Able Archer: Distant Early Warning (Part III)

Issue 38 by Lawrence Lichtenfeld

Able Archer: Distant Early Warning (Part III)
Chapter Ten: Part III

BAD KREUZNACH, RHEINLAND-PFALZ, FRG

A red rotary beacon was mounted over the door to the communications room. In all his days at the Marne Kaserne, he had never seen it illuminated. It was never supposed to be. If that lamp was illuminated, it meant that the Telex machines had urgent messages. Even when they were running a com drill that was supposed to mimic an actual situation, they never used the lamp. When the reflector inside the red, plastic dome began rotating, no one paid much attention. Then the light came on. Soldiers working in the room adjacent to the communications room looked up at the beacon, frozen in stunned amazement that the light had suddenly come on. It was followed a moment later by a thought-shattering claxon that snapped every soldier out of their silence, and into a feverish swell of movement.

Lieutenant Irwin was on duty that morning. Sitting at his desk, reviewing com dispatches from USAREUR, the Fifth and Seventh Armies. It was standard-issue movements and reports. The usual crap that was being sent as part of Able Archer ’83. Every dispatch with “THIS IS A DRILL… THIS IS A DRILL… THIS IS A DRILL…” splashed across the opening line of each communique. Irwin was leaning back in his rickety, puke-green office chair with a printout in one hand and a cup of bad, Army-issue coffee in the other when the claxon blasted him to attention. He half-threw the lukewarm coffee across his desk at the sudden burst of sound. He jumped to his feet and went to the door. Looking out on the staff beneath him, he saw NCO’s, specialists, and privates in a flurry of movement, the red light splashing the desperate color of firetrucks and ambulances throughout the office. He glided to the communications room in three, long steps. The duty Sergeant met him there. Every machine. Every printer. Every Telex. Every system clattered frantically with life. The dam had broken, and a flood stream of information was pouring into the communications room. One Specialist was on his hands and knees, checking the boxes of fan-fold paper beneath each printer. Another was reading the printouts as they emerged from each machine, moving back and forth between each, watching for the end of each message. He would tear the sheets off at the perforations, as soon as a message completed, so he could hand them off to the Sergeant immediately. He was a Hispanic kid; his skin was a pale gray and the expression on his face looked like something between seeing a deer get mangled by a semi going seventy miles per hour and stepping barefoot in a steaming pile of shit.

Irwin watched the standing Specialist for a moment, looked to the duty Sergeant, then entered the room. He pushed the Specialist aside and began reading the readouts for himself. “Holy shit,” he said with no inflection, no indication that he had just read the most shocking news possible. He knew that it was his coolness, his even temperament that these young men, scarcely ten years younger than himself, were going to rely on to continue to perform their duty. “Sergeant, you stay on top of this. I want every post, comm and communique on my desk as soon as its transmission is complete. If any transmissions are broken or garbled in any way, I have to know immediately. And you, down there. You need to be Johnny-on-the-Spot with that paper. You are responsible if I miss a single word. You read me, soldier?” The teletype machines were direct-line communications. There was no buffering, no memory at the print-out station. If the system had a hiccup of any kind—a paper jam, a tear, someone knocking out a comm line, anything—the message was lost. Not completely lost. There was a bank of computers in the comm shack, with reel-to-reel tapes of all comm coming and going recording things. But it was not meant for easy access or immediate use. It was simply a recording of all communication for the purpose of later transcription and review.

“Loud and clear, sir,” the Specialist on the floor said with a crack in his voice. “This is a drill, isn’t it, sir?”

“Shut up, soldier. This is no drill. You have your orders, now get to it,” barked the sergeant. “Yes Sergeant. Will do.”

Irwin stepped quickly back to his office, the claxons continuing to blare throughout the entire base, the sound causing his head to throb already. The Sergeant followed Irwin into his office.

“What is it, Lew? What did the printout say?”

“You know what it said.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously. Straight from Cheyenne Mountain.”

“Damn.” The Sergeant turned on his heels and took up a position in front of the communications room. “Hey, you there. What are you doing?” Irwin could see him pointing to someone in the general office area. “Yeah, come here. I need you presently.” A private came over and stood in front of the Sergeant at attention. “Go in there, and you do whatever the fuck those men tell you to. Anything. You read me?”

“Loud and clear.”

Irwin closed the door to his office, hoping to cut the piercing cries of the claxon, went to his desk and picked up the receiver. He made his prescribed calls, telling all his superiors what they already knew and confirming what needed no confirmation. The sirens had told them everything they really needed, anyway. They were at war. The real deal. Defense Condition One. Defcon 1. All that Irwin was doing at that point was following a prescribed set of actions. But soon, he would begin relaying orders. Same as he always did, but with newly found dire consequences. Before the messages started hitting his desk fast and furious, he decided to try his luck calling Klaus. He used the same number he kept tucked behind a photo of a girl back home in Texas. The number he used to set up drug deals, but this time he didn’t bother going out to the payphones. He called from his desk.

Someone he didn’t know answered the line. Irwin asked for Klaus but was told he was not in. He scratched his high and tight, trying to remember that other asshole’s name. “William. What about William?”

Ja, ja. Willem is here.”

Willem picked up another line and the man who had answered didn’t bother hanging up. Irwin asked him simply, “Do you know?”

“Know what?”

“The Soviets have launched a strike.”

“Excuse me?” Willem choked on a hard licorice candy.

“The Soviet Union has launched missiles. We’re tracking them.”

“And what about the United States? I assume you must have fired missiles, as well.”

“I do not have information to that effect, but I would assume so. I have to go.”

“I thank you, Lieutenant. I appreciate you calling with this information.”

Willem hung up the line and then dialed the Stasi headquarters directly, not bothering with taking precautions to prevent the West Germans from tracing his call. It no longer mattered. The operator that answered the callback in East Berlin seemed unaffected by Willem’s urgency. He calmly connected Willem to Erich Mielke’s office.

TUKTOYAKTUK, N.W.T., CANADA

The sun was up for twelve hours, give or take a couple of minutes, in late September above the Arctic Circle. The temperature was on the cool side of thirty-something degrees Fahrenheit, and just starting to drop seriously, as the days grew shorter. Tuk, as the whites down in Ottawa liked to call it, was once an Inuit whaling village. Sitting on the shore of the Arctic Ocean and having open water access to other Inuit villages for much of spring and fall, in addition to the summer months, Tuk became an important aboriginal trading post. In the 1950s the whites and their American friends came and set up a military camp just outside of the village. Later, when the whites and the Americans needed to find oil and natural gas because the Arabs had cut their access to the Middle East oil, the village swelled to as many as two thousand workers and families. But now, people frowned upon hunting the beluga whales and caribou that had kept the Inuit alive for millions of years, and not enough oil was found under the permafrost and ice shelves, so the population had shrunk back down to about a thousand locals and a handful of whites, still encamped on the outskirts of the village.

The ACA Allertor 125 model air-raid siren mounted atop a tall, wooden telephone pole, on the south end of Tuk had been wailing for three minutes. It was painted bright red and had a unique two-bell design. The lower bell was short and fat and sucked the air into the siren system. The upper bell, or horn, was long and tapered, like the bell of a trombone. A motor at the base of the siren pushed the air up, through rapidly spinning wickets or disruptors. They chopped the rushing air, causing the vibration that raced through the upper bell and out into the atmosphere as sound. The 8/12 ratio chopper gave the siren a distinct two-tone register at 125 db. that was easily heard for thirty kilometers, provided the horn was pointed towards you. Enclosed in the base of the unit, at the top of that telephone pole, was a chain-driven mechanism that turned the entire siren 360̊. The system was quite effective in cold climates, places like Minnesota or Wisconsin, or even Calgary or Edmonton. But above the Arctic Circle, the chain had a tendency to become brittle in the extreme winter months and could snap. In the case of the ACA Allertor 125, mounted twenty meters above the wild grass, on top of a telephone pole, on the south side of Tuk; the chain had broken two years earlier. ACA had discontinued the Allertor 125 and was pushing communities to replace them with the newer, more reliable Penetrator 10; consequently, the village leaders of Tuk were pressed into purchasing a new siren, a siren that they had not taken delivery of yet. Since, the rotation of the siren unit no longer functioning, the department of public works simply pointed the horn towards the center of the village, with the hopes that the 125 db. of sound would reverberate and echo throughout the region, providing ample warning for all the locals.

Jimmy Evyagotailak was twenty, maybe twenty-five kilometers south of Tuk, hunting caribou and moose. The sirens would have been easily heard if the system was functioning properly, but because it was fixed in a north-north-western direction, it was barely audible. The fact that Jimmy had a Sony Walkman blaring rock music under his orange hunting cap didn’t help. He had lain on the leeward side of a hillock, his Marlin big-bore rifle trained on a bull moose forty-five meters off on a grassy field. Jimmy preferred hunting with a rifle, over bow-hunting like his father and grandfather. The old ways had their place, but winter was coming, and he wanted to get some more meat in his food locker before the nights got long. His buddies, Ken Quvianatukuluk and Hank Wycoff, both liked bolt-action rifles for taking down moose, but Jimmy preferred the Marlin’s lever-action. He found it much easier to handle in hunting mittens.

He slowly adjusted his gun sight, measuring the distance. He had the breeze coming almost perfectly into his face. He could smell the bull chewing the sweet grass, and more importantly, the bull could not smell him. He followed the mature bull’s head as it looked right and then left, chewing at its cud all the while. Just as he bent back down to pull another clod of grass from the moist soil, Jimmy settled his aim. Looking through the scope, one eye closed, the other trained on the bull’s head, below the antlers, behind the eyes, he saw nothing else.

As he slowly, quietly pulled back on the trigger, he saw a sudden, blinding flash through the scope. Not the flash of his muzzle. Not the flash of the sun in the eye of the moose. This was a flash like he had never seen before. A flash that came with an intense heat. The burst of second sunlight through the magnification of the scope had instantly seared his retina. His right eye was rendered completely and permanently blind. The cornea was now a bright, bright red. The capillaries had burst as the blood in them was superheated in the matter of a split second. He had squeezed out the shot reflexively as the flash blinded him and instantly dropped the rifle. His hands went directly to the right side of his face. He felt as though someone had plunged a white-hot, rusty Bowie knife into his eye socket and twisted. It was an exquisite, piercing pain, followed by a throbbing around the socket. The orbit around the eye, and the cheekbone beneath, pulsated with trauma. He blinked hard several times, painfully aware of the eye’s unnatural warmth. There was no vision registering. No sight. With each blink, all that his brain received was the red sphere and yellow glowing aura of his melted cones and rods. The broken signals of the useless orb.

Jimmy looked up to survey the field with his good eye. The moose had been hit. And while it was sure to be a fatal shot, it had hit the bull in the neck, and not the head. The beast cried out in agony, not from the gaping wound from which its lifeblood spilled, but from the scorching light that had rendered it blind, as well.

Jimmy had regained his wits and realized that there had been an explosion. Off, to the north, over Tuktoyaktuk. He put his hand out in front of his eyes, shielding his still good, left eye from the northern sunrise occurring over the Arctic Ocean. Glancing between his fingers, he could make out a mushroom cloud growing over the bay. He quickly understood and realized the hillock was scarcely enough cover to protect him from the coming shockwave. He sprinted out over the crest and across the grassy field. He could hear the concussive vibration of air blown outward, away from the explosion, like a runaway train. He dove next to the dying moose, on the south-facing side of the animal. He pulled his pistol out of his holster and double-tapped the crying moose. Its head dropped instantly and the pained moans ended. He then snuggled in as close and small as he could against the warm chest of the bull. Within a breath of a moment, he heard the shockwave rumble past. Followed by a wave of intense, radiant heat. The thrust of heat, like a giant blowtorch, firing right over his shoulder. With it came the smell of burning fur and the sound of water spilled into a pan of hot oil.

Then there was a push of unleashed air following the heat across the plain. And finally, a calm—like the eye of a hurricane. Just the briefest beat of peace. The warm, new sun rising to the north, the winds calm, the world silent. He stayed tucked beside the moose, quietly praying to whatever lord might have survived this misery. And then he heard the runaway train coming back. It had run to the end of the line and was rumbling back to Tuk. And with it, it carried rocks and fallen timber, small animals and mud clods. Jimmy felt the rocks and twigs pelting his body.

Not wanting to get hit by a larger stone or a big chunk of deadwood, he decided to crawl over the cooking flesh of the dead moose. He had gotten his head and arms up over the ribcage before the terrific wind caught under his sealskin coat. He was lifted over the moose, mercifully thrown to the now bald ground four meters away and rolled himself into a tight ball, covering his head and face and tucking in his legs for protection against the terrific forces pulling him. He finally expanded to full, spread-eagle, face down in the mud, and stopped his tumble. Off in front of him, he could see Tuktoyaktuk, or what was left of it, engulfed in ferocious flames. The towers and domes of the Distant Early Warning radar station, gone. The low, squat homes, gone. The airport building, gone. It was all gone. It looked as though nothing was left but flames. Flames sucking the air right out of the sky, the ground, the water. He looked out to the southwest, over his shoulder and into the wind. Off in the distance he could see tiny plumes of smoke growing high into the sky over twinkling little stars, much too close to Earth. The fucking DEW line, he thought. The Russians and Americans had finally done it. And the Russians had launched their missiles at the DEW line to knock it out. The wind was already starting to die down, and now felt more natural, more terrestrial than before. The sound no longer the rush of a destructive locomotive, now just the incessant gusting of prairie winds across where there was once tall, wild grass. He looked up to the sky and could see the contrails of high aircraft, or were they missiles? A dozen or so visible in the sky, crossing over the Arctic and going south.

Jimmy gathered himself. The pain in his face still so magnificent that it deafened his mind to the calls of pain from his bruised and beaten body. He had had one boot blown off and had lost both mittens as he tried to grab for anything when he got blown clear of the moose. He looked around and found the boot another five or six meters to the north. That was a very lucky break. He knew he didn’t want to go too long on the cold, wet ground without his feet covered. He mucked his way to the boot, the thin, char of burnt soil cracking and breaking beneath each step, yielding the moist, cold soil below. He found a long-fallen tree, welded to the ground by the years to sit on and removed the sock from his exposed foot. The wind was finally starting to die down, the whistling sound finally breaking. The sounds of nature eerily missing. Sounds that were so familiar, gone. The trodding of moose and caribou. The cracking of ice. The croaking of the ptarmigan. All silent. He dried his bare foot as best as he could with his muddy, cold hands and put on his boot.

He made his way back to the dead moose. The entire back, neck and head had been cooked, as if on a spit. The air stunk of burning fur. The fuzz had been singed off the antlers, and the edges continued to smoke. Jimmy decided it would be best to make some use of the fallen beast and pulled out his field knife. He cut into the beefy hindquarter of the moose. The burned skin crackled and broke apart like caked-up soot. The flesh beneath was tough to cut through for another three or four centimeters, but beneath that there was plenty of soft, edible flesh. He took a few good-sized chunks of meat and stuffed his coat pockets with as much as he could squeeze in. He took the same knife to the soil. He dug in, piercing the warm, crispy skin of cooked mud on what used to be the active layer, trying to find the cool permafrost. It took him another ten or fifteen centimeters to find the wet, semi-frozen sediment. He cut out a six-centimeter clod and mashed it onto the right side of his face. Next, he made his way to the hillock where he had so carefully perched to kill the moose. To his amazement, his rifle was lying in the grass, seemingly free of any damage. He pumped the lever, pointed to the sky and pulled the trigger. A shot reverberated through the air, but no birds took to wing from any of the nearby trees or hollows. He shrugged it off, and decided he needed to get back to Tuk. It would be a good twenty or thirty-minute hike back to his truck, and he knew he needed to get to it before his hands began to become painfully cold.

Five minutes into his hike, it began to snow. It wasn’t cold enough for snow, was it? He held out his hand and collected the falling flakes in his palm. He looked long and hard at the flakes in his palm with his one, good eye. They were a brownish-green and didn’t melt in the warmth of his hand. They resembled large flakes of soot and ash, with glitter shot through. He looked north and realized the mushroom cloud over Tuktoyaktuk had expanded and dissipated. The sky was now completely enveloped in brown-green ash and smoke. Fallout. This is the radioactive fallout. He reached into the neck of his coat and pulled his undershirt collar up over his mouth and nose. He had to get back to his truck even quicker than he had originally thought and broke into a semi-jog.

Several meters out, he realized the truck was a bad idea. He could see that all the glass had been blown out and the tires had melted right off the rims. He was screwed; there was no protection for him in the cab. He had slowed to a walk again, as he got close enough to the truck to fully appreciate its sad state. He looked around for any kind of shelter, but the area was nothing but fields and dirt roads. He decided to dive beneath the useless vehicle, and at least benefit from the coverage it would provide against the snowing fallout. He had been under the truck a minute or two when he finally thought to see if the first aid kit and extra blankets were intact. He quickly scurried out from beneath the frame and pulled at the door; it opened with a jarring crack. He pulled the naked seat frame forward; the vinyl and foam had been vaporized, and he found a couple of fur blankets and the small, metal Red Cross first aid kit. He quickly dove back under the truck, pulled the furs over himself and rested his head on the first aid kit before thinking to check it for some Tylenol. He dug in and found three paper packets, each with two pills. He dry-swallowed a pair of pills and then put the kit back beneath his head. He would have to wait out the radioactive snowstorm. There was no telling how long it would be. It could snow down fallout for hours, or it could go on for days.

About the Author

Lawrence Lichtenfeld

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I have been a professional writer for 26 years. I graduated from the University of South Carolina with a BA in English. I had a very close relationship with William Price Fox for many, many years after graduation. As my mentor, Bill introduced me to James Dickey and Kurt Vonnegut, with whom I had the opportunity to workshop and develop my craft. I would spend many years working as a technical writer and editor for key government agencies like DHS, VA and the US Army during two and a half decades, but in 2016, a couple of years after Bill Fox's death, I decided to go back to school and get the MFA he had wanted me to pursue so many years earlier. I have spent the last four years shifting gears and refocusing my energies on developing my fiction skills. I have worked closely with David Grand, Eliot Schrefer, Rebecca Chace and HL Hix on my craft, and have developed my clean, detailed style. When not writing fiction, I teach English composition at a couple of local colleges.