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NSA

 

NSA

BENNY NEYLON

Copyright © 2016 Benny Neylon

All rights reserved.

This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of Duplicator Books except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

ISBN: 1540584917

ISBN-13: 978-1540584915

First Edition, 2016

 

DEDICATION

 

 

For Annette, for everything.

 

CONTENTS

 

 

Act I: Humility

Act II: Hunger

Act III: Hostility

Act IV: Hamartia

Act V: Hunted

Act VI: Hope

Acknowledgments

 

 

Note on the NSA:

The National Security Agency is an intelligence organization of the United States government, with responsibility for monitoring, collecting and processing information data globally for intelligence purposes.

In other words, they are voyeurs, but professional ones, and they’re probably monitoring you right now, so smile and read on.

ACT I: Humility

the SENATE HEARING

chapter 1

And so it begins…

 

May 4, 2017

 

The door to Senate Committee Hearing Room 192 creaked open over the hubbub.

Senator Bigsley glanced up from her notes to see who had entered. A slight figure had slipped through, to take a seat at the rear of the Hearing Room.

Not her man. Bigsley resumed her work.

Suddenly, both doors burst open and brilliant daylight flooded into the dim room. The crowd of more than a hundred fell silent, as the silhouette of a man materialized, a powerful outline framed by the door. The photographers, hitherto circumspect individuals creeping or loping from one vantage point to another, crackled into life and aligned themselves as one with this solar event. They fused into a blurred concentration of light and energy, cameras whirring, clucking and clicking at the striking image.

From her raised position behind them, Senator Bigsley narrowed her eyes in suspicion: the hallway outside was, if anything, more dull than the Hearing Room. She craned her neck to one side of the silhouette and squinted into the light. She straightened and shook her head: was she seeing stage lights outside, or were her eyes playing tricks on her?

The silhouette stepped forward into the room, and took form, and the photographers bickered and growled, half-starved wolves snapping for the same piece of meat.

This particular choice cut stood five foot nine in stockinged feet and was better known to the world as General Whiteley, the recently-appointed NSA Director. Bullish and scowling, the General’s whole demeanor suggested the world conspired against him; if so, the world could expect one hell of a scrap.

The gawkers in the aisles to left and right twisted about to get a good look at the man. He made his way through them unhurriedly, with that stiff-backed purposeful stride of a man who has given his life to the military and not been blown to pieces. The buzzcut of the General’s youth had shrunk back to gray wings below a smooth pate. Suspicious eyes nestled in the safety bunkers of their sockets, darting about the senators in front of him for signs of treachery. At the center of the room, a simple office desk faced the dais, a plastic seat shoved beneath it. With dignity, the General took his place there, the very picture of noble military leadership.

Room 192 was the largest hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Adjacent to the Capitol, the seven-storey white marble edifice was one of three enormous buildings where most of the Senate’s real work took place. This morning, that work happened to include the Senate Appropriations Defense Sub-Committee Hearing.

The five Senators and their various teams were arrayed around the semi-circular dais at one end of the room. A burgundy-carpeted expanse separated them from the General, with the rest of the room behind him taken up with tiers of seats for the public.

It was little surprise that the hearing room was full: opportunities for the common citizenry to see an NSA Director in the flesh were rare. Even less common was the chance to see one called to account for the profligate spending of their agency. Rumors had swirled, and the public sniffed blood. Meanwhile, other intelligence agency chiefs – CIA, FBI, DIA, OIA and a whole host of further acronyms – grabbed seats at the rear, to see what might lie in store for them.

The crowd’s hushed conversation continued until Sub-Committee Chair Senator MacCartan quieted them to open proceedings.

‘We would like to recognize,’ he said, ‘that this is the General’s first appearance before us as Director of the NSA. General Whiteley, you are most welcome. The American people trust us – and we in turn trust you – to protect our fine country. Without trust, we have nothing.’

The General nodded acquiescence, as Senator MacCartan concluded: ‘I speak for us all in offering our sincere gratitude to you for coming here today, and for your fine service to your country.’

The General inclined his head generously in acknowledgment of Senator MacCartan’s words, as the senator yielded to Senator Lubowitz, on his immediate right.

Lubowitz was not to be outdone by the Chair in obsequious platitudes, albeit delivered in his characteristic mumble. ‘Gratefulness …us all! …delighted …the honor! …of course… Meeting you recently, sir, at the dinner… and the opportunity… to discuss… matters of state!’

When that venerable statesman ran out of puff, Senator Thornhill took over in similar vein before Senator Alderon of Maryland spoke. Alderon played it safe in his quavering pitch, repeating what had already been said, and then made sure to restate that, just in case.

‘…finally, to conclude and to finish,’ he said, ‘I would just like to paraphrase my good friend Senator MacCartan in reiterating his welcome to you, General, and to say what an immeasurable honor it is to have such a fine and decorated soldier before us today.’

‘You served also, Senator?’ asked the General.

Senator Alderon affirmed this with a nod. ‘With the 23rd in My Lai, General.’

‘Ah yes, My Lai,’ said the General. ‘A noble cause, but the dodgers never understood. The media, damn Communists.’

‘Yes, General,’ agreed Alderon. ‘History has been unkind.’

‘Historians rarely have the benefit of the true truth,’ said the General, shaking his head. ‘Your nation thanks you, soldier.’

Senator Alderon managed a brave little smile, as Committee Chair MacCartan offered Senator Bigsley, to his immediate left, the opportunity to heap further praise on the General.

‘Let’s just move it along to the inquisition, shall we?’ said the Nebraskan.

Committee Chair MacCartan shrank back from the rebuke. Recovering himself, he offered General Whiteley the chance to make his opening speech, before subtly shifting his chair a little further away from Senator Bigsley.

Chapter 2

A Pleasure

 

General Whiteley opened by praising the ‘generosity, integrity and intelligence of the members of the Committee’.

The General had submitted his speech to the Committee the previous day, so Senator Bigsley already knew the thrust of his argument. To her disbelief, the man favored not only maintaining the NSA’s exorbitant budget, but actually increasing it.

Her fellow senators might be willing to acquiesce – subject to the usual favors – but Bigsley was not for sale. She didn’t work in ear-marking and pet projects. If she wanted something, she went right ahead and asked for it.

Perhaps because she always expected to get what she wanted, she usually did. Or perhaps it was because people feared her, on both sides of the aisle, though for no particular reason anyone could put a finger on.

Diminutive and direct, the four-time Senator had long had elder statesmen ducking into empty meeting rooms to hide rather than try to face her down on her vision of governance – reduced federal interference, increased responsibility to community – governance by the people, not the nation.

Having spent years winning minor battles, Bigsley was now going to war, starting with the NSA. With any luck, the entire mess that was the intelligence community would follow. To any right-minded citizen, the twenty-odd agencies contained the greatest culprits as far as federal bureaucracy and wastefulness went, and the post-9/11 NSA was the poster boy. The new Administration seemed to agree with Bigsley, for she had received tacit support from President Meeke himself. As Bigsley had written in her most recent letter to constituents:

If the NSA was an unnecessary extravagance previously, it is absolutely unsupportable now, in these chastened times.

And what chastened times! The economy was running like a square wheel, stuttering forward from mini-slump to slight bump, with no reprieve in sight. The Fed had no maneuverability on interest rates, the Asian economies were in the ascendency and Europe was temporarily bolstered by an immigrant-fueled construction boom; even South America’s socialists were gaining ground by all metrics.

All the while, the economy here at home limped along, the markets were jittery, and people spoke about the dollar in ways inconceivable a decade before.

For Bigsley, the way forward was clear: if they could shut down one bloated obsolete agency, others would fall. With streamlined government, small business would flourish and the US would be restored to greatness by betting on the little guys.

The most immediate obstacle to shutting down the NSA lay with the newly-appointed Director, General Whiteley. The man spoke convincingly and with passion on the need for ‘constant and ever-increasing vigilance’. Worse still, contrary to the rumors, he didn’t look like anyone’s patsy.

After several months without an NSA Director, President Meeke had appointed General Whiteley weeks before the Hearing, ostensibly to lead the organization forward into retirement.

No one seemed to have told the General. His public appearances since had given little evidence of a willingness to toe the line and fade into obscurity per the President’s apparent wishes.

 

As the echoes of the General’s booming voice faded, Bigsley finally had her opportunity to speak. Although she was already raised above the General on the dais, and though it was against tradition, Bigsley found herself standing nonetheless. She looked down on the General with a warmth-free smile, and began:

‘As you may have gathered, General,’ she said, ‘we are all truly honored that you came here today, General.’

The General stood and bowed solemnly. ‘I am the humble servant of the nation, Madam Senator,’ he said.

‘I’m a United States Senator, General, not the queen. You don’t need to bow.’

‘Forgive me, Senator,’ said the General.

Bigsley took a sip of water and raised an eyebrow at the NSA Director. ‘And please resume your seat,’ she said. ‘You’re not on trial, yet.’

She peeked down at her file, scanning a full page and a half of decorations and medals.

‘You are General Whiteley,’ she said, ‘decorated for bravery in Nicaragua and Iran, Delta Force commando leader in Vietnam, Congressional Medal of Honor winner, et cetera et cetera?’

‘Yes, ma’am.’

‘You’ve been quite the traveler.’

‘I’ve served my country, ma’am.’

‘Proudly?’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘Looking back, are you proud of all you’ve done?’

‘I’ve done my duty,’ he said stiffly.

‘You mean, followed orders?’

‘That’s how the military works, ma’am; otherwise you have chaos.’

‘You didn’t disagree? You have no remorse?’

‘Well, a soldier has to follow instructions,’ said the General. ‘There’s… there’s a chain of command…’

‘And now?’

‘Ma’am?’

‘You’re NSA Director now, General. Whose orders do you follow now?’

‘Well, I’m in charge.’

‘But who tells you what to do?’

‘No one.’

Bigsley raised an eyebrow.

‘Well, that is,’ said the General, ‘the Preside–‘

He stopped short, then stared hard at the Senator, trying to figure her out. At length, he laughed.

Bigsley smiled, too. ‘Yes, it’s funny, isn’t it, General?’

He stopped laughing. ‘If you say so, ma’am.’

‘You don’t agree?’

‘I’m just here to answer questions, ma’am. That’s all I can do.’

The General felt the room had grown suddenly warm, and leaned forward to open his bottle of water.

‘Unnecessary expenditure of billions of taxpayers’ dollars is a joke to you?’

The General straightened up. ‘No ma’am,’ he said, ‘it’s no joke.’

‘But you do agree it’s unnecessary.’

‘What? Well no–’

‘So tell us, General, what is the NSA presently spending our taxpayer dollars on?’

‘I’m afraid that is classified.’

‘Is it illegal?’

‘I neither confirm nor deny that.’

‘I think that should go down as a yes,’ said Bigsley to the stenographer.

‘Stop, you can’t do that,’ complained the General.

‘Why not?’

‘That’s not what I said!’

‘It’s the truth, though, isn’t it?’

‘That’s not what I said.’

Round One and the General was already reeling. Bigsley returned to her previous line of questioning.

‘Now General Whiteley,’ she said, ‘I have a question that I would like you to answer.’

‘Very well, ma’am,’ said General Whiteley, regaining his composure. ‘I am here today to help in any way I can.’

Bigsley snorted at this flagrant lie.

‘General Whiteley, your agency is one of the most recently created of more than twenty intelligence agencies the United States government has…’

‘Is that a question?’ asked the General.

‘It’s a pause mid-statement, General, to allow the facts to sink in for you.’

‘Thank you, Senator.’

‘Please, General, do not mention it. Now, what – in your opinion – is it that your agency does that could not be done by any one of the other twenty agencies? …And that is a question, General,’ said Bigsley, smiling sweetly at him.

The ruffled NSA Director took a moment to look through the folder before him on the desk, as if hoping to find the answer there.

‘You see,’ he said, ‘you must understand, Madam Senator, there are matters of grave importance… National Security, you see?’

The other Sub-Committee members blanched at the invocation of this sacred phrase.

‘Please, General,’ bleated Senator MacCartan, leaning forward and speaking into his microphone. ‘Say no more than is necessary in the interest of National Security.’

Bigsley resisted the urge to club the obsequious little sheep of a man and returned her attention to the NSA chief.

‘All I see, General Whiteley, is a multitude of bloated intelligence agencies, not one of whom can convincingly account for a single dollar of the billions they spend, and of which your agency is the biggest spender.’

She quickly glanced down to verify a figure. ‘Your budget for last year was approximately ten-point-eight billion dollars. Correct?’

‘I couldn’t say,’ replied the General calmly.

‘You don’t even know?’

‘National Security, ma’am.’

‘General, it is a matter of public record that the budget for the NSA last year was ten-point-eight billion dollars.’

‘If you say so.’

‘I do, General, and I remind you that you are before the Appropriations Defense Sub-Committee. This Sub-Committee holds the purse strings for next year’s budget, so if you want to play that game, bring it on.’

‘I meant no offense, Madam Senator. I’m just here to serve our great nation, and if I seem a little rough, ma’am, well, forgive a simple soldier.’

‘My mistake,’ said Bigsley, ‘I thought you were a general.’

‘Oh, I am that too,’ said the General hastily, ‘but–’

‘General, let’s return to my question… perhaps you can explain to us what it is you do that is not done by the other agencies?’

‘Ma’am, I couldn’t say.’

‘You don’t know?’ asked the Senator.

‘I don’t know what they do. If I did, well… they wouldn’t be doing their jobs very well, would they?’

Throaty laughter spread amongst the other stout uniformed men sprinkled throughout the room, setting Bigsley’s teeth on edge. The damn old boy’s club of the intelligence community, she thought, snout-deep in the public funds trough while their meaty backsides squeezed out the runts of healthcare and education.

‘You mean you don’t share your information with them?’ she asked.

‘Of course not.’

None of you do?’

‘Absolutely not,’ said the General vehemently. ‘That could compromise sources, risk a weakening of the abilities of each–’

‘Doesn’t it strike you as likely that there is unnecessary duplication of effort: twenty intelligence organizations, all covering the same ground, no one talking to one another?’

The General merely shrugged and splayed his arms wide, as if to say, that’s how it has to be.

‘For the stenographer’s sake, the General shrugged,’ said Bigsley, before pressing on. ‘General Whiteley, your office is demanding budgetary increases this year.’

‘If you say so.’

‘I do, General, and I remind you once again, you are under oath.’

The man was obstructionary and infuriating, and trying her patience, but it would make victory all the sweeter.

‘Now, General, according to the NSA’s submission for additional funds, these increases are necessary for a nation in a state of war.’

She glanced up.

The General nodded.

‘Tell me, General, who are we at war with?’

‘That’s classified,’ said General Whiteley sternly.

‘Classified?!’ said the Senator incredulously. ‘Don’t you think the people of the United States ought to know if we are at war?’

‘It’s classified, ma’am.’

‘Shouldn’t the Appropriations Defense Sub-Committee, the nation’s elected representatives, be in the know about something like that?’

‘I won’t put more lives at risk than are necessary,’ said the General with dignity, ‘and the best way to keep people safe is to keep them in the dark.’

‘Even the Senate?!’

‘Especially the Senate, ma’am.’

‘Ridiculous.’

‘Redacted?’ asked the General.

‘I said Ri-dic-u-lous. How can who we are at war with be a mystery? Have we been attacked by a sovereign nation? Have they bombed us? Have we bombed them? Why? On what grounds are we at war with whoever we are at war with? The American people demand to know, General.’

‘With respect, Madam Senator, the American people trust us to do our jobs. Every day, we are protecting them from threats, plots–’

‘Oh empty words, General! Threats, plots, Santa Claus, the bogeyman. We need hard facts, details, verifiable data to allow us to move forward. So far as I can see, there is nothing in what you have told me that proves any need for your agency, let alone an increase in its funding.’

‘Now Madam Senator,’ said the General, planting his elbows on the desk and jabbing a stubby finger at his chest. ‘No one loves this nation more than I do. No one would love to tell the people everything more than I would, Senator, but for reasons of National Security, I cannot–’

Bigsley attempted to interrupt, but the General stayed her with a raised arm.

‘–however,’ he continued, ‘however… I know that if I could, the brave American people would be in absolute agreement with our actions.’

‘But they don’t know–’ said the Senator.

‘Exactly, Senator, and they can’t ever know. We are at war, it’s a matter of survival, not playing by the rules–’

‘But there are rules, General Whiteley. Even in war, the Geneva Convention–’

‘Pah, a sham,’ he shouted, ‘invented by Europeans gone soft. Remember who had to go in there and save their sorry asses!’

The crowd, stirred up, gave a collective murmur of approval. The General’s voice rose, encouraged.

‘Yes, we did,’ he said, swiveling to address them. ‘We, the American people!’

Again the crowd responded. A man whooped.

‘No, Senator Bigsley,’ said the General, turning back to face her. ‘You want to sleep safe in your bed at night, don’t you? But you let men like me do the dirty work you don’t want to know about!’

‘I–’

‘We’re fighting a war here, Senator! A war! God Bless America!’

The crowd cheered lustily this time. Senator Bigsley looked to Senator MacCartan, as Sub-Committee Chair, to silence this outburst, but the sentimental old fool was too busy applauding with tears in his eyes. By the time he gathered himself and called the assembly to order, Bigsley’s opportunity to pressure General had passed.

A ten-minute recess was announced by the Sub-Committee Chair. The crowd rose and shoved out into the hallway in a gaggle of chatter. Senator Bigsley and her aide, Manny Duchamps, followed the masses.

Bigsley spotted Lubowitz disappearing with his pretty staffer – and her ‘powder’ case – to attend to urgent business. Senator Thornhill was in a scrum with his chortling C-suite chums beside the staircase. The General was nowhere to be seen. Senators Alderon and MacCartan were being regaled by the nation’s finest lobbyists before MacCartan stepped away to take a call.

Bigsley and Duchamps stood off to one side, like Cinderella’s ugly sisters at the prom. Duchamps’ forlorn glances towards various groups met with disdain and sniggers. One fresh-faced lobbyist, misreading the signs, bounded halfway across the hallway towards them before Bigsley’s glare stopped him dead. The young colt developed a sudden interest in something far far away.

Amongst the groups in the hallway, resentful looks and meaningful glances were exchanged: Bigsley’s naked scorn for lobbyists made them feel like they were doing something illegal.

Chapter 3

You Can Call Me Al

 

A slight figure at the rear was amongst the last to leave, and slipped out of the room unnoticed.

Alfred Smugh had noted the reaction of the Sub-Committee members with approval. Every invocation of National Security was a whipstroke across their hides. Senator Lubowitz visibly winced, Alderon shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and MacCartan almost blessed himself; then again, no one better understood military-religious fervor than the Catholics.

Smugh had inserted a record number of instances of National Security into the General’s text – over five hundred for today’s Hearing – and it certainly affected the men holding the nation’s purse strings. Only Senator Bigsley had remained unmoved by the General’s opening speech, and impassioned pleas to think ‘of National Security, of the children, of our great people’. Smugh had silently mouthed the words in unison with the General, words he had crafted to suit the General’s resonant baritone as it filled the Hearing Room.

Smugh’s nervy smile disappeared at the sight of Bigsley. Regardless of what the Senator might think, there was a war going on, right here in America, right here in this hearing room. Perhaps different to the one under discussion, but no less important to the combatants for all that. A battle for hearts and minds; access to scarce resources; for survival. There was a furious scrambling amongst the piglet agencies for a place at the bloated teat of government. To lose one’s place was to grow weaker as the rest grew stronger. The NSA was the anointed runt, but they were still alive, and with the General scrapping their corner, they still stood a chance of survival.

Smugh skirted the edge of the hall and headed for the elevator.

Would they survive? Impossible to say – this Hearing was so delicately balanced, and though the Senator had the General backed into a corner, much depended on public perception and whether the NSA’s Senators would stand up for them.

Exiting the elevator, Smugh made his way swiftly through the Dirksen Senate Office Building, his buggy eyes and darting movement between safe spaces reminiscent of a gecko.

The Sub-Committee had too much incriminating information on the organization, Smugh thought, that was the problem. The NSA hadn’t been in existence long enough to rack up as many cock-ups as the CIA, but boy, were they ever doing their best to catch up!

The General’s rousing speeches certainly affected the ordinary people, but facts dictated that the NSA should get the bullet, based on past performance. Dispassionately, Smugh could see that himself. But past performance is no indication of future earnings, as the financial institutions said. The NSA could get better, and since the General’s arrival, Smugh was convinced that it would. They just needed more time to find something concrete, something more than polished words, to prove to doubters like Bigsley that the NSA deserved a second chance.

Smugh bobbed between patches of shade as he headed across 2nd Street NE to an air-con repairs van parked in a courtyard. The faded blue van was emblazoned with a fearsome eagle logo and the name No Stuffy Air, the roof teeming with aerials and satellite dishes. Throwing his eyes to heaven, Smugh pulled open the rear door and stepped in.

Two men sat at separate banks of screens, recording and monitoring. One looked up, and nodded in recognition.

No Stuffy Air?’ said Smugh, as he pulled the door shut behind him. ‘Subtle, gentlemen, really subtle.’

‘Sorry, Mr Smugh, but the request to repaint it was denied. The budget, y’know?’

Precisely the problem, Smugh acknowledged with a weary wave of his hand. He grabbed a bottle of water from the refrigerator and chowed down some pills from his inside pocket, then fell back into a spare seat and watched the monitors absently. A camera inside the public toilets showed Lubowitz and his staffer getting their noses dirty. Another screen showed Bigsley and her aide, to one side of the crowd in the hallway. Once again, Smugh made a face.

The trouble with Bigsley was that she was so damned irreproachable. Smugh rifled through the folders on the desk and retrieved once more the Nebraskan Senator’s profile.

 

Senator Carolyn Bigsley, it read.

Born July 13, 1959, Clay County, Nebraska, to James Bigsley, wheat farmer, and Martha Bigsley, previously Martha Falsham.

Educated at Peterswood Elementary, then Harvard (High School). Grade-A student, scholarship to Harvard University, Law Degree (Juris Doctor), focusing on Law & Government. Interned as re-election campaigner for Congressman Gary Culbert, and in his staff office. Appointed to Congressman Culbert’s staff, after two years ran for Senator North’s vacancy and surprisingly won, making her the youngest female Senator in history.

 

All this Smugh knew by heart. On he went, skimming the summary of political leanings.

 

Well-regarded by media, and either liked or feared by other politicians. Unassailable in home state (Nebraska). Campaigner against lobbyists.

 

Nothing of interest to him here. He flipped to the last page, where the real intelligence, the juicy details, ought to be.

 

Family: Single, no issue.

Known illegal acts: None.

Felonies: None.

Beholden to: None.

Major campaign contributors: None.

 

It simply couldn’t be, Smugh was certain of that. That wasn’t how the Senate worked. That wasn’t how election campaigns worked. That wasn’t how this country worked, not even in Nowhereville, Nebraska. Smugh had never set foot in the state, but if he had to…

Spotting that the crowd on the screen was beginning to return to the Hearing Room, Smugh snapped the file shut and hopped out of the van.

No, someone had to fund a campaign. Promises were made, favors owed, in secret, in hotel rooms where entire floors were booked out by campaign contributors who wanted no limelight, only influence. Strings behind the curtain, to be tugged from the darkness.

No, if he had to go door-to-door himself in Clay County, then that’s what he would do. Dirty money, a jilted lover, faked exam results. There had to be something. Everyone had their price. It was just a matter of finding out what was important to them.

‘What’s important to you, Senator Bigsley?’ wondered Smugh to himself, as he resumed his seat and massaged the pain in his neck.

He was exhausted. Since the General had been appointed NSA Director, Smugh hadn’t snatched more than a few hours of sleep in a night. They had traveled to thirty-eight states in a punishing schedule, as they appraised the intelligence-gathering bases under the General’s command.

Quite apart from grinding them both down physically, the stock-take was depressing, to say the least. The NSA was in danger of disappearing.

Through mismanagement, lax work practice, and, yes, lack of oversight, the Agency had made terrible and humiliating blunders. In recent years, they’d been caught with their pants down more times than a pervert in a park. Renegade missions were undertaken on personal whims, for personal reasons: jealousies, private contractor requests… In short, the NSA had become a shambles, a laughing stock amongst the other spy agencies, and Smugh’s ears had burned with rumors that the agency was headed towards swift and deserved shutdown.

Then, one afternoon five weeks ago, the General had walked into his life.

Chapter 4

In General

 

April 8, 2017

 

Smugh remembered the day well: early April, with a light breeze tempering an unexpectedly sunny day. The dial was touching the mid-seventies as Smugh picked a spot for lunch on the Mall.

Having selected a park bench beneath the luxuriant pink-white bloom of the cherry blossoms, Smugh breathed deeply, cherishing the faint powdery notes a few moments.

Unpacking his lunch, he sat munching a salad sandwich, idly watching as a group of young lobbyists frolicked on the grass. The innocence of youth, he remarked to himself.

The usual calm afforded him by the trees, the tranquil water and the Lincoln Memorial across from him eluded him, however. Glancing once more at his phone, Smugh nodded, his mind made up. Time to get back.

Pushing off the bench and throwing the remnants of his sandwich in the trashcan, he picked his way smartly across the manicured parkland back to the NSA’s Washington HQ. Today, a new king was made.

 

Admiral Abel Seaman had resigned as NSA Director two months before “to spend more time with his family” – code on the Hill for jumping before being pushed – and had not been replaced since. Admiral Seaman’s stewardship of the disastrous Triple S incidents (Snowden Pt II, Snoop Dogg and, most damning, SantaGate) had left the NSA as a sitting duck for the cutbacks that were in vogue on the Hill.

Though the Agency desperately needed leadership, the position of NSA Director remained vacant, as the Senate and the new President Meeke used the vacancy as a bargaining chip for their own diverging agendas.

In the meantime, the rumors had swirled about Washington. Cutbacks, dissolution, changing times: at the beginning, Smugh had dismissed it as more of the usual nonsense. These things always came to nothing, part of the power plays in Washington during upheaval.

Nonetheless, valuable staff had slipped away in the interim, unwilling to risk the stagnation of their career in an organization marked as deadwood. Other intelligence agencies were always on the lookout for good people, and so, one by one, the best and brightest left. The rumors were in danger of becoming self-prophesying, and the way things were headed, the new Director stood to have no staff to direct!

Smugh had never contemplated leaving the NSA. An individual must have some loyalty, he reasoned, in a modern world full of spurious and ever-shifting allegiances. Without faith, without trust in something, what was left? Many others disagreed, extending trust only as far as their own abilities, and faith only in the dollar. As one of the morale-sapped few to stick around, Smugh was mightily relieved when a new Director was finally announced.

Neither of the presumed candidates – Admiral McClelland and General Hagerman had both indicated their readiness to serve – was announced. A final flurry of exits from the NSA followed, these departees seeing the appointment of an unknown as confirmation that the Agency’s days were numbered.

Smugh knew nothing of the new man, General Whiteley. Curious about the new chief’s background, he was also intrigued by the swift and amenable accord between Congress and the President over the appointment, having spent so long previously bickering.

Conveniently, Smugh was working in the perfect place to discover everything there was to know about the new Director. Astonishingly, the General’s file contained next to nothing.

Printed out, it came to less than a single sheet, if his military honors and campaigns were excluded. His electronic fingerprint was virtually non-existent: a single CompuServe account, unused since two weeks after opening it, and a single online purchase (a replica WWII jacket for a teddy bear). Beyond these two snippets of information, there was just a dated photograph from some charity gala. Nothing more.

Not only was the General an accomplished hacker, Smugh concluded, but to hack into the NSA’s files and delete his own record, the man must also possess balls of brass. Then again, one look at the General’s military record confirmed as much.

Smugh had printed the photograph, memorized the two useless pieces of information, and got to work on updating the file for dissemination.

 

Smugh entered the secure facility and took the secure elevator to the secure floor where the NSA’s new top man would soon be arriving.

‘Well,’ Smugh said to the secretaries as he passed through to his office, ‘not much longer to wait.’

He swiped his card, entered his access code and completed the retinal scan. With a whoosh, the glass door opened and he stepped into his cramped office, skirting around the desk to his chair.

His cozy space adjoined the Director’s, making Smugh defacto gatekeeper to the inner sanctum. Unlike the Director’s office – roomy and with large blinded windows on two sides – Smugh’s little space had no natural light, and one glass wall facing the entrance, to warn of arrivals. This afternoon, in under an hour, one such arrival would be the new Director.

In the meantime, Smugh still had ten minutes of lunchbreak and no Director to guide him, so he opened his current library read, a weighty tome entitled Complexity Theories by Dieter D Pleissmann, at the bookmark.

 

Technology & Trust: Part VI

 

Introduction

In increasingly complex and specialized societies, it is a truism that no one person can understand everything. As I have proven in the previous three chapters, the technological era has ushered in the global delegation of packaged tasks, where the manufacture of the simplest everyday product is beyond any single person’s capabilities, never mind complicated integrated systems such as the personal computer. If mankind was devastated through intrinsic or extrinsic factors – meteorites, solar flares, or global warming, for example – it is likely that within a single generation, mankind would revert to Stone Age conditions, as focus would shift to essential survival of species. Comprehensive methods to safeguard against this apocalyptic scenario are discussed in the later chapters Looking Forward and Preserving Technology.

In addition to this author’s numerous publications on the topic, papers recently published by Dr Harry Stevens and Dr Max Jones at the Washington Institute on Global Affairs, led, as well as by Dr Clive Armstrong in London’s Vanderwelt Policy Laboratory have revealed in great detail how our complex interlinked world – that is, modern civilization – is remarkably akin to a living organism. The role of each of us within that has been compared by Dr Stevens with “the level of importance of [individual white blood] cells in the human body. That is, we all share a duty to protect and further civilization, much as the white cells share a duty to protect and further the body.”

However, the corollary of this, which has not been explicitly stated anywhere in the academic field (to the best knowledge of the author), is sobering: if the ‘lifeforce’ within a body dies, the condition of the individual white cell (or even a cluster of these white cells) doesn’t matter; the cell will die, for its wellbeing is symbiotically reliant on the wellbeing of the body.

To be clear, extending the analogy from the body and white blood cells to society and the individual; if trust in society was to collapse, then the individual, utterly reliant on all of society’s complex interrelated functions, would perish too, and despite individual–

 

A hollow hammering, steadily increasing in tempo, dully entered Smugh’s consciousness. The noise alerted him to a gruff-looking figure on the other side of the glass door panel, peering intently at him through piercing gray eyes.

Catching Smugh’s attention, the balding red-faced man growled at him: ‘Open this door!’

Smugh sneaked a look at the photograph on the desk, and back at the angry man. This redoubtable person was the General!

In a moment, Smugh was snapped to attention in front of his desk.

‘Did you hear me, son?!’ demanded the General. ‘I said, open this door.’

‘Um, your keycode, sir,’ said Smugh. ‘You must enter your keycode. They would have given–’

The General stood back and drove his boot through the glass. With a terrific crash, the pane shattered into a thousand tiny pieces as the secretary beyond him shrieked. The General then calmly brushed through the recently-vacated panel.

Smugh found himself pressed back against his desk by the presence of the new Director, the scent of raw masculinity filling his nostrils.

‘You work for me, son?’ the General asked, squinting at Smugh, a thick finger prodding Smugh’s chest for emphasis.

The suddenly-terrified Smugh nodded vigorously in response.

‘Then get me a door that opens and closes.’

 

That was Smugh’s first inkling that his new CO might not, in fact, be the computer whizz he’d expected. Of course, as word of the ‘door incident’ was likely to spread far and wide, Smugh managed to laugh it off with the secretaries just outside, repackaging it as a symbolic first gesture, the literal breaking down of barriers to communication in a new era of openness and collaboration. Anyone who spent a minute with the NSA’s new Director and a PC would discover that that was PR bull; with Smugh as his gatekeeper, however, that wasn’t going to happen very often.

 

By the time Smugh returned from calming the secretaries outside, the General had settled himself into the large leather chair behind the desk in his office, perfectly at home as only a man with the casual confidence required to lead men to their deaths can be.

‘Son, what’s your name?’ he said.

Alfred Smugh, hardly ten years the General’s junior, nevertheless found himself stammering his reply.

‘ S- Smugh, sir. Ah-Alfred Smugh.’

‘Smugh, why don’t you get me a bourbon and fill me in on what the hell’s going on here?’

Chapter 5

The Lay of the Land

 

‘So, Smugh,’ said the General, taking a healthy draught of the whiskey and waving off Smugh’s congratulations. ‘What’s the situation on the ground?’

‘Well, sir, may I be frank?’

The new Director shot him a look that indicated nothing less was acceptable.

‘Sir, I understand this enterprise is doomed.’

The General’s brows collided in confusion.

‘What the hell do you mean, Smugh?’

‘Sir, from piecing together what various sources are saying, President Meeke’s new Administration is deeply unpopular and losing their so-called War on Recession, so to make it look like the President is doing something – anything – effective, they’re cutting the Defense budget.’

‘Pah, same as ever, Smugh,’ said the General, who had survived almost as many Defense budget cuts as military campaigns.

‘Yes, sir, but the NSA is the perfect candidate: the Agency has been a mess for over a decade, and after the scandal with the–‘

‘Yes, yes, I know,’ said the General, leaning forward and planting his elbows on the desk. ‘Go on.’

‘I’ve heard the DoD was given an ultimatum by the President, sir. Pick one agency as a sacrificial offering. I believe they chose us.’

‘Then why appoint me, Smugh?’

‘I thought you knew, sir.’

The General’s face suggested otherwise, and Smugh considered that now would be a fine time for him to stop talking. Then again, he owed this man at least the truth, unpalatable as it might be.

‘I’m afraid you’re a fallguy, sir. While you’re still busy finding your feet, they’ll carve up your agency and distribute the pieces amongst the remaining intelligence and defense organizations.’

‘What? Those bastards!’ the General shouted, lurching forward and slamming his fist into the desk.

Smugh, both frightened and encouraged by this, laid out the remaining pieces of the puzzle he had managed to gather.

 

The new NSA Director would be called before a Senate Sub-Committee Hearing – either Appropriations or Select Intelligence – and asked to explain the gross failure of the Agency’s checks and balances. Despite the fact that they belonged to previous regimes, it would be a humiliating spectacle, solely to provide fodder for the media and a scapegoat.

The ensuing public outcry at this flagrant waste of tax dollars would give the President and Congress the mandate to shutter the NSA, so they could jointly appear to be doing something. Positive coverage for the politicians, and a blood sacrifice to Economania, the great ruling god of the modern world – a token sacrifice, as Smugh noted, considering the remaining intelligence agencies would simply carve up the carcass and waste the same public funds in their own unique ways.

The NSA would cease to be, and its Director retired early, despite having held command scarcely a month. It would spell an ignominious conclusion to a spectacular military career, but Smugh had suspected the General was privy to this, and would in fact have made a deal in advance of taking up the position.

 

‘Looking at you now, sir,’ said Smugh, ‘I don’t believe that is the case.’

The General grunted in reply, brooding on this knowledge. He stood and crossed to the window to gaze heroically out.

A slow and heavy stormcloud had pushed up from the mouth of the Potomac, threatening a downpour at any moment, and casting a strange yellow-gray tint to the General’s noble visage. It was too much to bear, thought Smugh: at this moment, in this light, the General so resembled Washington crossing the Potomac that the thought of giving up was unbearable. Not the chin, particularly, or indeed the bulbous nose… certainly not the hair, true, but… the whole of the man outweighed the particulars.

‘Sir?’

‘Yes, Smugh?’ said the General, still fixing the city with his thousand-yard stare.

‘I recommend, sir, that we fight back.’

‘Smugh,’ said the General, ‘I’m not sure what we can do at this point. It has been decided.’

‘With respect, sir, that’s not the voice of the leader of the NSA,’ Smugh blurted out.

At this, the General had cause to look away from the window. ‘Smugh, what the hell are you talking about?’

‘Sir, the NSA Director doesn’t give up in a fight, no matter the odds. The NSA Director never says die, even when th–’

‘That’s enough, Smugh,’ interrupted the General. ‘You need a much deeper voice if you’re going to give me speeches. In plain American, man.’

‘Sir, the intelligence community and all of Washington seems to consider it a certainty that we are for the fire.’

‘Yes…?’

‘What if we were to prove a different proposition?’

‘I’m listening,’ said the General, returning to his chair and rattling the ice in his glass meaningfully.

‘I have some ideas,’ said Smugh, as he topped up the General’s bourbon, ‘on how we might combat this threat to our existence, so that the NSA can continue to serve our fine nation as it always has done.’

‘Hmmph, you are craftier than you appear, Smugh.’

‘Thank you, sir. There exists a narrow window of opportunity before the Senate Hearing. Until then, no one will pay us any attention, and the other agencies consider our demise a foregone conclusion.’

‘Indeed, Smugh.’

‘Now is the time to strike, sir, like a snake in the grass, a snake that everyone thinks is dead, because it has been cruelly attacked, by many parties, perhaps with sticks and stones, but not–’

‘Smugh!’ said the General.

‘Sorry, sir.’

‘Alright then,’ said the General, laying his whiskey to one side and straightening up. ‘Let’s get to business. What have you got?’

Smugh disappeared out of the room. A dull roar accompanied his return, as he trundled a glass-and-metal box into the room.

‘Now hold on a minute, son,’ said the General, straightening up. ‘Is that a robot or a bomb?’

‘Well, it’s a projector, sir,’ said Smugh, as he wheeled the machine into position and flicked a switch, banishing the gloom with brilliant white light. A moment later, Smugh had his laptop perched on his knees, pulling up a presentation that opened with a map of the nation, overlaid with the presentation title: Smugh’s 10-point plan.

‘Are you ready, sir?’ said Smugh.

The General banged the desk with his fist in reply.

Chapter 6

Back to the Present

 

May 4, 2017

 

With a whump, another report landed on the wooden desk in front of the General.

‘And this, General Whiteley,’ said Senator Bigsley.

He glanced at the heading marked Operational Groups. A couple of lines were inked under in red, finishing with two oversized exclamation marks and one neat handwritten word beside them: UNBELIEVABLE.

The General mumbled something.

 

The hearing was back underway, the doors barely shut on the last stragglers before Senator Bigsley had recommenced her assault on the General.

The NSA Director had been bombarded with a series of probing questions, embarrassing revelations, and indefensible truths, even allowing for the interests of National Security. The General was the unfortunate recipient of this onslaught, even if the attack was directed solely on the NSA’s prior operations.

 

‘General Whiteley,’ asked Senator Bigsley, ‘would you care to read aloud the underlined sentence?’

‘Not especially, ma’am,’ said the General.

‘Well do it anyway.’

The General gravely sighed, and said: ‘The sentence claims, Madam Senator, that “the organization known as the NSA includes a group named Consumer Relations.” ’

‘Consumer Relations? Is that true, General? Is that something you’re proud of?’

‘Honestly, Madam Senator, that’s an affront to our brave men and women in uniform. And something I have already begun to dismantle. You see, Madam Senator, I’m reading from the same page as you are. All I need is a little time to–’

‘There’s more,’ said the Senator, dropping another hefty report onto the table before the General for examination.

General Whiteley glanced down and squinted to read the title:

NSA Partnerships and Franchising: Leveraging Our Brand in Emerging Markets.

Logos of soda-drink conglomerates fought with those of the big players in fast food for prominence on the cover as proud sponsors.

‘Last time I checked, General, this was the NSA, not the NBA. Is that still the case?’

‘Yes, ma’am.’

‘Then care to explain the franchises, the partnerships with big corporations?’

The General said nothing. There was nothing to say, but the pen between his fingers bent almost to breaking point.

‘What I think, General,’ said Bigsley, ‘and what ordinary folk all across America think, is that an organization like yours is too far gone to be saved, that this agency is too far down the road to perdition.’

The General continued to hold his head high, (mostly) innocent of blame for the Agency’s past shames.

‘I say,’ continued Bigsley, ‘that you save what little hasn’t gone completely rotten, put it in the CIA or somewhere else within the DoD, and burn the rest of the NSA corpse before it contaminates anything else! Does that sound about right to you, General Whiteley?’

He didn’t respond.

‘And maybe that seven or eight billion dollars we save can be put towards… oh, I don’t know, lower taxes, education, looking after our veterans properly. Take your pick, General. Would you object to our veterans and their families having a more comfortable life after giving everything for their nation?’

‘Ma’am, I want what is best for our nation,’ he replied.

Bigsley consulted her notes, and the General espied a rare opportunity to regain control of the narrative.

‘…And in my mind,’ he continued in a rising tone, ‘this nation’s best interest is served by maintaining our ability to respond to threats from overseas. This nation’s best interest is served by intercepting and monitoring communications threatening potentially deadly assaults on this nation and its people, whether at home or abroad. This nation, Madam Senator, whether you care to think so or not, is under constant threat. This nation–’

‘This nation,’ said Bigsley, cutting the General off mid-speech, ‘has laws, and a budget that you and your organization are bound by, General. Remember you are under oath today, and how you reply – or fail to reply – today could spell the end for the NSA, and possible charges of perjury for you.’

The crowd gasped at this lack of deference. Senator MacCartan, looking anxious, called the room to order. The General’s forehead was a sheen of sweat, his voice crackling.

Bigsley quickly scanned her list of questions, with one eye on the General. He was on the verge of an outburst or a giveaway sliver of information: either would be the crowbar Bigsley could use to prise open the shell of secrecy surrounding the NSA.

Her eye fell on the crowbar. ‘General Whiteley,’ she said, ‘do you deny that your organization is at work with a foreign toy manufacturer to install secret monitoring devices disguised as cuddly toys into every home across America?’

‘What?!’ said the General, standing abruptly.

Bigsley was on the point of repeating herself when General Whiteley grasped his chest and staggered back against his chair, like a man shot. He seemed unable to speak and having difficulty breathing.

From the dais, Bigsley watched with suspicion, though if it was an act, it was a damned good one. This was an unexpected turn of events, she thought. He might be NSA Director, but she had nothing against him personally, and she certainly didn’t want the man dying under her questioning.

‘Water,’ the General croaked. ‘Water!’

His eyes goggled as he choked, and the crowd began to raise a clamor of alarm. The General’s eyes fixed on Sub-Committee Chair MacCartan.

‘Ten-minute recess!’ MacCartan announced over his microphone.

‘No!’ said Bigsley, but the crowd were already on their feet.

She whirled to face the idiot MacCartan – how could he do that, when she had the General right where she wanted him?! – but the craven Senator was nowhere to be seen, having already snuck out. Turning back to face the General, she saw that he too had disappeared, swallowed up in the crowd.

‘Goddammit,’ she said, throwing her pen to the desk. She had him on the rack, if that sycophant MacCartan hadn’t given him a reprieve right at the critical moment.

‘Unfortunate timing, ma’am,’ said Duchamps as he came forward to her seat.

‘My ass, Manny,’ she said. ‘Everyone knows that Senator MacCartan is in the NSA’s damn pocket.’

Duchamps let that sink in for a moment before asking: ‘So what now, Senator?’

‘They’ve bought themselves a few minutes, that’s all,’ said the Senator. ‘I’ll nail him with some more facts as soon as this break’s through, and the NSA will be on its way into the history books by this evening’s news.’

Chapter 7

A Call to Arms

 

From the rear of the Hearing room, Smugh rushed forward with grave concern, and escorted the General out of the room.

‘ National Security issue,’ he hollered, as he forged a path through the milling throng of journalists, lobbyists, polemicists and any other -ists one could care to mention. ‘Clear the way, please!’

He pressed a bottled water into the General’s hand and guided him into an antechamber, small but empty, shutting the door behind them. The chatter outside fell away to a dull background noise. The room had just one little window, high up on the wall behind the gasping General, who was now strewn across the small hard bench. Smugh was uncomfortably put in mind of a prison cell.

‘Dammit, Smugh,’ said the General, having drained the bottle. ‘That woman, she’s relentless!’

‘Yessir,’ said Smugh. ‘She’s… she’s troublesome, alright.’

‘She has my balls in a vice, doesn’t she?’

Smugh winced, but didn’t reply. Bigsley had clearly gained access to some pretty incriminating stuff. If she got the General on the ropes again, their dud ref Senator MacCartan might not get in fast enough to end the round. As things stood, the media’s spin on this morning’s hearing was unlikely to favor the NSA; if the General took further punishment from Senator Bigsley, public opinion could be enough to demand the end of the agency.

Smugh glanced finally at his watch. The General raised an eyebrow.

‘Six minutes gone, sir. Do you want to–?’

‘Wait, Smugh,’ said the General wearily. ‘Wait.’

Smugh waited.

Another heavy sigh from the Director, then: ‘Perhaps you were right, Smugh.’

‘Sir?’

‘This… this other idea of yours…’

Smugh looked at his leader in confusion.

‘You know,’ said the General, snapping his fingers irritably. ‘The… You know, what’s it called, Smugh… Donkey Race?’

Dawn Raid, sir?’

‘That’s the one,’ said the General. ‘Yes. Dammit, Smugh, if that’s what it takes to safeguard this fine nation… never let it be said that I didn’t do everything for the United States of America.’

‘Never, sir!’

‘Very well, Smugh,’ said the General, rousing himself at last. He stood on the bench and peered through the window, bestowing his noble gaze upon the unworthy Washington skyline. ‘The way that woman’s fighting… we’ll need to act fast.’

‘Yessir.’

‘I mean, I know I can beat her today–’

Smugh did a double-take: one could never fault the General’s optimism.

‘–but how many days until we can carry out this Dawn Raid, Smugh?’

‘Days?!… eh, sir, with respect–’

‘Oh, don’t tell me weeks, Smugh! We don’t have that kind of time.’

‘Sir, no sir, it’s just… I took the liberty…’

‘Smugh?’

‘Well sir,’ said Smugh hurriedly, ‘I’ve had our special unit in a state of constant readiness since the Hearing was announced. You can give the order and the chopper will be here in less than five minutes.’

The General looked fiercely at Smugh, who feared he might perish under the intensity of the stare. At last, the gaze gave way to a grunt of approval and a chuckle, and Smugh found that he had been holding his breath.

‘Fine work,’ said the General, returning his attention to the view. ‘Fine work indeed, Smugh.’

After a moment of silence, he looked back down at his deputy. ‘So then, what the hell are you waiting for?’

Chapter 8

La Casa Blanca

 

President Meeke was in a foul mood that was turning darker with each passing day. Ninety-nine foul days into his presidency, and precisely nothing had been achieved. Nothing! Stymied at every turn by the treacly tentacles of government, and the media were sharpening their pens and knives.

His fitness session cut short, Meeke handed off his skipping rope to an aide and stalked inside, headed for the Situation Room in his jogging shorts and singlet.

All his life, Meeke had dreamed of one day becoming President – changing laws, being beloved by the poor, and telling important people what to do. Now that he actually was President, it was more like a nightmare. Meeke found himself surrounded by people telling him what to do… and (more often) what he couldn’t. The Council of Economic Advisors, the Attorney General, his campaign contributors… and, of course, not to forget Ms Bossyboots herself: Maggie Leftfield, his Secretary of State and closet coveter of his throne.

All his policy ideas to gain popularity to-date had been rejected by faceless bureaucrats penning enormous reports, on the suggestion that they were too expensive, unrealistic or unpopular. How dare they! He was the most powerful man on the planet, and his own staff would not continue to stand in the way of his legacy.

Meeke breezed down the stairs and was ushered along the long subterranean corridor to the Situation Room, flanked by his Secret Service men.

His own people in the damned Senate weren’t doing him any good, either, he thought bitterly. His own treacherous party held the majority there, and yet they were as bad as the House for thwarting his legacy!

He pushed through the door and entered the Situation Room. Those seated at the table fell into silence and rose to greet him as one.

President Meeke surveyed them a moment – the motley collection of lackeys, cheerleaders and backstabbers that passed for an Administration these days – then bade them sit with a gesture of his hand.

‘So, let’s get to business, Maggie,’ said Meeke.

He turned to his Secretary of State, Margaret Leftfield: younger, more charming and at least as ambitious as he was. For now, she was the brains of Meeke’s operation; next time out, she would be his running mate at best, or more likely, his most deadly rival in the primaries.

‘It’s about your legacy initiative,’ said Leftfield, ‘to reduce the number of secret agencies, Mr President.’

Meeke brightened. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘The Senate Hearing began this morning?’

‘Yes, Mr President. Well, as you know, the DoD provided a candidate organization for closure, and that organization was the NSA.’

‘What do you mean was, Maggie?’

‘Sir, we may have hit a minor snag.’

Meeke leaned forward and steepled his fingers in a presidential manner. ‘Explain,’ he commanded Leftfield.

‘Well, they carried out a stealth operation preventing a terrorist attack, Mr President.’

‘Who’s they?’

‘The NSA, sir.’

‘Okay…’ said Meeke, uncertain if he was hearing her correctly. ‘The NSA…?’

‘The National Security–’ began Chief of Staff Hank Donovan.

‘I know!’ shouted the President. ‘I know,’ he repeated in a calmer tone, ‘what the letters mean, Hank.’

‘In fact,’ said Leftfield, ‘they claim to have prevented a potential terrorist attack they’re calling 9/11 times three.’

‘Wait, what?!’ said Meeke.

‘Twenty-seven thirty-three,’ murmured Mittsberg, the President’s National Security Advisor.

Leftfield shot him a strange look before returning her attention to the President. ‘Yes, sir, I’m afraid–’

‘Wait a horn-tooting minute!’ President Meeke said. ‘The NSA carried out a major operation on American soil, and I knew nothing about this until now?’

‘Apparently so, Mr President,’ said Leftfield with a shrug of her shoulders.

‘How can that be, Leftfield? Who authorized this? Why did I not know anything – anything – about this until now?’

He fixed her a suspicious look. ‘Did you know about this?’

‘Sir, we only found out ten minutes ago.’

‘I’m sorry?!’

‘Well, sir, so am I,’ said Leftfield, ‘but–’

‘Donovan!’ shouted the President.

Chief of Staff Hank Donovan felt the burning eyes of the President upon him. The plump and clammy-handed fixer had just popped two hard-boiled sweets in his mouth as the Commander-in-Chief barked at him. He gulped them down and ignored the protestation of his throat.

‘Sir,’ he stammered, ‘no one else knew either.’

‘What do you mean, no-one else, Hank?’

‘The CIA, the Feds–’

‘So when were we informed?’ said the President, an edge to his voice. ‘After they had secured the area?’

Donovan said nothing. The room grew yet quieter.

‘Hank?’ asked President Meeke.

‘Sir, they… they didn’t inform us, sir. Highlights were released to major news networks shortly afterwards.’

‘Highlights of what? Someone better start making sense and tell me what the heck just happened.’

White House Chief of Staff Donovan nodded to a staffer hovering by the light switch and the room went dark.

Chapter 9

Dawn Raid

 

A shaky camera, initially blurred, in low light, gradually came into focus, then panned about, showing a heavily-armed unit in black fatigues, applying camouflage facepaint as they rode in the rear of a truck.

The lens turned now to the face of up-and-coming reporter Carla Keen with artfully-applied black markings on her cheekbones, then zoomed in on the unit leader, no less a figure than General Whiteley himself, deftly applying the matte facepaint beneath his eyes.

‘This is a covert operation,’ said the reporter in her husky voiceover. ‘I am embedded with the advance team about to infiltrate the building, where the NSA’s analysts have determined that a group of terrorists are this moment plotting an attack on the Statue of–’

‘Get that thing out of here,’ said the General gruffly, and the narration ceased, but not before a backing track with a subtle underlying beat and string arrangement kicked in.

The video cut to the unit leaping from the rear of the truck, and splintering into their respective groups splashing through mud as torrential rain came down. This slick movement was intercut with stills of bearded men – terrorists – busily constructing some sort of explosive device high above in the abandoned building.

Only a shell of a building remained, a skeleton of hard steel and cold concrete. A long-lens shot revealed the terrorists cackling fiendishly amongst themselves, as they shoved women and children hostages around and taped explosives to them in the building.

Next, a crosscut of the team bypassing the heavily-guarded stairs and the escalators – boobytrapped, the reporter Carla Keen whispered knowledgeably – in favor of scaling the building with grappling hooks.

A series of slow-motion shots followed. Barbed wire ripped at the shirts of the muscle-bound men, America’s finest, exposing their rippling biceps to view, as they closed in on the terrorists. On and up they climbed, scaling the edifice, hauling themselves to the top of the building, as the rain kept coming.

One soldier slipped from his greasy rope, plunging to his bloody death until – from out of nowhere – an arm shot forth to clasp his, a brother-in-arms pulling him to safety. Stealth, technology and bravery all on display. Flashes of staccato gunfire lighting the night. Wild-eyed bearded men in flowing robes, jabbering in harsh tongues, being overpowered by chisel-jawed blue-eyed all-Americans.

Then a cut to the long-lens footage once more, as the unit members abseiled in unison from the roof, with the freed hostages clinging to them.

A timer blinking its way down to oblivion. Some of the team – the General amongst them – were still engaged in furious hand-to-hand combat against the final few terrorists on an upper floor. Only nineteen seconds remaining. The last members of the unit retreated towards the elevator shaft and abseiled to safety and freedom.

All but the General, that is. The inset image onscreen now revealed the timer – seven seconds! – there wasn’t going to be enough time for the General to escape!

Still, he fought on, socking an adversary to the floor with a neat right hook, then throwing a stun grenade at the remaining terrorists. Spinning away, he bent to rescue a small package from the cold hard floor and raced to the edge of the building. He stole a look back at the scene before throwing himself out into the night sky, right as the orchestral backing reached a moving crescendo. He would never survive that fall.

And then, silence. Then the faint whipping of an object pummeling through air.

Boom! The building exploded in a burst of light. A wide shot showed the detonation as it lit up the sky, and there, silhouetted against the blinding flash, was a figure in a wingsuit – the General!

The stirring strings returned with renewed intensity as the camera zoomed in on the hero of the hour as he deployed his parachute and reached ground.

Shaky camerawork followed medics as they rushed to the General. He waved them away from attending to his forehead, suddenly awash with blood, instead ushering into their care the tiny bundle he had been carrying.

‘An infant!’ shouted an onlooker. ‘The General saved a baby.’

The General was swamped by grateful hostages, and he accepted the proffered hugs and a cigar with magnanimity. A woman fell into his arms, weeping with relief.

‘Thank the Lord Jesus for the NSA,’ she said, as her beautiful face, crushed hard against the General’s, filled the screen.

‘Yes,’ intoned the General soothingly, ‘we caught them just in time–’

Lifting his stern gaze to look directly at the camera, he continued.

‘–but there are others out there like them, and the NSA will not rest until every community, every child in America, is safe from the terrorists.’

With this, the video faded to black.

Chapter 10

The White House

 

A junior staffer, carried away by the whole thing, stood and began to applaud. More followed, one saluting the flag in the corner of the room. Even amongst more senior Administration officials, some discreetly wiped eyes and dabbed at noses.

The President, however, was a different matter: his face was set in a mask of grim calm, with barely a flicker of annoyance, save the bulging vein on his temple and the periodic exhalation through his nose. Sensing this, Donovan restored the room to calm.

‘I don’t care what the hell they did,’ President Meeke said. ‘An operation on American soil without my approval?! No way. This is… this is… what’s the word?’

‘Bad,’ said Donovan hurriedly. ‘Wrong. Sneaky. Ba–’

‘Insubordination?’ said Leftfield.

‘This is instabordiation of the highest order,’ said Meeke. ‘I want his resignation immediately.’

‘I’ve already asked for it, sir,’ said Donovan.

One of the staffers crept forward and mumbled into Donovan’s ear before falling back to the darkened safety of the room’s perimeter.

‘Hmmm,’ said Donovan, his face falling. ‘Sir, we have received word through back channels that the General will not be offering his resignation.’

‘Mr President, sir!’ said a young woman at the far reaches of the room, hunched over a smartphone.

President Meeke glowered at this non-person. ‘Yes?’

‘Sir, there’s a new snap poll, sir. It appears you’re… you’re popular.’

‘What?’ said Meeke, his face lighting up. ‘You, explain yourself.’

Right across the room, people gave the staffer admiring or jealous looks, then jumped onto their own devices to get in-the-know.

‘Your popularity has bumped since yesterday, to Nixon levels,’ the girl said.

‘ Pre- or post-Watergate?’

‘Post-, sir, but it’s a step forwards.’

‘She’s right, sir,’ agreed Leftfield. ‘Shawna, any reasons for this?’

‘Umm, just a moment, Madam Secretary…’

The staffer pored over the data on her device, her face suddenly crimson at being the center of attention.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Yes, people consider the President stronger on “protecting the homeland”.’

‘Fantastic,’ said Hank Donovan.

‘I’m not so sure about that,’ said Leftfield, but she turned to Meeke. ‘Mr President, one way or another, it would be inadvisable to squash the NSA or its Director right now.’

Meeke sat in seething silence at the head of the table, trying to look like he was thinking important thoughts.

Of course, Leftfield was right, as always. He couldn’t get rid of the NSA right now. At the same time, more popularity allowed him to get more of his policies turned into laws and that was good for his legacy.

He had put his trust in the Senate Sub-Committee to get the job done on the NSA. Now he risked looking out of touch if the agency was to be dismantled on his watch. The General was looking less like the bumbler Meeke had been promised, and more a wily old schemer. Very well, he would just have to play ball with him for now.

All at once, an original thought struck Meeke.

‘Wait a minute,’ he said. ‘Aren’t the NSA supposed to do covert intelligence-gathering?’

‘Yessir,’ said Donovan.

‘Then what the heck are they doing out in the field fighting terrorists, and why the heck are they recording it, and how the heck did all of that get into the national media?’

‘They… they have a leak?’ offered Terry Mittsberg, languid National Security Advisor.

‘Why don’t you go take a leak, Mittsberg?’ said Leftfield. ‘You’re certainly not offering anything useful around here.’

She turned to the President. ‘Sir, clearly this new NSA Director sees the organization taking a different tack to his predecessor.’

‘Clearly,’ chimed in Donovan.

‘Perhaps we should reach out…?’ said Leftfield.

‘Hmmph,’ said the President noncommittally, and pursed his lips. It was probably a prudent move, but he didn’t want it to seem like he always just did what Leftfield told him. He was President, after all. He maintained his thinking position as he counted silently to thirty-five. Let them wait on him.

‘Very well,’ he said, ‘the terrorists were destroyed, so I suppose it’s good news on the whole. Okay, let’s get control of the news situation and make me look like the instigator and leader on this.’

‘You heard him, people,’ said Hank Donovan, clapping his hands with vigor. ‘Let’s go on this!’

The Chief of Staff got to ordering staffers about, and they scuttled forth from the room to make the news happen, via their usual trusted media outlets in Washington, New York and LA.

‘If there’s nothing else…?’ said Meeke. ‘Okay, Maggie, we need to circle the wagons. Get hold of Senator Bigsley, she’s the one leading our charge on the NSA. Have the Committee change tack towards one of the other agencies – I don’t care which one – and roll them up into the NSA. For now, they’re the ones with the wind in their sails, so we may as well hitch our wagon to theirs.’

Leftfield picked her way through the mixed metaphors and nodded. ‘At once, Mr President.’

The room emptied, and President Meeke sat alone in his chair, fingers steepled in his trademark presidential pose, as he pondered the conundrum of General Whiteley.

As ever, Meeke’s focus was single-minded: popularity. He longed for it, lusted after it, and evidently the General was capable of it. His name recognition would be headed off the charts after this, while Meeke’s was near unrecognizable to the ordinary people. Heck, the General’s video was going viral. Viral! None of the President’s policy videos, fireside chats – even the health initiative ones showcasing his skipping prowess on the White House lawn – had made any social media impact, save that of ridicule. What would it take? Should Meeke himself ride along on the next NSA raid? His face soured: no doubt his advisors wouldn’t allow it.

A knock at the door interrupted his line of thought. ‘Come in,’ he ordered.

His secretary entered: ‘Mr President, the Ambassador is still waiting upstairs…’

‘Oh right, yes. Yes of course, Nancy. I’ll be right there.’ Meeke stood and quickly checked his appearance in the mirror his secretary kept on hand. He smoothed his hair back, looking as presidential as one could look in an oversized singlet and skipping shorts. Clearing his throat, Meeke put a smile on his face, and went back upstairs to greet the ambassador.

Chapter 11

Alfred Smugh’s War on Terror

 

As Meeke busied himself in the White House, Smugh and the General were in a helicopter speeding back to the Senate Hearing. The General slurped on an energy drink as Smugh wore a look of vindication: when he had first mooted Dawn Raid in his 10-point Plan, the General had pooh-poohed it.

 

‘No Smugh,’ the General had said. ‘That goes against the very ideals of the Constitution: courtesy, professionalism, and respect. We have to fight the old-fashioned way. Things haven’t hit rock-bottom yet.’

Smugh had considered it prudent, nonetheless, to greenlight the operation and oversee the planning personally. In just a few weeks, the West Coast’s finest had been recruited or renditioned from Californian boulevards to the otherworld of the East Coast. This raggle-taggle of actors, makeup artists and other communist sympathizers joined the government payroll and held steady jobs for the first time in their lives.

With twenty million dollars from the NSA’s petty cash, Smugh sequestered this group in an abandoned warehouse just outside Washington for training exercises. Then, with the help of the ex-Special Forces private contractor he had hired, Smugh produced and developed the entire thing.

A location scout identified a candidate building: a drab 1960’s tower block scheduled for demolition in Alexandria, Virginia. Barely five minutes south of DC by helicopter, and right alongside the Beltway, too.

‘Night-time or dusk would be best, of course,’ said the director.

‘Of course,’ agreed Smugh. ‘Um, why is that, exactly?’

‘Well, it adds to the immediacy and the terror of the scene, and covers up the background beautifully. Can’t have it too recognizable, surely?’

‘Yes, surely,’ said Smugh, but he was momentarily troubled by this prospect.

The director, desperately in need of this gig to fund his pet project – a documentary on oppressive foreign regimes – instantly moved to reassure Smugh. ‘Daytime is fine, however,’ he said. ‘I’ve done lots with bluescreen.’

‘Good good,’ said Smugh. ‘It may have to be daytime, but so long as it looks right.’

‘Now,’ said the director, ‘the script calls for terrorists, but doesn’t specify…’

‘Yes?’

‘I mean, I always like working with Russian actors, myself. Bone structure is fantastic, and they’re always in great shape–’

‘Oh, I see,’ said Smugh. ‘Well, no, we’ll be doing something quite different this time.’

‘Oh yes?’ said the director. ‘Chinese? Central American? Because you know–’

‘Terrorists,’ said Smugh.

The director’s brow creased in confusion.

‘Real, live terrorists.’

 

A week prior, an advance unit had carried out a night-time ‘extraction’ at Maryland Correctional–Brockland Penitentiary, a maximum-security prison, scooping up the entire contents of the East Wing, the so-called Terrorist Wing. These dangerous men had since been kept under sedation at a safehouse until the moment Dawn Raid was given the go-ahead.

The criminals were transferred to the tower block, heavily drugged and provided with dummy weapons, only moments before the General and his men arrived to save the ‘hostages’.

In a masterstroke, dangerous terrorists were neutralized (in an internationally-defensible manner), the other intelligence agencies were made to look out of touch, and the NSA got to ride in as the darling heroes of the American people.

 

Circling over the Capitol, Smugh allowed himself a little smile: if Dawn Raid wasn’t enough to safeguard the Agency’s existence, he thought, nothing on earth was.

Chapter 12

General Knowledge

 

At the Senate Hearing, the crowd had eagerly returned as the ten-minute break came to a close. The General was not amongst them, however. Several of the Senate’s administration staff went on a search for the NSA Director throughout the building. Some of the Sub-Committee members continued to mingle or pose for photographs, happily glad-handing and backslapping their fellow politicians.

At length, word filtered through that an issue of – what else? – National Security had come up, and that the General would return as soon as possible.

Initially, Bigsley was furious by the General’s show of disrespect for the institution of the Senate, then allowed that perhaps there was a National Security issue, for once. In fact, the more she considered it, the more she felt that it might not be such a bad thing if he didn’t return today. The media perception of today’s Hearing could only conclude that the NSA and its occasionally-fainting Director belonged to a bygone era.

As one hour stretched into another, Bigsley went about her preparatory work quietly, as Duchamps went downstairs in search of decent coffee. Suddenly, phones in the room went into meltdown as the NSA’s video met Twitter.

Duchamps rushed to Bigsley to report that, according to social media’s most widely-followed political commentators, the General himself had led a hostage rescue mission against highly-dangerous terrorists, sustaining a head injury in hand-to-hand combat with one of them.

A simultaneous flurry of activity at the rear of the hall near the doors heralded that the General was back in the building. The crowd hustled back into their seats as, with a sound like distant rolling thunder, the General returned.

He swept into the room, flanked by men in uniform, with his cap in his hand, for double effect: a subtle message to the Senators at the top of the room, and exposure for the light bandages swathing his crown.

Those in attendance rose as one to cheer the General, who gracefully acknowledged their praise.

With pursed lips, Bigsley and Duchamps watched the video at the top of the room while the General held an impromptu press conference in the Hearing Room.

‘I just want–’ he said, over the whirrs and clicks of the photographers furiously capturing the best angles of his wounds.

‘Please,’ the General said, raising his arms to calm them all. They fell silent. ‘I just want to put on record my pride today, in the entire organization and the brave men and women who fight to protect our nation.’

A tall man at the back cheered.

‘Suffering only minor injuries,’ the General continued, ‘our unit neutralized a massive terrorist plot against this great nation.’

Further applause, then Bigsley heard a holler of ‘God Save America’. Looking up from the video, she spotted the source: a woman strongly resembling a washed-up soap actress. This same woman then fainted dramatically and was caught just before she hit the ground by none other than the General, having thrown his cap to a nearby kid. Like some wretched parody of a wretched movie, the NSA Director pushed out of the Senate Hearing Room through the mass of people, carrying her limp body.

Bigsley shook her head in disgust, but the crowd lapped it up. Moments later, the General returned to even louder cheering, stopping on one knee to retrieve his cap from the boy – shouldn’t the child be in school? she thought.

With a pinch of the boy’s rosy little cheek, the General stood and strode manfully towards the desk at the center of the room, to resume questioning.

Bigsley fumed. Everything about this stank – the timing, the NSA carrying out the operation, not to speak of a nighttime raid in the middle of the goddamn day – but she had a more pressing concern. If that poll-fiend popularity-whore President got wind of this, he was certain to lose his resolve. She needed to nail the NSA fast, and the clock was ticking.

Chapter 13

Patriot Games

 

Almost before the General sat down, Bigsley launched her attack.

‘I have a report, General Whiteley,’ she said, ‘claiming that your agency has in fact been sharing information.’

‘That’s preposterous,’ rebuffed the staunch figure. ‘I already told you, we don’t share with the other intelligence agencies.’

‘Who said anything about agencies?’ said the Senator. ‘I have provable intelligence that the NSA has been selling information.’

A few gasps and shouts of ‘Shame’ broke out from amongst those pacifist protesters present in the Hearing Room, as the General denied the accusation.

‘Never,’ he said. ‘Never! Not even to the British!’

‘No, indeed, General,’ said Bigsley. ‘Worse than that: advertisers. Private corporations–’

‘Outrage! Outrage! Lies!’ shouted the General, jumping to his feet.

‘General, sit down, please,’ insisted Senator MacCartan.

She’s standing,’ the General protested, pointing at Bigsley.

‘I have names, a list–’ continued Bigsley.

‘No! Lies! This is an abomination!’ said the General, as Bigsley held up a fat document in her right hand.

‘–and furthermore,’ said Bigsley over the shouting and indignation of the NSA chief. ‘And furthermore, I have a money trail that clearly shows the NSA has entered into a commercial partnership in Mexico with a soft-drinks company, and in mainland China with two different fast-food brands, not to mention a recently-signed contract of intent to produce surveillance soft toys with a military manufacturer in Egypt. What have you to say for yourself, sir?’

The ruckus died as Senator MacCartan called for quiet. Silence once again reigned. The General had shouted himself out of breath in any event, and had fallen back to his seat. The incongruous sound of a phone ringing loudly broke the quiet behind Bigsley.

She shanked a look at Duchamps, who wore a look of genuine confusion.

‘It’s switched off,’ he whispered, but he bent out of sight to take it nonetheless.

‘General Whiteley,’ said Senator MacCartan. ‘Please answer the question put to you by Senator Bigsley.’

‘What question?’ the General asked.

‘Is the NSA involved in partnering and information-sharing arrangements with private multinational corporations?’ said Bigsley. ‘Yes or no?’

‘In the interests of National Security–’ he began.

‘Oh, for crying out loud,’ said Bigsley, throwing her hands in the air. ‘Just be a man, and answer the goddamn question truthfully, can’t you?’

‘Ma’am,’ said the General in a voice to chill the blood. ‘I have dedicated over thirty years of my life to the service of my country. Are you questioning my patriotism?’

‘No, I’m questioning your ability to tell the truth,’ said Bigsley. ‘If we can’t trust you to do that, we can’t trust you with the responsibility of your position.’

The General gazed furiously at Bigsley. She returned the fierce look in kind. Even battle-hardened veterans amongst the crowd averted their gaze from this intense staring contest. No one, therefore, witnessed who blinked first, but Bigsley was trembling and the General’s hands on the desk were shaking.

Gathering herself quicker, Senator Bigsley readied for the killer verbal blow, the evening news’ soundbite, only to feel a restraining hand clamp her arm. She looked down in confusion at the hand, tracing its source to a body behind her.

‘Manny?’ she said, attempting to shake her sleeve free. ‘What are you doing?’

Duchamps looked at her miserably, and swallowed hard.

‘Let me go,’ she said through gritted teeth. ‘I have him on the ropes.’

‘You can’t, ma’am,’ he said.

‘Why the hell not, Manny?’

‘I’m afraid I have the White House on the line…’ he began.

Chapter 14

Digestif

 

The General chinked glasses with his right-hand man and sat back in his soft leather chair with a wince.

‘Everything okay, sir?’ asked Smugh.

‘The wingsuit landing,’ said the General with a grimace. ‘Think I put my back out. I’m getting old, Smugh, and that was one tough day’s work.’

‘Yes, but you did magnificently, sir. We have the President in our corner now. The NSA is here to stay.’

‘Yes,’ said the General, and took a sip from his tumbler. ‘But God, that woman!’

‘Bigsley?’

‘That stuff about the toys… I don’t know where she gets her facts from, but that’s the sort of mud that sticks.’

‘I know, sir. In public, too. It’s unseemly.’

‘Yes, but dammit, Smugh,’ said the General, ‘if I was a member of the public, I’d want to close us down, too, hearing nonsense like that.’

‘Yessir.’

General Whiteley gave Smugh a meaningful look: ‘You understand what I’m saying, Smugh?’

‘Yes sir,’ said Smugh ruefully, as he stood and crossed to the desk to write a note.

‘I’ll cancel the soft-drink licensing arrangements immediately,’ he said. ‘A shame – the Espía Soda samples were actually beginning to taste almost palatable…’

‘No matter, Smugh.’

Smugh made a quick sum on the paper. ‘It’s just a shame what we’ll lose in revenue, sir, but a two percent budgetary increase should cover the shortfall.’

‘We’ll need it, Smugh. We need money somehow. Whatever it takes to defend this nation is what I’m willing to do… but this–’

The General gestured towards the cardboard box in the corner stamped Sample: Glad Meal Surveillance Toys overflowing with teddy bears.

‘–I want to rid the NSA of all of this.’

‘Yes, sir. I’ll call the cuddly toy manufacturer first thing tomorrow.’

‘Thank you Smugh. We shall not breach the American people’s trust in us ever again. Let us change our ways.’

Chapter 15

Indigestif

 

Meanwhile, at the Senator’s office, the mood was decidedly more somber. Duchamps handed his boss an aspirin and gin, double-strength, and took a seat opposite.

‘What terrible timing,’ said Duchamps. ‘I swear, ma’am, my phone was switched off and–’

Bigsley waved away his apology, and gestured to the tv in the corner. The ticker tape running along the bottom of the screen was all about the so-called hostage rescue, as images of the General and his men played on a continuous loop.

‘Wouldn’t have mattered, Manny,’ said Bigsley. ‘Wouldn’t have mattered. It’s a goddamn ratings war out there, and explosions win out over sensible debate every time. As for this particular fool of a President…!’

Bigsley trailed off and drained her drink.

‘So we move on?’ asked Duchamps. ‘The CIA?’

‘As the mighty Meeke has requested,’ said Bigsley, with a mocking royal wave.

‘And that’s it with the NSA?’

‘The hell it is. To fight fire, we use fire.’

‘Back in Quebec, we used water.’

‘Quiet, Manny. We need to play the General at his own public relations game, only smarter. Didn’t you see that video? Fishier than a Jersey trawler. No, we need to get to the bottom of what they’re up to.’

‘Who, Madam Senator?’ said her aide, looking about the empty room. ‘We’re a little short-staffed.’

‘Who better, Manny, than ourselves? I wouldn’t trust anyone else, in any event. It’s safe to assume we’ll be bugged… if we’re not already.’

Duchamps looked aghast at the suggestion.

‘They would spy on a Senator?’

‘It is what they do, Manny… at least, when they’re not busy doing whatever else they’re not supposed to be doing, so from now on, we keep everything – notes, correspondence, search records – offline.’

‘You mean handwritten?’

‘Yes, Manny,’ said the Senator with a chuckle. ‘You do remember how to write, don’t you?’

Duchamps laughed along, but it had been perhaps fifteen years since he had written anything not with his thumbs.

‘Also, Manny, you’ll need to lose the smartphone–’

Duchamps shuddered.

‘–and tomorrow get some burner phones and one of those degaussing machines at some kook store downtown.’

‘Can I expense–?’

‘Here,’ said the Senator, pulling out her wallet and giving him a roll of twenties. ‘No expenses, Manny. Understand? Cash only from now on, okay? And I suggest you empty your bank account if you ever want to see that money again.’

Chapter 16

Ghost Stories

 

MAY 20, 2017

 

A few weeks later at a White House gathering, as Washington’s moneyed and powerful mingled below, President Meeke and General Whiteley watched the interactions from the landing.

When Meeke had first spotted the General ascending the staircase, he wondered whatever had possessed the man to wear a sparkling tuxedo.

On closer inspection, however, Meeke saw the General was simply wearing full dress uniform, replete with a staggering array of medals and honors. Indeed, the President realized that he was wearing a second jacket, inside the first, to carry the full catalogue of awards and recognitions bestowed upon him. Whatever else the General might be, he was evidently a brave – perhaps even reckless – soldier.

‘I hear Senator MacCartan is retiring…’ said Meeke.

‘I hadn’t heard, Mr President.’

‘Yes, for “health reasons”, or so he said. But you know what that means, don’t you?’

The General shrugged. ‘These days, usually means something better paid in the private sector, Mr President.’

‘It usually means,’ said Meeke, ‘he was pushed, General Whiteley. Someone, a rival, a lobby group… an intelligence agency, perhaps…? They had something on him.’

‘Can’t say I know anything about it, Mr President. It’s too bad. I happened to like MacCartan quite well… for a Senator, at least.’

They laughed together at a weak Washington joke neither really understood.

‘No,’ said the General, ‘he’s certainly a lot better than that Bigsley woman.’

‘Oh, she’s feisty, but she’s all right,’ said the President.

‘I wonder, Mr President, I wonder.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I’m sure she means well but good intentions can do harm, too, you know. To the Agency, and who knows, even your Administration, by association…’ The General left the half-warning, half-threat hanging in the air.

‘Indeed,’ responded Meeke, clearing his throat and looking down into his drink. ‘Well, General, your nation really appreciates your fine work against the terrorists.’

‘Thank you, sir. I speak for the American people when I say we respect a President that is strong on fighting terror. The polls prove it.’

‘Yes,’ said Meeke guardedly, ‘but another hostage rescue stunt without my approval and I’ll snap the shutters down on the NSA so fast!’

He threw a glance at the General, who didn’t seem in the least bit fazed by his tough-talking.

‘I mean it, General. President Meeke doesn’t soften his stance for anyone,’ said the owner of that name. ‘The intelligence agencies are sucking up too much money and–’

‘And I couldn’t agree with you more, Mr President. I’m right behind you one hundred percent. Someone with your courage is who our nation needs to take on the CIA, for example–’

‘The CIA?!’ spluttered Meeke, spilling his drink.

‘Oh absolutely, Mr President,’ said the General. ‘Bloated and bureaucratic. Arrogant, too, not to mention careless. For God’s sake, they missed a plot right here in Washington.’

‘Hmmm, yes, I suppose so,’ said Meeke, as a waiter materialized with paper towels.

‘Right under their noses! A terrorist attack, Mr President! I shudder to think what could have happened if the NSA hadn’t been around.’

The General gave a real-life shudder to emphasize the point, though Meeke looked less convinced.

‘You see,’ said Meeke, ‘that’s what I don’t understand: how come not one of the other agencies had any inkling?’

‘Oh, I could say we got lucky,’ said the General. ‘That it was chance that we were the ones to intercept the vital communications in time, that on another day it might have been someone else… but I don’t believe in luck, Mr President.’

Meeke nodded in agreement: he believed in manifest destiny.

‘I believe in hard work and straight-talking,’ said the NSA Director. ‘I call it as I see it. And what I see is agencies too busy bickering and fighting amongst themselves for influence and power. Too busy squabbling to face the real threat. Out there.’

He gestured grandly through the large glass window with the forefinger of a bourbon-holding hand. The President, momentarily mesmerized by this piously patriotic speech, followed where the General’s finger pointed, as if, right now, a real threat could be materializing out there in the darkness of the White House lawn.

‘Yes, out there,’ Meeke murmured, then seemed to gather himself, as an aide approached and whispered in his ear.

‘Right, well, good work, General,’ said the President. ‘Many more people to meet this evening.’

‘I understand how busy you are,’ said General Whiteley, ‘but there is a very pressing matter of National Security.’

He looked around sharply before whispering in the President’s ear.

‘Right,’ replied the President in the same stage-whisper. ‘I’ll arrange a meeting for tomorrow, perhaps.’

‘What? Speak up, man.’

‘I said, tomorrow,’ said Meeke. ‘I mean, if that suits…?’

‘Mr President,’ said the General with a stiff salute, ‘I am ever at your service.’

Meeke returned the salute awkwardly as the General departed.

 

Outside in the balmy air, a wisp of smoke rose from a cigarette. The figure holding it watched in silence as, through the window, the nation’s most powerful men finished their little conversation.

‘Very interesting,’ he rasped, before lifting the cigarette to his mouth and dragging on it. The momentary flare from the tip glowed bright enough to show cold narrow eyes, and a faint smile play across thin lips.

ACT II: Hunger

(six months on)

Chapter 17

[ REDACTED]

 

The New York Times Op-Ed Friday, December 1, 2017

 

The Agency that Never Was

 

By Carolyn Bigsley

 

The reaction to the CIA’s dissolution amongst those I have met with this past week is telling: initial shock, followed almost immediately by a nod that says: “Yeah, that makes sense.”

The Central Intelligence Agency embodies many facets of the United States of America in the 20th Century – our century – when we arrived on the world stage with a bang (or two) and became its sole superpower. In case anyone hasn’t noticed, though, it’s the 21st Century now. It’s time to move on, and time to leave our fusty old baggage behind.

To-whit, the CIA. Whilst the Agency once held an honored position in our collective imagination – brave agents aiding willing-but-ignorant natives as they shook off the oppressive Communist yoke, replacing brutal regimes with freely-elected democracies – that pristine picture has grown tarnished with time.

Through the unforgiving lens of history, the list of operations carried out by “the Agency” reads like a top-ten of foreign policy cock-ups: Syria; Iran; Afghanistan; Guatemala; Korea; Iran again; Syria again; Indonesia; Congo; Bay of Pigs; Dominican Republic; and perhaps much of the Cold War. If there has been a coup d’état since the 1950’s, it’s a safe bet that CIA fingerprints have been wiped off the smoking gun, particularly if the coup has ultimately ushered in a brutal dictatorship, and all of this in the name of “promoting democracy abroad.”

Actions not of the United States’ premier intelligence agency, but rather of a rogue state within a state.

In the end, the CIA was weighed down by its history, both distant and (all-too) recent. Drug-running, illegal banking, and torture of captives were actions not of the United States’ premier intelligence agency, but rather of a rogue state within a state.

As one of the senior kids in spy school, the CIA just had too much baggage to lug around compared to newer classmates like the NSA. In the final indignity, even Hollywood turned on them: recent blockbusters showed the CIA as the bad guys – arrogant, immoral, and out-of-touch with the ordinary American.

This is not to overlook, of course, the nature of the Agency’s work in the shadows. Their genuine successes – protecting against Communism, changing dangerous regimes abroad, or (who knows!) even keeping aliens safely locked up – were destined to be filed away in cardboard boxes somewhere, forever unknown to those who benefited most.

For all those things we could never be told about, CIA, we are forever in your debt.

For now, though, let’s look towards a brighter, more transparent future, and stow all that baggage in one of those giant CIA storehouses we’ve always known you kept hidden from us.

 

Carolyn Bigsley is a United States Senator.

Chapter 18

Ax the Press

The camera panned in across the studio and panel to fix on the permatanned face of Jeff Axelrod, the nation’s most-watched news anchor.

‘Good evening,’ he said, flashing a smile, ‘and welcome to tonight’s Ax the Press with me, Jeff Axelrod.’

‘With me in studio,’ he continued, ‘we’ve got Sheila McRae, Chief Washington Correspondent for The New York Times, and Denis Liebermann, Politico blogger. We had a busy day on the Hill today, so let me turn to you right away, Sheila, if I may.’

Sheila McRae nodded eagerly and shifted forward in her seat.

‘Today’s major news stories from the Capitol,’ said Axelrod. ‘Firstly, Sheila, those incredible employment figures.’

‘Jeff, I think…’ began McRae, before pausing, troubled by a sudden desire to tell the truth. ‘Look,’ she continued, ‘there’s no doubt that this is incredible news: the employment figures are a much-needed shot in the arm for the economy. The markets are up, people are back to work in record numbers… growth like this hasn’t been seen since the Eighties… really, this is incredible news. But–’

‘But?!’ said Jeff Axelrod. ‘C’mon, how can there be a but with this, Sheila?’

‘Well, Jeff, there are a few things happening behind the scenes – no announcements, under-the-radar stuff. They have me troubled, if I’m honest.’

‘Well don’t keep us waiting,’ said the news anchor good-naturedly. ‘We’re all ears.’

‘Well, the first is that a substantial portion – no official figures yet from the Department – of Energy Secretary Poe’s portfolio of power plants has been transferred to the NSA in order to–’

McRae glanced down at her notes to get the wording right.

‘–to “ensure the constant supply of energy for critical operations in the anti-terror fight.” ’

‘I didn’t see anything about that in the press,’ said the presenter.

‘Well, that’s from a source of mine, Jeff,’ said McRae. ‘I can’t say any more than that, but I do think it deserv–’

‘If I can just butt in here,’ said Denis Liebermann, and the camera switched to the debonair figure with the broad smile.

McRae’s jaw set on edge at the nouveau media interruption.

‘Sure Denis,’ said the presenter.

‘Yes,’ said the blogger, ‘the NSA has broadened its horizons a bit–’

‘A bit?!’ interrupted McRae. ‘It has taken over the CIA, Denis. That’s more than a bit.’

‘Well, its star is on the rise, Sheila, and my many contacts on the Hill and in the White House suggest that this is exactly what President Meeke wanted from Day One. Lean government and an economy recovering from the previous Administra–’

‘But the CIA–’

‘The CIA is history, Sheila,’ said Liebermann. ‘Wave it goodbye. I’m sure we’ll all miss it, Hollywood most of all–’

The camera cut to Jeff Axelrod chortling at Liebermann’s marvelous wit.

‘–but the NSA is the hot new action in town, so it’s no surprise everyone wants a piece of it. Personally, I think they’re doing a great job.’

Sheila McRae rolled her eyes and attempted to get back in to emphasize her point. ‘Jeff,’ she said to the presenter, ‘if I may?’

The presenter was momentarily expressionless as instructions passed through his earpiece, before he smiled broadly into Camera One. ‘Of course, Sheila, though we may just take a quick break first. Stay with us, we’ll be right back.’

Chapter 19

CIA Case File

 

High above Nevada, a Gulfstream 450 jet cruised at just over 42,000 feet, en route to one of the NSA’s newly-obtained CIA facilities. Within, the General slumbered peacefully in his seat, as his right-hand man gazed down over the darkened desert floor and the mountains beyond. As the first rays of the morning sun drew blue-gray slashes across the landscape, Smugh was reflecting on the relentless progress of these past months.

The change in their fortunes, the speed with which change could take place, was truly staggering. The key was to ask questions after the fact, and crucially, to conduct that business behind closed doors. Like with their takeover of CIA operations: instrumental in that had been the NSA’s “discovery” of top CIA officials liaising intimately with foreign spies. When the media somehow got wind of a scandal brewing at Langley and the President flip-flopping over what to do, the potential harm to Meeke’s popularity was enough to make him act as they wished, swiftly and without politicking. Maneuvers in the shadows, thought Smugh: that was the path to lasting change.

In other arenas, Meeke had unwisely tried to use the media as his proxy in taking on Congress, gaining the President nothing but resentment from the Hill, and almost certainly torpedoing his legacy initiative – the ill-conceived War on WEEDS (War, Education, Energy, Drugs and Security).

Not that the NSA shrank from more formal means themselves: their legal people had driven through numerous bills in Congress, albeit passed with scarcely a modicum of debate. On the face of it, the bills were little more than housekeeping: Streamlining of Accountancy and Reporting Measures; Efficiency Drives within Federal Government; Administrative Reform Initiative; Inter-departmental Procedural Improvements – words and concepts that meant nothing and thus drew yawns and bipartisan support. Particularly in the House, where the mid-terms – less than twelve months away – already loomed large for its occupants. The politicians had no sooner reached Washington than the re-election campaign began, and few were so secure that a scandal wouldn’t jeopardize their prospects. A veiled threat was usually sufficient for them to see sense; if not, a nice new NSA base with construction jobs in their state did the trick.

Those bills had allowed the NSA to swallow up vast tracts of government departments (and their respective budgets), allowing the Agency to grow ever faster. Energy, Education, Agriculture, Transportation: the NSA had smashed all their piggybanks open.

Smugh drew particular satisfaction from having taken over the CIA takeover, having applied for – and been rejected by – that same agency as a fresh graduate. Lack of sufficient strategic experience, indeed.

How’s my strategic experience now? he thought, with a snort.

‘What’s so funny, Smugh?’ asked the General, waking at the sound.

‘Nothing, sir.’

‘Then why are you laughing?’

‘I was– Something caught in my throat, sir.’

‘Hmmph,’ said the General, easing back into his seat, as the pilot came over the intercom to advise that he expected to land at Amargosa airfield in about thirty minutes.

After landing, a convoy ferried them the short distance from the airfield, just inside California state lines, down into the remotest reach of Death Valley, where the CIA base lay. As they approached, Smugh read from the document in his lap, describing to the General the highlights of this base’s contents, including its seven large repositories.

‘What’s in these repositories, Smugh?’

Smugh glanced at the file. ‘Historical files, it says, sir.’

‘Historical files?! No,’ said the General, sagely shaking his head. ‘That’s wrong.’

‘That’s what the file says, sir, if you care to take a look–’

‘No, Smugh, storing files is wrong. That is what destroyed the CIA, Smugh. Information.’

‘But they are – were – an information agency, sir.’

‘The way I see it, Smugh, you get the information, you act on it, then you destroy it. Simple as that. You don’t leave it lying around as a stick for some bunch of terrorist-sympathizer lawyers to beat you with. All those CIA files are to be destroyed, Smugh.’

The vehicles crunched to a halt, as the General’s sermon ended. He glanced out through the heavily-tinted windows, seeing only two small agricultural sheds.

‘They do all that in those, Smugh?’

‘Well, the base itself is underground, sir.’

‘Yes, but there’s nowhere for miles around,’ said the General. ‘Where do the men live?’

‘On base, sir.’

‘You mean underground?’

‘Oh yes. The climate out here is inhospitable for ten months of the year, sir, but the Governor’s brother-in-law had already sold all his other land in the state to casinos.’

The General grunted in acknowledgement and cracked open the door.

A wall of heat pushed into the vehicle. Even in the early morning winter sun, the heat bouncing back off the parched ground had the General hastily discarding his woolly Washington layers as they entered the nearest shed.

A dozen cameras tracked their approach towards the innocuous building, and as soon as they stepped inside, a false wall slid to one side to reveal an elevator with one button only: down.

Smugh and the General emerged at the other end to a maze of busyness, as the NSA’s advance team swarmed all over the subterranean base rebranding the space: swapping logos, emblems, badges, brass title-plates on doors and, of course, headed paper.

‘Out with the old…’ said Smugh to the General, though he sincerely hoped the change was more than cosmetic.

Leaving the General, who loved nothing more than to oversee others hard at work, Smugh went in search of a lavatory and a look around the facility. A long and winding corridor led to the gents. On the way back, he passed a door marked Secure Area: Do Not Enter in one of the CIA’s oversize stickers.

Smugh tried the handle. To his surprise, it opened, and he stepped into a gloomy warehouse-type space, with row upon row of crates stacked high.

The place was dusty and showed signs of neglect. He stopped at random and inspected the label on a crate: Flying Object Fragments, Nevada Desert, 1954, it read. The side of the wooden box was damaged and Smugh peeked in. Another beside it, torn open, read Prosthetic masks, Project Impossible Soviet. Many more such boxes and crates, sagging or broken, lined either side of the aisle.

Hand brushing boxes as he passed, Smugh felt like a kid in a candy store. He wandered down one aisle, the space silent apart from the scuffing echo of his footsteps.

Smugh ambled along, reading labels at leisure: AIDS virus syringes: Disperse as polio vaccines; Alien costumes: Sizes XS-XXL; some ominously marked MKULTRA; and even scores of file boxes simply labeled Rendition: M-Z.

Smugh was on the point of heading back when he spotted someone else, halfway down an aisle to one side, standing in front of a cage. The man, tall and whippet thin, was studiously inspecting a thick document in his hands. He turned upon hearing Smugh approach, and looked him up and down before returning to his reading.

‘Didn’t you read the notice on the door?’ the man said. ‘It said Do not enter.’

Smugh gave him a cool look. ‘This is no longer a CIA facility,’ he said. ‘That sign no longer applies. What are you doing down here?’

‘Ah, so you’re from the new regime?’

‘What are you doing down here?’ repeated Smugh.

‘Lizard people,’ said the man. ‘I’m Case.’ He extended a hand, which Smugh, after a pause, shook cautiously.

‘Lizard people?’

‘I’m a computer genius,’ said Case modestly, ‘but my real passion is for lizard people.’

He paused and watched Smugh’s face for a reaction. ‘You have heard of lizard people, or do they really tell the public nothing anymore?’

‘You mean the lizard people seeking to control the human race?’ said Smugh, cottoning on. ‘Of course.’ He gestured to his features and gave a wry smile. ‘I’m already on the job.’

‘Well,’ said Case, ‘things aren’t quite there yet, but yes, lizard people do seek to destroy or subjugate the human race.’

Case waved a document he held at Smugh. ‘The CIA know all about it.’

‘May I?’ Smugh skimmed the report. ‘Let’s see: “Lizard people cannot deny their existence and need to be asked to take control by humans–” ’

He looked up at Case. ‘Well, that would be a pretty dumb thing for those humans to do!’

‘Anyhow,’ said Case, ‘I figured I’d come down here while things are in transition. See for myself if they really did have some lizard people under lock and key, like I’d heard.’

‘And?’

Case made a face and gestured towards the empty cage. ‘They must’ve escaped,’ he said.

‘Right,’ said Smugh, ‘you know, I think I saw them leave with some little green men just now.’

Case narrowed his eyes.

‘Come on,’ said Smugh. ‘It’s a conspiracy theory.’ He gestured to the rows of crates piled high in every direction.

‘A seventy-three million dollar conspiracy theory?’

‘What?’

Case tilted his chin at the report in Smugh’s hands. ‘It’s all in there. A top-secret project called Continued Subjugation of Lizard People?’

‘Seriously?!’

‘Seriously,’ said Case. ‘Buys a lot of Dom Perignon for your weekly how-to-catch-a-lizard-man meetings, doesn’t it?’

Smugh shook his head in disgust: the CIA was even more profligate than the rumors had suggested, and that was saying something. Proof indeed that the NSA were needed to put the intelligence community back on the right track. ‘Right, well…’ he said, jerking his thumb towards the door. ‘There’s plenty work to do.’

‘Wait!’ called Case after him.

Smugh turned to see the man trotting along the aisle.

‘How’s about you let me have that budget?’

Smugh raised an eyebrow that suggested otherwise.

‘Or were you thinking of returning it to the Senate Appropriations Committee?’ asked Case.

They both laughed at this ridiculous notion, before Smugh gave the guy a hard look. ‘You’re in IT, you said?’

‘No,’ said Case. ‘I said I was a computer genius. There’s a huge difference.’

‘And what would you do with the money?’ asked Smugh.

‘I will build the greatest surveillance program the world has ever known.’

Smugh considered this, before nodding. ‘I’ll certainly consider it,’ he said, extending a hand. ‘Welcome to the NSA, Case.’

 

Smugh slammed the door to the giant room shut behind them, noting with satisfaction that the CIA’s Do Not Enter notice had already been replaced with an almost-identical NSA version.

Chapter 20

Hero to Zero

 

Back in Washington, Energy Secretary Carrie Poe had just stormed out of the Oval Office. Her mood was matched by the weather outside, but within the carpeted cozy warmth of the President’s office, all was rosy.

In the Chief of Staff’s eyes, at least. ‘She seems to be taking it reasonably well,’ Donovan said cheerily, slurping on a mug of coffee.

‘She can’t deny my guys are doing excellent work,’ agreed Mittsberg, from his perch atop the sofa.

Leftfield looked at both men in wonder, before opting to address Mittsberg’s comment this time.

‘They’re not your guys, Mittsberg,’ she said. ‘You work for the President.’

‘Oh, I know that,’ said Mittsberg. ‘I know that. It’s just… oh, never mind.’ He sighed dramatically and drew his fingernails across the fabric of the sofa.

‘Personally,’ said Leftfield, ‘I think it’s time to rein them in.’

‘You don’t trust General Whiteley?’ asked Meeke.

‘Look, it’s just… the jobs, yes of course, wahoo–’

Leftfield raised her arms high in mock cheerleader pose.

‘–but Secretary Poe has her knickers in a twist, and this CIA takeover thing raises more questions than it–’

‘Look Maggie,’ said Meeke, ‘the economy is in great shape, I’m about to sign a major trade deal with the Indians… the ones Columbus didn’t kill off,’ he added with a laugh, ‘and my poll figures are as high as they’ve ever been. What’s to question?’

‘Just a nagging feeling, Mr President,’ said Leftfield. She had nothing more concrete to offer, but there was something unsettling in the rise of the NSA.

Unfortunately, their ascendency had coincided with the President’s popularity gains, and once his poll data tracked north, Meeke’s interest in anything else plummeted southwards. With the percentage of Americans approving of the President climbing by the week, Meeke was loath to do anything to jeopardize this.

‘I’m afraid I need more than nagging feelings to rule the United States of America,’ chided Meeke. ‘What next, Maggie, tea leaves and horoscopes?!’

Donovan guffawed and spilled some coffee down his shirt. Leftfield shot him a venomous look. She stood and moved away from the sofa to lean against what would one day be her desk.

‘Look Maggie,’ said the President, twisting in his seat to address her. ‘President Meeke is nobody’s fool. He knows what the NSA are doing. Sure, they want certain things, but not unnecessary things.’

She pursed her lips, unconvinced.

‘So they want a few of Secretary Poe’s power plants for data farms?’ said Meeke. ‘I think I can live with that, and so can Carrie. If she has the huff, she knows how to write a resignation letter. The important thing right now is that the NSA is sucking up new employees by the minute. The economy has never been better. I’m getting the credit and my approval ratings are in strong double digits. This is real power, Maggie.’

‘Yes, Mr President.’

‘Political power to instigate my legacy projects. You know this.’

‘Yes Mr President,’ she said. Meeke and his damn legacy: the clown just wanted his name on buildings and bills, preferably the legal tender kind.

‘Hank,’ said Meeke, ‘do you have anything to add?’

Donovan looked up from his attempt to mop his shirt dry using his jacket-sleeve.

‘No no, Mr President, I think everything is going exactly to plan.’

‘What plan is that, Hank?’ asked Leftfield.

‘I mean, if we had a plan, it could hardly be going any better. The approval ratings buy the President the power to make the changes we want.’

‘Good, Hank,’ said the President. ‘Mittsberg?’

The National Security Advisor, who had slithered into the warm space vacated by Leftfield on the sofa, was looking around the room in typically distracted fashion.

‘Hmmm, no, I don’t think so,’ he said.

‘Very well, thank you all,’ said Meeke. ‘You are dismissed.’

Alone in the Oval Office, President Meeke strutted about the room as he dwelled on the latest news on the economy. Today’s incredible headline?

Unemployment headed towards zero.”

Zero! He punched out the lights of an imaginary foe and shook his head in reverential self-awe. Reagan and the Roosevelt twins combined hadn’t achieved that. Future Administrations certainly wouldn’t better that. Zero unemployment!

Widening his stance, he pulled up a baseball bat and – ding! – hit it right out of the park.

‘Nothing is less than zero,’ he said aloud.

President Paul Caraway Meeke had created an economic miracle, masterminding the US economy’s transition from decade-long slump to boomtown. Wall Street was happy, investors were happy, people were happy. This would be the cornerstone of his legacy.

How amusing to think that but for a technicality he didn’t quite grasp, Ralph Masters would be president, and Meeke a mere Vice-President. Imagine how the country would be struggling now, with that high-falutin’ fool at the helm?

Meeke stalked about the room, looking for another space from which to hit a homerun.

Boom! Curtailing the military!

He had done that, too. Much talk during the campaign had been on the growth of the intelligence agencies and the military’s influence.

Well, he had certainly cut the Hydra’s head off! The intelligence agencies were in the process of being made into a single agency now. So what if that agency was the NSA, the one he had previously thought most in need of reform. That was then.

‘This is now, now!’ he said aloud, and belted another into the outfield.

General Whiteley had turned the agency around, from a laughing-stock to the point where it was uncovering terrorist plots by the month. In fact, it was a lucky thing Meeke had appointed him against the recommendation of his so-called advisors.

And the NSA seemed to be about more than just gathering secrets: the General had developed the NSA’s capabilities on the action front – to protect against leaks in weaker organizations. Fine by Meeke: it meant the military held no sway over his Administration, not something recent Presidents could claim. Not that Meeke said as much, but his people made sure to mention it off-the-record during press-time.

In any case, “boots on the ground” wars were a relic of the past. As the General’s little deputy had put it, future wars would be all about wiretaps and tippy-toes. Meeke liked the phrase… well, perhaps not the wiretaps part – too much like Watergate for his liking.

This was the bright new future, and Meeke was the man to lead them into the light, Energy Secretary be damned.

Frowning, he threw himself into the President’s chair and pondered what to do about Carrie. She could go to heck, as far as he was concerned. He’d only given her the Energy portfolio because she threatened to expose their brief fling during the campaign. Now, though, it was a whole different ballgame: they wouldn’t dare impeach someone as popular as him.

To whit, the most glorious of all today’s news: the latest polls. Meeke leaned forward to look at today’s papers. He flipped open the front of the Post, to the inside pages, and basked in the warmth of the American people radiating up from the hot pie charts.

‘I’m popular,’ he uttered under his breath.

Oh, he was popular. That was best of all. Strong on homeland security, strong on protecting the homeland, strong on the economy… On it went, on and on. No, nothing could stand in the way of a second term now. Nothing could stop Meeke, and nothing could stop his legacy. ‘WEEDS,’ he said aloud.

Chapter 21

Media Darling

 

Late 2017

 

As the weeks rolled by, President Meeke wasn’t the only one suffering increased popularity. The General’s blend of gruff pragmatism and personal bravery sold magazines, papers and tv advertising slots like nothing else.

It was the sort of good news people sought out. No kitten rescues here; this was big news – a booming economy, new businesses springing up across the country, a breathless sense of hurtling urgency that lifts the mood of the nation upward, not to mention daring terrorist captures and foiled attacks, led by that unbreakable warrior General Whiteley.

On broadsheets and evening newspapers alike, it seemed the General’s heroic face featured on the front pages daily, at the opening of a new base here, a reconfiguration of another center there, a keynote speech in Arizona followed by a further jobs initiative announcement in Alabama. Locals in forgotten corners of the country pronounced themselves delighted, and the newspapers responded.

Breathing life back into Brookwood, Alabama.

It’s given us renewed hope, says young family in Santa Fe.

Our college students can come home: Burns, Oregon

‘More jobs,’ proclaimed the General at every opportunity. ‘More intelligence analysts. High-paying jobs for Americans. Send your kids to our college courses, and we’ll cover the cost.’

‘There is more valuable intelligence,’ the General told one reporter in a widely-reprinted exclusive, ‘than my present volume of staff can get through. We need more people. Honest-to-God American people.’

The press lapped it up. Good news that wrote itself and sold hard copy? They just couldn’t get enough.

Feature-writers shadowed the General across the nation, infographics showed the thousands of new jobs state-by-state in a rainbow of color, page after page of testimonials gushed about what it meant to this or that little town, bypassed by progress, to have the old military base reopen and to see Main Street, SmallTownAmerica, back in business.

Your country needs you…

(for high-paying American jobs)

announced the headline from the front of yet another business weekly, above the General pictured in classic Uncle Sam pose.

The Growth Inside America:

General Whiteley

proclaimed the cover of one influential magazine, over a crisp black-and-white image of the man, as they named their Person of the Year.

Chapter 22

Bigsley’s Game

 

December 31, 2017

 

Far from the glamour of glossy magazines, Senator Bigsley toiled, knee-deep in the murky workings of the NSA as the year drew to a close. Tinny holiday jingles emanated from the radio, as Bigsley straightened and, with a groan, dug her knuckles into her stiff back.

What a year, she thought. The Appropriations Sub-Committee had just wrapped up its work on the CIA, Bigsley herself had led the charge, and the United States’ leading (and most dysfunctional) intelligence agency was history. Wasn’t that progress? Greater checks and balances to be implemented on the intelligence community, too, and more streamlined organizations. Was it not cause for celebration?

A glance around the room gave the lie to that. Her once-spartan office had become a home to every kind of obscure memo, newspaper cutting and report she could find on the NSA.

Stacks of paper leaned into walls all about the perimeter, boxes of files threatening to topple through the tall windows. As the building officer had made plain more than once, a single lit match in here would send them all up in smoke, yet Bigsley’s passion for the NSA smoldered still.

As she resumed her hunched posture over the desk, she knew that celebrating the CIA’s demise would be like taking a half-time victory lap.

All she had done was raise the stakes, shifting the CIA chips into a bigger pot. The NSA remained, bigger than ever. Worse, she had played her part in their growth. Sure, the NSA appeared to have morphed into precisely the type of streamlined and efficient organization she supported. Indeed, from the classified debriefing she and her Sub-Committee received weekly, the NSA seemed to be uncovering terrorist cells in their dozens. But Bigsley knew there was more to this than met the eye.

A piece in the Wall Street Journal this very morning –reviewing the year just gone – had laid out some of her concerns: hospitals, education facilities, often entire towns near NSA bases had been all but taken over by the intelligence agency. Cause for genuine concern, asked the author, or as benign as an accounting exercise? After all, the military had done the same for decades, assimilating communities on the outskirts of bases into the army way of life.

So long as the people were happy, perhaps she ought to be, too, Bigsley mused.

She shook her head in rejection of the notion.

A stench surrounded the NSA. These files hinted at it, not to speak of all these terrorists they were uncovering, and that stunt at the Senate Hearing.

No, Bigsley vowed, she would continue until the NSA was history, whatever the personal risks. At this precise moment, though, all she risked was spending the night asleep at her desk instead of at home. Again. With a yawn, Bigsley pushed back from her desk and crossed to Duchamps.

‘Time to go home, Manny,’ she said, patting her aide’s head.

Duchamps had already fallen asleep at his desk, his head buried in a two-hundred-page document on filing procedures for administrative staff in the lower echelons of the NSA. He shook himself awake embarrassedly, and noted his boss had her teeth set in that determined manner of hers that passed for a smile.

‘You found something, ma’am?’

‘Maybe,’ she said. ‘Just a chink in the armor, Manny. What we need now is a crowbar.’

‘The drink?’ said Duchamps in a mix of confusion and hope.

Now it was Bigsley’s turn to look bemused.

‘It’s Canadian,’ Duchamps explained.

‘Ah,’ said Bigsley, then glanced at her clock. ‘Well, why not, Manny? It’s nearly next year, might as well grab a drink and figure out if this was a great year… or a really terrible one.’

Chapter 23

The Color of Catsup

 

Early 2018

 

While Bigsley painstakingly built a case against the NSA, the agency continued to grow, quasi-legally but relentlessly, taking on thousands of new employees week after week and creating many multiples of those jobs indirectly. Further variations on appropriation saw elements of the Army and Navy shift into new roles within the exciting new NSA. Private contractors, meanwhile, were busier than ever, supplying everything from semi-automatics to semi-conductors to semi-skim milk.

The General’s sole concern was protecting the nation, whether that took ten men or ten billion dollars. As a proud American, he had no objection to the booming economy, but as a soldier, his only interest was in getting the bad guys. Terrorists, and real ones, once the NSA had enough breathing space from the politicians to operate as they needed to. Lamentably, even the security of the nation was subject to petty politics, and the NSA had to play to the audience: only by communicating the sense of danger to the people could the nation’s security apparatus adequately protect them.

Thus, the Threat Level Program was initiated, though the General’s chronic suspicion of technology meant that it fell to Smugh to manage the process. He, in turn, relied on Case, his basement discovery. Surprisingly for a CIA officer, Case had told the truth: he was a computer genius.

Case possessed the brightest mind Smugh had ever encountered, coupled with a childlike sense of responsibility: that is, Case was reckless and unconcerned with the consequences of his actions on others. Smugh reasoned, however, that Case’s talents were best employed within the NSA, rather than “out there” working for a private contractor or foreign government.

Case developed the Threat Level Program using a complex algorithm that sampled thousands of parameters several times daily – from the price of West Texas Intermediate per barrel to a data scrape of social media for certain trigger words; from major stock market movements to consumer sentiment, to chatter on the dark web. One data point was based on a ratio between the workforce employed by the agricultural and intelligence communities. Another indexed the reported terrorist sightings nationwide. Even the number of revolutions made by a hamster wheel in a Minnesota research lab was included (the rodent was allegedly omniscient). In short, with the computing power available to the NSA, there was no reason to leave anything to chance. Everything was quantified, correlated and weighted to provide a single figure that measured the nation’s threat level.

Despite the massive complexity, the program was delivered on-time and at a fraction over twice the budgeted cost. This unheard-of efficiency within government and military circles was offered to President Meeke as further proof that real progress was being made by the NSA.

To communicate the current threat to the people, Smugh had greenlighted the development of a color-coded chart.

Previous governmental efforts in this regard had been abject failures, containing as few as three colors to convey the wide breadth of dangers the nation faced. As Smugh understood intuitively, the program had to convey to the populace that danger was rising, but that there was no need to head for the bunkers just yet.

In truth, the color chart had taken up more of the budget than the technical side – and delayed the project longer – though Smugh was at pains to reassure the General of the necessity of this.

Thus it was that, at a secret NSA base high in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, Smugh ushered through the team of product designers to the long meeting-room for the grand unveiling of the Threat Level Program Color Scheme.

The General sat at the head of the table, expressionless and intimidating. The graphic designers filed in and nervously clustered near the entrance fifteen meters away.

The design lead, a confident applelyte dressed in black with rimless glasses, fiddled with his phone before – with an exaggerated final tap of the device – revealing the fruit of the team’s efforts on the large screen beside him.

Et voilà,’ he said.

The General squinted.

A large color wheel displayed varying shades of what would be orange and red in common parlance. Suggested names were written in a delicate sans-serif font created by the team just for the Threat Level Program.

Smugh, no less tense than the designers, watched the General’s inscrutable face for a reaction. There was none for what seemed an age, before the General began to read the names clearly and slowly aloud.

‘Redhead,’ he began.

‘They’re–’ began the design head, only to be talked over by the General.

‘Tangerine.’

‘We decided–’

‘Flaming Sunset. Crimson. Ochre Sin. Burnt Fury. Lava Spurt. Raging Glory. Ruby Tuesday…’

The General paused, and the chill in the air was a glacial shade of ice-blue. The design head had wisely decided to stop talking.

‘Smugh, what the hell is this?’ demanded the General.

‘Sir?’

‘Carmen’s Rage? Hot Lipstick? Scarlet Shame? Blushed Cheek?’

‘They’re the names we’re sugges–’ began the design head.

‘Fairynames!’ spat the General. ‘Goddamn fairynames, that’s what they are.’

He slammed his end of the table, and the huddle of designers grew tighter.

‘Destroy these charts, Smugh,’ said the General. ‘They’re an affront to Americanness. And get these unAmericans out of my sight.’

Smugh jerked his head at the design lead, who didn’t need a second invitation. The team scuttled out of the room and away from the angry man, leaving Smugh to deal with the General’s rage.

‘I’m sorry, sir,’ he said. ‘Not what you wanted?’

The General shook his head sadly, and Smugh felt keenly the pain of having let down the great man.

At length, the General held out his hand in request. ‘Crayons and a notepad, Smugh.’

Tongue firmly clamped between his teeth, the General carefully drew a circle and colored it in, then got to naming the slight variations in color.

He wrote Amber, the standard starting point for any chromographic representation of danger, then paused and frowned. Tut-tutting, he ran a thick orange line through the word. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I’ve never liked amber.’

‘Really, sir?’

‘I don’t even know what the hell it is, Smugh, but it’s certainly not a color.’

‘Well sir,’ said his deputy, ‘isn’t it a precious stone… and, eh, a woman’s name?’

Smugh had fond memories of his mother.

‘Hmmph,’ snorted the General, ‘no Smugh. Names for trinkets and trailer-park hookers have no place in the nation’s Threat Level Program.’

Smugh winced.

‘Now, Smugh,’ continued the General, as he brandished his signed and dated color chart. ‘Here are the new colors.’

Smugh picked up the sheet. ‘Orange,’ he said. ‘Orange-Red. Red-Orange. Nearly-Red. Red. Redder. Mars Red. Catsup Red. Injun. Gore. Blood Red. Hell. Armageddon.’

‘Better, isn’t it?’ said the General.

Smugh took the question as rhetorical.

The General threw the crayon to the desk with satisfaction. ‘So we’re clear, Smugh?’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Smugh.

‘Good. Take this chart away and fancy it up. The new threat level as of today is Orange-Red. Be sure to remove that awful Amber from all documentation.’

‘At once, sir,’ said Smugh, and left the General’s presence, feeling he ought to have done more for his mother’s good name.

Chapter 24

Growing Pains

 

February 3, 2018

 

A week later, with revised names, the Threat Level Program was launched with the type of fanfare associated with the latest Apple product release. The rollout was warmly welcomed by the select media who managed to score invites, and gushed about in the writeups that followed.

The General stepped onto the platform to rapturous applause, and gave a stirring keynote on the need for constant vigilance, and the necessity of continued expansion of the NSA. His speech, boiled down to its essence, was “We need more”, and it was far from idle headline-grabbing.

Smugh, watching from the wings of the podium, could not agree more about the difficulties they faced: constant growth was an incredible challenge.

The Threat Level Program had passed from beta-testing into service that week, yet had already cycled up through another two levels of threat; however hard they tried, however many new recruits they got (and however long they made them work), the Threat Level Program showed that the nation was in ever-increasing danger, and the resources could not be found to match the task.

They needed more computers, more buildings to house those computers, more analysts to operate them, more instructors to teach those analysts, and more buildings for all that training. They needed support facilities surrounding those buildings, infrastructure for access to the facilities, power cables, data cables, telecommunication towers, water pipes, sewer pipes, roads and power lines, cable trays, furniture, chairs, desks… Smugh rubbed his eyes vigorously, and yawned despite himself.

Only once all that was done could the real work begin. Then, the NSA’s analysts could begin to uncover links, associations, and connections. All these cookie-crumb trails were sent up the line, cross-checked against existing files, and then elite field units would deploy, surveilling the targets day-by-day in rotating teams of up to five personnel, twenty-four-seven. That round-the-clock surveillance yielded further data that bulked up the file and determined what, if anything, the target was up to. It was a lot of work that often came to nothing, but it was the most necessary part of their operation. Perhaps apart from the self-surveillance teams… Smugh smiled wryly at the recollection, though he had been aghast when the General had first mentioned them.

 

‘Self-surveillance, sir?’

‘Oh yes, Smugh,’ the NSA Director had insisted. ‘We must watch the watchers, don’t you think?’

‘Our own people, sir. I’m just not sure–’

‘We’ve vetted them coming in the door, for sure, Smugh, but we don’t know who’s working for them.’

‘Them, sir?’

‘The others. The Russians, the Chinese, the ragtops.’

Smugh had noted that the ragtops preferred the term Arabs, before reminding the General of the NSA’s highly-secure vetting process.

‘Yes, Smugh, but sometimes it’s best to give them a rope to hang themselves with.’

‘I’m not sure I understand, sir.’

‘I’ve personally sanctioned hundreds of new high-risk employees, Smugh. All the better to watch them, in our high-security facilities, with 24-hour hidden cameras.’

 

At the time, Smugh had protested, though he felt he understood the logic now. Then again, perhaps his brain was just too weary to pursue it further.

‘We need more people,’ he muttered.

Chapter 25

Hear, Hear

 

February 21, 2018

 

On a cold Washington morning, a watery sun threw long shadows on the reporters rushing up the steps of the Capitol, as Senator Bigsley came down, her eyes flashing with fervor. Amidst the clicking and whirring camera lenses, a multi-layered profusion of microphones, dictaphones and cameraphones radiated inwards to catch every last word from Nebraska’s Senior Senator.

Across town, the effects of the whirlwind Threat Level Program Nationwide Tour, coupled with celebrations following another successfully-prevented terrorist attack, saw the General’s office plunged into near blackout, blinds filtering out all but the most essential light, adding a noirish element to his lair. The glare from the television screen cast a pallid gloom on the nation’s hero, elbows planted on the desk. He sipped suspiciously on a hangover remedy prepared by Smugh, and watched Bigsley’s announcement: a special Senate Investigative Hearing to focus on NSA growth and actions.

Bigsley stared boldly at the camera that faced her, as if into those eyes she knew were watching her, somewhere.

‘I want to ask General Whiteley,’ she said, ‘why has our healthcare budget shrunk by thirty percent, since his appointment as head of the NSA? Why is the same thing happening to Education? Why has the NSA commandeered the Department of Energy’s power plants? We all, as tax-paying Americans, have the right to know where our tax dollars are going, and I invite and look forward to full cooperation from the Agency and its Director. All we want to know is why our hard-earned taxes are being spent on spies and secrets instead of homes and hospitals. Thank you.’

Smugh, hovering at the General’s shoulder, muted the television as the newsclip ended with Bigsley holding her arms above her head, in a triumphant gesture.

‘Damn it, Smugh, what is wrong with that woman?’ said the General, with a thump of his fist on the desk.

Folders, pens and paperweights jumped about. Smugh, too, jumped, before bending to gather the various displaced items. As he did so, he determined that the time had arrived to suggest something he had been mulling over for several weeks. Instinctively, he shrank from the idea, but he also held an obligation to assist the General in any way possible: it was not for him to withhold information from the General on his own moral grounds.

‘Sir,’ he said. ‘I… well I wonder if someone took her out – Bigsley, that is – perhaps a lot of our trouble would disappear?’

The half-question, half-statement hung uncomfortably in the air. The General lowered the report he had snatched up, and gave Smugh a long hard look. A bead of sweat formed on the base of Smugh’s neck, and slowly, icily crept down his back, despite the rest of him suddenly feeling immensely hot.

Finally, the General spoke: ‘That’s not a completely ridiculous idea, Smugh. Might be a very fine idea indeed.’

He paused, glancing at the report, before adding casually: ‘Did you have someone in mind?’

‘Well, sir,’ said the mightily-relieved Smugh, ‘we have a number of ex-CIA operatives that could do it. Or an outside job, if you think that might be cleaner?’

Once more, silence reigned.

‘Wait,’ said the General. ‘You mean… kill her?’

‘Well yes, sir. What did you–?’

‘I thought a nice steak dinner, man. Show her a good time and soften her up some.’

‘Oh.’

‘No Smugh, no dammit! Not on my watch. We’re not the damn CIA, to be running around popping off elected officials, even infuriating ones. That’s a most unAmerican suggestion, Smugh.’

‘Well, sir, it took care of Kenne–’

‘Enough, Smugh!’ said the General. ‘Enough. That was a dark episode in our nation’s history, however necessary. I have never been for killing innocent Americans without due process, and I’m not about to go down that road. To restore our nation to greatness, Smugh, that is what I aim to do. By whatever means necessary. What you are suggesting is not necessary.’

‘I’m sorry, sir, of course not…’ Smugh paused to look down at his shoes. ‘And… the steak dinner, sir…?’ he said. ‘Was that something you would like to– …I mean, yourself, sir?’

Now it was the turn of General Whiteley to feel heat on his face. ‘Pshaw, what?! Nonsense. No, Smugh. The very idea, ha! Sleeping with the enemy, Smugh, no! No, indeed.’

Clearing his throat, the General regarded the report he still held with renewed interest. ‘That will be all for now, Smugh.’

‘Yessir, thank you sir,’ said his rapidly-reversing deputy.

Chapter 26

Secretary Pool

 

As the NSA’s steroidal growth continued, Energy Secretary Carrie Poe struggled to staunch the bleeding from the agency’s assault on her department.

Over the past months, the huge energy demands for supply of the NSA’s new or expanded bases, vast databanks and servers, and abrogated bases, suburbs and unincorporated townships, had resulted in the diversion of power both literal and political from Poe, who felt herself becoming feebler with each passing day.

Barely glancing up from the latest dismal report, Secretary Poe depressed the intercom button on her phone and called for her most senior staff member. ‘Geena,’ she said. ‘Before that Senator calls back, remind me what it is the Department has control over?’

The woman sharing the Secretary’s desk looked up from her crossword puzzle. ‘You know I’m right here, Madam Secretary?’

The Department of Energy’s phone network could no longer be relied upon, with intermittent electricity and a withered budget. Worse, the NSA had requisitioned their furniture and most of the building, leaving the Energy Secretary to share with her aide an aluminum cafeteria bench they had rescued from a storage closet in the basement.

Poe suppressed a sigh. ‘Sorry, force of habit,’ she said. ‘Well?’

‘Madam Secretary,’ said Geena, in an officious voice, ‘you have direct responsibility for clean energy generation across the nation, all aspects of the National Grid not under the aegis of the NSA, as well as ensuring the supply of reliable power for all Administration and Federal Government offices.’

Poe tilted her head, and frowned at her aide. ‘And in plainspeak?’

Geena made a face. ‘That solar farm in Alaska and the dam in New Mexico–’

‘The one that’s been dry since day one?’

‘Yes, Madam Secretary.’

‘Oh God,’ said Poe. ‘Is that it?’

‘Well, everything else has been designated as necessary for National Security,’ said Geena, with an apologetic be-brave smile.

‘What about that coal plant we were saving in Milwaukee?’

Poe’s aide bit her lip and shook her head.

‘It’s gone?’

‘Their auditors found it in our books.’

The Energy Secretary looked about ready to cry.

‘Wait!’ said Geena. ‘We still have those five wind farms in Indiana.’

‘Farms or turbines?’

‘Oh, right, um…’

Secretary Poe ran her fingers through her hair. ‘Screw you, Paul,’ she muttered, but she knew President Meeke couldn’t care less about her. His poll figures were up, and that was all that mattered in Meeke’s world.

‘The hell with this,’ she said to her aide. ‘I’m going to meet the misfits. You coming?’

 

They took the stairs to the cafeteria, as the elevator was only sporadically operational.

The chink of light for Poe in the darkness? Things were worse for Secretary Huffman over at Education. Or rather, down the corridor at Education, since his buildings had been seized by the National Schools Authority, the newly-developed Education Sector of the NSA. Now that was humiliating. At least she still had a building to call her own, and something people wanted: electricity. Since the equivalent of paid private tuition was available for kids for free through the NSA’s program, people had become reluctant to send their children to non-affiliated schools. After all, how would their kids stand a chance of advancement within the NSA if they weren’t enrolled from the beginning?

It was a similar story with Health Secretary Jackson and his Department, in the adjacent building that shared the same hollowed-out cafeteria. The river of influence had been dammed and diverted upstream, leaving the Secretaries fumbling about in the powdery canyons of lost power. Lobbyists had deserted these forsaken halls, preferring to haunt the NSA’s various buildings with their legislative proposals.

Only the Department of Defense retained any semblance of its former might, but even that was a sham; the DoD kept up the bluster and pretense, spending their limited funds on appearances, but everyone on the Hill knew that it too had been usurped by the NSA, its own prodigious progeny.

The flood of money allocated for the DoD now washed firstly through the NSA’s filters. By the time the funds reached the DoD, the torrent had become a trickle. The Defense Secretary had resigned for ‘health reasons’ recently – Meeke had reluctantly accepted – only to reappear the following week as senior specialist advisor to the NSA. He was far from the only one. Many more at all levels of Federal government had either led or followed.

Meeke’s advisors on the economy found it impossible to guess where all this would ultimately lead. Looking at the official figures, there was near-unanimous consent that the economy was going well: the trouble was, no one could explain why, precisely.

 

Certainly, the Council of Economic Advisors was befuddled by the present state of affairs. Responsible for advising the President on the likely economic impact of any policies, these economists were amongst the most influential people in Washington. For once, though, these most prescient predictors of the past shied away (even privately) from projections with regards to this particular economic cycle.

Many of these sages had helped to refine classical economic theory – their names adorned the thick spines of leading academic textbooks – before deigning to serve at the pleasure of the President. Faced with this threat to their professional reputations, many muttered about the present growth having nothing to do with New Classical, New Keynesian or Market Monetarism economics, and much more to do with a type of bastardized Communism. Yet the stats never lied, and the numbers were good, even great.

Two of the more enterprising economists had co-written a paper tentatively titled Meekesian Capitalism: The New Benchmark?, although they had recently fallen out over the inclusion of the question mark in the title (the more senior gentleman feeling that it robbed the paper of gravitas, and made it seem less like a statement of hard facts; the younger of the two hoped the debate invited by the question mark would help raise his media profile so he need no longer co-author papers with fuddy-duddies, and maybe even get tenure at a better-paid university).

As ever, the economists, like modern-day soothsayers, knew how to survive and stay close to the power base, nodding sagely like reeds in the wind: plentiful, bland, and crucially unthreatening.

 

The same could not be said for the Department Secretaries, appointed by Meeke so as to forcibly align them with him, removing their potential threat if left outside his Administration.

Aligned or not, the Secretaries had begun holding these secret councils, huddled around a table in the dark basement, bathed in a pool of cold light from a flickering fluorescent tube overhead. Prima facie, the temperamental splutterings from the cafeteria’s coffee machine were the reason for such an assemblage of political talent: the searingly ambitious Education Secretary Lewis Huffman; Energy Secretary Poe, the President’s jilted lover; Attorney General Michelle Lopez, with rumors of a two hundred million dollar SuperPAC already preparing for a tilt at the White House next time out; hawkish Treasury Secretary Joe Lofter; and Veterans Affairs Secretary Mitch Reaper, who had a nose for a coup in the making, and just “wandered in” on the unscheduled Secretary pow-wow one afternoon.

Poe’s aide Geena dutifully headed towards the corner where staffers took turns on an exercise bike hooked up to a battery, in order to keep phones alive and the lights on.

Poe took in the tragic scene before taking a seat at the table. Each Secretary clutched tight their telecommunications talisman: one bleep from the phone – whether it was POTUS or the NSA – and their prestige and power would be restored.

High on caffeine and their own self-importance, the Secretaries’ theme of conversation began to coalesce about a certain delicate topic, the real reason they had gathered there today: power, and how to regain it.

Naturally, the tall and blandsome Education Secretary Huffman led proceedings. ‘What I know is this,’ he said. ‘If we leave Meeke in charge, democracy will not survive.’

‘Look,’ said Carrie Poe. ‘I know Paul as well as anyone, and–’

The others Secretaries snickered.

‘Oh shut it, Lopez!’ said Poe. ‘Like you haven’t screwed your way through half of California!’

The Attorney General was not amused at the slight, but Poe was unconcerned. ‘Look,’ she continued, ‘this downsizing of our departments, this is not led by him. He doesn’t have the balls for that–’

Further legitimate laughing, and a wahoo! from the Education Secretary.

‘Oh screw you, Huffman… I mean it, you guys,’ said the Energy Secretary. ‘This is coming from the NSA. That is undemocratic, and it is in defiance of our Constitution.’

‘Well then,’ said Lopez, ‘it’s pretty clear what we’ve got to do.’

Veteran Affairs Secretary Reaper, arms dangling as he leaned back on two legs of his chair, was intrigued. ‘So what exactly are you suggesting, Ms Lopez?’

‘I’m saying,’ said Lopez, a little less confident, ‘that… well, dammit, what I’m saying is that to ensure self-governance not just for our generation, but for all generations…’

Reaper’s chair came down on all four legs softly and he leaned in, watching the Attorney General intently.

Michelle Lopez glanced around the table, chewing her bottom lip. ‘Well, dammit,’ she said, her voice dropping to a whisper, ‘we gotta depose the President.’

‘My, my,’ said Reaper. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, seems like we might have ourselves a coup.’ He rubbed his hands together and gave a faint smile.

The Secretaries fell silent in contemplation, until Huffman broke the silence with his newfound soundbite. ‘If we leave the President in charge,’ he said, ‘democracy itself will not survive.’

Lopez looked at him as at another mother’s dull and noisy brat. Huffman ignored her disdain, as Mitch Reaper started in on his favorite topic: “regime change” in unmentionable countries.

Clearing his throat, Huffman pushed his chair back with a loud scrape, and shoved out through the staffers who had clustered in around the Secretaries, like penguins seeking warmth in the Antarctic.

The Education Secretary then turned back to Secretary Poe, to deliberately interrupt Reaper’s speechifying.

‘Carrie, get you a coffee?’ called Huffman.

‘I’m sorry?’

‘Coffee! You want one?’

‘No, I’m good, thanks,’ she replied, a confused expression on her face.

‘Cuppa joe, Joe?’ asked Huffman of the Treasury Secretary.

‘No thanks,’ came the curt reply.

‘Black, no sugar,’ said Attorney General Lopez.

‘Gotcha!’ said Huffman with a wink, leaving the befuddled Reaper to figure out where he had been going with his segue into Honduran politics.

Huffman ambled over to their sole remaining source of caffeine in the building and frowned at the little red Low Supply button blinking on and off.

He slammed the side of the machine.

‘Goddamn NSA!’ he said. ‘What next? They going to pull the goddamn coffee from us now?’

He pushed the latte button in hope. The machine strained and cranked, but mercifully produced enough foamy coffee for one cup. Trying again, a meager dribble sniveled from the nozzle, and Huffman didn’t pursue the matter too aggressively.

He returned to the table and shrugged across it at Michelle Lopez, as if to say “What can I do?”.

Another little battle won, he smirked to himself, and daydreamed about opening the Huffman Presidential Library in Union City, Tennessee.

act III: hostility

(some months later)

Chapter 27

In medias 8K hi-res

 

May 12, 2018

 

‘Dammit, Smugh!’ said the General, slamming his fist into the newspapers spread across the desk. ‘Why aren’t they saying what we want them to?’

Press coverage of the NSA had taken a turn for the worse. A far cry from the heroic Man of the Year stuff of mere months ago, even the New York Times had taken a step back from breathless positive coverage of the NSA success story to give some column inches over to their investigative journalists.

‘Fatigue, sir,’ said Smugh.

‘Fatigue? Our men?’

‘The public, sir… they’re tired of the relentless “good news stories”… all the jobs, the growth–’

‘The ungrateful bastards,’ interjected the General bitterly.

‘Indeed, sir,’ said Smugh.

‘So what do they want?’

‘Well, something “new”, sir. It is called the news, after all.’

The General grunted and mulled this over. His eye fell to the newsprint once more. ‘Another attack…?’

‘No, sir,’ said Smugh hastily. ‘We can’t.’

 

They had overplayed their hand in that respect. After Dawn Raid, a further sequence of foiled terror attacks had taken place, each one reaching ever more… artistic … levels.

The most recent one, scripted in a hurry, had seen the General rescue reporter Carla Keen, who it transpired was actually his long-lost daughter, from an evil terrorist group on a boat full of explosives headed for New York City. A further plot complication was introduced with the realization that the ship also contained orphans and medical supplies needed for sick children, as well as the woman the General had once loved. The trouble was, the people had grown numb to terror on tv.

‘What do you mean, we can’t?’ asked the General.

‘We’re all out of terrorists, for one thing, sir,’ said Smugh with a shrug.

‘We can’t be – that supermax prison in Colorado?’

‘I’m afraid we tried it, sir, but our explosives team overcooked the break-in.’

‘We’ve lost it?’

Smugh sighed. ‘Yessir, the entire place went up in smoke.’

With it, they both knew, went any chance of a reprise of the General’s nation-saving exploits. Though he would never admit as much to anyone, Smugh was relieved.

Internet critics had universally panned his last effort, and the general public had been decidedly cool on it, finding the plot hard to understand and confused by the romantic element. Done mostly using bluescreen shots, hurried and poor quality CGI had also lent an amateurish quality to it, and two consecutive directors had had to be fired off the set by Smugh.

Worse still, parodies had begun to appear on YouTube. Luckily, the General’s techphobia meant he hadn’t seen these, but they had begun to impact the public perception of the NSA’s sterling work.

‘I see, Smugh. These are grave times, I needn’t tell you. We can’t have the media turning on us.’

‘No sir,’ said Smugh. ‘It’s just these investigative journalists, sir. They’re muddying the waters, leaking things from Senator Bi–’

‘Bigsley!’ said the General, letting fly a kick against his desk. ‘Damn her and damn her Hearing, Smugh.’

The Senate’s anti-NSA Hearing – though yet to begin – was already a source of numerous negative leaks to the press, despite Smugh’s attempts to curry favor.

‘It’s these old newshounds,’ he said. ‘They want to find stories themselves. They just won’t print what we tell them.’

‘Free-thinkers,’ said the General, somehow making it sound like a swearword.

‘We need someone on the inside,’ said Smugh. ‘I may know a guy, sir. A hack journo. A lot of experience, he knows how they think, though he’s been out of commission for a while.’

‘Go on…’

‘Well, he might be able to lean on his contacts, freshen up the tired old stories, cajole the media into giving the NSA reports new vigor.’

The General pondered this, pulling at his lip as he stewed over the less-than-ebullient headlines.

‘Okay, Smugh.’ he said. ‘I want to meet this guy.’

‘I’ll set it up right away, sir.’

Smugh stood to leave.

‘Wait,’ said the General. ‘That other news story, Smugh. The one calling me a … what was it?’

He gestured impatiently at his deputy’s laptop. ‘It’s in there, dammit!’

‘Ah, the Huff Post piece…?’ Smugh sat back down and pulled up the page on his laptop. ‘The new NSA Director,’ he read, ‘represents a clear danger to the democratic process, and–’

‘Outrageous!’ said the indignant leader. ‘I mean, dammit, Smugh, no one is more patriotic than me.’

Smugh nodded vigorously. ‘I’ll see what the Constitutional Lawyers Unit can come up with, sir.’

‘Who’s behind this? The President? That woman?’

‘We can’t tell, sir.’

Smugh scanned the article once more. ‘It quotes unnamed sources,’ he said. ‘We’re monitoring all the journalists, but we haven’t been able to figure out who this guy’s source is.’

‘Well put the squeeze on or spread the money around, Smugh. It can’t be that difficult. Trace the paper, or the ink.’

‘But, sir, it’s not printed–’

‘Handwritten? Better yet; a bunch of amateurs. One of the Feds.’

‘No sir, it’s… it’s on the internet, sir.’

Sickly-sweet silence permeated the air. The General’s love for America was perhaps only matched by his loathing of the internet.

‘We have traced the address to Washington, sir,’ continued Smugh, ‘only it’s not a physical address, it’s an IP address, like we discussed.’

‘Okay Smugh,’ said the General quietly. ‘Good work, you may go.’

Smugh shut the door softly after him, as the General mashed his palm against his forehead. This goddamn internet, he thought. It will be the death of me. How could something be everywhere and nowhere at once? It just made no sense.

 

‘Who owns this damn thing?’ he had asked Smugh, not long after he’d taken charge.

‘The internet? Well, sir, no one does.’

‘Nonsense, Smugh. This is no time for kidding around.’

‘No sir, really. No one person owns it.’

‘Ah, I see. So it’s a corporation. Good, we can partner with them.’

‘No, sir, it’s… it’s like everyone owns it, like a country.’

‘So it’s a nation.’

‘Sir, it’s… it’s actually very complex.’

‘You don’t think I can grasp complex information, Smugh?’ said the General.

‘No sir, it’s not that at all, sir. I respect your intelligence more than anyone’s.’

The General had no reason to disbelieve Smugh in that sentiment. Nor was the man lying about the internet.

It was seemingly spread thick across the globe, reaching in to every little village in the world, like a virus threatening to wipe out humanity. The General couldn’t follow the half of what Smugh attempted to explain with sketches and diagrams – IP addresses, servers, fractional information, data packets, DHCP servers, Subnet masks, lease time, WLAN, SSID

‘Can’t we just stop this thing, Smugh?’

‘No, sir, I’m afraid no one can. But because no one can, sir, it is accepted as benign.’

‘Like a tumor.’

‘I don’t know if I’d call it that,’ said Smugh, then reflected. ‘Actually, sir,’ he said, nodding, ‘with the growth patterns and linkages between… yes, sir, I suppose you could call it that.’

‘Smugh, if we can’t kill it, we must control it. People could write things, unAmerican things, contrary to the nation’s interests, on this internet.’

 

Smugh had continued to make sporadic efforts to improve the General’s technical knowledge of the internet, with little success. Still, though he understood little of what Smugh explained, the NSA Director was comforted by the knowledge that he was in charge of the computers. Even if he didn’t quite grasp what it was they actually did, so long as he had control of them, he could do the only thing that mattered to him: protect the nation against terrorists.

Chapter 28

Strage degli Innocenti

 

Smugh spent the night trawling seedy bars across Washington to find someone who could get word to somebody who knew someone who might know the whereabouts of Smugh’s onetime friend, Hoodwinkl.

It concerned Smugh that such effort was required to find Hoodwinkl, and that his afternoon accessing the NSA’s vast database had been so fruitless. After all, Hoodwinkl had merely wound up on the wrong side of the tracks, not attempted to cover them.

Nonetheless, by the following morning, Smugh had reconnected with Hoodwinkl and arranged a meeting. Riding the subway towards work, Smugh slouched in a seat, mulling over the NSA’s transformation, and his part in it. Smugh disliked change for change’s sake. He wasn’t even sure he liked change for necessity’s sake, yet he had been instrumental in the NSA’s (and the nation’s) metamorphosis since the General’s appointment scarcely eighteen months ago. Necessary, unquestionably, but so much change, so much growth!

He was desperate to call a halt to the relentless expansion, but for a variety of reasons, it was impossible.

For one thing, the organization was under attack. It wasn’t possible to blaze a trail like the NSA had done without making enemies on the Hill and elsewhere. When hounded by foes, the only way is forward, as fast as possible. That was what the NSA had done: relentless forward momentum. To stop and take stock was to be set upon and mauled by the hordes at your heels. That was simply the mantra for survival in the technological era.

Smugh crossed the busy street, eyes darting about the buildings.

Now at last, he felt, they were reaching a point where their hegemony was guaranteed. Like ivy on a venerable old brick wall, the NSA had forced its roots and tendrils into every fissure and crack of American governance; to tear the ivy down would bring the wall with it.

Smugh entered the NSA headquarters and took the elevator up.

Despite that, he remained determined that – once the threat from Bigsley’s witchhunt receded – the NSA must unwind its position. Over an extended period, they would disentangle from the economy, so that they could better focus on their raison d’être.

All they wanted was to be allowed carry out their jobs in peace, yet busybodies just would not let them be. Too much energy had to be wasted fighting the enemy within, with its many well-intentioned faces: investigative journalists, government bodies, and lobby groups unaligned with the Agency’s goals. All sought to weaken the Agency through whatever means they could. Embarrassing leaks, false information, state or federal legislative methods…

Smugh nodded to the secretaries before opening the manually-operated door to his office.

As a result, the NSA had been forced to act. Pressed into a role in the economy, pressured into delivering growth, thrust from the shadows into the limelight. Beyond that dazzling glare were countless eyes, all watching for a mistake. With the media cooling in their affections, playing it safe was key to the coming months, until Bigsley’s Hearing was through.

There had been some near misses, of course. Barely-contained disasters like the failed movie franchise, or the General’s attempt to put the bearded foreigner Santa Claus on a no-fly watchlist. But all in all, they had made it this far. A little longer, and everything could return to how it had been.

After putting his briefcase on his desk, Smugh knocked at the General’s door before entering.

The room was thick with cigar smoke. Through stinging eyes, Smugh made out the NSA Director in his chair, inclined in an unfamiliarly relaxed manner.

‘Ah, Smugh,’ said the General. ‘What have you got for me?’

‘That meeting is arranged for this afternoon, sir,’ said Smugh, groping his way to a chair.

‘What meeting is that?’ said the General, genially puffing away.

‘With the journalist I mentioned. For the media battle.’

The General grunted remembrance of this.

‘You seem elated, sir.’

‘I am, Smugh. Every day is a great day when we eliminate a major terror threat.’

Smugh looked up. ‘What, a real one, sir?’

General Whiteley gave Smugh a funny look, and said guardedly: ‘Yes, Smugh, a real one.’

‘Sorry, sir, I just… I mean, I hadn’t heard, sir.’

‘Anderson uncovered it and coordinated the entire thing himself, Smugh. He’s a brave one, Smugh.’

Smugh made a face. Lieutenant Snowy Anderson was one of the General’s protégés, drafted in from the Army. Smugh’s review of his file revealed that Anderson had once thrown himself on an improvised explosive device to save the General’s life, earning the General’s unquestioning trust. The device had partially failed, sending Anderson flying against a wall. He suffered nothing worse than severe concussion, though his medical assessment noted that Anderson hadn’t been the same since (and perhaps hadn’t even been the same before, either). Anderson’s report card summarized him as “courageous albeit impetuous.” Perhaps an asset on the battlefields of the Middle East, thought Smugh, less so on the battleground of Middle America.

Worse, Anderson reported directly to the General, leaving Smugh out of the loop and unable to provide balance to the General’s own tendency to impetuous action. If any one thing proved to be the source of a screw-up, this arrangement was a prime candidate.

‘What was the plot, sir?’ he asked, suspicious.

‘Ah, you see, they were very cunning, Smugh,’ said the General. ‘Classic ragtop organization. Cell structure, on both coasts. Headquartered in Portland, cells across both coasts, particularly New York and California.’

Something sounds awry, thought Smugh. New York and terrorists went hand-in-hand. California? Much less likely. As for Portland? It was inconceivable, although – to give the enemy respect – it wasn’t an idea altogether without merit.

The General continued: ‘Bearded men, Smugh. Strange attire. Unemployed or deadbeat jobs. Clustered in non-traditional neighborhoods.’

‘That fits the profile, sir.’

‘Certainly does, Smugh. Anderson has the financial guys following the money trail already.’

‘Oh?’

‘Yes, some bankers, mostly family figures, much of the money in undeclared loans.’

Smugh instantly thought of the Islamic informal money transfer system. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Hawala!’

‘Bless you,’ said the General. ‘Tissue?’

‘No, thank you, sir.’ Smugh pushed his bottom lip out in thought. ‘It does all sound suspicious,’ he said, nodding.

‘Damn right it does, and unAmerican, Smugh. All those beards! I can’t think of anything that defines the American man better than a freshly shaved jaw.’

‘Were the cells linked to any known Islamic extremist organizations, sir?’

‘Anderson hasn’t figured that out yet,’ said the General, ‘but he will.’

He broke off to puff on the cigar and send another plume of victory smoke towards the ceiling. ‘Ah, it was beautifully coordinated, Smugh. Anderson filled me in on the details. As of oh-seven-hundred almost the entire network has been captured.’

‘Some escaped, sir?’

‘Don’t be alarmed, Smugh,’ said the General. ‘They’ve gone to ground, but our enhanced interrogation will shake those few apples from the tree in short order.’

Smugh breathed a sigh of relief.

Finally, he thought, the NSA is operating as it should be, for real, on home turf. The nation would be eternally grateful. As would the President. Actionable intelligence acted upon surgically, removing threats without the general public’s even being aware of it. A comforting presence in the shadows, the people’s guardian angel. The knot of tension in his stomach relaxed just a bit.

‘Congratulations, sir. It’s great news.’

‘It’s how our system works, Smugh,’ said the General. ‘Anderson has already pumped some for intel, and has added this terrorist organization to our nation’s watchlist.’

‘Oh? What are they called, sir?’

‘You know me and names, Smugh… Let me see if I can get it right.’ The General licked his lips and cleared his throat.

‘Hakh-astarrah, Smugh.’

‘Hakh-astarrah?!’

‘Something like that, maybe al-Hakh-astarrah?’

‘That doesn’t ring a bell,’ said Smugh, although alarm bells aplenty were going off inside his head. His confidence in Anderson’s fine work instantly dissolved, and his stomach cramped.

‘Wait! No,’ said the General. ‘I’ve got that wrong. Huh, hip, something like… hippies…? Hip-hop?’

‘Oh God, not hipsters, sir?!’

‘Hipsters! That’s the one! Sounds more like some crummy union to me, but there’s no doubt that we’ve got them. We arrested a bunch of an affiliated terrorist group in Brooklyn too, Smugh. These were dressed like women with curls.’

Smugh turned pale.

‘Yes,’ said the General, in agreement with Smugh’s look of shock. ‘Sounds even more ragtop to me, and not so different to these Hippers.’

‘Oh God,’ said Smugh feebly.

‘Yes, and Anderson told me they caught a whole bunch building bombs in the countryside in Pennsylvania, just in the nick of time.’

‘Bombs, sir?’ managed Smugh weakly.

‘Something like that, they had gathered a lot of fertilizer in agricultural sheds to prepare for the big blast. Anyhow, they fought back with pitchforks, so we shot the lot of them in one of their haybarns.’

Smugh dry-retched involuntarily. The General eyed his reaction.

‘Yes, unfortunate, Smugh, I know: we didn’t even get the chance to extract intelligence from them. That damn Anderson is too gung-ho… fine soldier, though.’

‘Oh God,’ said Smugh again. He fell back into a chair.

The General gazed at him.

‘Smugh, I too had my misgivings, but the threat level is at an all-time high. With the amount of fertilizer these guys had, it was clear a massive attack was in hand. No Smugh, we cannot and will not allow things to get out of control. These foreigners must be put down. America has always held its arms open to foreigners, and this is how these people repay us? With secret unions, rebellions? Never, I say. Not under my command.’

‘May I be excused, sir?’

Oblivious, the General waved him off. Smugh fled to the men’s toilets, locked himself into a stall, and shook with emotion. Oh, the humanity!

Those poor peaceful Amish, massacred in their own farmyards by grunts with guns. And the Hasidic – he had no doubt they had been the “affiliated terrorist group” in Brooklyn – more innocents hauled off the streets. Worst of all, a strategic blunder of massive proportions: the hipsters – America’s finest in many senses, cultivators of culture for (at least the young affluent white males of) the nation.

‘Pull yourself together,’ he admonished.

Pity and empathy were useless now. Time for a plan of action. It was too late to save the Amish, but perhaps some counter-order could be issued to prevent the deaths of the hipsters. America needed these plaid-clad dudes in order to promote Americanness abroad. The General might never comprehend hand-crafted denims, artisan coffees and low-crotch jeggings as weapons in the fight against terrorism, but Smugh knew they protected them just as much as the Army’s military might.

Unfortunately, the Hasidic, with their ringlet sideburns and dull wardrobe, offered little by comparison. Perhaps Smugh could use them as a bargaining chip to save the hipsters. In these dark times, impossible choices had to be made.

Smugh straightened himself and pushed out of the stall for the washhand basin.

‘Save the hipsters,’ he repeated, between splashes of cold water on his face. By the time he began patting his face dry, he had a plan in mind.

Beyond that, the NSA would need to gain control of the media narrative on the other “terrorists”, but that was no longer Smugh’s problem to solve alone.

‘Charlie Hoodwinkl,’ he said. ‘He’ll fix this.’

Nodding to himself, surer of the way forward, Smugh crumpled the paper towel in a ball and lobbed it towards the basket. The ball wobbled around the rim before falling into the basket, and Smugh smiled for the first time that day.

Chapter 29

Charlie Hoodwinkl

 

A thundershower brought early darkness to DC, washing tourists into cafes and museums, and heavy traffic onto the streets. Smugh and the General took a short ride across the rain-drenched downtown to the Willard Intercontinental, a perennially popular hotel for conducting backroom business.

From the car, they dashed inside to the quiet low-lit corner of the lobby set aside for them. There, they awaited Smugh’s acquaintance, Charles J Hoodwinkl, disgraced former journalist.

‘Hoodwinkl, Hoodwinkl, Hoodwinkl,’ said the General under his breath. Finally the name rang a bell, and his back straightened with a start.

‘Wait a minute, Smugh. This guy Hoodwinkl… wasn’t he the guy who…? What was it again?’

‘Well, he was framed, sir. The CIA.’

‘But he’s one of them. An investigative journalist. That traitor… Snowman?’

‘Snowden, sir.’

‘This guy’s on his side, Smugh.’

Was, sir, but he went bankrupt when he lost his appeal. Lost everything. Wife, kids, house.’

The General snorted dismissively and pushed back into his armchair.

‘He’s changed, sir. Desperate. Completely broke. He needs money badly. He needs a purpose.’

‘Dammit, we need someone we can trust, Smugh.’

‘We can, sir. Believe me. Charlie’s the smartest media man I know. If anyone can make this right, he can.’

‘Very well, Smugh. If what you say about the Hucksters is true, these are desperate times.’

Smugh nodded in agreement. Anderson’s misadventure had yet to reach the major networks, but it was only a matter of time, and when it did, it would bring down a torrent of hostility. Even optimistically, the best outcome would be damage minimization. With Bigsley and others waiting to pounce, they needed Hoodwinkl.

His eye caught the movement of a hesitant figure in a sodden raincoat at the front entrance. Looking up, Smugh made eye contact with the hunched figure, who immediately beelined for them, trailing water across the marble floor.

‘Here he is, sir,’ he said to the General in a low voice.

‘Look at him, the poor bastard,’ said the NSA Director, loud enough for the entire lobby to hear.

Smugh winced at this, as he stood to greet his acquaintance. ‘Hey Charlie, how are you?’

‘Oh, you know,’ said the unfortunate Hoodwinkl with a sigh. ‘Some days are better than others.’

‘Bah, never mind that,’ said the General brusquely, swallowing Hoodwinkl’s delicate hand in a vigorous shake. ‘Your country needs you, Charlie. We need you, a true patriot.’

Smugh offered a seat to the journalist as the General continued to contest ownership of Hoodwinkl’s hand.

With difficulty, Hoodwinkl released his damaged digits from the NSA Director’s grip, and removed himself to that part of the couch furthest from the General’s reach.

Hoodwinkl was down-at-heel, Smugh could see. A dated suit under the grubby raincoat. It was a long time since Smugh had set eyes on Charlie, but those years had been cruel. The journalist’s once-fine features had receded into a flushed and heavy face, his eyes weak. Clearly, teasing secrets from those working for important people had taken a lot of hard nights and even more hard liquor.

Still, thought Smugh, so long as Hoodwinkl’s mind was as sharp as it ever was, that was all that mattered.

‘The NSA seems to be doing just fine without me,’ said Hoodwinkl wryly, as he discreetly massaged his hand.

‘Threats swirl about our nation,’ said Smugh, ‘while a weak Administration and a clubfooted Congress do nothing but squabble like schoolkids, fighting a fight no one but themselves cares about.’

Hoodwinkl raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

‘Charlie,’ said Smugh, ‘the nation lacks leadership and is ignoring the warning signs. There’s a very real danger of being overrun by terrorists.’

Hoodwinkl’s brow creased up as the words tugged at his memory. ‘Wait,’ he said. ‘I’ve heard this before.’ He turned to the General. ‘Yes, you gave a speech, three weeks ago, announcing a base expansion in Dulles…’

Smugh snuck a glance at the General, who appeared impressed by this feat of recollection.

‘I don’t get it, though,’ said Hoodwinkl, turning back to Smugh. ‘Unless you want me to do an exposé on you guys…?’

He paused to allow someone to confirm this unlikely scenario.

‘Didn’t think so,’ he said. ‘So, where do I fit into all this?’

‘We need you to tell our story,’ said Smugh.

Hoodwinkl began to laugh, then, seeing that Smugh was serious, looked aghast.

‘Alfie, that’s impossible!’ he said.

‘Why so?’

‘My reputation, Alfie. My history. I have a body of work to consider, a Pulitzer, a–’

‘A mountain of debt, bills you can’t pay, and a family that has disowned you. And they took back the Pulitzer–’

‘Now just a goddamn minute!’ shouted Hoodwinkl, drawing his finger like a gun and waving it menacingly in Smugh’s direction.

Conversations about them fell silent, as others in the hotel’s lobby twisted in their chairs to identify the source of the disturbance. Hoodwinkl didn’t pay them any attention, though he at least tempered his tone.

‘Just a minute,’ he said, in a whisper. ‘The rest is true. Unfortunately… But this–’

He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a gold medal on a ribbon.

***

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NSA

It’s early 2017, and the United States is suffering a thin-skinned popularity-obsessed President and a sluggish economy. (Though this is a work of fiction, it just happens to be an astonishingly prescient one.) The USA’s woes are nothing, however, compared to those of the NSA, the nation’s surveillance specialists. Senator Carolyn Bigsley, a one-woman force of nature, is on the cusp of shuttering the rudderless intelligence agency for good. Until General Whiteley is appointed NSA Director, just as a series of terror attacks led by bearded men suddenly rocks the nation, and that’s when things start to get a little crazy. A conspiracy theory is uncovered, and seemingly everyone’s involved: the Amish, hipsters, wild-eyed Irishmen, and – worst of all – the CIA. And that's not to neglect a top-secret project called the Mirror. For fans of Douglas Adams, 1984 and Catch-22, this hilarious satire – scathingly critical of modern media and its alternative facts – will help make sense of an increasingly strange world, whilst providing the soothing rib-tickling balm we all need.

  • Author: Benny Neylon
  • Published: 2017-04-04 14:20:18
  • Words: 93528
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