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"Take a seat, Hal," the President of the United States said, gesturing. "We have a lot to cover and little time." In the middle of the room, there was a battered old wooden desk, office furniture from some forgotten time, along with a few metal chairs. Set close by was an array of telephones and a cafeteria-style wheeled service cart carrying a steaming urn of what smelled like fresh coffee and a heaping pile of sandwiches and small pastries. None of the food had been touched. For security purposes, Hal Brognola, Justice Department liaison and director of the Sensitive Operations Group, based at Stony Man Farm, had agreed to meet the President in a remote, secure location.
"Yes, sir." Sitting, the big Fed noticed that an Air Force colonel stood to one side of the President, holding a small leather briefcase. It was handcuffed to his wrist. Brognola promptly dismissed the man. That was the Football, the remote-control device containing the launch code for America's arsenal of nuclear missiles.
As the President and Brognola got comfortable, the Secret Service agents who had accompanied the President remained standing, their hard eyes boring holes into the Justice Department man.
"All right, here it is. At 0214 hrs this morning the entire nuclear stockpile of tactical nuclear bombs exploded at White Sands, New Mexico," the President said, passing over a manila file colored a deep crimson.
"Obviously not an accident," Brognola stated, accepting the folder. On the front were stamped the words, Top Secret, but the color alone was enough identify the high-level security status of the file.
"No, it was not an accident, nor a traitor or an enemy spy that infiltrated thelaboratory."
"Are you sure, sir?"
"Interesting." Carefully pressing his thumb to the sensor pad of the small explosive device locking the folder, Brognola impatiently waited until he heard a beep, then he slid off the explosive charge and opened the folder. There were a lot of documents carrying the Top Secret notice, along with a bevy of high-altitude surveillance photographs carrying the NSA emblem. There was a lot of technical jargon that the big Fed skimmed, along with a summary from the Pentagon noting the nuke signatures. Brognola knew that every type of nuclear explosive in the world had a unique chemical signature to its blast, sort of like fingerprints, the composite metal carried trace elements of their origins. An expert looking at the spectrograph of a nuclear explosion could tell with absolute certainty which country had made the bomb. Once again, this was old technology, tried and true, proved a hundred times over.
Scanning the summary, the big Fed slowly began to frown. He had expected to find one foreign nuke signature among the roll call of American bombs. But it wasn't there. The White Sands base had not been hit with a nuke that set off a chain reaction among the arsenal of weapons in storage. The first blast had occurred deep underground. The side caverns built to absorb nuclear detonations had done their job and kept the explosions from reaching the surface. Unfortunately, there had been half a dozen tactical nukes being loaded onto some trucks to be shipped the Sixth carrier fleet in the Persian Gulf. Those blasts had to have been visible for miles. There was a small note on the side that a perimeter guard pretending to be a park ranger had called in the blast before going off the air. No remains had been found to date, but the search would continue. To everybody else in New Mexico the incident was being hushed up as an earthquake.
Poor bastard probably saw the actually blasts, Brognola thought. If so, there's not going to be enough of him remaining to fill an eyedropper. But the military took care of their own, and whatever could be located would be given a proper funeral. How the living treat their fallen soldiers was the hallmark of any civilization.
"Every bomb in the place," the big Fed said out loud, placing aside the folder. "How is that possible?"
"We have absolutely no idea," the President said honestly, crossing his leg at the knee. "According to the security records recovered from the off-site bunker a hundred miles away, the status of the base was normal. There were no known intruders, no unusual incidents, nobody was acting oddly, no nothing." He shrugged. "The entire arsenal of nuclear weapons simply detonated at exactly the same moment."
"All of them? Exactly?"
"All of the live bombs, yes. Thankfully the hydrogen bombs are kept disassembled for safety concerns, and only the cores exploded, but there were no thermonuclear reactions." The President recalled how surprised he had been to learn that a tactical nuke was basically the same type of weapon America had dropped on Japan at the end of World War II. In government slang, those were called atomic bombs by the old guard. But wrap a jack of heavy water around the core, add some tritium injectors and the atomic explosion became a thermonuclear reaction a thousand times more powerful. It was sort of like using a firecracker to set off a stick of TNT. The analogy didn't quite hold, but was close enough to the truth to serve as a nontechnical explanation to most folks. Sure as hell worked for him.
"Son of a bitch," Brognola muttered, loosening his necktie.
"Sir, we're in deep shit."
"I concur, my old friend. The deepest shit imaginable." Accepting a cup of coffee from an aide, the President took a sip and made a face. Reaching out, he added more milk and sugar. It wasn't his first cup today, and far from the last.
"So there's more," Brognola said, reading the expression on the man's face. "Okay, let me have it, sir."
"At precisely the same time as our incident, the exact same time, I might add, the Russian Kornevko Nuclear Repository in northern Siberia, and an Israeli Tomcat jet fighter carrying a Class 2 tactical nuclear missile also exploded without known reason or cause."
Sitting back in his chair, Brognola exhaled deeply. The military had a saying about such things. Once can be an accident, twice may be a coincidence, but three times is always enemy action.
"It seems that some group has found a way to remote detonate nuclear weapons," the big Fed said, his stomach tightening into a knot from the words.
"Unfortunately, that is also our opinion on the matter." "Anything from the TDT?" Brognola asked pointedly, laying aside the report.
"Sadly, no. And the Joint Chiefs checked with the Theatrical Danger Team immediately. Normally the TDT has got a plan for damn well everything, but this time "
"And the vice president must have checked with the AEC, CIA " Brognola pursed his lips, mentally running through the entire catalog of alphabet agencies. Then he shifted mental gears. The facts were plain. Nobody in America must have any idea how the weapons were triggered, or else the President would not have summoned me, the Justice man thought. Fair enough.
"I'll assume that we are quickly disassembling our stockpiles?" Brognola asked, reaching for a cup of coffee.
"Across the board. Oak Ridge, Paris Island, San Diego, Fort Bragg, Arctic Base One, aircraft carriers, submarines " The President made a circular gesture to indicate the all-inclusive process.
"I'm surprised the bastards didn't hit Oak Ridge first," Brognola admitted. "Maybe the enemy is not as good as we fear."
"Oh, they might have," the President admitted honestly.
"But where the Oak Ridge Nuclear Weapons and Storage facility is located on the mapand where it is actually locatedare two entirely different things. The atomic lab is well hidden, as protection from the old Soviet Union from blowing it out of existence."
Really? That was news to him. "Certainly served us well enough today. If their stockpile of hydrogen bombs had detonated, half of the nation would be dying right about now from the radioactive fallout." Then Brognola frowned. "Any reactions from the nuclear power stations?"
"Thankfully, there was not, especially since all of those are near major cities," the President said, obviously pleased how fast the man thought.
"So this trigger effect only works on weapons, eh?" the big Fed mused, rubbing his chin. "That's something, at least."
"Unless the effect that set off the bombs does not work on power plants."
"Because they don't have a critical mass in the reactors?"
"That is the logical conclusion, but we may be wrong." Draining the cup, the President placed it on the table. He stared at it for a minute, his thoughts private.
"Hal, we're completely in the dark on this. An unknown enemy, with an unknown weapon and unknown goal. Did they try to destroy the Unites States and fail? Is this the opening round in a major conflict, or something else entirely?"
"What's been done already, sir?"
"Every tactical nuke is being taken apart while it is being moved far away from civilian population centers," the President declared. "Plus, until further notice, the nation will remain at DefCon Five, full war status. All military leaves have been cancelled, troops are arming, the Umbrella of fighter planes is out to maximum range and our entire stockpile of nonnuclear weapons is being prepared."
"How long until every nuke is disarmed?" Brognola asked, leaning forward in his chair.
The President gave the man a hard look. "Using every available technician sixteen days."
"Best we can do. On top of everything else, we're also moving the bombs to secret locations, so the enemy can't find them."
"Unless they can sweep the entire continent with this triggering device."
"Agreed. In that case, we've already lost, and the death toll will be in the millions, the hundreds of millions if they get even the slightest bit lucky and set off a couple of plutonium bombs."
Brognola grunted at that. Too true. A radioactive death cloud would sweep across the globe, killing everybody. That wouldn't happen unless the enemy was suicidal or totally insane. Neither possibility was completely out of the question.
"Have there been demands from anybody? Hamas, al Qaeda, Iraq, China?"
Frowning deeply, the President said, "Thankfully not yet, and we can't make any inquires. That would only demonstrate that we have no idea who is behind all of this. And as long as the enemy is not sure of exactly what we know, they'll be cautious. Afraid of our direct military retaliation. Even without nuclear weapons, America has a tremendous military. But if the enemy discovers the truth "
The President didn't finish the sentence. He didn't have to. Brognola understood. Then the enemy would be free to do whatever it wanted. The only thing holding the terrorist states in check had always been the threat of nuclear strikes from the U.S. If the news of the covert disarmament was released, an incalculable wave of terrorist strikes would sweep the free world like a plague.
"Even worse," the President continued. "If somebody, anybody, does make a demand, then we would have no choice but to comply. This isn't a matter of making policy, or standing tall, but outright survival. We're virtually helpless for sixteen days."
"Even less if the enemy demands access to our Keyhole and Watchdog satellites," Brognola added grimly, "then they could monitor our nukes, and stop them being moved or disarmed."
"Plus, any demands we receive may not even be the people behind the attacks," the big Fed noted pragmatically. "It could simply be some opportunist group claiming the credit and trying to sneak one past us. Nuke Israel, or a million Americans die. Release every terrorist held in American prisons, hell's bells, release everybody in all of our prisons. Or else."
"Or else," the President agreed solemnly.
"What do you want us to do, sir?" Brognola asked, standing.
"Find them," the President said bluntly. "Find them and kill them and smash their damn machine, whatever it is."
"You don't want it recovered?"
"Hell no, it's too damn dangerous. Smash it to pieces and burn any records, blueprints, schematics, whatever you find."
"Done," the Justice man stated, extending a hand. When the politician first took office, he had used euphemisms like
"terminate with extreme prejudice," or "permanently eradicate." But that stopped. Troops had no confidence in a leader who couldn't give a direct order. There were no euphemisms used in the middle of a firefight. A soldier killed the enemy. Period. End of discussion.
"Alert," the communications officer announced, looking up from a laptop. "Message from PACOM for you, sir. Admiral Fallon at Camp Smith reports the nuclear destruction of the USS Persing missile frigate in the north Pacific Ocean. No survivors. The cause seems to be a tactical nuclear explosion. Navy Special Intelligence and the NSA are analyzing the Watchdog photographs for known radiation signatures."
"Understood," the President said. "Keep me informed of any further developments."
"Better move fast, old friend," the President said. "The numbers are falling and time is against us."
Nodding in agreement, Brognola turned and headed for the door. America had the most powerful army in the world, along with a host of covert agencies, but to use any of them could reveal a fatal weakness and cause untold deaths.
Which left the deadly matter entirely in the hands of Stony Man Farm.