The Haunted Wordsmith proposed a challenge whereby participants would pick the book of their choice (hardcopy or digital), turn to page 62, select line 6, and use that as the basis for crafting a poem, short story, or some other creative work.
Since I just checked out Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle from the public library, I decided to use that:
“And must have all the other artifacts in stock examined by University lab.”
As Professor Sterling Piper’s senior research assistant, twenty-two year old Gabriela Wallace had a valid key card to access his private research lab in McCarthy Hall at all hours. However, she still crept like literal thief in the night, dressed all in black, including gloves, and wearing sound absorbing shoes. It was after eleven on a Friday night as she navigated the work benches and displays by dim light.
If anyone checked the logs and discovered she’d been here, she could easily say she’d been catching up on collating recent samples sent over from Scripps, which she sorely needed to do. However, her mission tonight was notably different and infinitely more critical.
The straps of her backpack were uncomfortably tight, but she couldn’t afford to have the weight on her back moving enough to make noise. She wasn’t sure why she was so nervous as beads of sweat continued to form on her toffee-colored forehead, except that if she was caught, she could be condemned as an enemy of the state and executed.
The future oceanographer, if she survived tonight, would graduate from Cal State Fullerton with her bachelors next month. Thanks to the Professor’s recommendation, she had already been admitted to the doctorate program at UC San Diego. It was a dream come true, especially for a girl who had grown up in South Central LA. Her white friends thought that her having a Mexican mother and an African-American father gave her a pass, but she had worked her ass off for everything he’d gotten, and she wasn’t going to pass up a single opportunity in achieving her goals.
But that was before the Professor had accidentally mixed several confidential papers in with the more mundane documents she was supposed to review. These were from Operation Whittaker, which she discovered was a clandestine undersea research project designed to detect and retrieve temporal anomalies, or more specifically, objects that provided crucial data about the development of history in an alternate timeline.
Her card would get her into the Professor’s vault, but only if she had the accompanying alphanumeric code, which she found among papers he had never meant for her to see.
The heavy, metal latch released with an all too loud “clunk.” She winced, then froze and listened. She couldn’t hear anyone coming. Then she pulled on the handle of the large, steel door, which swung open silently on massive hinges.
It was in here somewhere. Of course, she hadn’t been allowed to catalog these artifacts or even to know they existed, so the Professor must have done it himself. Gabriela had memorized the classified memos and returned them to Dr. Piper’s safe in his office ten minutes ago, just prior to proceeding here. On a hunch, she tried the same combination on it as he used on the vault. Her boss was a brilliant man, but security wasn’t always his best subject.
“Sample MVp3d0V,” she recalled without actually speaking aloud. Retrieved from the bottom of the North Sea between Norway and Scotland by a deep-sea submersible searching for sub-oceanic oil deposits. The energy signature of the object was picked up by satellite once it was brought to the surface, triggering the Whittaker Protocol. Forty-eight hours later, the artifact was in Washington D.C., and twenty-four hours after that, Scripps on the opposite coast in La Jolla. Professor Piper had personally taken custody of the object, and along with two former Navy SEALS who were now part of a private security company, returned to Orange County with it.
Dr. Piper had a theory about what it was and what it would lead to, and that theory was horrifying.
Key cards and code combinations aside, she still had to pick the Professor’s pocket for his key ring two days ago, right before he went into this weekly lecture, rush to make a copy of his safety box key, and then return the original by the time he walked back to his office. Gabriela had spent more than once standing before a Juvenile Court judge accused of similar acts, and the skill had never left her.
She used her copy of the key to open box MVp3d0V. Inside, covered with over seventy years of undersea debris and corrosion, was a cylinder the size of a large loaf of bread. It had rounded ends and was made of a dull red metal. She touched it with gloved hands and frigid cold penetrated to her bones.
“Where am I?” The sound of her voice startled her. She hadn’t meant to speak out loud. She was standing at an icy rock face inside a cave touching the surface with her right hand. Her backpack was at her feet, but she didn’t remember taking it off. Sunlight was filtering in through what sounded like a roaring waterfall. A solitary, twisted tree stood behind her, the only thing here alive besides her.
But was she still alive?
“My name is Joachim Ronnenberg.” The voice came from the other side of the wall, but that was impossible. Yet she could see a distorted figure, black and white, as if she were watching an old film projected through the ice in front of her.
“On February 27, 1943, I lead a team of military volunteers into a secret nuclear facility in Nazi occupied Norway. Our mission was to destroy eighteen steel cylinders containing what we were told was “heavy water,” an essential ingredient in the manufacture of the world’s deadliest atrocity, the atomic bomb.
“Ridiculously enough, the room in which they were contained was guarded by a solidarity soldier. He was more than happy to cooperate with us as opposed to being killed.
“We successfully destroyed the entire supply and avoided the pursuit of over 2,800 Nazi soldiers by skiing 280 miles through mountains and forests to the Swedish border and safety.
“What no one ever knew, not even the other members of my team, was that I found a separate sample of the liquid along with the formula and a detailed explanation of what the Nazis hoped to accomplish. I realized that it would be a crime against humanity if any nation, even Britain or the United States, came into possession of such a horrid secret. I could have left it there to be blown up. No one knew what I’d discovered, since I had entered the private office of the commandant alone.
“Instead, I pondered the matter as we were all flown back across the North Sea toward England, the contraband still hidden in my ruck sack. We were being transported aboard a Bristol Blenheim, a light bomber. After I had made my decision, I ordered the Captain to open the bomb bay doors. I had beeen given absolute authority over the mission, but even then, he questioned the command. Finally, he relented, and I alone stood on the aircraft’s lower deck while staring down at the dark, turbulent sea below. I released the ruck sack from my right hand and watched it vanish into the distance and darkness hoping it was the end of a ghastly nightmare.
“For a hundred nights, I woke up in a sweat, questioning the correctness of my decision. Then, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when I read the news reports and saw the classified photographs, I knew I had been right. If only I could have stopped the United States as well as Germany from developing such a weapon of mass destruction.”
Then Gabriela’s abruptly found herself back in the research lab’s vault. Her gloved right hand was still in front of her, but holding the capsule rather than pressing against an ice wall. However, the voice of former Lt. Joachim Ronnenberg seemed to still be insistently whispering in her ears.
“The atomic bomb.” She stared in horror at the artifact, knowing what it was, but not knowing how a ghost from the past of an alternate world could possibly communicate with her.
Only a small number of students were allowed to study certain war records. Thanks to Dr. Piper’s trust in her, Gabriela was one of them. She remembered the records of Lt. Ronnenberg’s still classified mission. Afterward, Hitler tried to continue the Nazi’s atomic program, but he never succeeded. The Telemark plant was rebuilt, but bombed by the Allies in an aerial raid in November 1943. Hitler ordered the nuclear program moved to Germany, but resistance fighters sank the ferry carrying the equipment and the remains of heavy water supply. Germany never succeeded in creating a bomb.
Neither had anyone else. Her world had never known the threat of a nuclear war, never that is, until now.
No one would question her accessing the lab until Monday at 6:15 a.m. when she knew the Professor would routinely inventory the contents of the vault and discover that MVp3d0V was missing. She had until then to reach her contact at the Times and convince her to break the story, both to the US news agencies and internationally. The only way to protect the world from a nation developing atomic weapons is to tell the world before it ever happened.
In addition to what I wrote above, I also leveraged Photo Challenge #237 hosted at Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie. The idea, in that challenge, is to use the image above as the prompt for crafting a poem, short story, or some other creative work. The image became Gabriela’s “vision” sequence. Was it a fantasy, clairvoyance, or a cautionary voice from the past?
There is an Ocean Studies Institute/Southern California Marine Institute at McCarthy Hall on the campus of the California State University, Fullerton (my alma mater), but I seriously doubt that it looks anything like what I’ve described. All of the names, except what I mention below, are totally fictitious. I named “Operation Whittaker” after Jodie Whittaker, the current Doctor.
Oh, Ronnenberg’s mission actually happened. Read about it in the article Joachim Ronnenberg: Stopping Hitler’s Nuclear Ambitions. After the war, Joachim returned home and pursued a career as a journalist and administrator with Norway’s public broadcasting company. Joachim Ronnenberg was the last surviving member of the raid. He recently died at the age of 99 in Alesand, Norway.