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First pages

Prologue

BASEMENT LEVEL 2, PENTAGON, WASHINGTON 1909 HOURS

 

‘You couldn’t stop an armless man punching himself to death,’ Mooney says throwing a steak knife at the ceiling. ‘Hear that?’ Holds the phone up to the vent. ‘It’s a piece of metal rattling around from the plane that thought the Pentagon was a runway.’ Slams the phone down.

Mooney sits slouched at his desk, feet crossed atop a pile of papers, slowly tortures a toothpick while toying with two small magnets. They clunk twisting in his fingers, and pulls them apart. Drags his feet off and sits up. The steak he just finished sits uncomfortably in his stomach. Lurching forward strains for the intercom.

‘In here colonel.’

It had been a long day of interdepartmental meetings, oversight briefings and meet-greets with visiting members of Congress—calls it for what it is, greasing the pole. Grit your teeth, suck it up and earn a paycheck. Muddled through the briefings to justify the money being spent on the project using phrases he remembers from the reports: quantum entanglement, nuclear flux compression generator, molecular regeneration.

Picks up a folder and places his feet back on the pile he’s spent the week pouring over, the latest updates; costings, progress reports, security forms and maintenance requests. ‘Quantum,’ he intones, not convinced if he believes what’s inside or not. Strikes a match against his boot and lights his cigar. The smoldering matchstick leaves a smoke trail to the bin.

He’d witnessed the wrath of destruction the combination of gunpowder and lead inflicts on flesh and bone, concrete and steel. Pulled the trigger many times himself.

‘Magnets.’ This stuff reads like cheap sci-fi, but the author, Professor Nash is no amateur. A world-renowned physicist and quantum computing expert who advises the President. There’s real science between the pages, equations and symbols probably carved on the pyramids. Who’s a graduate from West Point, expert in military strategy and tactics to argue?

Desk bound and delegated to Special Projects due to his pending retirement and failing to play the political game beyond a mere passing grade. The Army didn’t know what to do with General Sloan Mooney, so they squirreled him away in the bowls of the Pentagon and put him in charge of a project he didn’t know anything about, and more importantly—to him at least—didn’t want to know. It was simply his turn to babysit a bunch of scientists, make sure the money was spent where it was needed, and progress wasn’t pushed too far into the never-never before they slapped some crappy retirement watch on his wrist, patted him on the back and pushed his saggy old ass out the door. With change, that was four years ago.

Looks up and makes out Robertson’s head over his boots.

‘Catch.’

‘Sir.’ Robertson fumbles the jerking objects in cupped hands. He overheard the heated exchange through the door so approaches cautiously.

‘My grandkids play with these things.’ Mooney says. ‘What’s your take, think they’ll change the world?’

Robertson studies the warmed magnets the way a child discovers a new toy.

‘Don’t strain a muscle,’ Mooney says blowing smoke. Glowing embers exaggerate his pocked marked face. ‘Whispered sweet nothings to Nash. He’ll finish both machines by the time the sun rises if he knows what’s healthy for him.’ The chair creaks. ‘Well?’ Tilts his head to the stack of papers.

Robertson looks up. ‘About changing the world?’ Mooney folds his arms and grunts. ‘If the project delivers what’s promised, the answer has to be yes. It will change everything.’

The project was one of those funding exercises that survived scrutiny as it passed down the chain of command. A marble of an idea that wasn’t kerplunked. Started by an overzealous bureaucrat. Not that Mooney cared the government was willing to throw buckets of money in hope something came back, of some use, to someone. Plenty of projects ended up as mounds of rust, yet some paid off. And this one promised big, real big. But don’t they all promise the world?

Mooney lumbers from his chair, stands with arms leaning into plush leather. It wasn’t the time to tell the colonel of his plans if this thing worked, not with a gut full of cow. ‘Just got off the phone with the CIA.’ Pauses. ‘You’ve got my permission to shoot me if I ever say a nice word about those snake eyes.’

Robertson places the magnets on the desk.

‘Word is they’ll be providing security detail for each team member, and those sons o’ bitches will be housing the data on the first successful test. And they want me—’ pounds an angry fist into the desk then thrusts a finger in his chest. The magnets wobble and fall to the ground. ‘Those snake eyes aren’t getting a damn thing. I want our guys on them. See what they get and what they’re up to.’ Paces the desk. Cheeks swell playing with his tongue. Ash falls to the floor.

Mooney wants to use the fly-fishing rod his wife bought him for Christmas, which is busy gathering dust in the corner of his home office where he looks at while finishing his Scotch of a night. But knows staring is safe. If he’d ever pick it up he might get out before seeing the project through.

‘A long shot, the Secretary of Defense described the project at some swanky garden party upstate. Thought it was pie-in-the-sky. Gave it to me so he could keep me hidden down here.’ Looks up at the ceiling in annoyance. ‘And as soon as he thinks the project has merit, he folds to Washington like a rattlesnake about to strike.’ Jaw works overtime. ‘We don’t like that do we colonel?’

‘Hell no, Sir.’ Robertson bends down and picks up the magnets.

‘Alert everyone,’ Mooney says. ‘We’re leaving. Oh, and call someone to fix that bloody racket.’

Tastes reflux in his throat, coughs and thumps his chest and sits, looks at the magnets as if they’re more than toys.

Thinks, get this right and I’ll have man’s greatest machine ever made.

 

ALAMEDA ISLAND, SAN FRANCISCO

 

The car clock glows 1:03A.M.

Professor Peter Nash stretches, places a heavy elbow on the doorframe and rests his head in his palm making a left down Park Street. It’s a tie on the GPS which is the shortest way home; continue north over the Golden Gate, or turn around and head south over San Mateo Bridge. He always chooses the sentimental favorite if there’s only a few minutes in it. Though at this time he doesn’t need to look. Suburban streets are abandoned, washed in street lights and neon signs from passing takeaway restaurants, a Wells Fargo, Safeway, a 24/7 car wash with a man cleaning his RV busy untangling a hose from around his leg. Home is over an hour away. Stops at traffic lights, checks the road and turns right onto Shorline Drive.

Sighs. Pinches his eyes. Hopefully it won’t take all night to fix the machine.

One side of his forearm warms against the glass, the other chilled by the car’s air-conditioner turned up to stop him falling asleep. The Bay is a dark stained canvas on his left. City lights skim over water. The road looks wide in the bright headlights and encroaching darkness and all is silent except the forgotten background hum of the engine and dull churning noise of tires that lull Nash’s thoughts and vibrate his chin. It isn’t long before the abandoned outside sucks itself in and becomes a distracted passenger that refuses to talk.

Looks over at the passenger seat, his cell phone jitters and slides on a stack of papers like a learner ice-skater, but it’s not ringing. He’s unsure if it’s a good or bad thing so decides to split it down the middle and finds out he doesn't care. Glad the exhaustion comes with benefits.

His eyes settle ahead, and mind not too far behind. The day started as the early sun cast shadows against the crisp sky and was finishing in broken slivers of moonlight and echoes of shouting that still sends chills down his spine.

‘No delays, you copy son.’ Mooney yelled with enough sting in his voice to fry the line—if such a thing still existed—and evacuated any trace of compromise or failure like a spent gun shell. Nash winced and held the cell from his ear. ‘Do you want me to put some oomph in to the team?’

Nash had nothing. ‘Nothing.’ It was the first time Mooney yelled at him. A tongue lashing Nash never wants to hear again. Exhales out the memory.

Thoughts of the next round of funding talks and security protocols of the project come and go, as does the final strand of a fingernail he’s been unconsciously gnawing on for the past three miles. Checks the rear view mirror and lowers the window. T-shirt flaps in the buffering wind as do the few whispers of hair that haven’t left him. And he smiles inhaling the humid, salty air deep into his lungs, and appreciates it. It chills his teeth and has a nostalgic smell of seaweed. And as he dwells on the day, there’s a growing suspicion something else was chewing Mooney’s insides.

Something more substantial than the first ever delay in the program. Exactly what it was, Nash has no idea. Fixated on the road ahead, chalks it down to politics. Yes, let him deal with it, he concludes and looks down at the seat. They are thoughts that will come back to bite.

Having past the tipping point in life that relegates the phrase ‘single’ to past tense, Nash is the embodiment of a bachelor. A self-driven man living alone in a large Edwardian house in a wealthier part of San Francisco. Waking hours are strictly shared between lectures at Stanford University, working at the secured location over the bay, and briefings with the President.

Plastic takeaway containers have claimed squatter’s rights in the fridge and ooze a pungent odor of Mexican, Chinese and unrecognizable food congealed as a blackened secretion in the back corner. Papers are strewn across horizontal surfaces like disused toys in a sand box, and the house is in permanent semi-darkness as the shades are too lazy to open themselves. Unpacked moving boxes are scattered on the floor and chairs. An archeologist would find evidence of past girlfriends in the bathroom: artifacts such as lipstick and a fake eyelash on the tiled floor, not everyday domesticity, more ancient history.

 

Nash’s eyes blur and eyelids reach for the light switch. His head slowly keels over and jolts waking, dozes off and jolts to semi-lucidity. Gasps. Shakes himself awake, widens eyes and rubs the corners of his mouth leveraging himself up in a twisting motion. In the distance sees a red glow. However, in his stupor it appears more of a haze than brake lights. And it isn’t that far off in the distance either it’s close.

Snaps his neck upright.

Broken taillight.

Knuckles whiten as the car screeches to a halt and rocks for a few isolated seconds; seconds that stretch time like elastic bands before snapping. Foot pushes hard on the brake. Frozen, his heart beats wildly staring ahead. Breathing is shallow and heavy. A wafer thin gap separates the cars. A hand searches blindly for what few loose papers might have clung to the passenger seat. Nothing, no cell either, he finds that later wedged under the carpet. Passing through Posey Tube did it.

Pulsing lights acting like an amplifier for powerful circadian rhythms his body trying hard to fight.

Continuing to stare where the brake light should have been shining pounds the steering wheel. ‘Things just happen.’ He should have yelled instead of allowing Mooney to rip into him. That no matter how big or small, how important or how much money you threw to keep a project running smoothly, sometimes things don’t go to plan, they just break. Entropy is built in to the fabric of the universe. He has a second thought he is grateful for regrets. Mooney is not someone you willingly hop into the ring with. The bitter aftertaste that machine five had broken down can’t be shaken despite the near-death distraction and therapeutic pounding.

The remainder of his drive, and the closer he gets to home, thoughts narrow to the mundane. ‘Milk?…yes…what was the expiry date? Coffee?..hmmm’ If it turns out his morning coffee isn’t possible, there’s always takeaway. ‘Probably best.’

Soon he is home, the adrenalin mostly faded as he parks between a yellow VW Beetle—the kind without a plastic flower erupting out of the plastic dash—and a new blue BMW sedan.

Legs feel heavy walking the stairs, and wonders when was the last time he used the handrail.

Hushes the neighbor’s yapping dog pushing the front door open and walks into the pungent air, flicks on the light, throws keys on the buffet and carefully navigates his way to the kitchen. Bends down and investigates the contents of his fridge. Stares in hope rubbing the back of his neck. And as eyes adjust to the sheer whiteness inside that confirms his troubles, his cell rings. It vibrates in his pants. Turns on the speaker.

‘Nash speaking.’ A hand turns over a carton of milk—out of date.

‘Where are you?’ Mark Trevine asks, his voice tinny.

Surprised by the call, dismisses it as just an update. Strangles the top of the bottle with one hand and unscrews the lid with two fingers. Inhales a rank odor of smelling salts. Yuck.

‘Home. You’re still there? Thought you would have left by now. Go home.’ Bangs his head on a shelf. ‘Ouch!’

‘Five’s back online.’

He knows by Trevine’s unrestrained enthusiasm it’s true. Slams the fridge door, runs, and grabs the keys. Heart races for a second time tonight. Turns off the speaker. ‘How? When did this happen? Was the original diagnosis wrong?’

Mark with a stout frame, neatly trimmed ginger moustache and beard is a stoic character with the charisma of wet cardboard. He never shows emotion, and to Nash, what Trevine’s saying packs the same punch as the off milk that created a sour taste in the back of his mouth.

‘Just got the diagnosis. Minor hardware fault. Swanky’s replacing the part now.’

‘Mary’s a good choice.’

‘Her partner says she’s got the fingers of a velvet goddess.’

‘Contain it Mark.’

‘It’s just—’

‘Tired, yeah I know,’ Nash says and hangs up. Finds Mooney’s number, and before he’s back in the car and as the engine erupts breaking the early morning silence, Mooney answers.

‘We expect to finish tonight,’ Nash says. A shoulder secures the cell. ‘I mean today.’

A gristly voice demands a time.

‘Within the hour. Wait—’ Nash reverses. Just as I arrive back.

Bang.

Quickly inches forward. It’s no use. He isn’t going anywhere. Both cars are wedded together. Expecting trouble throws down the cell and watches behind pushing on the accelerator; there is no time to fill out insurance forms and exchange details. Sees the reflection of a porch light and hears a dog bark. The car bumps and pulls the VW forward, dislodges the bumper with a shrill sound of metal crashing and scraping the ground. Fumbles while looking at the unfolding scene behind.

Mooney is still on the line. Nash hears a humming sound in the background as if he’s on a plane.

‘Sorry, number five is back online. It was only a minor hardware fault.’ He recognizes the urgency and excitement in his voice of a horny teenager on prom night. A jolt shoots up his back and makes gooseflesh on his arm as he secures his seat belt. Behind, and growing smaller, flashing lights of the BMW, a whaling car alarm and two people in robes.

Nash wishes he is already there, wills the commute to be over. The last piece of the puzzle. It’s a thought that sustains him all the way back to the facility. He doesn’t notice the scenery or time passing, only faintly remembers the rolling thunder of a large semi-trailer swerving overtaking him. His arms taught to keep the car straight and not get sucked into its wake. Eyes fixated on the road and his mind elsewhere. Later, he thinks it was the same truck that made an ill-fated rendezvous with Trevine’s car.

John Masen enters his consciousness. His old student back when he was teaching physics at MIT. Masen who helped make all this possible with the math and breakthrough in quantum mechanics. Wishes he could be by his side and witness the final assembly and be there for the testing. Wishes Masen knew what role he played, and remembers the conversation they didn’t have when he handed in his PhD. thesis. When he could have said something, should have said everything, but didn’t.

Calls the facility. ‘Security ID,’ the machine asks in HAL like tone.

‘Security ID delta dash three seven omega nine eight tangerine. Initiate additional containment protocols.’

Waiting with cell to his ear anticipates the pause as the computer initiates new protocols and waits to self-diagnose.

‘Additional protocols in place.’ It speaks as if confirming a fast food order through a speaker and hangs up. Nash nudges the accelerator pedal. Smiles.

 

Back on Alameda Island he foregoes the scenic drive and cuts down Lincoln, having emerged from Webster Street Tube. Fate is on his side. Traffic lights are a cavalcade of green. He soon passes the dance studio he used to imagine if he ever had a daughter he would take her to such a place. Passes the liquor store, the high wire-fenced school, then makes out the white corner of the building in the industrial complex diagonally opposite a Fort Knox pawn shop. Makes a mental note to talk to the neighbors about insurance.

Maybe that old saying, familiarity breeds contempt reared its head and the turnoff to the driveway was overshot because he got lazy. Whatever the cause, he makes the turn too fast and the car clips the concrete edging. Nash struggles to regain control, unable to navigate through the thick fog blanketing the ground. It’s no use. Momentum does as it must, and the car suddenly and violently pushes upward with a bang and stops as if tripped up by a giant’s foot. The front wheels chocked in the garden bed near the entrance.

Steam hisses from the hood, the electrical system flashes multiple symbols and bleats confusing chiming noises; airbags deploy with almost comical delay.

Nash coughs stumbling out. Face and neck covered in white powder. Composing himself walks to the entrance with sounds of hissing and a door swinging on its hinges behind. Under the awning he stands dazed and shaken. Chunks of glass collected in folds of his T-shirt and pants pepper the ground. Keys in the access code leaning with one hand and weak knees against the thick metal door. It fails to open. ‘Come on.’ Keys again with annoyed restraint and deliberate strikes of a finger. It clicks. He waits a second before pulling.

Inside, corridor lights wake in ordered procession as he walks quickly towards the room directly ahead; sneakers and panting echoes loudly inside the brightly lit corridor. The door closes and locks behind, and on both sides automatic sentinels hidden behind plaster walls scan with x-rays and match his skeletal pattern against a database. Machine gun barrels lower as it comes back a positive match.

He stops at the metal door and stands out of breath in front of the retinal scanner, takes two deep breaths and swipes sweat from his brow with the bottom of his T-shirt. ‘Don’t want to do this again.’ Right eye twitches leaning in and presses gently against the cushion. The red light washes over and fades before another pass. After a few seconds the door releases with a clunk.

‘Morning HAL,’ Nash quips with excitement as the door slides back and reveals the protocol machine. Large and robust, it is the last procedure before witnessing the birth of his twins, maybe already assembled behind the large metal blast door, thirty feet ahead.

Where the magic happens. Behind the steel door that part dramatically with yellow flashing light and a thump as the seal breaks.

Quickly pulls a white suit from a hanger—a lot heavier than the old suit he’s used to. Strains walking over to the grated stairs that lead up to the machine—had intended to rake the suit under his feet as he walked over, but the new suit proves too heavy. Sitting down has his first foot in hearing the machine motors whirling and pipes clanging back in to their housing.

‘You just finished,’ Nash says feeling the residual warmth of the machine on his back. ‘Maybe I’m not late.’ At that instance he feels like a twelve-year-old about to go on the Roller-Coaster of Death for the very first time.

Pulling the suit over his waist feels the familiar white glasses case like canister bottle of compressed air and a carbon scrubber that cleans the air and sends it back to be re-breathed. Rubs the material between his fingers and feels the thickness, essential for the new protocols to work. Essential if he doesn’t want to lose any part of himself.

The nylon zipper has an exaggerated loop that dangles crouch level for a gloved finger to pull. Halfway up he has to use his other hand to fully trap his body. How sausage meat is sealed inside a pig’s intestine, he imagined what he looked like the first time he sealed himself into one of these suits.

Fully encased, he hears nothing. It is then that the night’s events conspire and threaten to topple him. Normally sitting behind a desk, or standing behind a lectern presenting lectures or research papers, he isn’t built for such excitement. The verbal blast from Mooney, the VW, the near accident, the one in the parking lot. Maybe each one not enough, but the level is skinning at the top of the glass.

He breathes out slowly. ‘Relax.’

The protective suit clings to sweat that starts beading down his back. Contorts his face as the feeling of plastic being dragged against skin increases in intensity as he moves forward, up the steps and onto the metal grate floor that makes a familiar clunking sound, and stretches hands, legs and any part that requires moving to free the fabric. The air quickly warms and his stomach constricts. Grabs the handrails and gets himself onto the flat surface. The visor fogs up and he can taste the powder from the airbags leaking into his mouth.

‘Better hurry.’

There will be papers written. He plays with the self-indulgent thought. Many papers to write and conferences all over the world to attend. ‘No,’ he says. A wry smile spreads over his face. ‘I’ll probably be dead long before this achievement sees the light of day.’

Looking down makes out the rise and fall of his chest and folds of fat. His mind wonders beyond the wall in front.

‘They know their jobs,’ he reassures himself, thinking of the consequences if they accidentally initiated early and without a safe distance. Thinks the door would offer some resistance, but not much. I’d probably be affected, in some way. Looks down at his stomach. ‘That’s one commercial use,’ he jokes imagining his slightly bulging stomach being flattened as the machine steal parts of him.

‘Stop…extend legs…and arms. Procedure initiates in ten seconds.’ The voice instructs.

The sticker to his right illustrates the correct pose. Normally ignored, today his eyes study the figure with renewed interest. A blue outline of the suit makes an X, with red tipped feet and hands emphasizing a stretch. Lets go of the handrail and steadies arms and legs, comparing it to the angles in the figure. Settling into position he thinks is as a perfect match as he can manage, yet offers some level of comfort. Hears feet clamber against the metal grate floor making small adjustments. His eyes settle on the door.

‘Hurry up.’ Breathing intensifies. Silence except for inhaling and expulsion of air; the carbon scrubber makes no noise as it extracts the poisonous gas.

‘Procedure starting.’ Air surges out of the unit attached to his side, inflating the suit and drying skin.

Normally after the project reached a milestone, and if the books had some fat left over, the team would go out for Chinese. If the jar was empty after today he’d pay for everyone.

Clicks his jaws and swallows to equalize the pressure in his ears and sighs as his skin dries and temperature decreases. Closes eyes as cool air rushes over his face. He is tired. No, exhausted, and all that keeps him from falling asleep is an evaporating shallow pond of adrenalin and excitement. Opens eyes as the sound dulls and pressure decreases and looks ahead. The space is sterile in a technical and aesthetics sense. White paint makes hard surfaces evasive.

‘This stage will take 45 seconds.’

Whirling noise of motors, cogs and belts in the background tell of many deliberate and sudden moves the large robotic arm makes; crammed full of sensors to study his body. A large blue eye like sensor sniffs where it probably didn’t need to.

‘New protocols are in effect.’

Micro-bursts of air dislodge specks of impurities as metal arms swing violently and quickly around his extremities, only slowing as it edges close to his torso. The white suit encapsulates completely. A suit specifically developed to be completely non-reactive to the environment is being scrubbed clean for the new protocol to be applied. A thin liquid crystalline coating to protect the occupant from powerful fields and particles that would otherwise rip through the body, tearing molecules apart as easy as a bullet fired through tissue paper.

Without notice, the arm retracts and is replaced by a similar looking contraption slowly unfurls from its metal housing like a flower greeting the sun.

Nash continues to focus on the door as this new life form sways from side to side spraying a fine mist, only atoms thick onto his suit. Starting at the head, the arm twirls downward as if it is basting a turkey and disappears under the metal grated floor to spray under his feet.

‘One step forward,’ the voice commands. Fast moving components dance as he moves blimp like.

‘Stop. Stand still.’

An alloy of Graphene, gold nano-powder and carbon is applied in stages. The first is Graphene, which dries with an intense rapidly applied heat. Gold nano-powder is next, and then carbon is sprayed on and left to react with the Graphene skin.

‘A gift,’ Mooney said with a smirk. ‘From DARPA.’

After a few minutes lasers finish the scan of this second skin. ‘Process complete.’

The suit partially deflates. Flexes his left leg first. It offers no resistance. The new skin is similar to the old except for the slight gold tinge. Boots make no noise as he walks over painted concrete and past red stickers on the floor. In bold red letters it reads ‘Magnetic outer limit exposure zone – DO NOT CROSS’. His heart races and his visor fogs up briefly before clearing. There’s no way he is going any direction other than forward. His face almost touches the metal door.

Thinks, what if they’re all dead? What if the calculations are off a little or the machine is much stronger than expected?

The door cracks open and Nash sees the team bathed in a flashing yellow light. Nash squeezes through the narrow gap as soon as the space allows, feels the rush thrust his stomach up into his throat.

 

Nash can’t look away. Wouldn’t. Doesn’t bother trying.

‘Morning,’ Trevine says carefully coordinating the team’s effort to insert the nuclear explosive flux compression generator in to the containment field.

‘Morning,’ Nash says. Eyes switch between machines, one complete, the other is so close it’s almost time to cut the umbilical cord.

‘That one’s hot,’ Trevine gestures with his head, then to the one the team is concentrating on. ‘This one’s proving the difficult twin.’

‘More like we’re all tired and need rest,’ Mary Swanky says. A technician and one of his PhD. students is carefully guiding the rod in to the cavity aware of the dangers of getting too close. By the way she is bending her back Nash could tell she has been standing for some time and wants horizontal badly. Unfortunately she’ll soon have her wish.

‘Good job Mary,’ Nash says, but thinks, ‘beautiful’ looking at the machine. Walks closer and unconsciously extends a hand to touch it.

‘Perfect.’ Like Sirens who draw sailors with their song, the machines hold a powerful, almost malevolent presence, the most radiant and unnatural creation he has ever seen—and the most terrifying. Fingertips erupt golden sparks that eat further in to the suit the closer he gets—a death-match between hungry particles and fields that want to destroy, and his protective suit fighting back.

‘I’d stop if I were you,’ Trevine grabs and pushes Nash’s hand back. ‘Beautiful I know, but this girl’s taken Pete. Strictly hands off.’

Trevine’s suit sparkles, his arm erupts violently in golden fireworks snatching Nash’s hand.

Nash blinks and nods pulling back. ‘Thanks. I’m just—’

‘We all are.’ Trevine pats him on the back.

Precisely five feet three inches tall by two feet wide, the machines are cylindrical in shape, and resemble a child with broad shoulders and a thick neck. As reflective as a mirror, yet at a certain angle is shrouded in a silver metallic alloy skin. One has its lid secured and pulses a strip of red light near the top, like one long eye. The other has a parted lid, yearning for the round nuclear device object to be inserted. Nash’s breathing is labored. The surrounding air bubbles and warps as if it’s emitting heat that distorts light. It’s as if the object knows what job it’s designed for—is awake, aware. Stretches eyes to regain focus.

‘Let me know when we’re ready,’ he says finding his voice.

‘Minutes,’ Joe McIntosh replies lowering the lid in place with the aid of a special hook. Drags a chair closer with his foot and climbs on to get a birds-eye-view. ‘Any hole in your suit and you would have lost the tip of your finger.’

‘Just don’t initiate the reactor by mistake,’ Nash says.

There is no reply as he walks over to his desk and sits beside two newly constructed quantum computers. Each the size of a microwave oven and levitating a few inches off the metallic bench to protect the complicated circuitry from vibrations that would damage it. A fog of liquid nitrogen used for quantum levitation runs down the table leg and is vacuumed into a grated hole in the floor.

All the pieces will soon be completed. And if the test is a success, he would have invented man’s greatest machine.

Nash looks up at the team, their suits hint of gold that mirrors around folds of fabric, and at certain angles appear invisible. The silence in the room speaks volumes of the level of concentration and concern felt by all.

Remembers watching the two towers grow like a child’s height marked on a doorframe over the years. Micro-thin layers added by machines that created the thin metallic disks to generate the powerful magnetic field are dotted around the floor. The slowest growth rate imaginable; given the assembly process never slept and added hundreds of layers every hour. Nash started growing a beard when the process first started, had shaved it off, and repeated the process another two times. And now they stand proud, all grown up, menacing in their perfection.

A magnet so powerful that when the nuclear flux compression generator detonates it splits matter apart at the subatomic level.

Nash squares his keyboard, clears his throat.

The trials of the past few hours are now a fog of the past. His computer is located below ground and behind several layers of concrete to protect it from the magnets, and connected to a server attached to the Barn, the CIA’s secure data storage facility in Boston.

Only a few years earlier the machines were mathematical equations scribbled on a blackboard. Fantasies, like exaggerated cavemen paintings; an elephant twice its size, a lion with teeth as long as your arm and fish the size of whales. Yet, here they are.

The computer folder lays bare and nameless on the monitor, his to title and send to the Barn. Something that was simple and had no meaning is now surprisingly all consuming. There was Quantum, the natural choice for the project name. The name the Army gave, which he never warmed to. Now close to being a reality, the name somehow mattered. Flicking through the latest report placed on his desk earlier, and with a cautious eye ahead notices the absence of nature in the air. With a burst of inspiration he types the file name.

‘Ready for testing,’ Mark says slouched in a chair close to falling off.

‘Take tomorrow off, I mean today,’ Nash says noticing the exhausted state of the team. ‘Take the rest of whatever there is left today and the next. Pack Hawaiian shirts and shorts. We’re ready for testing.’

The technicians leave.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Charles Hubbard lives with his wife, two children, a cat, and a dog diagnosed as being allergic to air. He turned to full-time writing four years ago and hasn't looked back. When not at his desk you’ll find him absorbed in a science article, drinking coffee, listening to music or reading. He has started writing the second book of the Quantum trilogy and has a few ideas about the final book.

Q. This book is part of a series, tell us about your series.
A.
Byzantine Candor is the first book of the Quantum trilogy. An action-packed, fast-paced spy thriller about a breakthrough technology that threatens world stability, Chinese cyber warfare and North Korea's nuclear ambitions to build a long-range ICBM capable of reaching Washington.
Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?
A.
It started with a question: what if terrorists communicated while playing online games? It has since morphed into a much large world to include the rise of cyber warfare in future global conflicts, the clandestine world of espionage and the large role technology plays in society.
Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
Mostly the excitement and fast-paced writing style. You get to create mystery and meet characters and situations you wouldn't normally bump into. And what great characters I’ve met along the way. From barflies, a psychopath, a detective that isn’t what he appears to be, to a contract femme fatale.

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