“Many might go to heaven with half the labor they go to hell, if they would venture their industry the right way.”
The next couple of days passed in a flurry of activity. Edward spent most of it getting pulled away from what he felt was the more important work so that he could deal with the various contractors required to get the compound in Manassas functional again. John, Paul and Robert spent the time getting situated, making arrangements to buy some time away from their old lives, and starting to rub elbows and network with some of the Members of Congress who’s doors Avalon’s money was starting to open. Gretchen continued to support the three of them in their endevours, while Epihany supported Edward’s. West kept his ear to the ground, and attempted to locate his old friend, and former CIA contact, Major Jason Northville, but to no avail. If he was still around, West figured he was too far underground, and didn’t want to be found right now.
The morning finally arrived that Edward and Epiphany would attempt to leave the country for the first time since they’d come to the Government’s attention. Gretchen experienced no trouble making the arrangements, even using their real names, and Edward had notified the White House personally of his intentions. No one raised any objections. (Edward figured they might be happy to rid of him for a while.)
“Hey,” Epiphany started, “It’s just occurred to me: You haven’t told me anything about this person you intend to collect over in England.”
Edward gave a sarcastic frown. “I’d prefer to say ‘recruited.’”
“Oh, fine,” Epiphany answered in mock exasperation. “Who is he?”
Edward gave her A mischievous smile. “A brilliant scientist. He supports the Labour Party – that’s Britain’s answer to the Dem…”
“I know who the Labour Party is!” Epiphany shot back, slightly insulted.
“OK, OK!” Edward answered apologetically. “Anyway… brilliant guy. Even wrote a couple of best-sellers: About asto-physics, no less!”
“OK… but why are we going over there for him?”
“Because he’s dying. He’ll be dead in just a few months, in fact, according to the Tablet.”
“Do you have any idea how?”
“Well, considering he’s beaten the shit out of all the actuary tables, having lived with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis for the past half-century or so…”
“Wait a second… You’re talking about Henry Starling?!”
“Yes I am.”
“But… Wait… OK… Why, again?”
“Well… Aside from him merely being a brilliant mind that I don’t think the world can stand to lose… What?” He could he’d lost her already.
“He’s not actually the greatest scientist in the world, you know. Only the most well-known.”
“I know. I know. But the reason I want him is the same reason that you, and so many of his detractors, are quick to paint him as overrated.”
“His celebrity?” she asked, still not buying it.
“Exactly. Think about it for a moment. Let’s concede that he’s NOT the foremost physicist in the world, fine. Let’s say he’s not even in the top ten, OK? He’s still a brilliant man. But what sets him apart isn’t the extent of his brilliance, but rather his ability to communicate it to the public; to break down such complex ideas into a form that the average person finds palatable, interesting even. Can you name a more prominent physicist who’s written a best-seller about physics?”
Epiphany smirked at that challenge. “No. No, I can’t.”
“No, you can’t. Because anyone who even approached that level of genius is completely incomprehensible to the general public. And I not only want another Science Advisor – and one who’s an actual scientist, unlike Professor Todd – but someone with the ability to get the public interested in Science again, and for more than just practical application. I want school kids to look up at the sky in awe and wonder and have pages from ‘A Brief History of the Universe’ circling around in their heads instead of passages from Genesis. And who better to get the public consciousness shifted that way then they man who’s already done it, better than anyone else?”
“So this isn’t just hero worship?”
Edward smiled, but was interrupted by his cell phone before he could reply. The call was from an unidentified number.
“Shoot. Sorry, I think I have to take this.” He fingered the answer button. “This is Ed.”
“Do you know who this is?” Both the voice and greeting were familiar this time.
“I know who you are, Leon. What can I do for you?”
“You available for lunch?”
“Well… I’ve got a plane to catch this evening… unless you’re calling to tell me otherwise?”
The other man laughed. “No, no. That’s fine. I just want to take the opportunity, before you leave to patch things up from the other day… make sure we’re all on the same page, you understand?”
Something made Edward feel strangely about this, but he figured that it would be better to play along, at least for now. “Yeah, I get you. Where…?”
“Twelve O’Clock, Senate Cafeteria?”
“Yeah, that’ll work.” Their flight wasn’t until Six – plenty of time, assuming they would still be on it.
“Great see you then!”
Edward hung up and dialed West while firing up his laptop. The ever reliable operative answered strait away.
“West? It’s Eddie. I just got a call from Panetta inviting me to lunch. You know anything about it?” Edward inbox opened up just as West started to answer.
“Afraid not. I assume there’s something going on, but with the Major out of the loop, we’re without our most important intel asset.
Edward checked his email on his phone. No new mail in the inbox. On a whim, he opened the spam folder…
“Wait a second…” Edward said absently, as he clicked the last message. It came from what seemed like a randomly generated email address:
‘LP is a career-minded opportunist. He’ll bring help but he’s not a great threat at the moment. Bluff. Appeal to ambition; let him think he’s still in charge. You’ll do fine.’
He read it back to West. “Yeah, I don’t think the Major is as far underground as you think, West. Seems he knew about my lunch date before I did.”
A bit of silence from West. “Sorry about that. I’ve been searching for him for three days straight!”
“Well, if he’s still looking out for us, I wouldn’t worry about it. Seems like he’s passing on what he finds out. I’ll just have to be more careful about clear out the spam filter.”
“Never mind. Here’s what I’m thinking – You go ahead of me. Get a table off to the side, facing the wall or something. And take the tablet, just in case. I’ll mic up, and you can listen in. If you need to do anything…”
“You’re assuming I’ll have a name. We don’t know who he’s going with. They won’t be Secret Service.”
“I know, I know. Just do what you can. Maybe the Major will come through for us. We’re going to have to play this one by ear.”
“Will Epiphany be with you?”
“I… don’t think so. Not this time. Better to have more help on the outside. You know what? Change of plans: She’ll keep the tablet and you’ll relay info to her, based on what you see and hear. Make sense?”
“Not really, but it’s the best we can so on short notice. I’ll head over now.”
Edward arrived to find the Director already seated, and starting into his sandwich. Edward ordered quickly, as he was sitting down. Looking around, he could see no familiar faces, outside of West, who he hoped remained unnoticed by anyone else.
“Afternoon, Mister Carpenter. I’m glad you could make it. I didn’t really want to leave things the way they were. First of all, I wanted to let you know that we’ve released the other captive.”
“And does he bear a grudge?”
“No. We extended the offer to expatriate him and his family to the States, but he refused. In any case, he accepted our compensation, and seemed in good spirits as he left.”
“I’m glad to hear that. And I’ll be rather put out if I ever get a different version of that story.”
“I know, I know. And truth be told, when you name-dropped Iran and North Korea the other day, I have to admit that you piqued our interest.”
“I figured it would.”
“But… ‘Happy New Year?’ Mister Carpenter, really…”
“You can call me Edward.”
“Fine, Edward, really… You can’t threaten the President of the United States like that, not to mention admit to… well, to a damned, bloody massacre like that and not think there would be consequences.”
Edward hoped West was hearing this. “Go on.”
The Director leaned forward. “I have men here, just waiting for the order to kill you.”
Edward was not surprised by this, so it took no effort on his part to remain nonplussed. “I figured you would. But see… there’s a contradiction here. Let’s say you take me seriously. That explains the men, the threats, the bluster... But if I can really do what you think I can? And having seen what you think I’ve already done? Do you really think you’ll succeed? Are you really planning having a firefight right here in the Senate Café, mid-day in broad daylight? I don’t think so. My people are here too, Leon. And on the outside as well. And the fact is? Even if you assume I’ve done what you think I have…”
“What you’ve implied you have!”
“Either way… You have no proof. I’ll bet you don’t even have a hypothesis as to how it was done. Or how anything else would be. And if you did, I’d already be arrested and awaiting trial. The fact is? You’re flying blind here, in uncharted territory. You’re afraid of what I’m capable of, but you’re hoping I’m on your side, and yet there’s still a part of you that’s wondering if it’s all bullshit. Isn’t there? Of course, if you DO have men here ready to kill me… I can at least assume that a lack of faith of faith on your part will not be a problem.”
“’Happy New Year’ got our attention.”
“Look… It’s like I told the President: I’m not you’re enemy here. There’s no part of my ‘agenda’ that isn’t - or at least shouldn’t be – part of yours. I want Corporate money out of politics, I want Church and State to be kept separate, I want a news media that actually informs people, a public school system that actually educates them, and equal treatment and opportunity for all. I want a cleaner environment, action taken on Global Warming. I want the U.S. to regain its former position of moral authority, as a humane and principled nation that works towards peaceful coexistence, and the rule of law for all Nations – leading by example. Which is why I helped you out with your two terror suspects.”
“And, once again, I thank you for that!”
“Anytime. But here’s the thing… I’m a true believer. Words like Freedom and Liberty aren’t just politically marketable buzzwords to me. They’re my science, my philosophy and my religion. All that I’ve said? I will do anything in my power to bring about. And at this point I don’t think I have to spell out what that might mean. Now… if those are ideas that you merely pay lip service too? You would be wise to find me the most terrifying thing you’ve ever encountered. But if they are principles you actually believe in? If you think that this great country is made up of more than just borders and flags and is defended by more than just bullets and bombs? If you believe in the principles that actually made us great in the first place? Then, Mister Director, I am your man. We are on the same team, and I am far and away your best asset. All you have to ask yourself is whether or not you truly believe in America and its values. Are they just political selling points, nothing more that Bumper Stickers to you? Or do you neglect them out of fear – either that the public will abandon you for daring to do the moral thing, or perhaps that you think there really IS a terrorist under every bed. If you’re afraid? You needn’t be, with me on your team. But if you don’t believe that the principles I’m talking about are worth fighting for anyway? You should be very afraid, indeed.”
The Director leaned his chin on folded hands for a moment while he considered what Edward was saying. “So what do you propose, regarding Iran and North Korea.”
Edward smiled: He had him. “First of all I want you to understand, that I don’t care in the slightest whether the Government of Iran is ‘Pro-West’ or not. The thing is? I hate theocracies. Period. And that shouldn’t come as any surprise by now. And our problem with Iran, is really the same problem that the Iranian people have: They are under the heal of a brutal theocracy with one of the worst human rights records in the world. And THAT? Is something I would see changed, regardless of whether we benefit from it directly or not.”
The Director could hardly conceal his interest. “Go on.”
“See… Like I said, I actually BELIEVE in freedom and self-determination AND the separation of Church and State. So here’s what I propose: Go ahead and have you people do a little study. Give me a list of…” some quick math, “thirty-three people. People in the Government, in their Military and in the Guardian Council or the Clergy, who are the harshest, most steadfast obstacles to establishing a free, open and SCECULAR, Liberal Democracy in that Country. And THEN, you give me a list of people who would be the most outspoken critics of the current regime. People who would like to bring about the kind of freedom and self-determination, free of religious tyranny, for their country that I do. And don’t pull a fast one a just hand-pick a bunch of Pro-American puppets. I’m not looking for another Shah, and neither are they. The nascent Democratic Government MUST be made up of strong, competent people who can LEAD. You think you can do that?”
The Director looked confused. “Yeah, but…”
“Great. If you get me those lists, and give me some time to vet them? And the world’s greatest supporter of state-sponsored terrorism will not live out the new year.”
“They’ll declare war. You can’t just…”
“I won’t ‘just’ anything. Think of it as the outgoing people NAMING their successors. It will be legal, it will be peaceful, and it will be relatively bloodless… as far a regime changes go. You think something like that is worth keeping me around for?”
Suddenly the other man frowned, seeming to sour on the deal. “OK, if that’s all true… Then we can’t take any credit for it!”
“And that’s what you want? That’s what will make or break this deal? CREDIT?”
Seemingly shamed, the Director regained his composure. “Well, to an extent, YES.”
“You would choose your career over the safety of America and one of the greatest threats to global peace and stability? I wonder why I’m even bothering with you then.”
“OK, OK… Take it easy. Fair enough. You’re right. Anything we COULD take credit for, would likely result in War. So, fine. A peaceful transition. Assuming you can deliver. What do YOU want in exchange?”
“Just help me.”
“To do what?”
“To help you. To help this country. To help the world. We’re all on the same side here, after all.”
Another moment of silence. “And… North Korea?”
“A completely unacceptable situation there. A Government that is literally against every principle I hold dear. That dystopian society must be brought down. So… same deal really, except that instead of replacing the Government, unification with the South should be the goal. And THAT? Will take some assurances from the South that they are ready to take on the burden of repatriating all of those disaffected masses from the North. There will be a lot of people who will be slow to let go of the dogmatic propaganda they’ve been fed over the last half-century. And a lot of investment will be needed from the South, to re-educate and re-train them. Not to mention fixing infrastructure, building schools, businesses, etcetera… It’s a lot to ask, but I’m not going to take a bad situation and make it worse. Or make it only marginally better, but now be directly responsible for their only slightly decreased suffering. So… first things first. Maybe after this country starts moving in the right direction again, and Iran gets turned around, their Government will be ready to listen to my offer, and make a commitment. I think that’s reasonable, don’t you?”
The Director smiled. “Well… Considering the absurdity of what we’re talking about, NO.”
Edward stared back. “But if you didn’t think it possible, we wouldn’t be talking right now.”
“That’s correct. So for now… why don’t we call this a productive meeting, and I’ll work on drawing up that list. You want one for North Korea as well?”
“Sure, why not. It might save time later on. Only, make it Sixty-Seven people long, and don’t worry about the replacements. Assuming the South is committed to making reunification work, democracy and self-determination should guide them.”
Edward found the Director’s smile to be unnerving. While both men knew they were talking about murder on a mass scale, Edward viewed this as a necessary evil at best, and something to be avoided if another opportunity presented itself. The other man’s enthusiasm gave Edward the feeling that he couldn’t wait to get started. And as hypocritical as it may be, Edward found this trait despicable. Nevertheless, he had other plans that were not yet revealed. And if this was the bait with which they would take the hook? That was fine with him.
“I can do that,” Panetta finally answered.
“Great. Then we should be back in about two weeks, and I look forward to seeing what you draw up.”
The two men shook hands and parted ways. West waited another hour before departing himself.
Edward and Epiphany checked in with Gretchen and the others, leaving their itinerary, before heading over to the Airport with West. The meeting with Panetta had left a bad taste in Edward’s mouth. It wasn’t so much that the other man seemed willing to have people killed – Edward could hardly criticize someone for that at this point – but that he seemed so eager about it. His constant smile haunted Edward’s memories, as if every soul in the balance was no more that something to pad his resume with.
Was this what Edward was destined to become? He had a hard time believing that, as there was no point that he could recall in the execution of their plan that Edward remembered feeling happy about it. Relieved, perhaps. Resigned, most definitely. But never gleeful.
“Did you mean what you said? About Iran and North Korea?” West inquired as he drove, pulling Edward out of his introspection.
“I DID. But I intend to put it off as long as possible; get as much as I can from them in the meantime. I figure that as long as they still think I can deliver, they’ll go a long way towards giving me what I want. Especially Panetta. It was almost unseemly the way he was looking at me as I laid out the proposal.”
“Fear and ambition, you said.”
“Yep. And that’s going to go a long way here.”
“Seems like you could give the President a few points in negotiating strategy!” Epiphany chimed in.
“The fact that I’d have to is a large part of the reason we’re IN this mess!” The three shared a laugh at that. “And listen: For now, let’s just keep that bit between ourselves. The others aren’t ready to hear it yet. And, like I said, there are other things I want to accomplish first. I’d hate for THEM to think this is a policy priority for me.”
“Fair enough,” West agreed. “You sure you don’t want me to come along?”
“Positive. Stay here, keep an eye on things and keep in touch.”
“I can assure you that I will do all I can.”