Synopsis- The Onion Files by Val Pattee
The Onion Files is a novel set in today’s world of apprehension and anxiety fueled by terrorism. An al Qaeda group plots ruin greater than 9/11 by breaching hydroelectric dams across the US. Jim Buchan, a retired CIA director of operations and his son Mark, a computer expert, watch CNN as Osama bin Laden declares jihad against the West. They discuss one of Jim’s most dangerous cases from the Cold War, code-named the Onion Files, a KGB cyber attack against the US financial system.
Mark decides to do some hacking to see if infrastructure might be at risk from terrorists. It is the early days of cyber security, few aware of the increasing use of software in critical systems. It isn’t long until Mark discovers something that Jim recognizes from his past. The screen leads Mark to Kazim, Jim’s old nemesis from KGB days, now with bin Laden in the wilds of Afghanistan. As the al Qaeda plans for the 9/11attack are put in place, Kazim is proud that his own intricate steps will lead to huge flooding on major rivers, his software taking control of hydro electric dams across the US.
Leigh, Jim’s wife, had accepted the stressful years when Jim was on the front lines of espionage. Jim’s work had led her to follow world affairs closely, and when Jim retired she had completed her PhD, her dissertation examining an exciting future of information sharing that she saw coming with the development of the Internet. Jim knew that with the research Leigh was doing she was more current than he was on the big issues of the world. He was proud to lean on her for his intelligence, to keep him on track.
During the Cold War Jim had met KGB General Illyich Makov at a reception during the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, their strange relationship leading to a measure of mutual respect, turning later to friendship. Illyich had called Jim to warn him about Kazim’s plot against the US financial system as the Soviet Union spun apart. That call had led Jim to St. Petersburg, to Kazim, and to Jim being med-evaced by the KGB after being shot. Now Jim calls Illyich to enlist his help to find Kazim in time to head off his attack on the dams. And Illyich calls on still serving KGB colleagues to provide the linkages to intelligence agencies on both sides of the old Iron Curtain.
A successful air strike in the no-fly zone in Iraq has inadvertent consequences, setting the stage for an idealistic Iraqi-American, David MacIntyre, to question his heritage and his beliefs. Al Qaeda’s reach and duplicity stretches to California to ensnare David to Kazim’s cause. Kazim now has the backdoor key to software that operates dams across the country. Another al Qaeda spectacular is about to bring destruction to the nation.
Jim is sure that the only avenue to Kazim is through Russia. As Jim and Mark meet with Illyich at his home in Sochi, Russia, Mark realizes that he has unexpectedly met the girl of his dreams, Illyich’s granddaughter, Katrina. But Mark comes close to death as Kazim sees his plans start to unravel. Jim’s old FBI colleagues stretch the limits of their mandates for a dramatic rescue, the close call moving Mark’s and Katrina’s romance as fast as the plot itself.
Old colleagues from Jim’s spying days join the hunt. Illyich marshals Russian and Turkish agents in Europe, while an old graduate school colleague of Jim’s, an Arab sheik, is able to send Jim’s message to bin Laden’s well hidden camp in the ungoverned border region of Afghanistan. That message lures Kazim to Istanbul where Jim and Illyich spring their trap. After a fiery engagement on the Black Sea, Kazim’s narrow escape points the way to bin Laden.
Jim’s experience, combined with Mark’s ingenuity, keeps them one step ahead of disaster, but Kazim’s onion is not easily pealed. At the eleventh hour the Secretary of Homeland Security issues orders to the dams and briefs the President, but Kazim has devised his software to stay one step ahead of Mark.
The Buchans’ pursuit takes them across the country, to Russia, to Sardinia, and to Istanbul. The race to the finish takes place while the Buchan family is being honored by the President, but Kazim has arranged for a different message. A Special Forces team in Afghanistan is ambushed in a deep valley, the enemy leaving behind only Kazim’s message to the Buchans: jihad is not over, till the next time.
At the end of eight exhausting years toiling at a large national bank in Manhattan, Jeremy Thorpe and his wife Selma decided to quit the hubbub of big city life. They chose Woodhaven, New Hampshire, a small river valley town of dairy farms mixed with picturesque hobby estates created by other folks who had moved in from the big East Coast cities. The small town, with its cottage industries becoming the cultural and commercial focus of the new rural sprawl, seemed the perfect change for their five year old daughter, Chloe.
The sale of their New York condo not only let them relocate to a small house just outside the center of the calm, comfortable town, but enabled Selma to give up her work as a dental hygienist to devote herself to Chloe full time. Jeremy enjoyed the network of wooded pathways nearby that they were able to explore almost daily. He enjoyed it almost as much as being able to come home from his work at the local branch of the New England Trust, to have lunch with his wife and daughter. They knew that they had settled into a wonderful life in a beautiful part of New England.
Jeremy glanced at his watch as he stuffed the last bite of sandwich in his mouth. “I’ve got to run—don’t want to be late for a one o’clock meeting. Honey, can you pick up some big garbage bags so I can rake the leaves this weekend?”
Chloe’s eyes instantly welled up in tears. “Don’t go, Daddy! You promised you’d take me to the park.”
“Chloe, tomorrow is Saturday and the weather looks great. We’ll take a picnic and find some wonderful fall leaves for your collection. And I’ll swing you as high as you can go.” He leaned over, kissed his wife, then gave his daughter a pat on her curly head before bounding out the door. Jeremy jumped into their cherry red Ford Taurus station wagon—the color was the closest thing to a flashy red sports car that he could afford at this point in his life. There were no regrets about their mid life career choice, he thought and said out loud, “I’m a very lucky man.”
He backed down their privet-lined driveway, giving a wave to Chloe watching from the living room window. It was 12:50 on a gorgeous Friday afternoon with Indian Summer in full swing.
Beth Simmons had worked at the New England hydroelectric dam since construction on the massive structure was completed in 1979. At the time, it was the largest infrastructure project in the northeastern United States, its huge reservoir providing a recreation area extending for eighty miles above the dam. The power plant’s massive dynamos fed electricity to the eastern seaboard and formed an important part of the integrated grid that covered the continent.
Beth had settled into the comfort of a well-paid union job, with little stress and a steady daily routine. She especially liked the fact that she could sit for most of her shift in a reclining chair, although that did take a toll through the years, affording her diminutive frame a definite middle-age spread.
Pipes and wires, all regimentally aligned, crisscrossed one long wall leading into the operations control room, before running somewhere deep into the structure. As she walked by them every day, the neatly ordered lines were a constant and favorable comparison with her previous life—haphazard, unstructured, without real purpose. She remembered well this opportunity of a new job in what to her was a new world, and she’d seized it.
Beth had just completed her regular 1:00 p.m. call to the main power distribution center to confirm that all the circuits were up and running.
From across the control room, her partner yelled, “Hey, Beth, we got an earthquake or something going on here?”
She had heard the low rumble and scanned the control panel stretched across one wall of the operations room. The slight vibration felt the same as when the gates on the big dam opened, but the panel told her nothing was happening—no red lights, no amber lights. Everything looked okay. Then Beth did a double take. Something wasn’t right here—nothing moved. All the gauges that normally oscillated and jumped were locked, frozen between the green lines on the dials.
“It doesn’t feel like an earthquake, but I can’t figure out what’s happening.” Beth swiveled in her chair to face the open window that framed the normally placid lake above the dam. The air was still. She could hear gulls squawking as they soared above a sailboat. The lake which had been placid just moments ago was roiling. The choppy waves came out of nowhere, not a breath of wind. Beth could not take her eyes off what was going on. Now the lake came to a fast boil, the swirl of a whirlpool starting to form. Beads of sweat poured down Beth’s forehead as she realized that the sailboat was in trouble, for now the whole lake was moving, the waves creating a vortex centered where the boat was starting to lean precariously. She could faintly hear the screams of fear from the children on board. The surface of the lake churned as other boats also became caught up in the circular current. Beth knew these people were going to die.
Hoisting herself out of the recliner, she moved as quickly as she could across the control room. Pulling the main power switch to OFF, Beth thought about the notice that she had read three days before: “In the event of unexplained anomalies, immediately turn off all power to the equipment.” She had thought at the time, “Oh sure, who’s going to be the jackass that shuts down power to New England? And who’s going to answer for the humongous cost of restarting the system? How likely is that?” Now, with her hand still on the switch, she thought, “Well, I guess I’m the jackass. Boy, I sure hope whoever wrote that order is there to back me up on this.”
Reaching for the emergency phone she knew her efforts were too late for the small boats, capsizing and disappearing, one after another. She completed her report in as calm a voice as she could muster then ran to the big window. Her eyes searched franticly for one boat in particular, a blue skiff that her neighbor’s kids had taken for a leisurely day of fishing. The water was still roiling, many boats overturned, swimmers fighting the currents. She saw no sign of a blue skiff.
Beth turned to her colleague who stood stalk still, tears running down his face. “My god. What happens with the villages downstream? They won’t know what’s coming. They won’t have time to even start to evacuate”.
Far away, hands began pulling the main power switches at control stations across the continent. It was already too late in Woodhaven. The wall of water, now fifty feet high, thundered down the valley tearing through the first village below the dam, carrying away everything in its path. Jeremy’s cherry red Ford Taurus station wagon had just turned left onto the bridge that separated East Woodhaven from the downtown core. The covered bridge across the lazy Woodhaven River that had served the community for over a century became instant kindling as the wave caught it.
Greg Simpson sat in the rocker on his porch as he had most days for the last twenty years. His hearing wasn’t what it used to be, so he wasn’t aware of the approaching rumble. He couldn’t believe his eyes as the town center just across the quiet river disappeared in a wall of roiling mud and logs, the porch under him ankle deep in water. Greg watched as two horses struggled out of the water and up the gentle bank toward him. The man with a young girl in his arms wasn’t so lucky; they disappeared in the dark cauldron. Houses, cars, people, Jeremy, his cherry red wagon, everything tumbled down the river valley, and little Chloe never did swing in the park with her dad.
In the wilds of Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden placed his hand on Kazim’s shoulder and said quietly, “Bada’a”—it has begun.