Parallelogram : Day Two : Chapter 01

Five Days, Twenty-Three Hours, Fifty-Eight Minutes

Taking a moment to brush a tired hand across his face, White House Chief of Staff Ethan Wendall Stoddard realized he had spent far too many hours in the last six months in the subterranean Situation Room – or Sit- Room, as the military brass preferred to call it. The War on Terror, while progressing nicely, had almost required his constant attention to the details surrounding dozens of engagements, briefing after briefing of planned missions, and hundreds of interrogations. The Joint Chiefs made most of the recommendations – after all, military opportunities were their specialty – but the President demanded a member of his staff maintain an open flow of information to the Cabinet ... and Stoddard was best-suited for the job. He had served in the military, had been a commander in the first Desert Storm, before returning home and answering the call to politics. On the fast track, the party moved him about quickly, giving him the best exposure to the best candidates in the field. Stoddard knew that his level- headedness – a trait that had served him well on more occasions that he cared to remember coming under enemy fire – drew the attention of this Administration, and, before he could even think about giving romance a second-chance in this lifetime, Stoddard had been hand-picked to serve the world's only remaining superpower in one of the key tactical positions.

"So much for giving up stress," he said.

"What's that, Mr. Stoddard?" his aide asked, his arms straining under the weight of intelligence briefings.

"Never mind, Morgan."

Of course, of all the places to be in, around, and under the White House, the Sit-Room wasn't exactly the worst possible choice. The center was adorned with state-of-the-art technology – the kinds of equipment Stoddard had long ago imagined only existed in 'Star Trek' movies. Ten foot high digital plasma screens were mounted around the circular room, and the banks of blinking monitors stretched from wall to wall. The floor was a series of slotted metal plating, and someone – one of the various military experts he recognized shuffling around a bank of satellite monitoring screens – had once told him that it was 'shielded' or 'grounded' or 'protected' or some such condition to guard the room's personnel from possible electrocution. He didn't know whether or not it was possible, but the principle certainly matched the technological asthetics of the place. The ceiling – an almost artistic array of light fixtures and additional hanging plasma screens – was very high up – perhaps fifty feet above him – and it was lined with a series of colored gels that, once lit, indicated the critical level of any emergency. Right now, the amber lights burned, signaling the highest state of alertness.

In other words, this was not a good time to be here.

Rising from the monitor and leaving several technicians to continue their work, Colonel Dallas McGinty walked over to where Stoddard and his aide patiently waited.

"This isn't going to be very easy to explain," McGinty began, his eyes fixed with determination, "but I'm willing to give it a go, Ethan."

The chief nodded. "What do you have, Dallas?"

"I'm not entirely certain," he said, "but the techs are giving the satellite defense grid an entire diagnostic. I'll be able to report more definitive information once their evaluations are complete." He sighed heavily, folding his hands behind his back. "As best as they are able to ascertain, we lost our entire Overlord capability nearly sixty minutes ago."

"Lost?"

McGinty winced. "I hate the word, but, yes, 'lost' is the best they can come up with."

Stoddard glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the technicians. Clearly, he could sense from their panicked movements – setting gauges, punching buttons – that something was amiss.

"Dallas, how do you 'lose' the ability to task every one of the hundreds of intelligence gathering satellites we have in orbit?"

"Ethan, like I said, we don't know."

"Are they off-line?"

Shaking his head, McGinty replied, "No, sir. They've manually reset every possible system, but they're still receiving no response."

Suddenly, Stoddard locked eyes with the military man. "Okay, what gives?"

"Hmm?"

"You called me 'sir,' Dallas," the man observed.

"I did?"

"Yes, you did. We've talked about this before. Every time you call me 'sir,' the news isn't good. The news isn't fortuitous to the current state of affairs. Or ... in very rare cases ... the news isn't complete."

Smiling weakly, McGinty nodded. "I never was very good at hiding my confusion around you, Ethan. I guess you're just too damn good to be doing the job you do." Taking a deep breath, he continued. "Now, to the best of my understanding, this is what I can tell you. The grid has not been taken off-line. Those satellites are up there – they are in active orbit of the planet – and, according to all instrumentation, they're performing perfectly. They're gathering telemetry, and they're photographing their designated countrysides all around the globe, and they're transmitting that photography back down into our defense mainframe. The problem is ... it appears that we've lost control of them."

"How is that possible?" Stoddard asked. "This system has been designed and refitted by the best scientific minds of our generation. It has redundancy protocols that guarantee – with absolute certainty – that only authorized individuals here and in the Pentagon have the ability to manipulate satellite trajectory." He stepped forward. "Did you hear what I said, Dallas? The best scientific minds of our generation? Redundancy protocols? I haven't made any of that up. I remember it being explained for me very, very clearly when I took this post at the President's appointment. Now, how is this scenario even remotely possible?"

Smirking, the military man quipped, "And we have the best scientific minds of our generation working on it as we speak, Ethan." He held his hands out to his side. "What do you want me to say, sir? There's no plausible explanation that they can offer."

"I don't want you to say anything," the chief replied. "But I'd like you to stop calling me 'sir.'"

"Sorry ... sir." He cleared his throat. "Er ... sorry, Ethan."

"Mr. Stoddard!"

He turned in the direction he heard his name called from, and, standing beside the Central Command Console, another military aide held up the receiver of the Red Phone.

'The President's direct line,' he thought.

"Mr. Stoddard," the aide repeated his name. "You have a telephone call."

"What?"

"Sir, it isn't the President."

Knowing that whoever was on the other end was in severe violation of every White House policy as it related to the Red Phone, Stoddard knew this was not a good time to be the Chief of Staff. Someone – apparently someone upstairs – was using the line at the President's behest, and he had the unfortunate responsibility of reminding the offender that no one – and he meant absolutely no one – used the Red Phone other than the nation's highest elected official.

"Great," he muttered, starting over to the console. "Not only do I have to deliver the worst possible news of the day, but also I have to discipline someone who should know better than to violate government protocol." Over his shoulder, he ordered, "Get those satellites back under our control, Dallas," but he didn't wait for an answer.

Reaching the console, he nodded to the aide as he took the receiver and placed it to his ear. "Stoddard," he said quickly.

"I know precisely what's going through your mind right now, Ethan, but I'm warning you: don't bother quoting protocol to me," the voice on the other end replied. "You're going to have far greater concerns before this day is through."

Raising an eyebrow, he asked, "I beg your pardon?"

"I think you heard me well enough."

"Yes," he tried, "and I suspect that you heard what I asked you. Who is this?"

"You're wasting precious time, because who I am is of no consequence," he heard, and he immediately guessed from the sound of the voice that it was being electronically filtered and digitally altered to disguise the speaker. "The fact that I've contacted you on this line is. You've thought – for a very long time – that the Red Phone was only available to the present resident of the Oval Office." The man on the other end of the private line laughed. "Ethan, I would imagine that, as of this moment, you're going to seriously rethink everything you've been told since your tenure at the White House began. Young man, when technology is on your side, you have more than the world at your fingertips."

"I'm not going to ask this again," Stoddard explained, growing irritated with the senseless banter, "but I'd like know right now who I'm speaking with."

"Spare me your sanctimoniousness," he heard. "It isn't becoming ... and I find it insulting. You're speaking with the man who presently has control of the nation's satellite monitoring system. I'm positive that the staff has already assured you that, technologically, that isn't possible, but, as I said, you'll be reconsidering everything you've been told before I'm through." After a quick pause, he added, "Don't bother pondering the logistics of how it has happened. You may not even want to bother having those technicians waste their time in trying to regain control. It won't happen. They've been temporarily locked out. I have made it so. And they won't be allowed control again ... not until I give the authorization, that is."

Glancing back, he waved at McGinty. The man started over.

Reaching the conclusion that now was not the time for procedure, the chief leaned against the aluminum console. "Then I can assume that the purpose behind this telephone call is to provide me with the demands I must meet in order to have said authorization granted?" McGinty reached him, and Stoddard gestured in the air as if he were writing on paper. Immediately, the man produced a pen, and, from Morgan, he grabbed one of the manilla folders. Holding it up, he waited for the chief to finish writing the single word:

'Terrorist.'

"Now, Ethan," the voice said, "please ignore your callous insults for the remainder of this call. My courtesy will suffer so much offense."

McGinty disappeared, clearly going to work with the technical staff at figuring out how a private internal White House telephone line could possibly be tapped. Glancing around to make sure that no one else was watching him, Stoddard closed his eyes for a moment and focused his energies on the call.

"I'm listening," he replied. "You want to be heard, and I understand that now. I give you my word. I'm listening."

"That's better."

"What would you like to say?"

"Let me start at the beginning: I'll alleviate your blindness and tell you what it is you 're missing, given that your satellites are presently transmitting pre-recorded images to the Sit-Room."

What? How could the caller – how could anyone outside of the Sit- Room – possibly know that?

"You mean ... we've lost real-time imaging?" Stoddard asked.

"That's correct," the voice replied.

"Why?"

"I have my reasons. Relax, Ethan. I will return control of your precious satellites to you shortly, but I'd like to explain the images that I'm presently studying. Undoubtedly, what I'm looking at is why the President to send you to the basement."

"What would that be?"

"The Soviets – well, what's left of that sad bunch – and the Chinese? They have probably already spoken with the President about the satellite images coming out of northern Alaska," the man continued. "Approximately sixty minutes ago – when I relieved your staff of their present responsibilities – satellites registered what appeared to be a thermonuclear detonation several clicks north of Ice Base Zulu."

This wasn't good. This wasn't good at all, and it was progressively getting worse.

"Ice Base Zulu?" Stoddard asked, feigning confusing. He had to see just how much this mystery caller knew. It would provide him with the only edge possible. "What is Ice Base Zulu?"

"Don't insult my intelligence," the voice warned. "Ironically, Zulu is a quaint holdover from the Cold War. Trust me. It was scheduled to be closed in the 1990's, but, out of deference to the senator from Alaska, it was left open, co-opted as part of a Black Budget program. After all, if any renegade Soviet invasion force wanted to infiltrate the United States to pilfer our natural resources, everyone is quite certain that they would do so by way of Alaska."

"Our country considers the Soviet states allies."

"Allies? Come now, Ethan. Don't behave so diplomatically."

"How do you know my name?"

"Accept the reality that I do."

"Given my position, you can understand why it would be my duty to ask."

"Of course. But accept it, nonetheless. That is the way you can best serve your President now."

He bit back his desired reply. "I understand. What can you tell me about the blast?"

"I can give you my assurance," the voice said. "This was not the detonation of any nuclear warhead. You can tell the President. He can tell the Chinese. And the Soviets. And whoever else has been calling."

"Without our satellites, how can I confirm this?"

"Take my word for it."

"I think you understand that that is something I cannot do," Stoddard exclaimed.

"Then, you may attempt to contact Zulu Base. I'll spare you the time by explaining that one of the blast's effects is very similar to an electromagnetic pulse. It fuses microelectronics. Circuitry of any type is fused for miles around."

"How far?"

"The data is under review as we speak," the voice said. "Once I know, I'll let you know."

Disgusted, Stoddard gritted his teeth. Forcing himself to relax, he tried, "Who is responsible for the blast?"

"I am."

"But it wasn't nuclear?"

"No, it wasn't."

"Then ... what was it?"

"Bad question. Try another."

"All right." Pressing the phone more tightly to his ear, he asked, "Why did you do it?"

"That's much better," the voice agreed, sounding pleasant. "I'll offer you a name: Trace Hightower."

Stoddard felt the blood drain from his face.

"What happened to Trace Hightower?"

"In the most conventional terms in which you and I can presently understand, Trace Hightower no longer exists."

"You killed Trace?"

"Yes, I did."

The chief felt a tremble rise in his stomach. Bile churned, and he sensed it rise into his throat. The blood returned to his face, and he grew angry. Desperately, he wanted to reach out and strike something. He needed to be somewhere else, somewhere out of command in this type of situation, somewhere perhaps out in the field exercising the kind of training the military had long ago given to him. Those skills, he could put to great use, hunting down this madman – or could it be madwoman? – and making the bastard pay for whatever he had done to Hightower.

"Why kill Trace Hightower?" Stoddard finally found the courage to ask.

"Oh, come now, Ethan," the voice replied. "Trace Hightower? Rogue? Adventurer? Pleasure-seeker? The man was a walking publicity stunt. I can't imagine you would afford Mr. Hightower a second thought, much less the time of day." After a pause, he said, "You're a very smart man, Ethan. I think you know precisely why Hightower was such a formidable target for my first strike, and I give you my word that there will be more, should you fail to comply with each of my demands."

"Which are?"

"Not now," the voice said.

"Why not?"

"Need I remind you that you're being remiss in your duties?"

Coldly, Stoddard replied, "I don't need to be reminded of anything by the likes of you."

"Temper, temper, Ethan," the voice taunted. "Now is not the time to indulge in primitive emotions. Rather, what you should do now is take what you know – take exactly what I've told you – to the President. He'll need to act on this information. We'll talk later."

"Why are you doing this?"

"Because I can."

The line went dead.

Before he could numbly hang up the phone, McGinty was back, taking the receiver out of his hand, listening to it to make sure that the connection had, in fact been severed. Convinced that it had, he placed it back on its cradle.

"What is it, Ethan?"

He couldn't provide much explanation here. This area – the Sit-Room – wouldn't work. There were too many pairs of ears around. Despite being in one of the most secure locations in the free world, Ethan Stoddard had never felt more violated.

"Come with me."

Rushing to keep in step with him, McGinty grabbed Morgan by the arm and dragged him along behind.

"Where are we going?"

"We have to speak with the President."

"Ethan, wait a minute! What's happened?"

He stopped. Ignoring the distractions of techs walking to and fro, he turned and placed his lips close to McGinty's ear, whispering, "Someone has just killed the President's son-in-law."

END of Chapter 01