|“Sodom by the Susquehanna”|
Cover Art. © Paul Hair, 2017.
Adam and his teammates had arrived back in Pennsylvania only a few hours earlier. He got less than three hours of sleep.
He hustled down the stairs of his family’s Boiling Springs home; wood-paneled walls greeted him as his feet hit the carpeted basement floor. He headed for a darkened corner of the basement and pushed against a portion of the paneling. It moved in and he slid it to the side. Behind it was a thick, metal door with a combination on it. He quickly spun in the correct numbers and the lock clicked. He grabbed the handle and pushed it open. The door wouldn’t have stood a chance against his superhuman abilities but its weight alone would’ve stopped just about anyone else.
The room the massive door hid was fortified. It was a specially constructed sensitive compartment information facility, otherwise known as a SCIF. The SEG had installed it under cover of him having the home renovated. It was completely hidden underground, with no indication—inside or outside the home—that it existed.
Its walls, floor, and ceiling were over two feet of steel and concrete. And it had specially designed communications equipment running into it. Other than that, it was quite Spartan.
Adam pulled the paneling shut behind him before closing the vault door. He walked to a simple, sturdy, wooden desk that had a blotter, some pens and pencils, and a tablet on it. A CPU sat near the far edge of it and a 32-inch flat screen monitor was mounted to the wall behind it. He pressed the power button and waited for the computer to boot up. There still was five minutes before the video conference was scheduled to start.
The public knew the SEG existed. At least, people who followed current events closely knew the government had a secretive unit that dealt with national security threats directed against the homeland. But the public didn’t know much more than that about it. The government didn’t promote the group. Most details about it, including the identities of the personnel assigned to it, were classified.
The government hadn’t even revealed where the SEG had its headquarters. Pundits and experts guessed that the SEG called Fort Bragg home. Or maybe somewhere in New York or Washington, two of the metropolitan areas where the group had conducted multiple missions. No one had come close to identifying the actual location: just across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Operational security (OPSEC), information security (INFOSEC), and personal security (PERSEC)—jargon for maintaining secrecy—regarding anything about the SEG had paid off so far.
The cover entity for the SEG as a unit was an organization called the Analysis and Assessment Research Group (AARG). The “About” page on the publicly available AARG website described it as, “A nongovernmental organization specializing in researching improvements in human health, agriculture, and life. Our research is made possible by the generous contributions of our supporters.”
And while the website didn’t go into it, rumors had it the main supporter was a reclusive billionaire who provided over 90% of the AARG funding.
That wasn’t correct, of course, since the government provided all the funding for the AARG/SEG. And since it was a governmental organization, the part about the AARG being “a nongovernmental organization” was false as well. But the rest was true.
AARG facilities included a giant farm on the east shore of Harrisburg near Hershey; a wooded area for forestry, nature studies, and medical studies in a portion of the Appalachian Mountains that separated Perry and Cumberland counties; and its Wormleysburg headquarters building at the aforementioned location just across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg (dedicated to administration and some research and development).
The SEG director and her staff all used the AARG as their cover employer. But Adam was the only personnel from the operations detachment—the element to which the superhumans who conducted the missions were assigned—who did the same.
The rest of the personnel from the operations detachment had individual cover jobs. Those cover jobs had no connection to the AARG. They had no connection to the government either. And no two SEG superhumans had the same cover job. Detachment personnel never set foot at the AARG/SEG headquarters. And they rarely set foot on the other property connected to the AARG/SEG. They hardly ever interacted with each other in their personal lives.
Security was so tight that even the SEG staff didn’t know the true identities of the members of the operations detachment. Only the director and some of her immediate subordinates had knowledge of that classified information.
Adam was the operations detachment commander. He had that leadership position title, but no rank. None of the members of the operations detachment did. They were all operations officers. They had a chain of command and specific positions within that COC, but they were in such a specialized unit that rank would have been meaningless.
The computer had gone through its startup cycle and Adam logged onto the secure system. He opened the video conferencing system and logged onto that. He’d first give the SEG director an abbreviated debriefing on the Los Angeles operation. Then she’d give him the briefing for the new mission. Afterwards he’d deliver a summary of that briefing to his teammates by way of an encoded message via individual dead drops.
The monitor on the wall flickered from a blank, blue screen to a woman sitting in a chair in an office.
“Good morning, Adam,” SEG Director Karina Seymour said. “As always, I’m delighted that you and the rest of the detachment are back home safely.”
“Thank you, ma’am. Good morning to you too,” Adam said.
“The full debriefing on the operation can wait until you’re next in the office,” Karina said. “So just give me a condensed version right now.”
“Well, we arrived on scene around—”
“Skip all that. I’m familiar with the generalities of the operation. Just let me know how everyone performed,” Karina ordered him.
Karina was in her sixties and retained her flawless, native British accent. She was still relatively beautiful. She had long, dirty blond hair, and was always immaculately groomed and dressed. Adam couldn’t recall ever seeing her in anything other than a dress or a skirt. And always heels.
“Yes, ma’am,” Adam said. “Christina and I were in the TOC for the entirety of the mission. Nothing significant to report there. But the WPA members she tracked prior to the kinetic portion of the operation helped us obtain some of the most valuable intelligence we collected the entire time. In fact, I think all the actionable intelligence came from those she tracked—directly or indirectly.”
Christina York was 25, and a fit, 5’8” blond. She could produce biological nano trackers and implant them in people with just a touch. The trackers only survived for two days or so, but while they were in someone, she could almost always find him, regardless of where in the world he was. She lived in a secluded estate near a middle-of-nowhere village called Andersontown, where she held a cover job as a freelance artist. Every now and then her teammates discussed whether she lived an isolated life because she had melancholia, or if her isolated life caused her melancholia.
“Excellent, as always,” Karina said. “How did the teams perform?”
“Ephraim led the first team,” Adam replied. “No problems at all there. Just another outstanding performance.”
Ephraim Muhlenberg was the executive officer—the XO—of the SEG operations detachment. He was the second-in-command. And he was the oldest member. He had the ability to project blue, lava-like energy in addition to being superhumanly strong and durable. He was an associate pastor of a small church in the area. None of the SEG personnel attended it.
“So he handled Hunter well?” Karina asked.
“Yes. No clashes like there were during the last operation,” Adam said.
“I’m glad you’ve resolved that issue,” Karina said.
“I told you I would,” Adam said.
Hunter Kristiansen was one of the younger members. When he fully engaged his superhuman abilities, he physically transformed. His eyes turned red and he formed a black, organic armor that included a helmet-like covering complete with spikes and pseudo fangs. He was able to project a destructive red energy. The energy also physically produced fear in people who were near it. And it had strange effects on the environment, including darkening the area in the immediate vicinity and causing red lightning. It even affected the localized weather if he used it long enough in one spot. And he could harness the energy to fly, move quickly, create defensive shields, and for general concealment.
“Emily was assigned to Ephraim’s team and that worked out well too,” Adam told Karina. “In fact, our hunch turned out right. Putting her and Hunter on the same team actually seemed to result in them forming somewhat of a camaraderie.”
Emily Jorgenson’s body made an adrenaline-like chemical that she could control at will, giving her superhuman strength and durability when she needed it. She could do a lot of damage with it. But she wasn’t bulletproof and couldn’t do much to stop enemies who weren’t battling her in an enclosed space. So she augmented her furious strength by carrying small arms, or larger, during operations.
“Nick led the second team,” Adam said. “And he also had another outstanding performance.”
Nicholas Quay (pronounced “key”) was a farmer. He worked on his family farm, which had acres and acres of land. Most of it was on the west shore of the Susquehanna River, but they farmed one of the larger islands in the river as well. He had the ability to produce thermobaric blasts, and was capable of controlling the levels of heat and pressure in those blasts. He never hesitated to kill enemies in his work for the SEG. Some interpreted that as brutality; others said it was the result of farming making him very comfortable with the reality of life and death. Regardless, no one on the SEG thought he was as brutal as Adam was.
“And he had nothing to say about Hunter’s performance?” Karina asked.
“No. Everyone stuck to their sectors and roles. Hunter was as enthusiastic as ever but was careful about maintaining situational awareness this time. So Nick didn’t mention anything about him during our AAR.”
“And I take it Jill was happy that Hunter was on the other team too?” Karina asked.
Jill Loken was a long-haired brunette in her early thirties. She could produce and violently project a biological acid that could eat through a lot of things. But she also carried small arms and other weapons during operations. Next to Christina, she was the most athletic of those who didn’t have superhuman strength, durability, or other physical prowess.
“Yes, ma’am,” Adam said. “And Mairead seemed to like it too. Or at least she did when she was in her altered state. I don’t think she cared either way in her default form.”
Mairead Cole was shy; quiet. At least she was until she physically and mentally transformed herself. Then she was an entirely different person. She didn’t have the same face, was a few inches taller, and had a different build; slightly more athletic as compared with her curvier normal appearance. Her personality was different too. She was an outgoing, bombastic center of attention. And she had the ability to project destructive shockwaves in that form too.
“Galina performed aerial overwatch again,” Adam said. “Having her up there verified the WMD was where we thought it would be. And then she provided a close aerial support fire mission as well.”
Galina Veselova was the final member of the SEG operations detachment. And she was the only foreign-born one. She had spent her childhood in Russia and immigrated to the U.S. before she turned 20. She could fly and had the ability to generate and project organic projectiles at hypersonic speeds, with the impact of those projectiles resulting in devastating effects.
“Very well. It sounds as if everything went perfectly,” Karina said. “Although I’m sure we’ll find some room for improvement during the full debriefing. But I think it’s safe to say that everyone did an outstanding job. You saved thousands of lives by preventing the Workers’ Prosperity Alliance from conducting the attack.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Adam said.
“Now, let me brief you on your next operation,” Karina told him. “Two days ago, on or about 0800, an explosion occurred at the headquarters of the Republic Restoration Initiative in the 200 block of North Front Street in Harrisburg. The RRI was a nongovernmental organization that advocated for Christianity in America,” Karina said. Her face remained onscreen but moved to the left half of it while a digital presentation briefing took up the right side of it.
“Was?” Adam said.
“Yes,” Karina replied. “The explosion wiped out nearly everyone associated with it. Specifically, the explosion killed 53 people inside the building, including the annex behind it. It also killed 12 people in the buildings adjacent to it, and 34 people on the surrounding streets. Slightly over 200 other people in the surrounding area were wounded to varying degrees. There was damage to over 150 buildings in a 7- to 8-block radius, again to varying degrees.”
The briefing advanced as she spoke and showed photographs of the aftermath. They were graphic, taken by both official authorities and culled from social media. The briefing also had a crude video that had come from a bystander who uploaded it to social media.
“The explosion was not accidental,” Karina said as the briefing moved forward. “Investigators determined that an IED consisting of around 2000 pounds of mostly ammonium nitrate and nitromethane—ANNM—served as the main explosive. The detonation occurred near the center of the building on the bottom floor.”
“How did the WPA get the IED inside the building?” Adam asked.
“Undetermined,” Karina said. “Though there were no reports of any break-ins or illegal entries at the RRI headquarters.”
The briefing continued and Adam saw the name, “Demand Equality and Justice,” along with the photographs of two black women. Data about them revealed that they were both in their twenties. Data also noted that the group liked to stylize its name as, “Demand Equality & Justice!”
“The woman on the left is Angela Senter. She founded DEJ. The woman on the right is Chirlay Okri. She is Angela’s significant other, cofounder, and second-in-command of DEJ,” Karina said. “Civilian authorities suspect DEJ is responsible for the attack on RRI. SEG S2 analysts concur with that assessment.”
“Have they arrested them yet?” Adam asked.
“No. DEJ has rejected any involvement with the attack. No one has officially accused the group of being suspected of it but media reports have leaked that information,” Karina said. “Senter has explicitly said that DEJ advocates for peace, and whoever conducted the attack has no affiliation with the group,” she added.
The images of the two women remained on the briefing screen. The data about them was quite voluminous. One of the pieces of intelligence on them and the DEJ listed that they regularly called for a violent war to wipe out their enemies.
“Furthermore, Senter and Okri have begun inflaming their supporters by saying that the suggestion that DEJ is behind the attack shows how homophobic, racist, sexist, and bigoted society is, and how they are the victims of nonstop threats and violence,” Karina said. “They have even stated that they believe their enemies likely conducted the attack to frame them.”
The briefing advanced, reaching the portion that revealed how the SEG was being tasked. “As you are all well aware, many leaders support DEJ—public and private leaders,” Karina said. “That support remains as strong as ever, with said leaders backing the DEJ statement disavowing the attack. So while the government is officially tasking SEG to become involved with certain activities of the DEJ, that involvement shall be quite limited.”
Adam examined the briefing screen. The mission was barely a mission. It authorized the SEG to study existing evidence and collect some intelligence, but it mostly just authorized them to have situational awareness.
“SEG will have access to the intelligence collected by the sensitive site exploitation of the attack—biometric intelligence, photographs, recovered fragmentation and explosive residue samples, fingerprints of potential suspects, and so forth. We will also have access to some of the cyber intelligence collected after the attack,” Karina told him.
“However,” she added, with an emphasized pause, “SEG is only authorized to engage in limited intelligence collection of our own. This means our S2 will perform some OSINT collection and analysis. S2 will also have extensive access to IMINT and our analysts will perform some GEOINT analysis based off that. S2 and S3 will work in conjunction to collect and analyze a limited amount of cyber intelligence as well. But, and I cannot stress this enough, no one in the SEG is authorized to collect HUMINT or any other kind of intelligence. Do you understand this?”
“Excellent,” Karina said. And as you can see on the briefing, no one in the SEG will be authorized to engage in any other type of operation unless we obtain actionable intelligence that will lead to the arrests of one or more individuals responsible for the attack. Now, do you have any questions?”
“This has all the hallmarks of us having our hands tied again,” Adam said.
“That isn’t a question,” she replied.
“Why is it that this has all the hallmarks of us having our hands tied again?” Adam asked “And why does this seem to be an ongoing issue with our operations?”
“Mr. White, as you know, the SEG charter says we are to avoid operating in the region if at all possible for OPSEC and PERSEC reasons,” Karina told him. “So I wouldn’t say that our hands are tied. I’d say we are pushing the boundaries of what we are authorized to do.”
“I think we passed the ‘if at all possible’ threshold months ago with DEJ,” Adam said. “It’s been growing bigger and more violent every week. We’ve been sent all over the nation to stop other threats while the DEJ has been raging here and spreading its infection to the rest of the country. And if someone doesn’t stop it now, it’s going to get so out-of-control that it will become a major national security crisis. So I think we can’t avoid operating in the Harrisburg region any longer.”
“Again, the fact that the SEG has been tasked with this mission shows that there is a consensus that the DEJ is a threat for the SEG to address. So your quibble is with what we are authorized to do. And I don’t know what more I can say about that than what I’ve already explained,” Karina replied.
“I just want to make sure the chain of command knows that I think we’re failing to stop a threat before it gets out of hand,” Adam said.
“I assure you, the chain of command is aware,” Karina said. “It has been aware since you first voiced your concerns months ago. Now, I want to make sure you are aware of what your orders are.”
Adam was fine with letting the silence hang in the air for a few seconds. “Yes, ma’am, I am,” he then said.
“Do you have any other questions?”
“I do not.”
“Then that is all,” Karina said. “Submit your OPORD as soon as you prepare it.”
Karina ended the briefing.
She verified twice her connection to the video conference was severed before she turned in her chair in her Wormleysburg office to a separate video conferencing monitor. An Indian woman named, Rema Rastogi was on it, dressed in a business suit and casually sitting at a desk of her own.
“You handled Mr. White well once again,” Rema told Karina.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Karina said. “But he does have a point about the SEG having strict limitations on it. That greatly inhibits what we can do.”
“We’re aware of that. And as we’ve repeatedly said, it’s intentional,” Rema said. “The president is particularly concerned about having government forces overreaching and becoming oppressive. We don’t want to turn the nation into a police state.”
“But we also don’t want to let it descend into anarchy or chaos,” Karina said.
“Of course not. But that’s not a realistic concern right now. Not even close, in fact,” Rema said.
“With all due respect, ma’am, I disagree,” Karina said.
“Noted. But you still need to follow orders,” Rema said.
“Excellent. Again, great job with the briefing,” Rema said. She ended that video conference.
Karina looked at the monitor, her eyes slightly narrowing. Then she got up from her seat, pulled her business jacket down and tight, and then walked out of her office.