With dusk falling on a windless and cloudless autumn day in West Virginia, a veiled man in a black sweater and black pants stepped into the hunting cabin owned by Four-Star General Anthony William Underwood.
Underwood was big, with no sloppiness in his body, even at age fifty-nine. He wore a flannel shirt and was unshaven. There was no electricity in the cabin, and a hissing lantern hung from the ceiling, throwing out light that seemed to grow brighter as night approached, casting shadows on the square face beneath Underwood’s equally square crew cut.
He sat at a small dining room table, with a Colt .45 beside an open Bible in front of him. Sometimes a person needed more than God’s Word. Underwood had expected the visitor but not the black veil that revealed only the man’s eyes. He picked up the Colt and leveled it at the veiled man’s chest. “I’m waiting,” he said. His idea. Password protection was as old as mankind. Underwood liked things that didn’t lose effectiveness in the face of computer technology. The Colt was another good example.
“Armageddon,” the visitor complied.
This was the man then. Spooky, all in black like this --- someone ensuring he would be invisible when he left the cabin. Even his shoulder bag was black. Underwood set the pistol back on the table beside the Bible --- within easy reach --- and made no apology for the implication of its continued presence. Underwood had been there in the hills at his lakeside cabin for two days. Alone. Hunting during daylight. His staff knew the retreat had been planned. There was nothing unusual about his stay at the cabin.
That made it the perfect site for this meeting. His staff did not know about the visitor, who, as required by the conditions the general had set for this meeting, had parked five miles away and walked the rest of the way, using a GPS locator to find the cabin.
“I don’t like the veil,” Underwood said. “Looks like what a Muslim woman wears.”
“Niqab,” the visitor said.
When Underwood frowned with obvious incomprehension, the visitor repeated the word. “Niqab. It’s what Muslims call a face veil.”
“Call it what you want. I don’t like it. Muslims are the reason I agreed to this meeting. That veil is a mockery.”
“Think of it as irony. Using something so fundamentally Muslim against them… if you’ll pardon the pun.”
“A hood is more American,” Underwood said. American. Unlike his visitor’s accent. British?
“Easier to breathe beneath a niqab,” the visitor said.
Yes. Underwood decided the accent was English. Not Cockney, but what was it called? It came to him. Posh.
“More efficient for vision than eye holes in a hood,” the visitor continued.
“Don’t wear a nabasco then,” Underwood said, deliberately mangling the word. “Or a hood.”
“I’m afraid it’s quite necessary. If you don’t know me, we’re both protected.”
“Could be you are one of the Muslims. There’s lots of them in London, right?” Underwood was fishing for a clue to the man’s identity. “What do they call it now? Londonistan?”
“Think of all the effort it took to set this up and who set it up for you,” the visitor said with those cultured vowel inflections. “You really believe I’m Muslim?”
“If it makes you feel better,” the man said, “call me Smith. A good, clean, American name.” As he spoke, the veiled visitor set his shoulder bag on the floor.
“Smith,” Underwood said. “Get started. If you know anything about me, you know I don’t like wasting time.”
“Let me show you a terrorist’s greatest weapon,” Smith said. He stooped to reach into the bag.
“Hold it right there.” Underwood had the pistol in his hand again, now pointed at the face veil. “The agreement was no weapons.”
Smith froze with his hand inside the shoulder bag, eyes on the Colt. “An agreement I see you had no trouble breaking.”
“My cabin,” Underwood said. “My rules to break. Tell me what you’ve got in there.”
Underwood’s cabin had other rules --- no computers, no cell phones, and no electronics. Normally the general would have barked out a command to leave it in the bag. But this was a meeting with many exceptions already. Including the absolute secrecy.
Underwood set his pistol on the table again as Smith pulled out the laptop. He hadn’t been too worried that Smith would try anything dangerous. He’d just wanted to make a point. He left the pistol near his right hand, happy to continue making the point. “Laptop? You’ll notice my Colt is more effective.”
“The Internet gives terrorists more reach,” Smith said.
“You have to have access to have reach,” Underwood said. “If you’re depending on a connection here, you’ve wasted a lot of time and effort to meet with me.”
“You’re right; without my satellite link, this would have been a waste. But you need to see what we are capable of.” Smith turned the laptop slightly to give the general a view of the screen. The browser had already begun to link to a Web site, and images began to fill the screen: pieces of Monet’s art. It looked like a page of a university site. Underwood noted the Web address and memorized it. He was known for this ability, and it intimidated his staff. Without hesitation, Smith clicked on the painting in the lower right-hand corner. It was titled The Saint-Lazare Station. While available online as a digital image, the painting itself was displayed in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
Smith spoke as if he were lecturing. Internet. Digital download. Encryption. Anonymous chat rooms. In the third millennium, this was a new battleground. Al-Qaeda had shown how. Web sites devoted to training. Chat rooms where suicide bombers encouraged each other. Servers switched daily. It was a world where warriors could gather without crossing borders.
Yes, a brave new world.
An image of the Monet painting opened, and Smith saved it.
Then he brought up the Web site for the Musée d’Orsay and found another copy of The Saint-Lazare Station. Smith saved this image too. Side by side, both copies of The Saint-Lazare Station were now on his screen, intricate blurs of pale color in Monet’s style.
Smith’s eyes shifted from the laptop to Underwood. It was eerie for Underwood, seeing only eyes and the pale outline of flesh against the black veil and sweater.
“I’m going to use an encryption program that will analyze the files and compare the differences of both images’ binary code,” Smith said.
“Binary code.” Underwood thought of his boyhood on a Wisconsin farm, when the telephone had been rotary dial, connected by a party line. Then it was typewriters, carbon copies, and slide rules. Now? Satellites provided GPS locations for things as trivial as giving golfers the exact distance to the middle of the green.
“Every pixel in the image is represented by three colors --- red, green, or blue. Each color has a binary value --- a string of numbers composed of zeros or ones --- for computer recognition. I explain this because I want you to know how difficult it has become to stop terrorists.”
The explanation continued in that sophisticated accent, as if Smith were an Oxford professor. A pure red pixel, he said, was 1111 0000 0000, which computer software translated into 100 percent red, 0 percent green, and 0 percent blue. By altering the binary code slightly and adding one bit --- one binary digit --- of information to the blue segment, the binary code became 1111 0000 0001, a color change imperceptible to the human eye.
Although it was only the addition of a single bit, given the millions of bits in a digital image, there was enough room to hide a message that counterterrorist programs would never discover. Intercepting an embedded message would take knowledge of the suspected sender or recipient and access to the suspected computers and e-mail accounts.
“This is why terrorists have no fear of being caught,” Smith said. “Nor should you when you use this method to communicate with me.”
“Assuming you come up with a good enough reason,” Underwood said. He decided if there was a good reason, he’d still insist on seeing the man’s face. In this light, the man’s eyes were brown. Colored contact lenses?
“Keep watching,” Smith said. The black veil appeared seamless with his shoulders.
The cryptology program analyzed the differences and assembled the hidden bits into words.
Opimgt terb lkajerlkj
kljltkjeppoit l;ol tp29 m,/.,ad/.
“Not much of a message for all the work it took to get it,” Underwood said.
“Wait.” Without closing this program, Smith opened another, then copied and pasted the gibberish. His hands were the only exposed skin. Not the hands of a young man. No visible scars. No wedding band, but a groove worn into that finger. The general was trying to absorb as much about the man as possible.
The computer disk continued to whir. Moments later, both men were looking at an e-mail account and password generated from encryption. Back in his browser, Smith entered this new information with deft movements of his thick fingers and was given immediate access to the new e-mail server. In the account, he clicked on an e-mail draft marked “Underwood.”
“Extra security,” Smith said. “This e-mail is saved on the server in draft form. Since it is never sent and we’re reading it directly from the server, there is no possibility it would ever be intercepted by any counterterrorist program. It’s a terrorist technique that’s totally secure and totally anonymous.”
Attached to the e-mail draft was a read-only spreadsheet file and some satellite photographs. Smith opened both.
The general leaned forward and began reading with the same intensity he brought to weekly staff meetings.
The message began with this: Tony, for the sake of America, strongly consider what this man has to tell you.
After a minute, the general stopped and stared into the eyes of the veiled man. “These documents are from yesterday’s White House meeting between the president and the secretary of defense. Those satellite photos are highly classified. Nobody else was at that meeting.”
“Exactly,” Smith said. “You know then that one of the two of them sent it to me and has suggested you join. You’ll understand why I don’t reveal which one.”
“Join what? Some kind of conspiracy?”
“Consider it a conspiracy of one,” came the voice from below the veil. “There’s only one link here: me. Just like I’m the only link to one of those two in the White House. To an equivalent person of power in the Israeli government. To some in the Mossad. Another in MI5. A Supreme Court justice. And so on. Not a wide web across the world. But men in positions of great influence to discreetly change what needs to be changed.”
“And you want to recruit me, too.”
“You’ve just seen how you and I can communicate, using the terrorists’ own techniques against them. Anytime, from anywhere in the world. With utterly no chance of our communications leaking. Let me emphasize: You are not linked to the others. Nor them to you. It’s just you and me. Total safety.”
Underwood took a few moments to think about it.
The veiled visitor misinterpreted his silence. “You’ve been in the military for forty years,” Smith said. “You are very familiar with how difficult it is to infiltrate and break an enemy composed of cell groups. Now imagine being on the other side. Protected by the same cell structure that you and every other military man find impossible to defeat.”
“I’m a general,” Underwood said. “I don’t have an imagination.”
“Of course. In an ideal world, you don’t need imagination when you have unstoppable military machinery. But you can’t unleash the dogs of war against this enemy. The irony of it must be extremely frustrating. Your weapons are mightier than the ones used by any other general in history, yet you live in a country and age when public opinion is more powerful than your machines.”
Underwood grunted, a mixture of agreement and disgust.
“Maybe then imagination should be in your arsenal,” the veiled man continued.
“I’m here to supply it.”
“You’re here only because the man who set up this meeting is a man I trust with my life.” Underwood was not using the phrase as a metaphorical cliché. Men in the military knew the value of life and trust.
“Precisely,” the veiled visitor said. “You have his word that I can be trusted, and I have his word that you can be trusted.”
“Wonderful,” Underwood said. He felt edgy and knew his sarcasm was a result of it. “Now we know we can buy and sell used cars to each other.”
“Sure. If that’s what we really wanted.” Smith paused. “God will bless those who bless Israel but curse those who curse Israel.”
Underwood studied the man’s eyes.
”I understand your deep faith,” the man said. “That’s one of the reasons you have been approached. Also because I know what you want when it comes to the military. A way to unleash the dogs of war. What is the borrowed phrase you are publicly so fond of? ‘Drain the swamp.’”
“Donald Rumsfeld called it correctly.” Thinking of the time he’d recently spent in Iraq, Underwood couldn’t escape an emotional reaction at the futility he’d experienced there. The way he’d been handcuffed in a war against terrorists.
“You don’t fight the mosquitoes. You drain the swamp.”
“For the record,” Smith said, “and because it is relevant to this conversation, Rumsfeld borrowed the phrase from an Israeli general, Yehoshafat Harkabi. This is relevant because you and I believe God’s mandate that the land must not be divided.”
Man against man, Underwood’s soldiers could destroy the enemy as easily as squashing a mosquito. But in his camp in Iraq, Underwood had been like a man sitting on his front porch, staring at a swamp through a swarm of mosquitoes around his head. Like a man who owned a bulldozer that could clear the swamp in hours but was shackled by legislation and environmental do-gooders who insisted on protecting the swamp, even though mosquitoes invaded his house every day.
“Gutless liberals,” Underwood said. “All through history, war meant war. Romans knew how to do it. Carrot and stick. Offer the king a chance to join the empire. Destroy and loot if the king refused.” He snorted. “Embedded media. Think Julius Caesar had to deal with this? Embedded --- that’s a word you use for bloodsucking ticks.”
“Terrorists are experts at using the media. You have jets, guided missiles, tanks, the best-trained soldiers in history.… Terrorists have homemade bombs and the media. Who is winning?”
Underwood said nothing.
“Let me suggest again to use terrorist weapons against them. The Internet. Cell-group structure. The media.”
“What are you trying to sell me?”
“God will bless those who bless Israel but curse those who curse Israel. The men helping me want what you and I want --- to drain the swamp. With help from you.”
“What exactly do you want from me?” Underwood said.
“Your next tour is Afghanistan.”
Although this was still classified information, Underwood wasn’t surprised his visitor knew.
“I need intel in Afghanistan,” Smith said. “Some units there are ready to do the dirty work that you can’t. They don’t have to worry about embedded media.”
“Units of mercenaries?” Underwood asked.
“Crusaders. Men who are doing it because they believe in it.”
“Like this niqab, ambiguity protects you. But first let me tell you what the fighters there need.”
“Not only intel. They need for you to look the other way during your tour. Give them a chance to clean up before you send in legitimate U.S. military a day or two after every engagement.”
“That won’t drain the swamp,” Underwood said.
“It would be a beginning.”
“I’d need to know more about the end if you want me in at the beginning.”
“Eventually, you will be in a position to drain the swamp. To lead and win the greatest battle in history.” A significant pause. Direct eye contact. “As a five-star.”
“Sure.” Underwood snorted. He was a religious man, and he knew of only one battle like that. The password that the man had chosen to identify himself.
“What else would you call open war between two of the most important civilizations on the globe until every Muslim country is forced to submit or be destroyed?”
“You mentioned Londonistan,” the veiled man said. “And you’re right. Europe is already in trouble. Within fifty years, radical Islam is going to dominate the world. It needs to be stopped now, especially Iran. The West has the technology and military might to do it. But it lacks the willpower. With your help, within a year that will all change.”
“How will it change?”
“Not knowing is your protection. You have seen enough tonight to know there are others like you, dedicated to saving Western civilization, all with enough power and connections to make it happen.”
Another pause from beneath the veil. “You’re a devout evangelical. You believe Armageddon is almost upon the world. Perhaps this is God’s destiny for you.”
“If I say yes?” Underwood leaned back, his hands behind his head.
“I ask you to send something. By Internet. Something that proves you are willing to be part of this. I’ll ask for more as required.”
Underwood gave it more thought. Entering the service, he’d sworn not to betray his country. While his beliefs put God ahead of his country, was this a time and place to put God ahead of that oath? Had he been asked to worship a beast? Ordered to do something morally wrong that would justify turning his back on the military he’d served his entire life?
Underwood made his decision. “No. Flawed as our system is, and much as I hate liberals, it’s democracy that makes America great. I won’t support any form of anarchy against it.”
“No? Remember your faith. God blesses those who bless Israel. The swamp must be drained.”
“No.” Underwood was military, not covert ops. “God doesn’t fight His battles like a terrorist. He doesn’t need to.”
The veiled man snapped the laptop shut. “I won’t embarrass you by trying to convince you otherwise. You are a strong-willed man.” He stood and moved away from the dining table, leaving the laptop in place.
“You are a man of honor. Too few men are willing to take a stand and speak their minds.” He pulled off his veil and gave Underwood a genuine smile. “I owe you this at least.”
“I know you,” Underwood said, staring into the face above him. He was too surprised to consider the significance of the removed veil. “I met you once. Arafat was there too.”
“You impressed me then,” the visitor said. His English accent had disappeared.
“You impress me now.” Smith extended his hand.
Underwood stood, leaving the gun at the table. He accepted the handshake, then winced at the man’s firm grip and a stab of pain. Underwood pulled his hand away and stared at it. Blood dribbled from a small puncture wound.
He looked back at his visitor.
“Old spy trick, General,” Smith said. He opened his hand, revealing his palm and the ring with a small spike, gleaming with a trace of blood that looked black in the light of the lantern. “Take my advice. Sit down and make yourself comfortable.”
Underwood felt numbness going up his right arm. “What --- ?“
“You’ve had a couple of close military friends die of heart attacks in the last month, haven’t you?” The visitor smiled grimly. “It wasn’t coincidence.”
“You’re telling me that you met with them, too?”
“I’m sorry, General. We can’t take the chance that you’ll tell someone about the offer you refused. The paralysis acts quickly. Don’t fight it. In about thirty seconds, your diaphragm will begin to freeze. Suffocation will not be pleasant, but you will have enough time to pray and put your soul in order.”
His visitor guided him to the couch at the side of the cabin. Barely able to walk, Underwood was powerless to shake off the visitor’s help.
“The stakes are too high. The friend you trusted with your life knows that. He thought that you could be recruited but was prepared to risk that he was wrong. He believes, as I do, that sacrifices have to be made now if the war is to be won later.”
Smith settled Underwood against the back of the couch.
“An… autopsy…” It was a struggle to speak. Underwood felt as though a giant hand had gripped his chest.
“Will point to murder? I’m afraid not. You have no idea of the power and reach involved here.”
“This… is… unbelievable.” Underwood’s eyelids fluttered.
“Our crusaders will get help one way or another.” The visitor shook his head, as if chastising a child. “It could have been you. Blessed, not cursed.
Excerpted from FUSE OF ARMAGEDDON © Copyright 2011 by Sigmund Brouwer and Hank Hanegraaff. Reprinted with permission by Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.