An Unlikely Tale, Part 1

(probably not all true)

It was late and Jerry had to be careful not to nod off while on duty. There were less than a dozen guards on the night shift, and it wouldn’t do to get caught sleeping, at least not by one of the hard-ass types. He and Tom could cover for each other on occasion, but it was risky and not really worth getting disciplined or fired.

He checked his watch and figured it was time to drive out towards the east gate again. He swung the car around, flashing the headlights across the series of industrial buildings and the empty but well-lit parking lots, then drove along the fence line outside the restricted area. He admired the twelve-foot fence topped with razor ribbon, the dead zone with motion detectors, and the second, internal fence also with razor ribbon. Guard posts flanked the corners and spotlights kept the fence line bright as day. Access gates were triply secure with lock-down areas and weaponized emplacements.

Security was heavy as befitting a nuclear weapons plant, but Jerry felt that the sheer enormity of the precautions would seem to have eliminated any chance of an attempted forced entry, which made the life of a security guard pretty boring. It was unlikely that a pickup full of Palestinian terrorists would successfully storm the east or west gates, drive the two miles across the empty buffer zone, and assault the heavily fortified restricted area defenses, then break into a locked and secure building to recover some nuclear materials. Also, since the materials required heavy shielding, moving them would require some equipment, the more material the more robust the equipment required. By the time they got back to their vehicle, reinforcements would have arrived and they would have to run a huge gauntlet just to get away from the restricted area, much less escape the plant site.

So night after night, Jerry and the others did their routines, followed their procedures and tried hard to stay alert. Of course, something weird happened sometimes, usually in one of the secure buildings that Jerry wasn’t cleared for. Like one morning, a big buck deer was found wandering around in the restricted area. The night guards were dressed down very harshly by the managers – how the hell could a deer have breached the defenses? Were all the security guards idiots? Or, were they all sleeping? No one ever came up with a rational explanation, but the deer was caught and released unharmed.

There were compensations for the boring work, though. The pay and benefits were incredible, but Jerry really liked being able to carry an automatic weapon with the attached silencer. In his military career, he had never gotten into actual battle, and he kind of hoped someday he could engage the enemy out here. They practiced at the rifle range weekly and he considered himself one of the better shots on the force. Shooting his automatic weapon was really cool and he could let his imagination go wild.

The moon was up tonight, but the brightly lit industrial and restricted areas limited Jerry’s view of the sky and the surrounding areas. He liked his runs out to the east or west gates because there were unlit stretches where, once your eyes adjusted, you could just take in the night sky. He would cruise slowly out of the lights and check out some of the remote storage areas where drums of waste and unneeded equipment were stored. He could see night critters in the edge of his headlights — once one of the guards reported seeing a bear.

Jerry had been briefed on the dangers associated with the plant. There were some areas where materials had been spilled or disposed of out in the empty areas, but most of the material and contamination was inside the buildings, primarily in the restricted area. They had strict instructions to stay away from the tank farms, the waste and the drum storage areas, all of which were marked and usually fenced. Drive-by inspections of these places were all that was allowed at night, unless they saw something unusual.

That was all okay with Jerry. He had initially been intimidated by the presence of plutonium, americium and the enriched uranium that went into the nuclear weapons, but the safety procedures were extensive, the rad techs were usually around where the radioactive materials were, and he religiously wore his radiation detection badge that was checked by them daily. Some of the other chemicals were less frightening, and he frankly felt that everyone was a little too anal about safety concerns.

Just beyond the lights, he pulled over to the shoulder near the old drum storage area. He stepped out of his car, stretched and closed the door softly to turn off the dome light. He had left the window down so he could hear the radio, per protocol, although not much chatter ever occurred this late at night. He and Tom sometimes talked, and they had found an isolated channel that was usually unused. But it was easier just to meet up somewhere and talk in person.

The summer night air was cool and refreshing, and the moon hung like a giant balloon above the mountains to the west. He could hear a few night birds, and only occasionally car or truck noise from the distant roadways. Except for the lights behind him at the plant and the distant lights of Denver, he could have been anywhere out on the prairie. Like the fur trappers or pioneers or the the Indian fighters. After he finished taking a leak, he reached into the car and pulled out his rifle, and snapped off a few pretend shots at the distant Indians creeping across the prairie.

He swung around to track a group of them riding wildly through the night, eerily quiet, but of deadly intent. He dropped a few, then got distracted by something that moved among the rows of drums. A faint blur of, what — light? — moved across an opening between the rows.

He slowly approached the barbed wire fence along the road, and tried to locate the movement. He stayed very still and listened, focusing on the dark rows of drums. He recalled that this area was where the plant stored their waste oils contaminated with plutonium. They machined hockey puck-sized pieces of plutonium on a series of oil-cooled lathes, making the ‘pits’ that triggered the nuclear bombs. Pretty high-tech, except that they created a lot of contaminated waste oil that they hadn’t quite figured out what to do with. So, they stored it out here away from everyone so they wouldn’t be disturbed. Some of the drums had been here for many years.

There it was again, something brighter than the darkness, a glow visible only briefly between the drums. Jerry became a little unsettled. Could there be someone crawling around in there with a light? It wasn’t bright enough to be a flashlight, unless it was cloaked. But a terrorist would shield the light to keep it hidden. They were looking for something among the drums, or doing something to them. Maybe rigging up explosives to create a diversion to lure the guards away from their posts.

Jerry quickly looked around to see if there were any vehicles nearby. Nothing. He turned just in time to see a quick flash of brightness disappear at the end of a row. Maybe there was more than one terrorist in there. What could they be doing?

He started to go back to his car to call for backup, but realized he would be visible, and vulnerable — an easy target with the lights on the car and the noise of the radio. As it was now, he was in the dark and not visible unless he used his flashlight, whereas the terrorists were illuminated by their shielded flashlights. He should be able to sneak up on them quietly, unseen.

He moved away from the fence, then crept toward the open gate. At the gate, he knelt down and as quietly as possible, chambered a round in his weapon. The sound seemed deafening to him, but it was unavoidable. He scanned the drum yard then moved slowly up to the first row of drums. Luckily, the ground had not been covered in gravel, so his footsteps were muted by the dirt. He listened intently, then peeked around the end drum, rifle at the ready, still crouched to minimize his profile.

Something quickly flashed down the row, then disappeared. He held back and warned himself to only shoot when he had a solid target. Maybe they would fire first, and he could aim at the muzzle flash, as he had been trained. However, the down side was that he could also be hit first. He wiped the sweat off his hands on his pants and decided it was probably better to shoot first.

Staying crouched, he moved across the ends of the rows of drums, peering down each row then crossing the open area quickly. Not seeing any lights, he became concerned that the terrorists had seen or heard him and were waiting for him to expose himself. He realized his vulnerability, and kicked himself for not calling for backup first, before venturing among the drums. It was just him. He’d have to take them all before they got him.

Slowly, he moved into the space between the rows, watching left and right and ahead, and creeping quietly as possible. His best chance was that he would be less visible, unless they shined the lights at him. But he would see the lights then, and he was sure he could get off the first shot.

A faint noise made him freeze and stop breathing. A scurrying, scuffing sound — was it behind him? He whirled around and there not thirty feet away the glow moved quickly towards him. He fired off balance and sprayed a fusillade across the space. The noise of the silenced rifle seemed inordinately loud. The glowing thing bounced and lay still.

Suddenly, another glowing object darted across the space, and he followed it with an arc of bullets to where it disappeared behind some drums. Standing now, he could see over the row next to him where several glowing masses moved quickly down the row. He tracked them and fired more carefully now, eager to prevent any escape.

Silence descended and he could hear little above his heavy breathing. As he calmed, he became aware of a gurgling noise from various places around him. He pulled out his flashlight and scanned his surroundings.

Various drums oozed and gurgled a dark viscous liquid from the bullet holes splattered across them. Realizing that this was the plutonium-contaminated oil, he quickly began to move away from the spreading waste. His light caught the slightly glowing figure at the end of the row. He approached it tentatively. There, torn to pieces by the automatic weapon fire, was the bloody carcass of a jackrabbit.

He ran to his car. Panic seized him and he had to think, but couldn’t focus. As he reached the car, the radio squawked and he jumped. It was Tom, suggesting a rendezvous. He told Tom where he was, and sat in the car and waited.

It seemed like forever before Tom arrived and he was shocked at Jerry’s state. After several tries, he got the story, and at first was incredulous, then began to laugh wildly. Jerry found Tom’s attitude annoying.

“Okay, you were attacked by radioactive bunnies.” Tom’s laughter finally calmed down a little, “No one but me knows you’re here, so don’t tell anyone. Don’t say anything if asked. In a week or so, they’ll discover the problem, but if you play it cool, no one will know it was you.”

Jerry agreed and with difficulty, continued his shift as usual. He went home and slept, but his dreams were of glowing, radioactive bunnies sneaking up on him as he slept.

Sure enough, it was at least a week before anyone noticed the damaged drums, and although suspicious, the managers decided to blame the leaks on old rusted drums. Jerry felt the pressure, though, and continued to have his frightening dream.

A few weeks later the moon was new, and Jerry was less comfortable in the darkness. He drove slowly towards the east gate, when something moved across the road just ahead of his headlights. He immediately got on the radio and called for backup.

“We hear you Jerry,” the dispatcher replied, “what’s your location and what’s the problem?”

Jerry’s fear was palpable through the radio. “It’s coming right at me. It’s huge – a giant prairie dog – AIIIIE!”

Jerry later found work as a mall cop at one of the older shopping centers in the suburbs. The drum cleanup took many years and, through no fault of Jerry’s, ended up spreading plutonium contamination over a couple of miles of prairie.

The giant prairie dog was never found, so, presumably, is even now out there somewhere. Jerry still has trouble sleeping.