Fatal Thunder: A Jerry Mitchell Novel (9 page)

BOOK: Fatal Thunder: A Jerry Mitchell Novel
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Orlav didn’t even know where the Indians were going to use the weapons, nor did he really care. For the sake of
Chakra
’s crew, he hoped the torpedoes had all been fired and the sub was well away from the area. A 150-kiloton subsurface detonation would shatter anything underwater for miles.

“Your boss says Churkin will be here in Vizag soon, to oversee security.”

Orlav shrugged. “What does he have to supervise? I live in this workshop now, and you’re the first person I’ve seen in two days. I don’t even get to say hello to Kulik anymore. He just gives my meals to the sentry,” he groused.

The admiral was used to Orlav’s complaining. Besides, it gave Dhankhar a chance to speak Russian again. “I think Churkin’s job will be to make sure you don’t have any visitors.” He added, “Does Churkin have any useful skills? Perhaps he could perform some of the basic mechanical tasks, while you do the finer work.”

The technician just shuddered and quickly refused, replying, “I can finish without his help. I’ll find ways to be more efficient.” After a moment’s pause, Orlav asked, “When will we be paid?”

Dhankhar was surprised. “I’m sure you know it’s when the work is finished.”

“Of course,” Orlav replied, “but I meant exactly when? Is that changed because of the new schedule?”

“Ah.” Dhankhar explained, “No, that hasn’t changed. When you are paid is for your boss to decide.”

“And he can’t pay me until you pay him, hence my question.”

The admiral stated formally, “When you report that the torpedoes are ready to be loaded, Kirichenko and I will inspect your work. If I am satisfied, I will order the funds transferred to his account in whatever one of those Caribbean islands he’s using. And you’ve got your own account, correct?”

“Yes,” Orlav answered, smiling. “And after that, the only question is whether I live in Bali or Miami. No more working on things that explode, no more ugly wife and her greedy in-laws, no more Moscow weather.”

Dhankhar patted Orlav on the shoulder, and said, “Back to it, then,” and turned to leave. The power drill’s screech followed him outside.

He didn’t like Orlav, or his boss. They were mercenaries, peddlers of death for personal profit. Dhankhar’s plan meant killing thousands, maybe tens of thousands of Chinese, but he’d settled matters within his own conscience months ago. Final victory over India’s longtime enemy, and security against both terrorist and nuclear attack from Pakistan, was a worthy goal. The Chinese had chosen to involve themselves, and now they would pay for their poor judgment.

 

4

REASONING

15 March 2017

0900 EST

The Oval Office, the White House

Washington, D.C.

Joanna Patterson had gotten used to it. First President Myles, then Secretary of State Lloyd when he arrived a few minutes later, and now Secretary of Defense Geisler, newly arrived, listened to her report, shook his head, and said almost the same thing: “I was hoping for a different result. I suppose this has been verified?”

Glancing over toward Myles and Lloyd and smiling, she replied, “Twice.” Although she was the national security advisor, Patterson had been a scientist first, and was perfectly capable of explaining the report—defending it, actually. Politicians were often reluctant to abandon their opinions when confronted with unpalatable facts.

The other two had already heard her spiel, but it wouldn’t hurt for them to hear it again. Their fault, really, for not wanting to wait for the SECDEF in the first place. “The ground samples from the blast area still can’t tell us exactly which country made the bomb, but they can tell us about the method used to produce the fissionable material in the bomb. The Indians and Pakistanis produce plutonium using the same method, a heavy-water reactor; the plutonium from the Kashmir detonation came from a different type of reactor, a light-water-cooled, graphite-moderated one. Traces of the elements left from the explosion also show the bomb contained both uranium and plutonium. India has only used plutonium in their nuclear weapons, while the Pakistanis have historically gone down the highly enriched uranium route. They have yet to detonate a plutonium weapon.

“The nuclear forensics also confirm it was a thermonuclear explosion—a hydrogen bomb, not an atomic bomb. There were minute traces of lithium deuterate, a substance that creates tritium when under the exposure of high-energy neutrons.” That got Geisler’s attention. “Neither Pakistan nor India has ever built, to our knowledge, a successful hydrogen bomb. I doubt the Indians would test the first one on Kashmiri territory.

“And the biggest bomb the Indians have ever claimed to have detonated was fifty kilotons—seismic data from that test suggests the yield was far less. Imagery analysis and ground-based mapping of the Kashmir explosion matches the seismic data we already have, this explosion was at least five times larger than anything we’ve ever seen from either country—a hundred and fifty kilotons.”

Patterson watched Geisler as he processed the information. He stated flatly, “This couldn’t have been an Indian bomb, or a Pakistani one for that matter. That at least explains why nobody could figure out why the Indians dropped the thing. They didn’t.” After a moment’s pause, he added, “So it’s likely from Russia or China. But Russia has nothing to gain by doing so—they don’t have a dog in this fight. And while China is supporting both Pakistan and the LeT terrorists, there’s nothing to be gained, and much to lose by giving the terrorists nuclear weapons.”

Patterson looked over at the president and Secretary Lloyd. Myles was mouthing the words, “Wait for it…”

“So the real problem isn’t an irrational Indian escalation, it’s a loose Russian or Chinese nuclear weapon. Wait a second! Didn’t you say, Joanna, that we use the same type of reactors to produce plutonium? I mean, God forbid, could it have been one of our own weapons?”

Patterson raised a finger; she already had the answer to his question. “We have some 150-kiloton warheads, and they’re all cruise missile payloads currently in the reserve stockpile. I had STRATCOM conduct an inventory; all W80 and W84 warheads are accounted for. The rest were disassembled years ago under joint U.S. and Russian observation. It’s impossible that the weapon came from us.”

“Which gets us right back to Russia and China, with the former a more likely source of the weapon as the intelligence community doesn’t believe China has a weapon of this yield,” concluded Geisler. “But regardless, the bottom line is still the same. At least one, possibly more, nuclear weapons have slipped out of someone’s control.”

“And into the hands of a powerful terrorist organization, at least until it exploded,” Myles completed. He nodded toward the secretary of state. “Andy and I were hoping you would come up with a different conclusion than we did.”

“I think I liked the ‘irrational India’ scenario better,” Geisler replied, still absorbing the implications. Patterson thought he looked a little walleyed.

Myles asked, “This particular weapon is no longer a problem, but the obvious question is, do they have any more?”

“As national security advisor, I agree that is the most urgent question, but I can think of plenty more: How did LeT get the weapon in the first place? Where did they plan to use it?”

“We’ll make a list,” Lloyd interjected. “Joanna, who else can figure this out, that it’s not an Indian nuke? The Russians? The Chinese? I’m guessing the Indians can’t, or they’d have said something by now as proof of their innocence.”

Patterson nodded agreement. “The Indians have the science, but not the assets to collect the samples.” She paused, considering. “The Russians can do it, but their aircraft can’t get to the area and I haven’t seen anything that said they collected ground samples. The Chinese can get all the samples they want, and they have science. But they have no reason to tell anyone.”

“Why should they?” Lloyd replied. “They have to be loving India taking the blame for this.”

“Which is why we are going to declassify and publish these findings as soon as possible—today, if we can,” Myles declared. “Let’s get rid of the anti-India hysteria. It’s a distraction we can do without.”

Geisler shook his head, disagreeing. “With respect, sir, releasing those findings will look like we’re defending India. That will hurt our neutral standing at the peace talks.”

Lloyd shook his head. “Not really, Malcolm. India doesn’t trust us because we’ve worked with Pakistan to fight terrorism, and we interfered with the Littoral Alliance war. Pakistan doesn’t trust us because we’ve sold weapons to India and we keep hounding them about hunting down their radical kinsmen. Besides, it’s the truth, and we could all use a little of that around here.”

“And it will silence a lot of those fire-eaters in the House and Senate,” Myles added. “Too much heat and not much light to show for all of it.”

“It’s early,” she replied. “I can have an unclass version ready for the five-o’clock daily briefing.”

There was a knock on the door and Ms. McDowell, the president’s secretary, opened the door as Greg Alexander, the Director of National Intelligence, hurried in. “I’m sorry, sir, I was across town when I received Joanna’s message and your summons. What have I missed?”

17 March 2017

1300 EST

The White House

Washington, D.C.

The release of the information on the Kashmir bomb did not calm the media storm; it only transformed it. It was one thing to blame India for a violent, irrational act, but now the shock and fear arising from the detonation had no clear target. The reality of rogue nuclear weapons had raised speculation about the explosion to hysterical levels.

As national security advisor, Joanna Patterson was well briefed on the current terrorist threat. One of the greatest concerns the U.S. national security community had was the possibility of a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of a terrorist group. Now it had happened, and only good fortune had prevented it from being used against an innocent target.

Yet innocents had still suffered, and the Lashkar-e-Taiba still existed. Their camp in Kashmir, although important, was only one of many large and small establishments scattered throughout the region. And there were other terrorist groups, as well. LeT was just the largest and best organized. It didn’t comfort Patterson that LeT’s intended victim was likely some large Indian city, and not one in the United States. A mushroom cloud over a Mumbai or a Delhi, with the two warring countries already so close to the nuclear threshold, would almost certainly bring on the catastrophe they all feared—a nuclear war between India and Pakistan. And their apocalypse would be the world’s disaster.

It wasn’t like the U.S. hadn’t been aware of the problem. Many terrorist groups had declared their desire and intent to buy—or, if they had to, build—an atomic bomb.
Good luck with that,
Patterson thought. As a scientist, she understood just what was needed to construct even a crude atomic weapon. Buying a nuke was a much more likely and therefore dangerous option.

So while a good part of the U.S. counterterror effort went toward watching the actors, another focused on looking for people who might have provided, or could provide, nuclear weapons.

Her mind flashed to an important time in her life. She’d already been involved in nuclear science, then politics, campaigning for the environment at the national level, when she’d organized an expedition to the Barents and Kara Seas, close to the Russian coast.

She’d come up with the idea of using a U.S. nuclear submarine to survey the waters there for leaks from nuclear waste dumped there by the Soviets. The problem had already been reported, but only partially. With the endurance and resources of a nuclear sub, they could thoroughly document the problem, and present the Russians with hard evidence that would compel them to clean up their mess. It would be both an environmental and a political win.

The newly elected President Huber had signed off on the idea, and given her the submarine
Memphis
for the work. She’d learned a lot, both about submariners and herself. Lowell had been captain of
Memphis
, she remembered fondly.

But they’d found far more than just radioactive waste. A barge deliberately scuttled off the east coast of Novaya Zemlya had contained dozens of nuclear warheads, reentry vehicles for Russian missiles that should not have existed, weapons hid in secret, in violation of the nuclear disarmament treaties, and then presumably dumped after the fall of the Soviet regime.

She and the others aboard
Memphis
had spent hours trying to puzzle out the motives of the ones who had loaded and sunk the barge. It was reasonable that if the warheads had been built “off the books,” then the Soviets would be eager to get rid of them as quickly and quietly as possible, to avoid any repercussions that would come with the warheads’ discovery.

But it was more complicated than that. While divers were recovering two of the warheads and bringing them back to
Memphis
, they’d discovered an acoustic sensor nearby, planted on the seabed. Somebody in the Russian government was keeping watch over the barge, and had the resources to send surface ships, aircraft, and even a nuclear sub in pursuit.

Memphis
had run, and fought for her life. Patterson still remembered precisely how scared she’d been. In the end, they’d escaped, bringing the warheads home. They’d all been thoroughly debriefed, and of course warned not to discuss the matter, and as far as she knew, the matter had stopped there. Nothing had ever appeared in the public arena. The Russians had never complained about somebody stealing their warheads. The U.S. had never challenged the Russians on them, either. Not much to gain, and it would reveal too much about what the U.S. knew.

As national security advisor, she could now ask the different intelligence agencies if they’d found out anything more about the source of the secret warheads.

And the answer would probably be nothing. The only place they could look for clues about the warheads’ origin was inside Russia, and she could imagine no Russian secret more sensitive or closely guarded than this. The mere act of searching risked compromising those involved, and might reveal to the Russians that the U.S. knew about the barge and its frightening contents.

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