A Sci-Fi Short Story by Stuart Thaman
No one saw it coming. The world was watching air traffic and commuter trains for terror threats, not the great lakes. A year ago, the CIA picked up chatter on an old Soviet era telegram line that was so heavily encrypted it took almost three months to crack. Most of the message was too garbled with clutter to make any sense but someone with a security clearance higher than mine decided to start monitoring the Midwest for potential threats. That’s where my handler sent me. Unfortunately, we only caught that single transmission. No other clues turned up until the bombs started going off and the bullets started to fly.
The terrorist cell entered Canada by air and then paddled rubber boats across Lake Erie in the middle of the night. I was stationed in Oak Harbor, Ohio at the time. The best lead I could dig up was a retired janitor from Davis-Besse who had distant relatives in Russia. The man wasn’t a terrorist - that much was obvious. He lived in a nursing home where underpaid and overeducated nurses had to wipe his ass every time he went to the bathroom. No matter how many times I reported no indication of any threats back to the agency, my handler kept me here. I guess I couldn’t really disagree with my handler’s logic. The way I saw it, the code we picked up was far too sophisticated to be a prank. I just felt that the nerds in Langley must’ve screwed up when they translated Oak Harbor, Ohio.
The first bomb went off sometime around midnight. It wasn’t a mushroom cloud or a fiery ball of death like the movies would have you believe. One small brick of C4 against the side of a support beam at the power relay station created a significant blackout all over northern Ohio. My handler called and told me to rush to Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station to investigate. It was the middle of winter so I figured that some of the lines must have been dragged down by ice. When I got there, everything was chaotic.
Two dozen heavily armed and camouflaged men were staging an assault on the power station. A second explosion ripped through the cooling tower before I could even draw my sidearm and get out of my car. I sent an emergency code to my handler via text message and stuffed my phone into my jacket pocket. The back seat of my car had been modified with a drop panel to conceal a high-powered rifle and a few fragmentation grenades but I am an intelligence operator, not a Navy Seal. I didn’t even have a Kevlar vest.
With the cooling tower reduced to rubble, the pressure build up from the steam in the reactor started blowing holes in the pipes all over the plant. A couple of men in tactical gear stood on the steps leading to the control room. One of them held an automatic shotgun and the other had a military issue M16 slung over his shoulder. Luckily, neither of them had any binoculars. I balanced my rifle on the trunk of my car and tried to remember everything I had learned from my ten weeks of weapons training. Another small explosion went off in one of the buildings surrounding the control center and I took my shot. The automatic targeting scope on my rifle proved far better than my aim and compensated for the unsteadiness of my grip. One terrorist down.
The man with the shotgun returned fire almost immediately and with alarming accuracy. My car took several hits that blew holes the size of footballs in the metal door. He must have been firing solid slugs through a modified barrel to even come close to me at that range. I ran for culvert at the side of the road dove in as another slug tore a chunk of pavement up behind me. Trying my best to steady the heavy rifle against my shoulder, I squeezed the trigger again but the scope didn’t have time to compensate for the running target. My shot went wide and put a hole in the door to the control center.
Solid slugs blasted into the ground all around me and I had to run. I hunched over and sprinted toward the control center. Three more men emerged from the building and the shotgun-wielding terrorist stopped firing for a moment to point in my general direction and yell something in Farsi that I was too far away for me to discern. I leveled my rifle again and took a second to let the scope do its work. I pulled the trigger and watched through the green lens as my bullet practically disintegrated the terrorist’s head on impact.
The other three men were clearly not as well trained as the other had been and all three of them were dead in an instant. I kissed my scope and sprinted up to the entrance to the control center. The dead terrorists appeared Middle Eastern but they none of them carried the trademark AK-47s that I expected. The interior of the control center had already been wired with small packs of C4.
I pulled the phone from my pocket and called the emergency number that took me directly to the Pentagon. Speaking in Farsi to not give away my identity to any of the terrorists who might have been in earshot, I told the operator at the Pentagon my situation. A few grueling minutes of silence elapsed before a response finally came.
“Disengage and return to covert status immediately,” was the only thing I heard before the line went dead. I obeyed without a thought. No matter what the situation might be, intelligence operators are trained to never go against an order. Leaving the power station felt wrong in my gut, but I never once considered anything other than disengaging.
My car had sustained obvious damage so chucked a grenade into the back seat as I began walking back to Oak Harbor.
My handler contacted me the next day.
Special contact rendezvous at sixteen hundred, location Sigma. Full Scram. The text message meant that either my cover had been blown or my mission had been scrubbed. I shredded and burned all of my sensitive documents and shaved my beard and head. At sixteen hundred hours, I locked my apartment door and tossed my key down a sewer grate a few blocks away.
Location Sigma was a small German restaurant near the center of town. The owner retired from the agency some twenty years ago so he knew not to bother me if I came in and sat at certain table. My usual table in the back of the beer garden was occupied by a gorgeous redhead wearing a Bluetooth earpiece. She was new to the agency; that much was easy enough to tell.
I walked a slow circuit around the restaurant and listened to some of the conversations for any indication that the location might be compromised but heard nothing. The redheaded agent glanced my direction several times as I approached the reserved table and sat down. Agency policy dictates that a scrammed officer is responsible for making first contact with a new agent so I knew she wouldn’t speak to me. I let the awkward silence grow as the fresh recruit twirled her hair and nervously smoothed out the non-existent wrinkles in her pants.
“Flash,” I said quietly under my breath in Farsi without making eye contact.
“Thunder,” she rapidly replied, completing the spoken code phrase. She reached into a pocket on the inside of her jacket and produced a smart phone identical to the one I already carried. I handed her my old phone and placed the new one in my pocket.
“What happened?” I asked, continuing in Farsi so the servers couldn’t understand our conversation.
“They knew what they were doing,” the young woman responded. “They blew critical systems and shielding with small force charges.”
“They were obviously well trained and equipped,” I told her. She nodded, indicating that she knew far more about the situation than I did.
“Someone with them was well enough versed with pressurized water reactor technology to pull the control rods from the stack and melt the entire plant.”
I couldn’t believe it. A fell nuclear meltdown of the Davis-Besse power station would mean widespread radioactive contamination. It would be one of the most significant nuclear disasters in history. “When do evacuations start?” I asked with a grim tone. Moving all of those people would take time and countless resources. Even though the safe zone would only be a 50 mile radius around the plant, the panic would spread to the neighboring states and it wouldn’t take long for people to flee Chicago and Cincinnati like deer running from a forest fire.
“Trucks and busses are already on their way,” she said with a voice that bore no sympathy. New field agents have to spend a month in the ‘desensitization’ program at Guantanamo Bay. The horrors she must have witnessed there would be nothing compared to an impersonal evacuation.
“Do we have any intel on who is behind the attack? Has anyone claimed responsibility?” It was hard to imagine a field agent as beautiful as this one going into combat while I stayed behind the front lines as an intelligence officer.
“A seal team made it to the site not long after you disengaged and eliminated every target.” She shook her head and had to brush a dark red curl from her face. “They were instructed to shoot to wound but the terrorists had a backup plan for that. We suspect cyanide capsules but it hasn’t been confirmed yet.”
“What’s my assignment?” I asked bluntly. With no more existing threat to Oak Harbor I knew I would be reassigned.
The agent handed me a sealed envelope and waved off a server who looked like he wanted to take an order from us. “The chatter on that old soviet line picked up again last night. We heard several locations specifically named. You’re being sent to San Luis Obispo County, California. The Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant is considered a high value target. If a different cell hits another power plant, the country will be in a full panic. We can handle one meltdown, but not two.” The young redheaded agent stood up to leave without saying another word. Everything else I needed to know would be in the envelope with my new identity.
I never made it to California. I was comfortably sleeping next to an air marshal on a cross-country flight when the second attack hit. With so many of the agency’s and the country’s resources focused on Oak Harbor, there was no time to assess the threat level at Diablo Canyon.
An almost identical team to the one that hit Davis-Besse took out both reactors at Diablo Canyon and sent the entire plant into a critical meltdown. My flight was being rerouted to Eppley Airfield in Omaha, Nebraska when a ‘dirty bomb’, a small nuclear device designed to be detonated at ground level, went off in Los Angeles. Three other devices were detonated in the United States on the same day. Cape Canaveral, Edwards Air Force Base, and Wallops Flight Facility were all hit by nuclear devises. Within a day, almost all of the United States space flight capabilities were eliminated.
It didn’t take long for meltdowns and nuclear strikes to happen at reactors and space flight facilities all over the world. Within a month, the world was in a violent panic on the edge of disaster. The radiation zones around the meltdowns were easy enough to quarantine but the chaos was uncontrollable. Celebrities and the super-rich fled civilization for the sanctuary of private islands. The governments of Europe were the first to officially collapse. Germany and France tried to isolate themselves from the anarchy but it only prolonged the inevitable. Russia lasted the longest. In true Russian fashion, they retreated from disaster and let their immense land area defend their people. Moscow was moved to a location in the center of the country and all of the cities were evacuated. The entire Russian population lived for nearly six months in one mega city. Food riots broke out in New Moscow and their government was overthrown in a matter of hours. The people scattered like lost sheep and most of them probably froze to death.
All those who could afford commercial space flight started to leave after the White House burned and America was left leaderless. A few ships made it off the planet but they had no destination. Mars and the moon are still being terraformed to support human life and aren’t expected to be finished until 2055. The private spaceflight companies launched an ecology station to support the people in space but it was never meant to handle a refugee population of over a million.
For the most part, the agency stayed alive. Rioters stormed the Pentagon and Langley but found nothing inside. Officially, the CIA was defunded and closed before the government even collapsed. NORAD and STRATCOM locked their doors and I suppose that’s where my handler lives now. To my knowledge, all intelligence officers have been reassigned to predicting and preventing terror attacks on the shuttles taking civilians off the planet.
We can’t start to rebuild the government until the frantic mobs are settled in space. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio is the only place left with a functional launch pad. The evacuation shuttles go up simultaneously as one huge vehicle and then break apart into 16 individual ships that each hold a quarter of a million people.
Threats are everywhere. I’ve been watching a fringe terrorist cell of home-grown Mormons that moved to Dayton when construction began on the launch pad a few months ago. The Mormon Church publically denounced space flight after the ecology station was launched to support life among the stars. A Mormon suicide bomber took down a shuttle and killed half a million people before they got out of the atmosphere. The Salt Lake City Temple claimed responsibility for the attack with some confused theology about how mankind was never meant to leave Earth. Field operatives from the agency silenced the Mormon leadership immediately but radical Mormon cells still operate all over the country with their own agendas.
Hezekiah, the patriarch of the family I’ve been assigned to watch, spent time in Afghanistan and Iran during the early 2000s. The agency doesn’t know why Hezekiah went overseas but we have to assume the worst. So far, the old bearded man has no idea that his every move has been dutifully observed and recorded.
His son, Gabriel, the youngest male of the family, is also considered to be a likely threat. I watched from a café table as the two of them walked through a busy market that sells food to refugees awaiting the next shuttle launch. Religious propaganda of all sorts was nailed to every stall and scattered on the dirty pavement like straw on the floor of a barn. The two Mormons made their way to a vendor selling Turkish lamb kabobs and the radio transmitter hidden in Hezekiah’s clothing picked up every word they said.
“How much for two kabobs?” The old man croaked through a hoarse voice strained by his age.
“You pay in dollars or euros?” The Turkish vendor shouted above the crowd. Refugees had come from all over the world to make the shuttle launch and the local economy was driven more by barter than currency.
“I have yen. How much would two kabobs cost in yen?” That’s odd. None of the refugee vendors take yen. Most of them don’t even accept dollars or euros.
The Turkish man paused for a moment and lowered his voice. “I no take yen.” He slid a pair of kabobs across the greasy counter and leaned in to whisper to Hezekiah. “Take kabobs now and come back tonight at midnight to pay.” I wrote down everything the vendor said. It had to be some kind of code. Hezekiah and Gabriel scooped up their food and ate it lazily as they circled through the market.
Target H meeting a Turkish vendor at midnight at a refugee market 40 clicks north of launch site. I had to send the text via muscle memory without taking the phone out of my pocket. The public cell network was in shambles and people would easily kill for the chance to use technology again.
I followed Hezekiah and Gabriel out of the market and back to the large grouping of tents where the Mormon family lived. “Are you nervous?” Hezekiah asked his son. His voice was so scratchy it was hardly audible.
“Yes, father,” Gabriel replied hesitantly before he ducked into a tent. “It will be over soon.”
The beautiful redheaded field agent met me at the entrance to the market a few minutes before midnight. She was different than the first time we met. Her hair was braided down her back and she wore clothes more appropriate for a rigorous workout than an observation mission. Her black sweatpants were just baggy enough to conceal a pistol on each thigh I could make out a fading bruise on her cheek. She had certainly seen some action.
“I’ve got eyes on the Turkish vendor,” she stated flatly. “His name is Sark Bora Polat. He’s been living here since shuttle construction began but we don’t know his background.”
“Do you think he is trained?” I asked, remembering the team that took down Davis-Besse.
“Likely,” the agent responded. “Let’s move.” We pushed our way through the dwindling crowd and found a vantage point at the back of a stall that let us see the kabob stand perfectly. Hezekiah and Gabriel showed up just as we expected. The Turkish man didn’t speak but nodded and the trio walked to another booth draped in silk cloth.
“Should we move closer?” I whispered. I could just barely see the outlines of the three men through the layers of tapestries. Hezekiah had changed his clothes which meant we couldn’t listen in to his conversation.
The field agent motioned with her fingers for us to split and take up flanking positions on either side of the silk-walled booth.
“This will do the trick, eh?” I could barely make out Hezekiah’s voice. His throat grated like he had been smoking a dozen packs a day since birth.
“This will work, I guarantee it,” Polat assured him with salesman-like joviality. I heard what sounded like heavy lifting and some coins or metal bits falling noisily onto a countertop.
The field agent tossed a small black box to me from the other side of the booth. It was a small tracking device that synched to our phones. “Plant the tracker and confirm the object,” she whispered my way in Farsi.
I nodded. Protocol dictates that if only one agent is armed, the unarmed one gets to do the dangerous things like planting bugs and picking locks. If anyone is captured, the Agency would prefer not to hand over gun to the enemy as well.
I double checked the laces of my boots and made a quick mental map of possible escape routes should I need to run. The field agent motioned for me to lie in wait for the trio to exit the booth and she disappeared into the darkness of the night without so much as a nod.
A few moments later, Hezekiah, Gabriel, and Polat pushed their way through the silk curtains. Gabriel held a large steel case handcuffed to his wrist and his eyes darted around nervously.
Pretending to be drunk, it wasn’t hard to knock into him and slip the tracking bug underneath one of the hinges on the case’s handle. Polat muttered a few curses under his breath but the group hurried along without confrontation.
Target H has acquired possible dirty bomb from Sark Bora Polat 40 clicks north of launch site, I sent to the one person who knew more about my mission than I did. My handler responded within seconds. Eliminate threat if object reaches 25 clicks of launch site. Possible second cell competing for object – be watchful.
“Be watchful?” I muttered to myself after I read the text. My handler never warned me or advised me to use caution before. Those kinds of trivial things were assumed. Classified communications were limited to necessary information only. Something felt wrong.
I checked the tracking device’s location with my phone and decided to try and get a better look at whatever it was Hezekiah bought from Polat. The Mormon family’s compound of tents wasn’t far from the market. I traded a pair of old socks for a fourth of a chicken and sat down against a tree to watch the area.
Gabriel paced nervous circles around the front of the tests and kept checking his watch as though something was always about to happen. After an hour of restlessness, Gabriel finally ducked his head back inside the largest tent for a moment but returned to his guard duty almost immediately.
Another monotonous hour droned by before Gabriel went back inside the tent. He was gone for twenty or thirty minutes but when he reappeared, he wasn’t alone. Intelligence officers are trained to notice everything. Even the smallest details are important and must be memorized. Her clothes had changed, her hair had been trimmed, and she had used something to tint the hue of her skin, but her shoes were the same. The redheaded field agent walked briskly away from the Mormon tents as she spoke to Gabriel over her shoulder.
I ducked around the trunk of the tree as quickly as I could but I knew that she saw me. Panic filled my chest and I fumbled into my pocket for my cell phone. Field agent possibly compromised, I hammered into the keys. Without waiting for a response, I jammed my phone back into my pocket and ran. I had four alternative safe houses located around the refugee camp but I knew that I couldn’t use any of them.
Abandoned factories surrounded the refugee camps and housed all manner of degenerate people from drug addicts and prostitutes to murders and cannibals. I slowed my run to a steady walk and calmed my breathing as best I could before pushing through a plastic curtain draped over a hole in the side of one of the factories. The smell was atrocious and people milled about everywhere but I could easily meld into the scene.
I found what appeared to be half of a large metal bowl once used to contain molten steel and sat down, waiting for my handler’s response. Around nightfall, it finally came: Target H intends to move object underground within 10 clicks of launch site. Meet agent at location DTX2 at dawn.
That was unsettling. Did my handler not understand what I mean by compromised? Well, the Agency always knows more than each agent individually. With no other options before me, I started walking to location DTX2 – a rickety shack of a farmhouse so close to the launch site that you could see the armed guards watching the perimeter.
My phone indicated that the steel case, the presumed dirty bomb, was already inside the shack by the time I got there.
“I’m going in,” the field agent said from behind me, nearly making my heart stop with terror. “Don’t they train you intelligence guys to listen for people sneaking up on you?” she snickered.
“I… not really.” I shook my head. “What are you doing with them?” I asked, still unsure of the situation.
“Look,” the woman whispered with an edge of seriousness. “Your job is to observe and lend a hand where you can. You know, collect intelligence?” She ran a hand through her recently cut hair and gave the concealed pistol on her side a gentle pat. “They send me in for the real work. Just don’t panic this time if you see something you don’t expect.”
“Fine,” I nodded. I would rather stay far away from flying bullets anyway. Other people can have the glory for as much as I cared. A culvert full of weeds along the side of a destitute road offered me enough to cover to watch the field agent through a pair of binoculars. She entered the farmhouse and met Hezekiah with a handshake. I watched the two of them through a dusty window pane and thought back to the text from my handler. I had no idea who they meant by a second cell. All of my intelligence pointed to the Mormon family as the only high risk target.
The field agent emerged from the farmhouse with the steel case hanging by her side and waited for Hezekiah and Polat to leave before she came to me.
“It’s done,” she smiled as she let the case clunk to the ground. “It turns out that Hezekiah intends to take his family on the shuttle with the other refugees and I was able to flip him to our side. His family’s safety and the promise of free food from the Agency changed his mind.”
The story didn’t quite make sense in my mind but I couldn’t let that show. “What now? Reassignment?” I tried to keep all of the doubts from creeping into my voice.
“Probably,” she said with a casual nod. “We still don’t know how the Mormon Church keeps bringing weapons into the country.”
She gave me a smile and left with the case in the direction of the refugee market. I headed out a different direction but returned to the farmhouse less than an hour later. It still didn’t add up and my job was to provide the Agency with answers.
My phone indicated that the bomb was being moved steadily north and farther from the launch site. The inside of the farmhouse was just as dilapidated as the exterior. An old cellar door swung back and forth on creaky hinges and I thought I could make out the faint sound of voices coming from below.
Possible development at DTX2, I sent to my handler before slinking down the stairs into the bowels of the farmhouse. A tunnel had been dug through the plaster wall with oil lamps strung along the ceiling. I followed a set of footprints down the tunnel until the voice was loud enough to distinguish. Someone was breathing heavily and cursing a few meters away around a bend in the tunnel.
My phone vibrated. Field agent compromised. Use extreme caution. So now they believed me and I had been right. There was another message, this one from the device itself telling me that it was about to die. The phone shutoff before I could respond.
I jerked my head up at the sound of footsteps coming from behind me and knew that I was trapped. Though I wasn’t particularly skilled with a weapon, I wished for a gun or even a knife hidden in my belt. Ten weeks of weapons training hadn’t prepared me to be stuck in a narrow dirt tunnel between two enemies.
I grabbed an oil lamp from the ceiling and prepared to swing it like a medieval flail as I rounded the bend in the tunnel and nearly slammed into Gabriel. He was pushing a cart with one hand and holding a pistol in his other.
I swung my makeshift flail as hard as I could but Gabriel got a shot off that ripped a gaping hole in my leg and filled my ears with painful ringing. The man didn’t speak or show any hint of emotion as he shot a second time and blew my wrist to pieces.
The field agent came up from the direction of the farmhouse and laughed as I fought for consciousness. “You’re smarter than I thought,” she giggled. I couldn’t tell if she was speaking to me or to Gabriel. Perhaps she meant both of us.
A dribble of vomit escaped my mouth and I moved my working hand from my leg to my wrist in a feeble attempt to stop the blood loss.
“Why?” I choked out. It was the obvious question that I was literally dying to know.
She beamed at me and tousled her hair with a wink. “You’re the intelligence officer. Figure it out.”