Bagram Airfield, Parwan Province, Afghanistan
An empty, uncomfortable void gripped Peri Keser’s gut when she heard the distant rumble of a metal-tearing detonation.
She sat upright, feeling confused. Air Force One was scheduled for lift-off from the longest of the concrete runways in Bagram Airfield, in the Parwan Province of Afghanistan. The unmistakable noise of a failing jet engine going into a nose spin tore her from the hospital bed where she’d spent the last twelve hours. As a senior U.S. Secret Service agent she should have been on that flight, protecting the President, but her fever had grounded her.
The second explosion was unmistakable.
She ripped the tubes from her arm and searched for her clothes.
Until the detonation she had been dozing, half-delirious from her fever and headache. Her skin was clammy and sticky — wet with her own sweat — yet she felt as cold as if she had been dropped in ice water.
The base’s alarm system went off. Outside everyone would be mobilizing into lockdown. Fire trucks screamed down the airfield. More aircraft could be heard taxiing to the runways. All available forces were mobilizing to respond to the attack.
She dressed in clothes from her bedside locker but felt no warmth. It took time because her body shook with the fever. Wrapping a blanket around her felt bulky but no warmer. She stumbled rather than marched towards the exit.
“Hey, what are you doing?” demanded a nurse, running to help Peri. The young woman steadied her. “You have malaria. You need to return to bed.”
Peri pushed sweat drenched clumps of hair from her eyes. Her whole body shook. “I-I heard an explosion,” she stuttered through chattering teeth. She couldn’t understand why the nurse wore little more than scrubs. “Was t-the President’s p-plane hit?”
The nurse paled. She looked everywhere else but at Peri.
“W-was it?” Peri insisted.
The woman nodded. “It’s just come through on the comms. Air Force One was hit by a surface-to-air missile.”
She shook her head. “I’m only a nurse. I don’t know details, but I do know you need to be in bed, resting.”
“No. I’m S-Secret Service.” She couldn’t control her violent shaking but that didn’t stop her pushing past the nurse. “I’m s-supposed to be in the air right now, p-protecting the President.”
“And if you were, Keser, you’d be dead too.”
Peri didn’t remember her legs giving way, or that she had fallen onto the cold, sterilized hospital floor, but when her eyes opened a few seconds later, the nurse was standing above her.
Peri tried to rise but her body wouldn’t listen. Every muscle ached and was unresponsive. Falciparum malaria was at war with her body.
Her left ear throbbed as though it was about to burst. That one simple symptom — an ear infection — had grounded her when Air Force One departed for Berlin. Changes in air pressure during lift-off might have ruptured her eardrum and a Secret Service agent who was half deaf was no good to anyone. While the ear infection might have just saved her life, she had failed totally and utterly as a Secret Service agent.
The nurse helped Peri to her feet and led her toward the bed.
The smart course of action was to remain in hospital until she was well enough for duty again. The U.S. Air Force operated Heathe N. Craig Joint Theater Hospital was as safe a haven as it was possible to find in a dysfunctional country like Afghanistan. She knew she should focus on recovering before throwing herself back into her protective duties. She knew she should allow others to deal with the problems transpiring outside.
But she couldn’t do that, not really. A malicious act of war had just transpired directly outside the U.S. 455th Air Expeditionary Wing controlled airbase. This would have been her watch, if she wasn’t in this hospital. It was her chosen role to protect the President from harm using any means necessary. If Air Force One had indeed been shot down, she was the only Secret Service operative left on the base. Peri was the only one who knew the intimate details of the Presidential staff and crew. Her leader might still be alive, a survivor of the crash. If so, he would be more vulnerable now than he had ever been. She could provide information that might protect his very life.
The nurse rubbed Peri’s back. “There was nothing you could have done.”
“Y-yes I c-could have.” Peri twisted her head from side to side, hoping the action would revive her, give her time and focus to assess the situation. But the fog in her mind would not lift. “I h-have in-information . . . t-that will b-be of u-use . . .”
She stumbled again.
The nurse, used to uncooperative patients, easily steadied Peri.
“Y-you n-need to give me s-something.”
“A sedative? I’ll ask the doctor.”
“No! I n-need stimulants.”
“Not likely Keser.”
Late last night she had asked for drugs to make her functional again, but she had been told there was no such thing. Doctors had instead placed her on a course of antimalarial treatments. Then they ordered her to rest and recuperate until her body’s own defenses beat off the disease.
“W-what about a p-pain killer?” She read the nurse’s name badge to build familiarity. “You’re Kate Knapp? Right?”
“I want a s-strong one!”
“You really need to get into bed. Look how hard you’re shaking.”
“N-no! I-I n-need —”
“Ma’am, I’ll ask the doctor. Now into bed!”
Peri demurred, half expecting Knapp to chastise her for keeping her work clothes on, but the nurse was soon out of sight.
Levering herself back out of bed Peri headed for an exit. Her will was strong even if her body was not. She could do this.
Outside a light snow was falling. Her shivers intensified as the chill seeped deep within, reaching her bones. It couldn’t be that cold, but with her fever, she felt like she was standing naked in a blizzard.
In the distance, between the dominating snow-capped Hindu Kush Mountains and the colorless, flat desert, a cloud of thick black smoke billowed into the otherwise clear air. Flames as high as flag poles seared from the wreckage several miles from the airfield. The debris itself could not be seen directly from her current position, with base buildings, security fencing and tents in the way.
F-16 Fighting Falcons were already circling the crash site. One released what Peri suspected to be a series of cluster bombs close to the crash site, presumably to neutralize the threat that had brought down Air Force One.
On the ground airmen, U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division soldiers, U.S. Marine Corps and civilian contractors moved with speed and purpose. Two Sikorsky HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters lifted from their snow-cleared pads, buffeting her with their chilly, artificially-produced winds, en route to the crash site in the hope of rescuing survivors. At ground level Humvees sped through the manned gates, watched over by combat ready Marines. Nothing was being left to chance.
“Ma’am, get out of the way!” a Marine Sergeant yelled as he and his companions pushed past, hauling supplies. She hadn’t realized that she had wandered into a thoroughfare.
“W-what h-happened?” she asked.
The same Marine kept jogging, but called back. “A crisis ma’am. Now do us a favor and get indoors.” He was headed for another Humvee loading additional Marines.
“I n-n-need to c-come with you!”
She didn’t think the Sergeant had heard her in his rush but he found time to laugh at what he must consider to be a preposterous suggestion.
“W-where is t-the BG?” she yelled. “O-ops R-room?”
“I can’t tell you where he is ma’am.”
She flashed her Secret Service shield. “I report directly to the President of the United States.”
The Marine hesitated only for a second. “Control tower, ma’am. That’s all I know.”
He was gone, leaving Peri to stumble through the base, past the demobilization crew that shrunk the base a little more every day now that the U.S. was pulling out of Afghanistan. Even with the blanket wrapped tightly around her, she felt the cold in every cell of her body.
At a security point Air Force guards halted her menacingly. She again fumbled to present her Secret Service badge. She had to be the only Special Agent in Bagram Airfield. Her position and detailed knowledge on the President and his aides had to be of use in this crisis situation. If only she could convince someone of her value.
“I n-need to s-speak to y-your c-c-commanding officer.” She couldn’t stop stuttering through her chattering teeth, and the guards left her to struggle with every last word. “B-Brigadier General Lucius R-R-Rodrigo?”
“That’s not possible right now, Ma’am.”
“I k-know the P-President and c-c-crew of A-Air Force One b-better than anyone here. G-get me in f-front of the B-BG r-r-right now!”
The two guards turned to each other to exchange quizzical stares, before one shrugged and moved into action. Airman Petersen, according to the name on his stitch patch, radioed his commanding officer. She was cleared and within minutes Peri was inside the tower with Petersen leading her upstairs.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Ma’am,” said the young recruit jovially, “but you look like shit.”
Peri snarled. She was barely holding herself back from vomiting, fainting, and maybe — she thought comically — bursting into flames from the heat generated by her fever, despite feeling colder than she ever had in her life. “Y-you . . . y-you . . .” She had an insult planned, a witty comeback, but the words wouldn’t form.
“I’m what, Ma’am?”
If she didn’t feel so awful she would have screamed — why did she have to be so sick today of all days?
Inside the control tower, constructed during the time when the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan and operated the airfield, the air was electric with the frantic activities of flight controllers and support staff. She quickly identified Brigadier General Lucius Rodrigo, barking orders and demanding updates by the minute. When the Brigadier General in turn identified Peri, he approached, straight-backed, with arms behind his back. Despite his greying hair and worn features the career soldier was all muscle.
“I was reliably informed that you were incapacitated and off the active duty list, Special Agent Keser.”
“S-sir, Air F-Force One has just been s-shot —” She stumbled, almost fell.
Rodrigo steadied her with a powerful arm, yet successfully resisted expressing any concern for her wellbeing. “Airman, get the lady a chair, and a hot coffee.”
“Yes sir,” said Petersen.
“And put her in the corner,” Rodrigo orders were barked in short, clipped phrases, “far from me, and everyone else, so she won’t infect anyone.”
“S-sir, it’s m-malaria. Y-you don’t c-catch it like that.”
The Brigadier ignored her. He barked orders to his staff, ensuring that teams were on their way to assess the wreckage and to search for survivors.
Once seated, Peri wrapped the blanket tightly around her. She still shivered from the infection, but the control tower interior was far warmer than the high altitude winter outside. In no time she had a coffee in her hands. It tasted terrible, made her feel even more nauseous, but every sip warmed her.
“S-sir, w-what is the s-situation?”
Rodrigo cleared his throat. “You tell me Keser. Air Force One has the most sophisticated electronic counter measures in the USAF arsenal, and yet an insurgent with an SA-18 took it out.”
Peri remembered her U.S. Department of Defense designation, an SA-18 was a Russian Igla surface-to-air missile. An impressive piece of arsenal not usually found in the hands of Afghan insurgents.
“Or so the Marine Intel boys are telling me,” continued Rodrigo. “I say our ECMs should be better than that.”
Peri nodded, agreeing that Air Force One’s electronic counter measures were the most sophisticated of any aircraft on the planet. She was about to respond when the Brigadier General spoke again, as loud as before. “I’m in crisis up to my eyeballs and you’re way beyond operational capacity, Keser, so I’m going to give you precisely one minute to convince me why I need you on my immediate team.”
“I-I’m up to d-date on all c-credible threats posted against the P-President —”
“You have thousands of those,” he interrupted. “Right now I need only those that are insurgent related; Taliban, Al-Qaeda or Islamic State. My people have a far better working knowledge of those threats than you.”
Peri took a deep breath. “W-with all d-due r-r-respect, sir, the m-most credible threat, given the evidence, is a c-cyber-attack. I’m g-guessing you’ve got a constant stream of Afghan insurgents t-trying to t-take down your air fleet with SAMs every day, but if Air F-Force One’s ECMs were h-hacked . . .”
Rodrigo eyeballed her for a long count of three seconds, before he barked his next order, “Airman Petersen?”
“Escort Special Agent Keser to her hospital bed, and make sure she remains there until I command otherwise.”
Peri leapt to her feet, immediately feeling dizzy. “N-no w-way sir. Y-you n-n-need me —”
“You’re wasting my time, Keser.”
As he spoke the lights dimmed, then went out completely. Every computer shut down. Through the three-sixty degree view from the control tower Peri saw lights extinguish across the entire complex.
“Oh my,” she exclaimed.
“What happened?” asked a junior officer.
Peri didn’t say, but she knew the answer. Someone had just hacked into all the systems of this major U.S. military airbase, shutting them down.