Brenda was locked up pending trial for welfare cheating. She was in protective custody because her former boyfriend had former and current girlfriends known for violence in jail. She had been in solitary confinement for 8 months over $2,400 of welfare.
Hernandez chained her up; hands cuffed to her waist, and ankle shackles that limited her to a shuffling walk. They went down the elevator to the basement and through a tunnel that jogged back and forth under the street. Brenda noted the locked doors and cameras in the ceiling and made slightly flirtatious small talk with her guard. She had to walk in front which kept her from being able to watch Hernandez's cute butt. His elaborate tats on his muscular arms kind of turned her on. But then after not being laid for that long . . .
Hernandez didn't really flirt with her as they walked over, but he thought as he watched her buns she was a nice piece of ass. He knew from a casual (and illegal) look at Brenda's jail medical records she didn't have HIV or herpes and had had her tubes tied. Hernandez knew he would risk his pension by getting involved with a prisoner, or even a former prisoner, but he could not help thinking about getting her in bed, especially since his wife had left him four months ago. Brenda, limited in jail to lipstick, didn't look as bad as you might expect for a 36 year old woman who had had her first kid at 15. Even the blue jail suit didn't clash that bad with her blondish hair.
At the end of the tunnel, Hernandez took her upstairs and locked her in a metal cage outside the court. The cage was so small her knees hit the far wall. Brenda was 5'6" and weighed 140 pounds, but the 28 x 32 inches cage was cramped even for her, with a tiny shelf in the corner, which she could almost sit on. She had a hard time imagining how a 200-pound man could be stuffed inside, but had passed several such cages with big guys in them in the hall under the court.
There were a number of Black and Hispanic women brought down from the jail. One of them, who weighed about 250 pounds, was stuffed into the cage next to Brenda. Brenda tried to strike up a conversation.
"Hi." She said. After a minute of silence, Brenda offered, "I'm in here for welfare."
After another minute of silence, when Brenda had given up, the other woman said, "I'm Lupe. Murder."
Lupe and Brenda chatted for the next few hours about boyfriends strung out on meth, kids, cops and being horny in jail. Lupe was taken to court before lunch and Brenda never saw her again. She was given a sack lunch, which was almost impossible to eat with her hands chained to her waist.
Early afternoon, her public defender, Jim Notoro, came by and, talking through the cage door, suggested he might be able to cut a deal for time served if she pled guilty.
"Brenda, the penalty for welfare fraud is 6 months to a year. With the clogged courts, you have no chance for going to trial in the next six months. You want me to try to cut a deal with the DA for time served? The eight months you have been in here gives you a year credit."
"I was workin' and takin' welfare so I could move where Hogman wouldn't find me. I get out and he'll kill me and maybe my daughter's kids. Hogman's really pissed at me for trying to rat him out."
Jim considered the ethical rules. "Hogman was arrested after nearly killing a guy in a bar fight last week. He's not likely to get out for at least a year."
Brenda replied. "OK, if you can get my granddaughters back to me, plead me out."
"Who has them now?"
"My mother. She's getting too old to take care of young kids. My daughter, their mother's been missing for years."
Jim managed to plead Brenda out for time served. The new state law requiring judges to consider what it cost to keep a person in jail had not passed this session, but the judges were keenly aware of it. Brenda's $2,400 welfare cheat had cost the county over $24,000 to keep her in protective custody for eight months.
What with filling out all the paperwork, Brenda was last out of the court, and the very last walked back to the jail to be processed and released that night. Hernandez had taken an extra four-hour overtime, all of which would go to his divorce lawyer, so he walked Brenda back through the tunnel. In spite of the penalties, he was making small talk to Brenda and thinking about asking her out (and getting in her pants) when there was a glare from both ends of the tunnel, followed at once by the tunnel lurching left and right two or three feet and the lights going off. As Californians, they both thought "Earthquake!"
Hernandez managed to keep his feet after banging his shoulder into the tunnel wall, but Brenda, with her hands chained to her waist, went down hard in the dark. Dust rained down from new and old cracks. Hot air blew in. There was overpressure that nearly popped their eardrums. The air was sucked back out a few seconds later
Hernandez dug out his LED flashlight in the dark.
The right-hand wall had hit Brenda, and the floor had been yanked from under her feet. For all that, in the LED's cold light, she didn't seem to be hurt just a little dazed. Hernandez pulled out his radio and keyed it. The radio squawked the "lockout" tone, indicating the radio would not connect. Hernandez had only a vague idea of what caused a "lockout" tone. (The radio could not contact to any repeaters. This was understandable, since the repeater antennas on the top of the former building were incandescent vapor now being sucked up into the fireball.)
Hernandez checked Brenda, who was lying on the floor. He ran back toward the court, to find the last 50 feet of the tunnel choked with hot chunks of concrete. Hernandez played his light over the choked tunnel and walked back to Brenda. She was trying to sit up against the side of the tunnel. Giving her a reassuring "Back in a minute." he went to the other end of the tunnel, where there was a similar pile of rubble. He turned off his light and looked at the fading nuclear afterglow trickling down through a few small chinks.
Hernandez slowly walked back to Brenda. He pulled his handcuff keys out and, holding his flashlight in his teeth, unlocked the handcuffs and leg irons. "We have about an hour, Brenda."
He was wrong. They had almost two hours before the radiation leaking in killed them.
A year and a half later, a robot exploring the tunnel found their intertwined bones on top of a guard's uniform and a prisoner's jumpsuit.
[This is a little piece of a much longer story partly set in "Inland City."]
END NOTES, NOT PART OF THE STORY
Tom Clancy in The Sum of all Fears details the design, construction and detonation of a thermonuclear terrorist weapon at a Denver Super bowl game. In his end notes Clancy goes into detail about how easy it is to get the information and machine tools needed to construct an H-bomb. He comments that his description is incorrect in a place or two, not that that would stop a terrorist from building a weapon from the same open sources he used.
Could an Aum Shinrikyo or Jim Jones type cult build working nukes from the rough description here? I don't know, I am an electrical engineer who never had more than a passing interest in weapons design before wasting some months in jail, thoroughly annoyed at a cult (my lawyer tell me I can not even name), and the local, state and federal government agencies the cult corrupted or intimidated. I was working on a concept (cable powered space elevator, geosync power satellites, and synthetic fuel plants) to reduce the cost of gasoline back to under a dollar a gallon before I was jailed.
That project was at a stage where I needed computers and contact with other engineers to make progress and I could not work on it in jail. My interest has shifted to writing a novel and I don't know if I will ever get back to this project.
Engineers, particularly pissed off ones, can't help thinking, especially when they are forgotten for an hour or two by the jail guards who locked them in a shower.
Tom Clancy finessed the hard part of nukes by having Israeli-US weapons grade plutonium fall into the hands of the bad guys. To appreciate the hard part you need to understand how weapons grade plutonium is made, or rather was made. A little weapons grade plutonium may be have been made in recent years by the smaller nuclear powers but as far as I know none of the major nuclear powers have made any for more than a decade. How it is made? Any reactor that has U 238 in the fuel makes plutonium by neutron capture. A substantial fraction of the energy power reactors make comes from the plutonium they make and then fission.
The problem with trying to use power reactor plutonium for weapons is the Pu 240. Usually the Pu 239 fissions when it is hit with a neutron, but some of the time it will absorb a neutron becoming Pu 240. Pu 240 is nasty stuff to have in weapons because it decays by spontaneous fission, i.e., it splits and spits out neutrons. The neutrons degrade the explosive and make the bombs easy to detect as well as being unhealthy to be around.
According to Clancy's description, the way nukes are set off is to implode and compress the plutonium. When it is close to maximum density, a shot of neutrons from a little cyclotron/target initiate the chain reaction for maximum yield.
The problem is that spontaneous fission neutrons from Pu 240 will start the chain reaction before the ideal point of compression. The more Pu 240 in the fuel, the more likely you will have a "fizzle" like the North Korean bomb test is thought to have been. "Weapons grade" plutonium is made in dedicated reactors. There is a trade off between grade and production. For high grades the slugs of uranium are pushed through the reactor core in a shorter time so relatively little of the newly formed plutonium picks up an additional neutron. The slugs are dissolved in acid and the plutonium sorted out chemically.
A decade or so ago it occurred to me that the extraction step could be combined with the exposure step and the newly formed Pu 239 could be removed before it became Pu 240. (I kept this to myself for many years.) All you have to do is circulate uranyl nitrate (or sulfate) in a high neutron flux such as you get in a power reactor core and remove the plutonium 239 as it is formed. Over a fuel cycle (a few years) a large power reactor makes kg of neutrons. Stealing a tenth of a kg of neutrons would make 24 kg of extremely high-grade plutonium, enough for about four bombs. Power reactors have holes in the high neutron flux zones of the core used for control rods. Replacing one or two with a loop circulating depleted uranium (U 238) solution would not present much of an engineering challenge. Obtaining depleted uranium would not be difficult either. If for some reason weapon builders didn't want to leave tracks by buying it, the US left hundreds of tons of DU in the Mid East in the last two wars. It would not be hard to collect.
The chemical processing to get plutonium out of solution is well understood; the whole process can be considered kitchen chemistry (if your kitchen contains a power reactor). There are ways to make neutrons without a reactor. If one of them is practical on the scale of tens to hundreds of grams of neutrons then the threshold for bomb builders is reduced even further.
Given plutonium in kg quantities, the next problem is how to implode it to a super critical state. (The above method should make plutonium good enough to use in a gun type device, but implosion gets results from smaller amounts.) Normally a ball of explosives around a sphere of plutonium accomplishes this. The explosives have to be exquisitely shaped and set off from many points on the surface with precise timing. The design of these explosive "lenses" is a demanding task.
While I was waiting for a guard to let me out of the shower, I realize that there was a way discussed in Dr. Robert L. Forward's SF story Camelot 30K where a nuclear "fizzle" is used to bootstrap a thermonuclear explosion. It uses a flash source at one foci of an ellipsoidal reflector to focus soft x-rays on a target at the other foci. It occurred to me that the intense light from a few pounds of flash powder would be enough to set off a light sensitive ball of explosives at the other foci--with close to perfect timing and over the entire surface. This trick eliminates the complicated design problems that require hydro code programs, complicated electronics and krytrons. It may reduce the difficulty of creating such devices to the level it could be done by a decently funded street gang. It's not a compact design, per the text 8 feet long and 7 feet in diameter, but if it's being shipped in a container, it doesn't need to be small.
Would it work? Darned if I know, here it's just an element in a story I wrote while in jail.
As to a cult leader being insane enough to try to kill thousands of people--that has already been demonstrated. If Jim Jones, Heaven's Gate and Aum Shinrikyo aren't enough, consider Pol Pot, Rwanda and Osama Bin Ladin (as a cult leader). Ideally, this is a cautionary tale, one that might get the IAEA inspectors to watch for pipes being used to steal neutrons out of power reactors. Perhaps Sum of all Fears has had such an effect and someone is watching the sale of precision machine tools good enough to make parts for nukes. But Clancy's Debt of Honor (1998) included a jumbo jet being used in much the same way as the 9/11 attacks and this bestseller unfortunately didn't help the FBI agents trying to get the attention of FBI high level bureaucrats when they were trying to report Arab pilots learning to fly (but not land) 767/757 aircraft.
Probably nobody will take this seriously either until a nuke goes off in a US city.