Monday, December 27, 2010

Project Morpheus, Part 4

In Part 3 we learn that Lt. Steven Barber will be taking over for Captain Cobble.

August 19, 1962

Barber sat once again in the back seat of a Cadillac Limousine, smoking a cigarette and letting the sounds of the highway wash over him. It was a steamy Sunday evening; from time to time raindrops would descend upon the car as it rumbled through the night on its way from The Arsenal to Pittsburgh.

The air conditioner took most of the unpleasantness out of the journey. Besides his trip here five days previously, it was the only time he’d ever experienced air conditioning in an automobile. Though surrounded in physical comforts, his mind was troubled. He stared out the window, unable to read the briefing in his lap; some had the gift of being able to read in cars, but he did not. Thirty seconds of trying and he’d be green around the edges.

As he stared out his window, watching the countryside streak past, he unconsciously stroked his short moustache with the side of his index finger and mulled over the new situation in which he found himself, seemingly in the blink of an eye.

Just a few years ago, it seemed, he graduated from the Point, a dewy-eyed second Lieutenant with big dreams and a full head of hair. Now only a few years later, both had for the most part vanished. His hair was indeed thinning and receding at an alarming pace, and his idealism had waned almost from the moment he graduated and accepted his first assignment, the creation of a low-level intelligence report concerning Cuba’s force readiness that had been almost completely ignored, with disastrous consequence.

As the short years ensued he had somehow developed a reputation as the guy who could make things happen, quickly and quietly. The Base CO finds out that one of his officers has a drinking problem? Barber, take care of this. Make sure he gets the message that this is unacceptable behavior. One of the sergeants is taking it to an officer’s wife? Barber, make him realize his mistake in no uncertain terms. A visiting General has a taste for young-looking Filipino girls? Barber, go take a ride. See what you can come up with. Each task further cemented this reputation, yet chipped away at his sense of idealism.

He wasn’t entirely unhappy about his reputation; it did tend to get him noticed. He got his 1st Lieutenant’s bars in only two years, after all. This career path was not without its perks—yet many were the times when he wished he could have made his bones another way.

Still, he was a soldier, and he held on stubbornly to the values that he cherished and to which he thought himself a staunch adherent: duty, honor, valor. To him these were more than empty words, though if you asked him directly he’d probably say that they were just different ways of saying, “do your job.” Idealism was a luxury that a soldier did not possess.

Even for all of that, this assignment, he thought, was going to test his ability to hold to his basic humanity. He had been given much more information once he had been cleared to take over for Captain Cobble, and he was thinking twice now about his rash enthusiasm for a position of prominence in a project of this magnitude.

For one thing, he had found out that his entire experience with Cobble and Professor Clark was but a small part of a far more vast operation – Project Morpheus. Morpheus was already almost twenty years in the brewing and there was no logical end in sight. He was not told the ultimate goal of Morpheus but he was told that he would be made aware of the other tentacles of the project and of its future direction on need-to-know. What he did hear for the moment was disquieting enough.

Professor Clark was sanctioned, not because he disobeyed orders or was insubordinate—concepts that his soldier’s brain could easily wrap itself around. The unpleasant truth was that they sanctioned Clark because they were done with him. They needed him to complete a vital, yet small, part in their research and once completed, they had no need for him at all. He was, even Barber now reluctantly admitted to himself, too much of a security liability to be allowed to live.

How many other researchers met a similar end? Good men with wives and families, who didn’t sign up for the military life—or if they did, had no idea what was coming for them? Jesus Christ. Morpheus may have left a trail of innocent bodies longer than anyone knew.

Then there was Captain Cobble, his old boss. He had shown compassion for Clark and allowed him to hear the sound of his wife’s voice one last time. As Colonel Waterman had alluded to some days ago, he had discovered that among the other phases of Morpheus of which Cobble had played a part, this same breach of security had been suffered.

Two mistakes, if mistakes they were, and Cobble had been sanctioned.

His mind flew past the car, over the miles of highway hundreds of miles east, to his wife and children in officer’s quarters at Fort Dix, New Jersey. He pictured them sitting in the living room, reading or listening to the radio, or most likely, since it was Sunday night, watching television. If he, Barber, were to be sanctioned, how could they carry on? To whom could they turn? He smiled faintly as the cruel truth came to him: Fate would care for them well indeed. Cobble’s widow was handed a tri-corner American Flag with a Legion of Merit draped over it, a generous death benefit and her husband’s pay until she re-married or turned 65. She would also go to her grave believing that Andrew Cobble was a man of duty and honor whose job brought him in harm’s path, and who, though he met his end untimely, met it through no fault of his own.

No, he had no reason to fear their physical or financial well being. His own life should be, he reasoned, his primary concern. His ability to stay alive would depend on his instincts, his ability to carry out orders, his judgment and ability to think clearly in a crisis. In fact, though he carried no weapon more dangerous than a pen most times, he could draw many parallels to a combat mission.

He smiled, more grimly this time, and pressed the lever to lower his window a bit further. He took a last drag off his cigarette and flicked it into the night, then reversed the lever to roll the window back up. Things could be far worse. All he had to do was keep his head down, do his job well and carry out his orders faithfully, and he might just get out of this one all right.

Waterman had been, he reflected, wrong about one thing: he wouldn’t be making Captain in six months’ time. Three days after they had first met, Waterman called him in to his office.

“Reporting as ordered, Colonel,” said Barber.

“At ease, son.”

Barber widened his stance slightly, snapped his hands from his side and brought them behind his back in a single, graceful effort, practiced thousands of times in every soldier’s life.

Waterman stood up and moved around the desk. “You are owed congratulations on two matters.” He half-sat, half-leaned on the front of his desk and looked at Barber. Waterman was three inches taller than Barber and this allowed him to meet his gaze completely levelly.

“The first is that, as of this moment, you will assume the duties that Captain Cobble just recently was relieved of. I am your new CO, and you will of course carry my orders out to the letter. The second is, since you will now have resources and personnel at your disposal, you must be of sufficient rank to order them as you see fit without challenge or question. I’m therefore promoting you to Captain, also effective immediately.” Waterman pinned double Captain’s bars on his epaulets, saluted smartly and shook his hand. “Congratulations, Captain.”

“Thank you sir. I’m eager to begin.”

“Splendid,” replied Colonel Waterman. “Because we’re beginning right now. Come with me.”

They walked to a building some 500 yards away, though it was through a double-fenced area whose gates were 180 degrees apart, such that it was almost a mile on foot. Captain Barber was amazed at the spryness of Colonel Waterman and though he kept up pace for pace, soon his forehead and neck were covered in a fine mist of sweat.

As they got through the second gate in the nested chain-link fence, a door was opened from the inside. It had been blindingly bright outside – any sunny day was more or less uncharacteristic for Northeastern Ohio – and his eyes made the dim interior to be far darker than it was. He stepped through the threshold and as his eyes got used to the light he noticed, around a long conference table, more brass than he’d ever seen in one place in his life. At his first sight of badges of higher rank he snapped to attention.

In the brief silence Barber scanned the room subtly, not letting his eyes twitch too far left or right. He saw a Lieutenant Colonel, two Brigadier Generals, a Major General, and a man in civilian attire.

“As you were,” one of them replied. He turned and one of the one-star Generals, whom he did not recognize by sight, spoke to him. “Good morning, Captain,” he said and smiled. “I’m General Miller. I believe you know General Forge.” He gestured to another Brigadier General seated to his right.

The introductions went around the table. Besides Generals Miller and Forge, the two-star was General Anton Smith, Director of Operations for the US Pacific Command, or PACOM. He had come from Washington with his aide, Lieutenant Colonel Parker. The man in the suit was Mark Cohen, the Assistant Undersecretary of Defense, Pacific Rim.

Here he was introduced to the players in the room, and they each asked him one or two questions about his home life, his background, and other small matters of, it would seem, small consequence. For some twenty minutes they thus questioned him and, after a perfunctory thanks, was dismissed.

Captain Barber was still ruminating on this strange meeting, where nothing of any import was discussed and whose primary purpose seemed to test Barber’s ability to make small talk, when he was startled out of his recollections by his driver.

“...a few days.”

“I’m sorry, sergeant, please repeat that?”

“Yes, sir. We are taking a brief detour. We’ve been ordered to the Youngstown Air Reserve Station. We’ll be there in ten minutes. We’ll be there for at least a few days.”

“Very good,” said Captain Barber and wondered for a moment what would wait for them there, a dinky little Air Reserve base when they were less than 60 miles from Pittsburgh. No need to speculate that far ahead, thought the new Captain. You’ll find out soon enough.

* * *

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