The third update was most puzzling 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 up. The pilot was working through every contingency, but at this moment, he was no longer in control of his aircraft.
“If the pilot isn’t flying it, and we’re not doing it remotely from the carrier, then who the hell is?” Chowdhury snapped at Hendrickson.
A junior White House staffer interrupted them. “Dr. Chowdhury,” she said, “the Chinese defense attaché would like to speak with you.”
Chowdhury shot Hendrickson an incredulous glance, as if he were willing the one-star admiral to explain that this entire situation was part of a single, elaborate, and twisted practical joke. But no such assurance came. “All right, transfer him through,” said Chowdhury as he reached for the phone.
“No, Dr. Chowdhury,” said the young staffer. “He’s here. Admiral Lin Bao is here.”
“Here?” said Hendrickson. “At the White House? You’re kidding.”
The staffer shook her head. “I’m not, sir. He’s at the northwest gate.” Chowdhury and Hendrickson pushed open the Situation Room door, hurried down the corridor to the nearest window, and peered through the blinds. There was Admiral Lin Bao, resplendent in his blue service uniform with gold epaulets, standing patiently with three Chinese military escorts and one civilian at the northwest gate among the growing crowd of tourists. It was a mini-delegation. Chowdhury couldn’t fathom what they were doing. The Chinese are never impulsive like this, he thought.
“Jesus,” he muttered.
“We can’t just let him in,” said Hendrickson. A gaggle of Secret Service supervisors gathered around them to explain that the proper vetting for a Chinese official to enter the White House couldn’t possibly be accomplished in anything less than four hours; that is, unless they had POTUS, chief of staff, or national security advisor-level approval. But all three were overseas. The television was tuned 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 senior NSC staffer in the White House at that moment.
“Shit,” said Chowdhury. “I’m going out there.”
“You can’t go out there,” said Hendrickson.
“He can’t come in here.”
Hendrickson couldn’t argue the logic. Chowdhury headed for the door. He didn’t grab his coat, though it was below freezing. He hoped that whatever message the defense attaché had to deliver wouldn’t take long. Now that he was outside, his personal phone caught signal and vibrated with a half dozen text messages, all from his mother. Whenever she watched his daughter she would pepper him with mundane domestic questions as a reminder of the favor she was performing. Christ, he thought, I bet she can’t find the baby wipes again. But Chowdhury didn’t have time to check the particulars of those texts as he walked along the South Lawn.
Cold as it was, Lin Bao wasn’t wearing a coat either, only his uniform, with its wall of medals, furiously embroidered epaulets in gold, and peaked naval officer’s cap tucked snugly under his arm. Lin Bao was casually eating from a packet of M&M’s, picking the candies out one at a time with pinched fingers. Chowdhury passed through the black steel gate to where Lin Bao stood. “I have a weakness for your M&M’s,” said the admiral absently. “They were a military invention. Did you know that? It’s true—the candies were first mass-produced for American GIs in World War II, specifically in the South Pacific, where they required chocolate that wouldn’t melt. That’s your saying, right? Melts in your mouth, not in your hand.” Lin Bao licked the tips of his fingers, where the candy coloring had bled, staining his skin a mottled pastel.
“To what do we owe the pleasure, Admiral?” Chowdhury asked.
Lin Bao peered into his bag of M&M’s, as if he had a specific idea of which color he’d like to sample next but couldn’t quite find it. Speaking into the bag, he said, “You have something of ours, a small ship, very small—the Wén Rui. We’d like it back.” Then he picked out a blue M&M, made a face, as if this wasn’t the color he’d been searching for, and somewhat disappointedly placed it into his mouth.