Under the Radar

Book Excerpt: 'The Towers' by David Poyer

Acclaimed novelist David Poyer has just published The Towers, a new Dan Lenson novel that deals with the events of 9/11 and SEAL team efforts to hunt down, capture or kill Osama bin Laden in the days after the attacks. We've got a moving excerpt that finds Lenson in the Pentagon just after the planes struck the World Trade Center.

9:00 A.M., THE NAVY COMMAND CENTER

Dan tried the phone again. What was wrong with the thing? Just a click as if it had connected, then nothing. Or else “All lines are busy. Try your call again later.”

He put it away. The images were up on the large-screen displays, dwarfing the smaller rectangles of the televisions. The watch team stared in silence. Smoke blanketed the canyons of downtown Manhattan. He tore his gaze away. The watch captain sat overlooking the room, eagles glittering on his khaki collar.

“Sir? My wife’s in New York. At the Trade Center. What are we getting on this?”

“Just what’s coming over the networks. CNN said some waiter saw a light plane hit and bounce off.” The captain kneaded a grizzled scalp. “It’s a huge complex. Lots of other buildings. Chances are she isn’t in the one it hit.”

“Now they’re saying a two-engine jet,” someone called. “Maybe a 737.”

“Pilot lost control,” the captain said. “Maybe a heart attack.”

But wasn’t that what copilots were for? Dan was turning away, pulling out the cell again, when beside him the captain stiffened. Someone gasped.

Men and women started to their feet. He turned. The screen had the ABC logo. Live, the caption read.

Sailing low across the city, seeming to pass behind the towering, smoking spire of the North Tower, a large, dull blue airliner, twin-engine, swept-wing, slid across the skyline of the city and merged with it. For a moment he thought, So someone filmed it. Then the angle changed, the network switched to another camera, on the ground, and he realized with numbed horror that the second plane had hit the tower that wasn’t yet on fire. The South Tower.

“No,” he said. If she hadn’t gotten out in time . . . but surely they’d have evacuated by now. Surely.

An immense, off-center bloom of poppy-colored fire. White-hot parts shooting off like sparks. He stood frozen, appalled. He wanted to rush outside. But to go where, to do what?

Voices rose around him again. “No way that’s an accident.”

“Was it a missile?”

“No. I saw it. A fucking airliner.”

Dan checked his watch, memorizing the time by some obscure reflex. The captain said, “Listen up! Get the word out. Contact the CNO. Is the Vice CNO still back there? Get him out here ASAP. He needs to see this.”

Niles emerged, arms dangling, to halt mesmerized like all the rest at the unbelievable images. Dan stared at his broad back. What they’d just discussed suddenly seemed petty. A promotion board, another ship . . . now the country was under attack. By whom, they didn’t yet know. But they had to act. Prevent more deaths, if they could. He took a step toward the watch captain, who was barking into a phone, then stopped. He didn’t know the comm procedures here. How to run the consoles. The best thing he could do right now was stay out of their way.

He hit SEND again, despairing, and to his astonishment connected. A weird clicking, but her voice behind it. “Dan. Dan? Is that you?”

Relief flooded him. He had to put a hand to the TV support to stay on his feet. “Yeah. Yeah, it’s me. You all right, hon? We’re watching all this on TV.”

“Not exactly,” she said. Someone was shouting in the background. A crash. Screams. “What’s going on? Do you know?”

Someone had turned up the audio on the displays. He could barely hear her. He pressed the phone to his skull so hard it hurt. “Where are you? Are you all right?”

“Not exactly. Dan? Dan, you still there?”

He goggled at the screen, which was replaying the plane sailing, coasting into the building, though it must have been hurtling, followed again by that intense yellow-red flame. “Yeah. Yeah. I just saw a plane hit—”

“What? Another one?”

“There were two. Airliners. One targeted on the North Tower, the other on the South. You’re okay, God, I thought—”

“I’m not exactly . . . okay.”

They were talking past each other, as if she couldn’t hear, or only got him intermittently. He clamped a palm over his other ear, turned away from the televisions, from the screams and cries of horror. “Where are you? You’re not still in the—”

“We’re still in the tower. We were trapped in the elevator. Were you trying to call?”

It was so much like some special-effects-laced movie that he felt numb. Over and over on the screens flame bloomed, the deep, hot marigold laced with black of burning fuel. “Yeah. Yeah. You’re in an elevator? Can you get out?”

“We already did. Right now we’re on I think the ninety-second floor.”

She coughed. “A lot of smoke.”

He closed his eyes. She was nowhere near safe. “Stay low. Under it.”

“Yeah, well, can’t do that. It’s under us, smoke’s coming up through the floor.” She coughed and the phone rattled. “I’ve got to—”

“Get out of there.”

“This is a strike against the homeland,” Niles was bellowing behind him. “Whoever did this, there’s more on the way. The CNO’s out of the building. I’m acting in his name. All ships, all jet bases to Threatcon Delta. Pass that direct to all fleet commands. Get me the watch commander at NMCC. Scramble Oceana, Lemoore, and Miramar. I want fighters over Norfolk and San Diego and a CAP over every carrier. Who’s our nearest Aegis cruiser to New York? Where’s Yorktown?”

“Gulf of Mexico, sir.”

“Who else? Where’s Normandy? Get her under way. Get her headed up the coast.”

Dan stood back. The space, filled with horrified onlookers only seconds before, was electrified now. Every phone being spoken into. Every keyboard in use. In minutes every Navy warship would be at general quarters, every shore base locked down. Fighters would be launching from every airfield.

But they hadn’t been the target.

He tried to take a step back. Think analytically. This enemy, whoever they were, hadn’t struck at a military base like Pearl Harbor. They’d hit the Twin Towers. A strategic target? As far as he knew, strategy didn’t get plotted out of downtown Manhattan.

The only theory that made sense was Giulio Douhet’s. Douhet had advocated striking sites important to a country’s sense of self, to spur it into a reaction that would let the attacker decimate the defensive forces.

But why not attack Washington, then? The White House or Congress would make headlines, if that was what this enemy wanted. Six years before, a suicidal truck driver had stolen a Cessna and crashed it into the White House lawn.

As a charter member of the Tomahawk community, he still weighed in on the classified chat rooms. Talked to targeteers and operators at conferences. One of the submariners he’d trained had told him about a mission in the Sudan. A shadowy figure they’d had Tomahawks dialed in for personally. As soon as they got six hours’ warning, enough to program the inertial guidance, they’d launch. But they’d never gotten that notice, and the missiles had stayed tubed until the end of the deployment. Later strikes against training camps in Sudan and Afghanistan had missed him too. The shadowy doctor who’d built the bomb that had destroyed Horn had worked for him, or had been rumored to. All directed by the same puppet master.

So if it was bin Laden, their paths had already crossed. But how could one man do this? Saddam made more sense. Humbled in the Gulf War, he must want revenge. Maybe these weren’t airliners, but rented cargo jets loaded with fuel and explosives.

But again, if it was Saddam, wouldn’t he be hitting Washington?

Or was it the Chinese? North Koreans? Cubans? Domestic terrorists, like McVeigh and Nichols?

Or someone they’d never imagined, didn’t know about at all?

The problem wouldn’t be lack of suspects. When you were the sole remaining superpower, it was King of the Hill. If you toppled, all the others would cheer. Until the next kid mounted the sandpile.

He shook himself, watching the Towers burn, and remembered: Blair. Tried the phone again. Fruitless. He was almost out of charge, anyway. He looked around. Everyone had something to do, except him. There—a vacant cubicle. If he could get online, log in to SIPRNET . . . he slid in. Photos of wife and kids. The guy was a Canadiens fan. Dan booted up, but the password screen stonewalled him. He tried his passwords from TAG, his old National Security Council log-in. Nothing worked. He slid the drawer out and looked inside, checked both sides of the monitor for stickies. Nada.

He spotted Niles at a table with the watch captain. “Sir?”

The admiral barely glanced up. “Make it fast, Lenson.”

“I know the Sit Room captain. I can get you a line to the PEBD. In the White House basement. If I could get a password—”

“I have someone working the White House,” the captain said.

Niles nodded, heavy lids drooping, then flicked his hand. “Go on, Lenson. We’ll manage.” The tone was dismissive: We don’t need you. The realization burned up through Dan’s gut to his face as they stared at him, Niles smiling slightly. Then they sobered, looking back at the screens.

Dan wanted to say something, but it felt useless. Picayune, in the face of disaster. He swung away for the door. Going, but unsure where. He had no duty station. No general quarters station. How ironic that when the shit finally hit the fan, he was out of the loop. He glanced at the clock: 0943.

He turned left and then left again into the shining, brightly lit corridor. Then halted, though he had no idea why.

A tremendous explosion quaked the floor and blew the overhead lights down on him in a spray of glass, plunging the corridor into instantaneous darkness. He slammed into the deck, blown down by a shock wave. His jaw struck tile.

A lacuna, a gap in consciousness. He emerged staggering, surrounded by fire alarms and shrill screams. He stood in the open between two of the Pentagon’s concentric rings. The ground was asphalted, like a road. Into it, through an arched hole in the beige brick big enough to drive a pickup through, a pile of . . . debris . . . as tall as a man had been blown out on the asphalt and was burning fiercely with yellow-orange flames that gave off a dark, oily smoke. The same marigold hue he’d seen only minutes ago on the screen; the color that said instantly to anyone trained in shipboard firefighting fuel fire.

He had no idea how fuel had gotten here. Maybe a bomb had set off a fuel tank of some kind. Yes—a bomb. No doubt concealed by someone on the building teams during the reconstruction Enders had been talking about.

All these thoughts stopped dead as a human figure, on fire from feet to head, stepped out of the flames and walked stiffly down the pile of burning debris. It slowly collapsed as it reached the road. The sight was so bizarre he stood unable to move. Then, making himself breathe again, he pushed the door open and raced toward the fallen figure, catching the blast of radiant heat and a queerly familiar smell. One exactly like the exhaust of a turbine-powered ship, such as Barrett or Horn.

When he crouched by the body, the fat and skin were still burning. He couldn’t even tell if it was male or female, though the Corfams looked small enough to be a woman’s. Above him gigantic, repetitive globes of visible gas were venting from the hole in the building. As they hit open air, they flashed into flame, like fluid spouting from the mouth of a circus fire-eater. Paper and wooden debris flashed into flame. He shielded his face with one arm. From the corridor other men ran out onto the drive. Navy in khakis, Air Force in blues.

Dimly, past the gushes of incandescent gas, he made out a figure staggering aimlessly. It didn’t seem to see the exit. Others moved behind it, deeper in hell. Fire was cascading down all around them. They wouldn’t be alive long, as it took hold. Exactly like an engine-room conflagration. If they didn’t get out now, they’d lie down, overcome by smoke, and die where they fell.

A gap showed below the gushes of flame, above the smoking debris. He took a deep breath, crouched, and ran up the pile, bricks grating and turning under his shoes. Heat blasted his skin. He buttonhooked left as soon as he was through. Faintly, from behind him, came the grating of other shoes on the rubble.

The cavelike interior was dark except for the flame and the buzzing spark of short circuits above him. Fire roared to his right, flowing down in a liquid fall. He straightened and instantly got zapped by a live wire in the sagging ceiling. Melting material plopped softly, smoking, starting small fires where it hit. One drop seared his shoulder. Maybe this wasn’t a smart idea. The ceiling creaked ominously. Then he caught the elusive figure again, more distant, moving like a wayward ghost through the murk.

He started forward, stepped on something soft, and looked down. It was a face. He bent beneath a blanket of woolly, black smoke forming at chest level and began to dig. Tossing aside hot pieces of jagged metal, charred publications, dozens of pieces of red plastic and three-ring scarlet board he recognized as Top Secret snap binders. Other hands joined his and he turned streaming eyes to one of the men from the drive. “Gimme a hand,” the guy said, and Dan took a step back and saw a shattered rack of electronics lying across the fallen man’s thighs. Another man joined them, this one in an Air Force uniform. They got the victim free and the others dragged him off toward the hole.

Dan glanced at it, at daylight like the exit from a hellish Haunted House; then bent in a racking, phlegmy cough. He hoped somebody was doing the same for Blair, wherever she was.

The smoke reeked of burning fuel and plastic. A soldier in dark green trou and light green shirt, thirtyish, uncovered, mustached, appeared from the smoke and Dan grabbed him. “Let these guys handle the ones closest to the door.”

“We stay together?”

“Stay together.”

“Mick.”

A distant siren was followed by “Attention. A fire emergency has been declared in the building. Please evacuate.”

“Dan.” They shook once, quick, hard, and Dan saw a piece of torn blue-gray cloth from some sort of curtain and picked it up. He tore it in half and handed part to the sergeant and wrapped the rest over his own mouth.

The plopping spatter from above was growing, as was a strong stink of burning . . . horsehair? Looking up, he saw more fire up there. Swell. The wiring was melting. Probably whatever rebar was holding up the sagging concrete too. This wasn’t unfamiliar territory. Every Navy man put in thousands of hours in fire parties, fire drills. With a three-inch hose and a fire party behind him he could fog down this space, cool it below flash point, and start pushing that fire back. Fog and foam.

But he didn’t have a hose. He hesitated, then went on, stepping carefully over shattered electronics, smashed, smoking computer monitors, a shining hydraulic strut, a bent, jagged cage of steel bars. Mick followed. This had to be a SCIF, a radio-shielded space for classified comms. That made sense of the red plastic too.

He came to a blasted-apart concrete wall and climbed through. A piece of rebar came off in his hand. He started to throw it away, then kept it.

Past the twisted bars lay a zone of shattered, burning plywood. It was covered with fuel, not all ignited yet. He stepped over an instrument panel that looked as if it had come from an aircraft. Something pink and gray had been forced through it as if by enormous pressure. It glittered with particles of glass. The soft drops plopped and sizzled down. The smoke was getting thicker. He came across scorched cans of ginger ale and soda and cracked one and poured it over the cloth. That helped, but his eyes were tearing so badly he couldn’t see where to step. They should have full-face masks and OBAs. Helmets, firefighting boots, gloves, flash gear. Not Certified Navy Twill uniforms whose woven polyester was beginning to melt-laminate itself to his shoulders. Another body, face-down; he turned the head over; past help, blasted to white bone from the chest up.

He left it and staggered on, turning back only once to make sure of the exit. The round light glowed smaller now, vague through the smoke. Couldn’t lose sight of that. That panel had been off a plane, a big one. So was the shattered aluminum that glittered and steamed all around. He stepped on something and lifted his shoe. A purse. A hand with a ring still on it gripped it.

Two planes on the Towers. Another here. Where else? The CIA? The Capitol? The Statue of Liberty?

Another ten yards and he’d turn back. While he could still get out, though his khakis were torn and his hands burned and his shoes were smoking.

By now he and the air force guy weren’t walking, but clambering on blistering hands and torn knees over toppled cubicles, piles of smoking paper, smashed computers, cables and wires tangled with pieces of concrete and partition walls and blasted-off chunks of the pillars. Not all that different though than when he’d had to crawl through Horn’s shattered hull. A moan diverted him and he groped in the obscurity, pulling up toppled dividers, but couldn’t find anyone. The moan didn’t come again. He found another body, a piece of jagged aluminum driven through its chest.

Another groan, this time from above. He glanced up to see a woman in an Army uniform hanging from a hole in the second-story floor. Her open eyes blinked beseechingly at him. The fire was crackling above her. The ceiling was sagging. As she stretched out an arm, it collapsed. More pillars followed with a hollow roar, and she disappeared.

Chairs, copiers, file cabinets, wrapped with wire and smoldering. Everything in here was going to burst into flame, perhaps in seconds. In those seconds, anyone who was going to be saved, would be saved.

A human shape in the smoke, reclining in a chair that had been pushed back against the buckled wall by the blast. Dan climbed over a smoking, shredded desk until he could look down into its face. Only there wasn’t any. Blast or flying metal had scooped it away from the forehead down: eyes, face, jaw, leaving Dan looking into a running mass of blood pulsing from bared bone and sinuses. The hair was burned to ash and the neck was charred. Bubbles worked deep in the mass. The chest rose and fell. The head slowly rolled back and forth. Dan hesitated, unable to look away. He started to reach for a shoulder, then stopped. Looked toward the now distant glow of daylight. Up, at the sagging ceiling directly above, dimly visible through the gathering smoke.

He gripped the smoking uniform at the shoulder, once, hard. The faceless one winced. But otherwise didn’t respond. Dan backed away, over the desk, down the pile again. And crawled on.

Past another huge pile of toppled masonry and brick and smashed equipment. He figured he was back in the command center, but in the dark and smoke it was impossible to be sure. The space was dotted with support columns, except where some terrific force had swept them away, or left meshlike ghosts of bent rebar with all their concrete blown away. Body parts everywhere, flesh ripped from bones, smoldering torsos, heads, legs, feet, torn apart and shredded and plastered against those partition walls that still stood amid the smoldering heaps of desks, chairs, copiers, file cabinets. Some parts looked flash-charred, while an arm’s length away a checkbook fluttered untouched on a desk. Soon it would all be engulfed, that was clear. Twenty feet away a stream of pure fire arced down onto a file cabinet, which burst into flame. The smoke hurt. It was freighted with burning plastic, off-gassing insulation, burning fuel. Tears and snot streamed down his face. A red-hot band was tightening around his heart. His feet were strapped with lead, like an old-fashioned helmet diver’s.

“We better get out of here,” the airman yelled. Dan coughed, nodded, started to pull back. Then heard the groan again.

The whiteboard was pinned under a huge chunk of jagged concrete. They pulled that off, then the board, to find two bodies in Navy khaki. The watch captain’s back was charred black, as if he’d taken the full force of the wave of fire. The other body was unmarked, but they were both dead.

No; the one on the bottom stirred. They got him up between them and hauled him back over the pile to where the others hustled him off.

Dan was backing away when he saw a shape moving deep in the murk. No, two shapes, stumbling along, hands groping out. Wandering blindly in the smoke. One fell. The other helped him up. One of the shadows was huge, distorted, inhuman, humpbacked. They were headed across his front, away from the exit. He screamed after them, but a wall collapsed and more fire poured down, blotting out his puny cry. The smoke ate them.

“Let’s go,” his partner yelled.

Dan pulled out of his grip and slid back down the pile, feeling sharp edges X-Acto hands and legs but without pain. “Over here!” he screamed again, crawling across smashed tables, body parts. The smoke was blanketing right down to them, black, thick, solid as tar. He caught sight of one of the figures again and lifted the bar in his hand and pitched it as hard as he could. He couldn’t see where it went. It disappeared into the murk. But it must have struck one of the shadows because the next thing he knew, the big figure blundered out of the smoke and into him. Dan seized it and yelled into its ear, “Follow us. We know the way out.”

“Lenson?” the shadow rumbled.

Niles had looked humpbacked because he was carrying a sailor. The admiral turned and shouted, “Over here. All of you, come to me.” To Dan’s astonishment, more figures emerged, creeping over the wreckage, crippled, smoking, burned, but still moving. One even dragged a briefcase.

They were all crawling toward the distant daylight when with a muffled whoomph the ceiling collapsed. A ball of flame ignited, kicking Dan into a wall as if he’d been pitched into it by two linemen. He almost blacked out, then felt a big fist clutch his shirt. The fabric tore and the fist shifted to his web belt, lifted, then threw him toward the light.

He crawled out hacking, drooling black snot, collapsing against the outer wall and vomiting into a black puddle of oil-coruscating water. Others stood aside until he straightened, then led him back toward the corridor.

He collapsed there for some minutes, trembling so hard it was close to convulsing, examining the blood dripping off his palms, which were black with soot and ash and fuel. He ought to feel something. Rage? Sorrow? But it wasn’t here yet. A headache pounded like barbarians slamming a ram into a castle gate. Someone held out a bottle of water and he poured it over his head, sluicing off soot, and drank the rest. It almost came back up, but he breathed slow and closed his eyes and kept it down.

He kept coughing up black phlegm and spitting it onto the muddy tile. A smoky haze lay over the drive, above the heads of men bringing out more bodies. Now and then one would move or cry out. Medics bent over these and got them onto backboards, and others carried them off down the corridor. Two men were talking. They said the Twin Towers had collapsed. Dan thought that unlikely. Blair was there. But there was something odd about that because he wasn’t really sure who this “Blair” was. His brain seemed to be calling in long distance. The men said the Sears Tower in Chicago had been hit too. They said a truck full of explosives had gone off outside the State Department.

Someone blocked in his light. Army, a light colonel. “We okay, Commander?”

“Just getting my breath.”

“Were you in there?” Pointing to the blown-out hole.

“Just came out.”

“Any more in there?”

“If there are, we’re not going to get to them.”

“How about this corridor? Is it clear?”

Dan tried to concentrate. “Four. This is four. It’s clear a little ways. Up till the C ring, I think.”

“Can you get into the spaces that are on fire?”

“I don’t think so. Either the walls are blown out or the doors are buckled.”

“How about on the second floor? That’s Army Personnel. Did they get out? Do you know?”

That explained the bodies in army uniforms, and the woman who’d fallen through the hole in the ceiling. He said he didn’t, but they could go look. Where was the emergency response? But when he looked at his watch, only fifteen minutes had passed. It seemed like much longer. Still, there should be firemen. Police. When he stood, the corridor reeled. He steadied himself against the wall. Made himself take a step. Then a couple more.

He and the colonel found a stairway and went up.

On the second floor the smoke was even worse than it had been down below. The heat scorched Dan’s cheeks and forehead and he pulled his undershirt up over his mouth. They went down the corridor trying to get doors open, but all were either locked or jammed. The colonel pounded on the doors but no one responded. Dan took a knee, then went to all fours, gagging. His throat was closing up. His hands and legs kept cramping and a red thread was lacing itself across his visual field. He rubbed his face, but that only scrubbed in some kind of grit that was all over him.

“You don’t look so good,” the colonel said. “Can you walk?”

“Can’t breathe. May have to . . . have to pack it in.” He gagged again on something deep in his throat that didn’t belong there. He struggled to get air, then coughed until the red thread got larger, much larger, and some- how sucked him down into it.

He must have passed out again. When he came to, he was still in the corridor, looking up at the ceiling tiles, being carried between two men. A smoky pall drifted between him and the ceiling. His skull was being com pressed in a hydraulic vise, but much worse was the thing blocking his airway. He could only get a breath now and then and, in between, had to cough out thick, sticky mucus. He got out, “. . . going?”

“Got to evacuate,” one of his bearers said without stopping. They were really humping along; the doors were flying past. He caught the number on one; they were almost to the A ring. “Another plane on the way.”

“. . . ’nother?”

“Four minutes out. Got to get you out of here.”

The thought barely registered, as if there were so much horror in the day already any addition was high on an asymptotic curve. He marveled vaguely at how well someone must have planned, to strike the most powerful country on earth such savage and unexpected blows. He turned his head and gagged, then concentrated on getting the next breath. It didn’t come, that thing in his throat was blocking it, and he twisted and threw his arms out, panicking, as a black, rotating tunnel opened and sucked him down.

THEY must have carried him all the way out to the courtyard because the next time he came to, a brilliant blue sky lay looking flat just above his eyes, and dappled shadows of trees with smoke rising behind them. People were running and shouting all around. Another plane had hit Camp David, a woman called. Sirens ululated. Firemen jogged by. He stared up at the smoke. Terrified. Like trying to breathe through a pipe straw. The harder he tried, the tighter his throat closed.

What he’d been trying to feel in the corridor came through just for a moment then. Find out who did this, and kill them all. But then his airway closed again, and he had to put everything into the battle for one more lungful. The thing in his throat was growing. Choking off his last bit of air.

He passed out again, and when he came up this time, not only couldn’t he breathe, someone had forced the spigot of a gas pump into his mouth. It was rigid and sharp-edged, and they were jamming it down his throat, talking urgently in some foreign language. He fought them with his last strength, sobbing. The black came in again, sweeping him around the toilet bowl in tightening circles. Then a wasp stung his arm, and he tipped up on end, like a torpedoed ship sliding under, and went down for good.

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