Randy Newgate learned shortly before 3 a.m. the attack on The Cottage was underway. He alerted Anthony Cromwell at The Cottage, Sean Seawell at Chesapeake and then beeped Geddes, slipped into some jeans and a mud-brown flannel shirt and hurried through the building to Geddes's apartment.
“Anonymous,” he told his boss, “Just now. Cottage.”
“Come in, Randy. Sit down. What the fuck's going on?” Geddes threw the covers off and sat up on the edge of the bed, groping for the switch on the nightstand lamp.
“No time, Al. They're attacking. We need to get down to my office. We can talk on the way.” Newgate reached out a hand to help his boss stand, but Geddes ignored it, pushing himself up and off the mattress on his own.
The two Olympic-walked down the corridor. Geddes's white terrycloth bathrobe flapping around the brisk long strides suggested a surgeon hurrying to an operating room, with only the slap of flip flops on the linoleum dispelling the illusion.
“Awright, who the fuck's attacking, and where?” he growled.
“Mexican drug cartel. Not sure which family. Feds hired them, no doubt. Plausible denial bullshit.” The forced march bounced Newgate's voice up and down like a boy's in puberty. Thus the “bull” came out basso and the “shit” tenor. Geddes turned his head to look at Newgate, but neither man laughed.
Em arrived at Newgate's office-cum-war-room before Newgate had finished tuning the monitors to connect them with satellite feeds providing live aerial views of the combat zone. By the time the screens revealed anything useful, Geddes had the coffee machine steaming and a row of cups lined up next to it.
“What do we have there? Drones? Robots? I don't see anything. Nothing's moving,” said Geddes, turning to the others after scanning the four flat screens and squinting closely at the flickering green images that transmitted infrared interpretations of heat-emitting objects.
“Hummingbirds,” said Em, barely audibly, as she rubbed sleep from her eyes with the back of a hand under hair still wild from the pillow.
Newgate took over: “Our source says about two dozen for sure. There could be twice that many, and we don't know what kind of equipment they have.”
“And all we have are three hummingbirds? That's some kinda drone, right? Helicopters?”
“Helicopters wouldn't last ten minutes up there," said Em. "These guys are sure to have missiles. They know what they're up against.”
“So these are hummingbirds. Mechanical ones. Same size. Look the same. Can't tell 'em from the real ones right in front of you. They're rigged just like the bigger drones, only everything's miniaturized. Same surveillance capability and a tiny computer heart that reads, interprets and executes according to how it's been programmed.
“We can call audibles from the ground, and can monitor them constantly, what they see and how they respond. But these little birdies do surprisingly well on their own.”
“The laser gun?”
“Again, same as the big birds, but proportionately sized. Same power, though, same capacity. I've put the new stun option in them, too. They'll be on stun until, or unless we need something more dramatic.”
Geddes was nodding his understanding as Em spoke. He waited for her to finish before offering a critical question: “You said we have only three?”
“Should be enough,” she said. She turned her head, nodded several times at the ghostly faces in the room's reflected green lighting, and turned back to the monitors. Although nothing appeared to be happening on the screens, Em's attention to them had become so intensely focused it created a psychic magnetic field, drawing the others in the room to try to see what she seemed to see.
A blip of lighter green appeared from the upper left corner of one of the screens and began a slow crawl across the top.
“What's that?” Newgate asked abruptly, breaking the trance despite his muted tone.
When no one else spoke, he started again, a little louder, ”That can't be a hummingbird...”
Em spoke without turning from the screens. “Decoy,” she tried to say, but managed only a whispery rasp. She tried again, this time putting out sounds that more resembled hoarse squeaks: “We have decoy drones to draw their fire. Help us locate their weapons.”
“Are they armed?” Geddes asked.
“They're not really drones, Al. That would cost too much. These are more like aluminum box kites. They're 'armed' with standard lasers, which are almost impossible to distinguish from the weapon-grade kind, until you see nothing happens when they touch something. Oh, they'll blind you if they zap your eyes, just like any laser will. So there's that.
“Also, these birds carry tanks of hydrogen gas, so when they're hit they put on quite a show.”
“I trust they'll be far enough from The Cottage when that happens, so no one on the ground's in danger,” Geddes said.
“That's the plan.”
“Do we have any kind of backup plan?”
“Sean has the troops in reserve, with the heavy armor. No stun feature in those yet. If he has to move in with them it'll be just like last time.” She said this last in a diminished voice that sounded almost timid.
Newgate: “So when does the show start, Em?”
Her eyes still locked on the monitors, she said, “The show, as you put it, started about five minutes ago.”
“What?” The exclamation erupted simultaneously from Geddes and Newgate. As one, they leaned toward the screens, faces tightening with the same intensity as hers.
Harry Trueblood squinted at the wall-size monitor screen through “binoculars” he'd made by curling the fingers of each hand. “Aren't there some special glasses for looking at this? All I see are different shades of green. Nothing seems to be moving.”
“There's nothing happening,” Bart Gladstone growled. “I mean, not like when we were watching that drone strike on the terrorists in Central Park last year, ya know?”
“They prolly wearin' some kinda heat-shieldin' fabric,” said Roger Chapman, who had rigged Joe Secord's office with the monitoring equipment after intercepting data that indicated a strike was imminent on the location they believed was The Cottage. The men had spent the night on cots in the West Wing. “You can see parts of the heads...see there? Like dots, where they not all covered. An' see those bright lines there? Those are lasers comin' from somethin' up above. Can't see where they comin' from. Li'l bitty drones prolly.”
“So are we gonna be able to tell if anybody gets hit or blows up or whatever?” asked Gladstone.
“Hey, you got me, Mr...ah, Bart. First time I seen a setup like this.”
“I mean I don't see any bright lines shootin' the other way, ya know? Our guys shootin' back, or what?”
Chapman shrugged and shook his head. “Good question, Mr. Bart. I guess we'll jist hafta hang out here and see what we can see.”
Trueblood tapped Gladstone's shoulder. “Our guys?”
“Figure of speech, Harry. I didn't send 'em, and you wouldn'ta sent 'em without me knowin', right? Unless you playin' the old DC deniability game. You ain't holdin' out on old Bart now are ya?” He allowed a wheezy chuckle.
Before Trueblood could respond, Gladstone continued, “So who are they? I had to guess I'd say WACKO. Mercenaries, probly. Throw 'em under the bus afterwards, most likely. Say they're drug dealers – hell, they probly are.”
“Bay of Pigs?”
“Say what, Harry?”
“Bay of Pigs. Sounds like the same setup. So if it is WACKO, and I agree with you, who else could it be, why all the drama with this Buford character? Why bother with us at all?”
“Yeah, I hear ya. We're just window dressing. We're supposed to stir up the savages, ya know. We did that. You did that, Harry, with the media shit. Now WACKO can do what WACKO does best.”
“What if they bungle this one like...Cuba? Are we the patsies?”
“Nah. How could that be? No fingerprints. We got denia...HOLY SHIT!!” A bright bud at the top of the screen that had begun expanding, slowly at first, suddenly blossomed into a blinding splotch that took up a good third of the screen. The eruption continued into fragments that arced out and down, followed by ragged, flaring chunks as the splotch itself came silently undone.
“What the...” Trueblood started, before Chapman cut him off.
“Yo! Chalk one up for the good guys! You see that Stinger shoot up and zap that bad boy?”
“Stinger. One o' them ground-to-air missile deals like they had in S'malia to shoot down them Black Hawks? Leastways that's prolly what it was. Di'nt you see that flash go up from the ground? And then OOOWEEE BOOM! Too bad we don't get sound with this setup, huh.”
Newgate switched off the monitors and made the secure connection with Cromwell at The Cottage. Geddes turned on the ceiling lights. Em leaned back in her chair and sighed, her face entertaining a smile that wavered between relief and triumph.
Cromwell's voice crackled from the phone speaker: “They're gone.”
“Who were they?” Geddes said.
“Don't know yet, sir...er, Al...Sean is checking the area.”
“No bodies? Prisoners?”
“Don't know yet.”
“How about us?”
“Yeah. Any injuries? Damage?”
“They never got close enough.”
“Our drones? They OK?”
“Oh, yes. Except for the decoy, of course. The birds are fine. Sitting here on my desk.”
“Thanks, Anthony,” Em squeaked.
“Sorry. Frog in my throat. Glad the birds are safe.”
“Uh...yes, ma'am...er, Em.”
Geddes broke the connection when the strains of Hail to the Chief burst from his cellphone. He stepped out of the room into the reception area. “Ruth,” he said softly into the device.
“What in hell's going on down there?”
“Where are you, Ruth?”
“With Edna. You didn't answer my question.”
“Somebody tried to take The Cottage. It's over. We're fine.”
“We need to talk.”
“This is secure, Ruth”
“Not on the phone. Is it safe to come there?”
“It will be. What's up?”
“Just this. The president wants to see me.”
“The one and only.”
“He say why?”
“Wants to talk. Face to face.”
“Talk? What about?”
“He wouldn't give me a clue, Al. He sounded...weird.”
“When has he not sounded weird?”
“Good point. Anyway, Joan and I will be down this afternoon.” She broke the connection.