But this week we are taking things one giant step further. In addition to offering us a riveting 20,000-word excerpt from his extreme adventure page-turner 65 Below, author Basil Sands is giving away free Kindles!
The knife was razor-sharp. Shock morphed into terror as Michael realized first that he could make no sound, then that he could not breathe. There was no pain, but he knew something was very wrong. He reached up to grab his throat. When his hand touched his neck, his head flopped at an awkward angle. Blood jetted upward in two powerful streams, spattering against the ceiling and walls with rhythmic pulses that left abstract patterns, symbolizing his quickly draining life.
From Nikola’s perspective, Michael stood upright for a long time, longer than he had thought possible. He had slit many throats in his life. Most grasped their throat and collapsed, or just crumpled and died. Nikola stared back in amusement.
“Don’t look at me like that, Michael. You killed yourself,” Nikola said. “Did you actually think I would let you lead the infidel here, then just allow you to walk away?”
Michael’s lips moved in a soundless response.
“Sorry, I didn’t hear what you said.”
His eyelids fluttered in rapid spasms. Blood spurted in a final massive geyser. The dying man’s eyes rolled back and at long last he collapsed to the floor. Blood continued to ooze from his half-severed neck, soaking into the fabric of the old carpet. Seconds later, red and blue strobes of police and FBI vehicles flashed on the street outside. Nikola called out to the other men in the house.
“Now is your time, brothers!”
The response came with the sound of shattering glass. A moment, later a burst of automatic weapon fire exploded from upstairs. Nikola glanced out the window toward the mass of police cars. An officer rose from behind a patrol car to shoot. His skull burst in a cloud of red, spraying goo on the men behind him. His body tumbled backward onto the pavement. A medic ran to the downed officer, and all hell broke loose on the house. Every weapon in the mass of police officers and FBI agents exploded to life at once.
Nikola reached for a black box on the coffee table. He picked it up and set it on the dead man’s chest. With two flicks of a finger, he armed the high-explosive magnesium bomb. It would leave almost no trace of the bodies, and incinerate everything it came in contact with. Wood, flesh, glass, even metal. The houses on either side would likely also be destroyed. In sixty seconds, the other men in the house would join the legions of martyrs who had gone before them, whether they realized it or not.
Nikola stepped into the kitchen and entered the pantry. He yanked a metal handle on the floor and lifted the crawl space access, then ducked into the darkness. Dust and dryer lint scratched at his throat and forced a sneeze out of his nose. He scurried toward the outer foundation wall on his hands and knees. The gravel surface cut into his palms. He found the small escape tunnel and slithered in on his belly. The narrow space was barely wide enough for his thick frame. He fast-crawled ten meters until reaching the Seattle sewer system access tunnel. The air flew from his lungs as a jolt of hot compressed air shot him out of the tiny tunnel, slamming him against the far wall of the sewer. His ears screamed against the blast of sound.
Heat waves seared his clothes as he sprinted through the barely lit tunnel. He scrambled up a ladder, loosened the access cover, and climbed out onto a seldom-used bike trail, then vanished into the evening twilight.
East of Fairbanks, Alaska
“Damn! When it gets dark out here, it’s dark as death.”
Eugene Wyatt drove as fast as conditions allowed down the Richardson Highway in his beige Ford F250 Crew Cab pickup, with the Tanana Valley Electric Cooperative logo emblazoned on the doors. It was only four in the afternoon, but the late December sun had already long descended, leaving the land in total inky blackness. His three-year-old Golden Retriever, Penny, sat on the passenger side of the wide bench seat. She turned and stared out the window apparently not into the conversation. The dog’s breath shot a burst of steam onto the frigid glass a few inches away every time she exhaled. Her tongue hung limply over the teeth of her open mouth.
On any typical evening, there would have been brightly lit signs atop tall poles in front of the gas stations. He’d usually see neon beer advertisements pulsing blue, red, and yellow from within the windows of busy bars as he passed through the small city of North Pole, then the even smaller town of Moose Creek. Tonight, only the glow of candles and oil lamps flickered dimly between the curtains of the scattering of homes along the highway. The power was out, everywhere.
Eugene looked at Penny, who stared transfixed out the truck window. The frost from her breath created a ring of ice crystals on the glass she appeared to be studying. The weather had warmed up significantly in the past few days after an unseasonal cold snap that held the land at negative fifty for several weeks. The red mercury line on the thermometer now hovered at a livable zero degrees Fahrenheit.
Eugene remembered the line a comedian had used on TV the night before.
If it’s zero degrees, does that mean there’s no temperature?
The humor of the line dissipated fast. There had never been an outage like this in Eugene’s thirty years in Alaska’s electricity business. At first, the authorities thought it was a local failure within the Tanana Valley Cooperative area. It wasn’t long before they discovered it was much bigger.
The phone company went out at the same time. Cellular towers failed. The whole of the Interior region of Alaska, an area the size of New York State, was thrown back into the 19th century in an instant.
The only places that had not gone completely dark were the hospitals, airport control tower, and the Public Safety Emergency Operations Center. Those systems had automatic physical disconnect from the main power lines, taking them completely off the grid until the main power returned.
Once the Tanana Valley Electric Cooperative technicians had gotten established with satellite phones and were able to communicate with public safety and the other electrical utilities throughout the state, they were surprised to discover that the outage covered nearly a third of the land mass of the state. Every city on the shared power grid had gone dark at about four-thirty that morning.
The problem, the technicians agreed, was somewhere in the Tanana Valley area, since the outage had started there. Anchorage, four hundred miles to the south, went dark nearly five minutes after the lights turned out in Fairbanks, the Golden Heart city.
Eugene scrunched his eyebrows in contemplation as he went back over the details for the hundredth time that day.
Every city on the grid goes out all at the same time, and we can’t find a single point of failure. The talk radio guys are going to eat us alive on this.
The previous summer, several of the most popular AM talk radio hosts had “prophesied” that just such an event would occur if the state went through with connecting the “Electrical Intertie” system. Now they had fodder to boost their ratings for the next six months. Such talk would no doubt fuel massive amounts of legislation and investigation, and probably lawsuits without end.
Penny turned and looked at Eugene. She cocked her head sideways, as if she was trying to read his mind. Then, in apparent exasperation at the enormity of it all, she sighed and lay across the seat, putting her head on his lap.
An unusual number of consecutive disasters had wracked Alaska in the past year. A late spring thaw meant that crops were not put in until the end of June, resulting in a scant harvest by the time September’s temperatures dropped back to freezing. A particularly busy forest fire season in July was followed in August by a major flood along the Tanana River. Then there was the Halloween earthquake.
A 9.1 on the Richter scale, it was centered about one hundred miles north of Salt Jacket. That massive tremblor had turned the ground into Jell-O for almost thirty seconds while kids were out trick-or-treating on Halloween night. Buildings swayed as far as Japan and Siberia. The shock waves rocked seismographs in Chile and South Africa. A few weeks after the earthquake, there came an unexpected deep freeze, which gripped the Interior in its icy fingers six weeks earlier than usual.
Eugene gently stroked Penny behind the ears. The dog’s golden brown hair shimmered reflectively in the pale green glow of the dashboard lights. He spoke his thoughts aloud in hopes that something he heard himself say would make sense.
“All systems were fine. No icing anywhere. No lines down. No surges reported anywhere on the grid. No earthquakes or abnormal aurora activity. Not even a brown-out. The crazy thing just turned off. Well, puppy, I have no idea.”
The whispery soft sound of the dog’s breath drifted quietly from the seat beside him. She had fallen asleep. He continued to the small wilderness community of Salt Jacket, forty miles east of Fairbanks.
Although sparsely populated, Salt Jacket was home to one of the largest, most powerful electrical substations in the Interior Region. It transferred electricity that powered huge sections of the pipeline and funneled thousands of watts to a series of military training facilities at the backside of Eielson Air Force Base.
Even though two other TVEC crews had checked it earlier in the day, as maintenance chief for the second largest power company in the state, Eugene felt obligated to recheck each of the four largest stations himself. More than anything, the drive to the last station in Salt Jacket gave him time to think things over again.
Eugene turned north from the highway onto Johnson Road, a bumpy, twisting chip-and-tar paved road which wound back nearly thirty miles until it abruptly ended in the vast wilderness of the Eielson Air Force Base training area. The substation was only seven miles up the road, near the pipeline’s Pump Station Eight.
A mile past the pump station, a chain link fence marked the end of the civilian-owned portion of Johnson Road. Signs restricted access to the back section of the Air Force Base. It was not much of a restriction, though, as the gate generally stood open, frozen in deep piles of plowed snow.
As Eugene rounded a sharp bend in the road, a sudden bright flash of headlights blinded him. Another vehicle straddled the centerline of the road, barrelling toward him. He pulled the steering wheel sharply to the right to avoid hitting the oncoming truck that lurched hard to the other side of the road. Penny leaped up in surprise from his lap and slid uncontrollably to the floor in front of the passenger seat.
In the split-second when the side of the other truck crossed in front of his, Eugene saw the Tanana Valley Electrical Co-op emblem on its side and a large black number 48 on the fender panel just in front of the driver’s door before the truck sped off into the night.
“Whoa! Good Lord!” Eugene exclaimed, his face reddening as he processed the knowledge that he was nearly killed by one of his own employees. “Who the hell was driving that thing?”
He considered chasing down truck number forty-eight to fire the driver on the spot, but decided it would be wiser to find out who it was first. He reached for the satellite phone that hung from a peg on the dashboard and hit the speed dial for his main office. A young man’s voice answered, “TVEC control center.”
“This is Chief Wyatt. Who the hell is driving number forty eight?” he shouted into the receiver. His Oklahoma drawl was still strong after three decades in the North. “That idiot almost drove me into a snow bank out here on Johnson Road.”
“Uh, sorry sir, I don’t know who’s driving forty eight. Give me a second to look over the log real quick.”
There was a pause on the line. The young man came back.
“Sorry, Chief, nobody’s driving number forty-eight. It’s still right here in the yard, according to the logbook. No…wait…there’s a note here that says it’s at Magnuson’s Body Shop, getting some work done on it.”
“Who is this, Franklin?”
“Son, you’d better check on that thing and make sure it’s still at Magnuson’s. And if it ain’t, call the police and report it stolen, because I swear, it was number forty-eight that almost hit me head on just now.”
“Aye, aye, sir…I mean, yes, sir,” Franklin replied.
“And knock off that Navy talk, son. You’re back in the real world now.”
“Sorry, Mr. Wyatt. Six years of it kind of grew on me.”
There was a loud “beep beep” in Eugene’s telephone handset.
“Yeah, well, check on that vehicle for me ASAP. Let Andy know that I’m here at the Salt Jacket station and will call back in after I get a look around. My batteries are getting low and I left the car charger in my office, so I’m going to get off now. Out here.”
Damn. It’s a good thing I didn’t chase them yahoos. They might have been a couple of doped up gangbangers who would have killed me for kicks.
The tires of the F250 crunched on the snow as he pulled off Johnson Road and up to the entrance of the Salt Jacket substation. Eugene’s headlights illuminated the heavy gauge chain-link fence. It appeared to be securely locked. He shut off the engine and opened the door of the truck.
Before he could step down, Penny leaped over him. She landed on the ground with acrobatic lightness. Eugene stepped down after the dog. Penny took several steps, then spread her hind legs and peed on the ground a few yards from the truck. Once finished, she took off at a full run into the woods.
“Hey!” he shouted after the dog. “Don’t get lost! We’re only going to be here a few minutes.”
Eugene pulled the fur-trimmed hood of his parka over his head to hold out the biting cold that nipped at his ears. His cheeks stung from the cold. The temperature had dropped since he left Fairbanks.
Eugene approached the fence. He put his hand out and tugged at the handle. It was securely locked. He reached up to press the silver metallic buttons on the battery-operated combination pad. Just as his finger touched the first number, an unexpected deep whir and throb made his heart jump.
The security lights of Pump Station Eight exploded to life on the other side of the tall trees that obscured it from view. It had been so dark in that direction that he had forgotten how close the pipeline was. Eugene regained his composure and finished punching the combination into the keypad. The gate slowly clanked open. He entered the compound and was heading for the small control shed when a firm voice called out behind him.
“Can I help you, sir?”
He turned to see the bright beam of a flashlight pointed at his face. Below the beam, Eugene made out the shape of the muzzle of a weapon.
“Who are you?” he called back.
“Pipeline Security. Show me some ID or you are going to have to leave.”
He unzipped the top of his parka and pulled out the ID card strung around his neck. These guys were not stereotypical shopping mall security rent-a-cops. Doyon Services, who held the contract for pipeline security in perpetuity, only hired the most professional and potentially most dangerous guards to fulfill their role in protecting one of the country’s most valued resources. Most of these were former military police, and many had served as Marines or Special Forces. They were paid almost as much as the “security consultants” the government used as mercenaries in the war on terror, and they were worth every dime of it.
The guard moved forward, shining his light on Eugene’s badge. Once he was close enough to read it, he said “Good evening, Mr. Wyatt. I’m Officer Bannock, Watch Corporal tonight up at Eight.”
A single mercury lamp on a tall pole above the substation started to hum. It slowly began to glow to life, but still provided almost no light.
“Do you mind if we step into the shed and I turn on the switch in here?” said Eugene.
“Sure, go ahead.”
Bannock pointed his flashlight to the door so Eugene could see to put his key in it.
Eugene opened the door and stepped inside. He flipped a switch to the right of the door as he entered. A bright fluorescent light flickered to life. The ballast inside the light fixture added another layer to the increasingly loud hum of the station’s massive copper coils and the room’s numerous devices.
The back wall of the room was a mass of gauges and switches, set in floor to ceiling gray steel casings. Whenever Eugene walked into one of these rooms, he thought of the fifties science fiction movies from his childhood in which such devices lined the wall of Buck Rogers’ spaceship. A table and two chairs that looked like they were probably WWII surplus sat in one corner, and a small desk with a LCD computer terminal was crammed in the opposite corner.
Once inside the lighted room, Eugene turned to see the guard’s face. Bannock was a tall, muscular man in his early forties, retired military by his demeanor. An MP5 submachine gun hung over his shoulder from a black nylon strap. He wore it comfortably, as if it were a part of his body. The long, black Maglite had been placed back in its holster on his pistol belt.
“I guess those other two technicians must’ve fixed the power just before you got here, eh?” Bannock asked.
“You saw them?” Eugene responded. “What’d they look like?”
“Yeah, I saw them. Two white males, in their late twenties or early thirties. They showed valid looking Tanana Valley ID cards. One was named Adem, the other was Nikola.”
“Did you see what they were doing?”
“Negative. I heard the noise over here during our shift change and came by just as they were closing the gate. I heard them talking, but I was too far away to understand the details of their conversation. They weren’t speaking English at first, but when they heard my boots on the snow, they switched immediately.”
“What language were they speaking?”
“Albanian?” Eugene asked. “How the hell would you know it was Albanian?”
“I retired from the Special Forces three years ago. Knee injury. I did several years in the Baltics, and had a lot of contact with northern Albanians among the Kosovo Muslim Militias.”
“Muslim Militias?” Eugene replied. “Are you saying these guys are terrorists?”
“I didn’t say that specifically. But I wouldn’t rule it out.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Eugene said. “What else was suspicious about them?”
The guard paused for a moment, and then said, “It’d be easier to list anything not suspicious about them. There was serious bad tension around them. They had just left and I was heading back to the pump station to make a report to send in to the troopers when I heard you pull in. I had thought it was them returning, so I came back.”
“Yeah, they almost ran into me head-on down the road a ways,” Eugene said.
Bannock nodded in reply. “Well, Mr. Wyatt, I’ve got to be getting back and file a report of contact. Everything I mentioned to you the hard facts, that is will be in my log back at the station, if you want to see it.”
“Thanks. I’ll be gone in five minutes.”
Officer Bannock turned around and started to open the door when Eugene called out.
“Hey, Bannock, could you do me a favor?”
Bannock turned back. “Sure, what do you need?”
“If those men return, or for that matter, if anyone comes in here for the next week or two, could you let your guys back there know to give me a ring on my cell phone?” He handed Bannock his card.
“No problem,” the officer replied. “You know, we could do even more than just call you. We have some pretty good surveillance gear at our disposal. With your station being in such close proximity to the pipeline, I could justify monitoring your property for our own security reasons. All I need is your permission, and we can set up round-the-clock electronic surveillance.”
“Thanks. That’d be greatly appreciated,” Eugene replied. “If your boss gives you a hard time, tell him to call me. Me and him go back a ways.”
“Have a good night, sir.”
Bannock raised his fingers to his forehead in a relaxed salute and walked out into the darkness.
Eugene logged onto the computer on the corner desk and accessed the systems report in hope of finding something that would give him any clue. The last line before the system went down showed everything running normally at the half hour checkpoint. The next lines, which had been appended upon system reboot, read:
Abnormal Shutdown 0430 hrs 081217
Error Code: 000 Unknown Source Disrupt
What the hell? The computer doesn’t even know what happened.
Eugene printed the report and rose from the desk. He zipped his parka back up, turned off the lights, and then headed out the door into the now brightly lit area outside. The mercury lamp had finally reached its full intensity and cast a pale white glow onto the building and equipment around him. White steam billowed from his nose and mouth as he exhaled in the frozen air.
From where Eugene stood, he turned to gaze around the yard. He saw no sign of physical damage. If there had been a transformer fire, it would have been on the report. Even if it weren’t, he would be able to smell the tell-tale odor of burned electrical equipment, which he did not.
As he walked toward his truck on the other side of the gate, Penny slowly trotted back from the woods and waited beside the door of her master’s vehicle. She sat down and her tail wagged happily, sweeping the snow behind her in a doggy version of a snow angel.
“My goodness, that’s a good dog. You came back without me calling” he said aloud to his canine companion.
Phantom-like wisps of white steam rose from the thickly insulated tan canvas fabric of the Carhartts coveralls, Alaska’s most common winter outer garment, which hung on a peg protruding from the log wall. Heat waves like tiny translucent serpents wriggled in the air from the surface of the black iron woodstove in the corner. From within the dull, black metallic box crackled and popped the arrhythmic music of old-fashioned warmth. In a fairly new leather recliner, the only sign of modern comfort in the cabin, a man slowly awakened from a heavy slumber. The muscles in his bare arms rippled beneath a sheath of brown skin as he brought the chair to an upright position and stretched like a lion rising from the shade to hunt.
Marcus Johnson was but one member of a small community of rural Alaskans who lived partway between the old-fashioned frontier lifestyle and the 21st century.