Tuesday, October 29, 2013

BeyondProse.com Short Story: Anything That Can Go Wrong, Will Go Wrong


 (Author's Note: The prompt for this story is, "The alarm went off" and comes from the recently and confusingly reorganized Helium.com. This was suppose to be a serious story but things got out of hand and that appears to be the reason it went over like a lead balloon at the new sister site Beyond Prose.com)

Yeah, Master Sergeant Rick Adams said as he leaned back in the old office chair while his feet rested on the top of the facility monitoring console, “there was a time when the this post was swarming with scientists and senior brass all wanting to impress the politicians. They couldn't wait to cook up some new super bug that could bring both the Soviets and Chinese to their knees.”

Lieutenant Michael Phillips had heard it a couple of hundred times since he arrived at the secret site situated in an obscure section of the sprawling Fort Irwin army base located in southern California. As the old noncommissioned officer droned on Michael did his best to ignore the story about how the underground installation housed thousands of different types of contagious diseases, both naturally occurring and some man-made, in large refrigerated containers that were themselves stored in bunkers that were supposedly tough enough to withstand a nuclear attack.

You know Sergeant,” Phillips interrupted just for giggles,” I never understood why the army and the Defense Department just didn't incinerate everything stored here at the end of the cold war?”

The old man was stunned silent for a moment that the newly minted Second Lieutenant would dare to derail the vital information he was trying to impart to him. Did they not teach these young ROTC punks any manners at college there days he thought to himself. Despite the fact Adams, as an enlisted man, was many years past due his mandatory retirement both senior army and DoD civilians officials had made a point of keeping him on active duty for his detailed knowledge of the bio-weapon storage site.

Well sir, the old noncom said gearing up for another lecture, “some of these organisms are simply indestructible...” Michael quickly lost interest and stopped listening as Adams carried on, which in hindsight was not the right thing to do.

***

As the Cold War wound down and the hundreds of scientists and army technicians were reassigned or left the service it was Rick Adams who through experience and training or dumb chance was left in charge of the deadly installation supervising a rotating staff of five. For most soldiers assigned to the site, known simply as “Area Omega”, since the draw down the duty was a relaxing piece of cake. All that was required was the monitoring of the refrigeration systems inside the bunkers. When one went into alarm the soldier on duty would activate a redundant secondary system then place a call to have specially trained technicians to come and fix the unit.

Such was the easy life for Rick and the various people under his command who came and went over the years. With the Cold War slowly fading from the consciousness of military types, the elected leaders, and civilians in general the bio-weapon storage site became sort of lost in the bureaucracy. So much that Adams had long since given up maintaining army fitness standard to the point the young Lieutenant Phillips thought he reassembled the hugely fat and gross Jabba the Hut from the Star Wars movies. But no matter how well any system might run change does come and it was a civilian desk jockey that instigated it for Rick Adams and Area Omega.

The nameless drone occupying a seat in one of the Pentagon's subbasements was busy scanning personnel record anomalies on his computer screen when Adams' name popped up. Stunned that an enlisted man had gone over the thirty-years of service limit memos quickly flew out to all sorts of different departments asking how this happened.

The instinctive bureaucratic response was that everyone claimed both ignorance while pointing fingers of blame at anyone close. Now truth be told at one time in the Pentagon it was the job of a particular army colonel, named Dick Holden, to catch these types of Top Secret issues and quiet them down but he had long since retired, moved to Florida, and died of a heart attack. Whether it was from playing golf or the twenty-one year old hooker which left the small cabin of his boat the morning of his death only his close friends and a betrayed widow know for sure.

The matter of the dead colonel's last duty assignment became problematic because his actual job was itself classified as top secret with him working under the title of Chief Administrator of Floor Tile Inspection in all army buildings worldwide. After Dick retired seven separate generals, all non-combat REMF's, desperate to save their own pet projects, fell over themselves to point out that floor tile inspection could be cut as a cost saving measure. Which it quickly was leaving no cover for Area Omega or anyone in Washington DC really understanding the purpose of the place except for a couple of former KGB types who had long left the unprofitable spy business but who now ran online dating and gambling websites becoming millionaires in the process.

As the wheels and gears of the Defense Department bureaucracy slowly turned the truth about Area Omega was rediscovered which greatly surprised Rick Adams when one of the guys under his command called his house in Barstow, California to inform him that three army Major Generals, six Brigadier Generals, five colonels, and scores of lesser officers had arrived at the site demanding to know what was going on there. Now having such a collection of officers appear anywhere so suddenly would have been unusual the most important member of the group to appear at Area Omega was Congressman from the great state of South Carolina.

Things moved rather fast after that with Adams receiving retirement orders that became effective as soon as he trained someone else to take over. That is where Michael Phillips unfortunately became a player in this story.

All his life Michael Phillips had always suffered from one of the worst fates that can befall any man. He had never once lived up to the high expectations that was expected of him. The son of army helicopter pilot David “Flying Mad” Phillips who first claim to fame was using the twenty-millimeter cannon on his AH-64 Apache gunship to mow down a couple of hundred Iraqi soldiers during Operation Desert Storm. As far as the American press and public was concerned he had dodged an incoming storm of antiaircraft bullets and missiles to defeat the ravaging hordes which resulting in him being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross medal.

See, what happened in actuality was that fifty near starving soldiers who had been abandoned by Saddam weeks before thought the approaching American helicopters meant rescue and fired off a flare so thy would be spotted. For Flying Mad, who had once dreamed of single-handedly blunting a Soviet tank advance pushing into Western Europe, the orange glow of the flare, the figures crawling out from camouflaged foxholes, and an itchy trigger finger was enough for him to open fire.

From there Flying Mad became a national hero who left the service to write a book, travel the lecture circuit, and eventually enter politics and eventually becoming the sole congressman to inspect Area Omega with all the other senior military officers. Between that time he married a beautiful Charleston socialite and produced the baby Michael who Flying Mad was sure was destined for great things.

The problem was that except for a low-grade animal cunning Flying Mad was an idiot with no real ability for abstract thought or nuisance. Flying Mad's one real talent was the skill to memorize any procedure or task, while that had its uses one of his instructors at Fort Rucker compared him to a mindless welding robot one might find on an automobile assembly line.

Michael's mother, Karen, did have a good deal of intelligence but it was strictly for social climbing. In truth her social climbing ability was Darwinian evolution in action since her particular family had trained young girls to do nothing else since colonial times. In Karen's calculating mind given the current political climate in South Carolina and the country she at worst would end up the wife of a future governor and maybe, with a little luck, the First Lady of the United States. During all this she continued to drink and party while pregnant with Michael so the poor rich boy really never had much of a chance.

Michael Phillips himself was kicked out of a every fine boarding school his parents sent him which eventually resulted in his education coming from expensive tutors who came to his Charleston home on Tradd Street. Clever maneuvering by his father later got Michael into West Point but after a ridiculous attempt to seduce the wife of the commandant he was kicked out and told never to darken the doorway of any building on campus again. From there it was the Reserve Officers Training Corp (ROTC) at a series of universities for Michael with Flying Mad getting several of his corporate sponsors to “donate” large sums of cash to the schools to see that his son graduated with some sort of degree as well as a military commission.

As the years went by Flying Mad had given up in despair on his son but when the command for Area Omega became available his used all his political clout to see Michael got the assignment. With the Pentagon brass pleased with the way Master Sergeant Adams had kept up the place they collectively shrugged their shoulders and agreed as long as the lackluster Second Lieutenant followed his example.

Michael himself, long use to the advantages of having rich and powerful parents, believed his life had ended when he received news of his first command in such a desolate place. No matter what Flying Mad told the boy Michael continued to whine about how he was being abused and how he could destroy his father's career and reputation. What made Michael finally accept his command was mother who threatened to cut off all the family money to him.

As Master Sergeant Adams attempted to train Michael how to oversee the stored bio-weapons Area Omega received a major upgrade of systems. New computers, refrigeration, air intakes, filters, and sensor systems were installed with the hopes that the site would quietly operate for a hundred years. Because Flying Mad chaired the subcommittee providing funds to secret military sites he made a special point of using private contractors in a naive political attempt to “save taxpayer money.” The fact that private contractors were from his father-in-law's construction company went completely unnoticed.

***

Since Area Omega was still classified Top Secret the retirement ceremony for Master Sergeant Adams was a private affair held behind closed doors in the banquet room at the IHOP in Barstow. Flying Mad was quite pleased with the choice and he made sure everyone ordered nothing on the menu over ten dollars.

As the weeks passed by Lieutenant Michael Phillips quickly fell into the routine of his new command and, surprising to him, actually began to enjoy the it. In fact he would often relieve the soldier on duty at the monitoring station since it give him a thrill to sit alone and be in command. The job was simple enough, all he had to do was watch the monitor and make sure the high-tech automated software did everything.

Thinking of old Master Sergeant Adams he sneered in silent contempt at all the worthless information he tried to teach him. Michael actually believed if the rest of the army was this easy he might show up his dad and make something of himself after all. That, of course, was when the alarm went off.

See the private contractors, eager to save money had used several types of computer software that didn't exactly work well together. When a new sensor, suffering from a factory defect, in a bunker went bad one of the monitoring programs believed the entire facility was at risk of failing. Lights started flashing and alarm horns were blaring with Lieutenant Phillips quickly at a loss to correct what he thought was a cascading failure event.

With one software program in alarm the rest, suffering a bout of anxiety, went into automatic diagnostic mode to check their own sensors readings resulting in a total crash of the system because of their mutual incompatibility with each other. Michael desperate to think of what to do, saw one of the computer screens asking if he wanted to do a reboot. Figuring a reboot had solved all his other issues with computers when he was younger hit the button believing that would return everything to normal.

By this time all the different computer monitoring software programs had gotten quite frustrated and confused with each other to the point the proverbial up had become down, left had become right, cold had become hot, and worst of all, in had become out. When Phillips tried to reboot system what really happened was the refrigeration systems cut off, while air intake systems began sucking tons of hot desert air inside the facility.

One of the software programs eventually realized what was going on a few hours later and in what amounted to a computerized version of “Oh my God!” attempted to shutdown the uncontrolled intake of air and to expel what was already inside. By this time the biological weapons had all thawed out and it only took a few minutes for a nice sized cloud to form above Area Omega. A strong wind blowing in from the southwest promptly then began pushing the deadly biological mixtures towards the city of Las Vegas.

As chance would have it Flying Mad happened to be in town for what his aides back in Washington DC had listed as a “business conference”. In reality Flying Mad was standing on the high-rise balcony of his ten-thousand dollar a night hotel suite recovering from a night with a couple of beautiful South American prostitutes when he noticed the strange cloud above the city and the sticky drizzle coming down from it. By the time he went back inside his hotel room the cloud was over the airport and his throat had already become sore while a rash had already developed unnoticed on his hands.

6 comments:

The Bug said...

Ha! This is in the fine style of Carl Haasian - whose books I love. Thanks for the entertainment!

The Bug said...

*Hiaasen*

Akelamalu said...

I will in future think twice about my remedy for computer glitches - "turn it off and turn it on again"!

Pixel Peeper said...

Loved all the background information on the various characters...I can picture the old grizzled master sergeant, the idiotic second lieutenant, his conniving father, and his ever-scheming mother.

And I know this is a serious topic, but I really had to laugh out loud several times...Chief Administrator of Floor Tile Inspection or a computerized version of “Oh my God!” LOL!

Yeah, and I had to look up REMF...thanks goodness for Google! :-p

Beach Bum said...

The Bug: Yeah! I love Hiaasen.

Akelamalu: At my last job and buddy and I rebooted a system thinking it would just come right back up. We cleared the program and had to scramble to reinput it before day shift came in.

Pixel: This was suppose to be a serious story but things got out of hand.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

I enjoyed the shots of humor in this, but you're right: the underlying topic is deadly serious. And scary as hell. As the news stories tell us every day, it isn't necessarily the "brightest and best" who are leading the country or protecting its citizens. What am I saying? "Necessarily"? Unfortunately, it's become the exception to find people who know what's going on in their alleged area of expertise.