Crystal City, Virginia. Wednesday, 3:47 p.m. ET.
A gloved hand pressed hard against the priest’s mouth and nose. He felt a fast tearing sensation rip across his neck. Jets of deep crimson flew in front of his face as his own blood splattered to the floor.
His vision began to dim. He didn’t feel his knees buckle, but felt the cold tile flatten his cheek as his face slammed into the floor. Shallow, frantic breaths caused ripples in the growing pool of red.
It was over in a few seconds.
The killer watched as the priest exhaled his last breath. Via con Dios, Monsignor.
A phone rang on Capitol Hill. Senator Frank Higgs picked up the receiver.
“Curmudgeon has been retired,” said the disembodied voice on the other end of the line.
Senator Higgs was struck dumb. “What?”
“Fucking retired? How? Who?”
“You know better than to ask. The usual time and place, please. No mistakes.”
The dial tone interrupted Higg’s reply.
Somewhere north of Las Vegas, Nevada. Wednesday, 10:58 p.m. PT.
“Clear the line!” the laboratory safety chief bellowed with far more force than necessary. His amplified voice exploded from a dozen loudspeakers spaced out over the eight-mile expanse of the Nevada desert.
With the exception of the fifteen officials and technicians gathered in the control room with the safety officer, no one heard the announcement. The weapons test range was in one of the most desolate locations in the United States, and every person involved in the test that evening had gathered in the control room to either conduct or witness the event.
Large high-definition monitors displayed infrared, ultraviolet, and low-light versions of the same image, an automobile. Sensitive to temperature differences, the infrared images clearly showed the exhaust escaping from the tailpipe and the deep red outline of the engine, warm and idling.
Next to the sedan was a table, which looked exceptionally out of place in the middle of the desert. On the table’s surface were four television sets, arranged in a line from front to back. All four television sets were on, with images flashing in the darkness.
“Let’s zoom in on the engine compartment.” Art Levitow’s basso resonated in the small room over the hum of machinery. As the director of Senior Quantum, an unacknowledged government program that had consumed just shy of three billion dollars over the past seven years, Levitow’s was a voice that commanded respect. His deft political leadership was matched by equally impressive technical and scientific credibility. Despite the stakes, he wasn’t nervous in the least.
The same couldn’t be said for the technician operating the cameras, whose initial attempt to zoom in on the car’s engine compartment resulted in a close-up of the desert floor.
The Vice President of the United States chuckled. “Now you look like me, hunting geese.”
Secretary of Defense Bill Pomerantine grinned. “No, sir, that’s not quite true. He’s still aiming in the right county.”
Vice President Arquist’s chuckle turned into a good-natured laugh. “Bill, if you keep that up, you may be the first man in history to go from Secretary of Defense to coffee barista in a single night.”
Laughter tittered through the room as the technician slewed the cameras in the target area over the engine compartment of the late-model sedan.
“Let’s expand out just a little bit. I’d like Vice President Arquist to see the dashboard electronics as well.” The camera operator zoomed out slightly in response to Levitow’s request.
Levitow continued. “Mr. Vice President, as you know, three years ago we made the breakthrough that enabled us to reliably and consistently demonstrate the fundamental physics, but the major technical hurdle has been to project and localize the effects. In other words, we had to figure out how to shoot the beam, and how to aim the shot. That problem has consumed the bulk of our effort, and it didn’t go as smoothly as we had hoped. But we’ve figured out how to do it.”
Arquist smiled. “I was relieved when Bill told me the news, and the president insisted I go see for myself.”
“We think you’ll like what we’ve put together, sir. Keep your eye on the engine compartment, and we’ll begin the demonstration. Go ahead, Amber.”
An attractive technician moved a mouse pointer over an icon, clicked the button, and answered “OK” at the warning that popped up. The lights dimmed in the control room, and a deep, throbbing hum rose above the usual computer noise.
Ten meters to the south of the control center, in a drab two-story concrete structure surrounded by concertina wire, an electric current began to flow through large coils of copper wire. The coils were attached to a circular array of six small dish-shaped antennae, all aimed in the same direction, parallel with the desert floor. The air around the antennae crackled for a brief second, and had anyone been in the vicinity of the apparatus, they would have undoubtedly noticed the unmistakable odor of ozone in the air.
“Keep your eye on the infrared monitor,” Levitow instructed. The small crowd in the control room saw numerous bright spots appear inside the sedan’s engine compartment and dashboard. A bright flash appeared on the ultraviolet display monitor, adjacent to the infrared monitor. The flash dissipated in less than a second.
Seven miles away, the idling vehicle suddenly stopped.
“Mr. Vice President, you’ll notice that the exhaust is no longer coming out the tailpipe, and no lights are on inside the car. We’ve completely disabled the vehicle, but despite the brief infrared and ultraviolet emission, there is no fire or other noticeable physical damage.”
Arquist raised his eyebrows and let out a low whistle. “I’ll take a thousand of ’em.”
“We’re not finished yet. Alice, let’s move on to the second part of the demonstration.”
The technician’s mouse raced across several screens, and a crosshairs appeared on the main display. The cameras showed a grainy picture of the four television sets, all arranged in a row, one behind the other. All four flat screen televisions were powered on. The technician slewed the crosshairs, and they came to rest on the third television from the front.
Levitow continued his narration. “No sports addict would ever arrange his televisions this way, with three TVs hidden behind the front one, but we’ve set things up to show you just how precisely we’ve been able to refine the targeting solution. Keep your eye on the third television screen in line from the front. We’re going to pass the beams through the first two televisions without any effect whatsoever, disable the third TV, and leave the fourth one completely alone. Go ahead, Alice.”
Two clicks later, the third television began to glow and spark on the infrared camera. A brief, bright light flashed again on the ultraviolet monitor, and the visible spectrum monitor confirmed that the third TV went dark. The adjacent televisions droned on, completely unaffected by the weapon.
Arquist turned to the Secretary of Defense with a smile. “I like your new toy, Bill. When’s Christmas?”
“We think we’ll be ready for Santa’s sleigh by October of this year.”
“Good. Don’t get behind. I think you’re all probably aware that there’s a great deal riding on this program.” Vice President Arquist rose and extended his hand to Levitow. “Damn fine work, Art. Thank you.”
Vice President Arquist motioned for Levitow to join himself and Secretary Bill Pomerantine on their long walk through the weapons-testing bunker, back to the waiting helicopter that would take the two officials and their Secret Service agents to the relative civilization of Las Vegas.
Arquist spoke over the click of heels on concrete. “As you know, Art, there is no shortage of naysayers. Now that you’ve shown me the magic, I want you to help me understand how it works. I’ve got to put my salesman hat on when I get back to DC, and I want to be able to explain just a little about what the hell this thing does.”
Levitow’s eyes sparkled. Arquist was reminded that despite his cold administrative efficiency, Senior Quantum’s director was a scientist and teacher at heart, and he felt himself responding to Levitow’s genuine enthusiasm for the minor miracles he and his team had pulled off.
“When you boil the geekery down, it’s really fairly simple,” Levitow said. “Electrons are lazy. Inside an atom, they hang out in the lowest energy state possible. It takes energy to move away from the atom’s nucleus, and like my teenager, electrons need a very good reason to expend any energy at all.”
At the tail end of the small entourage, a large, fair-skinned and blue-eyed Secret Service agent, known as Whitey in the most important circle, extended two fingers on his right hand. His fingers held a small white piece of paper. As his right arm swung forward on the next step, a tall, young, lanky scientist named Jonathan Cooper surreptitiously retrieved the piece of paper from the Secret Service agent.
Then, while his right hand scratched his nose, Cooper’s left hand deftly placed the small strip of paper into his lab coat pocket.
The exchange had been carefully planned so that Whitey’s bulk blocked the nearest security camera’s view. The next-nearest camera, at the far end of the long concrete hallway, was blocked by the mass of people, including the Vice President of the United States walking down the hallway in front of the two spies.
It was a seriously ballsy pass, one that Cooper was certain would be talked about for years to come. It had gone off without a hitch.
The small entourage wound its way through the labyrinthine network of low concrete hallways. Levitow’s voice echoed up and down the narrow corridors, as the vice president listened intently.
“The electrons’ laziness is important,” Levitow said, “because chemical and physical properties of every atom are determined to a large extent by how many electrons are in an atom’s outer layer, and how close that outer layer is to the atom’s nucleus.”
Vice President Arquist nodded. A former college professor himself, he was no dunce.
“Electrons that are a long way away from the nucleus,” Levitow continued, “escape from the atom much more easily than electrons closer to the nucleus. And escaping electrons are what make all electronic devices function.
“It turns out that when you slam an atom with a magnetic field, you can change how far away all of the electrons sit from the nucleus. With a strong enough magnetic field, you can temporarily stop a circuit or device from functioning. Or, by reversing the magnetic field, you can free up so many electrons that you fry critical connections within every semiconductor. It’s a handy trick.”
“Sounds pretty simple. What’s the catch?” Arquist was used to playing the straight man, which was also a subtle way of letting people know that he was following along closely and they should skip as much fluff as possible.
“There are two major problems. First, it takes a ton of power to make this happen. More importantly, at the beginning, we could only have these kinds of effects if we placed the target object inside a specially built magnetic field generator. That obviously doesn’t work well in a weapons application—if we can get our hands on the object, we may as well just stomp on it with our boot heel. It took us forever to figure out how to affect targets that were some distance away from the field generator.”
As the heavy concrete door opened into the hot desert night, Arquist gave a Levitow a warm smile and extended his hand. He spoke loudly, but was barely audible over the whine of the helicopter engines. “I’m interested in learning how you ended up cracking that nut. Join me for dinner out east. My chief of staff will be in touch to set things up.”
Levitow’s reply went unheard as the vice president walked quickly onto the helipad. He felt Pomerantine’s pat on the back, and watched as the rest of the group made their way to the aircraft, ducking instinctively to avoid the rotor wash.
Seconds later, the helicopter was out of sight.