Gunshots echoed dully in the distance of the mineshafts. A radio crackled. “We’ve got gizmos here!” a tinny voice shouted over the radio. “There’s about twenty of ‘em.”
Stevens looked up briefly from the laptop screen. Dammit, we needed a couple more days to run system tests, he thought. He looked over at the lieutenant, John Sayers.
Sayers saw him looking and said, “Get back to work, Stevens.” Sayers picked up the radio. “Clark, we need to give Stevens time. You know the plan; now execute it.” Sayers turned to Stevens: “You don’t have time for tests now. You need to finish and set the timer. Can you do it?”
Stevens swallowed. He had so much to do still. There were still hardwire connections to make and software to ensure was properly set. For Christ’s sake, the equipment had only arrived yesterday. “I think so, sir.”
“Get back to work then. We’ll give you the time you need to finish.” Sayers turned and walked out of the small man-made cave into the mineshaft, presumably to direct the defense of the mine.
Yeah, no pressure or anything, thought Stevens. He sighed and sat back down at the computer to finish configuring the software.
Frankly, the plan was a little ridiculous. But nobody could come up with anything better. They had already tried everything else. The Air Force had been developing space weapons platforms, but the gizmos easily destroyed them. Their ship, beat up as it was, was still much more advanced than anything the Air Force had. Not that the government had been able to mount a coordinated response quickly; the kinetic energy rods shot into the oceans and the ensuing tsunamis had seen to that.
The tsunamis had seen to pretty much everything. The East Coast had been wiped out. Stevens’ home had been there. His friends. His family …
He stopped that train of thought quickly. Better to focus on the here and now. The here was an abandoned mine somewhere out west; he hardly remembered exactly where anymore. The exact location didn’t matter. What mattered were the features of the abandoned mine. There needed to be a vertical shaft pointing in just the right direction. It needed to be somewhat inconspicuous, preferably far away from the front lines of the fighting.
The mine the Corps found fit all these criteria, with one small catch: it was on the wrong side of the front lines. Stevens wasn’t a civil or aerospace engineer, though. Those were the guys who picked the shaft. Stevens was a nuclear engineer. It was his job to set up the bomb.
The gunshots had continued intermittently, but seemed to be louder. Stevens heard the radio crackle several times with men in the platoon reporting the progress of the fight to Sayers and Sayers responding with new orders. He tried to tune it out and focus on his job.
He wasn’t certain exactly what type of mine this had been, but it seemed to have followed an ore vein throughout the up-thrust mountain it honeycombed. The carved-out chamber where he set up his equipment appeared to have been an office of some sort. Perhaps it had been an offshoot of the ore vein that had died out only ten or fifteen feet in, only then to be converted into an office. Or perhaps it was just carved out as an office.
He had reached the point where computers could be hardwired to the bomb. The bomb was not in the office with Stevens. It had been precisely positioned at the bottom of the nearly-vertical shaft, some 30 yards further down the tunnel, in the opposite direction from the action. The other specialist in the platoon, Hewitt, was stationed at the shaft with the bomb.
“Hewitt, come in,” Stevens said.
“Go ahead, Stevens.”
“I’m ready over here. Go ahead and wire it up.”
Stevens sat down and waited for Hewitt to do his job. It would take a few minutes, at least.
Hewitt was a good guy. Stevens had met him at basic training. With most of the combat troops in the army deployed overseas when the gizmos hit, the Attorney General – sorry, President; that’s how far down the line they had to go in the succession – had ordered an immediate draft and call for enlistments. Having lost everyone and everything and determined to get some payback, Stevens enlisted. It was the same for many others, including Hewitt.
Basic had been very different from what he imagined. Sure, there had been the basic firearms training, marching, and all that. But there hadn’t been any feeling of camaraderie that you saw in the movies. The recruits mostly kept quiet and to themselves. Stevens imagined they were doing the same thing he was: trying to not think of what they had lost.
The service needed trained technicians and specialists desperately. So the officers rammed anyone with any technical background whatsoever through basic as quickly as possible and sent them on to their assignments. Stevens and Hewitt had both been in the same platoon at basic and had been moved on to their assignments within four weeks instead of the usual ten.
The assignments for Stevens and Hewitt turned out to be in the Army Corps of Engineers to work with their stockpile of nuclear weapons. Stevens and Hewitt learned about a new operation being put into place. And the Corps wanted them to be the field team.
Stevens heard more gunshots, noticeably closer this time. Very faintly, he thought he could hear the squeaking of gizmos. Fuck, they’re getting close, thought. The fight must not be going well.
“Stevens!” Sayers’ voice boomed through the open door. “Are you two done yet?”
Stevens shouted, “Almost! A minute more for Hewitt, a minute to double-check and then we can set the timer and run!”
Sayers walked in to the room. His eyes were big, but his face was grim. “No timer. As soon as you double check, you blow it.”
“But … we’ll all die in here.”
“That’s going to happen either way. They didn’t just come with twenty. That was their scouting party. We’re trapped in here and they’re pressing us. Hard.”
Stevens stared at Sayers. The weight of the knowledge sunk in. He sat down. “Ok.”
“You’ve done good work. Just a little bit more and it’ll be all over. Now let’s save our people.” He turned and walked to the rifles leaning against the wall. “Fare well, Stevens.” Sayers grabbed a rifle and walked through the door.
Stevens stared at the door for a while. This whole fucking plan was ridiculous. He still found it hard to believe that any general actually took it seriously and that it actually got approval to go ahead.
A group of techs, along with Sayers and his superiors, had first briefed Stevens and Hewitt on the planned operation. They claimed it had worked before, sort of. There had been an early nuclear test with a bomb placed in a vertical shaft and a lid placed on the shaft. When the bomb went, the lid had been blown off so fast that it only appeared in one frame of a film recording the blast. Either the lid had burned up in the atmosphere on its way into space or it had left the earth with several times the escape velocity needed to get into orbit.
Stevens and Hewitt were new to this plan. They laughed, but everyone else just stared at them. “You can’t be serious,” Hewitt had said. “You want to do a thunder well to shoot the damn ship?”
“It will work,” one of the techs had said. “We made a projectile that can withstand the friction in atmo and we’ve found our launch location so there is minimal construction needed. We just need people to get out there and set it up.”
Stevens had joined in warily at this point: “But … ?”
The tech continued, “Well. It’s … umm … in a difficult place to reach. We will need to send a covert team with minimal support who have both the theoretical and technical experience to set up the bomb alone. No radio support. No anything. You’ll be alone.”
Stevens and Hewitt looked at each other.
The radio squawked, bringing Stevens back into the moment. “All done down here, Stevens. Run the diagnostics.”
Stevens grabbed the radio. “Roger.” He hit a couple keys on the computer. The results were all positive.
“We’re all set to go.” He paused. “Hewitt … we’re not making it out of here. We’re trapped.”
Gunshots rang out, shockingly close. Sharp and piercing in the confined space of the mine. A scream, a squeak.
When there was no response, Stevens spoke again, “Sayers ordered me to detonate immediately. I’m going to do it.”
“Shit, man,” Hewitt responded. “We knew this was probably going to be it, anyway. This plan is still ridiculous. Operation Potato Cannon, my ass.” He paused. “See you on the other side, Stevens.”
There was a lot of squeaking in the hallway now. Stevens didn’t bother with it. He hit a button on the computer and saw white.
And he saved the world.