by

John Burnham

On the white sandy beach of a south sea island, Prime Minister Alphonse Arsenault reclined in a lounge chair. Music from a satellite feed wafted softly from the villa. Bountiful bosoms bounced to the beat. A gentle breeze rustled the palm leaves. As a servant boy completed the latest refill of his glass, it happened—the music went dead. The bosoms stopped bouncing. Angrily, Arsenault yelled toward the villa, “Turn the damn music back on.”

“Working on it chief,” came back faintly.

Arsenault relaxed and regarded the clear, azure sky. The warmth surrounded him in a mellow embrace. It was damn nice of Northern Omega Oil to lend him their little private piece of paradise for a well-earned holiday. If he played his cards right, he’d have a beautiful, unspoiled place like this for his retirement. The girls milled about, giggling uncertainly. The heat, inactivity, and alcohol took their toll. Arsenault drifted off.

***

A few minutes later, Chris McDonald—the head of Arsenault’s legal staff—gently shook his shoulder. Reluctant to leave the cozy stupor, Arsenault growled, “What the hell is it?”

“Sorry to wake you Chief, but we have a situation.”

“Can’t th’ damn thing wait?”

“I think we need to give this an answer as soon as they restore communications.”

Arsenault became alert. “Restore?”

“Yes,” McDonald replied. “The music went off because the feed from the satellite died. All the other communication channels quit at the same time. The techies are working on it. Anyway, just before everything went quiet, I received a communique from the legal leeches. It seems the L’itsuk band has retained legal counsel. They are suing.”

Arsenault reached for his glass and took a deliberate drink. “I told ya; I don’t give a rat’s ass about a few beaver dams and trout streams.”

McDonald swallowed.” This action isn’t restricted to the damage being done in their local area, sir. They have allied with other bands to have some large-scale research done. The action alleges damage to the entire watershed system and the livelihood of hundreds of people.”

Arsenault turned to look directly at McDonald.” You think the damage assessment is good?”

“Yes, sir. If we don’t force Northern Omega to comply with the toxic waste disposal regulations, that entire area will become a wasteland.”

“And what will happen if we clamp down on Northern Omega?”

“They’ve already advised that the project would become financially untenable.”

Arsenault sniffed. “So, bright boy, what do you think we should tell the legal people?”

“Well, sir, ah . . . it’s complicated . . . and—”

Arsenault’s countenance darkened as he interrupted. “Complicated, my ass. We mess with Northern Omega, they pull out, the Yanks have to buy their oil somewhere else, and we wind up holdin’ the bag. You tell the legal weasels to put the whole watershed thing in the same bag as beaver dams and trout streams. We ain’t stoppin’ progress and that’s it!”

McDonald opened his mouth to speak, but Arsenault waved him off. He’d heard the approaching security officer shout something about an emergency. “Emergency?” Arsenault queried as the man approached.

***

“Communications, sir. We’ve lost all contact with the rest of the world. All the satellite feeds are dead!”

Arsenault groped at his pocket. “Where’s my cell?”

The Security Officer shook his head. “It won’t do you any good, sir. The communications tech has tried all the cellular satellites. None of them are responding.”

Arsenault’s brow wrinkled. “All entertainment and communication satellites down at the same time?”

The Security Officer shrugged. “Yes sir. As far as we can tell, that is the situation.”

Arsenault stood. “There’s gotta be a hundred or more of them things. They all got their own power. How could they all go kaput at the same time?”

The Security Officer waved a hand as if to dismiss the imponderables of the question. “I have no answer for that sir. However, the unknowns of this situation make it imperative that we get you home ASAP.”

The engines of the private jet were whining as Arsenault, still clad in shorts and a flowered shirt, strode across the tarmac. A young woman, dressed in the Northern Omega Oil uniform, greeted him as he entered the aircraft. “Welcome, Mr. Prime Minister. Please have a seat. We should be off in a few minutes. May I get you a beverage?”

“Uh, I wanna talk to the pilot—see if he knows what’s goin’ on.”

The woman stepped aside and gestured toward the front. “Certainly, sir.”

Stepping into the cockpit, Arsenault was surprised to see the co-pilot’s seat unoccupied. The pilot turned questioningly as he slid one earphone back on his head. “Uh, I thought there was supposed to be two ‘o you guys,” Arsenault said.

“My co-pilot is in the villa. He’s trying Northern Omega’s emergency communications access.”

“Yeah? What might he be able to do that my guys couldn’t?”

The pilot squirmed.

Arsenault glared. “Look son, I’m the Prime Minister of your country.”

“Uh, sir, Northern Omega does have access to the Trans-Pacific cable and to the U.S. Navy’s permanent sonar arrays. We’re not supposed to use them unless it’s a matter of life and death.”

So, Northern Omega has tricks up their sleeve that they haven’t told my people about, eh, Arsenault thought with aggravation. His pique abated as the last of the pilot’s words sank in. “Life and death?” he blurted.

The pilot did a deep breathing exercise as he looked about the cockpit in confusion. “Sir, I’m afraid that I can’t make contact with any of the Global Positioning Satellites. Moreover, we can’t make contact with anybody to find out about en route weather.”

“So?”

“I need GPS to find Hawaii. We can’t take off without knowing the weather conditions.”

With irritation, Arsenault replied, “I thought this thing flew above the weather.”

His voice tinged with impatience, the pilot answered, “Our optimum cruising altitude does put us above most of the weather, but tropical storms can exceed our maximum altitude.”

“So, fly through it!”

“Sir, that extent of vertical development in a storm would indicate severe turbulence—very possibly beyond the structural limitations of this aircraft.”

“Then, hell, you just fly around it.”

The pilots voice took on the tone of one who is talking to a retarded child. “Sir, this aircraft does not leave the ground without a weather briefing.”

Arsenault’s face grew red. His fists clenched. As he started to speak, the co-pilot appeared in the door. The pilot’s features relaxed as he turned away from the confrontation. “How does it look?”

The co-pilot shook his head. “No joy. The cable is flooded with traffic; it’s impossible to get a connection. We get no response on any radio frequency, so we can’t establish contact with a ship or offshore rig that would get us patched into the Navy’s sonar array.”

Threateningly, Arsenault blurted, “I’ll tell you two what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna get this damn thing into the air and fly it to Hawaii. If we run into any weather, you can figure out what to do then!”

The pilot looked at the co-pilot, reached for the throttles, and pulled them back into the shutdown position.

Arsenault’s eyes widened as the whine of the engines died. “What the hell?” he shouted.

The pilot flipped a few switches and began to unfasten his seat belt. “Without GPS, my chances of finding Hawaii are not much better than nil.”

“What kinda pilot are you? Don’t you have a compass or sumpthin’?”

The pilot lifted himself out of the seat. Wearily, he looked at his antagonist. “There’s a thousand miles of open ocean between here and Hawaii. You do the math. An error of a degree or two would mean we’d never see it.”

Arsenault stomped his foot. He raised his fist. Blood vessels stood out on his forehead. “You impudent little cuss! When I get done, you won’t be pilotin’ a shopping cart.”

“At least, I’ll be alive,” the pilot replied as he pushed past Arsenault’s bulk.

***

That night, there was an unusual glow on the northern horizon. Speculation ran rampant that somebody had pushed the nuclear button.

The co-pilot and the stewardess—certain that the pilot’s defiance of Arsenault had saved their lives—didn’t hesitate to relate details of the encounter to the rest of the staff. Soon, the appellation, “Alphonse ‘The Arrogant’ Arsenault” given to Arsenault by the media, was heard during conversation.

For the remainder of that day and the following two days, anxiety grew. People speculated about apocalypse, tsunami, and how long the food and water would last. Arsenault fumed and stomped about. Whether they verbalized it or not, the entire staff experienced moments of comic relief watching Arsenault in a situation he couldn’t control by bluster and intimidation.

During the third night, the glow disappeared. Electronic devices came back on line. Information began pouring in. Unfortunately, most of it regarded rescue and relief efforts, but it was clear that the event was unprecedented. Communications, including GPS, had been knocked out worldwide. An undetermined number of airliners had lost their way, run out of fuel or collided with other craft. Every  form of transportation that employed electronic control or monitoring had been similarly affected. Railroad tracks were strewn with train wrecks. Roads and streets were scenes of vehicular carnage.  Nobody knew exactly why.

Arsenault put everybody except the pilot and co-pilot to the task of combing the news feeds for anything that reported on what had actually happened. The bits and pieces delivered to him conjured a most disturbing picture: The event itself was thermonuclear, but of a nature that defied description. The location was unfortunate—the Arctic boundary of his own country. Not only had the most disruptive occurrence in history happened on his watch, it had happened on his turf and, dammit, while he was away! He jumped to his feet and shouted, “What the hell are those flyboys doin’? Why aint we in the air?” An aide meekly handed him a cell phone.

“This is your co-pilot, sir,” was the calm reply from the instrument.

“Whaddya jerk-offs doin’? Why ain’t we in the air?”

“I was just about to inform you sir, that we have obtained Air Traffic Control clearance. Our assigned departure time is . . . er . . . one hour and fifty-two minutes from now.”

Arsenault spun on his heel and stomped. “Two hours? No damn way! I’m comin’ right out and takeoff will be immediate!”

In a tone that might as well be asking “Double-double with that?” the co-pilot replied, “Sir, the system is jammed by rescue and disaster-control efforts. We were told we’d have to wait at least five days for clearance until we pointed out that we were carrying the head of state for the country in which the event occurred. In . . . ah . . . one hundred and ten minutes, we will be rolling down the runway. If this aircraft takes to the air any sooner than that, we will not be at the controls.”

Arsenault threw the cell phone into a nearby fishbowl.

***

During the flight from the island to Hawaii and then back home, Arsenault and his aides continued to sift through incoming information. From conflicting reports and fragmented data, a picture gradually emerged. There was a pit on the northern border of his country, approximately round, about two hundred kilometres in diameter, and twenty kilometers deep. Strangely, speculation had died off about who had caused it or why.

Arsenault sat back and rubbed his eyes. The opposition and their toady press were going to have a field day with this. They’d dubbed him Alphonse “The Arrogant” Arsenault, claiming he ran the country like a private banana republic. His absence during this event would augment their characterization of him as a self-indulgent petty despot. No matter, the people who counted—the ones holding the purse strings—liked the way he did things. He had to ensure that this event, whatever it was, didn’t affect their interests. In order to do that, he needed information he did not have. Fortunately, as near as he could ascertain from the available data, nobody else did either.

As the aircraft circled for landing, Arsenault stared through the window in disbelief. The city, his city, the capital of his country, was a mess: Traffic was stalled on several major arteries due to massive accident scenes. Smoke rose from burning buildings here and there. In the vicinity of the airport, he could count at least three sites where aircraft had crashed into populated areas.

Arsenault was a bundle of fury as he bounded out of the airplane and into the waiting limo. Upon entering the vehicle, he burst into a torrent of questions. “Why the hell are those buildings afire? Where is the fire department? Why hasn’t that mess been cleared from the 101?”

When Arsenault finally ran down, he noticed that the aide he was yelling at wasn’t wearing a tie, had a couple of day’s growth of beard, and dark circles under his eyes. The man ran a hand through uncombed hair and answered wearily, “It’s a matter of priority, sir. When the electronics went dead, all manner of control systems failed and fires broke out all over the place. The fire department is overwhelmed; we have to allocate equipment in an order that will minimize loss of life. Unfortunately, that means some fires will be left to burn themselves out. The freeways are a similar problem. Every single one was shut down by accidents. We’re clearing by priority, but they won’t all be running until sometime next week.”

Arsenault was red in the face. “What’s wrong with you guys? Why didn’t you weenies call out the National Guard?”

The aide massaged the back of his own neck as he stretched his head wearily. “Sir, the National Guard has been mobilized. Every city in the country has the same problem, so they are spread very thin. It is only due to their help that we are able to keep our cleanup efforts going around the clock.” The man dropped his head and looked down at his lap. “Unfortunately, that may not continue for long.”

Arsenault’s gaze snapped from the scene outside to the man across from him. “Whazzat supposed to mean?”

“Fuel sir. Delivery has been disrupted and we only have a few days’ supply left.”

***

Prime Minister Alphonse Arsenault glared across his massive desk at the closed door. Rundle wasn’t due for another ten minutes. Still, he willed his Chief of Intelligence to walk through that door. The most important event in hundreds of years—perhaps in all of human history—had happened on his watch and, he still didn’t know what it was. He ground his teeth in frustration and impatiently drummed his fingers on the desk. He needed distraction, so he flipped open a folder that had been placed on the middle of his desk. A condescending smirk formed on his lips as he read.

The document was a brief on the L’itsuk action to sue his government. Sure enough, they were claiming environmental disaster had resulted from the government’s failure to enforce policy. They were right, of course. Northern Omega Oil was playing fast and loose with their handling of waste products, but the country needed the oil, and his party needed the campaign contributions. What difference did the ruination of a few beaver dams and trout streams make anyway? The brief went on to delineate the rage and impotence felt by the affected people. A secondary action requested compensation for mental and emotional distress. So what?, thought Arsenault as he closed the folder.

The office door opened. A tall, greying man strode through. Gary Rundle didn’t look as well-groomed as usual, Arsenault noted. Maybe he’d been up all night. Good. Maybe he had something.

“Good morning Chief,” Rundle said as he sank wearily into a chair.

“Whaddya got?”

Rundle pulled papers from his attaché case. “We now know that the affected area was approximately cylindrical in shape and about two hundred kilometres in diameter.”

“Any idea how high?”

“No.”

“Anybody try to fly over it?”

“The Yanks sent a blackbird up. It hasn’t been heard from since.”

“The bastards wouldn’t tell us if it did find the top.”

“I don’t think it did. The laser equipment still worked, so we were able to track it. Like everything else that tried an over fly, it disappeared. In fact, there may be some wreckage where the bottom of the cylinder was.”

“Is it still too hot to get in there?”

“Yes, the radiation levels look like Chernobyl.”

“How about a team wearing those protective suits?”

Rundle took a deep breath as he lifted his gaze above Arsenault’s face. “I don’t think that’s a good idea either.”

Arsenault rested his elbow on the desk and put his chin against the palm of his hand. This sounded like more bad news. His fingers massaged his temple. “Wanna tell me why not?”

Rundle extracted a paper and referred to it briefly. His eyes regained contact with Arsenault’s. “The Israelis sent in a team wearing hot suits on the second day. Now, they all show signs of radiation poisoning.”

The Arrogant One’s head came off his hand. His brow furrowed. “Ain’t that too fast? Don’t radiation poisoning take months to show up?”

“It depends on the intensity of the exposure, but yes, this is very rapid. The most troubling aspect is that it occurred through the protection of the hot suits.”

“Were the suits top-drawer?”

“The Israelis have the best. That’s where we buy ours. Their failure to protect the wearers suggests we are dealing with an unknown type of radiation—a particle that the suits can’t stop.”

“How about the other people?”

Rundle extracted another report and studied it. He didn’t raise his head as he read. “All of our people that were within a kilometre are showing signs of radiation poisoning. Friendly nations, the Brits, French, Germans, Yanks, and so on, report the same. People like the Chinese, Iranians, and North Koreans are asking for information about rapid-onset radiation poisoning. So, it’s a safe bet their teams suffered the same fate.”

Arsenault’s face grew red. “I knew the rug-heads had people in there, but I can’t believe we let a piss-ant little outfit like North Korea get a team in.”

Rundle leaned back and regarded his boss patiently. “On Day Two, that cylinder was brighter than the sun. It reached into the stratosphere. There wasn’t any place in the Northern Hemisphere where you couldn’t see either it or the light from it. Every government on the planet made investigating it their top priority. I can tell you which teams made it in before the cylinder disappeared,” Rundle concluded as he began to flip through his pile of paper.

Arsenault waived a hand dismissively. “Nah, spare me the details. Has anybody tried to fly over the area since the thing left?”

“Yes, the Russians had a Bear orbiting the site. It tried an over fly at thirty-three thousand feet.”

“And?”

“It got about ten kilometres inside the edge of where the cylinder had been. Apparently, ashes were all that hit the bottom of the pit.”

“My god! A column of radiation that fried an airplane at thirty-three thousand feet! What could make something like that?”

Rundle took another deep breath. “Nothing on this planet.”

Alarm began to show on Arsenault’s face. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“That thing was a contained thermonuclear reaction. The energy output was phenomenal. The ability to produce, much less contain, something of that magnitude is quite beyond the capacity of anybody on this earth.”

“Any guesses as to what it was all about?”

“I’d think a mining operation of some sort.”

“Why do you say that?”

“We sent a drone over the site a few hours ago. It sent back good information before it got fried. The thing left a hole more than twenty kilometres deep. The sides are vertical. A chunk of the earth’s crust two hundred kilometres in diameter and twenty plus kilometres thick is missing. That column of radioactive dust is the only sign of the missing material. Typically, when we reduce rock to dust, we’re mining something.”

Arsenault waived his hand to indicate he didn’t want to hear any more about mining. “That bunch of radioactive dust, which direction is it goin’?”

“The prevailing winds will take it northeast, over the pole.”

Arsenault smirked. “Fried Ivan eh?”

“Yes, Russia will be the first to experience fallout.”

“You said the radioactive stuff is worse than anything we—I mean every country—has messed with?”

“Yes, it’s like a bomb that’s dirtier than anything we thought possible.”

“Worse than—whaddya call it—a . . . a . . . neutron bomb?”

“Precisely so. There are subatomic particles pouring out of that dust we don’t know anything about. The only thing we do know is that signs of radiation poisoning appear almost immediately after exposure.”

Unconsciously, Arsenault rubbed his hands together in satisfaction. “So, Ivan’s in for it.”

Discomfort registered on Rundle’s face. He shifted in his chair. “Yes, but we won’t be far behind.”

Arsenault’s hands parted and slammed flat on the desk as he came out of his chair shouting, “Whaddya mean?”

Arsenault was half standing, his face becoming flushed. Rundle looked at him with the calmness reserved for those who have nothing left to lose. “Within thirty days, the jet stream will have carried that cloud around the world. There is enough contaminated material floating around up there to produce a mass extinction. It will rival anything that has happened before.”

Arsenault fell back into his chair with wide, frightened eyes. As he alternately looked at the ceiling, the walls, and out the window, his expression became less frightened and more cunning. After several minutes, he spoke. “Ok, here’s what I want you to do—”

Rundle interrupted by standing. Across a slightly trembling lower lip, he said, “With all due respect, I suggest you tell it to my replacement. What I am going to do is go home and spend whatever time I have left with my family.”

Colour rose again in Arsenault’s face. “You can’t do that. This is a national emergency; we’re under attack.” Blood vessels began to pop out in his forehead as he watched a sardonic smile form on his subordinate’s face.

“Attack is the wrong word. We’ve been exploited,” Rundle said simply and turned toward the door without picking up his attaché case or papers.

A stream of vituperation erupted from Arsenault as Rundle walked. Wearily, Rundle paused and turned around. “I almost forgot,” he said quietly and waited for the tirade to cease.

Arsenault ended with, “Well, give!”

“I said the hole was approximately twenty kilometres deep because the actual bottom is obscured by the products of seismic activity.”

“Seismic which, what?”

“Like volcanoes. The crust of the earth at the bottom of that hole has been weakened and fractured. There is a high probability that the whole thing will become volcanic.”

Arsenault began to look drained. “That sounds bad.”

“It is worse than bad. An eruption would fill the atmosphere with enough volcanic dust to block out the sun.”

Fear regained dominance of Arsenalt’s features. “Who or what could have done such a terrible thing to us?”

Rundle shook his head slowly while he looked at Arsenault. He pointed to the folder on the desk. “Remember why you said we weren’t going to do anything about that?”

Arsenault looked at the folder outlining the L’itsuk band’s suit. “l . . . ah . . . said we couldn’t let a few beaver dams and trout streams stand in the way of progress.”

Rundle gave a thin, condescending, smile. “Whoever did this probably regarded our great cities and magnificent agricultural systems as ‘beaver dams and trout streams’—nothing that should impede their idea of progress.”

“It’s unconscionable, uncivilized . . . ”

Rundle began to look amused. “On the contrary, I think it’s quite typical of civilized people.”

“This ain’t the time for riddles.”

“My apologies. It just struck me that whoever produced this phenomenon is treating us exactly as our ancestors treated the indigenous people of this continent. In fact, it’s typical of the way civilized people have always treated less technically advanced cultures.”

When his boss didn’t reply, Rundle turned and started toward the door. Before stepping through it, he turned around and said, “Perhaps what happened to us is poetic justice. Goodbye.”

Prime Minister Alphonse (The Arrogant) Arsenault didn’t move for many minutes after Rundle’s departure. Although crude, he wasn’t stupid. He now understood that there wasn’t going to be any retirement on an island paradise. An uncaring superior power had destroyed his cherished dreams. He looked down at the folder. The paragraph delineating the anger and helplessness felt by the people he was destroying appeared in his mind. Suddenly, he felt cold inside. The rage and impotence felt by the L’itsuk band did not feel good in his own chest.

– end –

Leave a Comment