***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2014 James Abel
The pleas for help stopped coming just after five in the morning, Washington time. The Pentagon staffers cleared for handling sensitive messages sat in horror for a moment and then tried other ways to reach the victims. Nothing worked so they called the director, who phoned me. I was awake anyway, as I often am at 1 a.m., Alaskan time, running a fifteen-miler in the coastal city of Anchorage, where I live.
I have trouble sleeping. I don’t like the dreams that come when I do.
The director said, “Joe, the submarine USS Montana is in the Arctic Ocean, five hundred miles north of Alaska, on the surface, on fire.”
“What started it, sir?”
“Unclear. Everything happened fast, in the last few hours. Something toxic hit ’em. Chemicals or gas probably. They’re sick apparently. Their air circulation system went out and then the fire started. Or maybe the fire started first. They can’t dive. They can’t move. The Montana carries a crew of a hundred and fifty-four men and women. Last report, one hundred and seven were still alive. Nine are critical. The medical officer burned to death.”
“It’s not radiation.”
“What’s the surface temperature?”
“Plus two. At least the sun barely goes down in late August. Darkness drops it another twenty degrees.”
I blew out air. “Where are the survivors, sir?”
“Anyone not fighting the fire evacuated. They’re on the ice, in insulated tents and covered life rafts, with portable generators. They’ve got fuel for two more days.”
I swore. “Rescue helicopters?”
“Nothing has the range or space. Plus our closest subs are eight, nine days out. And Joe?” I heard thick frustration in the director’s voice, and grief. “The satellites are blind. Three days of bad weather and more on the way. Some kind of polar superstorm. We can’t send planes, even those tough little Twin Otters. And nothing can land anyway on that ice. It’s a goddamn rubble field where that sub came up. Might as well be boulders.”
I thought fast, breathing with exertion, standing in running shorts and Reeboks on Treadwell Street in front of the old Russian church, with its hemlock and Sitka spruce trees scenting the air, along with the clean tang of the Chugach Mountain Range foothills, and with dead marble eyes of dew wet statues—saints and ocean explorers, Vitus Bering, watching the solitary runner with an encrypted cell phone in his hand. The yellow cedars were heavy with green. A traffic light blinked red in the plate glass window of Rosa’s Brooklyn Bagels. “Maybe the Russians can assist, sir. Don’t they have twenty icebreakers? They must have something closer.”
There was a long sigh. The director said, “Can’t.”
In the silence I heard secrecy and disgust for politics and necessity and all the reasons why our biohazard response unit had been formed in the first place. The director was a rotating public servant—corporate to government for twenty years—and lived in a world of high-level trade-offs. He was far more comfortable in the backstabbing world of high-level Washington than I. I said, the drumbeat of urgency growing, “Why, sir?” and the bigger picture began coming out.
“She’s a Virginia-class sub, newest thing we’ve got. Most advanced weapons and guidance systems. We can’t have President Topov’s boys getting a look at them, sharing them with their friends in Damascus and Tehran.”
“So it was a spy mission.”
“They have spies,” the director said wryly. “We have intel. Joe, get up there.” His voice grew angry. “The United States Navy . . . greatest in the world . . . and we only have one working icebreaker at the moment and it’s used for science, not even under Navy control. The Coast Guard has it. At least it’s only four hours out of Barrow,” he said, naming the northernmost city in Alaska. “It’s been up there doing sea bottom surveys. We’ll jettison the scientists, board you and Marines.”
“I want Eddie with me,” I said, naming my best friend.
“He’s on the way.”
“And an expert on Virginia-class subs.”
“Yes, yes, with Major Nakamura, coming up from Seattle,” the director said. Major Nakamura was Eddie.
He added, as if needing to underline urgency, “The new Russian government makes old Vladimir Putin look peaceful as Gandhi. They’ve made control of the Arctic a keystone of military policy. The Arctic is melting, Joe. A whole ocean opening that wasn’t passable before. Oil. Gas. Shipping. It’ll make the Atlantic sub game look like third grade. They’re stronger than us up there. I’ve been trying for years to get more money from Congress for Arctic ops.”
My joke fell flat. “You mean intel.”
“Save the ones you can. Secure or destroy that sub. Joe, whatever happened up there, whatever started it, you’ve got the qualifications to handle it. You make the hard choices. I’ll back you up.”
I felt my pulse go up and more sweat break out on my forehead. One hundred and fifty-four people. A sharp ache gripped my gut. My mouth was dry and a cold shadow seemed to pass over the city, even though it was a hot night for Anchorage, temperatures around seventy degrees.
The director said, more softly, “I know you gave notice, Joe. I know you only have two weeks left.”
I’d been looking forward to quitting, moving back East. “Oh, I’ll be back before then,” which might or might not turn out to be the truth, I knew.
“Thank you.” I heard real gratitude in his voice. “You’ll fly from Elmendorf to Fairbanks,” he said, naming the city an hour away by air where my ex-wife lived with another officer. You’ll pick up Marines and head to Barrow in a Hercules. You should arrive the same time as the icebreaker, so no time lost. Get me a list of what you need, soon as possible.”
Christ, help me.
But Christ, I thought wryly, had not listened last time I needed him. He had not helped at all, so I’d done things that had put the last nail in the coffin of a long-failed marriage, kept me awake most nights now, and made me a pariah among men and women I’d worked with, US Marines.
The worst part was, I knew I’d do it again if I had the choice.
The director seemed to guess what I was thinking. “Joe, you were a hero last time. I wish the truth could come out someday.”
I wasn’t going to give him absolution. So I said nothing.
“Good luck, Colonel,” he said, and hung up.
I started toward home. The twenty-minute sprint would be spent planning. No use waiting, calling a cab. In my head I began drawing up a list of what I’d need—antibiotics and antivirals, body bags, burn medicines. I’d take the thumb drive library, a portable case containing just about everything we know about bioweapons. The questions came hard and fast.
They’re sick? Sick from what?
I thought, feeling my legs pumping, my heart roaring, that I’d never really understood secrets until I’d joined the director’s unit. Only then did I see that owning one made you a secret. I was a living secret, and I knew with dread, as the darkened foothill houses went by—here a cedar ranch-style home belonging to an Air Force Raptor pilot I knew who was often sent up to the US border to monitor Russian bear bombers buzzing US soil; here a condo in which lived an Anchorage Daily News editor who wrote editorials urging the beefing up of Arctic military budgets; and there, a dark spot a half mile off, an Air Force research lab where I’d done occasional work for the last few months, looking at virus behavior in cold climates—that one day the things that my unit dealt with would kill them, and their families, all of us, in warm beds as we slept, on a lovely night like this.
My name is Joe Rush, and you won’t find a description of my real job in my dossier at the Marine Corps. It’s been sheep dipped, altered so that what remains contains—like Washington itself—enough truth to fool a casual observer, and the rest a fabrication designed to protect the Corps, me, and the nation from learning things that people like the director have decided you ought not to know.
Thirty-nine years old, the dossier says. That part’s true, at least. Six foot two. The photo shows hair as black and thick as my great-grandfather the Welsh coal miner’s, eyes as blue as those of the Norwegian peasant woman, my great-grandmother, who met “great-gramper” on the deck of the coal-powered steamer that brought them into New York harbor 130 years ago. The Massachusetts town they settled in is in the file, too, because I grew up there: the textile mill village of Smith Falls, population 250, a hamlet nestled in the green mountain foothills, ten miles south of the Vermont line on a cracked two-lane rural road.
There, three generations of Rushes worked on the assembly line of Brady Textiles, making Army uniforms in World War One, Air Force uniforms in World War Two, and Naval uniforms during Vietnam, but by the Iraq War, Brady had moved operations to Honduras, where they paid workers less, and the men and some women in my family had become the electricians, plumbers, and roofers maintaining the second homes of people from Boston or New York who summered in our region, and went home to their condos and Long Island suburbs when the air grew chilly each fall, and I boarded a rusted yellow bus and rode to a country school where, if we wanted to keep our football team equipped, our moms baked pies that we kids sold door to door to the college professors in wealthier Williamstown.
State troopers and soldiers were our success models. “Be all you can be,” said the Army commercials I thrilled to on TV when I was nine. “The few, the proud,” said the ads for the Marines. I grew up dreaming of the ocean and travel, feeling trapped by familiarity and smothered by love. I wanted far away. I’d never traveled more than forty miles from home. The smells of summer grass and February snows were odors of my prison. The kiss of a girl and even the camaraderie of friends were, to me, tricks to bar escape to the wider world.
So I left that girl, said good-bye to those friends, and the “education” part of my file correctly indicates that I attended UMass on a ROTC scholarship. The early Marine history is right also: Parris Island, Quantico, amphibious duty in Indonesia, and the Philippines, everything right up to the second tour in Iraq.
But the second tour is not mentioned in that file.
Under “awards,” you’ll see the Silver Star and the Legion of Merit, and a Navy and Marine Corps medal awarded for actions taken in combat during the global war on terror. True. All true. But you won’t find out what the “actions taken” were.
Under “skills,” you’ll learn that I can hit a moving target with a rifle at 300 yards, and can afterward, thanks to my MD degree, remove the bullet, stitch the wound, prescribe proper medications, and run any field hospital or field lab in the world, to hopefully identify chemicals or germs released in combat against our troops.
I am also qualified to lead an assault on an enemy bioweapons bunker, secure it, decontaminate it, treat injured staffers, and then arrest them, so they can be interrogated, tried, and hung by US military tribunal, under obscurer laws of the Republic. If my skill set seems contradictory, you’re starting to get an idea of why you need access to several files to get a complete picture, why I now live alone and run long distances at night, instead of going to sleep.
After my wife left two years ago, I went through the drunk phase and bar fight phase. I went through the period where you sleep with lots of women, and tell yourself you enjoy it, and the phase where you stop enjoying it, and if you ever saw my eyes only psychiatric file, you’d read that I cut myself off from friends, except for Eddie, who knew the whole truth.
If you have big enough secrets, you can’t have friends.
For the past year—after getting out of the hospital—I’ve been on partial duty, teaching a few biohazard classes at Elmendorf, several miles from my home, hitting the pistol range three times a week, occasionally traveling to remote Eskimo villages along the Bering Strait with Air Force doctors to study new strains of rabies.
My memo to the Secretary of Defense—which brought me to the director’s attention five years ago—suggested that the military should prepare for the possibility that the next big outbreak of human disease might come from a cold climate, not a hot one, not a jungle, as is usually assumed . . . but from a microorganism released by melting ice, after being encased in it for hundreds or thousands of years. Or a mutant variety emerging as the region warmed.
Now, going home—I raced along Stevens Boulevard, beneath a lone hooting owl, and to the sound of a distant loon, and past evergreens draped with moss that shimmered beneath streetlights. A certain degree of cynicism is healthy in a longtime servant of the Republic. I’d achieved the level commensurate with a man who’d been seconded to an obscure biohazard unit comprised of two-officer teams of doctors with intense combat experience.
I was ranking officer on my team.
I admired the director but was also wary of someone who always believed he knew the best course for the rest of the world.
The director liked to quote Benjamin Franklin. But I think he was talking about himself.
“Patriotism is relentless.”
Franklin was not a soldier, but he signed the Declaration of Independence. Had America lost its revolution, he would have been hung. He understood choice, and that is my measure of a man, the ability to make decisions.
I arrived at my small cedar-sided home in twenty minutes. A black Ford pulled into my driveway sixty seconds after that.
By 2:30 a.m., I was in an Air Force Falcon clawing through a late-summer thunderstorm as it flew toward Fairbanks, and I read a series of encrypted eyes only reports on the submarine Montana, my heart pounding.
I kept thinking about 107 surviving men and women on the ice, far north of me. It seemed like a big number. It would be small compared to the danger I headed toward in the end.