“Passions are like fire… be it emotional, intellectual, or even sexual; a blaze in the hearth can keep you warm… a blaze throughout the home can cause it to burn to the ground.”
This thought went through my head as I stared at the fireplace. The freshly placed wood had just caught fire from the burning embers, and the warmth was starting to emanate towards me. I relaxed a bit more into the high-backed leather chair and casually reached for my glass of whisky. As I took a sip, I closed my eyes, the peat of the Lagavulin sent me to a grassy hill looking over the ocean with cloudy skies overhead.
I opened my eyes and glanced at the gilded, framed portrait of Napoleon on his horse crossing the Alps that hung over the fireplace. Object d’arts wrestled for space from the hardback volumes in the bookshelves that lined the room. Firelight caused many of the more ancient items to take on vaguely sinister characteristics.
“Evening, Captain, no cigars?”
I looked up and saw the LTC standing next to my chair with his hand resting on the high-backed edge.
“Good evening, Colonel. Why should I bring my own when I know you will be offering me superior ones?”
The LTC chuckled and reached into his breast pocket. He produced two cigars and casually handled one to me.
“Turnabout is fair play; pour me a drink, my junior officer.”
I chuckled and poured the LTC a shot into the second empty glass that waited patiently on the end table between our chairs.
“To the balloons!” the LTC exclaimed holding up his glass in an informal toast as he settled himself into his chair.
“Of course, Mon Capitan! Les ballons sont magnifique!”
“Are we talking about the Chinese Balloons?”
“Are there any other?” the LTC said, a twinkle in his eye.
“Do these things not bother you? You seem so… at ease.”
“Captain, what is the most dangerous thing you can produce when questioning a purported defector, someone who might, in reality, be a foreign agent?”
“Exactly! A list of what you think you know, and want confirmation of, tells the agent what you don’t know.”
“So, I still don’t follow you on the whole balloon thing.”
“Captain, these Chinese balloons were in and of themselves lists. They did not need the imagery or intelligence, they have that already. Hell, Google has that already. They didn’t need the aerial reconnaissance. What they needed was our operational capabilities and command and control structure.”
“Yes, and the only thing that caused us to become operational was the press. Had the media not detected the balloon, it is doubtful we would have ever brought it down.”
“Correct, and don’t be so sure that the Chinese themselves might not have leaked the location of the balloon to the press. Its mission was to gauge our response, and they couldn’t determine if we were ignoring it, or unaware of it.”
“Okay, so we were made aware of it and we shot it down.”
“No… we were made aware of it and the American public shot it down… that is a very different response, and one that is not necessarily replicable each and every time.”
“And the point is?”
“The point is, Captain, that we now have their list. We know what they don’t know, or at the very least, would like to find out more about.”
“How does this create something actionable, Colonel?”
“In the short run it doesn’t, but it does do two things: First, it creates a fuzzy operational picture of our capabilities that the Chinese are going to have a hard time exploiting, and they are well aware of this. Secondly, it exposes certain individuals, many of them whom we already know and are monitoring, that bear a greater allegiance towards our adversary than they should.”
I looked at the Colonel with a more focused gaze.
“Yes, Captain, this coming conflict has a variety of individuals who have already chosen a side against us. Understanding who they are, and how we can compartmentalize them going forward, is just as important as where to mass troops.”
“Indeed, a new cold war is upon us, and this time we were the ones who shot down Francis Gary Powers. I trust you have your cloak and dagger ready for deployment?”
“Of course, Mon Colonel, along with my rotary dial shoe and death-ray watch.”
“Really? They gave you a shoe phone? I’m still waiting for mine…”