THE ATOMIC HELL PUZZLE by Don Eckhardt
December 2 1600 Hours
A sense of nervous exhilaration filled the air as Temper and Harry ignited their energizers and plunged forward; Back of Bell to the right of them, Face of Bell to the left of them, Ridge of Bell in front of them-it reminded Temper of the charge of the ill-fated Light Brigade, the noble 600 riding bravely into the mouth of Hell. The race was on! Both skiers were challenging one of Aspen Mountain’s most dangerous “expert only” ski runs high above the town of Aspen. Their eyes instantly locked-on to the mountain’s constantly changing terrain as they encountered the treacherous moguls that threatened to envelop each skier. Twisting and turning-anticipation and unweighting-Temper and Harry meticulously carved each turn, attacking each mogul at precisely the right instant. Harry knew that no Olympic downhill racecourse matched the difficulty of the black double-diamond Ridge of Bell. Both skiers plummeted recklessly down the steep slope at more than 50 mph, barely avoiding the menacing lift towers and fir trees. At this speed the specter of serious injury or even death loomed in their paths. Nine tortuous years had vanished since Harrison Starre graduated with honors from the United States Air Force Academy, an especially gratifying feat for a naturalized citizen. Following graduation Harry was well on his way to becoming a top notch F-117A stealth fighter pilot, only to have his military career abruptly ended for having a steamy affair with the wife of an enlisted man in his chain of command. It was no coincidence that Harry’s sexcapade occurred just as the Air Force was whitewashing its image following an embarrassing string of highly public sex scandals. So, after being charged with the military crimes of fraternization and adultery, he was summarily court-martialed and dishonorably discharged.
Harry loved skiing in Aspen and returned whenever possible. Most skiers had departed from the slopes; some had headed for a relaxing soak in a heated pool, to be followed by an icy roll in the snow to close their pores. Others had persuaded their companions to join them for a romantic interlude near a roaring fire before gathering for the customary apres-ski dancing and drinking of hot spiced wine. Although the light snowfall was causing poor visual conditions, Harry had not been able to resist what he expected to be one last leisurely run down the mountain.
As Harry rocketed downhill, he was not quite sure whether luck or misfortune had befallen him when he joined a young woman on Lift 5 for the 13 minute ride up the mountain, just as the lifts were closing. Although her bright scarlet toboggan hat partly obscured her face, she nevertheless seemed to radiate a familiar, natural beauty. Harry recalled his amused surprise when this daredevilish young woman challenged him to a race down the treacherous Bell Mountain Ridge to the base of Little Nell far below. He felt no guilt concealing that once he had been a member of the Air Force Academy downhill racing team. Although it hardly seemed fair, he knew instantly that he could not turn down the challenge when this cocky damsel teasingly suggested that the stakes would be a Christmas Day brunch at some Indian lodge if he lost, but for a victory he would be rewarded with the most phenomenal sexual experience of all time. While it was risky to race down the mountain under these conditions, he had rationalized that the pace need not be too fast racing against a woman, and besides, perhaps she was serious about the sexual encounter. But now, as Harry desperately chased Temper down the mountain, he nervously realized that his adversary would not be taken easily.
Adrenaline seemed to fill Temper’s body as she propelled herself forward like a ski-launched cruise missile. She loved the challenge-a chance to prove that she was better than the mountain and this sexy space cadet-and another chance to conquer her vexing self-doubt. She knew that her spontaneous challenges often backfired. Even now she worried that paying off the bet might not be safe. Yet, it would be fun; moreover, she did not plan to lose either to the mountain or to Harry.
The surprised guard sleepily snapped to attention as General Yuri Nikita Romanev boldly entered the top-secret Pavlovski Laboratory. His appearance instantly created a frigid stillness more biting than the icy winds outside this mammoth underground Russian military complex in the Beloretsk area of the southern Ural Mountains. Unable to sleep, Romanev was launching his predawn inspection of this vital military project several hours earlier than expected. He was a menacing figure with a tyrannical attitude toward subordinates, even the prominent scientists assembled here inside Yamantau Mountain. Romanev, who grew up in a Cossack-dominated region in southern Russia, was a large, robust bear of a man with a stern face and an irascible disposition. Much like his father who valiantly defended World War II Stalingrad from Hitler’s Nazis, Romanev’s daring and ruthlessness during the ten-year Afghanistan war earned him the highest Soviet military decoration, Hero of the Soviet Union. Then, he commanded elite troops in Azerbaijan, where his men used armored personnel carriers to crush to death hundreds of Azerbaijanis to suppress ethnic unrest. Later, in Georgia, his soldiers used sapper shovels and chemical weapons against the demonstrators to put down the riots. Although plagued by chronic pain from shrapnel wounds to his legs and back suffered in Afghanistan, he steadily advanced through the military ranks to become Commander of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces, lecturer at the General Staff Academy, and now Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces with control of one of the Russian nuclear briefcases containing special codes needed to arm and launch strategic nuclear missiles.
As expected, Romanev found a beehive of activity at the Pavlovski Laboratory; this work was crucial to the success of the Russian plan code-named SHAHMAT. Soon, Russian lasers would be positioned, but it was critically important for the ground-based particle beam weapons to be operational too. As Romanev circulated among the scientists, vivid recollections of the past decade, images of the Soviet Union’s collapse, flashed unceasingly across his mental screen: Mikhail Gorbachev, glasnost, perestroika, the hasty withdrawal of Soviet troops from the Eastern European Warsaw Pact countries, the reunification of Germany-then the failed coup by the Communist hard-liners. The “Gang of Eight,” including the Soviet KGB chief and Defense Minister, captured Soviet President Gorbachev at his Crimean vacation dacha and seized control of his cheget containing codes needed to launch nuclear weapons! He recalled thousands of troops and tanks being sent to Moscow-Boris Yeltsin defiantly standing atop a tank in front of the Parliament Building, the Russian White House, joined by tens of thousands of students, defecting soldiers, pensioners, all willing to die for their Motherland, challenging the coup leaders and their tanks. Then there was Yeltsin’s decree suspending the activities of the Russian Communist Party, and in December 1991 the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
Romanev mumbled to himself, clenching his massive fists as he thought of former Russian President Yeltsin-Russian troops in Chechnya humiliated by separatist rebels, then ordered to slaughter civilians-the collapse of the Russian ruble-hundreds of thousands of homeless Russian military officers forced to live in tents or garages or even railcars, many choosing to commit suicide rather than face this humiliating lifestyle. Our hemorrhaging must be stopped, he resolved, recalling the unpaid germ warfare scientists forced to leave Russia to find work in countries like Iran and China, impatient to develop bioweapons, and the theft of nuclear weapons and fissile materials by the Russian Mafia for sale to the highest bidder. He despised the contemptible NATO expansion eastward into former Warsaw Pact countries Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic advancing to the very borders of the former Soviet Union-recklessly seeking to exploit Russia’s transitory weaknesses, then relentlessly bombing Yugoslavia, and now NATO was courting Romania, Slovenia, the Baltic states, even the Ukraine …
As he inspected the Pavlovski particle beam accelerator, Romanev reflected upon his emotional lecture to the new Russian President and smugly envisioned the President exuding his fear that soon the Russian military, not the politicians, would hold power in Russia. “SHAHMAT,” he told the President only yesterday, “must ensure that never again will Russia grovel before the United States or NATO, who send us money to dismantle our ICBMs and bombers while they move planes and missiles to our borders. We must regain our self-respect and punish those who have sought to humiliate us! Those who shoot first laugh last! The correlation of forces must favor Mother Russia!” Romanev’s trained eyes intently studied the particle beam accelerator with the care of a warrior choosing his weapon for battle. A sinister expression swept across his face, and he grimaced at the thought of the recent tests of the U.S. Space Command’s kinetic kill vehicle, the Air Force’s Airborne Laser, and the Army’s Miracl ASAT Laser. Russian SVR (formerly KGB) agents in the United States reported that these weapons could soon be deployed-and China’s theft of U.S. missile and nuclear warhead secrets, he feared, will let that dragon breathe lethal fire toward Russia too. The covert diversion of over $2 billion of the assistance sent by the United States to pay for the dismantlement of Russian weapons of mass destruction and their launchers cured SHAHMAT’s funding problems-shortly, with the help of the disenchanted military, the Mafia, and the Duma, I will take control, he envisioned. “Our directed-energy weapons must be ready!” he muttered, turning abruptly to confront the scientists.
The intoxicating mixture of thrill, fear, and concentration made time pass quickly for Harry and Temper-nanoseconds, milliseconds, seconds; when Temper finally reached the bottom of the Ridge of Bell and skied onto Copper Bowl, she was elated to have the perilous moguls behind her. She could not see Harry-she was still winning! She then raced past Grand Junction onto an easy section of trail through Copper Gulch where she could tuck her body into an aerodynamic position in order to increase the enrapturing speed that excited her very spirit.
As Harry’s skis flew out of the last mogul and he jetted onto Copper Bowl, he was stunned that Temper was still ten yards ahead of him, just to his left. It was snowing harder now, and the yellow lens in his goggles was not helping the flat light conditions; even worse, his goggles were starting to fog-Harry instinctively yanked them down to his neck. He felt fortunate to have conquered Bell Mountain without falling, but now he had to pass this reckless, seductive female schussboomer. As Temper bent over into a tucked position for gliding, the rear view of her perfectly contoured body caused Harry’s mind to wander instinctively to visions of the prize he thought would be his easily, then to his Patriot’s Squaw Mountain compound. His right ski suddenly crossed an icy spot on the mountain, and he almost fell.
“Verdammt!” he exclaimed, chiding himself for his lack of concentration as he regained control.
Harry could see Temper, now racing 15 yards ahead up a narrow catwalk, suddenly disappear around the sharp, but banked, Kleenex Corner; he followed in time to see her flying through the air like an Olympic ski jumper, landing roughly down the slope on bumpy Niagara. Temper then raced onto Little Nell just above the top of Lift 4 soon after Harry landed on Niagara, almost falling. Now the trendy, jet-set ski village of Aspen was clearly in view just below. As Harry and Temper skied Little Nell, the home stretch, they both navigated the straightest course possible toward the Silver Queen Gondola terminal at the bottom of the run. Harry watched helplessly as the shapely Temper, still ahead of him, schussed the final 20 yards. He knew he was beaten! Both Temper and Harry sprayed to a stop near the Little Nell Tavern; Harry was spent-it had been an exhausting race. Harry watched Temper remove her skis, loosen her ski boots, unzip her jacket, then pull off her goggles and hat; her braided auburn hair fell past the two peaks that dominated the front contour line of her bulky ski sweater-she was indeed stunning. Harry stared breathlessly at Temper’s cover girl features, causing his pulse to quicken.
“It’s you,” Harry whispered. He sensed the spontaneous action inside his ski pants-she excited him-he just couldn’t believe that this cocksure femme fatale who he had encountered years earlier at the Air Force Academy had bested him. It was embarrassing to lose the race to a woman and disappointing not to collect his prize. As he stared somewhat transfixed at Temper, she walked over to Harry and tauntingly kissed his cheek.
“Great race, Red Baron, you’re better than I expected; you really made me put out,” Temper jabbed, as she flashed a shy, dimpled smile. “Too bad you lost,” she said with a cocky motion of her head and a provocative twinkle in her eyes. “If you can maintain thruster fuel like you ski, this could have been a memorable night.”
Harry’s heart pounded as Temper took his hand and led him toward the nearby tavern and the cozy warmth of an open fire-toward the beginning of a relationship that would profoundly influence the impending plight of the United States of America.