Authors: Gordon A. Kessler
Tags: #Action, #Adventure, #Thriller
Meanwhile, the CIA uncovered Operation Thundertain’s dispersal method from a contact in the Republic of Moldova, where the terrorism financiers were meeting. Their mercenaries and hired workers were packaging the stuff into 400, 55-gallon drums with five pounds of C4 plastic explosive in the center of each drum and then sealing them up tight. They painted the drums yellow and call them ‘Twinkies’ for the obvious reason. But they certainly don’t plan this cream-filled yellowcake to last forever.
These Twinkies don't pose a high risk to human and animal health in the drums from a distance. But this stuff they’ve got, being an abnormally high-radioactive substance, merely standing close to it without protective clothing can cause organ damage and even cancer — the seriousness of injury depends on the length of exposure. But, here’s the worst: ingesting or inhaling the high-yield dust itself will most likely be fatal within hours, possibly minutes.
The message ended, and we sat silently, digesting what we were up against.
Specks finally asked, “How’d they get so many of these foreign mercs in
to the country, anyway? And the helicopters?”
the people in isn’t that hard, especially if they’re not on the terrorist watch list. Even if they are, with the money backing these bastards, there are plenty of holes in this country’s boarder for those with the means to exploit. Lots of good Border Patrol folks and Coast Guard, but not nearly enough for this big country. The helicopters have me more concerned. I’m afraid they’ve stolen them from the National Guard. That means some of our very brave soldiers are lying dead somewhere.”
We flew on with no further conversation.
* * *
Our fuel had been at about a third of a tank when we left Doc’s. I checked it often on our trip north and noticed it seemed to be dropping faster than what the turbine engine consumption alone should cause. In thirty-five minutes, we were on empty. The low-fuel light came on
and the audible alarm rang.
“Specks,” I said, “we must have caught a bullet in the fuel line or tank at some point. It’s abo
ut dry. The way the fuel level’s dropping, I don’t think we’ll make it over the next mountain ridge.”
“The double main line’s
up here another five miles,” Specks said. “If we can get that far, we can set down by the tracks and catch the next freight to Slaughterhouse. With the storm gone, we might see a little rail traffic.”
“We’ll need to find that ride quick,” I told him. “No radio and no cell phone service. Those bastards in the National Guard helicopters must have blown every
comm tower within 100 miles. If we don’t beat that hazmat train to Slaughterhouse, I don’t know how we’re going to stop it from getting all the way to Denver.”
s the helicopter’s turbine began to stutter, Specks said, “There’s the mainline, and we’ve got a freight approaching the last tunnel before the yards.”
Coming in hot, suddenly
the 150 mph forward motion is reduced dramatically, and we lurch headlong as the helicopter’s turbine engine dies and whines down. Without the engine propelling us, I let the 30-foot-diameter rotor free-spin in autorotation, and we descend quickly from 1,000 feet above the rocky, snow-covered landscape. I don’t want to think about what Rillie would have wanted to do in the final minute before we hit the ground.
“It’s the hazmat train!” Specks says and points
up the rail toward Slaughterhouse. Over a mile ahead just coming into view on the other side of the last ridgeline is a short, five-car train moving away from us.
Damn it. We’ll never catch them before Denver,” I say, my thoughts racing for a way to stop them. “Will they pull into the yards before going on?”
Normally, they’d change crews on the main line, but wouldn’t need fuel until the city. Don’t know that mercenaries change crews, though — they have a union?”
n’t laugh at Specks’ poor attempt at humor.
, “But on this trip, they’ve been out there stranded in the snow for six days. They’ve had to run their engines constantly all that time to keep the fuel lines from jelling in the cold weather. They’re sure to be low on diesel.”
s to see better.
I reach behind my feet, fi
nd the small pair of binoculars I’d used at the lodge and hand them to him.
Two locomotives,” he says, “pulling five cars. Looks like they have LP gas behind the power – that’s a Federal violation, right there.”
“I don’t’ think that matters much to the
“Yeah …, then there’s an un-placarded box car … what looks like a chlorine gas tanker … anothe
r box, and a way car on the end.”
“I didn’t think they use cabooses anymore.”
“Oh, yeah. They use them up here, some — especially on long trains snaking between mountains and through canyons. And they use them on short lines that go through dark territory. Think this one might have a special purpose?”
I had a thought. “The way those cars are positioned, and all the cars left back where we picked you up, seems like their plan was to have more LP gas cars.”
“Like maybe they’re short
after your dad rammed them?”
Yeah. Could they pick up more tank cars in the yards?”
There’s probably a ton of ‘em out there — usually is in a train yard of any size. They might make the time to take on a couple hundred gallons of fuel and switch in more tankers.”
Ever nearer the ground, for now
bringing this helicopter in to land on a moving postage stamp demands my full attention. Without the stabilizing effect of the tail rotor, and the engine still torqueing as it winds down, we start a slow spiral. But I get it under control and straighten it out. If I can now guide the thing away from the rocky slopes and to level ground, our crash landing is less likely to be fatal. The most level area is the railroad tracks, and I head for them.
But how about that train that currently occupies the rail I want to land on?
“It’s too late,” Specks says. “He’s starting into the tunnel. We won’t be able to stop the thing to get on it.”
“Maybe we won’t have to stop them.”
“He’s going fifty, sixty miles-an-hour. What are you gonna do …?” Specks stared at me as understanding seemed to hit him. “You and your damn papa are definitely cut from the same foreskin!”
I spot an empty flatcar
toward the end of the train. As the locomotives speed in, that empty freight car is nearing the 500-foot-long tunnel entrance at probably sixty miles an hour. If I can time it just right, maybe ….
I glance at Specks as we drop from the sky.
His eyes are bugging behind the thick glasses. “What are you doing? You’re not really going to —”
land on that flatcar,” I finish his question and answer it at the same time as if I’m confident I can actually pull it off.
,” he says, bracing his hands on the dash. “Suppose you’re going to make me jump out like your dad did from the train?”
“Not this time. Just hold on.”
Without powered flight, the big main rotor acts as a sort of parachute. It catches the air with its airfoil edges to somewhat offset the descent with a little lift force. Also, without engine torque, I can maintain a straight path, and we won’t spiral like the Blackhawk helicopter I shot down.
Still, luck will be as important as skill.
As we come in close over the train, headed toward the mountain, the near impossible life-defying stunt becomes obvious. Ahead of us, the tops of the train cars are clearing the tunnel roof by less than four feet. The one place we’ll have headroom is on that flatcar, so we must set down on it before it goes into the tunnel. But it’s still over 100 feet ahead of us, and we’re dropping faster and advancing slower every second. If we can’t land before the car goes inside the tunnel entrance, without power, we’ll crash into the rocks above it or a white tank car below us.
“Too slow, too slow, too slow!” Specks says, his arms stiff on the dash.
I maneuver the gliding helicopter as efficiently as possible toward the tunnel entrance to maintain forward speed. I pray our timing will be right. If we descend too much before we can catch the flatcar, we’ll land on the round tanker directly behind it that we’re over now. At that point our helicopter will fall off, and we’ll be killed in what will probably be a fiery explosion, depending on what’s in the tanker. But in a crash landing like that, it won’t matter much to us. We’ll be dead.
It’s just another life-risking, odds-against-me gamble of hundreds I’ve made in my life.
At 100 feet above the train, the rocky entrance is too close to sanely risk this daredevil stunt we’re attempting — but we’re committed, and now have no choice.
As we edge over the
flatcar, the tunnel is only 100 yards away.
Specks says, “Too fast, too fast, too fast!”
I pull the helo’s nose high to decrease forward movement so that we won’t land hard and
“Too high, too high, too high!” Specks says.
At fifty feet from the entrance, we’re tilted back so far we can’t see the train underneath, or the tunnel in front of us — all that’s in our view are the mountain ridge above and the bluing post-blizzard sky.
“Too high, too high, too high!” Specks repeats, as if I’m actually listening.
Coming in blindly, we’re left with nothing to do but hope and pray.
“Awe shit, awe shit, awe shit!” Specks says, and we slam down hard, sparks flying as the tunnel tears the rotor from atop the helicopter in an ungodly screeching, and we pass into an extremely cold and windy darkness.
Preparing for Battle
8:30 PM MST, Nearing Slaughterhouse Yards
The noise inside the tunnel was incredible, the JetRanger’s main rotor hanging onto the tank car behind us, bent and broken, sparking, screeching and grating against the concrete-lined passageway.
When we came
out of the tunnel and into the full moon lit evening, the wintery white world glowed around us. I soon realized why the noise in the tunnel seemed so loud, and why it became so cold and windy very quickly — both sides of the helo’s front Plexiglas windshield, the center bar and the nose cowling were completely gone. The tunnel’s roof must have been mere inches from our faces when it sheared them off.
was near fluorescent white, but I’m sure no more than me. He still gripped the dash while whispering a mantra of, “Oh damn, oh damn, oh damn!”
“You okay, Specks?” I ask
He slowly turn
ed to me. Suddenly, he yelled, “Shit, piss, tits! What do you think? Hell, no, I ain’t freakin’ okay! I just nearly got my damn head tore off and my ass smashed and rolled into sausage! Am I okay? Je-ez-hus, H, Kay-ri-est! You and your daddy are tryin’ to flippin’ kill me!” He turned the back of his head to me and folded his arms tightly across his chest. “I’d rather ride a porcupine naked down a bumpy road to Hell than spend another minute with either one of you crazy bastards!”
A quarter mile in front
of us, the head end of the train began to round a slow curve, and the lights of Slaughterhouse Yards glowed in the distance in the snow-brightened evening.
“Don’t quit yet,” I told him. “The fun is just beginning.”
I’d nearly forgotten about my shoulder wound until I unbuckled my safety harness and pushed out of my seat. Searing pain shot through my arm and back as I climbed from the helicopter and onto the steel deck of the flatcar. I held my arm and stepped closer to the boxcar in front of us, which shielded us some from the wind and the below zero wind chill. Specks stayed in the beat-up chopper.
The freight cars rocked harmonically, down the rail, and the continuous clickety-clack, had a calming, sort of therapeutic effect
on me that helped soothe my shattered nerves and allow for more rational and analytical thought.
By the time we went
over a steel railroad bridge, Specks appeared to have cooled down some, and he said, “That’s Kill Creek Bridge. We’ll be stopping in the yards in about eight minutes.”
I readied myself for the battle that was sure to come, checking the contents of the backpack and ruck sack that Rillie had prepared for me.
While hoping to find live ammo and weapons with firing pins in place, I smelled fuel of some kind and glanced at the freight cars behind us as they followed along the slow curve.
The helicopter’s main rotor had torn loose walkways, handholds and other safety appliances on the tank car behind us
and much of the tubular hand railing dragged along beside it in the gravel and snow. A narrow, six-inch gash, low on the side of the tank car’s jacket, leaked fluid. The loaded flatcar behind the tanker had received damage as well. A tarpaulin covering some equipment was torn half away and flapped in the cold wind.
From the backpack, I took out a Glock .45 and pulled
back the hammer. It was as I’d suspected; without a firing pin. Then something struck me about that flatcar with the ripped tarp. I took another look. The equipment that it covered was not your ordinary machinery, but five brand new Arctic Cat 1100cc twin-turbo
I said aloud, with some hope. Generally, vehicles aren’t shipped with much gas in them, however. I looked at the tank car again and saw that the required Department of Transportation placard for this end had been broken off and lost from the encounter with the helicopter rotor. From the odor, I was sure it had been a Class 3 “Flammable Liquid”. Then I noted the UN code stenciled on the end was
“Specks,” I asked, “what’s UN 1203?”
My companion still seemed to harbor some animosity about our rough landing. “Hell, I don’t know. Your dad’s the conductor.”
I knew better. As a locomotive engineer for over thirty years,
Specks’d have the more popular UN codes memorized long ago. “It’s fuel of some kind, right?”
He paused in thought. “Yeah — gas
oline, I think.”
“Perfect. You ever drive a snowmobile?”
That seemed to perk him up. He checked to see what I was looking at. “Yeah. Raised in Minot, North Dakota. Was born on a snowmobile. Used to race
when I was younger.”
I smiled at him. “
“That’s the place.”
“Back when you knew fifteen useful things you can do with a bra?”
“Yeah, back then.”
He grinned, his cold shoulder finally melting. “Still remember all fifteen, too.”
there’d be very little gasoline in the snowmobile fuel tanks, I found a two-gallon, collapsible plastic jug in the helicopter. I had no idea how long we’d need the snowmobiles for the upcoming task, but a gallon each plus what was already in the Artic Cats would surely be enough.
With a bad arm, I found crossing the
couplers between freight cars moving at sixty-miles-per-hour challenging, especially stepping onto the mangled, end platform of the tank car. I felt somewhat helpless when Specks lent me a hand, but I accepted his assistance gratefully. Then climbing the twisted end ladder to the top running board was even more fun. I stayed low, trying to stagger with the motion of the tanker as I made my way on the top steel running board. One misstep and I’d be on the rail below, sliced and diced into nice little pieces by the dozens of train car wheels that would pass over my mutilated body.
We made it past the
tank car’s loading platform and top outlet in the center and then finally to the far end next to the car with the snowmobiles. I let Specks climb down first with the empty jug. We were lucky the steady stream of gasoline leaking from the jacketed fuel tanker was like water coming from a faucet, except that it came sideways due to our speed, and splattered considerably in the blustering wind.
After filling the container, Specks stepped over the couplers toward the snowmobiles, and I followed. But, as I did, the sound of rapidly pounding metal came from the locomotive end of the train
. I realized the engineer had applied the brakes and, like dominos, they were setting up quickly one car at a time from the head end.
“He’s setting the brakes!” Specks said. “Jump!”
He held out his arms.
I thought I could handle it without taking such drastic measures, but soon found out he knew what he was talking about.
The chain-reaction of brakes setting, hit the tanker and threw me off balance as I stepped toward Specks on the flatcar.
My foot went between the coupler knuckles as they slammed together, luckily only smashing
the side of my boot toe. But I tumbled off with my high-topped, lace-up boot still between the couplers.
eg twisted unnaturally, my head down and face only inches from the rail, I reached for the flatcar’s end handhold with my good arm as my injured arm fell limp. When my left hand struck the wooden track ties between the rails, it felt like my knuckles were being beaten with an aluminum ball bat.
Specks grabbed my left arm
and pulled me back up as far as he could to enable me to grab the handhold with the now injured hand of my already injured left arm. With my boot remaining caught between knuckles I was still in a very precarious position. Specks quickly pulled a folding knife from his pocket, opened it with his teeth as he ensured I had a good grip on the handhold and he stepped onto the flatcar’s coupler. With a quick reach and three slices at my boot’s laces, my foot slipped out.
maintained a firm grip of the handhold, while facing the opposite direction from our travel. However, since that grab bar was only three feet from the ground, my legs were straddling one rail, and both the booted and bare foot were dragging under the rail car, striking every tie and large rock between the rails.
Seeing the big steel wheel spinning at sixty-miles-per-hour only inches from the body part I value most was motivation enough to hang onto that handhold for as long as it took.
Finally, Specks was able to take my left arm and pull me up enough for me to throw my bare foot atop the flatcar floor. With considerable struggle, I finally rolled out onto the wooden car deck, safely.
“Damn, boy,” Specks said, “you seem to do everything the hard way.”
Between gasps, “Thanks,” was all I could say.
In the next second, lights appear
ed above the horizon, and the faint roar of a Blackhawk helicopter’s turbine engines resounded over the clacking of freight cars.