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THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, WILLIAM JEFFERSON LEE IV, SAT STRAIGHT up in bed. It had been the nuclear nightmare wherein some unidentified country had launched missiles on the United States and he had to decide at whom to strike back. It was not the first time.
Will wiped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his nightshirt, then tried to get out of bed without waking his wife. He was halfway to the bathroom when he remembered that Kate, who for the past four years had been director of intelligence, head of the CIA, had left for work two hours before, after an urgent phone call in the early hours.
Will stared at himself in the bathroom mirror while he waited for the water in the sink to get hot for shaving. How was he different from four years before? Considerably grayer, but Kate thought that lent him gravitas. His face was relatively unlined, still, and he took some pride in the fact that his waist size had not changed, in spite of only sporadic efforts to exercise.
He ran hot water onto the shaving brush, lathered his face, and began shaving while reviewing the high points of the day to come. Most important was a nine a.m. with the vice president, George Kiel, and he thought he knew what the meeting would be about.
FORTY-FIVE MINUTES LATER, dressed in a standard chalk-striped suit and a red-and-blue-striped necktie, Will walked through the door of the White House family quarters to be greeted by the young naval officer who carried the “football,” the briefcase containing the codes for a nuclear launch, and two Secret Service agents, who escorted him down the hallway and into the elevator.
Will had become accustomed to never being alone outside the family quarters and, sometimes, the Oval Office; he also had become accustomed to traveling to the airport in a large new helicopter, and from there in an outrageously well-equipped Boeing 747 with a bedroom and shower and conference room and telephones and Internet hookups and everything else that the minds of electronics experts could conceive. It had been harder to become accustomed to constantly being the most looked-at person in any room, up to and including Madison Square Garden. He had learned never to scratch his nether regions, because the video would be on the Internet within seconds.
The elevator reached the lower floor, and then, instead of being walked to the Oval Office, Will was walked to the press room in the basement of the White House. No preparation had been necessary, because the press had not been invited. Instead, the auditorium was filled with White House staffers.
Will stepped to the lectern. “My God,” he said, “who’s answering the phones?”
Tim Coleman, his chief of staff, stood up in the front row. “Nobody, Mr. President,” he said, then sat down again. Everybody laughed.
“Well, good morning to you all,” Will said. “As I expect you may have heard, I’m headed for New York today to accept the nomination tonight, and I wanted to say just a few words to you before I go.” He looked around at the happy faces. “It may surprise some of you that I got the nomination.” Everybody laughed again. “But I guess being the incumbent helps. What was even more of a help was the successful nature of our first term, and I use the pronoun advisedly. The people in this room had as much, maybe more, to do with that success than anyone else, and I wanted to thank you, personally, for that help.
“Now, assuming that I win a second term for us—and that’s only an assumption at this point—I’m going to be faced with being called a lame duck for the next four years. It’s my fervent hope that you will all be here to face that with me, but I understand that practically all of you have served for the past four years at a considerable financial sacrifice and that the call of the private sector, as the Republicans like to call the defense contractors and the Washington lobbying firms, will be ringing in your ears.
“It’s my hope that you will all be here during the campaign, because somebody has to run the White House, and that you’ll be here early in the next four years to help break in your replacements—should you choose to leave. I know, of course, that the last year of the next administration the rats will all be swimming for shore, and I can’t blame them. I just want you to know that every one of you here has proved your value to the White House and to your country, and I would be delighted if you all decided to stay on for another four years.
“That said, be sure to tune in to the convention tonight to learn if any of your suggestions made it into the speech. Bye-bye for now.”
Will walked off the platform and was followed by Tim Coleman and Kitty Conroy, his director of communications. These two had been his aides when he was in the Senate, and they were closer to him than anyone else on the staff.
Will walked through the reception room outside the Oval Office. His secretary, Cora Parker, spoke up. “Mr. President, the director of Central Intelligence and the deputy director for operations of the CIA are waiting in the Oval Office.”
This was a surprise. “Please send the vice president in when he arrives,” he said. Kate and her DDO, Lance Cabot, were waiting for him, and they both stood as he entered. Will waved them to their seats and hung his coat on a stand by the door.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“Mr. President,” Kate said—she always addressed him formally in meetings with others—“we have a report that a Taliban group, possibly aided by Al Qaeda operatives, have captured a missile site in northwestern Pakistan, near the Afghanistan border.”
Will stopped in his tracks. “A nuclear missile site?”
“Yes, sir,” Kate said.
“Are the Taliban able to fire the missiles?”
“They also captured most of the technicians alive.”
“So it’s possible they could fire at something?”
“Just possible,” Kate said. “Not likely, but possible.”
“Have they made any demands?”
“No, but we’re expecting that shortly.”
“Has the story broken?”
“Not yet. The Pakistani president has clamped a tight lid on it, but I don’t think we can count on that for long. When the occupiers of the site start making demands, they’re very likely to make a lot of noise about it.”
“Why are there no military people here?”
“They’re on the way, sir,” Kate replied. “Their departure from the Pentagon was delayed by what they hope is new information coming in.”
Cora Parker ’s head appeared from behind a door. “Mr. President, the vice president and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Army chief of staff are here with their aides.”
“Send them right in,” Will said, then stood up to receive the group. There was not a happy face among them.
Cora came back in behind them. “Mr. President, President Mohammed Khan of Pakistan is on the phone.”
Will walked to his desk. “Excuse me, gentlemen,” he said, “I’d better take this. Maybe he’ll have something new.”
WILL PICKED UP THE TELEPHONE AND PRESSED THE FLASHING BUTTON. “PRESIDENT Khan?”
“Yes, Mr. President.”
“I understand that a nuclear missile site has been taken by the Taliban.”
“That is correct, sir.”
“And that Al Qaeda may be involved?”
“We expect so.”
“How can we help?”
“I am meeting with my military staff in a moment, and I hope to have an answer to that question afterward.”
“I understand that most of the technical staff were captured at the site?”
“Yes, that is true, I’m afraid.”
“Have the occupiers made any demands?”
“No, and they are not responding to our communications.”
“Is there anything I can do for you at this moment?”
“Not yet, sir, but I will be in touch. I just wanted to be sure that you had been made aware of the situation.”
“I have, and my military and intelligence staff have just arrived. I hope to speak to you again when your meeting is over. Good-bye.”
“That was Mohammed Khan,” Will said to the others. “He seems to know little right now, but he’s about to meet with his military staff.”
“Mr. President,” General Boone, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said, “I think it would be best if we moved this meeting to the Situation Room, since we have some electronic intelligence to display, and that room is best equipped for it.”
TEN MINUTES LATER the group had settled in around the conference table in the Situation Room. “Who’d like to start?” he asked.
“I would,” Kate said. “We have some satellite photos to show you.” She clicked a remote control, and an image of mountains appeared; with a laser pointer she indicated a narrow valley. “This is the location of the installation,” she said. “As you can see we have clear weather, so this is a very good photo.” She clicked again and zoomed in until the missile site appeared clearly. “This is the view from about two thousand feet. You can see the cluster of buildings and the array of silos.”
“No people?” Will asked.
“Everyone seems to be inside the buildings, but you can see dead bodies here, here and here, around the perimeter fence.”
“What missiles are present?”
“I can answer that,” General Boone said. “There are six silos, two of which contain nuclear-tipped missiles. The others are conventional high explosive.”
“Do we know the tonnage?”
“We believe no more than ten kilotons each,” the general said, “perhaps less.”
“That’s what, half the tonnage of the Hiroshima bomb?”
“We think no more than a thousand miles. They could reach all of northwestern India, including Delhi.”
“But not Israel.”
“No, sir. But if they were able to move a missile to the southwestern corner of Afghanistan, they could just about do it.”
“But they can’t move them?”
“There are two mobile missile launchers inside one of the buildings, but it would be quite a job to load a missile onto one and truck it four or five hundred miles, then fire. We think that very unlikely, and if they tried it we could knock out the vehicle and the missile.”
“If they were to attempt such a thing, how long might it take them?”
The general permitted himself a small shrug. “A week, ten days, perhaps.”
“Let’s keep that in mind during our planning.”
The vice president, George Kiel, spoke up. “How far to the nearest Pakistani military base?”
“Thirty miles,” the general replied.
“And what forces are present there?”
“An armored regiment.”
Will spoke up. “I don’t see how they could attack the missile site with that sort of force,” he said, “without risking a launch. They could certainly hit any city in Pakistan.”
“Correct, Mr. President,” the general said. “The key would be speed, to get there before the invaders get a grip on how to fire a missile.”
“That could be a very short time.” Lance Cabot, the CIA DDO, had spoken for the first time, and everyone turned and looked at him.
“They would need time to persuade the staff to start firing missiles,” the general said.
“Not if they had one or more men on the inside,” Cabot said, “and we know there have been terrorist attempts to penetrate the Pakistani nuclear program.”
“That’s troubling,” Will said.
“If it’s true,” the general countered. “Mr. Cabot, do you have any evidence of such a penetration or even an attempt?”
Cabot opened a folder in front of him. “Three weeks ago, we received a report from a source inside the Pakistani government that two technicians at this site had not returned from weekend leave on schedule. They still have not returned. Up to now, at least.”
The room was silent for a long moment.
“General Boone,” Will said, “have you had time to do any planning? And if so, do we have the relevant forces available?”
“Mr. President, we have a detachment of Navy SEALs deployed in the mountains, less than a hundred miles from the missile site.”
“How many men?”
“Thirty, plus support people.”
“Thirty doesn’t sound like many.”
“There may be no Taliban other than the invading party,” Boone said.
“But we have no intelligence on the size of that party?”
“Do we know which silos contain the nuclear warheads?” Will asked.
“No, sir, but the Pakistanis do. So that information should be available to us.”
“Is it possible, if the SEALs could get into the compound, to destroy the missiles in their silos without setting off a nuclear blast?”
“Certainly,” Cabot said, interrupting. “The warheads are wired not to explode in the silos; they are armed by radio after firing.”
“We don’t know that for sure,” the general said.
“We know for sure,” Cabot replied. “We’ve known since before the missiles were deployed. I would have thought the Pentagon would know it, too.”
“If we sent a few cruise missiles in there with conventional warheads,” Will asked, “could we knock out the nukes before they could be fired?”
“In theory,” Cabot said, looking at Boone. “General?”
Boone turned to the president. “Sir, the site was chosen to make that difficult, with high mountains surrounding it. An air strike would be more vertical—and more precise.”
“What defenses would the site have against an air attack?” Will asked. “I presume that the surrounding mountains would reduce the effectiveness of radar until the aircraft were right on top of them.”
“That’s probable, sir,” the general replied. “There are ground-to-air defensive missiles on the site. We don’t know how many.”