Searching for Time

By Joe Kaiser

President Michael Wisbon strode down the hallway of the West Wing with his usual rehearsed air of confidence. Anything less than a commanding demeanor would give the media exactly what they wanted: that America's first black president could not handle the burden of his occupation. Aides flanked him on every side; left, right, and everywhere between. Entering the Oval Office, he was quick in telling an aide to shut the door immediately, lest the reporters slither into another room of his workplace. Slowly, he eased his tall, slender frame into the snug desk chair made specially to fit his back.

"What do they have on the war with the Chinese?" he asked, meaning the reporters.

A college-aged male answered, "Nothing since the nuke rumor spread, sir."

"Good. It was a nightmare when that wildfire spread. Who told them we were arming nuclear weapons, anyway?"

"Uh, I think it was your secretary, sir," answered the aide again. Wisbon nodded, stroking his thin goatee. "Oh yes. The woman who idolized Lewinsky. Couldn't get me into bed, so she got her kicks with the media." He sheltered his eyes with the palm of his dark brown hand. "God, what a nightmare."

"The Chinese still have their nukes armed and ready, sir."

Wisbon growled. "Yes, I know." Silence flooded the room; so much that it scared the president. Normally, he was being swamped with information from a plethora of interns and aides. Looking at the Presidential Seal on the carpet in front of his desk, he breathed deeply. The weight of his position would be enough to crush any human being. The door to the office swung open, banging against the wall. Wisbon jumped, fearing the press had made a dramatic charge. He was relieved to see Colonel William Ernst, his Joint Chief of Staff. Ernst was beginning to show all of his sixty-three years in age.

"Sir, you're wanted in the Situation Room now," he instructed.

Sighing, Wisbon replied, "What now, Bill? Did we blow up another bamboo stick?" In a war that had been a stalemate for three years, his skepticism was justified.

Ernst ignored the comment. His hand remained on the knob of the door. "No, sir. This isn't a false alarm. We may have just won the war."

Standing, Wisbon towered above everyone else, supporting his weight with his hands on the desk. "Bill, you've said this many times throughout the past three years. What makes you think so now?"

"Sir, trust me on this one," replied Ernst, standing at ease. "We have delivered a crushing blow to the Chinese defenses, and their Prime Minister is prepared to make a statement announcing their surrender within the hour." Making haste, Wisbon did all but leap over his desk to get to the door. "Fill me in when we get there," he told Ernst, who was opening the door for him.

In the hallway, the colonel and the president wove intricate patterns between the pack of hungry television and newspaper media. Each reporter in the mob of hundreds had their own redundant question or solicitation of a presidential comment. Barely escaping their tape recorders and cameras with blinding lights, Wisbon understood why every president throughout American history ended his term with a head of gray hair.

The War Room was occupied by the other Joint Chiefs, as well as several Generals and many informants. Wisbon had a commanding presence upon entering the dark room, which had been prepared with a projector and laser pointer. As is custom, the president seated himself first, and his men followed suit. Ernst took his position in the front of the room, clearing his throat when he was ready to begin.

"As you are well aware, gentlemen, we have delivered a fatal blow in the Chinese-American war." Pointing to Beijing with the laser, he continued. "Here is where our troops attacked. The Marine 52nd and 38th, as well as the Army 104th, 77th, and 19th divisions struck here from five different directions." He paused, allowing everyone to absorb the information. "With the superior abilities of our troops, we overtook their largest stronghold. Meanwhile, all of their most destructive ships are sinking to the bottom of the Yellow Sea right now, thanks to a sweep of ambushes by many of our Air Force squadrons."

Wisbon raised his eyebrows. "Bill, we've been fighting this war for three years now, right?"

"Yes, sir," replied Ernst, putting his pointer down for a moment. "Why?"

"How many men would you say we've lost?"

Ernst looked up, trying to compute in his head. "I'd have to say about 30,000.Ē Wisbon pounded his fist on the desk, which was nearly invisible due to the dark.

"You're telling me they sacrificed their lives, and all we had to do was kick the shit out of these people?"

Anxious, Ernst cleared his throat again. "If that's the way you look at it sir."

"WHY IN THE HELL DIDN'T WE DO THIS TO BEGIN WITH!" yelled Wisbon, displaying the short fuse which had made him infamous throughout his political career.

Despite Wisbon's shouting, the colonel remained calm. "Sir, we didn't have these options available before. As it would turn out, China was planning an all-out assault on us. While they were mobilizing their 'do-or-die' operation, we struck first."

In disbelief, Wisbon stared off into space as his chin rested on his fist. "30,000 troops..."

Eric Hynes and his best friend, Eddie Norton, were putting their flight gear back into their lockers as they conversed.

"So, what's in store for ya now, Eric?" Eddie asked, hanging up his helmet. "You ready to retire?"

"Not quite yet," Eric replied smartly, "I still got a few good wars left in me." Both men laughed loudly. Removing his flight suit, Eric reflected on the countless missions to which he had been assigned during the war with the Chinese. Grabbing a comb from the top shelf, he swept his graying blonde hair back into its regular position. The battle he especially remembered was the one he felt could have ended the war much sooner: the one where Chang Xu, China's prize jet fighter, narrowly escaped to fight another day. As he fetched his shaving equipment, Hynes recalled the move which Xu used to taunt him upon exiting: a double barrel roll, fully rotating his jet twice.

Eddie noticed his friend's silence. "You alright, Eric?"

Eric did not turn around on his way to the bathroom. "Yeah, I was just thinkin' 'bout Xu gettin' away from me."

Frowning, Eddie followed him to the sink. "Eric, you trashed his ass. Just forget about it; the war's over anyways."

Spraying a good froth from his canister of Edge, Eric replied, "I may have trashed his ass, but I didn't put it out of its misery."

Eddie dropped the topic. "You gonna watch the signing of the peace treaty tomorrow?"

Eric applied the Mach 3 razor to his face, being careful to get as much of his scraggly stubble as possible. "Might as well watch the yellow bastards squeal. Hey, me and Janine are grilling a celebration dinner tonight. Wanna bring Christy?"

"Sure, a steak dinner sounds mighty good right now," replied Eddie, heading back to his locker. "I ain't tasted beef from her grill in months!"

"I hear ya, pal," said Eric, almost done with one side of his face, "loud and clear."

Getting make-up was always the part President Wisbon hated the most. It made him feel like the clown everyone had expected him to be. Making history was something he thought would be an honor. Instead, he needed hundreds of Secret Service around him nearly every second of the day just to survive for the next.

He sat in his desk chair, preparing for the speech he would make to the American public before signing the resolution which would finally end the war. Eyes closed, he sat within himself during the application of special eye shadow (for the lights, he was told). Sherry Parks, the press secretary, entered the doorway without knocking.

"Sir, a Chinese representative wants to address America before your speech," she announced, out of breath from the sprint to the Oval Office.

Wisbon opened his eyes, interrupting the make-up woman's business. "What for?"

Parks shrugged. "I guess he wants to apologize for what he's put our people through."

Wisbon lowered his eyebrows, unsure of what to think. "What the hell. Let them get their sniffling out of the way."

As Sherry left, Wisbon took a deep breath. He wanted to end the matter in the quickest possible fashion.

"Hello America, and good day," began the Chinese spokesman, speaking with a thick accent. Everyone in the country, including the president, was paying close attention. "Today marks the, how you say, 'end of the road'. . ."

"Can you believe this crap?" Eddie asked Eric. Each were sipping a beer at the Officer's Club. Eric said nothing, paying strict attention to the television screen.

". . .We understand that you have lost far too many of your citizens to count. While a verbal apology could never replace your loved ones, you have our deepest heartfelt sympathies. . ." President Wisbon looked at his watch, wondering when the "ceremonies" would commence.

". . .However, our losses are far greater than yours ever will be," the spokesman's voice grew an instant tone of grave seriousness, rather than practiced reverence. The ears of two hundred million people perked up, wondering what he was talking about. "Mr. President, you were scheduled tonight to meet with our Prime Minister to sign the treaty which would end this war. Unfortunately, you'll find he is no longer anywhere to be found in Washington. In his place, we are prepared to deliver a 'farewell' present to the people of America."

Hynes, in a flash, stood up from his bar stool, clenching his fists. "Those sons of bitches!"

". . .From Taiwan, we have a fleet of our favorite jet fighters flying toward you now, one of which ready to 'drop off' a nuclear bomb with America's name on it!" he laughed raucously, departing from the distinguished persona reserved for international communication. "Soon coming to a big city near you!" The broadcast ended with his insane laughter, and all of America could be collectively heard dropping a load into their pants.

Grinding his teeth, he told one of his aides, "If you don't get Ernst in here within fifteen seconds, I will personally guarantee your head will be the landing point for that nuke!"

Admiral Rodney Heralton addressed the room of one-hundred-fifty pilots. The tension and trepidation encompassing the briefing room in the Arizona Air Force base needed a chainsaw to be cut through.

"Let's face it, gentlemen," remarked Heralton, "this is a 'Hail Mary' mission. We don't know which city they're lookin' to blow to Kingdom Come, nor do we know how soon they'll be here. This is a simple plan: all of you will take off as a group. Squadron Alpha will break off toward Hawaii, Beta will advance toward the middle-Pacific Ocean, and Charlie will defend the coast near Alaska and Washington."

Hynes and Norton stared at their commander with cold expressions. They were prepared to become kamikazes, if doing so were necessary.

"Hynes, you'll be running the Beta Squadron, so odds are they'll find you," Heralton informed Hynes. "If they're smart, they won't have that thing armed on the way here. Blast away upon confirmed visual of the enemy!"

Eric and Eddie were each just short of forty years old, but looked about five years older. A mission of this significance was not likely to aid the aging process. They looked around the room, noting the pathetically young age of the men they would be leading into battle. A sickening feeling was felt as Eric thought of his wife, knowing that many of these boys (including himself) may not make it home to their significant others.

"That's it, men," Admiral Heralton said, signaling everyone to stand up. "If you know how to pray, do it as hard as you can."

Eddie looked at his friend before they left for the door. "These boys are about to become men, Eric."

"Yeah, and their girls are about to become widows!" snapped Eric, storming his way to the locker room.

Wisbon sat in his office after giving an impromptu "let's go get 'em" speech, his face buried in his hands, elbows on the desk. He did not cry, but instead waited motionless for the news of the nuclear bomb's explosion on American soil.

Wearing a distinguished business suit, his wife Charlotte softly opened the door. Taking a chair from in front of her husband's desk, she placed it next to Michael, who had not yet acknowledged her presence.

"How ya feelin', baby?" Charlotte asked gently.

"My country is about to be shaken to its knees," he answered, not removing his hands from before his mouth. "How could I have not seen this coming?"

"Nobody did, Michael. It's not your fault." Charlotte massaged his back with the flat of her hand. "We've got the world's best Air Force, baby. They'll handle them."

Michael remained silent for several minutes. He finally took his hands away from his face and glared at the clock, which read eight in the evening. "Those bastards have been playing games for years, Charlotte. I should have seen right through this 'peace treaty' horse shit."

Charlotte patted her husband's back delicately. "Don't worry about that, baby. We'll see it through."

Michael could not bear to look at her; the emotions would have been overwhelming. "Why did I run for this office, Charlotte? It's been breaking my back since I took the reigns from Watson two years ago." He stared at the smooth, wooden desk. "I knew I'd inherit this war from him, but I was cocky. I thought it'd be a piece of cake."

In sympathy, Charlotte kissed him tenderly on the cheek. "You've been a fine president, honey. Now don't do this to yourself." Michael finally found the ability to look his wife in the eyes. "I know you better than that. You've always kept your head up. You were blessed with courage; why don't you show it for me now?"

"It's in the skies with those pilots," he replied. Understanding his need for companionship, she held his hand and stroked his fingers, softly singing "Our God is an Awesome God" with her wondrous voice. It was a hymn he had loved since he was a toddler.

"Bravo One, what is your position?" echoed Admiral Heralton on the radio.

Eric replied into the radio in his helmet, "T0his is Bravo One. The coast has just disappeared over the horizon. Weíre currently at 16,000 feet, our heading 2-7-0."

"Proceed as planned."

What plan? thought Eric. Weíre going in to kick their asses and heading home. Flying hard and fast, he used his legendary perfect vision to eyeball the sky, looking to shoot down anything that moves. The fifty men flying behind him, including Eddie, had a very uneasy feeling building in their stomachs.

Squinting, Eric saw many black dots on the horizon ahead. Through past experience, he knew they would arrive within the next minute.

"Bravo Two, you seeiní what Iím seeiní?"

Eddie looked into the distance, now seeing a clear view of a fleet of what he estimated to be seventy fighter jets. "Bravo One, I see the whites of their skinny little eyes."

Eric announced over the radio. "Boys get ready. We have confirmed visual of J-7D Fishbeds. Good luck and God bless ya." Knowing Xu would have to be in the pack, Ericís hand clenched on the throttle, eager for a good dogfight.

The enemy was getting closer still; about five miles away. Before the battle officially began, Eric decided to see if he could locate Xu. Accelerating slightly away from his men, he barrel rolled his jet twice; the same move Xu had left him with a year and a half before. Watching each plane simultaneously, he was surprised to find one of the jets in the middle of the fleet before him reciprocating the very same maneuver!

Flying overtop the vast Pacific Ocean, Eric yelled into his radio. "Letís go boys! Donít stop Ďtill you dunk Ďem all in the drink!"

Instantly, the fleets arrived upon each other. A blur of gunfire and jets flying beyond the speed of sound ensued. Eric, in his obsession with tracking Xu, didnít see the Fishbed ready to achieve missile lock on his tail.

"ERIC!" screamed Eddie in his radio. "GET THAT SHITHEAD OFF YOUR SIX NOW!"

Instinctively, Eric stooped to a lower height and flipped on his air brake. His stalker flew right past him and into the plane heíd been following.

Two birds with one stone, Eric thought, looking elsewhere for enemy planes.

"Iím still here," said a distinct Chinese voice in Ericís radio. Xu had changed frequencies! "And I have a gift for you!"

The clash in the skies raged on, with casualties on both sides making a significantly noticeable difference. Eric and Eddie still remained, each having shot down more than their share of jets. Both were down to two missals. About twenty remained of both the Chinese fighters and the F-117ís. Eric grew increasingly angry with each broadcast from Xu on his radio.

Many of the Fishbeds found Eddie at once, pouncing on him from in front and behind. While his gunfire and the last two missals in his weapons bay took care of those in front, his skillful steering could not break him from the jets in back.

"Uh, Eric, I could use a hand when youíre not busy," his voice squawked into the radio. Eric fired one of his missals to finish off the man whom heíd been pursuing. Locating his friendís plane, Eric found three on Eddieís tail.

"Some mike-mike oughta clean up this mess," he told Eddie, firing his machine gun with astounding precision. He clipped off a wing on each Fishbed, sending them toward the Pacific Ocean below.

"Look behind you," Xu announced on the American radio. He had caught Ericís trail and was now hunting him from behind. Without a hint of panic in his body, Eric somersaulted in a high arc, causing Xu to pass underneath. Eric now had a good look at his enemy--though it was from a large distance away--and attempted to achieve missile lock.

"You can follow me all you want," said Xu, seeing the California coast approach on the horizon ahead. "But you wonít catch me before I drop this nuke."

"EDDIE!" Eric yelled into the radio, interrupting Xuís triumphant laughter. "YOU GOTTA CUT HIM OFF BEFORE HE GETS ABOVE SHORE!"

"Arming the weapon now," Xu said in Chinese on his own frequency. Eddie, literally flying like a bat out of hell, accelerated to top speed to get in front of Xu, who was now sandwiched between the two Americans as the battle between the remaining pilots continued behind them. There were few Chinese still in the air.

Eddie squeezed the button on the throttle, firing a load of ammunition toward Xu, who banked away from his captors. Eric, however, was still right on his tail, and fired his machine gun as well, catching a piece of the rear rudder. Xu now struggled to control his machine, but was still well under control of what he was doing.

Xu tried desperately to escape Ericís pursuit, fearing he would not again get a clean path from which to release his weapon. The damaged rudder made it difficult to twist and turn with particular skill, and he found Eric gaining on him quickly. Stealing a move from his adversary, Xu used the air brake, and Eric surged ahead, screaming swear words into his radio.

Eddie still sought Xu from the other direction, making sure he didnít get past him and fly above the mainland. Xu, still feeling crafty, began a game of ďchicken,Ē fighting off Eddieís maneuvers as he flew directly at him.

"Eric, heís in a kamikaze mood," Eddie warned. "I think you need to get him away from me."

With complete concentration, Eric fired more machine gun ammo. This time, he completely took off the rear rudder, sending Xu spiraling out of control.

In a state of despondency, Xu decided to fire the nuclear weapon. "ERIC, THE BOMBíS OUT!" Eddie screamed. "Oh my God. . ." was Ericís only reply. Xu tried to climb to a higher altitude, out of the way of what would be the resulting explosion. His plane, however, would not respond, and he tried to watch where the nuke would hit. It had a small chance of striking land when it would make impact in about thirty seconds.

Everyone at the Air Force base held their breath, each praying diligently in his or her own head. Ericís wife, Janine, and Eddieís wife, Christy, both stood perfectly still, listening to their husbandsí transmissions.

With blinding speed, the nuclear bomb came crashing down into the water one-half mile away from the coast. It did not detonate as it floated to the bottom of the Pacific.

"Nice dud, Xu!" Eric said to himself, chasing his opponent. Xuís jet was still flailing about in the air, trying to regain a level path.

Eddie flew back to assist his crewmates in blasting away the final Chinese jet while Eric looked to get missile lock on Xu. The signal beeped, and the crosshair on his radar turned red. He now had missile lock on the man who had escaped him earlier in the war. "Bend over and kiss your yellow ass goodbye!" said Eric. "Bravo one, fox four!" Pressing the button, he fired a air-to-air missile at Xu. Eric eagerly awaited for the next five seconds, which seemed like an eternity. He couldnít believe his eyes when the proximity warhead on the missile arrived near Xuís plane and exploded with violent fury, blasting the Fishbed into thousands of pieces.

"He got him!" yelled the dispatcher at the base. Everyone jumped about and screamed in relieved celebration.

Eric and Eddie did tricks with their F-117s as they led their remaining troops home.

". . .and in conclusion, ladies and gentlemen," said President Wisbon, finishing his television speech, "pilots Eddie Norton and Eric Hynes will be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for successfully preventing a national emergency and ensuring peace. "In fact," he grinned, "I would like to invite them to a drink of their choice once I leave office at the end of this year. Thank you, and God Bless America."

With the camera being turned off, Wisbon removed the microphone from the lapel of his blazer and exited his office. Charlotte met him in the hall with a peck on the cheek.

"You did great, Michael," she told him happily. "You sure you donít want to run for another term? Youíve done a great job so far."

"Iím positive, Charlotte," Michael replied confidently. "Let someone else handle this mess for another four years. Iím going to enjoy my sanity."

The president and his wife strode affably to their chambers to retire for the night.

"How many losses do you boys have?" asked Admiral Heralton over the radio.

"Iíd say about thirty-two," answered Eric, who was flying side-by-side with Eddie. "But they fought hard." "Well said, Bravo One," said Heralton. "Excellent work."

"Thanks, sir," replied Eric, giving Eddie a visible thumbs-up. "Oh, and Admiral?"

"Yeah, Bravo One?" the sound of a champagne cork being popped could be clearly heard on the radio at the base.

Eric smiled, eager to land and join the festivities. "Tell Janine I like my steak medium rare." 1