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The Ares Decision



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“Yes, sir.”

Castilla leaned back and sank a little deeper into the leather sofa.

Farrokh was a ghost. In fact, many people in the intelligence community didn’t even believe he existed, hypothesizing that he was just an avatar for the people pulling the strings of the Iranian resistance. As a career politician, though, Castilla knew better. Composites couldn’t take the reins of power — that was something reserved for individuals. And whoever this Farrokh was, he wanted his hands on those reins something awful.

The truth was that as unstable as the region looked, it was actually worse. The Iranians were financing any group sympathetic to them or antagonistic to the United States, the Israelis had their fingers hovering over the button, and the few remaining stable Muslim governments were using back channels to urge U.S. military action. Of course, if America did move against Iran, those same governments would provide little more than a quiet thank-you while publicly declaring jihad on the Christian invaders.

“The devil you know, right?” Castilla said finally.

“I think we need to consider that a takeover by Farrokh might actually turn out to be detrimental to our interests. And in light of that, I think we should act on—”

Castilla held up a hand. “We’ve been over this before, Larry. I’m not going to keep an entire country in the Dark Ages over a bunch of ‘maybes’ and ‘coulds.’ Change can be dangerous as hell, but it can also provide opportunities. Giving up the possibility of a decent relationship with a democratic Iran in favor of perpetuating the current disaster is too defeatist for my blood.”

“Is it defeatism, Mr. President? Or realism?”

Castilla folded his hands over a belly that seemed to expand and contract with his stress level. “I figure that when you have no idea what you’re doing, you’re better off not doing anything. Now, let’s move on.”

“But, sir—”

“We’re moving on, Larry.”

As usual, Drake’s face was an impenetrable mask — something that had always made Castilla uncomfortable. He relied on his gift for seeing through people and it made him nervous when he couldn’t.

“The only thing we have left on the agenda is the matter in Uganda.”

Castilla’s feet slid to the floor and he leaned forward, focusing his full attention on the DCI. “Have we figured out what happened?”

“Apparently, the same thing that happened to the force the AU sent to track down Bahame. We believe our entire team was wiped out, though it’s possible that the team leader survived. We have people waiting for him, but honestly, I think we’re wasting our time—”

“Like hell we are!” Castilla said, his voice rising to something just below a shout. “No one saw that man die, and we’re not going to abandon him.”

“I wasn’t suggesting we should, sir.”

The president stared down at the carpet for a moment. He’d sent those soldiers in against everyone’s recommendation. As much as it horrified him to get into bed with Charles Sembutu, the atrocities being perpetrated by Caleb Bahame had become too grotesque to ignore.

“I’m sorry,” Castilla said when he finally looked up again. “I know that’s not what you were saying, Larry. And I know you were against this from the start.”

Drake watched Castilla settle back into the sofa again. Politicians liked action without consequence — to create a show that would please their constituents but not actually cause anything to happen that would be tangible enough to garner criticism. And while Castilla was more impressive than most, he was no different. Sometimes you rolled the dice and lost. Sometimes you sent men to die.

“Did you watch the video?” the president said finally.

Drake didn’t allow himself to react but felt the anger well up inside him. Kaye. That overambitious navy hack had made an end run around him and sent the raw feeds from the soldiers’ cameras directly to the White House.

“Yes, sir. I reviewed it this morning.”

“Have you ever seen anything like that? What the hell was going on out there? Have your people been able to come up with an explanation?”

Drake considered his answer carefully. The information he’d been feeding the White House on Uganda was carefully massaged to include only the bare minimum necessary to keep the CIA from looking like it was withholding — and even that had been enough to get them into this pointless and extremely inconvenient skirmish. Did Castilla know more than what was included in the agency briefings? Did he have other sources?

“I’m sorry, sir. An explanation?”

Castilla’s exasperation was obvious and expected. “Our top special ops team was wiped out by a bunch of unarmed Africans, some who looked like women and children to me. You don’t think that demands some sort of explanation?”

There was nothing in the president’s demeanor that suggested he was suspicious, and Drake had no choice but to move forward based on that very dangerous assumption.

“No, sir, I don’t. Bahame was tipped off that they were coming and he sent some of his soldiers to intercept them.”

“Soldiers? Those weren’t soldiers, Larry.”

“I respectfully disagree. That was a typical representation of the army Bahame’s put together by raiding villages and giving the people living in them the choice of dying or fighting for him. In the context of Africa, this isn’t new.”

Castilla was clearly shaken, as anyone who saw that video would be, and Drake decided to take advantage of the president’s momentary weakness.

“Sir, Bahame is as bad as they come, and you tried to help. I feel for the Ugandans, but this is an African problem. What can we do? Send a battalion? Neither the AU or Sembutu are going to go for that, and even if we could convince them, where would we get the troops? We’ve been down this road before, sir, and it doesn’t lead anywhere.”

“So you’re telling me that you don’t think there’s anything on that tape that’s unusual?”

“I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t. Our men were outnumbered eight to one by a bunch of people brainwashed into thinking Bahame is some kind of god. To some extent, a small team’s survival in this kind of a tactical situation hinges on generating fear — if you shoot enough people, the others will break and run. That didn’t work in this case.”

“Your recommendation?”

“We bury our dead and walk away.”

Castilla nodded slowly but didn’t speak.

“Is that all, sir?”

“Yeah. That’s all. Thanks, Larry.”

Alone again, President Castilla walked to the windows behind his desk and looked out at the clouds boiling over DC. He didn’t turn when the side door to his office opened. “You heard?”

“I did.”


“I gave you that video because I knew you’d want to see it, Sam. But in this case, I have to agree with Larry.”

Castilla turned and watched Fred Klein settle into a chair. He looked a lot older than he did a few years ago — his hair had receded another inch and he’d lost so much weight that his suit seem to swallow him. Being the president’s most trusted friend wasn’t an easy job.

“I sent them there, Fred. And now everyone just wants to forget about them.”

“No one wants to forget. It’s just that this is a fight you’re never going to win.”

“You’ve spent most of your life in intel, Fred. Tell me you’ve seen something like that video before.”

Klein took off his glasses and wiped them on his tie. “I can’t say that I have.”

“Something isn’t right here,” Castilla said, taking a seat on the sofa across from him. “I want you to use your resources to look into this for me. I need to know what happened, Fred. I need to be able to sleep at night.”

A nearly imperceptible smile flickered across Klein’s lips as he continued to polish his lenses.

Castilla’s eyes narrowed. “God, I hate being predictable.”


Western Cape, South Africa
November 12—1701 Hours GMT+2

The town of Paarl, South Africa, and the granite domes that framed it, were just visible in the afternoon light. Grapevines radiated in every direction, the neat rows eventually disappearing into rolling hills.

Sarie van Keuren swung her Land Cruiser onto an empty rural road and squinted into the sun. She should have stopped for the night in Springbok but hadn’t been able to bring herself to do it. Twenty-one hours, thirteen cups of coffee, and an embarrassingly large bag of farm-stall sausages later, home was less than a kilometer away.

She slowed and veered onto a gravel track, skidding to a stop in front of the century-old wall she’d spent two years restoring. At the press of a button, the flower-covered gate began to swing open and she eased through, stopping in front of a meticulously whitewashed Cape Dutch farmhouse.

None of her friends understood why she lived alone in what they referred to as the “hinterlands,” and sometimes she wasn’t sure either. Every six months or so she got to thinking about moving into Cape Town and leaving behind the forty-five-minute commute to the university where she worked, but when it came to actually calling an estate agent, she could never bring herself to do it.

Two of the many reasons for her reluctance came barreling around the house as she turned off the ignition. They jumped up on the car door, adding to the deep gouges their claws had made over the years and fighting to get their faces through the open window. Sarie pulled away, but she was a fraction too slow to avoid getting a wet tongue in her ear. “Halla! Ingwe! Down!”

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