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Excerpt from The Whitemoon Crisis

Chapter 26

    The aircraft carrier U.S.S. Saratoga was twenty miles off the northeast coast of Florida, returning home to Mayport after six months of duty on the Mediterranean.  Below decks a good many crewmen, instead of jawing about their homecoming priorities, entered high gear and rushed to performed their duties.  Others however, moaned and bitched, a few violently, because they had just been informed they would not dock at Mayport as scheduled.  Games they thought, drills, Navy bullshit.  Instead the Sara had been ordered to hold off the coast and turned into the wind.  Her flight deck buzzed with action as she entered combat mode and aircraft were readied for launch.
     Lieutenant James Meredith, call sign Disco, young, medium height, fair-haired and not long out of the Academy, chewed his lower lip as he left the briefing room.  He was not alone in his tense anticipation of what would take place in the air over Jacksonville, a city of seven hundred thousand plus people and three naval installations.  This was the real deal, he thought, and it was difficult for him to believe that his first real action would take place over U.S. soil.
     The briefing was a shock, as cold and hard as the gray steel of the Sara herself.  They were not told everything, only the necessary data concerning the missiles and that they would be supported by ground action and radar.  The missiles were assumed to be configured for an air burst and may not be detected by radar in time for anti-missile defense due to the short range factor.  In a nutshell, each squadron, each pilot, would ride a tight circular razor blade around their designated area of protection and take immediate aggressive action without hesitation to destroy anything that flew.  Like a carousel, thought Meredith, or wagons in a circle waiting for the Indians to attack.  He could not have known the irony of his thoughts.

     On a high school football field two teenage boys were readying their homemade ultra-light motorized glider.  They were proud of their new machine.  It could take off and land on a dime and its swept wing design gave it an edge on speed without compromising maneuverability.
     The boys were gloating, eager and gutsy, ready to test fly this second machine.  Their first ultra-light did all it was designed to do but its pilot did a little too much and the machine was lost when the State Police impounded it after buzzing the Gator Bowl during the Florida/Georgia classic.  Now the boys snickered confidently as they prepared a revenge flight.  Indeed, they had even christened the aircraft Sweet Revenge.
     "I'm gonna' fly this sucker right over City Hall," the young pilot threatened proudly.
     "Right up the mayor's ass," his companion laughed.  "Now remember, get plenty of altitude then cut her off and glide her a while 'cause you ain't got enough gas to make it there and back."
     "No sweat, man" smiled the amateur pilot as he dawned his circa 1918 leather flight hat and goggles.  "Piece of cake."

     In flight less than an hour, Lieutenant James Meredith sweated nervously as he fingered the powerful hydraulics of the F-14 Tomcat.  Like other pilots in the Skybird Squadron he searched the sky intensely, his rear seat companion constantly checking the aircraft's radar.  And like the others, he had difficulty putting the questions out of his mind.  He was defending U.S. soil from missile attack.  Why?  Who?  If they succeeded in stopping them, what would happen next?  What if they couldn't stop them?  Could he live with the failure?  Would he live at all?  Survive the blast?  Were these missiles an advance to something else, that ultimate horror which had evolved over the years into something that no longer served the defense of a free world but instead dominated and threatened?  Has the no win scenario begun?
     He struggled to put all this aside.  Concentrate, he told himself.  Focus.  Do your job.  It's the Army/Navy game in Memorial Stadium on that cool fall day in beautiful old Annapolis.  The stadium is packed with dark blue uniforms and white hats.  They chant in unison as you do your part.  You're a halfback again, blocking, leading that power play that sends the fullback in for the winning touchdown.  Suddenly Meredith sees seven hundred thousand faces.  They line the streets of Jacksonville and stare up at him pleading, "Don't let us die, Jimmy boy!  Help us!  Protect us, Jimmy boy!  Don't let us die!"
     With his stomach twisting, tightening, he flashes to his girl.  She's down there somewhere doing what she does each day at the bank.  She must be thinking of him, probably even planning to get off early because she was going to meet him at Cecil Field when the squadron flew in ahead of the ship.  What was it she wanted to do tonight at that place on the water?  Now he remembered.  It was...
     "Radar contact!  Bogie, coordinates..."
     "I've got it!  Skybird Three to Skybird Leader.  I've got bogie.  Going down now," Meredith snapped as he rolled the Tomcat left.  The F-14's wings swept back and he felt the exciting surge of power as the aircraft moved to intercept.
     "Locking on bogie," Meredith stated mechanically.  Damn, he thought, it's inside.  It's inside the perimeter.  How the hell did it get inside?
     His target was not visible but it was there, miles away, beneath the clouds.
     "I've got him.  I've got a lock.  I've got him. Now!"  His heart raced as his own missile burned away from beneath him.
     As Meredith's missile sought out its target another F-14 soared in down through the clouds at a lower altitude to confirm the hit.
     "Oh shit!" came the squadron leader.  "Jesus Christ!"

     Above the St. Johns River the small engine purred steadily as the young pilot played his ultra-light left then right to take in the view.  He had just buzzed the Gator Bowl and set his sights on the big glass tower.  He used the wind, circling, soaring, his adrenalin surging.  He felt as though his lungs were going to burst as he breathed the fantasy of free flight.  Yeah, this is great!  This is better than sex, he thought, somehow forgetting he'd never had sex.  Barely touching the clouds now, he was about to cut the engine, bank left into a three-sixty then right and circle the towering glassy Independent Life Building, the tallest in the state, when he heard the deep cat-like scream of the F-14.  It came out of nowhere, powerful, impressive, steadily arching wide until it leveled toward him far in the distance.  Someday, thought the young delinquent flyer, I'm going to pilot one of those bad mothers.
     He angled the ultra-light for descent and at that same moment Meredith's missile shot through the clouds dead on target.  For all the boy knew, it was a shadow, a seagull, anything.  His eyes saw it but his mind never had time to identify it.  The explosion ripped the frail ultra-light and its pilot apart as easily as a stick of dynamite in a paper bag but with hardly enough debris to resemble confetti as it fell above the riverbank parking lot.
     On the upper levels of the nearby Independent Life Building, clean, quiet, stylish offices became chaotic as massive heavy plates of tinted glass shattered inward from the blast.  Pieces of missile and glass penetrated furniture, walls, computers, and of course, people.  Some screamed, some simply sat in amazement.  Those unlucky few who had the choice space with the scenic river view had been sliced like prime steak, their bodies separated, their eyes still open and minds still wondering.
     "Base, this is Skybird Leader.  Be advised, we have just killed civilian ultra-light.  Expect heavy damage to Independent Building.  Many friendly casualties probable."
     "Skybird Leader.  We copy.  Be advised, all flights maintain.  Repeat, all flights maintain."
     "Roger, Base.  That's affirmative," acknowledged the squadron leader.  "Disco, how goes it?"
     Meridith, having listened to Skybird Leader's dark assessment to base was frozen, his stomach turning.
     "James, my man.  You okay?"
     Meredith hesitated then finally responded, "Affirmative, Skybird Leader.  We... we're okay here."
     "Maintain status Skybirds," ordered the squadron leader.  "This party ain't over."

     In the Whitehouse situation room the reaction over the Jacksonville incident was matter of fact.  This was the second such incident in as many hours, the first taking place near San Diego when an Air force fighter took out a small civilian jet.  There were near incidents as well over Norfolk and Philadelphia.
     All civilian aircraft in these critical areas which just about included the entire east and west coasts had been notified and either grounded or diverted under various guises in order to avoid such incidents.  Some were simply escorted away without explanation.
    The Whitehouse war room reeked of anxiety as military brass and cabinet members paced the floor, listened to situation reports and monitored the large screen that seemed to give the pending crisis all the character of some elaborate fictitious video game.  Subordinates manipulated computer consoles, answered telephones and were already processing that data necessary for effective retaliation against whatever part of the globe was unfortunate enough to get sucked into the limited or unlimited exchange of destruction.
     Unlike the others, the President took the news differently as he prepared for a possible quick exit to a safer control situation on Air Force One.
     "Our defenses have been operative but a few hours and we're already killing civilians," stated the Secretary of Defense.  "This is going to get real messy when the media picks up on it."
     "Look at it this way, Jack," the President returned.  "Maybe they were democrats.  No, no, excuse me gentlemen.  I apologize.  That was in poor taste," he quickly conceded.
     "There'll be more such incidents if this drags out.  We'll rotate the aircraft but those boys are wired pretty tight," said the Secretary.
     "Wouldn't you be?" the President suggested.  "Hell, Jack, we're dealing with American air space here.  They're defending their own back yard.  Let's hope these incidents are the worst that happens.  And when this thing is over, if we succeed, I want the pilots involved in those incidents brought here to me.  I know the military and I know Capitol Hill.  I don't want those boys caught up in any aftermath bullshit witch hunt that'll ruin their careers and their lives.  They're doing what we trained them to do and what we asked them to do and doing it well.  Damn it, I'll personally assign them all to Air Force One if I have to."
     "What about the media?" the Secretary questioned.  "We're going to have to deal with them soon.  They know we're on alert and they're already banging down the doors."
     "They can eat it," returned the President.  "We have a job to do and we can't do it if we have to cater to the press.  If we tell the truth they'll blow it out of proportion, panic the whole damn country and screw up our defense 'efforts.  It's like inviting this Whitemoon character to the Whitehouse for a briefing.  If we feed them bits and pieces in an effort to control the situation they'll come up with all kinds of speculative crap.  Look what they did to Carter with the Iranian thing.  They had the poor guy so twisted he didn't know whether to fart or tinkle."
     "There'll be leaks and they'll be persistent," observed the Secretary.  "Like you said, this is U.S. air space.  You can't shoot people out of the sky and not be noticed.  Our coastal bases are closed tight, our military worldwide is jacked up.  Hell, it's not exactly a small covert operation."
     "Just let it go for a while.  If it starts to look bad then get me on the phone to all the media heavies.  If they won't put a hold on it for security and operational purposes then they'll suffer the consequences.  Hell, I'll padlock the press if I have too.  There's no justification in the freedom of the press if it jeopardizes the survival of the people.  It's just plain common sense.  Damn Jack, you know how I feel about this.  I refuse to let the media hold prominence in the decision process of this administration.  It hasn't yet and it isn't going to.  Especially not now.  Not in a crisis.  I'll not have some damn uninformed pin-head calling the shots on the tube like we're playing a fuckin' football game or something."
     "It could hurt you politically."
     "The only thing that can hurt me is me not doing my job.  If I have to cater to the press I have to neglect the duties of this office to do so.  The press will just have to wait.  They're people like the rest of this nation"s population.  What the hell good is the six o'clock news if its audience is dead and buried.  I don't want to talk about this any further, Jack.  When the time comes put John on the phone.  He knows what to do.  That's why he's my Press Secretary."  The President turned to John Crews who sat listening patiently from the far side of the room.  He continued, "John, if they won't sit on it until the time is right, well then, you let them know that I'll come down hard.  National security and all that."
     The President rose as if to emphasize his words, "The people have a right to know but they also have a right to live as well as know why things get screwed up.  And the media's no innocent party to national screw ups.  Hell this country has fought wars because of an ambitious greedy press but it won't hold prominence here.  Not today.  Even if it cost me a second term."  He settled himself as he moved across the room to study the big board.  He wasn't really angry but simply driving home the point, making things clear.  It was also his way of waiting, dealing with the stress.
     Everyone understood.  The media would not be mentioned again throughout the crisis.  Not even John Crews, the Press Secretary, would bring up the subject.  Instead he would take notes, keep a record of each action, each statement, each victory and each mistake.  When all was done, he would run it down with the President and unless something was compromising to the national security or simply in poor taste the press would get it all.  It was better that way, the President affirmed.  Less room for error and media manipulation.  The people get the whole picture, nothing's out of context, everything's in perspective and they can draw their own conclusions.
     Of course few of the President's people agreed with his media philosophy, however they had to tolerate it along with many other idealistic concepts of public service held by the Chief Executive.  After all, it somehow worked and it put them in the Whitehouse.  His staff, Commander Ramsey Lightner and the President most of all would later realize the true value and benefits of what was to become a need to know operation.
     "Now folks, since our military is obviously doing their job, let's do ours and start formulating some communications to keep the international situation in check.  I'm sure they've heard some rumbles by now and are getting a little antsy," came the President as he retrieved a legal pad and handed it to Alison Garner, the Secretary of State.  "Allison, I want your feedback on this.  I know it's short and doesn't answer all their questions but hell, I don't have time to play games with the Russians.  You know what I mean?"
     Allison Garner was a damn genius which is exactly why she was Secretary of State.  She never missed a trick, the President would say, she could deal with the big picture, focus on the small picture, was diplomatic, totally loyal, had total recall, and could rationalize a dirty pig in a white wedding dress.  What impressed the President most of all about her resume when he selected her for the job wasn't her sheepskins from Stanford and Harvard but the fact she helped pay for them by working summers as a smoke jumper in Oregon.  She was tough and everyone knew it.  In confidential circles the President was often fond of saying,  "Don't fuck with me.  I know Allison Garner."
     A quick read of the Presidents copy and Secretary Garner formulated her opinion.  "Considering the time element involved, Mr. President, I think it's quite to the point." she said.  "I couldn't have said it better myself unless I knew a Russian language phrase equal to shit or get off the pot."
     "My sentiments exactly," smiled the President.  "Now, get that off to the Russian Premier and then get down to business with our world neighbors on a need to know basis.  Can you imagine what the British will do with this?  I can hear it now; 'The Colonies still at war with the Indians.'  How embarrassing," he laughed then became exceptionally serious.  "I only hope we're all still here tomorrow to suffer such embarrassment.  And... I sincerely hope the Russian Premier is the man I judge him to be."