The Slow Fuse
They moved swiftly, silently, with purpose, under a crystalline, star-filled night in western Siberia. They were Muslims, though one could scarcely have known it from their speech, which was Russian, though inflected with the singsong Azerbaijani accent that wrongly struck the senior members of the engineering staff as entertaining. The three of them had just completed a complex task in the truck and train yards, the opening of hundreds of loading valves. Ibrahim Tolkaze was their leader, though he was not in front. Rasul was in front, the massive former sergeant in the MVD who had already killed six men this cold night—three with a pistol hidden under his coat and three with his hands alone. No one had heard them. An oil refinery is a noisy place. The bodies were left in shadows, and the three men entered Tolkaze’s car for the next part of their task.
Central Control was a modern three-story building fittingly in the center of the complex. For at least five kilometers in all directions stretched the cracking towers, storage tanks, catalytic chambers, and above all the thousands of kilometers of large-diameter pipe which made Nizhnevartovsk one of the world’s largest refining complexes. The sky was lit at uneven intervals by waste-gas fires, and the air was foul with the stink of petroleum distillates: aviation kerosene, gasoline, diesel fuel, benzine, nitrogen tetroxide for intercontinental missiles, lubricating oils of various grades, and complex petrochemicals identified only by their alphanumeric prefixes.
They approached the brick-walled, windowless building in Tolkaze’s personal Zhiguli, and the engineer pulled into his reserved parking place, then walked alone to the door as his comrades crouched in the back seat.
Inside the glass door, Ibrahim greeted the security guard, who smiled back, his hand outstretched for Tolkaze’s security pass. The need for security here was quite real, but since it dated back over forty years, no one took it more seriously than any of the pro forma bureaucratic complexities in the Soviet Union. The guard had been drinking, the only form of solace in this harsh, cold land. His eyes were not focusing and his smile was too fixed. Tolkaze fumbled handing over his pass, and the guard lurched down to retrieve it. He never came back up. Tolkaze’s pistol was the last thing the man felt, a cold circle at the base of his skull, and he died without knowing why—or even how. Ibrahim went behind the guard’s desk to get the weapon the man had been only too happy to display for the engineers he’d protected. He lifted the body and moved it awkwardly to leave it slumped at the desk—just another swingshift worker asleep at his post—then waved his comrades into the building. Rasul and Mohammet raced to the door.
“It is time, my brothers.” Tolkaze handed the AK-47 rifle and ammo belt to his taller friend.
Rasul hefted the weapon briefly, checking to see that a round was chambered and the safety off. Then he slung the ammunition belt over his shoulder and snapped the bayonet in place before speaking for the first time that night: “Paradise awaits.”
Tolkaze composed himself, smoothed his hair, straightened his tie, and clipped the security pass to his white laboratory coat before leading his comrades up the six flights of stairs.
Ordinary procedure dictated that to enter the master control room, one first had to be recognized by one of the operations staffers. And so it happened. Nikolay Barsov seemed surprised when he saw Tolkaze through the door’s tiny window.
“You’re not on duty tonight, Isha.”
“One of my valves went bad this afternoon and I forgot to check the repair status before I went off duty. You know the one—the auxiliary feed valve on kerosene number eight. If it’s still down tomorrow we’ll have to reroute, and you know what that means.”
Barsov grunted agreement. “True enough, Isha.” The middle-aged engineer thought Tolkaze liked the semi-Russian diminutive. He was badly mistaken. “Stand back while I open this damned hatch.”
The heavy steel door swung outward. Barsov hadn’t been able to see Rasul and Mohammet before, and scarcely had time now. Three 7.62mm rounds from the Kalashnikov exploded into his chest.
The master control room contained a duty watch crew of twenty, and looked much like the control center for a railroad or power plant. The high walls were crosshatched with pipeline schematics dotted with hundreds of lights to indicate which control valve was doing what. That was only the main display. Individual segments of the system were broken off onto separate status boards, mainly controlled by computer but constantly monitored by half the duty engineers. The staff could not fail to note the sound of the three shots.
But none of them were armed.
With elegant patience, Rasul began to work his way across the room, using his Kalashnikov expertly and firing one round into each watch engineer. At first they tried to run away—until they realized that Rasul was herding them into a corner like cattle, killing as he moved. Two men bravely got on their command phones to summon a fast-response team of KGB security troops. Rasul shot one of them at his post, but the other ducked around the line of command consoles to evade the gunfire and bolted for the door, where Tolkaze stood. It was Boris, Tolkaze saw, the Party favorite, head of the local kollektiv, the man who had “befriended” him, making him the special pet native of the Russian engineers. Ibrahim could remember every time this godless pig had patronized him, the savage foreigner imported to amuse his Russian masters. Tolkaze raised his pistol.
“Ishaaa!” the man screamed in terror and shock. Tolkaze shot him in the mouth, and hoped Boris didn’t die too quickly to hear the contempt in his voice: “Infidel.” He was pleased that Rasul had not killed this one. His quiet friend could have all the rest.
The other engineers screamed, threw cups, chairs, manuals. There was nowhere left to run, no way around the swarthy, towering killer. Some held up their hands in useless supplication. Some even prayed aloud—but not to Allah, which might have saved them. The noise diminished as Rasul strode up to the bloody corner. He smiled as he shot the very last, knowing that this sweating infidel pig would serve him in paradise. He reloaded his rifle, then went back through the control room. He prodded each body with his bayonet, and again shot the four that showed some small sign of life. His face bore a grim, content expression. At least twenty-five atheist pigs dead. Twenty-five foreign invaders who would no longer stand between his people and their God. Truly he had done Allah’s work!
The third man, Mohammet, was already at his own work as Rasul took his station at the top of the staircase. Working in the back of the room, he switched the room systems-control mode from computer-automatic to emergency-manual, bypassing all of the automated safety systems.
A methodical man, Ibrahim had planned and memorized every detail of his task over a period of months, but still he had a checklist in his pocket. He unfolded it now and set it next to his hand on the master supervisory control board. Tolkaze looked around at the status displays to orient himself, then paused.
From his back pocket he took his most treasured personal possession, half of his grandfather’s Koran, and opened it to a random page. It was a passage in The Chapter of the Spoils. His grandfather having been killed during the futile rebellions against Moscow, his father shamed by helpless subservience to the infidel state, Tolkaze had been seduced by Russian schoolteachers into joining their godless system. Others had trained him as an oil-field engineer to work at the State’s most valuable facility in Azerbaijan. Only then had the God of his fathers saved him, through the words of an uncle, an “unregistered” imam who had remained faithful to Allah and safeguarded this tattered fragment of the Koran that had accompanied one of Allah’s own warriors. Tolkaze read the passage under his hand:
And when the misbelievers plotted to keep thee prisoner, or kill thee, or drive thee forth, they plotted well; but God plotted, too. And God is the best of plotters.
Tolkaze smiled, certain that it was the final Sign in a plan being executed by hands greater than his own. Serene and confident, he began to fulfill his destiny.
First the gasoline. He closed sixteen control valves—the nearest of them three kilometers away—and opened ten, which rerouted eighty million liters of gasoline to gush out from a bank of truck-loading valves. The gasoline did not ignite at once. The three had left no pyrotechnic devices to explode this first of many disasters. Tolkaze reasoned that if he were truly doing the work of Allah, then his God would surely provide.
And so He did. A small truck driving through the loading yard took a turn too fast, skidded on the splashing fuel, and slid broadside into a utility pole. It only took one spark . . . and already more fuel was spilling out into the train yards.
With the master pipeline switches, Tolkaze had a special plan. He rapidly typed in a computer command, thanking Allah that Rasul was so skillful and had not damaged anything important with his rifle. The main pipeline from the nearby production field was two meters across, with many branchlines running to all of the production wells. The oil traveling in those pipes had its own mass and its own momentum supplied by pumping stations in the fields. Ibrahim’s commands rapidly opened and closed valves. The pipeline ruptured in a dozen places, and the computer commands left the pumps on. The escaping light crude flowed across the production field, where only one more spark was needed to spread a holocaust before the winter wind, and another break occurred where the oil and gas pipelines crossed together over the river Ob’.
“The greenskins are here!” Rasul shouted a moment before the quick-response team of KGB border guards stormed up the staircase. A short burst from the Kalashnikov killed the first two, and the rest of the squad stopped cold behind a turn in the staircase as their young sergeant wondered what the hell they had walked into.
Already, automatic alarms were erupting around him in the control room. The master status board showed four growing fires whose borders were defined by blinking red lights. Tolkaze walked to the master computer and ripped out the tape spool that contained the digital control codes. The spares were in the vault downstairs, and the only men within ten kilometers who knew its combination were in this room—dead. Mohammet was busily ripping out every telephone in the room. The whole building shook with the explosion of a gasoline storage tank two kilometers away.
The crashing sound of a hand grenade announced another move by the KGB troops. Rasul returned fire, and the screams of dying men nearly equaled the earsplitting fire-alarm klaxons. Tolkaze hurried over to the corner. The floor there was slick with blood. He opened the door to the electrical fusebox, flipped the main circuit breaker, then fired his pistol into the box. Whoever tried to set things aright would also have to work in the dark.
He was done. Ibrahim saw that his massive friend had been mortally hit in the chest by grenade fragments. He was wobbling, struggling to stay erect at the door, guarding his comrades to the last.
“‘I take refuge in the Lord of the worlds,’ ” Tolkaze called out defiantly to the security troops, who spoke not a word of Arabic. “ ‘The King of men, the God of men, from the evil of the whispering devil—’ ”
The KGB sergeant leaped around the lower landing and his first burst tore the rifle from Rasul’s bloodless hands. Two hand grenades arched through the air as the sergeant disappeared back around the corner.
There was no place—and no reason—to run. Mohammet and Ibrahim stood immobile in the doorway as the grenades bounced and skittered across the tiled floor. Around them the whole world seemed to be catching fire, and because of them, the whole world really would.
“God almighty!” the chief master sergeant breathed. The fire which had begun in the gasoline/diesel section of the refinery had been sufficient to alert a strategic early-warning satellite in geosynchronous orbit twenty-four thousand miles above the Indian Ocean. The signal was downlinked to a top-security U.S. Air Force post.
The senior watch officer in the Satellite Control Facility was an Air Force colonel. He turned to his senior technician: “Map it.”
“Yes, sir.” The sergeant typed a command into his console, which told the satellite cameras to alter their sensitivity. With the flaring on the screen reduced, the satellite rapidly pinpointed the source of the thermal energy. A computer-controlled map on the screen adjacent to the visual display gave them an exact location reference. “Sir, that’s an oil refinery fire. Jeez, and it looks like a real pisser! Colonel, we got a Big Bird pass in twenty minutes and the course track is within a hundred twenty kilometers.”
“Uh-huh,” the colonel nodded. He watched the screen closely to make sure that the heat source was not moving, his right hand lifting the Gold Phone to NORAD headquarters, Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado.
“This is Argus Control. I have Flash Traffic for CINC-NORAD.”
“Wait one,” said the first voice.
“This is CINC-NORAD,” said the second, Commander-in-Chief of the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
“Sir, this is Colonel Burnette at Argus Control. We show a massive thermal energy reading at coordinates sixty degrees fifty minutes north, seventy-six degrees forty minutes east. The site is listed as a POL refinery. The thermal source is not, repeat not moving. We have a KH-11 pass close to the source in two-zero minutes. My preliminary evaluation, General, is that we have a major oil-field fire here.”
“They’re not doing a laser-flash on your bird?” CINC-NORAD asked. There was always a possibility the Soviets were trying to play games with their satellite.
“Negative. The light source covers infrared and all of the visible spectrum, not, repeat not, monochromatic. We’ll know more in a few minutes, sir. So far everything is consistent with a massive ground fire.”
Thirty minutes later they were sure. The KH-11 reconnaissance satellite came over the horizon close enough for all of its eight television cameras to catalog the chaos. A side-link transmitted the signal to a geosynchronous communications satellite, and Burnette was able to watch it all “in real time.” Live and in color. The fire had already engulfed half of the refinery complex and more than half of the nearby production field, with more burning crude oil spreading from the ruptured pipeline onto the river Ob’. They were able to watch the fire spread, the flames carried rapidly before a forty-knot surface wind. Smoke obscured much of the area on visible light, but infrared sensors penetrated it to show many heat sources that could only be vast pools of oil products burning intensely on the ground. Burnette’s sergeant was from east Texas, and had worked as a boy in the oil fields. He keyed up daylight photographs of the site and compared them with the adjacent visual display to determine what parts of the refinery had already ignited.
“Goddamn, Colonel.” The sergeant shook his head reverently. He spoke with quiet expertise. “The refinery—well, it’s gone, sir. That fire’ll spread in front of that wind, and ain’t no way in hell they’ll stop it. The refinery’s gone, total loss, burn maybe three, four days—maybe a week, parts of it. And unless they find a way to stop it, looks like the production field is going to go, too, sir. By next pass, sir, it’ll all be burnin’, all those wellheads spillin’ burnin’ o’l . . . Lordy, I don’t even think Red Adair would want any part of this job!”
“Nothing left of the refinery? Hmph.” Burnette watched a tape rerun of the Big Bird pass. “It’s their newest and biggest, ought to put a dent in their POL production while they rebuild that from scratch. And once they get those field fires put out, they’ll have to rearrange their gas and diesel production quite a bit. I’ll say one thing for Ivan. When he has an industrial accident, he doesn’t screw around. A major inconvenience for our Russian friends, Sergeant.”
This analysis was confirmed the next day by the CIA, and the day after that by the British and French security services.
They were all wrong.
Présentation de l'éditeur
Using the latest advancements in military technology, the world's superpowers battle it out on land, sea, and air for the ultimate global control.
A chillingly authentic vision of modern war, Red Storm Rising is as powerful as it is ambitious.
It's a story you will never forget.
Hard hitting. Suspenseful.
And frighteningly real.