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By ANDREW BRITTON
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Andrew Britton
All rights reserved.
DAHLGREN, VIRGINIA, 2013
The Naval Space Command in Dahlgren, Virginia, was established on October 1, 1983. A division of USSPACECOM at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Colorado, its primary function is to intercept and decode telemetry sent by space-based craft and satellites and see which of it may be relevant to the security of the nation.
One of the smaller groups at the NSC is the Earth Monitoring Systems and Analysis Division, a subsection of Defense Satellite Communications Systems Management. The EMSAD monitors a network of twenty-three different satellites that, in addition to intercepting data streams from foreign space assets, monitor radioactive spikes on earth. All EMSAD does is watch for up-glow; if there is a nuclear test, a leak at a nuclear power plant, or a deposit of uranium newly exposed by tectonics or mining, Web-23 will spot it.
At 5:19 in the afternoon, Lt. Jr. Grade Mark Mason was seated at his console, the last in a row of seven consoles that filled a small narrow room in Sub-basement 814. His round face had a bluish tint from the Barents Sea, the area he was studying. Just moments before, a Code Nine "ping" had alerted the 28-year-old data-processing technician that a small heat bloom had been detected at latitude 57.7 degrees N, longitude 36.2 degrees W. The number designation put it high on the one-to-ten list of being a non-natural occurrence.
As it was programmed to do, the satellite that had picked up the anomaly, the Redbird Geostationary Operational Platform, automatically turned its array of sensors to the spot. The data streamed into a chart that appeared in the lower left quadrant of the screen. As the numbers appeared—going from blue to red, indicating a dangerous hot spot—Mason's neutral expression darkened. He sent an instant message to Station 2, which managed the Greendog GOP, and asked for confirmation of the Redbird readings.
Forty-seven seconds later—all communications were time-stamped and stored off-site in a bunker two hundred feet under the Pentagon—Lt. JG Heyder Namjoo IM'ed back: "One hundred percent match."
Mason picked up a red phone to his right and punched in the number of Lt. Cmdr. Alan Bobbitt, head of EMSAD. While he did so, he IM'ed to ask Station 3 for a geological survey from Bluetiger.
"Go," said the deep voice on the other end. There were no salutations. Not when someone called on the red phone.
"Sir, we have a North Polar reading from Redbird that triggered a Code Nine," Mason said. "Greendog confirms: 175.8 MeV, Alpha decay. Source core 1.3 meters in diameter. The readings are one hundred percent consistent with Plutonium 239."
There was a moment of silence as Lt. Cmdr. Bobbitt digested the information. Both men knew there was no way a natural deposit would occupy a spot that small. It was what the NSC described as a "toothache" reading: very intense at one location with virtually no bleed to surrounding spots.
An IM popped on from Lt. JG Kamala Ivy at Station 3, and Mason read it to Bobbitt: "Air temperature thirty-four degrees Fahrenheit, edge of Salmassinia Glacier. Ice loss thirteen percent over the last seven months."
"What's the image database got?" the EMSAD chief asked.
Mason was already accessing the weekly satellite image of polar regression. He got hits on the first four.
"Eight days ago, that ice was forty-three meters deep," the officer said. "The edge of the ridge has lost seventeen percent of its mass since then, retreating ten meters back and twenty-three meters down."
"That's not just global warming," Bobbitt said.
"It would appear not, sir."
"Lock Redbird on the site and give me continuous full-spectrum readings," Bobbitt told him. "I want to know if it's heating. I'll get visuals from the NRO."
Bobbitt hung up and Mason programmed Redbird to override its ongoing sweep to remain focused on the anomaly. Some satellites used plutonium as a power source, but there hadn't been a report of one falling in that region. Besides, the radioactive material was still inside the ice. When that glacier froze, chances were good no one on the planet was using plutonium to power anything.
The mystery was acute, but it wasn't the only concern.
If the NSC had picked up the heat bloom, chances were good that other nations had or were about to see it. Though plutonium may not have had many uses in previous years, it had many applications now.
The kind USSPACECOM was singularly devoted to preventing.
As Mark Mason anchored the coordinated investigation, something occurred that was as unexpected as the precipitating event itself: four minutes and three seconds after it appeared, the heat signature vanished.
THE NORWEGIAN SEA
Nakhoda Yekom Ebrahim Elham stood on the roof forward the funnel on the guided-missile frigate Jamaran. The captain was dressed warmly in the big, navy blue greatcoat he wore over his uniform, the collar upturned and his white cap pulled low against the sharp winds. After a trip along the American coast, and then a pass along the British shores, the vessel headed north. This was the crew's first voyage into cold-weather environs. It would also be the first dry run of the Iranian-built weapons systems in below-freezing conditions; though no weapons would actually be discharged, the data on crew reactions and lubricant gelidity would be crucial in designing future armaments and Arctic wear.
The Jamaran was a Mowj-class vessel, one of two that the Islamic Republic of Iran had launched from the port facilities of the Bandar Abbas Air Base since 2010. The other vessel, the Velayat, was newly commissioned and sailing the southern Atlantic. The purpose of the "Wave"-class ship was expressed in a directive from Daryaban Ali Hammad Sayvari. The rear admiral wrote that the ships would sail "internationally but with particular strategic attention to the maritime borders of the United States." A cooperative arrangement with Venezuela allowed Iranian vessels to refuel in South America, giving them access to virtually all the open waterways on the planet.
Nakhoda Yekom Elham was equally proud of and humbled by the vessel he captained. For over thirty years, since the dawn of the Islamic republic, the seaman had watched, with frustration, as his nation was forced to purchase outdated vessels from Russia—such as the clumsy Kilo-class submarines that had, until recently, comprised the entirety of their underwater fleet. Now, the Iranian Navy had their own Ghadir-class midget submarines patrolling against imperialism and Zionism in the Persian Gulf ... their gulf. Soon, the larger Qaaem class would make its way through the seas beyond. Standing on the bridge, Elham let his eyes run slowly over the gleaming white surface-to-air missiles set in their box launchers on the main deck. Beside them was the helipad, which was outfitted with a rapid-deployment Toufan helicopter. The name, which meant "storm," was a streamlined version of the AB 212 anti-submarine-warfare helicopter. It was a tidy little craft that could move against any air-or-sea-borne target with state-of-the-art weapons including rocket-launchers and two 20mm cannons.
The Jamaran was armed with other weapons as well. There was a Nour surface-to-surface missile, which, with recent upgrades, had a range of three hundred kilometers. Below, the ship was equipped with a pair of triple torpedo launchers on either side of the stern. They were armed with 324mm light torpedoes. Like the Toufan, the vessel was equipped with two 20mm manned cannons as well as a 40mm automatic cannon that offered both assault capabilities and point-defense against incoming fire. Yet it was the main gun that was a prize, a 76mm Fajr-27 set on the forecastle. The gun had a range of over seventeen kilometers and could fire eighty-five rounds every minute.
Below deck was some of the finest technology afloat, designed by Chinese and German scientists and built in Iran. The sensor array included a low-frequency variable-depth sonar and radar, a long-range air/surface search and tracking radar, and a navigation radar with a backup system. Sensors attached to the main mast could detect bacteriological, chemical, and radiological attacks within a two- to ten-kilometer radius, depending on the concentration and potency of the materials. Two powerful 10,000hp diesel engines and four auxiliary diesel generators allowed for a brisk maximum speed of 30 knots.
And then there was the crew, 127 of the finest young men in any military service anywhere. Elham was a man of peace, but as a lifelong sailor there were times, like now, when he ached to test his ship, his crew, himself, in the kind of confrontation for which they had been trained.
Drill first, he reminded himself. There was no dishonor in learning. But rushing—
A dull, bass cello sound rang across the deck. Then another. Then again. Elham was already moving toward the bridge before the first alarm had faded.
A navidovom, a petty officer third class, was already running toward the captain. The swarthy young man saluted as he reported. He was trembling. Elham did not think it was merely from the cold.
"Sir, we have encountered a radioactive source that registers 4,000 millisieverts," he reported, his teeth chattering audibly. "It is coming from Ice Floe 48589."
The captain stopped just short of the bridge. The glacier and iceberg designations were from the European Space Agency's environmental satellite ENVISAT ASAR, data that was publicly available to all shipping. Even if they departed at once, by the time the ship reversed course and sailed out of range, that level of radiation would kill half the crew within a month. And they would have learned nothing for the price. That was unacceptable.
Elham punched the stopwatch function on his wristwatch and hurried onto the bridge. The five-man command saluted and he motioned them back to their positions.
"Approach the radiation source at full speed," the captain ordered.
The helmsman acknowledged the order. Standing behind him, the captain looked out at the dreary sea. He could just about make out a large shape in the haze. Icy sea mist had gathered on the back of his neck. It melted now and ran down his nape under his collar. He unbuttoned his coat as he went to the radio. He snapped his cap crisply under his arm—he would never have tossed it casually onto his seat—and took the headset from the operator and pressed a green button on the console.
"Engineering, this is the captain."
"Prepare welding equipment. We will be sealing radioactive materials."
Elham pressed a red button. "Sonar, what do you have?"
"Captain, we aren't sure," the operator admitted. "At first we thought it was a plutonium-powered satellite from America or Russia, but the configuration is—strange. So was the radiation burst."
"It wasn't there and then it was," the operator said. "It was as if someone had twisted a fruit open to reveal its pit. Then squeezed the fruit into something unrecognizable."
He killed the open line. "Helm, distance?"
"Two kilometers and we are mutually closing," replied the young man who sat directly in front of the captain. Perspiration was running from under his cap. His hands shook. Elham laid a hand on his shoulder. The man steadied.
A short, lean figure had stepped to the captain's right elbow. He was Nakhoda Sevom Azizi, second-in-command.
Without turning from the looming shape in the mist, the captain said, "Lieutenant Commander—I want a shore crew in the water in five. If there is a way to seal the object, do so and bring it back. Please command the detachment personally."
The man saluted sharply and left the bridge. If he knew that proximity to the source of the radiation was certainly a death sentence, the forty-year-old Azizi did not show it. Elham had given him the mission not just because he was a supremely competent commander but because he had two brothers and sisters and was unmarried. If the rest of the crew had any chance at all, Azizi's parents would suffer less than some others.
In just over four minutes, Azizi and six other men were paddling north in a black inflatable dinghy. The men wore black wetsuits and appeared as a dark smear in the mist. The boat was kicked around in the rough waters, but the men were well trained and held both their bearing and speed.
"Sir, this is Paria," a voice came over the headset. It was the sonar chief.
"Go ahead," Elham replied.
"The computer has assembled the pieces in the ice. It's an old submarine. It appears it was sealed inside and literally pulled open when the floe separated. The satellite images put the breakup concurrent with the radiation spike."
"Is it an early American nuclear submarine?" Elham asked. The propaganda value of finding a lost U.S. naval treasure, especially a failed one, would be high.
"We aren't certain, Captain," he said. "The pieces have been too badly compacted by the ice."
Elham did not bother relaying the information to Azizi. They would find out soon enough. Now that it was too late, he second-guessed himself: if he had known it was something old, not something new, would he have committed the crew to the mission?
Yes, he decided. Even in the earliest days of his career, in the eight-year war against Iraq, he always put the security of assets—such as oil platforms—and the capture of any enemy craft over the security of himself and his fellow soldiers. Protecting service personnel was God's job. Serving the Ayatollah was his. The honor of having this responsibility thrust upon him overwhelmed all other considerations.
The captain wished he had a visual on the team. That was one of the areas Iranian technology lagged. It was important to field home-made assets, but many of them were little different from the old models on which they were based. Modern technology was not easy to come by, especially in this era of heavy sanctions against trade. Sadly, due to international hatred of his people, even science students were not coming back from Russia and China with the levels of education they received in America and Europe during the days of the Shah.
Every moment brought the Jamaran nearer to the ice. He could see, now, the jagged edge where a smaller piece had fallen away. The raft was tied to an icy outcropping and the men were standing on a flat shelf; he could see their black shapes moving.
There were white sparks, just a few, but so brilliant they seemed like fireworks in the dull gray afternoon.
"Captain, the Geiger counter found the object," Azizi radioed. "We are resealing the container."
"Do you know what it is?" Elham asked.
There was a brief hesitation. "It appears to be the inner workings of a crude nuclear device."
"It would appear to be, but not like anything we've seen in briefings. There's a perfect sphere in a large metal container—I believe the box is lead. The radiation levels are dropping fast."
The sparks flashed a moment more, then died. After a moment the blue afterimages faded from the captain's eyes, leaving the outside world once more pale and hazy.
"We're coming in now," Azizi reported. "Two of the men feel sick."
"Understood." Elham glanced at his watch. "Full stop," he ordered the helm, then turned to Navsarvan Farshid, who had taken Azizi's place on the bridge. "Lieutenant, have a recovery team on deck. All medics on hand."
The officer saluted and left. The navbanyekom who manned the External Sensor Array in the sonar room reported that radiation levels had returned nearly to normal. The voice of the lieutenant junior grade did not sound relieved. Nor should it. The nearly eight-minute exposure they had taken was no reason to rejoice. He thought back to other personnel who had made this same critical, fatal decision. In 1961, the crew of the Russian K-19 submarine had spent ten minutes repairing the nuclear reactor's cooling pipes to prevent a thermonuclear explosion and twenty-eight of them perished. Fifty workers accepted "suicide missions" to tend to the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant exactly fifty years later. There were probably others, many others, though that kind of information did not receive wide dissemination.
And now God has handpicked another crew to join their heroic ranks, the captain thought.
Excerpted from THE COURIER by ANDREW BRITTON. Copyright © 2014 Andrew Britton. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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