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The Nicholas Incident

science fiction by Lael Salaets

On October 30th, 1961, the Soviet Union detonated the “Tsar Bomba” over the Mityushikha Bay nuclear testing range, north of the Arctic Circle on Novaya Zemlya Island in the Arctic Sea.

The hydrogen bomb was the largest and most powerful nuclear device ever detonated with a yield of fifty megatons, equivalent to one thousand four hundred times the combined power of the nuclear explosives that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII.

U2 missions were deployed from Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska to collect fallout data for the U.S. Defense Atomic Support Agency. One particular mission of this deployment, code name Toy Soldier, was to take aerial reconnaissance photographs of the North Polar Region.

President John F. Kennedy feared the worst.

Late that evening, he leaned over his desk at the Oval Office and opened the folder containing the U2 photographs. Black and white infrared images of debris filled the magnifying glass in a dark mash of bricks and shattered timber. He couldn’t believe what he saw. He refused to believe it.

The seismic shock created by the Tsar Bomba detonation was measurable even on its third passage around the Earth – with enough blast damage to obliterate any workshop within a thousand miles.

“I warned him,” he muttered.

Kennedy had offered, pleaded with Nicholas on the hotline to evacuate. He’d made assurances that the U.S. would relocate him to a secure location in Alaska. Even Antarctica. But Nicholas wouldn’t have it. John admired him, regardless. He was a saint, after all. What was he to do? Remove him by force? Maybe he should have, but it’s too late now.

His brother, Robert, entered the Office with Special Assistant Kenneth O’Donnell. They looked tired, subdued. What were they going to tell their kids?

“Tell me this is an abandoned outpost,” John F. Kennedy said to them, pointing at the photographs. “A science research facility we’d evacuated.”

“I wish I could, John,” Robert said, his voice breaking. “I’m sorry.”

John slammed the folder shut. “Dammit.” What better way for the Soviets to strike at the hearts of the free world by wiping out Nicholas, his wife, nine reindeer, and Lord knows how many elves. And have the nerve to call it a nuclear test! Not to mention pulling a stunt like this in October. They always do. No doubt Khrushchev and the Politburo are celebrating tonight. Bastards.

Things had been bad enough with Fidel Castro. Worse, if he ever got wind of this. John cringed at the thought.

He stood, defeated. Damn, his back hurt. He took the folder with him and motioned Robert and Kenny outside.

The air was unusually sharp tonight. John gripped the stone railing, cold and clammy to the touch. He stared out beyond the White House lawn, concerned for the fate of every child on Earth. “Did they find their – remains?” he asked of Nicholas and his family.

“No word on that yet,” Kenny said.

John glanced at him. “I want boots on the ground. Keep me posted.”

“Already on it.”

John sighed heavily, gazed up at the stars, then cracked a smile. “Maybe there’s still hope.”

“You could schedule a visit to Alaska,” Robert said, “to – pay your respects, unofficially. Let the Russians think we actually found them.”

“Imagine the leak if we ever had,” Kenny said, “America and the UN would be screaming for war. Have the Russians sweat that one out.”

John chuckled, despite himself.

“I can already see the look on McNamara’s face,” Robert said of the Defense Secretary.

They laughed at that.

“See what you can do,” John said.

“What should I tell the Press Secretary?” Kenny said.

“Started my campaign in Alaska, hadn’t I? Got plenty of support there.” John shrugged. “I don’t know, Kenny. Make up something. You’re good at that.”

They were quiet for a while.

“You know what really bothers me?” John said finally. “The day when I receive a letter from a little girl asking me to tell the Russians to stop bombing the North Pole because they might kill Santa Claus.”

“What would you say?” Kenny asked.

“What the hell do you think?” That visit with Operation Santa Claus at the New York Post Office crossed his mind.

“Well, he may not be coming to town this year,” Robert said in reference to Nicholas. “Maybe next time.”

John nodded. He gazed out once more, imagined where the Christmas tree would be placed at the Ellipse, towering and brightly lit for all to see. And the distant jingle of bells, the silhouette of a sleigh and reindeer crossing the Moon.

The Moon. His announcement before a special joint session of Congress came to mind, of the ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade. He had many reasons for doing so. Now it would also be for Nicholas and all that he had stood for.

“In any case, he’ll always be with us,” John said of him.

Robert and Kenny nodded thoughtfully in agreement. “See you in the morning,” Robert said uneasily. Kenny sighed, and patted John on the shoulder. John had never felt so alone, watching them leave. He glanced at the folder in his hands, wishing it contained photos of Cuba, China, or the Soviet Union. Anywhere but the North Pole.

He shivered, more about that than the cold. He stepped back inside the Office, slipped the folder into an envelope, and then sank in his chair for the longest moment. No way in hell he could sleep tonight, not after this.

The phone rang. John prayed to God as he reached for it. He answered.

“Tell me about this – Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” a shaken, yet jolly, familiar voice said.

Copyright January 2011 by Lael Salaets

Lael Salaets lives in Oregon.  He is a freelance science fiction writer, artist, and graphic designer, Gulf War veteran and former U.S. Marine. He won the Writers of the Future contest in 2009 and his short story, The Halo Wave, will be published early in 2011 at Abyss & Apex Magazine.

[return to the January 2011 main page]

One Response

  1. Well-written and inventive. Nice job.

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