A large van picked Ali up at Bragg. Three others got on with him--two guys and a girl. They were all on orders to report to Fort Meyer. They didn’t know, but they were going a lot further than that. They didn’t talk. Everyone was afraid to. Never know who you were riding with. Ali just looked out the window and watched the countryside roll by. They were headed toward the Hot Zone, but there was no evidence of it here. There were more trees and it was much greener than California. There was a peaceful normalcy about the towns and farms. It didn’t look like we were at war with an unknown enemy.
It was evening by the time they approached Fort Meyer. They were tired and hungry. A little of that Basic Army chow would have hit the spot. But they didn’t stop. Activity on the road began to multiply and develop a military countenance, telling them that they were approaching the Hot Zone. The sudden surreal presence of tanks and Bradleys captured their attention. It was nearly dark when they pulled up behind some old garages on the grounds of the Fort.
“If you gotta go, now’s the time.” The driver pointed to a door on the side of the nearest garage. Everyone piled out and ran for that door.
Ali got there first, threw open the door and headed into the darkness inside. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he saw a toilet to his right. The door was open. When she arrived just behind him. He graciously stepped aside for her so she could slip by.
“Thank you!’ She shouted as she flew past and the door slammed shut behind her. He balanced on one leg while the other two guys caught up. He could hear her peeing in a gush just like Mrs. Robinson as he eyed the others—all dancing now to keep from going themselves.
Finally, there was a flushing sound and she opened the door. Ali and the others crushed past her and peed in the bowl all at once. Over his shoulder Ali caught the girl’s wide smile as she slowly shut the door. She was still smiling when they got back to the van. Their driver, a Corporal who appeared to be career Army had found some MREs. After struggling to get his open with his teeth, Ali found that the spaghetti wasn’t bad, just cold.
What they had been waiting for suddenly arrived--in the form of a transport helicopter--right in front of them. The lights were blinding and the noise deafening as the Corporal shouted, “Okay, your ride’s here. Get mov’n—now!”
Ali hadn’t finished his spaghetti, but he put it down, grabbed his duffel, and kept his head down as he joined the others under the whirling blades while the ramp came down. They were greeted by a Sergeant at the top of the ramp in full military gear. He waved them on. Everyone grabbed a parachute, stashed their gear, and strapped in. In five minutes they rose above the lights of Fort Meyer and drifted off to the west, picking up speed. It was exciting. Ali had never been on a helicopter before. He didn’t know where they were going.
They landed an hour or two later. Ali had tried to sleep, but couldn’t—figured that they were somewhere in Pennsylvania. They landed in an empty field and were met by another military van. They then were driven about five miles to a door opening into the side of a mountain. Where they had been on a paved road going up and down through trees and a bit of open country, they were now in a well-lit tunnel driving deep into the mountain.
They came to an opening where the tunnel widened into a larger chamber. Several vehicles were parked there. It wasn’t anything special. The driver stopped and they got out. About twenty other young people in military garb were already there, waiting in line. The Sergeant who had been accompanying them finally spoke. “Welcome to Destination Five. Please fall in. The Commandant will be here soon.” The four tired travelers dropped their gear and formed a line with the others.
James Forsythe hated this part of his duty—getting up at all hours of the night and day to greet the new recruits—but he knew it was necessary to set the stage for what was expected. He moved quickly to a small, freestanding podium in the front of the group to address them. Ali knew that he was a general by his uniform. He looked old school with his red beret and ribbons from his many campaigns. Forsythe had no notes to put on the podium. He merely walked to the podium, put his hands on it as if to steady himself, and began to speak.
"Welcome to The Academy, ladies and gentleman. It will have a name one day, but it is too new to name right now and we're too busy developing it to name it. The Academy one day will be the premier educational institution in the world. For now, it is the second phase of your training to become part of the best anti-terrorist unit ever devised. Much will be expected of you. You will be expected to earn the equivalent of a bachelor's degree in one year. For your specialty, you'll earn the equivalent of a master's degree in up to three fields of study. This will be a 24-hour a day, seven day a week institution. While there will be ample time for recreation and the occasional diversion, you'll be expected to devote yourself entirely to your studies until you leave here. Cheaters and slackers will not be allowed. However good your performance was prior to coming here is of no matter now. If you don't cut it here, you'll be summarily sent home. If you are sent home, you'll be bound by your word that this place never existed."
"Are there any questions?" Forsythe’s eyes searched the somewhat rumpled and tired group standing before him. No one responded.
"Okay then, you'll be shown to your quarters. Get a good night's sleep. You begin your studies at 05:00.”
Ali glanced at the girl standing next to him. The same girl that had beat him to the john at Fort Myers. She looked dead tired. He didn't even know her name. He hoped he'd get to know her better. One of the officers standing nearby told everyone to follow him. Everyone grabbed their duffels and followed. They went through a door in the side of the large room. From there they walked down two long corridors until they reached a row of doors that were numbered. Ali was given the combination to door #53. He noted that the mysterious girl got 42. When he opened it, he found a small room with a twin bed on one side and a desk on the other. The desk contained a state-of-the-art computer built in with a large plasma screen. The rest of the room was bookshelves filled with books and manuals. It looked a bit like a plush jail cell except there was no stainless steel toilet in the corner. For that, he guessed he'd have to go down the hall.
Dead tired, Ali tossed his duffel in the corner, slipped out of his clothes and dropped down on the bunk. The next thing he knew was the sound of "Oh What a Beautiful Day” being played and a request that he be in the cafeteria in 30 minutes. He really had to pee. He grabbed a towel and headed down the hall, hoping that he was headed in the right direction. By the time he reached door #70, a sign for a unisex bathroom appeared, and he turned in, just as others were doing. He found an empty shower stall, and took a quick shower. At the sinks, Ali found young men and women like himself brushing their teeth and combing their hair. There were others waiting for him to leave, so he finished quickly and went back to his room. He flipped on the computer and a menu appeared. He took a quick look at the schedule for the day, printed it, and then printed a map showing his way around The Academy. He just had time to dress and leave for the cafeteria.
Unlike basic, the cafeteria displayed a wide range of fruits and breakfast entrees. Ali ate light, thinking that he had access to this food all day. He sat down with three others. They just had time to introduce themselves, when the loudspeaker told them that they had 15 minutes before assembly. Ali downed his food and caught up with the others on their way to the assembly room near the cafeteria. About two hundred people were gathered in the room. It was very high-tech, with computer connections and large plasma screens in easy view of everyone. He recognized General Forsythe when he entered from the left and took the microphone.
"Once again, welcome to The Academy. For some of you, this will be your first day in class. Forget what you learned in high school. There will be no tests. Each of you is expected to perform like you are getting As in everything you do. The true test of what you learn here will be how well you perform, 'out there.' In the meantime, everyone here is expected to pull their fair share and learn as rapidly as they can. There's no time to waste, so I'm dismissing you to your assigned classes. I hope you find your work here enjoyable and rewarding.“ With a smart salute to his troops, General Jim left the room through a door on the right.
Ali's schedule showed that he had an hour of geography, followed by calculus, followed by world religions, followed by organic chemistry, followed by international government, followed by logic, followed by computer architecture, followed by psychology, and so on until 20:00. Buried in this rigorous regimen was a half-hour of handball and a swim. There were also two short breaks for lunch and dinner.
That first day Ali found out who the mysterious girl was. She was in his computer architecture class. After the professor, a computer whiz from Silicon Valley and the Stanford Computer Science Department, lectured on a new type of digital computer without a hard drive and input/output strips that could be as thin and flexible as tape, the 15 students and the class were grouped into teams of five to brainstorm ideas on how to improve the design. The grouping was arbitrary, the professor just pointed out five students and made them a group. The tables in the classroom where rearranged, and the groups got together to work. Ali was teamed with two girls and two guys. He took the initiative to speak first.
"Hi, I'm Ali Rasheed.” he reached out his hand to the mysterious girl first. Her eyes were locked on his as she quickly raised her hand in his.
"Hello, I'm Dina Sokolovic Melos, I'm from Serbia, the former Yugoslavian Republic.” she broke the ice by announcing her ethnic background. Ali liked that. He wanted to know more. She continued to hold his hand. Her eyes seemed to reveal her feelings. Ali was hoping to learn how to read them. “It’s short for Milosevic, my father changed it when we came here. He now says that he is from Greece.” Her eyes showed shame in such an act of denial
The others introduced themselves, but Ali didn't pay much attention. He was focused on this Dina , this Christian, and why she would be interested in him, so obviously Moslem. Whether the group did well that day or not didn't matter, Ali was in love.
There were different people in each class, but they had the same things in common. All were very young and intelligent. Most were of some ethnic origin other than “American". Some even had accents. They all had a driving desire to learn. The enthusiasm was epidemic. It was easy to make friends. Unfortunately, there is no time to socialize. The only social activity that took place during the classes were when groups of students worked together on problems and scenarios. Teamwork quickly built friendships and alliances. Ali fell into the routine. There was no time to think about home or what might have been. There is only the task at hand at the moment, and that changed quickly and often. Like a machine, he learned, exercised, ate and slept. The days rolled into weeks in this anonymous underground haven. Before he knew it, Ali had a college education. Never in his wildest dreams did he think he would get one this way. He was also mentally and physically more fit than he ever thought he’d be. He felt strong and knowledgeable. He was growing up fast.
There was no time to think of what college would have been like or his losses. In the beginning Ali slept so soundly after the day’s rigor that he rarely thought of the bomb, his mother and father, Rob, Mrs. Johnson, Keisha or his high school buddies. Answering friend’s emails from his exile in Pakistan became a difficult task that dwindled with time. The Academy had become his life, consuming his heart and mind in its ever-changing routine. He was becoming part of a cult—the cult of the Intelligencia. His teachers were Nobel Laureates, and the like, flown in to impart their special skills on these eager, intelligent souls--his classmates.
Ali learned how to make a rudimentary atomic bomb, mix a batch of virus to be spread through the mail or on the wind, create deadly poisons that would kill without leaving a trace, develop circuitry that could time or direct explosive charges, hack most computers to suck their information out, and many other useful tools for underground guerrilla warfare. The last two months were spent in advanced seminars where groups engaged in simulated scenarios as real as Waco or 911.
Professor Thompson was direct. “Ali, you have made a fatal mistake. I’m singling you out only as an example—an object lesson—the others did it too. You allowed yourself to succumb to The Stockholm Syndrome. It is the most dangerous aspect of your lives from here on out. No matter how much you empathize, understand, or admire a leader’s style or ideas, you must never, ever give yourself over completely. There must always be that part of you that remembers what you learned here. What your purpose is. Otherwise, you are lost.”
Ali was quick to respond. “Dr. Thompson, you know as well as I that Giselle was right, by poisoning all of the leaders of the factions she would gain the upper hand, allowing me, Ahmed, to step in and establish a democratic government.”
“You are a naive fool. You let your feelings for her cloud your thinking. Do you think for a moment she would let you in?”
Dina , who played Giselle, added her two cents. “Dr. Thompson is right. You may have thought that you had fooled me into believing that, but my plan was to kill you with the others. You should have known that, knowing that they tortured my father and made me watch as they raped my mother to death—that I trusted no man.”
Thompson continued, “You only win if you survive. All the knowledge we give you here will be wasted if you are not prepared to give your life rather than aid or abet the enemy. The hard part is you may have difficulty determining who the enemy is. Don’t let it be you. Ahmed, you should have killed Giselle after she let you make love to her. When you let her get away with it, she had you.”
“Right on, Dr. Thompson.” Dina ’s smile was as big as the Cheshire Cat’s. Ali swallowed his pride, admitted his fatal mistake to all, and moved on.
“Better here than in the field.” There was a deadly serious look on Fred Thompson’s face as he muttered that epithet. He hated admitting to himself how mean humans could be to one another. He only hoped that these strategies, however cruel, would work—and that these young people would save the world in a way he couldn’t.
Somehow Ali made it through. There were many classes with difficult subjects that required his complete concentration. Instead, he lay in his bed awake each night, long after he should have been asleep thinking of her and the times they stole from the others to be together and talk about what they wanted out of life. The times they touched, ever so briefly, when the others weren't looking. The times they laughed and smiled over thoughts and jokes that were theirs alone. It was the closest thing to a freshman year in college Ali could imagine.
They learned physics and chemistry. How bombs were constructed and detonated. How biological agents were grown and spread. How diseases could be used against other people. How poisons worked. And how to use them without being detected. How to do DNA analysis and how the use devices for concealing information that were so secret that even the CIA wasn't using them.
They learned the psychology of large and small groups. They learned how to gain confidence of leaders and how to undermine them. They learned how to eliminate the opposition psychologically, or physically, if necessary.
But most of all, they learned that it wasn't their overcoming that mattered, it was whether not their involvement would make the world a better place. Cults and political ideologies had a way of becoming ingrained in peoples' psyches. Somehow, regardless of the amount of brainwashing or indoctrination, they had to keep their heads and use their intelligence to avoid succumbing to the ideologies they were sworn to destroy. After a year in The Academy, Ali was no less in love, but he was able to fend off even the seduction of Machiavelli. Underground like that, the year went quickly. Ali and those like him in The Academy had learned the equivalent of a bachelor's degree with some very specialized graduate level information thrown in for good measure.
If it hadn't been for the exercise room under ultraviolet light, they all would have been as white as sheets. As it was, after so long underground, Ali longed to see the sunlight, trees and feel the wind through his hair. In those nights he often dreamed of the two of them, he and Dina , in some idyllic spot like Yosemite, camping under the stars and climbing El Capitan. Those dreams would soon be dashed. He knew that they would be separated and he would never see her again. He had to warn himself not to get too attached—to steel himself, but it hadn't worked. In the little time that they had together, they plotted a life after the Corps.
“0h Dina , how I wish we could continue like we have, but you and I know that's not going to happen. A lot can happen in twenty years, but I'll bet against the odds that I'll see you on the other side, and if your biological clock isn't ticking too loudly, have a couple babies with you before we pass into that great gray retirement.” Ali smiled that broad smile that the thought of Dina having his babies brought.
Tears welled up in Dina 's eyes. She leaned into him. "Ali, Ali, Aliee! I never thought it would come to this. As much as I love my country, I've come to love you more. If I weren’t in so deep, I'd quit this business right away. And then I think of that awful Tuesday that seems so long ago and far away and I must go, even if means half my life.“ She was crying openly. Ali felt her tears flowing down his shoulder. He tried consoling her, but she sobbed like that and held on until it was time for them to go.
Somehow, Ali knew he would never see her again.