Dylan walked briskly from Union Station to the office building in Washington, DC that jointly housed the Cyber Security and Information Security Agency and the National Eco Terrorism Agency. It was only a few blocks, and Dylan preferred walking to hailing a cab even when he was in a hurry. This morning he was in a hurry.
He took the stairs to his office on the fourth floor two at a time, knowing it was quicker than riding the elevator. Dylan wouldn’t be spending much time at his office this morning. A jet was waiting at Joint Base Andrews to take him to Colorado.
Dylan wasn’t surprised to see Mitch Johnson waiting in Dylan’s office. The two men spent about as much time in the other’s office as they did their own. He hoped Mitch might have information about the gas plant explosion out in Colorado. Instead, Mitch just handed his phone to Dylan.
The ultra-secure phone Mitch handed him was identical to his own. Its case was already open, or Dylan would’ve had to gouge out Mich’s eye to open it. The visible message Mitch wanted him to see was on the personal side of the phone.
The governments of the world have failed. We are no closer to eliminating fossil fuels than we were a decade ago. As citizens of the world, we must take it upon ourselves to end the madness. We must stop the fossil fuel industry! We will stop it!
If you want to help save the world – join us – text NOW to 669.
We are N.O.W. – There is No Other Way.
Dylan had seen the message before. Who hadn’t? That message must have hit most everyone’s cell phones or social media accounts at least once by now. It wasn’t much different from any of the other phishing schemes out there. Just another attempt to separate the masses from whatever money they had left.
“Sure, I’ve seen it, but what does it have to do with me or eco-terrorism? I thought you guys covered phone scams.”
Mitch took his phone out of Dylan’s hand and sat back in the chair on the other side of the desk. “Nah, we let the FBI handle our light work.”
Mitch and Dylan had been friends long before they ever started working in the same building. Mitch worked for CISA, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and Dylan was in his second year with the newly created National Eco Terrorism Agency. In reality, both men worked for the same governmental organization. Both CISA and NETA were under the umbrella of the massive bureaucracy known as Homeland Security.
Dylan couldn’t believe Mitch had waited for him to get to work just to show him this. “Well, I don’t know about you, Mitch, but I don’t have much time right now. And I definitely don’t have time for some stupid phone scam.”
Mitch sat back in the chair with an exaggerated look of disbelief on his face. “I can’t believe you don’t take threats to our energy infrastructure seriously,” he said.
“You heard about that gas plant explosion out in Colorado, right? That was more than just a vague threat.”
Mitch, like everyone else at Homeland Security, was well aware of the natural gas compressor station that somebody blew up last night. Everyone in CISA had to be searching the ether for clues. All of them but Mitch, that is, who was apparently obsessed with some stupid phone scam.
Mitch stood up and stretched. “Yeah. Guess it kind of sucks to be NETA about now. Sorry about that. Wish we could help.” He turned toward the door before adding, “There doesn’t seem to be a cyber element of any kind to this one, though. None of the known terror groups have even claimed responsibility.”
“Wish you guys could have picked up some chatter beforehand,” Dylan said. “Maybe we could have stopped it.” It was always so much easier to prevent attacks on the world’s precious energy systems when there were electronic breadcrumbs to follow. That’s what Mitch was good at, following the innocuous calls, tweets, and posts that preceded most eco-terror attacks. Mitch and Dylan, working together, had thwarted several of those attacks over the past three years.
NETA’s primary mission was preventing disruptions to the world’s energy needs. Investigating attacks and bringing the perpetrators to justice after the fact was secondary. Since they’d failed to prevent the gas plant explosion, swift justice for the perpetrators was now Dylan’s number one priority.
At the door to Dylan’s office, Mitch stopped. “Check it out when you’re not so busy.” He held his still open phone out toward Dylan.
“What, the phone scam?”
“I’m not sure what it is. Just try it. See what you think.”
“If they ask, I’m giving them your personal info, not mine.” Dylan spoke loud enough for Mitch to hear as he retreated down the hallway.
“Go ahead,” Mitch yelled back over his shoulder as he walked away.
It seemed strange that Mitch would tell Dylan to text an unknown entity. So odd that Dylan opened his phone to send the text. He stopped and put the phone away. The text would have to wait. He had a flight to catch.
“Agent Anderson, how was the flight?” Catarina Rodriguez stepped forward with her hand extended. She seemed smaller in person than she did on her computer screen. No more than a hundred-seventy centimeters tall and not much over forty-five kilos, she was a very attractive young woman. Dylan couldn’t help but notice that she looked even better in person than she did on the screen of his phone. She had short, black hair and deep brown eyes. Dressed in casual business attire, Agent Rodriguez looked more like a corporate board member than an FBI field agent.
Dylan shook the offered hand. She had a firm grip for such a petite young woman. “The flight was fine, agent Rodriguez. But since we’re going to be working together on this one, why don’t we dispense with the agent stuff? Just call me Dylan.”
“Pleased to meet you in person, Dylan. I go by Cat. Nice hat, by the way.”
Dylan was so used to the Louisville Cardinal Ball cap on his head that it was always a bit of a surprise when people noticed it. “Thanks. My alma mater. And you?” he asked.
“I’m a Florida State girl.” She smiled, then added, “but I won’t hold it against you.
Dylan smiled back. “Could be worse, I guess. At least you’re not a Kentucky alum. I suppose I can work with a Seminole on just this one case.”
Cat’s smile widened, and he couldn’t help but notice again how beautiful she was. She was obviously Latina, but from her features, one might have assumed she had actual Seminole ancestry. Maybe she did.
“Guess I could probably work with a Cardinal,” she laughed. “But I’m not too sure we’ll be working together on this one. The team that’s already on site doesn’t think that this is a case of terrorism, just another unfortunate industrial accident.”
“How so?” Dylan asked.
“Well, other than good old-fashioned gut instinct, the fact that we haven’t found any trace of explosives. Other than methane, that is.” She paused and glanced at her cell phone to see if there was any new information. “One of the gas company employees died in the blast. Richard Pelfrey was his name. He was the security guard working the overnight shift.” She took a quick swipe at the sweat beginning to bead up on her forehead. “Let’s get out of this heat. I’ll fill you in on the way.” Cat turned and headed toward the FBI helicopter sitting on the edge of the tarmac.
It only made sense that at least one security guard would have been on site at the gas plant. It was just the way things worked in the middle of the 21st century. Every oil and gas installation of any kind had to have twenty-four-hour security, even those out in the middle of nowhere. Or maybe, especially those out in the middle of nowhere. The environmental nut jobs seemed to be everywhere.
Agent Catarina Rodriguez may or may not have been right about the terrorism aspect of the compressor station explosion, but she was definitely right about the heat. It must have been over forty degrees on the tarmac at the Grand Junction Airport. Fortunately, the air conditioning in the old chopper worked just fine. Like the jet Dylan flew in on, the FBI helicopter was one of the older legacy aircraft that most governmental agencies still relied on. Knowing how the local populace here in oil and gas country felt about the new electric and hybrid aircraft, older jet fuel burners were probably a prudent choice. Grand Junction and most of western Colorado, eastern Utah, and the four corners area was fossil fuel country. It always had been and always would be. As far as most of the local people were concerned, the never-ending push to eliminate fossil fuels was more of an existential threat than climate change could ever be. In most ways, Dylan agreed with that sentiment. What good would it do to eliminate greenhouse gases if doing so meant the total collapse of the world’s socio-economic systems? As far as Dylan was concerned, climate change might eventually bring about the collapse of civilization. But stopping the flow of the precious energy that our civilization was built on would definitely mean the end of the world as we know it. Not in the distant future, but immediately.
“Apparently, Richard Pelfrey, the security guard, has been with NatGas for almost 30 years. Not very likely that he would suddenly decide to sabotage a compressor station.” Agent Rodriguez, Cat, was explaining what information the FBI had already gathered. Her voice sounded muffled through the headset that allowed her to communicate with Dylan over the roar of the helicopters turbines.
Dylan looked out the side window of the chopper at the helicopter’s shadow, racing them across the barren desert below. After decades of extreme drought, western Colorado was a dead and dying land. The juniper and pinyon trees that had once made the tops of the Bookcliffs of Western Colorado and eastern Utah greener than the desert at their feet were mostly just gray and brown skeletons. Here and there, a few partially green junipers still dotted the landscape. The pinyon trees had all died out years ago. He watched the shadows of their helicopter race across the dry land below and thought about the never-ending war against terrorism.
Many of the people in government that Dylan had to work with thought the National Eco Terrorism Agency was just another unnecessary branch of an already bloated government bureaucracy. Catarina Rodriguez was probably among them, as were most people in the FBI and the rest of the older federal agencies. Formed three years earlier in response to increasing attacks on the world’s energy infrastructure, NETA was the newest member of Homeland Security. With a mandate to protect the country from eco-terrorism, NETA worked with counterparts all over the world to safe-guard energy infrastructure. That’s what many Americans didn’t quite understand about attacks on the fossil fuel industry. They didn’t understand the interconnectedness of it all. Threats to energy systems anywhere on Earth were direct threats to the economic well-being of the United States and to the fragile political order of a divided world.
The incidents that led to the creation of NETA didn’t even happen within the borders of the United States. They happened in Canada. Hackers shut down the computer control system for the main Enbridge pipeline, and somebody blew up the Trans Mountain pipeline at Kamloop, British Columbia, on the same day. At the time, American intelligence agencies, including the FBI, concluded that the two incidents were related and carried out by government actors. But the intelligence community couldn’t pin it on any one government in particular. Everyone assumed it was a member of the Chinese Russian Alliance for Defense. But, without proof, the Western Alliance of Nations couldn’t retaliate. Not with the world precariously balanced on the knife edge of a nuclear Armageddon.
It was a good thing no one retaliated. Some new group calling themselves the Guardians had claimed responsibility two days later. Dylan was working at the CIA before the Embridge-Kamloop disasters. After that, transferring to the new National Eco Terrorism Agency was a no brainer for Dylan. He thought then, and still did, that the growing number of crazies who wanted to destroy civilization in order to protect the environment were a greater threat than groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS had ever been. Tracking down and bringing the so-called Guardians to justice had been Dylan and NETA’s first successful operation.
The sound of Cat’s voice through the headphones interrupted his thoughts. She told the pilot to circle above the site of the explosion for an aerial view. As the craft changed headings, the devastation below came into view on Dylan’s side of the helicopter. As the old saying goes, it looked like a bomb had gone off. A very big bomb.
The compressor station had been built in a hollow with hills on three sides and an open, flat valley leading to Douglas Creek on the east. Now, where the compressor station had once stood, there was nothing but a crater. Pieces of building, pipes, twisted metal and other debris were scattered all over the sides of the hills and down the valley. Some of the debris had nearly hit the highway at least four hundred meters from the hole in the ground where the gas plant used to be. The entire area was cordoned off, with the road to the plant blocked by about a dozen emergency vehicles. There must have been at least two dozen people investigating the scene of destruction. Dylan was pleased to see that most were Federal investigators. The local agencies, who were more likely to screw things up than do any good, were mostly helping the National Guard keep the press and onlookers back at a safe distance from the crime scene.
“Are you sure there was only one person killed in the blast?” Dylan asked. Having seen the carnage from explosions too many times before, he knew how hard it could be to determine which pieces of a human body belonged to which human.
“We can’t be sure yet, but so far, DNA testing of the remains shows just one victim.”
So as not to disturb any evidence, the helicopter sat down in an open patch of barren ground across the highway from where the rest of the emergency vehicles were parked. To get from the helicopter to the scene of destruction, Dylan and Cat had to force their way past reporters shouting questions. It’s always the same, Dylan thought. These weren’t just local reporters. He recognized some national and international journalists. People who were well known for spreading climate change propaganda and championing the cause of eco-terrorism. They should all be locked up. Not for the first time, he wondered how those propagandists could get to the scene of the crime before he did. Were they tipped off in advance? If he could prove that, he could lock them up.
After running the gauntlet of reporters, Cat led Dylan to the FBI’s mobile forensics lab. From the outside, the lab looked a lot like one of the newer electric class A motorhomes, but with no windows. Inside was a different story. There was a small office space with one computer terminal and a couple of office chairs in the front section of the coach directly behind the driver’s seat. A bulkhead wall with one door separated the office from the lab section. It looked more like the bulkhead on an airplane separating the pilot from the passengers than a wall in a normal RV.
Cat went straight to the computer, and Dylan took another look at his personal cell phone. He had texted NOW to 669 while he was on his way to Joint Base Andrews. The timestamp on the sent text told him it had been almost four hours since he sent it. There was still no response. How unusual was that? If the phone scam was a phishing attack, why was there no request for money or personal data? Was it a hack, he wondered, not a scam. By sending the text, had he opened his phone up to something even worse? Surely Mitch wouldn’t have told him to send the text if that was the case.
Dylan’s thoughts about the phone scam were interrupted by the bulkhead door opening with a hissing sound. There was an airlock decontamination chamber between the office space and the lab, where they were sequencing DNA from the pieces of at least one human body. An older man wearing a white lab coat stepped through the hatch. His gray hair was still messed up from the hood of the sterile suit he had just left in the decontamination chamber.
Cat looked up from the computer at the man. He simply shook his head no.
“Nothing, huh?” she asked. Then she introduced Dylan to Doctor Martin.
“No, still just one victim,” Doctor Martin told her while shaking Dillon’s hand. Wonder if he makes shoes, too? Dylan thought.
“How many samples have you tested?” Cat asked.
“Eleven so far. They’re still finding pieces.”
Cat looked back down at the computer screen, hit a few keys, and then looked back up. “According to Richard Pelfrey’s supervisor, he should have been the only person on site at the time of the explosion. The supervisor,” she looked down at the notes on her phone. “Eric Blake, is his name, seemed pretty upset. He said Richard Pelfrey would have retired this year.” She looked directly at Dylan before adding, “I guess we all got ahead of ourselves on this one. Mr. Pelfrey seems to have been the unlucky victim of another industrial accident.”
That was probably the worst part of Dillon’s job. He spent about 90% of his time on wild goose chases. From accidents like pipeline leaks and the occasional gas plant explosion to harmless chatter on the internet, a tiny percentage of leads turned out to be actual terror threats of any kind.
Dylan smiled at Cat. “Look on the bright side. At least it got us out of the office for a while.”
Cat didn’t return the smile. “I don’t know about you, Agent Anderson, but I have more important things to do than waste my time doing OSHA’s job.”
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Adminstration, not OSHA, Dylan thought, but he didn’t correct her. “Don’t we all?” he said. “What we have here is a case of too many federal agents trying to do the same job.”
“Isn’t that always the case?” Cat asked. She didn’t smile as she said it.
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