The stunned silence gripping the control tower was eerie. Peri had never seen anything like it.
“What the hell?” exclaimed Rodrigo.
Then the lights flickered on, and the computer monitors sprang back to life.
“Sir,” reported a senior flight controller. “All systems seem to be rebooting.”
Rodrigo growled. “Are we still blind, Chief Master Sergeant Huang?”
“Yes sir,” the flight controller nodded. “However, all systems seem to be loading without a glitch, sir.”
“What the hell happened?”
“We don’t know sir. Ascertaining now.”
The Air Force grunt snapped to attention. “Yes sir?”
“Leave the lady where she is.” The Brigadier General turned to Peri. “I’ll deal with you in a minute. In the meantime, start thinking about whom might have hacked us.”
“Yes sir.” She sighed with relief, sipped her coffee and tried to concentrate on the action around her, rather than the pain in her body, to bring her focus to the task at hand. She knew from hard earned experience there were constant cyber-attacks against the White House, Air Force One, or anywhere the President was known or presumed to be — but what was credible in the current situation? The perpetrator must be a powerful and sophisticated group to temporarily shut down an entire U.S. military installation. This suggested the Chinese or Russian military — maybe France or India at a pinch — or a powerful corporation at a stretch. The People’s Liberation Army in Shanghai had been busy of late, hacking global newspapers and infiltrating the networks of technology companies in a national effort to gain trade secrets, product innovations and force deployments. Despite the potential diplomatic risks, the PLA seemed best positioned to have targeted Air Force One in this case.
This line of thought, unfortunately, was mere speculation until she had some raw data to analyze, because despite what she had claimed to the Brigadier General, right now she had nothing.
Soon all systems were running smoothly again. The techies confirmed that the attack had not been electronic counter-warfare, but a surge of debilitating code uploaded from the Internet. A massive data spike had hit their systems just before everything went down. The program code — what they could make of it — was far more sophisticated than anyone had ever seen before, and encrypted far beyond anything the NSA could produce. Thankfully there had been no accidents as a result, and every system seemed to be returning to normal.
But traces of the attack may remain in their systems, both spyware and malware.
“What is the origin of the spike?” demanded Rodrigo.
“We don’t know sir. We’re investigating now.”
“And damage to our systems?”
“As far as we can tell . . . nothing, sir.”
“Sir,” interrupted Chief Master Sergeant Huang. “Sir, I think you should see this.” The senior flight controller sweated. His eyes were wide. Data on his monitor obviously didn’t make sense.
With squinted eyes Rodrigo marched to Huang’s console. “What am I looking at, Sergeant?”
“That’s Air Force One’s call signal, sir. It’s still in the air, according to our radar. It’s transmitting all the right noise too, and it’s still en route for Berlin.”
“I agree sir.”
“Sir,” the Chief Master Sergeant swallowed audibly then failed to speak even though he had an idea he obviously needed to share.
“This is a crisis, Haoran Huang. Spit it out.”
“We’re also getting radio chatter from Air Force One’s pilot. He’s reporting that they are cruising at thirty-five thousand feet and everything is smooth sailing.”
For a long moment, nobody said a word.
“Again, impossible,” snarled Rodrigo.
Peri spoke up from her corner. “Are you sure it was Air Force One that was shot down?”
“I’m not even going to humor that with an answer.” Growling, the Brigadier General turned to Huang. “Check again. You must have some kind of time delay glitch.”
“Air Force One, this is OAIX, do you copy? Over.”
As Huang spoke the remainder of the tower staff said nothing. The situation was surreal, suddenly hopeful. If Air Force One was untouched, as tragic as it would be that another aircraft had gone down instead, Peri would no longer be needed. She could get the rest she so desperately required to recover. The President was a symbol. If they had lost him today, as a nation they had lost far more than just one man. Anything less, she wasn’t required.
“Air Force One, this is OAIX —”
“This is Air Force One. Reading you loud and clear, OAIX.”
Chief Master Sergeant Huang sucked in a deep lungful of air, then breathed normally after a long moment. “What is your situation, Air Force One? Are all systems normal?”
“Affirmative. Why you asking?” When no one said a word, the caller on the radio responded with, “If I didn’t know better I’d say you sounded worried. What’s this about?”
Peri recognized the voice as that of the pilot, Colonel Mitch Landis. She had spoken to him previously on several occasions during their many flights across the globe together, plus she had been personally responsible for vetting his file thoroughly.
If Air Force One had been shot down then this could only be a professional counterintelligence scam by the Russians or the Chinese — too sophisticated for Afghan insurgents — because the voice sounded utterly convincing. They would also need the best in mass surveillance techniques, to gather the latest intelligence to accurately portray the people they had just murdered. Only wealthy, developed nations had the capacity and trained professionals to pull off a play like this, and even then she wasn’t sure how they could.
She listened again, trying to find a detail that would expose the lie. She wanted this to be an elaborate set-up. But she couldn’t detect anything unusual, other than the knowledge that there was a wreckage of Air Force One just a few miles outside the airfield. It felt more important than ever that she see the crash site with her own eyes.
Peri stumbled to Chief Master Sergeant Huang and asked for the mic. Huang looked to Rodrigo and the Brigadier General nodded curtly.
She took the mic and spoke into it. “C-colonel Landis, t-this is Sp-Special A-Agent P-Perihan Keser.”
“Peri, how are you?”
It sounded like him.
She cleared her throat. “S-sir, we’ve had a s-s-security b-breach. I n-need you to c-confirm a detail for me?”
“Sure Peri, go ahead.”
“W-where did you h-holiday with your f-family last s-spring?”
“W-what did your daughter w-want for C-Christmas, l-last year?”
“She wanted lots of things.”
“One t-t-thing in p-particular, you t-told me about d-during our flight to S-Shanghai last month.”
There was a brief delay. Then a laugh. “A unicorn.”
Peri shuddered. This time it wasn’t the fever that gripped her. “T-thank you, sir.” She handed the mic to Huang.
“Well?” Rodrigo stared down at her. She was by no means short but until this moment she hadn’t completely taken in just how tall the BG was, how he towered over her.
“I-It’s him s-sir. I’m s-sure of it.”
So Air Force One had not gone down. She felt better. Of course, her elation might also be due to the intensity of the situation and the adrenaline her body was producing just to keep her focused. Whatever it was that was keeping her mobile, she hoped it would last, because she was stuttering less and her brain fog had finally started to clear. “S-sir, I need to get out to the w-wreckage. I know the c-crew and the President’s t-team. If t-that’s not Air Force One out there, I’ll be able to c-confirm quickly.”
“I thought you said that was the pilot just then?”
“It is . . . I . . .” she didn’t know how to respond. “I d-don’t know what is r-real in this s-situation, sir. I need to see the wreckage.”
Rodrigo nodded. “Very well Keser. I think that’s the most sensible thing you’ve said to me since you showed up here today.”
A dozen catty responses came to mind, but Peri was too professional to let her feelings dominate her actions. The crisis that confronted her was all that was important right now.
“Yes s-sir. Thank you, s-sir.”
“Get her to the Marine Expeditionary Force team. I want another squad out at the wreckage, and I want her along.” Rodrigo pointed to her, but he was talking to Petersen. “I want her armored up, but only a sidearm.”
“W-what —?” she exclaimed. “I need a shotgun at least. I’m proficient.” Peri had no desire to enter enemy territory with only a pistol to protect herself.
Rodrigo’s eyes narrowed, becoming dark. Her stared down at her with focused intensity. She could see why he had risen so high within the military machine. He could command with stares alone.
“Look at you Keser. You’re a mess. Yes, I need your eyes on the ground, but I’m not risking you shooting one of my men because you can’t think straight. Get her out of here.”
Peri was jostled downstairs. Her blanket taken from her, she was fitted with desert pattern camouflage commonly worn by civilians attached to military operations, body armor, sturdy boots and a combat helmet. When her minders finished kitting her out, Peri retched for five minutes. Nothing came up, but she felt raw and gutted afterwards. Not surprising considering she had barely eaten in two days.
“Drink this Ma’am,” Her new minder, Marine Corporal Jake Pulaski, offered a water bottle.
She reached for the canister carefully and sipped in small portions. Fluids did help, and soon she was on her feet again. She was both burning up and contrastingly cold because of the malaria, but at least she was functional.
“I’m to keep an eye on you. You hear what I’m saying ma’am?”
She gave the Marine a firm nod.
“You are to take my direction at all times.”
“Y-yes Corporal, I get it.”
“I am not joking. Beyond the gates is a war zone, the worst in the world. I don’t want you being a liability.”
“I’m a S-Special Agent with the U.S. S-S-Secret Service, Corporal. I know w-what I’m doing.”
“Not like this.”
“Just get on with it, Corporal.”
Pulaski took a moment to really look at her. “You knew the President?” There was finality in how the Marine had referred to the Head of State in the past tense.
“Yes, I k-know him. Right n-now we don’t know if t-that was Air Force One that w-went down or not.”
“It was Ma’am. I was outside at the time. I saw it all.”
Peri wiped the cold snot trickling from her leaky nose with her sleeve. She must look terrible to him, to everyone on the base for that matter.
“You s-s-saw it go down?”
“It was Air Force One, Ma’am. It’s not a mistake you can make.”
She recalled her last conversation with Colonel Landis. She knew there was no such thing as ghosts but that seemed to be what he was. Or he had been turned, a double agent working for the aggressor, sending them a false signal to confuse them. Some enemy organization was going to elaborate extremes to cause confusion in the U.S. military networks. But before she could even begin speculating who the enemy was, or what their agenda might be, she needed to gather information. That started with the wreckage of whatever it was out there in the slushy, snowy desert.
“S-s-shouldn’t we get m-moving?”
Outside again the skies were clear. Beyond the dust generated by deconstruction works, the surrounding mountain ranges were pristine and beautiful. The air buzzed with low flying aircraft including Predator drones, F-16 jet fighters and Marine operated V-22 Osprey tiltrotor vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. The latter were moving more troops to the crash site. Peri feared she was going to be forced onto one when Corporal Pulaski pointed her to an eight-wheeled LAV-25 amphibious reconnaissance vehicle. “I heard, Ma’am,” he said tapping his own ear behind his combat helmet, “you can’t fly right now?”
“A n-near burst eardrum,” she yelled over the noise of so many aircraft, fire engine sirens and roaming vehicles.
Pulaski readied his M4A1 carbine. “I hope whatever it is they need you for, it’s worth it.”
“And I h-hope you’re wrong, t-that it’s not Air Force One.”
The LAV-25 and its Marine contingent drove quickly through the closest of the airfield’s many highly defended exits, then ploughed through the frantic Afghan streets of the small neighboring town, turning northeast, toward the site of the crash. Peri couldn’t see much from inside the armored vehicle, but she was informed that people on the dirty roads were celebrating. Occasionally their Marine gunner would fire the vehicle mounted 7.62mm machine gun. Most likely as a warning against bravado attacks. The local populous, not in favor of international intervention, would see a downed Air Force One as a rallying cry to raise arms against the occupiers. The U.S. Marines were having none of that.
Peri kept her head down and tried not to feel as sick as she really was. Her nausea was constant, and she couldn’t stop shaking. When she heard two privates talking about her, she looked up. The young men opposite were laughing at her expense.
“You l-like your w-women sickly and n-near death, Private?”
“Actually Ma’am, we were just complimenting you,” said the cocky soldier with a closely shaved head and a thick Midwestern accent. “I was just saying you’re a ten-eight.”
Peri knew she shouldn’t bite, but she was too light-headed and focused on the crisis at hand to give her next response much thought. “A t-ten-eight?” she asked.
“You’re a ten in Baghram, an eight back home. You’re a lady.”
The Private next to him laughed then the two clunked helmets. “Oorah!” they exclaimed together.
She immediately regretted asking. They were rating her looks out of ten. Typical false bravado of young men kept under constant pressure for too long. Ignoring their further jests, Peri returned her focus to staying conscious and not embarrassing herself further by retching. This journey couldn’t end fast enough.
She just hoped that when they reached the crash site she would not find the corpse of the man whose life she had sworn to protect above her own.
Thank you for reading. The rest of The Benevolent Deception is available from Amazon in ebook format. Visit my website www.aidenlbailey.com to learn more.
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