Assumptions are dangerous things
― Agatha Christie, The Thirteen Problems
Cecilia arrived at the Pentagon at not quite 3 PM. The room full of people was already chaotic, with everyone speaking at the same time. When she entered the Secretary’s Conference room, it was clear Secretary Morrison was trying to listen to three simultaneous conversations, and was having little success at it. Finally, she tapped on the table and asked for everyone to stop talking. The room grew silent, except for a random cough and slight buzz toward the back with two guys that just had to finish what one of them was saying. The Secretary glared at them, and they finally got the message.
“We are gathered here to discuss the situation regarding mining helium-3 on the moon by the Chinese. The article in the Wall Street Journal…” at this point the Secretary picked up that day’s newspaper…”this appears to be a credible threat, provided by an anonymous leak within the Chinese government. The newspaper reporter would not reveal the identity of the source, in fact stating that they were contacted via their computer with just a voice speaking to them. Subsequent to their conversation, the leak provided some documentation to support their allegations. Based on that information, I think we have no choice but to treat this as a serious threat, and plan accordingly.” The Secretary picked up a glass from the table and took a sip. “The New York Times has provided me with an advance copy of an editorial they intend to run tomorrow, denouncing the Chinese government, and urging swift action against them. It will strongly suggest that if swift diplomacy does not work to convince the Chinese to share their new-found energy wealth, then there needs to be military action.”
Everyone in the room was silent for a moment. Then, as before, everyone started talking at once. Colonel Oates looked at Cecilia, and with raised eyebrows, inquired of her if she had something to say to the group. Cecilia weighed whether or not to share her conversation with Ishmael, but finally decided she would tell the group about her conversation. Cecilia glanced at the Secretary, and nodded for her to call the group back to order.
The Secretary spoke loudly above the droning voices. “Dr. Vasquez, did you have something to share with the group?” Everyone turned their heads left and right, trying to figure out who the Secretary had recognized. The group looked at the Secretary, to see that she was looking directly at Cecilia. They all turned to see what she had to say. “I have also been contacted by this leak from the Chinese military. But the leaker is not Chinese, and he’s not part of the military. He identified himself only as Ishmael, and told me he was a hacker, hired by the Chinese military to protect their space agency’s interests against Russian hackers. He told me the same story, apparently, that he’d told the reporter from the Wall Street Journal. He said that there was a secret base on the dark side of the moon called Laohu, where they were mining helium-3. The rocket base receiving this material was at Harbin. I think it’s possible that the issue we resolved last month between the Russians and Chinese may have been used as a cover by both countries. And it’s possible we had the aggressor and defender mixed up.”
There was silence for a few moments in the room, and then it descended for a third time into chaos. Since Cecilia did not know anyone around the table, she could not identify anyone speaking. So to buy herself some time to think, she asked the Secretary, “Could we go around the room and have everyone introduce themselves?” The Secretary nodded. She turned to her left, and an individual identified himself as Lieutenant Colonel Samms. The rest of the individuals in the room introduced themselves, but it seemed clear this Lieutenant Colonel Samms seemed to be dominating the conversation, sitting to the Secretary’s immediate left. The Colonel asked Cecilia, “What did you say your name was, and tell me again why you’re here participating in this classified conversation?” Cecilia introduced herself, and said she was there because she’d been invited by Colonal Oates to participate. The Secretary was silent. Colonel Samms said, “And this conversation you had with this leak – where did this take place?” Cecilia replied, “It appears he contacted me in a very similar fashion to the way he contacted the Wall Street Journal reporter – via voice through my laptop at home.” Now it was becoming a conversation only between the Colonel and Cecilia, with the Colonel acting as though he were interrogating her. “And why may I ask would this leak choose you to confide in, even before he went to the press? Did you encourage him to go to the press?” Cecilia could sense his tone was becoming ugly. She looked steadily at the Colonel, pausing before she answered his two questions. She replied, “First, Colonel Samms, I resent your tone in this matter. I did not nor do I know this individual, who calls himself Ishmael. I am a research professor working on a project to develop terraforming techniques on Mars. And no, I did not encourage the leak to go to the press, because our conversation was abruptly terminated.”
The Colonel wasn’t fazed by her statements. He continued with his interrogation. “Did you terminate the conversation?” Cecilia said, “No, the termination was on his end.” The Colonel asked, “Did he share anything with you that he did not share with the reporter?” Cecilia repeated as close to verbatim as she could recall Ishmael’s last statement about becoming so distressed he left Harbin and holed up in his apartment in Beijing for a week. As she finished speaking, the Secretary spoke up. “Thank you, Professor Vasquez for sharing that information with us. It was most helpful.” Cecilia glanced at Colonel Samms, but he was talking to man to his left, apparently his aide. The aide quickly left the room. Cecilia had a creeping feeling that he’d been sent to see what information was available about her. But she quickly dismissed the thought as just a heightened sense of paranoia, in reaction to his tone and approach in their conversation.
The Secretary said, “Has anyone else here been contacted by anyone about this situation?” All heads turned sideways, indicating there’d been no other contact. Finally, Colonel Samms cleared his throat, and said “It appears that we have a most serious situation at hand. I recommend we work together on a press release, assuring everyone in the country – hell, in the world for that matter – that we are not going to take this action by the Chinese lying down.” He turned to the Secretary. “Can we get our spy satellites to focus on this area in Harbin to see exactly what’s going on? We also need to get a drone in the air to get a closer look. It appears we’re with the Russians on this one. And what about the Middle East? The entire economy of half a dozen countries there relies on a stable price of oil. If the Chinese have perfected this fusion energy and have the fuel to make it work, those countries will be bankrupt in a matter of weeks. What little stability we have achieved there will be completely gone. We need to act, and act now before it’s too late.”
Cecilia could hear a voice in her ear, and hoped it wasn’t Ishmael. It was Emily. “Hey, Cecilia – ask that jerk Colonel how we know all this is real.” Cecilia could barely hear her, over the talking in the room. At the same time the room grew quiet, Cecilia said, “Did you say how do we know all this is real?” Colonel Samms said, “Did you say something, professor?” Cecilia looked up, embarrassed at finding herself in this awkward situation. But she thought, “Well, in for a penny, in for a pound – an old expression her Abuelo used to say. “I asked, how do we know all this is real? We have the word of a hacker – and a leaker at that. Have any of us seen this documentation the reporter allegedly has?” There was silence in the room. It gave the Secretary an opportunity to speak.
“Gentlemen, none of us were in our current positions 20 plus years ago, but I recall from history a similar situation regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We went to war over a situation that turned out to be false. With the actions recommended by Colonel Samms, we may be repeating the same path.” Colonel Samms quickly retorted, “With all due respect, Secretary, why in hell would the Chinese say they intended to share something ‘eventually'”…Colonel Samms made that annoying gesture with his fingers meant to representation quotation marks.. “if they didn’t actually have the material?” The Secretary looked calmly at Colonel Samms. “Why did Saddam Hussein say he had WMDs in 2003 when he didn’t?” The Colonel responded, “In that situation, a dictator was keeping his enemies at bay with that threat. The Chinese have no enemies to keep at bay. So I hardly think the analogy holds…with all due respect, Madam Secretary.” His final words were spoken with sarcasm, which made the others in the room clearly uncomfortable. Colonel Oates tried to jump in with words supportive of the Secretary, but it was clear there was a real challenge to her authority from this individual. Secretary Morrison closed the meeting with “I’ll brief the President. Thank you all for coming.”
The group got up, and noisily filed out. Secretary Morrison said, “Dr. Vasquez, could you hold on for a moment, please?” Cecilia waited until the last person left, and went with the Secretary into her office. As she walked through, the Secretary slammed her door. “That guy is an asshole, but more important, he’s dangerous. I know now how McNamara must have felt with General LeMay.” From her experiences in Russia and Cuba, Cecilia knew exactly what the Secretary was talking about. The Secretary sat behind her desk and looked at Cecilia. “Do you think you could communicate again with this Ishmael – try to find out what he’s really up to?” Cecilia said, “Yes, I think so,” and then in the next second wondered how she was going to pull that off. But every other time she was in a jam, Emily and the others were always there to help. Maybe it would be the same this time.