"No wonder they've been stalling all this time," Thomas Waterman remarked from behind his desk in the Oval Office.
"Yes, Mr. President. They've been keeping the aliens captive and making use of the Crispies' abilities while they talked us to death," John Salter, five star General of the Army and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said and waited for the inevitable question.
"I believe, and the rest of the Joint Chiefs agree, that we should make a serious, concerted attempt to rescue them and bring them here."
The president was a small man, no taller than five and a half feet but like many little men, he tended to be more belligerent than patient. Nevertheless, this bore thinking about. Great Britain was supposed to be an ally. He rubbed his chin and glanced down at the summary brief again.
"How did we come by this intelligence?"
"Our agent bought it with her life, sir."
"Mmm." Waterman didn't want to ask for details on how the agent died but he could tell that Salter knew there were still unanswered questions on his mind. "And you're sure the intelligence is accurate?"
"Yes, sir. It's been independently verified by indirect methods."
"Good." He looked expectantly toward the other man in the room, Jess Ravenshoe, head of CIA. "Jess, how about the others?"
Ravenshoe didn't have to ask what others the president meant. "We don't know what the Islamic Confederation has in mind but we have found out where they're keeping their other alien, finally. It's being pretty well guarded but it wouldn't be an impossible mission. Same for the Chinese. Chances of success would run about 50-50 for both. The problem is predicting what their reactions will be if we go in and get the Crispies."
Ravenshoe shook his head in resignation. "We're not mind readers, sir. For what it's worth, most of my people feel it is a justified risk."
"Over eighty percent, sir."
"I think we should try it sir, but do all three at once." Salter shrugged and let a very small smile touch his lips. It looked incongruous among the lines and seams decorating the rest of his face. "No point in alerting the others to guard their aliens closer, or to move them." The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs knew when to go with the flow but President Waterman thought he would have recommended it anyway. God knows we owe them a lot of payback for all the industrial sabotage they've carried out over the years, he thought.
"All right, go ahead and get the planning underway. All three. Notify me beforehand, though. It's possible I could learn something in the meantime that would contra-indicate the action. Now, is there anything else?"
"How about India, sir?" Salter asked. The puzzlement over why Ravenshoe hadn't mentioned that nation was plainly evident in his expression.
"Don't worry about that alien pretending to be a god. I've talked to him, you know. He's crazy as a loon."
"I don't think he'll bother us," Waterman declared flatly, indicating the subject was closed. Some knowledge was better left compartmented. Besides, while assassination was against the law, there wasn't anything illegal about financing a dissident group with the same idea. To Waterman's relief, Jess Ravenshoe merely sat next to Salter, his face closed, betraying nothing.
Both men rose to leave. The president watched them go with no little satisfaction. He thought his predecessors had been far too timid, going way back to Harry Truman. He doubted historians would ever say that about him.
Salter was already running details of the operation through his mind as the door to the Oval Office closed behind him. He'd seen the contingency planning but it had included India. He'd have to remove them from the board. Obviously the President knew something he didn't. Equally obviously, that something was known by Ravenshoe, which meant the Central Intelligence Agency was involved. And frankly, he told himself, I don't WANT to know why he's telling us not to worry.
"Call General Washington, Gerald," Salter told his aide, Lt. Bannerman, as soon as he was back in his own office. "Tell him I'll be flying in tomorrow at noon and to have the necessary people involved in Operations: White, Black, and Red Horse present. We'll meet at one and I want coffee and heavy snacks waiting when I get to the conference room, in case someone misses lunch -- like us. Then notify my pilot and let him know we'll be leaving tomorrow. Clean up my schedule and make my apologies where necessary."
"No Pale Horse, sir?"
"No. Pale Horse is on indefinite -- possibly permanent -- hold."
"Yes, sir, got it," Bannerman said.
Salter was confident that he did. It was rare for him to have to repeat himself to the young man.
"Hey, Bang! Cap'n White wants to see you, right now."
Sergeant Edward Bangler hoped it was his orders. The tall, powerfully built brunet had requested a change of duty station a couple of months ago when the outfit was broken up. He still had no idea why that had happened. Certainly the three missions he'd been on with them had gone well. And the unit got good marks on all of the training exercises.
Still, there it was. The lieutenant and three of the enlisted men had gotten orders they refused to talk about and hurriedly departed for parts unknown. Then the next month two of the sergeants had received training assignments. That was, essentially, that. End of outfit. And here he was, still stuck in the same place. He wondered if he'd screwed up somehow.
He had been restlessly going through the motions of acting as if he were still a part of a Special Forces team just like the others, but it was all acting. Not even training orders came down the pipe. Sgt. Manlin just made them up and ran the remaining men through them. They did a lot of physical training and study of past missions, too. A LOT. It wasn't exactly boring -- but it wasn't what he'd been trained for, either.
He headed for the orderly room, bracing his face against the everlasting wind-blown sand of West Texas where the small army post was located. It seemed to be mostly a reassignment center, but no one admitted to it.
Headquarters was an old two story building built of solid masonry; half the offices were empty. He threaded his way past several of the occupants going out for lunch and a couple more returning. He nodded to all of them and spoke to the one corporal he knew. The door to the orderly room was open. He walked inside and over to where a Private First Class was manning the clerk's desk.
"That's me. I was told the Cap'n wanted to see me."
"He does. Go on in," the PFC replied, pointing to another open door.
Bangler walked in and reported to the middle aged captain. The age and rank weren't congruent, he knew. A captain that old had either come up from enlisted ranks or was a reservist who'd been called back up. Or an officer who'd been on someone's shit list.
He really didn't care so long as he got to leave this dusty hole. In general he'd liked Texas, though, so he didn't add any of the obvious adjectives to his mental description of the post.
"Sgt. Bangler, I have orders for you."
"Thank you sir. Where am I being posted?"
He was answered with a thin smile. "Frankly, I don't have a clue, Sergeant. Your orders came in a sealed package. Here you are." He half-stood and handed a large manila envelope across the desk. It was sealed with "Top Secret" tape. Another, smaller envelope was attached to the first with a sticky seal.
Puzzled, Bangler took the envelopes and looked inquiringly at the captain. He didn't know quite what he'd expected, but whatever it had been, this wasn't it.
"The smaller one has your immediate instructions," the captain elaborated. "The sealed orders aren't to be opened until you arrive at the destination noted in the instructions. And please don't ask me what this is all about. I don't know. You aren't authorized any 'delay in route' leave, either. Whoever wants you is in a hell of a hurry."
"Thank you, sir. Is that all?"
He shrugged, a wry expression on his face. "That's all, Sergeant."
Bangler saluted and left. Apparently he had his change in orders but they sure had come in funny. He could hardly wait until he got back to his room to open the instructions, and he knew he would be practically dying of curiosity by the time he was allowed to open the secret part of his orders.
But when he got back to his room, another surprise awaited. A youngish man wearing jeans and undershirt with a light wind breaker was in his room, sitting in the visitor's chair, when he returned to the barracks. Bangler stopped in the doorway, surprised and angered.
"Who in the hell are you and what are you doing messing around in my room?" he asked loudly. He felt his hands tightening into fists.
Without even standing up, the man replied. "Haven't you looked at your instructions yet?"
"Open the white envelope."
Puzzled, Bangler tore it open. Inside was a piece of paper. This part of his orders were typed in a simple sentence. Do exactly as Mr. Herman Weingarten instructs. Do not open your secret orders until he tells you to do so.
"That's me. Let's get you packed. You're allowed twenty-five kilos of luggage."
"What!? I've got a hell of a lot more than that!"
"Calm down. We know that. Just take what you think you can't do without for right now. The rest of your belongings will be packed for you. They'll catch up with you eventually."
Bangler shook his head, not sure whether to be disgusted, angry or excited. "All I've got to say is these are the craziest orders I've ever heard of."
Weingarten smiled. "Just wait. You ain't heard anything yet."