In truth any allusion to the HBs would have gotten a warm reaction from this group. Even Congress did not know that the HBs were in orbit. But the disciples knew. The knowledge made them feel important and powerful. They purred at the very thought of the HBs.
“Those three bodies, as you know, are the protectors of our great nation. But what does it avail us to have the Shield if we are fearful of using it? The mood in this country is one of appeasement. People are giddy at the prospect of living in peace and harmony with the other side. As though that were ever possible. The Soviet Union has collapsed, but have its weapons gone away? No. They are still there, still controlled by the same hands that controlled them a decade ago. A year from now or less, our own strategic strength will be tragically weakened. If we are to act, it must be now. That is what Cuba Libre is for. If the forces of evil submit, so be it. If they resist, we will show our hand, show them the Shield. And then, having rebuffed their piddling attack, we will strike back. In the words of Jeremiah, Her cities shall become a desolation, with no inhabitant in them. The destroyer shall come upon every city, and no city shall escape; the valley shall perish, and the plain shall be destroyed…” .
“All that is required of us now is to keep to our resolve. To persevere, gentlemen, in the path of righteousness. To stay the course: Cursed is he who does the work of the Lord with slackness; and cursed is he who keeps back his sword from bloodshed. That is written in Jeremiah: 48, 10, and I know it to be true. It is written for us.”
Gallant had learned on the stump over three decades ago that there is a doubting Thomas in every audience. You can always count on him to raise a timorous voice, just as the most glorious vision of a new order has been spoken. If you’re ready for him, you can use him like a shill. The doubting Thomas today was the young fellow Paule had recruited from Treasury, Gallant could never remember his name. He had a high whining voice:
“I’m just wondering about our timing, fellows. That’s all. I mean, I don’t doubt that the HBs will work eventually when we’ve got them perfected, and when we’ve got enough of them in place. But the press was always going on about how the whole notion of the Shield was flawed and how it couldn’t work at all, or at least not with the current state of technology. And I’m just wondering if this might not be a bit early to start goading anyone. I mean, we could be wrong, couldn’t we? We’re only human, aren’t we? Maybe the Shield won’t hold…well, I’m just thinking about all those lives.”
Gallant smiled tolerantly. “We are only human. How true. We can be wrong. How profound are those words. But the Lord is not only human and He cannot be wrong. What are we afraid of my friends? That we may act as the unwitting workers of His will? That we might be the tools of His perfection by fire of human society? Can Armageddon come without His permission? And if it comes, and behind it the second appearance of Our Savior, then which of us, looking back, will be able to regret the enabling actions we are taking here today?”
He affected a sudden tiredness. “But who am I to give you strength if you are weak? I am just a country preacher from the hill country, a child of poor humble people. I’ve held the floor for too long, my friends. Perhaps I was wrong to speak up at all. Perhaps our senior member, Secretary Murdoch, could favor us with a short passage from the good book, and then, Mr. Secretary, you might give us your own instruction, inspired by that passage?”
“Well, of course, Nolan. Of course.” Murdoch reached for his bible.
“If I could just suggest, Bill, starting with the 6th verse of Exodus 15?”
“An excellent choice, Nolan,” said the Secretary, though he had not the foggiest notion of what Exodus 15 might have to say. “I couldn’t have chosen better myself.” The Reverend Gallant closed his eyes as Secretary Murdoch began to read:
“Thy right hand, O Lord, glorious in power, Thy right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy. In the greatness of Thy majesty Thou overthrowest Thy adversaries; Thou sendest forth Thy fury, it consumes them like stubble.”
The Secretary checked it again to be sure he’d got it right. “Well. Yes, ‘stubble,’ as it says. That was…Nolan, that was, I think, just the right choice. Stubble. Well. Reflecting on that passage in these Times of Trouble, might we not be led to ask aloud, How long, O Lord, how long…”
Gallant had set out four objectives for the meeting. The first three had been no trouble at all. He’d given direct instructions to General Archer’s attaché and to the undersecretary for Defense. They had enough influence in the Pentagon to pull off nearly anything in the short run. The fourth objective was a rather delicate one, though. He was going to have to go himself, as Gustafson had said, to talk to the President, to put some backbone into the man. Getting in was not a problem: Rupert Paule had control of the President’s schedule. It would have to be on the QT, as the press would howl bloody murder at the President lending an ear to Nolan Gallant just before the Vienna talks. But leave it to Paule to take care of that.
The difficult part was to figure out just what to say to the President. He was sure the man didn’t have the gumption to flirt with Armageddon. As the others were leaving, Gallant took Paule and Hodge off into the adjacent office and explained his concerns. Hodge was a born intriguer. Gallant put the question to him directly. “Taylor, tell me, what is the best way to approach the President?”
Hodge reflected a moment. “It’s the judgment of history that is on the President’s mind now,” he said. “His nightmare is that history will view him as a blunderer who muddied the waters and let a major American corporation be blown away in the confusion of his own ill-advised adventuring. But if you could just plant the suggestion that it’s the Cubans who have muddied the waters, that history will see that an adroit President acted swiftly and courageously to profit from their ill-advised adventuring…”
“I see. I see. It was our side that was just waiting for them to provide the opportunity. The cowardly attack on Texaco was our opening.”
“Exactly. Operation Cuba Libre was ready for them. And he will be remembered as the man who got Cuba back for us.”
“But it’s been weeks since the Honduras strike and the counterattack on Texaco. Our action now is hardly a lightning response.”
“Who’s to say that? Cuba Libre could be pulled off within ten days. The plan is simple. It requires almost no people, and damn little equipment. From the perspective of next month it’s going to look like an instantaneous response. And it’s going to catch our friends in Havana flat-footed.” Hodge looked relaxed and confident. He had no doubts at all. “They’re going to…how shall I say it, to…”
“…piss in their britches,” Gallant finished up.
“Nicely put,” said Hodge.
In the back of his black limousine, Gallant went back over the meeting. The ways of the Lord are beyond the comprehension of mere mortal men. He leadeth us to lie down with total idiots, to suffer the Murdochs and Tollivers of the world, the fawning little people placed upon earth for reasons that no man could discover. He calleth upon us to take some surprising steps. On occasion, He even leadeth us to tell a few Whoppers.
He considered options for discrediting the Cornell simulations. Little lies, he decided, are for little men. He would look the President right in the eye and tell him that the Cornell data was fudged, that they had concocted their Honduras ‘simulation’ after the fact and postdated it. He would say that the Secretary of State was a party to the forgery. The implication would not be lost on the President: The State Department was trying to increase its power by using these counterfeit scenarios. They were trying to frighten the President, to make him incapable of acting in a time when courageous action was called for.
It would work. The President might try to weasel out of his duty, but would be no match for Gallant. He had the man by his spiritual balls. Within two weeks Cuba Libre would be a fait accompli.
Power politics is heady stuff. It can have a positively erotic effect. The moving of troops, the plotting of bold strokes, he knew, would give some men an erection. For Gallant, the effect was different; it only made him hungry. He tapped on the glass screen of the limo and signaled the driver to turn in at Kentucky Fried Chicken just ahead.