Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
His anniversary date had finally come. Ali found a deserted pay phone and made the call. He had long forgotten the number, but the operator directed him to The Commandant, Homeland Security, in New Washington, D.C. An unfamiliar female voice answered. "Office of The Commandant.”
"May I speak to the Commandant?"
"He is not in. However, I am authorized to receive his calls.”
"Pearl Harbor, 1941"
"May I have your mother's maiden name?"
"What is your social security number?"
"What was the name of your high school?"
"San Jose High.”
"Welcome back, Ali Jaheed. Where are you located?"
"I'm in Kuala Lumpur.”
"Let me check a minute, .... OK, go to the Kuala Lumpur airport and to the American Airlines counter. Your ticket home will be waiting there for you. Any questions?"
"None that I can think of, except, aah, ... your age?
"I'm sixty four, my young man. I can see that it is time for you to leave the Service. You flatter me, but I think you'll find much better fair than me when you get back. Bon Voyage.”
As instructed, Ali went to the American Airlines counter at Kuala Lumpur Airport, and found his one-way ticket to John Foster Dulles Airport waiting. With his ticket was a note asking him to go to the Top Flight Club and call the phone number on the note. The Top-flight Club was reserved for dignitaries, frequent fliers, and corporate executives who the airlines wanted to impress. Showing the doorman his note, Ali had no trouble entering the club with no other credentials. Once inside, he was escorted to a plush table and asked if he wanted anything to eat or drink. The entertainment and aroma coming from the kitchen was most distracting, but Ali waved them off in favor of a phone. The waiter produced one, and he made the call.
"This is the Embassy of United States of America, Kuala Lumpur," the synthesized voice said. "Please state your request and I will direct your call.”
"This is Ali Jaheed. I have been asked to call this number.”
The phone rang again. "Hello Mr. Jaheed. We have been expecting you. Homeland Security called and asked us to provide papers for you. Are you at the Top Flight Club?"
"Good. My name is Charles Nelson. I'm Chief of Security here at the Embassy. Just relax at the club until I can get your papers together and bring them to you. It shouldn't take more than an hour.”
Ali was hungry from all the excitement, so he ordered and ate alone, watching the Balinese dancers perform. It was hard to believe that it was just a hologram. They were so real looking and came so close, he actually thought he could reach out and touch them.
"Mr. Jaheed?” The sound of a man speaking behind him woke him up from the spell the realistic, but totally artificial, dancers had over him. God, he thought, stuff like this could be used to influence people and probably already was. He turned to see who was calling him.
"Nelson, I thought you'd never get here.” Ali didn't know how long he had been in that trance, but he wasn't going to let some embassy employee catch him napping.
"I'm sorry, it took a lot longer than I thought. We got the information instantaneously over the Internet, but getting the right paper to print it on took a little longer, five hours. I apologize. Have you been enjoying the dancers?"
"Yes, I guess I have. Haven't experienced anything like that, ...“ Ali thought for a minute, should he be telling this guy that? ”... [F]or a long time. I've been in the Service.”
"Here is your passport, diplomatic papers, and your pill.” The man handed them to Ali.
"Pill? Why the pill?"
"It contains a microchip that will allow you to go through security much faster. Just swallow it, and before it passes a few days from now, you will already have your permanent implant.”
Ali decided not ask about the implant.
"We've booked you to Dulles through Tokyo. You'll be flying supersonic on American’s new Space Ark 979. It actually arcs into space as it reaches Mach 3.5. You'll enjoy the ride as much as the amenities aboard. Your flight leaves in five hours.”
Ali told the waiter to wake him at half-hour before his flight and rejoined the trance dance. In what seemed like an instant, he was awakened and took the elevator down to his concourse and his flight home.
They were on the ground in Tokyo only long enough to take on hydrogen and exchange passengers. Ali would have liked to see the city, but there wasn't time to get off the plane, and his itinerary didn't allow for him to take a break in his flight. "Well, maybe next time," Ali thought to himself. He then shifted his thoughts to what he would do when he got home. He hadn't heard from his father in five years. All there was, was a terse, short speak filed e-mail about "Striking it rich" and "Buying a place in Tahoe.” He wasn't sure what that all meant, but he was anxious to find his father and catch up, as best he could, with his life.
The plane took off again and arced up over the North Pole on its way to the United States and Dulles International. The view from the edge of space was spectacular and occupied a good bit of Ali’s three-hour flight. By the time he had a meal and watched a holo, they were gliding in over the Maryland countryside for their landing at Dulles. Ahead he could see the shining edifices of New Washington. The capitol was twice as large as the original, and stood above all the other buildings in its new location in the Virginia foothills. He couldn't wait to see it. Just before they landed, he could see the green expanse of the Potomac estuary. There was no evidence of ruins. He had heard that it had become a wildlife refuge.
The old terminal at Dulles had been replaced by a larger, more striking one. The runways were longer to accommodate the Space Arks and most pedestrian traffic was underground making more room for the planes and service vehicles, as well as increase security. Ali arrived mid day, about 11:00 a.m., and asked the cab driver to take him to Homeland Security. When he arrived at the gate, the guard told him to wait and sent the cab on its way.
A small electric vehicle pulled up with a Marine driver. Ali got in, and the driver drove them deep into the compound. Ali didn't see any cars, so they had no parking problem when they arrived at a small building with flags flying over the door. The sign on the door said, "Commandant, Homeland Security.” The Marine pointed Ali toward the door Ali thanked him for the ride, hopped out, and entered the building.
A beautifully paneled, large reception area greeted him. He walked over to a beautiful young lady at the reception desk and told her that he was Ali Jaheed, reporting for the end of his duty.
"Yes, I know. Your microchip precedes you. General Forsythe is most anxious to see you. Please step into his office on your left.”
Ali looked to the left, and, like in the movies, the panel wall parted, providing an entry to the Commandant's Office that wasn't there before. He walked in. General Forsythe rounded his desk about the same time and offered Ali a chair by the window that probably appeared to be a stone wall from the outside.
The General looked very fit and not a day older than the last time Ali saw him. As he shook hands, he couldn't help but say, "My, General Forsythe, you haven't aged a bit! You look the same as you did the last time I saw you.
"Colonel Jaheed, I'm afraid I'm not the same. I've had cancers in my thyroid, pancreas, liver, lungs and brain--legacies from my stay in the bunker after the blast. Fortunately, Johns Hopkins and the new Walter Reed, working in conjunction with M.D. Anderson in Houston were able to cure them all--at least so far. I've learned that I'm the last survivor of those of us in the bunker. I wish some of those kids had survived instead of me. The rest is just cosmetic surgery. They are getting very good at it. I doubt that I will live as long as my contemporaries.”
It saddened Ali to hear that. He dropped his head a bit, and then responded. "Well, I for one am glad that you made it this far. Through all those years I kept seeing you as the image of my hero. You don't know how you inspired me to keep going.”
"I tried. Sometimes I failed. Some of your contemporaries aren’t coming back. Many couldn’t take it and quit. But it's the ones like you that I look forward to. The ones who stayed the course and served their country with uncommon valor.” He walked over to a credenza and picked up a beautiful gold and black lacquer box. "Colonel Jaheed, I have something to present to you. Here are your service medals. The Medal of Freedom. The Medal of Civilian Honor. The Silver Star. The Medal of Valor. And the Congressional Medal of Honor. I wish I were presenting these in a formal ceremony. But as you know, your comrades who have followed would be in jeopardy. Frankly, I don't know how we've kept this secret for so long. It saddens me to know that you will not be able to share your medals with anyone until that time we can safely reveal the Corps. In the meantime, I have asked the Treasury Department to keep your medals until such time as that happens.” Forsythe handed the open box to Ali with his left hand and shook Ali's right vigorously, his eyes tearing up as he did so.
Ali examined his medals closely. Each one had his name engraved in the back. Oh how his father would love this! A tear came his eye, too, as he thought of it. Suddenly, he could wait to see him again.
"Your discharge papers have been prepared. If you wish, you can stay on in the Service. We have need for young officers such as you. You don't have to decide now. Take a month or two if you wish.”
Ali shook his head, "No, I'm out for good. I've had enough service to my country for a lifetime.”
With that, General Forsythe reached for Ali's right hand again, putting his left on Ali shoulder. This turned into a hug, both men gently patting each other on the back. Rank aside, their friendship was sealed. Ali saluted his General turned and left the room. The wall closed in behind him. The secretary was waiting with his discharge papers. They were standard Navy fair, showing that he had served in the Marine Corps for twenty years and was, “Honorably discharged with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.” There was no hint of the type of service he had rendered. The secretary gave him $5,000 in cash, a debit card to a bank account with $100,000 credit on it, and a credit card. There was a list of phone numbers and federal websites with services provided for veterans. "Please let us know if you decide to use another bank account. Your veteran’s retirement will be deposited directly into this account unless you ask us to change it. Please inform your bank through the number on the card as soon as you have a permanent address. Here are your orders for the Outpatient Clinic at Walter Reed. Please check in at your earliest convenience to get your physical screening and implant. The Veteran’s Hospitals of America are poised to correct any maladies your long years of service have brought. You look very healthy to me.” She smiled.
“I feel healthy, too.” Ali smiled back at her. He wanted to ask her for a date, but it was time to leave.
Ali picked up his duffel, smiled again, and signed his discharge papers. In two minutes he had left the building out onto the beautiful grounds of Homeland Security. The Marine in the electric vehicle was waiting at the base of the steps. The ride back to the guard gate was so much sweeter than the ride in. He was free. He could feel it, ... free.
The guard called a cab for him as he watched the squirrels play in the noonday sun under the spreading oaks. It was good to be home. He directed the cab to take him to Walter Reed. The procedures there, including lab tests and a full body scan, took less than four hours. The doctors pronounced him healthy and implanted his security ID chip. He caught another cab to Dulles International. When he got there, he booked a night flight for San Francisco.