Wednesday, August 5, 2009

SKY PIRATES

The Lacrosse satellite made its nightly pass over the state. Just a tiny, steady bright star moving slower than an airplane and without the telltale blinking navigation lights. Day or night didn't matter to this bird. It 'saw' in the radio spectrum. Traveling 18,000-plus miles per hour it traversed the sky surprisingly quickly. The apparent small size was deceiving. It was actually about as big as a 32-seat school bus and weighed in at 12 tons. It was one of the NRO's darkest secrets and yet not the best they had. In fact, Lacrosse was used as a back-up to more capable systems. It was horrifically expensive to maintain and operate, and dangerous for spacewalking astronauts who worked on it. The delta vee rockets used to orient it burned volatile fuel and it packed a sizable amount of plutonium in a power pack. That pack, the size of an office safe, generated electricity by thermoelectric conversion from the heat of nuclear decay. It was looking down now, taking image after image and relaying them in real time to data specialists and analysts.

***
Gary held the laptop battery inside his parka. The temperature had dropped to the point where it was necessary to warm the battery to keep it functioning. He had lost the feeling in his fingers some time ago. The other two men had probably suffered as badly or worse. The whole 'science project' depended on this simple laptop battery. 36 hours had passed since they set up two solar panels and a small satellite dish. Six days had passed since Gary hacked the transmitter.The feed horn on the dish had been converted to an emitter horn. Gary had modified another antenna to receive telemetry from the satellite. At the heart of the project was an off-the-shelf CB radio he had modified to 'speak' to the bird on its maintenance frequencies. Gary explained that while the data encryption was extremely sophisticated, the 'custodial' systems were not. In fact, the status of the bird was transmitted to the ground at a known frequency in Morse code! The others had shook their heads at the cobbled-together rig. They were freezing to death out here while this maniac pointed his 'death ray' at one of the world's most hardened satellites. They had the good fortune of clear weather which charged the system during the day and allowed them to see the bird during its nightly pass.
It was almost time.
Gary slid the battery in its slot and booted up the laptop. There was no familiar jingle as his custom operating system blinked on. The others gathered around the screen as if they could warm there hands by the light. Their breath was visible in the feeble light of the screen. With a few keystrokes Gary made it even darker. They had to be able to see the bird.
"Its time" he croaked. His throat was closing with excitement.
One of the men turned the makeshift dish antenna to the sky. The other stepped away and pointed skyward. "There it is!" he stage whispered as if it could hear him.
Gary held his breath and hit 'run'. A progress bar appeared. When it finished a tiny chime sounded and esoteric lines of code raced across a DOS screen. Gary hit 2 more keys and more lines of code came up. The 'transmit' indicator on the modified CB radio blinked on for exactly 2 seconds and then went dark.
"Done." Gary stated with some finality.
All three men looked skyward at the steady star racing across the heavens.
"Nothing." one of the men breathed.
"It didn't work did it?" The other said pointedly. He dropped the dish in disgust.
"Look" Gary said quietly. "Just look."
The steady tiny star was blinking now. Steadily and slowly blinking.
"So what, Gary?" the first man said, an edge on his voice.
"Its tumbling." Gary grinned "And at that rate, it may not recover."


***
The doctor finally had an assistant. A young girl whose medical training consisted of an advanced first aid course. At least she washed her hands and did as she was told. Right now she was bandaging some frostbite victims while they flirted with her. Seems like these heroes ruined a satellite.
They might have kicked over a hornet's nest.
Marcy ran in to the doctor's 'quarters'.
"He's awake! He's awake".

***
Carl ran his tongue around his lips. He tried to swallow, but only gagged. He felt something like 'lightness'. He tried to rub his eyes, but his hand was taped down. He could barely see the needles taped to the back of his right hand. He tried to raise his left arm but the pain stopped him cold. Two people came in the sick bay. One was Marcy. She was smiling.
***
The systems technicians at the NRO facility were puzzled by what became simply 'the Lacrosse incident'. How could all four gyros gimbal lock at the same time? A tight-lipped team from TRW grimly looked over the profile. The news was not good. The orbit had been modified for the run over the western part of the continent. Normally the thrusters would move it back up to its original orbit after the mission. Now it was too low to recover, even if they could unlock the gyros. It tumbled lower with each pass. Current guesstimates had it coming down in the Pacific coast of South America, possibly near Chile. The best case circumstance had the volatiles burning off during re-entry and the power pack going to the bottom with its deadly load of plutonium.


***

DEN OF THIEVES

“Look, I know this sounds far-fetched but it CAN be done.” The young man leaned against the wall of the tunnel everyone called the ‘office’. “The only parts I need are a varactor diode and three silicon transistors.”
“Well, let me just check my pockets” John Van Doss replied while he struggled with a boot. He was skeptical and he didn’t like the young radio tech. Van Doss wasn’t popular but he had organizational skills. A young woman watching the exchange looked at the radio tech.

“Gary- “She started.
“Listen, asshole.” The young man shot a look directly through Van Doss. His arms were now loosely at his sides and he wasn’t leaning on the wall. “When this crowd finds out you blew this opportunity, they’ll skin you and hang your hide out to dry,” He was pointing now “Especially when that bird up there is used to direct bunker busters into this hole.” His face reddened behind the scruffy beard and hair fell over his forehead.
The young woman looked at the ceiling and closed her eyes. Now her arms were crossed.

“Alright, get what you need for your little science project.” Van Doss huffed as his face reddened partly from the effort with his boots and partly because a techie 30 years his junior had just handed him his ass.

***
Marcy went through the motions of grooming and dressing. Hot water was a luxury in the mine. They could only burn a little fuel at a time and that was precious. She suddenly realized that someone probably gave up their share so she could bathe.
Oh God, she thought, will I ever stop crying?

At least the doctor wouldn’t keep her from Carl. She dried her eyes on a towel and managed to put on lip liner, the only makeup she had. She brushed out her long black hair and left it like that. Carl grasped her hair when he was in a fever-driven delirium and she didn’t think he would let go. She wanted him to have a touchstone with reality. Anything to keep him grounded. Anything to keep him here.
***
Miles away under a gray overcast, three men struggled with a freight sled loaded with electronic gear. The snow wasn’t the problem. Wind-driven banks of powdery snow left huge areas of rock and scrub grass bare. The large patches of bare ground slowed them down. They could only estimate the distance to their destination. The GPS system had been purposely degraded to the point of being useless to all but military applications. All three men turned to the sound of rotor blades. They rushed under a stand of spruce and stood stock still. A pair of Super Cobras flashed by and one of the men raised field glasses to see their markings.
“Loaded for bear and black as the ace of spades” he breathed.

***
“He’s supposed to have a fever” the old doctor rasped,”Can’t you people get it through your thick skulls? That’s the way your body fights off an infection.” She sounded exasperated. “The only thing we need to do is keep it below a certain temperature.” Van Doss looked at his feet. He couldn’t argue with the old harpy.
“What do you need?” He growled.

“I need 48 hours.” She turned back to the door. And help from somebody with a Hell of a lot more horsepower than you’ve got, she thought.
Van Doss turned back to the business of keeping the ‘miners’ ,as they called themselves, together in body and soul. Like herding cats, he thought. At last count there were 42 miners; most were over 21, people who by accident or design had come to the wilderness when the revolt started. He called it a revolt. The FEMA broadcasters called it rebellion. There appeared to be enough food, thank God. Most who came here had sense enough to bring something with them. Shelter in the mine wasn’t pleasant. It was always around 50 degrees F and damp. At least it was livable. Water was the biggest concern. There was a lift pump bringing up water from the deepest section of the mine, but it had to be filtered and treated before it was potable. Fuel was the next biggest concern. Even after three enterprising thieves winched two 2000-pound propane tanks on a tow truck bed and wound their way to the mine. The struggle to get the tanks inside the mine had to go down as one of the most heroic of the revolt. Still, they dare not burn much for two reasons: first because there was precious little of it and second because of the heat signature. No matter where they vented the burners, it would still bloom in infra red like a bonfire. The mechanically-minded had rigged a long chimney that cooled the burned gases in the mine before they were vented, but it was still risky. It was only a matter of time before they were found and some U.N. regiment was all over them like a bad rash. Van Doss cursed under his breath. He had to know what that fool in sick bay knew.
***
Carl was in free-fall. On his back, he looked up at the unreal blue of the sky at 12,000 feet. The air roared by his ears and the parachute harness straps fluttered against his sides. He watched the jump plane disappear into the cold January sky. When he arched his back to turn over, the ground was rushing up far faster than it ever had. Carl reached for the pilot chute. He was too late…
***

General Stephane Abrial looked out his NATO office window in Norfolk and watched the smoke cloud rise on the horizon. He had just received the report regarding the rebel attack on the United Nations armored column. He shook his head. An armored column and in broad daylight, within sight of his office! The Yankees seemed to have bottomless resources and a taste for blood. If this sort of thing was meant to demoralize his troops, it was working. Some were openly disobeying or passively carrying out orders. There were two cases of mutiny in the western U.S. this week. This entire fiasco was wrong. He knew it in his gut. He would ask to be relieved.

***
Stan Gilmore would probably never get over the stench. His office faced away from the camp and looked up at the front range of the Rocky Mountains. Still, the smell made its way through the heating system. They had run out of plastic coffin liners and had to burn bodies in the pits. Internees were told the vaccine had failed, but in fact, it had worked better than its designers had dreamed. The upside was the resources for the internees weren’t stretched so thin. More for everybody! That is, everybody still left alive. 400 yards behind Gilmore’s office med techs and camp monitors processed new detainees. As soon as they were drugged, vaccinated and acclimated they became internees. One of the medical technicians was Carol Bentner. She had been here since the beginning. She signaled the others she was going to take a break and stepped out of the MASH-style tent. Approaching a guard seated out side the door with his M-4 rifle leaning against the tent, she smiled at him as she stepped up to his chair. She reached around him and lifted his rifle. With surprising expertise Carol worked the action and shot the awestruck guard in the chest. Then she put the muzzle in her mouth and pulled the trigger.

***

The old doctor looked down on the tableau of Marcy and Carl. He was in crisis. The catheter bag showed less and less output. She cursed like a sailor under her breath. She needed a real lab. She touched Marcy’s shoulder.
“Honey, I need to talk to you.” Marcy looked at her with eyes brimming.

***

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

EYES WITHOUT A FACE

She lay sleeping with her back to him. The big hammock barely swayed under the massive turkey oaks in his backyard. Carl watched the patterns of light through the branches and the occasional falling leaf. He studied the freckles on her shoulder as if he would memorize them. Her hair smelled like sunshine. He drifted off.

***
The stocky man approached the makeshift bed and looked a question at the harried-looking woman in a lab coat.

“He’s not good.” Her manner was as coarse as her appearance “He was in shock when he got here. That’s a through-and through wound we have to irrigate to keep it from becoming septic. Then there’s the problem of plasma. He’s stabilized, but I hope we don’t have to give him any more.”


“Can he talk?” the man ventured.

“He won’t make any sense. I gave him Demerol at first, but I had to stop that when his temperature spiked. Take a good look, John. This is how you macho assholes end up.”


“What about Marcy?” The man looked at the disheveled form sleeping in the chair next to the bed. Her head rested on Carl’s chest.


“She won’t leave him” the woman groused “She’s suffering from exhaustion. I’m tempted to slip her a mickey and put her to sleep for about a week.”

***

“They were Air Force sigint specialists.” The small woman sipped hot coffee as she made her report. “We managed a rappel to the wreck and retrieved these.” She slid two wallets across the rough picnic table. Few would have guessed the petite woman was a world-class mountaineer.


“Air Force?” One of the group questioned as he opened one wallet.


“Yes” said another “The Air Force has taken over all domestic signals intelligence and internet ‘security’” His sardonic emphasis on the word ‘security’ wasn’t lost on the rest.

“Of course the NSA feeds the Air Force all the domestic traffic they can handle as long as the NSA doesn’t get its hands dirty.”


“They were looking for the transmitter” the first man said flatly “so they followed Marcy up here. They just didn’t count on Carl.”


“He may have killed all of us.” the second man spat.


“And he may have bought us a little time. At least the weather cooperated. That snow will cover up the evidence ‘til next spring.”

It snowed the night of Marcy and Carl’s arrival and nightly since. It was a two-edged sword. It helped bury latent heat signatures, but it also made a high-contrast background for new infra red targets. It made moving around difficult, even physically.

“Move the transmitter again.” It was clear this man was in charge. “They can’t seem to lock on it. That’s why they sent spooks up here.” He looked at the woman. “Good work, Helen.”

The petite woman flashed the kind of smile that broke up marriages.
***

“Alright, honey. Its time you got some sleep.” The gruff surgeon lifted Marcy out of the chair and led her to a makeshift door. “Let me have your shirt”. Marcy was too tired to fight. She lifted the sweater over her head and shivered quietly. She had no reaction to the surgeon’s quick swab and injection. “And honey, before you come near my patient again, you’ll bathe.” Someone drew a sheet over Marcy’s shoulders. It’s the last thing she would remember for the next 12 hours.



***

220 miles above the mine, a school-bus-sized Lacrosse reconnaissance satellite energized its radar. Its synthetic aperture focused on a small area of the surface below resolving images down to 3 feet. The satellite
completed its orientation maneuver and the analysis at the National Reconnaissance Office began.

Monday, August 3, 2009

LOW WATTAGE

The little jeep seemed to make as much noise as a freight train when they pulled away from the bend. Marcy glanced over at Carl.

“What did you mean ‘not half bad’?”

Carl looked over at her with a glazed expression. He felt weak.

”Huh?”

“You said my stew was not half bad” she pretended a mock hurt “Back at supper you said it was the best you ever tasted!

Carl was still under the influence of massive amounts of adrenaline. The adrenal glands go into overdrive during a firefight and the mind responds from a very primitive part of the brain. His higher functions were still on the back burner.

Marcy grinned at his confusion. She had a damnable habit of doing that, Carl thought.

Carl’s ears popped as they climbed farther towards the high peaks. They drove on for what seemed like hours but in fact it was less than an hour after the fight. Marcy slowed down, easing the Jeep and trailer to the oncoming lane dangerously close to the canyon side. She slipped it into reverse and backed into a drive carved out of the local landscape. It seemed to go back about fifty feet and stopped. Marcy got out and before Carl could follow, she signaled him to stay put. There was practically no light now. The sky had clouded over. Carl strained to see where she was going but that was impossible. Instead he could hear more than one mumbled voice. Marcy came back to the Jeep and things started happening very quickly.

The silence was torn by metallic creaking and a rumble like a large door. Marcy started the rig and backed in to a gaping hole in the darkness with a vague light far inside. When the huge opening rang shut two men turned on small lights mounted on their headgear. Behind Marcy and Carl someone shouted “Make a hole!” and a light nearly blinded him. He realized the light was probably no brighter than a forty-watt bulb, but he had been hours in the dark. His night vision was fairly acute.

Carl looked around him in interest. The walls were shored in the honeycomb fashion developed by the silver mining industry. There were small rails on the floor. Ore carts?

This was a mine.

***

A man walked toward the front of the Jeep as Marcy eased back into the narrow space. The area behind them widened into a larger opening. Possibly side shafts, Carl thought. A female voice called ‘Whoa!” and Marcy stopped at the juncture. Why here, Carl wondered.

Then it dawned on him.

He was trapped in the area between the Jeep and the tunnel wall. If he meant mischief, he would be easier to control. The man in front of the Jeep signaled Carl to dismount and come to him. He was tall and gaunt with a pony tail and bib overalls. Carl saw he was hefting a combat-style shotgun.

“I’ll have to ask you to clear your smoke pole there, Cap’n” he drawled. He wasn’t unpleasant, but he meant business. Carl pulled the magazine from the PLR-16 shucking the remaining round from the chamber.

“Oh, and the pistola too, Cap’n.” the gaunt man smiled.

How the Hell did he see that, Carl wondered. He drew the big .45 and dropped the magazine, pulling the slide back with an exaggerated motion so the man would see it all. The man looked over the .45 and raised an eyebrow.

“Thankee, Cap’n.” he grinned “You can hang on to ‘em. We’re not as suspicious as we are safety-minded.”

Carl thought he could smell bullshit, but it wasn’t unkindly. In fact it was safety-minded. It kept Carl, an unknown factor, from bringing loaded weapons into what was obviously an enclave of some sort.

The gaunt man turned back to Carl as he led him past the Jeep and trailer toward the larger area.

“I’m Jimmy Walther” he stuck out his hand.

“Carl” he returned as he grasped the man’s hand in a firm grip. An honest handshake with years of hard work behind it, thought Carl.

The walls here were lit by a number of small wattage lights covered with red plastic lenses. Dim by any standard on the surface but in a mine, it was sufficient. They walked to another juncture much brighter than the last. This one had stacked boxes and crates on pallets with a small space to squeeze through. This is harder than it should be, thought Carl. Several people were rolling an ore cart toward the entrance and the Jeep.

Jimmy stopped at a picnic table wedged in a pocket dug out of one of the openings.

“Wait here” he said softly.

Carl wondered what had happened to Marcy. The table was lit by a small battery-powered lantern. He grinned at the Forest Service logo branded in the table. It had been stolen and brought here. Footsteps padded into the opening and Carl was relieved to see Marcy plop down on the bench next to him.

“Are you okay?” he ventured.

“Yes" she looked at him "Is it alright if I panic now?” She smiled as tears rolled down to her chin and dropped on her parka.

“I was being kind you know” he whispered.

“About what?” Marcy was wide-eyed now.

“About the venison stew. It was just edible”

Marcy mock-slapped his shoulder as she grinned.

She rested her head on Carl’s shoulder for only a second and screamed. She looked at the blood on her hand and at Carl’s shoulder.

“OH MY GOD! YOU’RE HURT!” she shrieked.

She stripped the parka back from Carl’s shoulder then helped him out of it. The lining of the left sleeve was heavy, completely soaked with blood, lots of it. He looked at the gaping wound through his tricep and shuddered twice.

Then he passed out.

***