A heavy March snow blanketed Washington DC, slowing traffic along East Capitol Street Avenue and obscuring the Washington Monument. The urgent whisper of the snow softened the hum of the city and roar of morning traffic to something more reverent. There was a weight to the snow, not only literally, but in what had proved a seemingly unending and brutal winter.
John Byars paused on the snow wetted marble steps to looked up over his shoulder at the towering pillars to the great dome of the neoclassical capitol building. A passionate servant to the nation he loved for better than four decades, Byars was ceaselessly awed by that auspicious and great building. He lit a cigarette before starting down the steps towards two black Chevy Suburbans waiting at the curb. Two security specialists, smart and a bit ominous in long black coats followed closely.
After 2 combat tours in Vietnam, and thirty-five years serving the agency in damn near ever war imaginable-and a few that weren’t-lesser men would have long ago retired. But Byars had settled comfortably into his new post as Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. There were those old yearnings for the life and excitement of the field, but that was the domain of younger men and a new generation of operatives.
He still held the athletic intensity of that inexperienced kid who stepped off an LCT at Cam Ranh Bay in 1968. The innocence of that boy was gone from the first round that cracked the air near his head in the A Shau valley. Despite the years he now held a position in which his biggest complaint was not the threat of imminent death, but whether the air temperature in his office was comfortable. He still cut a powerful and compact figure, and still maintained that familiar and dutiful army haircut.
Sam Harper stepped from the lead vehicle as Byars approached. He was an intense man in his mid-40s, a handpicked deputy to John Byars who’d seen duty as a Navy seal in practically every dirt hole on the planet. A veteran of Mogadishu back in ’94 Harper had distinguished himself in conflicts no one would ever hear about, just as Byars had done. Sam Harper had been deployed as part of the embassy security team in Libya after the fall of Muamar Gaddafi. Harper had stepped into the post seamlessly, easier than a pleased Byars might have thought. Though neither man mentioned it, the post was both a hiding place and a reward for Ben Ghazi and the Libyan war for Harper.
With a smart nod to Byars Harper held the door to the Suburban open.
“Director,” he said.
Byars smiled matter of fact, “I’m a glutton for punishment, Sam.”
“Comes with the job, sir.”
“How are we looking today, pal?” As Byars climbed into the vehicle.
“Well, sir,” said Harper, entering behind his boss, “we’re watching a new Russian build up along Ukraine’s eastern border…”
“I’m a bit nervous about what’s coming out of the State Department. Putin knows we won’t go to war in Ukraine.”
“Home court for the Russians.”
“What else?” asked Byars. Even with a capitol police escort, the Suburbans were making little progress through the snow and morning traffic.
“Nothing of immediate…uh, a jetliner out of Kuala Lumpur is reported missing as of about ninety minutes ago.”
“Any indications it’s something we should be concerned about?”
“Out of that region?” Harper replied. “There is always a concern. Oh, and you have a two o’clock with Senators Washburn and Peele.”
“When did that come up?”
“Just came up this morning while you were briefing the Intelligence committee. There wasn’t anything in your calendar. I can reschedule, although they let on that there was a certain urgency.”
Byars leaned back and rubbed his eyes. It was already becoming a long day. He dreaded the meeting. Washburn and Peele were hawks of the worst kind. Neither had served in the military. Their strategies and fears of foreign and domestic enemies had far less to do with true national priorities and had more to do with skewed, limited and ignorant intentions.
There was hardly a war that Byars had not become entangled with from Vietnam to Syria over the last half century. He understood and believed in the necessity of a robust military with the ability to compel intransigent world actors when diplomacy failed or wasn’t an option. Byars also understood that between nations that was a long and complex calculus. More than that, war was only too real to John Byars, bringing to mind men and women who’d died, at times in his own arms for abstracts that war hawks postured abstractly over. That simple understanding put him squarely at odds with men like Washburn and Peele.
Something had changed in American politics. Theater had become open warfare. Even as a soldier by trade Byars was keenly aware that a new generation of statists rather than statesmen had arisen to change the character of the national discourse. They turned political dialogue and respectable, even adamant debate from spirited disagreement to outright civil war. These ideologues and partisans, such as Senator’s Peele and Washburn , twisted by advocacy, corporatized and lawyered by media salesmen, turned opinion and perspective into bludgeons. And certainly that was nothing new. The collapse of faith and trust in sovereigns, empires and ideologies had marked the bloody upheavals throughout history. But America was supposed to be, as it was put so long ago, “the last best hope for mankind.” Instead it was proving itself deeply flawed and infinitely fallible. Byars could feel it. He could see it, and there wasn’t a damned thing he could do about it.
It was still snowing outside when Byars took a late morning conference call and briefing for security issues for the day. With his feet up on the desk and looking out at the snow he cradled a luke warm cup of coffee; a touch of cream and three sugars. There was a note pad and pencil on the desk, but the page was almost empty, with only the date and the word “briefing” scribbled at the top and underlined.
Much of it was the same. There was increased chatter by Al Qaeda affiliates in Iraq, which coincided with a wave of recent violence. Just ahead of the upcoming presidential elections in Afghanistan, a flimsy campaign had begun by the Taliban to affected the voting. More alarming was a sudden surge in acid attacks against women and girls, particularly in and around Kabul. Israeli and Palestinian security forces were in their usual tit for tat reprisals. Within that seemed an effort by the Israelis to draw in Iranian-backed Hezbollah from neighboring Lebanon as a means of exposing their networks. From the Asian desk, there were growing tensions between North and South Korea over a disputed island. As for the missing passenger jet out of Malaysia, there wasn’t any news, no claims of responsibility and no indication it was anything more than a tragic accident.
The biggest concern was a growing belligerence backed by Russia regarding the Ukrainian protests, which had taken on the imagery of the French Revolution in barricades and battles across the capitol, Kiev.
“We believe that Putin wants the Crimea,” said the woman who ran the Russian desk.
Byars scoffed. “He’s got a lease on the Sevastopol base. The Russians can come and go as they please. What does Moscow have to gain from a move that will clearly piss off the West and NATO?”
“The population there is predominantly Russian. I wouldn’t discount the abstract power of naked nationalism.”
“Recommendation?” asked Byars, taking a sip of his coffee.
“Well, we can’t not say something,” she replied. “If Russia takes Crimea that gives us leverage in several different directions.”
Byars thought for a moment and breathed heavily, “And the risk of civil war?”
“Letting Putin have Crimea lessons that possibility, but obviously there are quite a few wild cards here.”
“Yeah,” Byars nodded with a note of concern.
Wild cards indeed, but the world was about to take a serious turn for the wild. Indeed, it was about to take a turn for the bizarre, revealing a terrifying a hint at a future that endangered and threaten to bring down the very nation had fought, bled for and pledged his life to defend. It would lead him to the other side of the planet facing an enemy far more deadly, far more ruthless than any he’d ever encountered. Worst of all, unwittingly, it was an enemy he’d helped come to power.