Wind picked up slowly at first, and the tops of the pines began to sway then the thundering sound of the helicopter broke apart the peaceful twilight, the treetops dancing sporadically at its approach. Normally, the surrounding wildlife would have scurried away from the commotion, but this area of the mountain region was all but devoid of animals. There was usually too much activity here for nature to settle in.
As the Huey touched down, clashing against the rugged landscape of Appalachia, a tall, military-clad man got out and touched the ground almost before the machine did. He stepped with hasty authority, passing by the uniformed guard who was saluting him and proceeded down the rough path that snaked along the ancient mountaintop.
General Rainesford was pushing his thirty-second year in the U.S. Army, and his seventh as one of its highest-ranking officials. The waistline of his uniform had extended over the years while his hairline receded, but he held up remarkably well considering the fearsome information he had accumulated in recent years, information that had come to bring him nearly unlimited authority and decision-making finality among the few men above him.
The handling of this evening’s situation was another testimony of his power, another situation that had arisen, requiring his immediate and personal attention. Such a situation aggravated his already bitter disposition, but given his knowledge of such classified information, he was forced to handle many dilemmas himself.
He reached the end of the beaten path and stopped in front of what appeared to be nothing more than an embankment residing peacefully among the trees. He approached the hillside and gave three sharp knocks on the brown metal door that resided in the earth.
Almost immediately, a voice came from the other side of the door.
“Who goes there?”
A thin smile curled his lip at the line. Ever since he was a kid, he’d loved hearing that phrase, pulling it from every dime novel and film he’d some across it. Another unnecessary reminder than he ran the show here. Whoever manned the door had to ask that question for identification, and only one response could answer it.
“Kiss my ass.” He stepped back and presented his face plainly at the level of the eye hole. Within a few seconds, there were several clicks from within as the door slowly swung open. No electronic locks, no record of the comings and goings here.
The general brushed past the two uniforms at the door with a half salute, and the senior military man stormed indelicately down a series of concrete corridors and metal doors until he came to one guarded from the outside by two different uniformed men, each armed with an M-1014 shotgun and Glock sidearm. The hum of electricity was steady as if there was far more power coursing through the narrow halls than was necessary. The smell of dust and damp earth filled the stagnant air. He maintained his pace as he approached the two men, their expressions indifferent, as if they were focused on the space behind him. Another quick half salute snapped off before opening the door, the two men allowing him passage through without a word. The door clicked shut behind him, and he stood in the threshold absorbing the situation.
Bound to a metal folding chair in the middle of the room was a young man of medium build and shaggy blonde hair. He looked unharmed except for the small trickle of blood coming from the side of his mouth, his eyes looking around wildly, and his breathing rapid and deep. There was another uniformed guard standing in the corner of the small room. The general returned his salute dismissively.
General Rainesford watched the young man closely for a few seconds, waiting to see if he would speak first, but the man only continued to return his gaze wildly. He was too afraid to speak, and after seeing his fear was not about to subside, the general decided to break the silence.
“You’ve been up here before.” The statement was final, not a question at all.
The young man shook his head then he began nodding, defeat apparent in his every gesture. His eyes revealed that he had been crying before the general entered the room, whether genuinely or out of desperation, the general did not care, and now the tears slid over the red rims again.
“Ye—Yes sir.” His hands were taped to his thighs and he gripped them hard in order to control his sobs. “I’ve been in this area se—several times but only for bird watching. I’m a graduate student of ornithology, and I’m do—doing my thesis on the mating habits of the re—red tailed hawk.”
He looked pleadingly at the stone face of his captor and waited for a response. The general stared at the young man for several seconds, weighing his options carefully but mostly just savoring the uncomfortability of the moment. Whatever decision was made fell within his authority here, but he often liked to exercise restraint. It was always easier to plow around a stump rather than dig it up for a straight row, but there was certainly no room for complacency either. The fact of the matter was this was the first time a civilian had been in this room, and the situation was a delicate one indeed.
“There is very little wildlife in this area,” Rainesford responded dryly. “There is running equipment here that doesn’t agree with their sensitive nature.” He exhaled loudly. It seemed to give the tension in the room the opportunity to thin out. “Have you always come here alone?”
“Yes sir.” The young man’s posture slumped slightly and he exhaled as well, feeling the tension lifting. “I’ve never brought anyone with me, and I’m very sorry. “
Rainesford waved his hand in front of his face and shook his head.
“No need to apologize, young man,” he motioned to the guard to untie the prisoner. “We just have to take extra precautions because of the sensitive nature of our business up here.” Leaning forward, winked in the young man’s face. “Anti-terrorism stuff, you know.”
The general smiled, and the young man laughed audibly in return as General Rainesford patted him on the back and led him out of the room, the solider at his side. When they got to the door that led to the outside, the young man looked overjoyed as he turned to the general and smiled, nodding his head. The soldier who escorted the man pulled something from his cargo pocket and held it up by a strap. It was a small digital camera, its dimensions no bigger than a wallet. He passed it in front of the captor’s nervous eyes and into the outstretched hand of the general. The senior officer turned the camera over in his hand and looked at the man.
“Doesn’t seem like the right equipment for bird watching,” the general turned the power on to the camera and began flipping through the images on the display. The man tried to look at them without being obvious. There were several pictures of the metal door that led to the bunker and others of the various small structures around, storage sheds and small buildings. The general pressed the button over and over until he got to one of the cleared area behind the structures, the area used as a helipad.
“What’s this one of?” the general asked appearing genuinely confused.
“Nothing,” a quick reply with quivering lips. “Nothing, I just look for good places for nests and things.” The validity of the story began to sound farcical in his own ears, and he looked down after he said it.
“Don’t worry, son,” the general powered off the camera and placed it in the owner’s hand before nodding to the soldier to lead him out. “This officer is going to take care of you.” And with that, the soldier and the young man turned out of the general’s sight.
Rainesford did an about face and walked deeper into the complex. A dimly lit room covered in flatscreens ended the hallway. The two soldiers seated at the equipment turned and acknowledged the higher-ranking official’s entrance, but neither got up to salute, such an action would become too repetitive in this environment. The men in this room were doing a job, not performing a duty. General Rainesford pulled a rolling chair from the corner and seated himself between the working soldiers.
“Any activity?” He asked, leaning forward and putting on a headset.
Of course, there’d be no reason to ask if there had.
“Things have been quiet for a while now. When is the next scheduled transmission?” Rainesford asked.
“Three days, sir.” One of the officers replied blandly.
“Well, it won’t be long before the last transmission comes and we are forced to comply with their demands, oh, excuse me, ‘requests’.” He ran his hands roughly over his cheeks and then rubbed his eyes. One of the soldiers ran his hand along a roller, bringing the picture up on one of the monitors and focusing it. The general glanced at the screen and shook his head.
The bird man, who had been bound to a chair only minutes before, was being escorted outside by two uniformed men. The young civilian seemed to be laughing and shaking his head at the entire matter. The volume was turned down, but it was obvious that he was thanking the men for letting him go. There was a moment of back-patting before he clasped his hands in front of him, grateful to have the chance to walk away. The view zoomed closer, and Rainesford shot a scolding glance at the officer who was controlling the monitor.
Bird man walked only a few steps when one of the soldiers grabbed him from behind and forced him to the edge of the steep drop off. The man gained his footing and began to push back violently, forcing the second soldier to joined in the struggle. The camera zoomed closer on the man’s horror-stricken face as the two soldiers gave a final heaving shove, sending him head first over the edge.
General Rainesford cupped his face in his hand and yawned. A soldier entered the door behind them carrying a white foam cup of coffee, at which general nodded his head and sipped the soothing drink slowly then smiled in approval of the taste.
“Get our man in Washington on the line.” He said, turning to the soldier to his right. “I want to know as much as he can tell me about how things are progressing in Virginia. All this waiting’s really chappin my ass.”