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Fishing' for Fission

Fishin’ for Fission

Senator Sax Hornsby flipped though the tickets and itinerary handed him by his assistant. Maxine. The route had been an odyssey of airports, a bus and two car rentals. It would have been difficult to determine his destination from his original departure, in case someone was looking. He suspected they were. It was dusk in Waxahatchie, the overcast dimming his vision of a nearly empty enormous parking lot, and it hardly seemed worth all that trouble. His long raincoat whipped about his knees in the stiff Texas wind.

Another figure came out of a Ford Truck at the far end of the oversized parking lot. A pair of figures from a black SUV joined them. The trio merged on Sax’s space. One of them he recognized. The other two he did not recognize. “They had better be who they are supposed to be.”

Sax started with “White queen to….”

“Bullshit, Sax, they already know about us. Let’s get this started. Meet Dr. Leonard Goodjoy, from B & W Nuclear Engineering. He has clearance but he no longer works for any government agency.” Sax had already cleared Dr. Goodjoy, a former nuclear weapons engineer.

“Senator! I used to work for Dr. Hapgood at D.O.E. Now I’m on the design of the nuclear power plants for the new British subs. We’re civilian contractors.” He shook hands with Sax. Sax gave him a practiced look-over. He was a mild-looking guy of middle age with crew-cut blond hair. Someone you would pass in a crowd and never notice unless you looked in his eyes. There was definitely a lot going on in there, not all of it happy.

He wore an open white dress shirt under a plaid sweater and carried a large, aluminum packing case on a strap over his shoulder.

“And here is the poor fellow we rousted out of a sound sleep this morning. He was the maintenance guy for the new owners of this facility.”

“Al, please. Just call me Al. Retired now, but I bet nothing much has changed in the last few months. I still have the keys and combinations, but the whole facility is empty, so who cares?”

“Al, we wish it were still empty. Are you all with us for this? Al? Dr. Goodjoy?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Just Lenny, please. I’d rather not be announced to anyone. You know they keep all former weapons techs under surveillance.”

“Jag, where are the rest of your ops?”

“They’re here, Sax. Best if you can’t see them.” He nodded to a few 18-wheelers parked in a row near the entrance, engines running, drivers not visible.

Al led them to a concrete and steel building with some of the windows boarded up. The main entrance was locked and taped. He led them to a smaller door labeled, ”Personnel Only” and pulled out a bunch of keys. “Let’s see if they still work. Yep, this one does it.”

Jag wedged the door open with a piece of wood and waved. Five men on wheeled vehicles rolled off the back of one of the trucks and came quickly to the door. “Hey, Boss, here’s your Segways.” Sorry Sam stayed there with the electric vehicles and Sal, Marco, Devan and Giorgio double timed back to the truck and disappeared. Each Segway had a light strapped to the basket in front. Sorry Sam’s Segway hauled a small trailer.

“Do we really need these?”

“Ever ride a Segway before, Sax? We’ve got 27 kilometers of tunnel here. This was supposed to be the Superconducting Super Collider, the most powerful particle accelerator in the world…”

“..that never got built. I’m on the NRC, Jag. I know. Another case of money, politics and ignorance.” Sax got on one of the Segways and ran it up and down the corridor. “I could get used to this.”

“Al, lead the way, please.” Jag followed Al and Sorry Sam brought up the rear. Al opened a panel and turned a big power switch. The expedition rolled down the corridor to a huge elevator in a bay marked “Detector One” and a scrawled legend, “Big Mama.”

The elevator held all of them with room to spare. Al inserted a key and pushed the only button on the panel. The elevator moved at a geriatric pace. “She’s slow, but who’s to complain? She’s still working.”

Sax nodded to a gadget pinned to Jag’s shoulder. “Still got a connection down here?”

Aura’s voice sounded tinny, “Did you miss me, Sax? Say you did!”

Sax chuckled. “I do miss you, girl. Good place to hide fissionables. No one would be surprised to find radiation levels a bit high down here.”

“We still have Fermilab in the US and five more overseas. All I found were those seven. I hope that’s it.”

“Aura, how are those ops going?”

“Too early to say, but they are all on schedule except for Kabul. It’s still heavily guarded.”

“How much do you expect there?”

“No way to know. It’s another one located near a big city.”

The elevator whined down and stopped. Al punched OPEN and an expanse of tunnel curved away in the distance. A lot of lights were broken or burned out. There were color coded pipes everywhere, but a fat yellow pipe with radiation symbols on it dominated the center of the arrangement. Coils of wire, obviously magnet arrays, surrounded the pipe at frequent intervals. They were insulated, but there was no frost on them.

“Not cooled to superconducting temperatures any more,” Al mentioned, with a note of regret.

Sorry Sam got in front of Jag, blocking the way. “Sorry” he said, as he set out the first radio repeater and showed them how to turn on their lights. They trundled down the echoing tunnel, a hundred feet underground.

Not far away was a bay that stretched up into a high dim alcove. It was full of electronics surrounding a tank studded with short tubes like a giant electronic porcupine. “THAT was supposed to detect the Higgs boson!” Lenny said. “Congress thought that was science fiction,” replied Sax. Lenny smiled, “It wasn’t my Nobel prize, anyway. I’m just a nuke engineer.”

“No readings here.” Jag bent his head over his shoulder gadget. They rolled on for what seemed like an hour.

“Spooky place.” Sorry Sam still brought up the rear.

Static crackled from Lenny’s handheld radiation counter. “We got radiation. 10 millijoules on this meter. Climbing fast. Gamma, some alpha.”

“Roll on by it. Watch your dosimeters.’

“Dropping off now.”

“Going back. Peak is here. Sax, Al, stay back. Lenny, how much time do we have?”

Lenny glanced at his dosimeter reading. “Hours at this level.” Lenny’s voice quavered, though. Could a nuke engineer be afraid of radiation? On the other hand, thought Sax, who would know better?

“Sam, unlimber the bot.” Sorry Sam took the cover off the small crawler robot and nearly tripped over it setting up the robot. That caused him to emit another “Sorry.” It turned out that Sam was an expert at remote guidance. The little robot, “Betsy,” was desert tan and had lights, a long, flexible arm, several cameras and was studded with instruments. Sam guided it along the corridor to the hot spot while the rest stood back ten yards. There was a hatch in the wall. The arm plucked at the hatch and it fell open. Inside was a lever. The arm pulled on the lever and a large panel of nearby wall rolled up into the ceiling. It was pitch dark inside.

“Over 200 millijoules and steady,” Lenny called.

Sam turned on Betsy’s lights. The space was the size of a large warehouse. It was stacked with small plastic crates with the three yellow triangles of radiation symbols. Benches bearing electronics and machinery lined one wall. All of them could clearly see into the room from their position in the tunnel, and those closest to Sam could see his remote display. “Jackpot,” Jag said, but Lenny was sweating and pale.

“We need to see what’s in those crates and get a count.” There was no playfulness in Aura’s voice.

The little robot found a lone crate on the floor and pried the lid off. Inside was an array of silvery vials, each with the radiation logo and this symbol inscribed in it:


“Shit, shit, shit!” Lenny cringed.

“We have to open one of those vials, Jag,” Aura squawked from her speaker.

“Not a good idea. Not a good idea at all,” Lenny answered.

“Have you seen these vials before?”

“Maybe. They could be plutonium hexafluoride, or pellets, or rods.”

“Al, give me a rough count of the crates you can see. Lenny, watch the screen. Sam, open a vial.”

The robot’s arm reached into the packing case, slowly and carefully, and extracted a tube. It looked like an aluminum cigar tube. The lid was an aluminum screw cap.

“Guys, do you know what this is?” Lenny’s voice was shaky and sweat was pouring down his face. “This is weapons grade plutonium. Enough to make Hiroshima look like a firecracker. You don’t get any warning with this stuff. Your eyes see the flash but your brain is vaporized before the message gets to it.”

“We have to know what form it’s in. It may be just reactor fuel.”

Under Sam’s guidance, the robot began to unscrew the cap. “If it’s liquid and you spill it, we’re all dead. Keep it right side up.” Very slowly the cap unscrewed. It came off. The robot arm lowered the tube and the light spilled inside. “Solid. Packed in something. What now?”

Lenny said nothing. “Lenny, do you recognize this or not?”

“This is top, top secret. I’m not allowed to say.”

“Lenny, if you’re right, we have enough here to obliterate Dallas, Fort Worth and several miles of suburbs. This is no time to pull out the secrets act. I’m an elected senator on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and I have clearance.”

“Not for this you don’t.”

“Dr. Goodjoy, without your input I can’t estimate how much plutonium we have here or how much more we need to find. Don’t you know? This cache was not put here by any legal agency of the United States. The people who put this here are planning to kill billions of humans.”

“I don’t know anything about that. All I know is that this AI may be connected to aliens that could be listening in to me right now.”

Jag sighed. “If you’re referring to Ambassador Zovoarcnor, you damn well should know that the Chinese tried to blow him up with a nuke. He never retaliated. I assure you that the Pa’an, who have had a few million years head start on our science, have nothing new to learn from our puny fission weapons. If they were going to kill us we’d already be extinct.”

“They nuked him? Can’t be. I saw that last announcement on the Web.”

Aura piped up, “Hey, Dr. Nuke, Zovo has a neutronium shell and he’s the size of a tennis ball. You know how to engineer that? Don’t be stupid. It’s us down here that the Order is going to kill if we don’t get all their fissionables.”

Lenny was shaking. “I – I can’t.”

“See if you can get at what’s inside the vials, Sam.” At Jag’s direction, Sam got the cap completely unscrewed. “Eight hundred millijoules, alpha particles detected,” Lenny announced. “The alpha’s are the dangerous emissions. Plutonium 239 decays to uranium, which is a neutron emitter. Neutrons are going right through all of us now.”

A tapered rod the size of a thick pencil came out of the tube. It was hexagonal, like a pencil. There was some kind of a silvery coating and a glass coating over that.

“Well, Dr. Nuke, what have we got? Reactor rods? Metal billets? Time to fess up!” Even through the tiny speaker, Aura sounded exasperated.

There was a long silence. Lenny stared at the screen, sweated, shook, walked away, came back. “Those are finished segments for a plutonium bomb. The segments fit into slots in a spherical form. Shaped charges blow the segments together and they go into fission cascade. Blooey! Plutonium is a weird metal, you can’t machine it pure. It changes into something dense and brittle when you put pressure on it from a tool. Allotrope five. And it’s chemically unstable. It burns in the air like phosphorus, spewing radioactive stuff everywhere. Those are one hundred grams each, alloyed with aluminum so they hold together longer, and coated with boron silicate glass to be double sure. But if you scratch it or drop it….”

“Go on,” urged Jag.

“This whole warehouse is a bomb assembly area. All this gear is for assembling bombs and triggering them off. At this level underground a nuke of that size would vaporize the earth over it and the fallout would be – would be … you don’t want to know.”

“Al, have you got a rough count?”

“Yes, I wrote it on my hand here.” Jag relayed it to Aura.

“One hundred four metric tons, it the count is right and they are really a tenth of a kilo each.”

“Yield in the thousands of megatons,” muttered Lenny.

“Aura, how much did we find in other operations?”

“We have a total of just over three hundred tons. Qingdao, Karachi, Chicago, and Dallas were four of the big targets.”

“Lenny, how much plutonium is there?”

“It’s not a natural element. All of it is produced in fission reactors, so we figured it to be no more than five hundred tons, worldwide. It only takes about five kilos to make a good bomb. A lot is in stockpiled weapons owned by the nuclear powers or in reactor cores. I can’t understand where this lot came from.”

“We’re missing enough to blow the world to radioactive hell. And that doesn’t count the weapons grade uranium.”

“My turn,” Sax had his notes and pictures. “I need to make a call to Hapgood and get this cleaned up and secured.”

“Let’s get out of here!”

“Sam, call Leathers and the squad and have them fill the ends of the tunnel with rubble and cement. The good guys in the government can finish the job later.”

Emerging Orders

Saxton Hornsby wanted desperately to meet with Dr. Hapgood at the Department of Energy, but that would make them both marked men. Their last meeting was difficult enough to arrange. Even Maxine was out of tricks. So he was surprised to get a personal visit from Dr. Hapgood, and dismayed to find Haverford Decker with him.

“Maxine, hold my calls. Strict privacy, please. Decker, Hapgood, what brings you to my lair?”

“Senator, I’ve been instructed to tell you that you are under investigation for violation of the Official Secrets Act. Dr. Hapgood, here, has been telling me he does not believe you could be guilty of such a thing. He calls you a true patriot.”

Sax was dumbfounded. Had Hapgood been coerced in some way? Was there a spy in Hapgood’s organization? “I only act in accordance with my responsibilities as Vice Chair of the NRC. You know I have clearances for everything we do.”

“Perhaps. Do you recognize this item?” Decker held up a picture of a sliver of glass-coated metal about the size of a pencil.

“Some sort of a fuel rod?”

Decker looked at Hapgood, Hapgood looked down at the floor. “You’re damn well NOT supposed to know what this is! Unfortunately for you, we have evidence that you illegally coerced information about this, er, item from a person who was sworn not to talk about it! We got you fair and square, Senator. You have anything relevant to say about this?”

“My friend Doctor Hapgood, what the hell is going on here? You know me better than this. Why is this, ahem, esteemed colleague trying to eat my shorts?” Sax spit out the “Doctor” as if it were an epithet.

“Sax, please, just fess up and go on with your life. Please.” Hapgood looked down and studied his shoe.

“Assistant Director Decker, Doctor, you know, as an elected official, I took an oath of office. No undue pressure from either of you is going to change that. I have a duty to perform.”

“Very well, Hornsby. It’s too late for you anyway. You are hereby officially terminated as a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and disqualified for further security appointments. Your present clearance is revoked. Your replacement has already been nominated and Howson is now Vice Chair.” He slapped a document on Sax’s desk and walked to the door. “Come along, Hapgood.”

Sax stood and paced for a while, sighed, and tried to think of the proper thing to do. Problem was, the Order was still hidden. They were not going to come right out and announce themselves in a fair fight. They were scurrilous, backstabbing, undercover, secret conspiracy types. He muttered and shook his head.

Maxine knocked on the office door. Maxine never knocked. He took a few deep breaths, went to the door and opened it to find another unscheduled delegation on his doorstep. “Who the hell are you?”

They didn’t even bother to step inside his office. They just handed him another official notice. “We’re from the Inspector General’s office. You apparently have applied funds appropriated to your office for personal items, especially foreign travel, without notice to the Department of State. We have frozen your office bank accounts and you are hereby given notice of our investigation. Have a good day, Senator.”

Perfect. The damned Order had passed out their orders and they thought they had him boxed in. He looked out the window. It was a gray, rainy day in D.C. Very appropriate. He shrugged, got his raincoat and hat, and walked out of his office.

He took a cab down to a local bank where he kept a safe deposit box. He signed the safe deposit register with a false name and opened the box. It contained some cash and a cheap cell phone. He found he still had a decent cell phone signal in the external vault area where he accessed his box. He took out another plain white card identical to the one he had passed to Jag and dialed the mysterious Derek Gleaver.

A voice on the other end of the phone answered after the 6th ring. “No names, please. Pick a time.”

“Seven PM.”

“Make it six. See you then.”

He put the phone back in the safe deposit box and took another taxi back to his office. Maxine was still there, worried but working. He wrote on a scrap of paper, “Jag, Gleaver, 6 PM.”

Maxine nodded and left the office. Sax crumpled up the paper and burned it in his big Senate ashtray. At 4 PM he called for a Congressional limo and took it to the Mazza Galleria. He walked in through the main entrance and down a long flight of stairs to a private club in the basement. A tall elegant gentleman greeted him in the foyer with a smile. “Hello and welcome. Are you a member?”


The smile faded. The gentlemen pushed a series of buttons and an ornate door opened. Sax walked down the hall. It was just six o’clock. At the end of the hall was a small sitting room with high back-to-back armchairs, a Persian rug, bookcases, a lit fireplace, and a side table with coffee, tea and a bottle of good single-malt Scotch whisky with cut crystal tumblers. No ice. Sax chuckled, poured himself two fingers of the fragrant liquid, and settled into an armchair in the middle of the room.

It was not long until Jag came in and did the same thing. They raised their glasses to each other and waited.

“I’m here, gentlemen. I hope I was right about the Scotch.” The quiet, commanding voice spoke from the highback chair behind Sax’s. Neither man could see the occupant.

“Please don’t get up. It would be better if you didn’t see my face. You can call me Derek or Gleaver, but you understand that is not my name. In fact, I have several reliable witnesses who can claim I was never here tonight.” Gleaver laughed and sucked in a breath. “I used to enjoy this theatrical stuff, but now I’m a bit sick of it. Well, let’s see what I can do for you. I already know who you are. And you should know I don’t work for a fee. This is my contribution to humanity and I cannot be bought or coerced. I do what I think is right. Your turn.”

“The Order is after me, hot and heavy. I just got kicked off the NRC and served with an investigation by the Inspector General. My office funds are frozen.”

“Ah, the Keepers of the Dark Covenant. May they inherit the lower depths of hell. Who are we dealing with?”

“Decker, Hapgood, Howson on the NRC. Someone above Pellorini at Defense.”

“Hapgood and Howson are not principals. Decker has his own game going. I think I know who owns Pellorini.” Gleaver sighed. “These bastards are everywhere. Jag, if I may call you that, what contribution is a criminal mastermind like you going to make here?”

“Eh? Criminal mastermind? Is that my reputation now?”

“You don’t find that flattering? Then I retract it. Got any ideas?”

“Well, we found about a three hundred tons of fissionable plutonium and maybe twice that of uranium 235. Someone has to be responsible for a lot of missing fissionables. Wouldn’t that fall under the Department of Defense?”

“Mmm. Probably.”

“The NRC is the oversight agency for fissionables. But all the material movements are classified. How do we make a case?”

“Leave that to me. And… I think I can take care of Pellorini for you.”

Sax was more than a bit dubious. “Can one man actually do all that, Gleaver?”

“Did I say anything about one man? People like Pellorini and Decker have skeletons in their closets. They seek power hoping to rise to a position where those skeletons remain hidden. My people collect old bones.”

The quiet voice from the chair went on. “Conspiracies, counter conspiracies, conspiracies within conspiracies. The corpse flower that spawns from the evil seed. Most of them self destruct, thank God.”

“Yeah,” said Sax, “but every so often one succeeds and it isn’t always evil, although some may have thought so at the time. I remember a document from one.”

“Really? What document?”

“The Declaration of Independence.”

“Hear, hear!” from the back of the chair.

Jag raised his drink for a toast. Sax started to tell a Vermont farm story. But Gleaver was gone. After a while, Jag said, “He has good taste in Scotch.” They left one at a time.


Maxine opened the door to Sax’s office, crossed her legs and leaned against the door frame. That got Sax’s attention.

“If you’re trying to get my attention, you’ve got it. Good news or bad?”

Maxine gave him a little lopsided grin. “You remember that delegation from Inspector General’s office last week?”

“As if I could forget. We gave them all the records they asked for.”

“They sent them back with a note of apology. They never apologize. Should I ask why?”

“If I told you all my secrets…”

“I wouldn’t want your job. Treasury Secretary, maybe. Senator from Vermont? Never.”

“Because I don’t get much respect?”

Maxine just grinned and ushered in a very unhappy Mr. Decker. Without asking she put down a plain plastic cup of water for him. No coffee, no tea, no nice glass. Decker understood the insult.

“Decker, I could say it’s a pleasure. Is my old friend Dr. Hapgood hanging around in the outer office somewhere?”

“Hapgood is taking some time off to deal with family issues.”

“Those family issues have anything to do with a few hundred missing tons of fissionables? I’m not a physicist, but I understand plutonium is not an appropriate family keepsake.”

“Look, Senator, we used to get along pretty well. I came here to make amends. Can we just let bygones be bygones and get back to business as usual?”

“You’ve been, left dangling, Decker? Is that the case? Now you want business as usual?” Sax got up from his desk and stood over Decker. “What do you have to offer?”

Decker took some time to respond. Sax just stood there, looming over him. Finally Decker took a document out of his pocket and handed it to Sax. Sax unfolded it. It was a materials movement voucher issued by General Robert Messner, in charge of the Joint Nuclear Weapons Repository, and assigned to one Manuel Pellorini, and was stamped by the office of Homeland Security.

“This is only two tons of plutonium. I think you can do better than that Mr. Decker. Let me rephrase that. I’m sure you can do better than that Mister Decker.”

“Sax, you don’t know what you’re asking.”

Sax raised his voice, “Maxine, be a dear and fetch Lenny Hapgood, please. Send the military police for him. General Messner will authorize it.”

Maxine yelled back, “I’m on it, sir.” She picked up the phone and dialed a random number. Smart girl.

Decker was sweating. “That will be the end of… of my…”

“Career? Life? How many lives do you think that much plutonium would take? Got any relatives in Dallas, Mister Decker?”

“They hide. You can’t touch them.”

“But I can touch you, Mister Decker, and I will.”

“Tomorrow, please, uh, Senator, can we find some other place to meet?”

“I’ll call you. Goodbye, Decker.” Decker left.

There is a man without principles, thought Sax. All he ever had was influence, and when that’s gone he’s an empty shell. I better get in touch with Aura and set up this exposé.


Next morning he met Decker on the Washington Mall. Jag took one flank, Sax took the other. Joyce and Janey were casually strolling behind them, as obvious as elephants in a flea circus. When Decker spilled, Aura heard everything. He gave three names, one on the White House staff, Howson on the NRC and another name Sax did not recognize. All three were apprehended within minutes. Joyce and Janey took over Decker. Sax did not want to know where they were going.


When he got back there was a short note on his desk from the Chairman of the NRC. “Would you be available to resume your previous position on the Committee to fill the vacancy left by the Vice Chair, who has resigned suddenly?”

Damn. Yes, he would.

Who was that fellow, Gleaver?

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