by Bill Delmar
A chemical engineer with a burgundy satchel slung over one shoulder catches a taxi outside of the Luch Scientific Production Association in Podolsk, Russia in the early evening. He instructs the driver to take him to the Serpukhov–Kalanchevskaya train station. The driver obliges. From his rear view mirror, the driver watches as his passenger fidgets nervously in the backseat throughout the entire ride. A veteran cabby, he has seen it all, and is hardly phased by his passenger’s unusual behavior.
After a short drive, the cab arrives at the train station. The man with the burgundy satchel pays his fare, and exits from the cab. He climbs the steps to the train platform. A few moments later the train arrives. In a row of seats along the side of a nearly empty car, the man takes the seat closest to the door. On the empty seat to his right, the seat closest to the door, he carefully lays his satchel on this lap without removing the strap from around his shoulder. An elderly woman in white platok with a red and blue rose pattern sitting in the row across from the man watches as he grabs protectively for his bag each time the train shutters. She smiles, assuming that this must be the man’s first train ride.
The man with the satchel is scanning the train’s passengers. He feels as if their collective gaze is upon him. A bead of sweat rolls down his forehead and collects in his brow. As he loosens his tie and unbuttons the top button of his white collar, he convinces himself that he is just paranoid, that he has nothing to worry about. After all, how could they know? They didn’t know a thing about him. As far as they knew, he was just a man on his way home from work, and, in a sense, that is just what he was: a man on his way home from work.
He’s smart, he tells himself. As long as the output was within three percent of the input, no one questioned the loss. It was dismissed as normal losses to waste. The machinery was old, inefficient, so of course there would be loss; maybe even a bit more than what would be considered “normal.” A little bit at a time, he had told himself. He had resisted the urge to take all he needed at once or to take just a little extra to reach his goal faster. It had taken him a year just to get what he has now. He finally has just enough to entice a buyer.
He is not a criminal. No, of course not, he tells himself. He needs to eat. His salary just isn’t enough. He is doing what he has to do. And what he has to do is survive. His cause is just. No one will get hurt. He hasn’t taken nearly enough for someone to do something destructive with it. Even if he has, there was no way that anyone had the capability of building a device that could actually utilize the material. What does he have to be afraid of?
Outside, it is snowing heavily. It is mid-February, the coldest month of the winter season in Russia. The roads are already covered in a thick layer of heavy snow. From the train window, one could be entertained by the sight of cars whose drivers were unfortunate enough to slip, slide, and skid on the slippery roads.
This train ride will be long. He knows it. It will be close to midnight when he finally reaches his destination: the Tans-Siberian Railway Station, Yaroslavsky, in Moscow. Yes, this train ride will be long, but the next one will be even longer.
He would depart from the Yaroslavsky railway station and ride the Trans-Siberian Railway to Irkutsk, a journey that would take near three days. The destination is where his buyer awaits.
He feels his bag for the familiar shape. It was almost too easy. He had purchased the pipe from the hardware store. The thickest gauge he could find. Lead pipe was expensive, but common. He had his friend, a plumber, thread the ends of the pipe for him. He had slipped the material carefully inside, and tightly screwed the caps onto each end. It was common knowledge: the higher the enrichment, the weaker the radiation. It would be undetectable. He had nothing to worry about.
Four miles outside of Cooperstown, North Dakota, amid an enormous field of trimmed green grass surrounded on every side by nothing but sprawling farm land for miles sits a solitary structure: a white vinyl sided, single-level building. From a distance, a passerby could easily mistake the building for a home. In the daytime, the only immediately noticeable feature that indicates that the building is not just an ordinary home is the eight foot high security fence that surrounds it on all sides.
Sixty feet below the surface of the unassuming compound, behind a thirteen and a half ton blast door and five and a half feet thick reinforced concrete and steel walls, sit two men with the responsibility of launching ten of the U.S. arsenal of nuclear missiles when commanded to do so. Minuteman, they call both the men and their missiles. The missiles are a proud achievement of the Reagan Administration. The Minuteman III missile, they call them. They can span the Pacific Ocean and the length of almost all of Europe and reach their target in less than thirty minutes.
The two men who occupy this bunker rank only lieutenant. Their shifts last twenty four hours a day for three days a week, during which time they sit and await the command that will send them to work on a number of properly rehearsed steps to which they have been trained to not give a second thought. They know full well what it means if they ever receive the command they await, but they are proud to serve their country none the less. On the outside of the blast door, a darkly humorous mural serves as a reminder to the men of the job that they must do: a Domino’s Pizza box, with a rendering of a minute man missile on it and the words, “Worldwide delivery in thirty minutes or less or the next one is free.”
However, the men seem strangely unaffected by the dark and morbid nature of their duty. Unsupervised inside their bunker, the two men play a game of Five-Card Stud, an activity that would most certainly be deemed against regulation by their superiors. They heatedly debate whether Aces had been called high or low, and, when no agreement can be reached, resort to insulting one another’s girlfriend. The restless nights seem to have almost no effect on them. Their jobs have given them a much greater appreciation for life.
Two men meet in an alley near the center of Irkutsk, Russia. One man has with him a burgundy satchel, and the other a black backpack. It is just after two o’clock in the morning, and it is snowing heavily, reducing visibility to only a few feet. There is no one in sight on the streets nearby. No one has any reason to be out this early in the morning during a blizzard.
The men exchange very few words, only what is necessary to confirm identities. The man with the black backpack gestures towards the other man’s satchel, and the man hands it over. The man with the black backpack opens the flap of the burgundy satchel slowly. He has been waiting for this day for quite some time now; the day when things finally come together. He only needs one more component before he can finally put his plan into action, and that component is right here in this bag. He removes the led pipe and tosses the satchel back to its owner. Turning the pipe over in his hand, he examines it before unscrewing the cap and looking inside. Satisfied, he replaces the cap. The man with the burgundy satchel grins nervously in anticipations as he awaits the hefty compensation that he was promised. The man with the black backpack gingerly places the pipe into his pack, and closes it.
Without saying a word, the man with the black backpack turns to leave, but stops when the man with the burgundy satchel demands his compensation. He explains that he put not only his job at risk to get the material, but his life as well. He reminds the man that they had a deal.
The man with the black backpack chuckles and turns to face the man. He removes a silenced pistol from his inside coat pocket, and dispatches the man with a single bullet to the head. He watches as the man with the burgundy satchel falls to the ground. A pool of red slowly creeps over the white snow around the man’s head. The man with the black backpack feels no remorse for what he has done. That man had been a mere pawn in a much greater plan; a plan that he will not have jeopardized by loose ends. The man with the black backpack exits the alley. The engine of a car parked along the curb springs to life, the driver having seen the man emerge from the alley. The man enters the car and nods to the driver, indicating that they exchange went as planned. As the car pulls away, he cannot help but to take the pipe from his bag to admire his prize.
It may have taken the nuclear engineer a year to acquire the amount of highly enriched uranium that the man needed, but his plan has been in the works much longer. He has spent almost ten years now acquiring all of the materials he needs. A recoilless artillery rifle was first. It was perhaps the easiest component to procure, albeit the most expensive. Since the end of the war, a disabled recoilless artillery rifle could be purchased from military surplus. The second was a large commercial furnace, which could be ordered without question from a supply house. Next, there were the electrical components, which could be ordered from a supply house as well. Then there was the large steel shipping container. Finally, there was the uranium, which the engineer made quite easy to acquire.
It’s late in the morning when the car reaches the warehouse. The snow has subsided and the sunlight is breaking its way through the clouds. The man with the black backpack provides the uranium to his engineers to complete the device. The uranium is cut in half. One piece is bolted to the muzzle of the rifle, and the other is engineered into a hollow projectile to be fired by the rifle. When the two pieces of uranium collide at the right speed, it would create the desired explosion. The rifle is placed inside the furnace, which would act to control and pressurize the nuclear reaction. The electric components make up the detonator. The whole device is housed inside of the large steel shipping container, which would allow for it to be transported and delivered to its target location. The man knows that the device is improvised, but he also knows it will work.
The delivery is the final stage of the plan. The shipping container will be taken by train to port in Nryan-Mar in Okrug, Russia. The shipment had already been arranged. The container would be reported as a shipment of scrap metal. They have no reason to be concerned about detection by the portal radiation monitor. The detection levels are set too high to detect what little radiation the highly enriched uranium will emit in order to avoid false alarms. If the levels were set low enough, they would give false alarms for everything from porcelain to televisions. Once the freighter carrying the bomb made port in Boston, it would be detonated.
The alarm sounds suddenly, interrupting an intense discussion over whether or not dogs can see color. The two men go to work immediately, almost as if it were second nature. In a way, that is exactly what it has become for them: second nature. The two men grab their binders and open to the page where they will verify the message they are about receive, and hurry to their stations at the launch panel. When the alarm stops the readout begins.
“Bravo. Oscar. Alpha. Charlie. Sierra. Message follows.”
The voice on the speaker repeats the lines several times to ensure the men are prepared to copy the message, and then the message readout begins.
“Lima. Tango. X-ray. Foxtrot. Papa. Mike. Kilo. Sierra. One. Yankee. Zero. Alpha. Oscar. Seven. Echo. Delta. Acknowledge, out,” the voice on the radio finishes.
The missile combat crew commander removes the phone from the cradle and replies, “Roger, copy.”
“All right, I see a valid message,” says the deputy missile combat crew commander.
“I agree. Go on to step one of the checklist. Launch keys inserted.”
The two men get up and move to a small lock box on the wall. Each man uses his own key to remove one of the two locks that secure the box, and then open it. From it they procure the two launch keys, and then return to their stations. Both men insert their keys into their holes.
“Going on to step two. Function select switch to off,” says the crew commander.
“Initiate actuated clockwise.”
“Actuated clockwise. One thousand one.”
“Check, got the alarm.”
“All right, proceeding from nineteen. Program select switch to enable.”
“Flight select switch set to all.”
“Launcher select switch set to all.”
“Set. Unlock code. Required inserted, first element, papa.”
“Second element, seven.”
Both men choke back a myriad of complex emotions as they go about their work. They cannot stop for any reason. Stopping could mean the difference between life and death for every citizen in the United States, and so remain obedient to their duties.
“Third element, papa,” continues the commander.
“Fourth element, seven.”
“Fifth element, papa.”
“Sixth element, seven”
“O.K., read ‘em back.”
“Papa. Seven. Papa. Seven. Papa. Seven.”
“O.K., I agree. Enable switch set to enable.”
“Enable switch down and locked. Initiate switch actuated counter clockwise.”
“Initiate actuated counter clockwise. One thousand one. Key turn at commit time. On my mark. Hands on keys.”
“Standby. O.K., hands on keys.”
“Three. Two. One. Turn.”
“I . . .”
“Deputy, turn your key!”
The deputy, his hand on the key, hesitates. He is suddenly hit with the reality of what he is about to do and his loyalty to his position wavers. He cannot decide if he is ready for the consequences of what he is about to do.
“Ten seconds! Deputy, turn your key!”