Friday, September 23, 2005

The Omega Factor

A Justin Seaborne Story

Copyright 2004
Rev. 2014


I – Wakeup Call

Sunday, January 13

At 4:17 AM, the phone rings. Justin, dog-tired and hung over, believes it is the alarm and knocks it to the floor with a flick of his arm. When the ringing continues, he rolls over and struggles from the covers to find the phone. “This had better be good,” he warns the caller.

“Look out the window,” the voice whispers.

“Who ... who is this,” Justin growls – having a difficult time saying the words through his cottonmouth.

“Dr. Seaborne, look out the window. Do it now!”

Justin considers hanging up, but something in the caller's voice makes him throw back his covers and roll out of bed. As soon as his feet hit the floor, he realizes how much his head hurts. 

“Never again,” he mumbles, but as soon as he says it, he knows it is a lie.

Justin unlatches the window and pushes it open. He gags and almost loses everything in his stomach as he gets a whiff of the strong odor permeating in from Frenchman’s Bay. Justin covers his nose with one hand and reaches out with the other to close the window, and in doing so drops the phone that was cradled in his neck. The phone lands on his big toe. “Dammit all to hell!”

Justin reaches down to massage his throbbing toe, but loses his balance. His forehead clips the windowsill as he tumbles to the floor. “I’m okay–I’m okay,” he mumbles as he rubs his head with his knuckles.

A breeze from the open window distracts him. The air almost feels warm. It’s January in Maine and yesterday’s high was 20 below zero. It couldn’t have changed that much.

Justin remembers the phone caller, rights himself, and reaches for the phone. “Okay, you’ve got my attention?”

“What do you think is happening out there?”

“How the hell should I know,” snaps Justin. “Look, I am tired of your games. Either tell me who this is or I hang up right now!”

“Dr. Seaborne, what did you warn the Joint Chiefs of Staff about?”

"What? You’ve got to be kidding.” Justin shakes his head in disbelief. “It was only a theory - nothing more. Now, if you are done screwing around, I’m going back to bed.” 

“Well, it is no longer a theory,” the voice interrupts. “You were right and your worst fears are upon us.”

Justin drops the phone, throws on his clothes, and is out the door in less than five minutes.

II – Breakfast of Champions

While driving down 2nd Avenue, Justin knows he needs to get his head screwed on straight. Turning left at the light and then right again into Dunkin’ Donuts, Justin pulls up to the drive-thru window and orders a jumbo black coffee and a dozen glazed donuts.

While Justin waits for his order, he reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out his cigarettes, lights one, and takes a deep drag. As the smoke fills his mouth, throat, and lungs, he pushes himself deep into his seat, rubs the stubble on his chin, and mumbles, “Ahhhhh.” He studies the cigarette for a moment and then laughs. E-cigarettes? Who would ever think people would smoke a battery operated cigarette? Justin was even more surprised when he heard that they make them to taste like Marlboros and even have a menthol-flavored brand. “Now that’s crazy,” he mumbles.

After a moment, he sits up, turns on the dome light and looks into the rearview mirror. Justin doesn’t recognize the face. The steel-gray eyes that were once so animated stare lifelessly back at him. The deep lines in his forehead, premature gray hair, and bags under his eyes make him look twenty years older. I look like crap.

Justin pays the attendant, throws the box of donuts onto the passenger seat, grabs the coffee and presses down on the accelerator. He turns onto Hope Street as he pries the lid up. The first sip burns his tongue. He sucks and blows air rapidly in an attempt to cool his mouth and the coffee simultaneously.

He reaches over with his free hand, tears open the box of donuts and between the next two stoplights he manages to stuff down three of them. Besides booze, cigarettes, and coffee, Justin’s only other vice is fast food. For a 44-year-old man, I’m in perfect health; he tells himself. Justin’s sWayneach responds by sending acid up his throat in the form of a belch. He grimaces as the bile burns his throat. He throws the rest of the donut back into the box and attempts to wash the taste out of his mouth with coffee. He reaches up and rubs the area around his heart thinking of the pain he experienced last night in bed. Maybe I should join a gym.

Thirty minutes later, flying high on caffeine and sugar, Justin stops at the security gate at the Oceanographic Institute in Bass Harbor. Frank, the security guard, bends down to the window. “Morning, Dr. Seaborne. I hate to ask, but do you know what is going on?”

“What do you mean … are you asking about the 50-degree temperature change from last night and the rotten egg smell in the air? No, not really, I hadn’t noticed.”

Frank shakes his head and smiles. “Always the jokester, aren’t you, Doctor. Are you going to the Center?”

“Yah … who’s already down there?”

“Everyone but you,” Frank quips. “Most of them started arriving around midnight. The place has been crawling with people since two o’clock. I even heard that there is some bigwig from D.C. on the way. Other than that, no one is saying a thing. Let me see your I.D. card so I can buzz you in.”

When Frank hands back the card, Justin reaches over, grabs the box, and sticks it into the guard’s face. “Donut?”

Frank laughs and sucks in his sWayneach. “No thanks. You know I am on a diet. If I had one of those, the missus would smell it on my breath when I got home and I would never hear the end of it. But, they sure look good.”

As Justin pulls through the gate, the hangover, coupled with the caffeine and sugar, lets him know he won’t be able to function for long this morning. “I need a drink.”

He leans across the seat and flips open the glove box – pauses for a moment as he stares at the half-full bottle of Wayne Daniels. “Bite the snake that bit you.”

As he unscrews the cap, he stops, glances into the mirror, and shakes his head. No. I need to get inside and find out what happened. 

Pulling into his parking space, he compares his 40-year-old maroon Volvo to the rest of the cars in the lot. He again thinks it is time to trade in this beast for something newer and more practical. Something with air-conditioning and power windows would be nice.

III – The Interview

Justin lights another cigarette. He knows that once he enters the building, he won’t be able to smoke. I wonder if E-cigarettes are banned?

After a couple of puffs, he stares at the entrance to the operations center. He finds it hard to believe he has been working here for six months. He closes his eyes and lets his mind wander back to the job interview with Mr. Smith from the National Security Agency. That was a fiasco. He is still surprised he ever got the job.

“Good Morning, Dr. Seaborne. Thank you for coming in.”

“You’re welcome. Can I ask what this is about? You were somewhat evasive on the phone.”

“Yes, I know, but I am pleased you could make the time to come in and talk with me. Can I get you anything?”

“No, I’m good,” was Justin’s auWayneatic response. Then he reconsidered. “Well, I guess I could use a cup of coffee.”

“Are you feeling okay, Dr. Seaborne? You look a little under the weather this morning.”

“I’m fine, thank you.” Justin rubbed his forehead while swishing around some saliva in his mouth. “Could we please just get on with this?”

“Well, yes, I think we can. Do you know anything about the National Security Agency, Doctor?”

“Nothing more than what I have read in the papers. What does the NSA have to do with me?”

“I’ll get to that in a moment, Doctor, but if I may, I would first like to ask you a few questions. Is that all right with you?”

“Look, I don’t understand what I am doing here this morning. You said on the phone that this would only take a few minutes. Uh, one more thing, call me Justin.”

“Doctor… I’m sorry … Justin, I can assure you that the interview will not take long.” Mr. Smith picked up a folder on the table in front of him. “First, however, I do need to make certain that the information I have in your file is correct. May I proceed?”

Justin snaps up straight in his seat. “Wait a minute, why do you have a file on me?”

“Calm down, Justin, I assure you that you have done nothing wrong. Your answers to these questions are only a formality to help me better understand your qualifications. Your background in nuclear physics makes you the number one candidate for the job. However, before we can move forward with making you an offer, we need to validate the information in this file and understand a little more about you. Things like, are you a team player? Is that okay, Justin?”

“Yes, I guess so. Offer … what offer?” When Mr. Smith doesn’t reply, Justin asks, “Could I have that coffee now?”

Mr. Smith points to a table across the room. “Help yourself to whatever you want.” When Justin doesn’t get up, Mr. Smith asks, “Are you certain you are feeling okay? You are sweating pretty heavily and I noticed that your hands are trembling.”

“Look, I’m fine. If you must know, I had a little too much to drink last night.”

“Do you drink often, Justin?”

“What kind of question is that? If you must know, I am a social drinker – that’s all there is to it.”

Mr. Smith studies Justin for a moment before continuing. “Justin, I am certain everyone has a different definition of a social drinker. What does it mean in your case?”

Justin jumps up sending his chair into the wall behind him. “Okay, I’ve had enough of this bullshit. I’m done here.”

“Justin, hold on a minute. Why does that question upset you? If you feel uncomfortable with the question, we’ll just pass on it for now.” Mr. Smith waits while Justin pulls the chair back to the table and sits down. “Are you married, Justin?”

"Yes, er–well, no. My wife passed away ten years ago."

“Oh, I am sorry to hear that. I just saw the wedding ring and assumed … Anyway, do you have any children?

Justin looks up. “What? No–no children.”

“Are you involved with anyone at the moment? Someone you would consider more than a casual acquaintance?”

“NO … and what kind of a question is that?” Justin reaches into his back pocket, pulls out a handkerchief, and wipes his forehead and hands.

“How did your wife die?”

“She–she died in a car accident.”

“That must have been terrible for you, Justin. May I ask how you took the news of your wife’s death?”

Justin kneaded the handkerchief in his hand. “Is this really relevant? Look, Mr. Smith, what does my wife or my drinking have to do with the NSA?”

“Please bear with me because I am almost through.” Mr. Smith glances down at the tablet he has in front of him before continuing. “Would you mind sharing your thoughts on why these questions upset you? Why you are acting so hostile?”

Justin glares across the table. “The only hostility I feel right now is toward you, Mr. Smith. If you don’t quit prying into my personal life, you might even see some of that hostility. Now, is there anything else you want to ask?”

Mr. Smith flips a page over on his tablet, writes something down, and then smiles. “Justin, I assure you that I only have a few more questions. Let me summarize what I know so far. You are a social drinker. Your wife passed away ten years ago in a car accident. You have no children. You are not seriously involved with anyone today. And, you are upset with the line of questions this morning. Am I correct so far?”

“No, I believe you are missing a few things, Mr. Smith. I didn’t want to come here this morning. I am hung-over, just like I am every morning. I drink a lot–probably more than I should. Some people might even call me a drunk. Yes, my wife died ten years ago … yesterday. How did I take the news of the accident? Not well, Mr. Smith, because I was the one driving the car. And, no, you are not correct about me being a little upset. What you sense is anger, lots of it, and guilt. Every day I live with the fact that I killed my wife. Now, are ... we ... done?”

“Almost, Justin.” Mr. Smith flips through a couple of pages in the file before looking up. He studies Justin for several moments. “What I don’t understand is how the man who killed his wife and unborn child turned into the person in front of me. Can you explain …”

Justin jumps to his feet and this time his chair flips over. “Enough! How did you know about our …” He reaches down and picks up the chair, sits down, and his chin falls to his chest. “Why are you doing this to me?”

Mr. Smith places his hand on Justin’s shoulder. “Please understand that I am just doing my job. I have only one more question and then we are finished for today. Would you mind telling me about your theory?”

Justin looks up and glares at Mr. Smith. “Do you mean my theory that you are an asshole? Let me tell you, it’s no longer a theory.”

Mr. Smith smiles. “Well, Justin, because of this interview, I also know two more things about you; two things that were not in the report. One, you have a sense of humor. And, two, a high-ranking official from the NSA doesn’t intimidate you. Now, regarding your theory, what I am referring to is the Omega Factor.” 

The cigarette burns Justin’s fingers snapping him back to the present. “Dammit!” The ashes fly across the dash and his pants as he flicks them away. Justin licks the burns and wipes his fingers dry on his pants while shaking his head.

Mr. Smith’s attitude that day still infuriated him. He acted like he wanted me to punch him out or something. Justin gets out of the car and locks the door. If Mr. Smith knew everything about me, why did he force me to talk about the one thing in my life that still causes immense pain?

IV – Love You, Man

Justin lights another cigarette as he walks towards the building. The NSA must be pretty desperate to have me join the Emergency Response Team. He couldn’t have given a worse interview that day six months ago. Threatening a government official probably didn’t help either. Yet, he was hired. He is still upset that the NSA has so much background information on him. Isn’t anything private these days?  

Justin climbs the steps to the entrance of the Institute, takes one last drag, and exhales smoke as he opens the door. Clifton Carlson, another security guard, looks up as Justin enters and just shakes his head. He leans over the metal detector and switches it on. “Doctor Seaborne, you’re going to kill yourself if you don’t start taking better care of yourself.”

“Clifton, what I do is none of your business.” As soon as Justin says it, he wishes he could take the words back. “I’m sorry, Cliff. I didn’t mean it. I’ve got one helluva hangover this morning.”

“Apology accepted. You know I care about you, man. I owe you-big time.”

Justin decides to change the subject. He points his finger at the floor and asks, “Is everyone else already down there?”

“Yup, and they’re waiting for you. Dr. McGinnis said, and I quote, ‘Get his ass down here. Don’t let him stop for coffee or smoke another cigarette.’ Now, you’ve got the message; do whatever you want–you always do anyway.”

Justin smiles as he walks to the elevators. He pulls his I.D. card out from his wallet and inserts it into the access slot. He places his right hand on the scanner screen and the elevator door opens. He pulls out the card, clips it onto his shirt pocket, and enters the elevator. Justin pushes the ‘S3’ button, leans up against the cool polished chrome, closes his eyes, and waits for the door to close.

When the elevator surges, his acid-filled sWayneach remains on the main floor for several seconds before joining him for the ride down.

When the elevator stops, Justin’s sWayneach bounces off the floor. He belches as the door opens and bile burns his throat. Because there is no place to spit it out, he swallows it and hopes that was its last visit of the day.

He glances around the Emergency Response Center or ERC as it is referred to by the team. The National Security Agency, their benefactor, calls the team the Northeast Corridor Crisis Management Team. Even though Justin feels lousy, the center still brings a smile to his face. This place is just incredible. Ted McGinnis said it is the best that money can buy and I believe it. 

The room is eighty feet wide and a hundred feet long with a twenty-foot ceiling. It has three levels. Twelve operations analysts sit at the back of the ERC, the highest level, monitoring their terminals and the displays on the wall at the front of the room.

The second level, one-step down, is for the ERC team. It contains eight desks, each set up with two flat-screen monitors, computer terminals, a printer, two phones, a fax machine, and a paper shredder.

The lowest level, the front of the ERC, is an open area with one large table. The tabletop is a monitor that currently displays a topographical map of the northeastern United States, eastern Canada, and about three-hundred miles of the Atlantic Ocean. On the wall in front is another large screen, about twenty feet long by ten feet tall, that currently shows a satellite image of the northeast shoreline of Maine. On each side of the screen are three large monitors; each designed to show different information including weather, tides, ocean temperature, satellite positions, and naval vessels in the area. The botWayne right one is always tuned to CNN.

Justin makes his way to the second level and approaches Ted McGinnis’ desk. Ted, the tall, stately 40-year old team leader, received his Ph.D. from MIT in Astrophysics. Everyone says he is a born leader. Probably because he is good at playing company politics. He seems to know what to say and when to say it.

Ted looks up from his printout as Justin approaches. “Good, you got the message?”

Justin nods as he rubs his forehead. “Yeah, somebody called, but wouldn’t identify himself. He just kept on asking questions and never told me what is going on. I’ll tell you, I was getting a little pissed.”

Ted glances to his left, “It was Shocky. He was running around here about 4:30 this morning giving everyone ‘high-fives’ and laughing. I overheard him say that he had pulled one over on somebody. I’m sorry about that, Justin. He just never seems to grow up. I just asked him to call you and let you know that I needed you right away.”

Justin looks over at Shocky and catches him staring. With his blond crew-cut hair and diamond earring, he looks like he is 22, but is actually ten years older. Shocky tells everyone he is the brains of this team. Or so he thinks.

Shocky looks down at some papers, but Justin can see him smirking. “Thanks Ted, I’ll have to figure out some way to get back at him. Payback is a bitch.” Justin takes another glance and this time Shocky bursts out laughing.

“Is he correct?” Justin asks Ted. “Does this have something to do with my theory?”

Ted shrugs his shoulders. “Right now your guess is as good as mine.”

“Is it one of our boats?”

“The NSA says it can't be. Our boats have all checked in. The State Department is having discussions with the Chinese, Russians, Indians, and whoever else has nuclear subs to determine if any of their boats are missing.”

V – Situation Report

Wayne Benson walks up to Ted and Justin with his arms full of papers and a big smile on his face. “Welcome, Justin, I’m glad you could join us.” Dr. Benson has put on thirty pounds over the last six months because of his wife’s excellent German cooking. When Justin tries to give him a hard time about it, Wayne replies that he doesn’t mind because the weight and the white beard makes him look more like Santa Claus to his grandkids.  

Wayne searches through some papers and pulls out a printout. “I feel a lot better now that our nuclear physicist is here.” He hands each of them a report. “Here are the most current conditions at sea.”  

Justin and Ted read the reports capturing all the key points as Wayne summarizes his findings. He concludes with, “We have two research ships about twelve miles off the coast monitoring the situation for us. From everything they tell us, the situation is not good.” 

Ted taps a few keys on his terminal and points at the overhead display. “These are the most recent pictures of the northern shoreline. Tons of seaweed and animal life are washing up on our shores. Most of the animal life has large blisters or boils all over their bodies. We have a team of ecologists on Whitehead Island running tests on everything they can collect.”

“How bad is it?” Justin asks.

“They just reported in thirty minutes ago. They said the radioactivity on the beach is twenty times higher than normal and increasing every hour. The team recommends an immediate evacuation of the island.”

Justin shakes his head. “What do we hear from our friends at Yarmouth?”

Wayne leafs through his stack of papers as he walks down to the topographical map. The rest of the team follows not wanting to miss anything. Wayne finds the fax and continues. “Nova Scotia reports similar conditions, but not as severe. The same goes for Seal Island.”

Ted takes the fax, reads it, and then asks, “Wayne, what does the Navy say about their situation?”

“The naval base at Newport doesn’t report any unusual conditions.”

Wayne draws a circle with his finger on the map in front of him. “When you triangulate a location based upon radioactivity readings, ocean temperatures, tidal currents, and reports of shoreline debris, it appears the epicenter of this anomaly is about … here – thirteen nautical miles east-southeast of Mount Desert Island. Ocean depth is 30 to 45 fathoms or 180 to 270 feet.”

The team focuses on the location on the map as Wayne continues his report. “High levels of radioactivity. Water temperatures within a ten-mile radius of Point Alpha have risen 40 degrees in the past 24 hours.”

“Has there been any seismic activity recently?” Shocky asks. 

“There’s been nothing reported in the last four weeks. This looks more and more like a nuclear accident.”

Ted turns to the back row of analysts. “Get a message to our two research ships. Have them converge on Point Alpha. Ask them to exercise the appropriate level of caution for a nuclear disaster. If they do not have the proper equipment, have them back off.”

Justin considers the situation. “Ted, can we get a bird in the air?”

“Good thought, Justin.” He turns back to the analysts, “Contact Brunswick Naval Air Station and ask them if they have anything in the area. We need some low level aerial shots of Point Alpha at first light.”

As Justin stands there with the team, the combination of donuts, coffee and cigarettes all hits at once. Sweat beads run down his face, his sWayneach growls, and he stifles a belch. When he reaches up to wipe the sweat away, he notices his hand shaking. Justin glances around to see if anyone else notices his condition. I need a drink.

“One other thing,” Ted adds, “put in a call to Fred Johnston of the NSA. Use his secure cell phone and the scrambler because he is on his way here. I need to advise him of the location of Point Alpha and that our two research ships are heading there now.”

Wayne shakes his head, “Thirteen miles. I thought the U.S. Contiguous Zone was 24 miles. If it is a foreign sub, it is close to the twelve-mile Territorial Limits.”

“Most of the super-powers only recognize the twelve-mile boundary,” Justin comments. “Ever since the end of the Cold War, the Russians have stayed at least 25 miles off the coast, but the Chinese only honor the twelve-mile limit.”

Dr. Margaret Benson, Wayne’s wife, steps forward and hands out a report to the team. “Trish and I just developed a potential scenario if this is a nuclear incident/accident. Taking everything into consideration that we already know and theorizing the worst case, we have come up with the following.”

Maggie, as she likes to be called, points a remote at the screen in front of her and clicks it, bringing up a set of charts and maps. “First, a fifty-degree rise in ocean temperature around Point Alpha drives our aquatic population north and east. That isn’t the major problem, however. Most of the sea life will be exposed to lethal levels of radiation and will die within the next ten days. Whatever survives will be exposed to substantial radiation poisoning–enough to cause severe health issues.”

“How about Maine’s lobster beds?” Shocky blurts out and then realizing what he asked, shrugs his shoulders and adds, “I love lobster.”

Maggie ignores his comment. “Because of this, we recommend a prohibition on all commercial and recreational fishing within a four hundred mile radius of Point Alpha. We also recommend that any ‘catch’ taken within a thousand miles of Point Alpha be tested for radioactivity and excessive concentrations of iodine, strontium, and cesium.”

“Maggie’s right,” comments Justin, “this is nasty stuff with half-lives of 8 days, 29 years, and 30 years respectively. Iodine has a direct link to thyroid cancer. Strontium increases the rate of leukemia in children. The worst is cesium. It spreads the farthest and stays around the longest. Cesium affects the entire body and it has been associated with numerous psychological disorders. The meltdown at Chernobyl has shown how dangerous these by-products are to all living organisms.”

Ted shakes his head, “Maggie, I don’t think we have the authority to make a recommendation like that until we know more.”

Ted massages the back of his neck as he considers everything reported. “Justin, I need you to look over this scenario before Mr. Johnston arrives. I want everyone on the team agreeing to the recommendations before we present them.”

Maggie steps forward. “I understand your concerns, Ted, but Trish and I don’t see any way around it.”

“The super-heating of the ocean will create a massive temperature change throughout the northeast corridor, Justin adds. “Along the coastline, we will soon experience temperatures in the 40s and 50s. Further inland, the impact is not quite as severe.”

“We are already seeing a snow-melt,” Maggie continues. “If the temperatures remain constant for over a week, we will see an ice melt–something we don’t normally experience until spring. We predict some flooding could result within 60 to 80 miles of the coast. We also predict that New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and potentially Prince Edward Island will have similar conditions.”

Trish Anderson, the statistics analyst, steps forward. “Also, the rotting vegetation and sea life along the shoreline will create air and water pollution, the likes of which have never been seen in the Northeast. Of course, anything else encountering the contaminated sea life will also be infected. I am concerned that scavengers like raccoons and bear, but also stray dogs and cats, might become infected. They could carry this problem further inland.” 

Maggie presses a couple of keys on her remote and brings up a map of the Northeast corridor. “Based upon current readings, radiation poisoning will affect a massive portion of the coastline. Most of it is spread by ocean water, rotting vegetation, and ground water contamination.”

Justin rubs his chin and adds, “The southerly winds will blow the radiation for hundreds, possibly thousands of miles mixing it in with normal rainfall. When that happens, the contaminated area will expand exponentially.”

Justin feels the acid in his sWayneach churn. “I hate to add any more bad news, but if this is a meltdown, it could mean that 200 times more radioactive material will be released into the ocean and atmosphere than when we dropped the aWayneic bomb on Hiroshima.”

Ted shakes his head, “This can’t be happening. I hope Mr. Johnston arrives soon. I believe he will want to brief the President before any decisions are made.” He stares at the map in front of him. “Maggie, I need readings every hour. And, Wayne, I need you to …”

“Ted, aren’t we forgetting another important consideration?” interrupts Justin.

“What could possibly be worse?” Ted snaps.

The stress is really getting to him. Justin considers how to respond. “Well, if it’s a nuke and it’s involved in a meltdown, what happens if it’s a ‘boomer’. You know, a ballistic missile sub? There could be twenty or more birds with nuclear warheads attached to them. If they start to leak plutonium …”

“Oh my God,” Trish exclaims as she backs away from the screen in front of her. “Justin, we didn’t even consider that possibility. Is there any chance of those things going off?”

“Not likely,” replies Justin. “It would be almost impossible for them to detonate without the arming plugs in place. I think you should confine your analysis to a plutonium leak. NSA can provide you with some general specifications for the type of birds carried aboard these boomers once we have identified the country involved. You can take it from there. Of course, if I can be of any help, don’t hesitate to ask.”

Everyone stands frozen around the table digesting this new information. Justin tries to ease some of the tension by asking, “Is it okay to smoke?” After a couple seconds of silence, Ted shakes his head and the rest of the team chuckles. Almost on cue, everyone turns and heads back to their workstations.

Justin catches up with Ted and asks, “Besides going over Maggie’s data, what else do you need me to do?”

“Well, if it is a meltdown, I think you become the expert. You understand the inner workings of a nuclear propulsion system better than anyone else on the team. NSA will need to know the potential magnitude of this incident including how long it will last, what will take place during the process, and what happens if it is a boomer.”

“That’s fine, Ted, but how soon will it be before we know for certain whether someone lost a sub off our coast?”

Ted drops his papers on his desk and looks up. Justin notices the strain on Ted’s face. “Justin, I don’t have a clue. You know how international politics work. It could be days before anyone fesses up to it.”

As Justin turns and walks away, he mumbles, “Unfortunately, we don’t have days.”

VI – Brunswick Checking In

Ninety minutes later, Brunswick, the first research vessel, reports it is on location. The second vessel, Canterbury, is less than five miles from Point Alpha. Ted radios the Brunswick and has the call piped over the center’s loudspeaker system.

“Captain Jamison, this is Ted McGinnis at NECMAT. Before you proceed, please switch on your scrambler.”

After a brief pause, the speaker hisses and then crackles. “This is Jamison aboard the Brunswick. How do you read me?”

“This is McGinnis, Captain. We read you five-by-five–loud and clear. Understand you are at Point Alpha. Can you give us a SitRep?”

“Roger that.” There is a pause. “It's a real mess out here. This ship isn’t designed to operate under these conditions. Readings are 1,570 rems at the surface.”

“That type of radioactivity could only be caused by a reactor problem,” Justin groans.

“Water temperature is 100 degrees Celsius. The water is boiling and there is a thick fog blanketing the entire area.”

“The appearance of water boiling is really the result of a hydrogen gas leak,” Justin chimes in again. “The fog is caused by a temperature inversion. Neither is too serious. However, it does indicate a leak in the containment vessel. If the temperature within the vessel rises above 2000 degrees, it could trigger an explosion releasing iodine, cesium, and noble gases plus other radionuclides. I recommend that our ships clear the area.”

“Jamison, this is McGinnis. Did you copy Dr. Seaborne’s recommendations?”

“Affirmative. What are your orders?”

“Make for shore, Captain, and stand-down until further notice.” Ted pauses for a moment. “Restrict your crews communications during the stand-down; this needs to be kept quiet until we advise otherwise. While docked, perform a scrub down of the exterior of the ship. Bring aboard enough provisions and fuel to sustain you and your crew for a week’s voyage. Further orders will follow.”

“Roger that–Jamison out.”

Ted looks towards the analysts in the back of the center. “Use the scrambler and relay the same orders to the Canterbury.”
Ted rubs his hands together as he makes eye contact with each member of the team. “Justin, I assume you believe a nuclear submarine has gone down. Correct?”
“Yes, the information provided by Captain Jamison correlates with earlier nuclear sub accidents where there were core breaches. I recommend that Wayne pass this information along to Yarmouth and Seal Island. We need to keep our Canadian friends in the loop."
Ted nods agreement, but adds, "Wayne, before we pass any information along, I need to clear it with the NSA.”
No one says a word for several moments. Shocky breaks the silence. “Justin, if it is a breach, won’t the ocean water cool the core’s temperature enough to stop the meltdown?”
“Possibly. Then the level of contamination will be serious, but not anything near that of a full core meltdown. Either way, it isn’t a pretty scenario, but the latter …” Justin doesn’t finish the statement as he places both of his hands on the edge of his desk and his shoulders slump forward.
"It’s the Omega Factor,” Trish mumbles.
Justin looks at Trish and sees the fear in her face. Why did I ever write that damn book? “It’s just a theory, Trish. No one has ever been able to prove the likelihood of that scenario. The odds of something like that happening …”
“But no one has ever been able to disprove it either,” Trish comments as she laces her fingers together in front of her chest.
Ted knows he needs to divert the team’s focus. “Okay, until we can validate Justin’s assumptions, let’s consider all possibilities and scenarios. Trish and Maggie, use the information provided by the Brunswick to update your best- and worst-case scenarios. Run your thoughts by Justin to make certain he agrees.
“Wayne, I need Shocky and you to develop two distribution maps. How far will the ocean currents take the radiation within a day, a week, and a month? We also need a map showing possible air disbursement of radiation including assumptions about wind speed, rainfall estimates, and so forth.” 
Ted pauses to collect his thoughts. “Justin, when Mr. Johnston arrives, you need to be prepared to brief him on recent sub disasters including what we learned from them.” Ted then looks around at the team and tries to smile, but it seems more like a grimace. “Okay, let’s get moving, people!”
As the team walks back to their workstations, Trish follows Justin to his desk. She reaches inside a folder, pulls out a folded piece of paper, and gives it to him. Before opening it, he looks into Trish’s eyes searching for a clue as to what is on it.
“It’s from page four of your presentation to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I found it on the floor by your desk several months ago,” Trish comments before walking away.
Justin looks down at the handwritten note and his eyes snap up to where Trish sits at her desk staring at a printout. The note reads, ‘Before we can ever move forward, we have to abandon what we believe and cherish – The Omega Factor’. He shakes his head, crumples the note in his hand, slips it into his pocket, and mutters, “I don’t need this.”

VII – Johnston or Smith?

At 11:02, Ted receives a call from Clifton that Mr. Johnston is on his way down. Ted meets him as he walks out of the elevator, stretches out his hand, and says, “Good morning, Fred. How was your trip?”
Mr. Johnston ignores Ted’s hand and continues walking. “Ted, you can dispense with the greetings, what do you have for me?”
“Right, um, let’s go down to the situation table.” As the two walk to the front of the room, Ted asks the team to join him.
Justin looks up from his desk and can’t believe his eyes. Standing next to Ted is Mr. Smith–the same Mr. Smith that he threatened six months ago. He looks about the same. He is still a short, pudgy, red-faced bureaucrat with thick round glasses. How could someone wearing a $500 suit look so bad in it? 
Then Justin notices there is one striking change. Six months ago, Fred had only short stubbles of hair on his head. Now, he parts his hair just above his left ear and combs it over the top of his head. Justin thinks there must be six inches of hair combed from the left side to the right. How much hair spray does it take to plaster that down?
Justin makes certain he is the last member of the team to arrive at the table. As Fred and Justin lock eyes, Ted comments, “I believe you two have met.”
“Mr. Smith, I like what you’ve done with your hair.”
“No, Justin,” Ted corrects, “this is Fred Johnston,”
Fred glances at Ted and laughs, “Ted, when I interviewed Justin six months ago, I introduced myself as Mr. Smith. I guess you can leave the Agency, but the training stays with you.”
Fred looks Justin in the eyes and smirks. “I never did have a chance to officially welcome you to the team, Doctor. How are you doing these days? I see that you don’t look any better than you did back then.” Fred leans forward, lowers his voice, and comments, “You at least sound better than you did at 4:30 this morning when Shocky called you.”
“What!” Justin steps forward and makes an exaggerated effort to lean down to make eye contact. “You bastard, why are you listening in on my phone calls?” 
Ted steps forward and places his hands between the two. He isn’t certain what is happening, but whatever it is, it has to stop. “If we could get started, I know Mr. Johnston is anxious to be brought up to speed on the situation. Wayne, perhaps you could start and then Maggie and Trish will follow.”
Fred steps away from Justin and announces, “Before we get started, let me tell you what I know. The Chinese government confirms that it has lost a sub off our coast. They have dispatched a sub-tender and it should arrive in two days. Their ambassador has stressed that it is in international waters, the situation is under control, and they are not requesting any help.”
“What kind of sub is it, Mr. Smith?” Justin asks.
“It is a reconditioned Soviet Hotel-class. I believe it has two reactors.”
Justin pulls out a notebook from his shirt pocket and leafs through the pages. “Yes, the Hotel-class subs were commissioned in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. They carry twenty birds–that is, missiles. Unfortunately, these subs do not have a back-up cooling system. Assuming that the sub has not been modified, a breach could release 8.1 x 1018 Bq of mixed fission products–about equivalent to one-seventh of what was released in the Chernobyl disaster.”
Justin looks up from his notebook just in time to see Fred roll his eyes. “Thank you, Doctor Seaborne. I am certain none of us knows or cares to know what all that means. Now, if we could move on …”
“Just wait a minute, Mr. Smith, or whatever you call yourself today. Chernobyl affected the lives of over 200,000 people within Russia alone. Tens of thousands more were affected all over Western Europe. If this is a meltdown, and I believe it is, then anyone within a 45 mile radius of Point Alpha needs to be evacuated immediately.”
Fred Johnston has heard enough, “Let me be perfectly clear, we are not going to panic the entire population of Maine just because you think this is another Chernobyl. My God, man, do you know what this would do to the President’s ratings if you are wrong? It could also create an international incident with the Chinese just as we are trying to get an arms agreement through Congress.”
Justin’s nails dig into his palms as he kneads his hands. “Is this about approval ratings or saving lives?”
Ted steps forward and hands Mr. Johnston a printout. “Wayne, would you give your update?”
Before Wayne can say a word, Justin asks, “Ted, do we have time for all this? A nuclear sub is down and based upon the Brunswick’s report and your team on Whitehead Island, we need to make a decision now before more people are exposed."
Justin walks around the table and points at the ‘winds aloft’ chart on the screen. “There is a nor’easter brewing just off our coast. If the winds pick up, thousands of people might be affected. I’m talking about radiation poisoning as well as long-term diseases such as thyroid cancer, birth defects and neurological disorders.”
“It’s the Omega Factor all over again. Right, Justin?” Fred scoffs.
Justin ignores the comment. “We also need to bring in HAZMAT teams to help minimize the long-term damage. Miles of beach front and debris will have to be dug up and contained.”
Fred laughs as he looks around at the team. “Oh, I forgot that I’m listening to the man that told the Joint Chiefs that once a reactor reaches a certain point–I forget the exact details–there is no stopping the meltdown. Yadah-yadah-yadah. No wonder you were laughed out of the Pentagon.”
Justin charges forward, bumps Fred’s chest, and stares down at him. “If I’m as bad as you say, then why did you hire me in the first place?”
The animosity in Fred’s face is like a badge of honor as he turns to the rest of the team and announces, “I would never have hired you if it weren’t for Ted.” Fred then spat out, “Ted told me to be nice to you because you had been through a lot. When I refused to hire you, he threatened to walk himself. Without Doctor McGinnis there would be no ERC, so I gave in. I have regretted that decision ever since.” Fred pauses to let his comment sink in. “You don’t belong on this team.”
 Fred then turns to Ted. “There is no way I’m going to recommend to the President of the United States that we issue an evacuation order until we know for sure what we are up against and what all our options are. For now, we will monitor the situation and wait for further word from the Chinese. After their tender arrives, we should know more.”
Justin smolders. His hands clench as his face turns bright red. Blood pounds so hard in his head, he thinks it is going to explode. Looking down on this little dictator, he asks, “Don’t you even care about the effect this could have on the northeast coastline?”
Fred senses his next action needs to be decisive–letting everyone know who is in charge. He takes a step back, turns away from Justin. “Ted, what kind of a team are you running here? I’m beginning to wonder who is in charge. Your lack of leadership concerns me.”
Justin wants to deck the son-of-a-bitch; not because of what happened six months ago, but because of what Fred stands for today. “I’ll ask you one more time, Mr. Smith. What are we going to do about all the people within the dead zone?”
Without even looking at Justin he comments, “Doctor, if the situation escalates, we might have to consider them ‘acceptable losses’. Now can I hear from the others, Doctor McGinnis, or did I waste my time coming here today?”

At that moment, Justin is aware of two things. He needs a drink and, if he doesn’t get out of there right now, he will hit someone. He walks up to Ted and whispers, “Ted, can I speak with you for a moment?”
Ted nods and asks Wayne to bring Mr. Johnston up to date. Ted takes Justin’s arm and the two walk to the back of the room.
“I need to get some fresh air and have a smoke. If I don’t get out of here and calm down, I might deck that SOB.” 
Ted shakes his head. “Justin, we need you here. If this is a meltdown, you are the only one who fully understands what that means. Look, I know you don’t agree with Mr. Johnston’s decisions, but you need to get beyond this personality conflict. I am certain he will listen to you if you will only calm down.”
“And,” Ted leans in and whispers, “I need you sober. We all do.”
Justin grabs Ted’s arm. “Dammit, don’t treat me like a child. I know I’m right about this. Fred has one purpose here this morning–to protect the President’s ass ... and his own. And you’re acting like Fred’s lap dog.”
Ted wrestles his arm loose from Justin’s grip and looks around to see if anyone is watching. “Justin, you are out of line.”
“My recommendations will save lives, Ted. I’m telling you, we can’t wait on this.”
Ted takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “Look, Justin, can’t you see the pressure I am under. I need Mr. Johnston as an ally right now. He can sway the President if he backs our recommendations. You need to back off.” Ted looks down for a moment. “If I had anyone else who could do your job …”
After a couple of moments of silence, Ted sighs and then places his hand on Justin’s shoulder. “Look, whether I agree with you or not isn’t the point right now. I have to support the decisions of the President. You are one of the best minds in the world, but you have been showing up for meetings late and drunk or hung over for months. It has to stop. The next time you show up drunk or even hung-over, you are off the team. Understand?
Justin didn’t back down. “Understood! Now I’m going topside to have a cigarette. If you need me, you know where I am.”
He turns and walks over to the elevator without giving Ted the satisfaction of the final word. As he steps into the elevator, he puts his hands against the back wall to steady himself. The pain in his head and chest is almost unbearable. After a couple of moments, he wipes the sweat from his forehead and pushes the ground floor button.
Justin exits the elevator and charges toward the front door.
Seeing the expression on Justin’s face, Clifford asks, “Is everything okay down there, Doctor Seaborne? You look like World War III was just declared.”
Justin walks straight through the metal detector and out the door, runs down the steps, and jogs to his car.

VIII – The Omega Factor


Once inside the safety of his trusted Volvo, Justin closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose. He tries to pull out a cigarette, but his hands shake so badly it is impossible to grab one. Justin gives up, rips off the top of the pack, digs one out, and lights it. Within a minute, the smoke-filled interior provides a sense of security from the madness in his world. He sits up, looks into the rearview mirror, and stares at the face everyone else saw this morning. He wipes the mirror with his fingers. The puffy bloodshot eyes, a yellowish complexion, uncombed hair, and an unshaven face are still there. No wonder the team questions my recommendations.
Reaching across the front seat, Justin opens the glove compartment and pulls out the fifth of Jack Daniels. He places the bottle between his legs and unscrews the cap. Justin closes his eyes and smiles as the wonderful aroma drifts into the air.
Placing his cigarette in the ashtray, he lifts the bottle to his mouth. But, something stops him from taking a drink. Perhaps it was something Ted said minutes ago, or what Clifton commented when he arrived this morning. Justin screws the cap back on the ‘Jack’ and returns it to the glove box.
“I need help,” he mumbles. “How low do I have to sink before I can get this behind me? Do I have to alienate everyone first?” With hands grasping the steering wheel and chin resting on his chest, tears flow down his cheeks and dampen his shirt. An occasional shudder of Justin’s body is the only perceptible movement. The cigarette burns in the ashtray.
Justin looks up, wipes the tears from his face, dries his hands on his pants, and looks around the parking lot. He doesn’t care if anyone sees him crying. That is the least of his worries.
He needs a drink, but he doesn’t want one. He doesn’t even want to finish that cigarette. He just wants someone to talk to–someone who will listen and understand.
For the first time since the accident, he speaks to the only person who can forgive him. “Carol, what have I become?”
As the tears begin to flow again, he mutters, “I am so sorry. You wanted to drive that night and I wouldn’t let you.” His chin again rests on his chest. “Can you ever forgive me?”
At that moment, Justin realizes how much of an ass he has become to everyone, especially his friends and colleagues. When anyone offers to help, he rejects it with indignant righteousness. And, instead of doing something about his condition, all he does is wallow in self-pity and use every excuse to drink himself to death.
So many tried to help and I just pushed them away. For years he wanted nothing to do with anyone except for Bryan, the bartender at the Sea Dragon. And, when Bryan refused to serve him, he cussed him out and just bought his ‘Jack’ at the liquor store.
 He glances up at the Volvo’s stained headliner and shakes his head. “Carol, I can’t go on this way. I don’t want to live the rest of my life like this. You were always the strong one. You got me through grad school. When I couldn’t prove my theory to the professor, you reassured me. You were always there for me. Without you, Carol, I never would’ve …”
He reaches into his pants pocket and finds the ten-year-old yellowed piece of paper Trish gave him earlier. He straightens the crumbled note. “Before we can ever move forward, we have to abandon what we believe and cherish.”  
When Justin needed something for the opening of his presentation to the Joint Chiefs on the possibility of a meltdown aboard a nuclear submarine, Carol wrote him this note. Her fifteen words summed it up perfectly, so he used them.
A tear drops from his chin, lands on the note, and smears the writing. He tries to wipe the water away with his index finger further distorting the message. “Oh my God, Trish meant this message for me,” he mumbles. “Is it possible? Is this my melt down … my omega factor?”
Justin reaches up, unbuttons his shirt, and pulls out the gold chain that hangs around his neck. On it is Carol’s wedding ring. The day he buried her, he took the ring and placed it on this chain. He has never removed it. It is his constant reminder of what he lost that day. He unhooks the chain and holds her ring in the palm of his right hand as he slips off his wedding band. Using the chain, he meticulously wraps the two rings together and then slips them into his coin pocket. The release of the rings removes the cloak of guilt. He sighs as a sense of calm floods over him. 
Justin knows that sitting twenty minutes in a car isn’t going to cure his addiction, or free him from his guilt and grief. Could this be the beginning of the healing process? He corrects himself. …the forgiving process?
He looks into the rearview mirror again, but this time for a different reason. He bends forward as he pulls out his handkerchief from his pants pocket and wipes his stained face. “At least I’m sober.” The comment causes a chuckle and a few more tears to flow. Once more Justin dries his eyes, crushes out what remains of the unsmoked cigarette, and steps out of the car. After one last look around the parking lot, he takes a deep breath and heads toward the entrance.
As he walks, he remembers what a psychiatrist told him once. “Healing takes place one day at a time. If you can get through today, you start all over again tomorrow.”
Today is the first day. Justin knows better than to make any promises. He’s made enough of those in the past. Now, he just wants to get through the rest of the day without any self-pity and without a drink. One day at a time. An end to my old ways … and, to a new beginning.
Justin stops, turns around, and walks back to the car. He opens the passenger-side door, reaches into the glove box, and pulls out the bottle of Jack Daniels.
On the way back, he notices a limo pulling away from the curb. “Mr. Johnston must be leaving. Things are already looking up.”
As Justin walks through the front door, he smiles when he sees the concern on Clifton’s face. “I’m okay,” Justin comments as he places the bottle of ‘Jack’ on Clifton’s desk. “And, thank you for your concern.”
Clifton’s mouth opens, but no words come out. His eyes just follow Justin as he walks to the elevator.

IX – A New Beginning

When Justin re-enters the ERC, he walks over to the kitchenette area, pours himself a cup of coffee, and grabs a ham and cheese sandwich. He takes two quick bites. This tastes good. He realizes he hasn’t eaten anything except for three donuts in the last 16 hours.

Approaching Ted’s desk, Justin stuffs the rest of the sandwich into his mouth. After swallowing it, he leans over Ted’s desk. “Can I speak with you for a second, please?”

Ted’s head snaps up when he hears Justin’s voice. Expecting more crap from him, he puts down his pen, looks around to see who is within earshot, and nods.  

“I’m sorry, Ted. I was totally out of line earlier.” 

Ted starts to speak, but Justin raises his palm. “Let me finish, please. I need to get this off my chest, okay?” Ted nods.

“I know I haven’t been at my best for some time. The road I’ve been down wasn’t a pretty one, but I guess it was necessary. Anyway, I just want you to know that I was wrong…wrong about everything. I haven’t been a very good member of your team. You have been more than fair and far more patient with me than I deserve.”

Ted stands up. “Justin, I believe I understand where ...”

“Please Ted, let me finish.” 

Ted sits on the edge of his desk and comments, “Okay, I’m listening.”

“Besides apologizing,” Justin says as he shakes his head, “I also want you to know that I’m here for the duration. No matter how long it takes–no matter how bad it gets, you can count on me…that is, if you want me here at all.” 

Ted studies Justin’s face before commenting. “I’m pleased you are back. We need you, Justin. You are the best we have when it comes to something like this.”  

Ted walks around the desk and places his hand on Justin’s shoulder. “Now you need to hear me out.” 

When Justin nods, Ted continues. “I agree with you. In fact, I agree with all your recommendations. Furthermore, I believe Mr. Johnston is wrong and I told him so…right before he stormed out of here. Then I did something I wouldn’t normally do; I called the Governor. 

“You what? That could be political suicide.”

“No, in fact, the Governor supports the team's recommendations. He is prepared to order a full evacuation of the ‘dead zone’ should it be necessary. He is calling up the National Guard to facilitate the process. We have a conference call with him in less than an hour to review our other recommendations.”

“Ted, that’s great news.” 

“It gets even better. Based upon the information we provide him, the Governor is also prepared to call the President asking for federal support.”

“Wonderful. What can I do to help?’

“Justin, I need you on that call when we brief the Governor.” Ted looks at the clock on the wall. “Can you be ready in 45 minutes?”

Justin puts down his coffee, wipes his hands on his pants and reaches out to shake Ted’s hand. “Thanks, Boss. I’ll be ready and I won’t disappoint you.”

“One more thing, Justin.” Ted smiles before continuing. “There is a shower, toothbrush and razor in the sleeping area. Get yourself cleaned up. You look like hell.” 

Justin rubs the stubble on his chin and laughs. “Yes, sir, I suppose I do.”

1 comment:

  1. May be an idea to split your plot into present & frantic activity, then flashbacks of personalities & politics & disbelief, as in this version the plot is too slow & tech is in too large pieces. Have Jason go like a bat out of hell in opening sequence, stopping for coffee makes me lose sympathy with him. Drop me a line if you do a re-write.

    p.s. Chernobyl is still leaking & there's a leak from a nuclear installation every day & has been since 1957!

    Best Wishes,



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