Authors: Basil Sands
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Espionage
“Aye, aye, sir…I mean, yes, sir,” Franklin replied.
“And knock off that Navy talk, son. You're back in the real world now.”
“Sorry, Mr. Wyatt. Six years of it kind of grew on me.”
There was a loud “beep beep” in Eugene’s telephone handset.
“Yeah, well, check on that vehicle for me ASAP. Let Andy know that I’m here at the Salt Jacket station and will call back in after I get a look around. My batteries are getting low and I left the car charger in my office, so I’m going to get off now. Out here.”
Damn. It’s a good thing I didn’t chase them yahoos. They might have been a couple of doped up gangbangers who would have killed me for kicks.
The tires of the F250 crunched on the snow as he pulled off Johnson Road and up to the entrance of the Salt Jacket substation. Eugene’s headlights illuminated the heavy gauge chain-link fence. It appeared to be securely locked. He shut off the engine and opened the door of the truck.
Before he could step down, Penny leaped over him. She landed on the ground with acrobatic lightness. Eugene stepped down after the dog. Penny took several steps, then spread her hind legs and peed on the ground a few yards from the truck. Once finished, she took off at a full run into the woods.
“Hey!” he shouted after the dog. “Don’t get lost! We’re only going to be here a few minutes.”
Eugene pulled the fur-trimmed hood of his parka over his head to hold out the biting cold that nipped at his ears. His cheeks stung from the cold. The temperature had dropped since he left Fairbanks.
Eugene approached the fence. He put his hand out and tugged at the handle. It was securely locked. He reached up to press the silver metallic buttons on the battery-operated combination pad. Just as his finger touched the first number, an unexpected deep whir and throb made his heart jump.
The security lights of Pump Station Eight exploded to life on the other side of the tall trees that obscured it from view. It had been so dark in that direction that he had forgotten how close the pipeline was. Eugene regained his composure and finished punching the combination into the keypad. The gate slowly clanked open. He entered the compound and was heading for the small control shed when a firm voice called out behind him.
“Can I help you, sir?”
He turned to see the bright beam of a flashlight pointed at his face. Below the beam, Eugene made out the shape of the muzzle of a weapon.
“Who are you?” he called back.
“Pipeline Security. Show me some ID or you are going to have to leave.”
He unzipped the top of his parka and pulled out the ID card strung around his neck. These guys were not stereotypical shopping mall security rent-a-cops. Doyon Services, who held the contract for pipeline security in perpetuity, only hired the most professional and potentially most dangerous guards to fulfill their role in protecting one of the country's most valued resources. Most of these were former military police, and many had served as Marines or Special Forces. They were paid almost as much as the “security consultants” the government used as mercenaries in the war on terror, and they were worth every dime of it.
The guard moved forward, shining his light on Eugene’s badge. Once he was close enough to read it, he said “Good evening, Mr. Wyatt. I’m Officer Bannock, Watch Corporal tonight up at Eight.”
A single mercury lamp on a tall pole above the substation started to hum. It slowly began to glow to life, but still provided almost no light.
“Do you mind if we step into the shed and I turn on the switch in here?” said Eugene.
“Sure, go ahead.”
Bannock pointed his flashlight to the door so Eugene could see to put his key in it.
Eugene opened the door and stepped inside. He flipped a switch to the right of the door as he entered. A bright fluorescent light flickered to life. The ballast inside the light fixture added another layer to the increasingly loud hum of the station's massive copper coils and the room's numerous devices.
The back wall of the room was a mass of gauges and switches, set in floor to ceiling gray steel casings. Whenever Eugene walked into one of these rooms, he thought of the fifties science fiction movies from his childhood in which such devices lined the wall of Buck Rogers' spaceship. A table and two chairs that looked like they were probably WWII surplus sat in one corner, and a small desk with a LCD computer terminal was crammed in the opposite corner.
Once inside the lighted room, Eugene turned to see the guard’s face. Bannock was a tall, muscular man in his early forties, retired military by his demeanor. An MP5 submachine gun hung over his shoulder from a black nylon strap. He wore it comfortably, as if it were a part of his body. The long, black Maglite had been placed back in its holster on his pistol belt.
“I guess those other two technicians must’ve fixed the power just before you got here, eh?” Bannock asked.
“You saw them?” Eugene responded. “What’d they look like?”
“Yeah, I saw them. Two white males, in their late twenties or early thirties. They showed valid looking Tanana Valley ID cards. One was named Adem, the other was Nikola.”
“Did you see what they were doing?”
“Negative. I heard the noise over here during our shift change and came by just as they were closing the gate. I heard them talking, but I was too far away to understand the details of their conversation. They weren’t speaking English at first, but when they heard my boots on the snow, they switched immediately.”
“What language were they speaking?”
“Albanian?” Eugene asked. “How the hell would you know it was Albanian?”
“I retired from the Special Forces three years ago. Knee injury. I did several years in the Baltics, and had a lot of contact with northern Albanians among the Kosovo Muslim Militias.”
“Muslim Militias?” Eugene replied. “Are you saying these guys are terrorists?”
“I didn’t say that specifically. But I wouldn’t rule it out.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Eugene said. “What else was suspicious about them?”
The guard paused for a moment, and then said, “It’d be easier to list anything
suspicious about them. There was serious bad tension around them. They had just left and I was heading back to the pump station to make a report to send in to the troopers when I heard you pull in. I had thought it was them returning, so I came back.”
“Yeah, they almost ran into me head-on down the road a ways,” Eugene said.
Bannock nodded in reply. “Well, Mr. Wyatt, I’ve got to be getting back and file a report of contact. Everything I mentioned to you the hard facts, that is will be in my log back at the station, if you want to see it.”
“Thanks. I’ll be gone in five minutes.”
around and started to open the door when Eugene called out.
“Hey, Bannock, could you do me a favor?”
back. “Sure, what do you need?”
“If those men return, or for that matter, if anyone comes in here for the next week or two, could you let your guys back there know to give me a ring on my cell phone?” He handed Bannock his card.
“No problem,” the officer replied. “You know, we could do even more than just call you. We have some pretty good surveillance gear at our disposal. With your station being in such close proximity to the pipeline, I could justify monitoring your property for our own security reasons. All I need is your permission, and we can set up round-the-clock electronic surveillance.”
“Thanks. That’d be greatly appreciated,” Eugene replied. “If your boss gives you a hard time, tell him to call me. Me and him go back a ways.”
“Have a good night, sir.”
Bannock raised his fingers to his forehead in a relaxed salute and walked out into the darkness.
Eugene logged onto the computer on the corner desk and accessed the systems report in hope of finding something that would give him any clue. The last line before the system went down showed everything running normally at the half hour checkpoint. The next lines, which had been appended upon system reboot, read:
Abnormal Shutdown 0430 hrs 081217
Error Code: 000 Unknown Source Disrupt
What the hell? The computer doesn’t even know what happened.
Eugene printed the report and rose from the desk. He zipped his parka back up, turned off the lights, and then headed out the door into the now brightly lit area outside. The mercury lamp had finally reached its full intensity and cast a pale white glow onto the building and equipment around him. White steam billowed from his nose and mouth as he exhaled in the frozen air.
From where Eugene stood, he turned to gaze around the yard. He saw no sign of physical damage. If there had been a transformer fire, it would have been on the report. Even if it weren’t, he would be able to smell the tell-tale odor of burned electrical equipment, which he did not.
As he walked toward his truck on the other side of the gate, Penny slowly trotted back from the woods and waited beside the door of her master’s vehicle. She sat down and her tail wagged happily, sweeping the snow behind her in a doggy version of a snow angel.
“My goodness, that’s a good dog. You came back without me calling” he said aloud to his canine companion.
Phantom-like wisps of white steam rose from the thickly insulated tan canvas fabric of the Carhartts coveralls, Alaska’s most common winter outer garment, which hung on a peg protruding from the log wall. Heat waves like tiny translucent serpents wriggled in the air from the surface of the black iron woodstove in the corner. From within the dull, black metallic box crackled and popped the arrhythmic music of old-fashioned warmth. In a fairly new leather recliner, the only sign of modern comfort in the cabin, a man slowly awakened from a heavy slumber. The muscles in his bare arms rippled beneath a sheath of brown skin as he brought the chair to an upright position and stretched like a lion rising from the shade to hunt.
Marcus Johnson was but one member of a small community of rural Alaskans who lived partway between the old-fashioned frontier lifestyle and the 21st century.
Half the residents of Salt Jacket existed without at least one of the major modern conveniences of power, plumbing, or telephone. A good number of those folks were missing all three. Marcus was in the latter group.
For most, it was the lifestyle they preferred. They commuted to their jobs at Eielson Air Force Base twenty miles to the west, or all the way down to Fairbanks, thirty miles past that. After spending the day in high tech offices or running noisy construction equipment, they unwound on the drive home, where they would enter the world of silence. It was a world unknown to urbanites in the lower forty-eight.
Few city people have any idea just how quiet the world can be off the grid. More accurately, what they do not understand is how noisy their urban surroundings are. In the quiet of the small cabins and houses of this deeply forested paradise, there is no hum of electricity, no buzz of fluorescent lights, no whir of computer terminals. No television noise or constant droning of traffic. No human chatter or incessant scraping of people walking the streets all hours of the day and night.
The only sounds are the natural sounds of life, of the living world. When a person relaxes enough, the wilderness comes alive with the light tick of a bird’s bony toes as it walks on a fence, or the muffled snort of a moose snuffling at a willow branch fifty feet away. At times, one can hear the crackling of a leaf falling off a branch and drifting to the ground.
That’s why most of the residents of the forest stayed here. That’s why Marcus came back to his hometown after twenty years of service in the military. He returned to a town and lifestyle where he could actually live reasonably well on the modest pension of a Marine Corps Master Sergeant.
No more noise. No more crowds. No more looking over his shoulder. No more war. He was glad to be home.
Marcus rose from the comfortably thick Lazy-Boy recliner next to the woodstove and again stretched his aching muscles. He had been chopping firewood all afternoon, until it got too dark to continue. Although Marcus had only been out of the Corps, and daily physical fitness training, about six months, he found the work of splitting wood to be exhausting. Maybe his friend Linus was right—military life had made him soft, at least as far as the Alaska bush was concerned.
He crossed the main room of the small cabin and looked in the mirror that hung on the wall above an old-fashioned washbasin. After twenty years of hard living his medium brown skin was still smooth and wrinkle-free. Few people properly guessed his real age of thirty-seven. They usually dropped ten or more years and assumed him to be in his mid-twenties. Large, deep brown eyes with almond-shaped lids belied the genetics of his Athabaskan mother. Tight, black curls of closely cropped hair atop a high forehead matched those of his father. While his skin and hair were that of a black man, an angular jaw, pointed nose, and high forehead revealed his grandfather’s quarter-Puerto Rican ancestry.
Marcus was born and raised in Salt Jacket. He had been gone with the Marines for nearly all of his adult life, serving in Force Recon for most of that time, the “Elite of the Elite”. He would never have imagined being so tired after swinging an axe for a few hours. Not a person who was typically prone to perspiring, he was surprised by how much water there was in his clothes by the time he was done.
The two-hour nap by the woodstove had both revived him and dried him out. Upon waking, he had a taste for some hot coffee, soup, and a fresh sandwich down at the store. He put on some relatively clean jeans, a fresh undershirt, and a flannel shirt. He narrowed the vent and turned down the damper on the woodstove and then slid into his tan Carhartt insulated coveralls and jacket and drew a black knit cap over his head. In the center of the room, he rotated the knob on the Coleman white gas lamp suspended on a chain that hung from the log beam that supported the roof, where it lit the main area of the cabin. He picked up his black and silver snowmobile helmet and headed out the door of the small cabin on his fifty acres of paradise deep in the quiet Arctic forest.