Human intelligence, p.1
All Rights Reserved
Copyright © 2013 Klaus Marre
Wednesday, 10:13 am ET
ARLINGTON, Va. — The young man waited for the Metrobus to turn onto Crystal Drive and begin to build up speed. Then he removed his earphones.
He did this in a practiced, casually irritated way. It was the way all American kids his age did it: wrapping the cord around his iPod hurriedly, quick elegant flicks of the wrist, as if the whole process was an annoyance he wanted over with as quickly as possible. The earphones were top of the line, a sharp contrast to his old iPod, which the young man had no use for anymore after storing all his music on his phone a couple years ago. But phones can be tracked. So he destroyed his before he left his parents’ home in the morning.
The young man shoved the iPod into the breast pocket of his dress-shirt.
Hassan al-Zaid looked at his reflection in the window to his left; this struck him as a distinctly American custom: only pretending to look out the window, through it, but really considering one’s own reflection.
What he saw was a young, slender man whose dark features betrayed his Middle Eastern ancestry. Otherwise, he looked appropriately incognito. A recent UCLA grad, he could have passed as a high school senior. He didn’t visit bars, but had he done so, any bouncer worth his salt would have carefully scrutinized Hassan’s license.
Outside the bus’s windows Crystal Drive zipped by in a blur, all manicured lawns and office buildings.
It was time.
Hassan closed his eyes and offered a quick, silent prayer to Allah, trusting that his God would understand. He let out a deep breath — only then did he realize he’d been holding it this whole time — and pressed the red STOP button on the pole next to his seat, triggering a buzzing sound.
“Sorry, I think I'm on the wrong bus,” he said, to no one in particular, and a little too loudly. He stood up. His eyes darted to the surveillance camera above the front door. The driver reacted in kind, slowing the bus and coming to a stop near the curb. Hassan al-Zaid was heading for the rear door.
Patrons of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority are bombarded daily with reminders to look out for any unattended bags or packages — but none of the passengers seemed to have noticed that the young man had entered with a large black backpack and was leaving without one. The pack remained wedged below a row of seats.
The door opened with a hiss. Before stepping into the morning sun, Hassan al-Zaid's eyes swept across his fellow passengers. He knew that if everything went according to plan, they would all be dead in a few minutes.
He felt no remorse.
Hassan stepped onto the sidewalk and hurried in the direction from which the bus had come.
There was no turning back now.
The train had been holding for over a minute now just outside the Crystal City Metro station.
Stacey Harper rolled her eyes and exhaled, blowing some stray hairs from her face. She closed the textbook sitting in her lap, shutting it with a loud dull thud that echoed throughout the Metrorail train. Stacey sighed. It looked like she would be late again, this time because of a stupid hairdryer that wouldn’t work and, of course, the goddamned Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, known and cursed by those living in the nation’s capital as “the Metro.”
The loudspeaker crackled. Stacey leaned forward but couldn’t make out any of the words. Not that any of it mattered. The train lurched forward a few feet and stopped again.
She bit her lip and leaned back in the seat. Stacey never planned to be late, but it seemed she always was. Being more than a little scatterbrained, Stacey suffered from a short attention span and an apparent inability to remember when and where to be at any given moment. All of it had caused Amy, her best friend back in high school, to come up with the term Stacey Time. It translated, loosely, to “Eastern Time plus however long it takes to be late.”
Still, the force of Stacey’s personality had gotten her off the hook many times with family, friends and high school teachers. The only thing was — as she’d come to find out, painfully — college professors were less forgiving.
It was one of the reasons she was now headed for an economics class at Georgetown instead of starting a career, like most of her friends. A few missed deadlines and a semester abroad in Barcelona, during which Stacey had focused more on partying than studying, kept her from graduating. She had promised her parents, who were none too thrilled about an extra semester of Georgetown tuition, that she would try harder to be organized.
This morning she was failing.
Stacey had taken a later Blue Line train from Virginia into the District after a morning workout, thinking she’d still make it to class on time. No such luck. Not with this decrepit old thing stuck in the black underground between stops.
The loudspeaker crackled again. This time she heard a voice, tinny though it was. The train operator informed the passengers there was some sort of malfunction at the Pentagon station and that they would have to get off the train in Crystal City. There would be shuttle buses to take them across the Potomac into D.C. or to Rosslyn, the Northern Virginia suburb on the other side of Arlington Cemetery that connected the Commonwealth to Georgetown.
The mid-morning crowd grumbled at the news. The train was not overly crowded and the passengers, apart from those going to work, consisted largely of students heading from Virginia to Georgetown and George Washington, along with the usual smattering of tourists. Stacey could always spot a tourist: the fanny-packs, the poorly folded maps of the District with the sightseeing spots circled in red. She smiled in spite of herself at her own abilities at detection.
Stacey hoped she would get a spot on a shuttle quickly and make it to school on time, or at least not miss too much of the dreaded economics class. She didn’t want to make a bad impression this early in the semester, even though it was shaping up to be a gorgeous day and she'd rather be anywhere, anywhere in the world that wasn’t a poorly air-conditioned classroom where she’d be forced to sit and listen to a lecture on John Maynard Keynes.
Marine One landed gracefully on the White House lawn, returning President Jack Sweeney to his home after a ten-day trip to the Middle East. The tall commander-in-chief ducked through the helicopter door, which he’d learned to do as a result of rather embarrassingly banging his head during his first trip after being elected. The president saluted the Marines welcoming him home and stopped briefly to smile for the photographers awaiting his return. Sweeney's expression did not betray his grim mood or his frustration with how poorly the trip had gone. Right after bumping his head on the Marine One door, which had been a few years back now, he had also learned that photographers would be waiting for him wherever he went. Regardless of what was going on, Sweeney just smiled for the cameras and kept his thoughts and feelings hidden from view. He clenched his teeth as he walked toward the White House.
At least the visit to Baghdad, the last stop on his itinerary, had been encouraging. The economy was picking up there and, as jobs and money became available, fewer Iraqis were susceptible to efforts to get them to fight each other and the allied forces that remained in the country.
The rest of the trip had been less successful, much to Sweeney's dismay. There was no resolution in sight to the crisis between Israel and the Palestinians. The endless conflict fueled the problems of the entire Middle East like warm water powered a hurricane.
Sweeney had appealed again to all sides to at least resume negotiations, offering Washington as a broker for such talks. As expected, he was rebuffed. Neither the Israelis nor Palestinians seemed eager to sit down and try to solve the problem
Sweeney's formal smile brightened when he saw the first lady, in a new white summer dress, coming toward him with the presidential Labradors. She greeted him with a chaste kiss on the cheek while the dogs wagged their tails and waited to be doted on. Normally, that would distract the president for a couple minutes; today, there was too much on his mind.
While the visit to Israel had been frustrating, it paled in comparison to the problems developing for the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Order in Afghanistan was quickly deteriorating as warlords and poppy-growers took over the country. The Taliban had reemerged and, according to an internal National Intelligence Estimate, the movement was stronger now than at any point since the invasion of 2001.
There were simply not enough troops to restore order in all parts of the country. The border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan had always been particularly difficult to control. That problem was now compounded by the recent change in leadership in Islamabad. Salman Khan, the new Pakistani president, was unwilling to allow American troops to conduct operations in his country.
Pakistan had been the first stop of the trip — the thinking being that this would highlight the country's importance to the U.S. — but to no avail. Khan recently won a close election with the promise of not catering to the United States anymore, and he’d followed through with a hard line. Notwithstanding the billions of dollars in military assistance Pakistan gladly continued to pocket, the Khan regime only allowed American soldiers to serve as advisers and in a logistical capacity. The new Pakistani president had vowed on the campaign trail that only his government would decide when and how U.S. combat troops were allowed inside the country's borders. Khan was true to his word and reiterated the policy forcefully in direct talks with Sweeney during the trip.
Mussing one happy Labrador behind the ear and intoning, “Good boy, good boy” softly as the mutt puffed and panted and kicked up a hind leg, Sweeney couldn’t help his thoughts turning to all those daily intelligence briefings, all those uniformed officers looking ill-at-ease on the comfy White House couches as they informed their commander-in-chief, in clear but respectful language, of the Big Problem, as they saw it. They largely agreed on this point: that the Taliban and the fighters of as-Sirat, the preeminent terrorist group in the world, had used the developments in Pakistan to expand their bases there.
As-Sirat leader Omar Bashir had long been suspected to be hiding somewhere in the mountainous border region on Pakistan's northwest flank, and many of his followers now set up their camps in that area as well. They knew that American troops were not allowed to follow them there and that the new government had no intention of hassling them. If not exactly friendly toward them, this Salman Khan was at least condoning their being in, and operating from, his country. Effectively, he was providing them quarter.
Sweeney found himself briefly considering that term — quarter — and its history with respect to his own country. His mind wandered to Redcoats and bayonets and drums of tea. Then his eyes alit on the military aide schlepping the bulky suitcase known as The Football. The nation's nuclear launch codes were never more than a few feet away from him. This, like Marine One’s overhead clearance and the ubiquitous clicking and whirring and flashing of photographers’ cameras, had taken some getting used to. The power to decimate, disfigure, destroy utterly; indeed, to alter forever the course of human history — all of it contained in that briefcase named after a pigskin.
Still, all of America's military might had done little to stem the growing threat of terrorism. The changed political situation in Islamabad and the United States' inability to bring as-Sirat leaders to justice had led to a surge of the terrorist group's influence in Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent months. If they’d even heard of The Football, it seemed to be doing little to dissuade new recruits from signing up.
“You have all of these America-hating young men in my country and in Pakistan,” the pro-Western Afghan president had said in a frank conversation with Sweeney. “They see that we've been unable to get to as-Sirat's leaders, and they know Pakistan is a safe haven now. So they think they can join the Taliban or as-Sirat and act on their hatred toward America with impunity.”
The Afghan president also warned that, unless something drastic happened, he would likely not win reelection and would be succeeded by someone who didn't view America as benevolently. The ambivalence in Islamabad was bad enough; losing an ally in Kabul would create new headaches for the West.
Standing up out of his crouch, still muttering, “That’s a good boy” at the happier of the Labradors, Sweeney remembered how, on his way back to Washington, the national security adviser had vocalized what many members of the administration were feeling but didn’t want to say aloud.
“We're losing the fight against terrorism. Badly. And it's getting worse.”
Nobody on Air Force One had disagreed.
Stacey grabbed her stuff and, along with everybody else, got off the train at Crystal City, an area of Arlington undeserving of its name. There was nothing pretty about the bland office buildings overlooking the Pentagon and Ronald Reagan National Airport. Crystal City was built on a network of tunnels leading to food courts, stores and the Metro station. The tunnels also made it unnecessary for office workers to see the sun or breathe fresh air during the day. This was certainly not much of a loss for anybody other than connoisseurs of drab, 1970s-style concrete office buildings.
Stacey was lucky that the door of her car lined up with the escalator going up. She was one of the first to exit the station. She knew the area a little from an internship a couple years ago, and turned toward a back entrance leading to the bus station. Stacey dashed up the stairs, hoping this shortcut would give her the best shot at quickly securing a spot on a shuttle.
When she stepped out into the morning sun, she saw a bus designated ROSSLYN pull out of a side street near the station.
“Stop!” she shouted, chasing after the bus. After a short sprint, Stacey managed to catch up with it. She banged on one of its rear windows just as it was picking up speed. To her frustration, the bus did not stop.
Stacey gave up, put her hands on her sides and sucked in air. She was incredulous that the driver had not seen or heard her; at the very least, some of the passengers must have been aware of her attempt to board. But instead of telling the driver to stop, as Stacey thought would be common courtesy, they didn't move to help her get on. One passenger, an older man, just stared at her with an odd look: not unkind, but far away.
Stacey cursed tourists unfamiliar with Metrobus etiquette and was aggrieved to see her last chance to get to class on time drive off. She made a mental note of the four-digit number displayed on the back of the bus, vowing to call Metro to complain about the driver. As she pondered what else could go wrong this morning, a military vehicle raced past her. This made Stacey jump. Ever since the Pentagon had been attacked on 9/11, armored vehicles around the Defense Department headquarters, located right across I-395 from Crystal City, had become a common occurrence for those in the area every day. For infrequent visitors, however, they provided an unusual sight.
As if to taunt Stacey, the bus came to a stop ahead, though too far for her to try to catch up again. A young man got off and began walking quickly toward her, in the direction of the Metro station. Stacey, still a little out of breath, turned and slowly made her way back to the Metro stop. Just before she got back to the station, the young man from the bus caught up with her. She glanced over. Then she did a double-take, the recognition of a familiar face slowly dawning on her.
“Hassan?” Stacey said in a tone that was half-statement, half-question, not entirely certain the young man was indeed a former high school classmate.
His head jerked in response to hearing his name, but he looked as though he regretted the reaction immediately.
“Oh, hi,” he replied, making eye contact for a split
“I would've traded places with you,” Stacey frowned. She overlooked the fact that her old classmate appeared flustered, assuming that he had simply forgotten who she was. “I'm gonna be so late for class.”
The young man paused again, his eyes still not meeting hers. After a long beat, his body language changed. He straightened up, looked Stacey in the eyes and flashed her a smile, his white teeth contrasting with his dark, deep-olive skin.
Ah, Stacey thought to herself, he finally recognizes me. She’d been a little taken aback that he hadn't remembered her. After all, they’d once made out at a party junior year.
“Trust me, it could be worse,” he said. He looked at the pavement again, then back at her. “Listen, Stacey, I wish we could catch up, but I really gotta run. Maybe I'll bump into you again sometime.”
He waved her a quick goodbye, forced another smile and headed for the escalators back into the Crystal City underground. Stacey's eyes followed him for a second. Checking the time on her cellphone, she reminded herself that she really shouldn’t be too late for class. She scrapped the plan of catching a shuttle and turned toward the taxi stand instead.
Alan Hausman banged his palms on the steering wheel. He did this to the rhythm, or at least the rhythm as he heard it, of the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple,” which blared in- and outside his car. The windows were open, but he had the stereo up so loud he still couldn’t make out the sounds of the traffic surrounding him. He didn’t care. Alan believed there were only a handful of perfect days in Washington each year. Beautifully warm with a light breeze — the kind of weather that lets ordinary people dream of extraordinary things. This day was shaping up to be one of them.
Alan certainly was an ordinary guy and, right now, as he was making his way up 395 in a somewhat beat-up Jetta, he was daydreaming. It was indeed one of those perfect days, and he enjoyed the sunshine and wind on his face. Life was just too good.
Human Intelligence by Klaus Marre / Thrillers & Crime have rating 2.1 out of 5 / Based on30 votes