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The Ares Decision



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Rivera felt a hand claw the back of his neck, and then the gloom of the rain forest suddenly gave way to blinding sunlight. The sound of his footfalls and those of the people behind him went silent, and he was tumbling through the air, his mind trying to make sense of a spinning universe — the red and brown of the people falling with him, the green of the jungle, the blue of the sky.

The pain of the impact surprised him. Based on the length of the fall, he’d expected to die instantly. Muddy water swirled around him as he fought to keep hold of the girl and figure out which way was up.

The burning in his lungs started quickly, but he ignored it as long as he dared, waiting until he was in danger of losing consciousness before surfacing. Only one of his pursuers was visible, thrashing wildly, unable to keep his head above the churning river. The others seemed to have already gone down for the last time.

Rivera looked up at the sixty-foot cliff he’d fallen from, focusing on the people standing at its edge. Their eyes were locked on him, but they seemed unsure what to do.

He turned to face the direction the water was taking him, adjusting his grip on the motionless girl to get a more solid hold. When her head hit his chest, though, he saw the unnatural angle of her neck beneath the chain still secured there, and he reluctantly let her body drift away.

Above, the Africans were beginning to track him, following along the top of the cliff, trying to find a way down. He swam for the opposite shore, but the current was too strong, funneling him and all the other debris to the river’s center.

A submerged tree trunk hit him hard from behind, flipping him forward and pulling him under. He tried to kick away from it but found that his right leg was useless. Water filled his mouth and forced itself into his lungs as he struggled to get back to the surface.

He could see the light of the sun, he could imagine its warmth, but the more he fought the more distant it seemed to become. He remembered the lake that he and his family used to go to when he was young, and suddenly he was there swimming with his brothers. He was so tired. Wasn’t it time to rest yet?

* * *

Charles Sembutu watched impassively as Admiral Kaye barked orders at the women manning the computer stations. Three of the video feeds had gone black, and another was permanently fixed on the sky. The fifth showed a motionless Caucasian hand holding a knife buried in the throat of a young boy.

“Can we get anything on Rivera?” Kaye said, though the answer was obvious.

“Radio’s dead, sir. Along with the video feed.”

He leaned over one of the women’s chairs. “Replay the last thing we have from his camera. Slow it down this time.”

She brought the monitor assigned to Rivera back to life and they watched leaves colliding with the lens, a flash of the people chasing him, and then the fall.

“Sir, that looks like water at the bottom of the ravine, and our satellite photos confirm that there’s a river cutting east to west close to where the skirmish started. He could still be alive. Can I give the extraction team his last known coordinates?”

Kaye glanced back and Sembutu met his eye, making sure to hide his anger. Normally, when someone failed him, that person’s life became very short and very unpleasant. No such remedies were available when the Americans were involved.

It had been a perfect scenario for him — let the foreigners get rid of a man the world had come to despise and then take credit for it. In one brief moment he would neutralize the growing threat to his own power and make himself a hero to the rural population taking the brunt of Bahame’s attacks.

But the Americans had botched the operation as he had suspected they would. For all their skill, first world soldiers were too mired in tradition and meaningless moral codes to operate effectively in Africa.

He now had no choice but to accept the partnership the Iranians had offered. It was a dangerous gamble, but he was quickly running out of options. Bahame’s army continued to creep south, trying to get into a position that would allow a full-scale assault on Uganda’s capital. Something had to be done.

But it had to be done with the utmost care. If the Americans discovered the Iranians’ plot and his involvement in it, there was little doubt that their retaliation would decimate his country and leave him dead or on the run.

Kaye took a hesitant step back, demonstrating his weakness through his concern for a single, inconsequential soldier.

“No,” the admiral said. “Tell the extraction team to stand by at the rendezvous point.”

“But, sir, the fall. He’s probably—”

“You heard me, Lieutenant. We’ll wait seventy-two hours. After that, we’re pulling the plug.”


Washington, DC, USA
November 12—0900 Hours GMT–5

President Sam Adams Castilla put his feet up on a heavy pine coffee table he’d brought with him from the governor’s mansion in Santa Fe. The décor in the Oval Office had evolved since he’d first moved in, objects from home being slowly replaced with things he’d received on his official travels. A reminder of the magnitude and scope of his responsibilities.

“Any questions, sir?”

Lawrence Drake, the director of the CIA, was sitting across from him in a wingback chair that had been a gift from the French — a people that would immediately declare war if they ever saw the native American blanket it had been reupholstered with.

“About North Korea?”

“Yes, sir.”

Castilla frowned thoughtfully. It seemed like these intelligence briefings got more complicated and more depressing every time he sat down to one. China, Russia, Israel, the Middle East — impossibly complex individual pieces intertwined into an utterly unfathomable whole.

“No, let’s move on, Larry. What’s next?”


Castilla’s frown deepened. There was only one thing he wanted to talk about that day, and it seemed they were never going to get around to it. He waved the DCI on impatiently.

“Thank you, sir. The antigovernment demonstration last week in Tehran numbered at least ten thousand—”

“Were there casualties?”

“Our information is a little shaky, but we’re estimating a little over a hundred injured. Two confirmed dead — one person was trampled after tear gas was thrown by government forces, and one died in the hospital from injuries sustained in an attack by riot police.”

“I saw the video on CNN,” Castilla said. “A lot of chaos for a country that likes order.”

Drake nodded gravely. “Iran’s destabilizing faster than anyone anticipated, sir. Ayatollah Khamenei is getting more and more hard-line in the face of the opposition. We have reports of the secret police going after dissidents’ families all the way out to cousins. And there are rumors of an upcoming purge of government workers who’ve been deemed too liberal. We’ve seen this a thousand times throughout history. When the paranoia hits this pitch, collapse can’t be far behind.”

“Time frame?”

“Hard to say. There are a lot of variables and we’re fairly blind in that country. Having said that, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw it happen within the next eighteen months.”

Castilla drew in a long breath and let it out slowly. “Can’t say that I’ll be sad to see them go.”

The edges of Drake’s mouth tightened perceptibly.



“I know that look, Larry. What?”

“The enemy of our enemy is not necessarily our friend.”


Drake didn’t bother to hide his distaste at the utterance of the Iranian resistance leader’s name. “The sanctions we put in place have been somewhat effective, but much more important is the fact that the government just doesn’t have the support of young people or intellectuals. And let’s face it, building a nuke without those two groups can be pretty time-consuming.”

“But Farrokh does have the support of the youth and intellectuals.”

“Yes, sir. We still don’t know much about him, but we know he’s a wizard with technology — particularly cell phones and the Internet. The way he uses music from alternative Middle Eastern artists and historical video to drum up support would put most Western campaign consultants to shame. What we have to focus on, though, is that his message isn’t pro-West. He wants change, but at his core, he’s a nationalist.”

“Come on, Larry. You can’t be suggesting that having a progressive democracy in there could be worse than what we have now.”

Drake didn’t answer immediately, and Castilla waited. He’d made it clear from his first day in office that everyone was free — in fact obligated — to speak their mind inside the walls of the Oval Office. The best way to lose your job in his administration was to hand out politically sanitized information that caused him to get caught out in front of a camera.

“Sir, fundamentalists tend to be backward-thinking people who can be played off each other, isolated, and bribed. Farrokh is different. Under someone like him, Iran could very easily get over the technical barriers keeping it from becoming a nuclear power. But that’s not all. So far, Khamenei’s success in using the region’s instability to increase Iran’s influence has been fairly limited. People are suspicious of the Iranians, and the Sunnis aren’t anxious to see an increase in Shia power. Farrokh is seen as being much less divisive by the people trying to shake up the status quo — and I’m not just talking about liberals and progressives. There’s a very real danger that, under someone like him, we could see the Middle East unify into something resembling the Soviet bloc. Only with a much more convenient and effective weapon…”

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