The third update was the most confusing of all. The controls of the F-35, the one whose flight had brought Chowdhury into the situation room early that snowy Monday morning, had locked. The pilot was working through all contingencies, but at this point, he was no longer in control of his plane.
“If the pilot doesn’t fly it and we don’t do it remotely from the carrier, then who the hell is?” Chowdhury broke against Hendrickson.
A junior member of the White House staff interrupted them. “Dr. Chowdhury, ”she said,“ the Chinese defense attaché would like to talk to you. “
Chowdhury gave Hendrickson an incredulous look, as if he wanted the One Star Admiral to explain that this whole situation was part of one elaborate and twisted practical joke. But no such assurance came. “Alright, transfer it,” Chowdhury said, reaching for the phone.
“No, Dr Chowdhury,” said the young staff member. “He’s here. Admiral Lin Bao is here.
“Here?” said Hendrickson. “To the White House? You’re kidding. “
The staff member shook his head. “I am not, sir. He’s at the northwest gate. Chowdhury and Hendrickson pushed open the door to the situation room, rushed down the hall to the nearest window, and peered through the blinds. There was Admiral Lin Bao, resplendent in his blue service uniform with gold epaulettes, standing patiently with three Chinese military escorts and a civilian at the northwest gate among the growing crowd of tourists. It was a mini-delegation. Chowdhury couldn’t understand what they were doing. The Chinese are never impulsive like that, he thought.
“Jesus,” he mumbled.
“We can’t just let him in,” Hendrickson said. A group of Secret Service supervisors gathered around them to explain that the proper screening for a Chinese official to enter the White House could not be accomplished in less than four hours; that is, unless you have obtained the approval of POTUS, the Chief of Staff or the National Security Advisor. But all three were abroad. Television tuned in to the latest updates on the G7 summit in Munich, which had left the White House without a president and much of its national security team. Chowdhury was the main NSC staff member in the White House at the time.
“Shit,” Chowdhury said. “I’m going there.”
“You can’t go there,” Hendrickson said.
“He can’t come in here.
Hendrickson couldn’t argue about the logic. Chowdhury walked towards the door. He didn’t grab his coat, even though it was below zero. He hopes that whatever message the Defense Attaché needs to deliver won’t take long. Now that he was outside, his personal phone picked up a signal and vibrated with half a dozen text messages, all from his mother. Every time she looked at her daughter, she pricked him with mundane domestic questions to remind her of the favor she was doing. Damn, he thought, I bet she can’t find the baby wipes anymore. But Chowdhury didn’t have time to verify the details of these texts as he walked along the South Lawn.
As cold as he was, Lin Bao also wasn’t wearing a coat, only his uniform, with his wall of medals, his epaulets furiously embroidered in gold, and his spiked naval officer’s cap snuggled under his arm. Lin Bao casually ate from a packet of M & M’s, picking up the candies one by one with pinched fingers. Chowdhury walked through the black steel door to where Lin Bao was standing. “I have a soft spot for your M & Ms,” the admiral said absently. “It was a military invention. Did you know? That’s right – candy was first mass produced for American GIs during WWII, especially in the South Pacific, where they needed chocolate that wouldn’t melt. It’s your saying, isn’t it? Melts in your mouth, not in your hand. Lin Bao licked the tips of his fingers, where the color of the candy had bled, staining his skin with a mottled pastel.
“What do we owe the pleasure to, Admiral?” Chowdhury asked.
Lin Bao looked into his M & M’s bag, as if he had a definite idea of what color he would like to taste next but couldn’t really find it. Speaking in the bag, he said, “You have something of ours, a little boat, very little – the Wén Rui. We would like him to come back. Then he picked up a blue M&M, made a face, as if it wasn’t the color he was looking for, and placed it somewhat disappointedly in his mouth.