A faint rush of electromagnetic waves carried the orders from a Soviet ground station on the Kamchatka Peninsula. On the hunter-killer satellite a switch popped shut, releasing the latent energy in a battery and generating a healthy blue spark elsewhere in the circuit. The spark jostled and heated the fragile molecules of a volatile material. The heated matter expanded violently, its force focused by a tough surrounding casing. A detonation wave raced outward in a fury that shot in a narrow arc into space.
A few hundred yards away, a sleek white cylinder decorated with a small red, white, and blue emblem floated with deadly grace. It was directly in the path of the onrushing explosion. Then the onslaught was full upon it, the pressure soaring ferociously, the outer wall crumpling, the shock wave engulfing everything within. With the shock came heat, heat which triggered circuits in the cylinder.
In a repeat of the pattern played out only instants before, switches tripper, power surged, tiny sparks crackled and carefully designed chemical explosives imploded upon a finely machined, slightly warm sphere of metal, violently squeezing it.
The shock from the first explosion arrived at the same instant. The sphere was warped; the focus of its compression altered. It existed for a brief moment, teetering on the edge of consummation. Each part of it fed neutrons into the others. Deep in the dense nuclei of its atoms, reactions were triggered splitting the nuclei apart, releasing vastly more energy than the penetrating neutrons possessed and more of the catalyzing neutrons as well.
Then the moment passed. The wracking shock and the partial release of nuclear energy amplified the distortions of the sphere. The chain reaction damped, and the sphere of radioactive metal dissolved into harmless shards. In a heartbeat, the cylinder was gone.
Nearby, another cylinder, larger, ungainly, stirred into menacing wakefulness. Ports slid open in its sides. It rotated and slurred. Taking aim. Awaiting instructions.
By shading his eyes from the midday sun, Isaacs could make out the town of Alamagordo as the military transport continued its descent towards Holloman Air Force Base. He glanced around at his companions. Pat Danielson and Alex Runyan whom they had picked up on a quick stop at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque , and the two Agency men. Although the need was remote, they could provide security backup. The hollow feeling in his gut reflected his anticipation of the significance of this venture. They were headed for the source, the key to the myriad tangled events. He thought back to the simple anomalous seismic signal he had toyed with while on leave last March, over four months ago. His thoughts strayed to Runyan's voracious beast rifling through the earth and to the paranoiac escalation threatened by the note from Korolev.
Maybe not so paranoid. He played a game of role reversal he had often found useful. How would the President of the United States and his military and civilian advisers react to being informed that the Russians, deliberately or otherwise, had created a menace so hideous that it would eat away the substance of the earth? Even with the damage done, the urge to retaliate, fed by hatred and fear, would be strong, visceral. An image of a battered child who finally takes an axe to his tormentor slipped into his mind. He knew there were Americans who would argue that if the Russians had been the perpetrators, the time would have come to rid the world of them, before going on to face the ultimate menace. Could this development be the final straw for the Soviets, the one that pushed them over the brink in an attempt to eliminate their prime antagonist, despite the consequences? And role reversal, hell, he thought. How will the President react when he's informed this evening that his own team has committed this inconceivable atrocity?
The reality was overwhelming. They had a few scant hours to find the keys to defuse the crisis. They needed incontrovertible proof that the incredible event had actually occurred, that a small black hole had been forged on the mountaintop forty miles away. They must discover how and why and then hope the President could use that evidence to convince the Russians that the affair was not an overt act against them. They would also look for any dim shred of evidence that what had been done could be undone.
Already there was a hitch, an aggravating note of uncertainty amplified by the tension surrounding their mission. Where in the hell was Krone? Their flurry of phone calls had only succeeded in contacting some administrative head at the lab. Isaacs had worried about a confrontation with Krone. He might bluster, cover up, delay them. Worse, he might destroy evidence. Isaacs had dissembled with the administrator, told him that they were an inspection team under the auspices of the executive branch. Only a small lie. It would be presidential business soon enough. In any case, Isaacs knew the power of the vague reference to the Oval Office and he had invoked it unashamedly; there was no time for more complex explanations.
Isaacs looked over once more at Danielson, her face in profile as she stared out the small window. She and Runyan had been in good spirits when they met. Was there something between them? Would they both be at top efficiency as matters reached their crux? Isaacs was not sure he should have succumbed to Runyan's pleadings to go to Arizona.'
For the second time in as many days, Alex Runyan had found himself catching a military plane on short notice and heading for a remote corner of the southwest. He and Danielson had taken a military flight for Kirtland and then had transferred to the plane Isaacs had commandeered out of Andrews. Isaacs had filled them in on the progress the Russians had made in duplicating their efforts which gave special urgency to their mission. That had suprised him, but the general chain of events was proceeding as he had foreseen.
Having convinced himself that a black hole was running rampant in the earth, Runyan had found a man-made origin more plausible than other preposterous possibilities. Still, a stunning technological feat was demanded, and he was keenly interested in discovering the details which this trip promised to reveal. His instinct told him that their only hope for salvation lay in fathoming the secrets of creation. Paul Krone. Runyan shook his head. He'd done it this time.
Runyan, too, glanced over at Pat Danielson. This trip promised no chance to renew the relationship started in the warm Arizona night. On the contrary, she seemed to be getting a little withdrawn. When they lay on the mattress, comfortable, chatting, she had confessed to having no close male relations for some time. Could she keep an affair casual, friendly, the way he wanted? Was she the type to suffer second thoughts if no permanent relation was in the offing? Now he'd have to watch his step.
Pat Danielson's mind was in a turmoil. On the noisy flight from Yuma she nearly forgot their mission, as she repeatedly thought of Runyan, budded into the hard utilitarian seat next to her. She relived their undressing in the moonlight that batted the tent, their tender precarious coupling on the narrow mattress, his successful, unhurried manner, the quiet conversation after, cramped cooperative attempts at sleep and his half-comical departure at dawn as the camp came to life.
Then in Albuquerque when they met up with Isaacs the enormity of the situation rushed back upon her. To all the fear and fascination she felt towards the object of their quest, now the burden of keeping the Russians at bay was added.
In Isaacs's presence, all business, she felt pangs of guilt for allowing her personal urges to come to the fore. With guilt came questions. Was it a one shot affair? Had he got what he wanted? Did he really care? He had spoken briefly of a wife and described, honestly it seemed, his estrangement. But was he honest? And even if he was, had he really said anything that implied a commitment to her, to Pat? The more she thought, the deeper became her guilt and embarrassment.
She looked out of her portside window now as the plane flew west, parallel to the main runway below. She made out a sprawling complex of runways, hangars, and military aircraft. That disappeared behind them until the plane went into a left bank which took them perpendicular to the runway, affording a clear view of the base and the Sacramento Mountains rising in the east. She thought she caught a glimpse of their ultimate destination on one of the far ridge tops. Again the plane banked for its final approach, and the only view was the desert plain and bounding mountains stretching endlessly to the north.
The aircraft bumped and twisted slightly in the mild cross-wind at landing. They taxied up to a hangar, the engines were cut, the hatch thrown open, and they scrambled out. They were met by a young lieutenant who banded Isaacs a message. Isaacs read it, crumpled the paper angrily in his fist and then hustled Runyan and Danielson aside. He spoke to them in an intense whisper.
'The Russians have moved already. They triggered one of the hunter-killers a half hour ago and took out our nuclear satellite that was on station with their laser.'
Danielson felt as if she had been shocked out of a state of half-trance.
'It didn't detonate? The nuke?'
'No,' Isaacs seethed. 'They took the chance and pulled it off cleanly. The laser is free to operate with impunity.'
'And what does that mean?' Runyan inquired, leaning over to catch Isaacs's words.
'It means,' Isaacs spat, 'that they can pick off all our early waffling and military communications satellites. We've evolved to the point where we are absolutely dependent on that technology. We'd be blind to a first striker
'I thought we had backups stored in high orbit.'
'Yes, but there's a good chance they could knock them off as they're brought down. Besides, if they go for a first strike, they could pull it off before we could adjust for our losses.'
'Would they go for a first strike, risk retaliation?'
Danielson asked, her eyes searching Isaacs's. 'Maybe they just want to assert their authority to have the laser up there.'
'Maybe. But now they have every reason to think we deliberately manufactured and released a black hole and then lied to them about it. A whole new level of escalation.'
'Escalation of what?' Runyan demanded. 'Surely they know we're as imperiled as they are.'
'The cool heads, yes. It's the hot ones I'm worried about,' Isaacs replied. 'Theirs and ours!'
'In any case we have no choice but to push on,' Danielson said. 'If they pause now to assess our reaction, we can get to the lab and back to the President so he has all the facts to negotiate with. If they choose the insane path, well, those mountains will be as good a place as any to be. She gestured to the slopes rising to the east.
Isaacs was pleased that her common sense, though grim, was asserting itself again.
'Okay, let's go.' He gave her upper arm a squeeze as he guided her towards the waiting helicopter. Runyan hurried forward to help her climb in. Danielson noticed him and paused. With her mind freshly cleared by the heightened air of crisis, she decided a show of independence would be healthy for both of them. She turned to the lieutenant who had delivered the message, smiled at him and offered her arm. The young man leapt quickly to her side and helped her to clamber in, leaving Runyan standing nonplussed on the tarmac. Isaacs watched this quick tableau and then climbed in himself, jaw muscles knotting as he clenched his 'teeth.
The flight up to the research complex headed by Paul Krone took only fifteen minutes. As they approached they could tell that Krone commanded a huge authority. There were six or seven large buildings linked by a maze of roadways. They landed on a pad in front of one of the buildings and were met by a small, jaunty man of about sixty. He wore a plain white shirt, green and white checked pants, and white patent leather shoes. The shirt was anchored at the neck with a large silver and turquoise string tie which clashed with his nineteenth hole outfit.
'Hello,' he bubbled. 'I'm Ralph Floyd, executive site manager here. We're so pleased to have you. We don't get attention from the top levels here very often.' Behind his facade he was troubled, sensing a threat to his conspiracy of silence over Paul Krone's attempted suicide. Who were these people with their peremptory visit, vague credentials?
Isaacs recognized the type. Quintessential bureaucrat, delighted with the sudden interest which this delegation purported to represent, but fearful because he didn't know exactly who they were or what they wanted. Isaacs eyed the man impatiently. An ominous image formed in his mind — the Russian laser gathering power for an imminent onslaught. He gritted his teeth and determined to play out the cover story until he could get a firmer feel of the situation. Where in the hell was Krone? Isaacs introduced the members of his party, and they followed Floyd into the nearby administration building. Floyd led them to his office and seated them. Just the right number of chairs had been brought in.
'Now, what can I do for you gentlemen — and lady,' Floyd corrected himself. Danielson returned his smile with a blank stare. The smile faded and he turned to Isaacs.
'This is very short notice but, of course, we are all at your disposal.'
'The President keeps tabs on all the crucial components in our research and development programme,' Isaac began, Muffing his way. 'He had heard good things about the work Dr Krone and all of you are doing here, and he wants to be brought more directly up to date.'
Floyd boomed possessively, but there was a wariness behind his smile.
'We understand this complex is autonomous,' Isaacs continued.
'Oh, yes,' said Floyd, 'our mandate comes from Los Alamos , and our budget from there and from Krone Industries, but we are self-contained and Dr Krone has a free hand to do as he wishes.' He leaned forward and assumed a frank look. 'Dr Krone is an authentic Genius, you know.'
Isaacs could hear the capital G, but something in Floyd's tone suggested that being a genius was not something proper folk did.
'He does need some help in practical matters,' Floyd continued with a self-effacing smile. 'I do what I can to make his job easier.'
'I'm sure,' replied Isaacs with an answering smile that did not quite reach his eyes.
'We were hoping to see Dr Krone.'
'Ah,' said Floyd, his face drooping mournfully,
'Dr Krone has not been well for some time. We have not seen him at all for a few months. But,' he brightened, 'all our programmes are proceeding actively.'
Isaacs divined that Floyd was in manager's heaven — all programmes routinely active and no boss to foul things up with new ideas, directions, and suggestions. Managing the affairs of a genius would be trying. He fixed on the time Floyd mentioned. A few months. What did Krone's absence imply? That was about as long as they had been tracking the black hole. Could that be coincidence?
'Is Krone available if necessary?' Isaacs persisted.
'Well, that would be difficult,' answered Floyd. 'He has a house up off the road a few miles back. A quite nice one actually, built with money from his patents, a product of his mind, he likes to say. He has always demanded his privacy there and has no phone. I'm afraid he's not in a condition to accept visitors personally.'
'May I ask what the problem is?'
Floyd was silent for a moment, then made a futile gesture with his hands.
'I've been led to understand it's nothing serious, that is to say, nothing organic. The stress, though — Dr Krone carries many responsibilities.'
Isaacs caught the implication — cracked up, occupational hazard for geniuses, not the kind of thing that happens to proper folk. Isaacs fought down a wave of despair. He could feel the mission slipping away, sabotaged, inconclusive, leaving them at the mercy of the deadly laser, on the precipice of war.
There were still the facilities to check out. Maybe they would learn something of interest. They had to move on.
'Well,' he said, with forced conviviality, 'perhaps you would care to give us a look around.'
'Certainly, certainly,' agreed Floyd, anxious to prove that all was in working order and, despite a suicidal boss, fit for presidential approval.
Floyd led them to a waiting van and played tour guide as the driver steered around the maze. There was a small section of simple tract homes and apartments for the personnel. A powerful nuclear reactor supplied the prodigious energy needs of the various experiments. They stopped at several buildings with Isaacs fuming inwardly with each passing minute. They were treated to a zoo of fantastic devices that shot, banged, sizzled, lased, fused, fried, evaporated, imploded, and exploded. Despite his growing frustration, Isaacs was impressed with Floyd's acumen in his own area. While no expert on the basic scientific and engineering principles, Floyd knew the origin and use of every nut and bolt and their price to the penny. Apparently Krone was good at picking people, as well as at creating new inventions.
At last, Runyan drew Isaacs aside.
'This is a waste of time. What the hell are we doing on this two-bit tour?'
'Goddamnit, we had to start somewhere!' Isaacs replied just as body, in a fierce whisper. He was not sure what they were looking for, but he was sure they hadn't seen it. He had been ticking off the various buildings mentally. As they climbed into the van once more and Floyd began to make noises about the end of the tour, Isaacs stopped him.
'We haven't seen that farthest building, out near that large cleared area.'
'Oh.' Floyd seemed nervous, tentative. 'These experiments I've shown you are all basically mission oriented, and each has its own project scientist. That building contains Dr Krone's own special experiments.'
He leaned closer to Isaacs and lowered his voice.
'Frankly, we regard that set up as part of the overhead. It has been frightfully expensive, but it has kept Dr Krone occupied and happy when he was not working directly on one of the other projects.'
'I'll need to see it.'
'Oh, but it was shut down when Dr Krone became — ill.' Floyd could see visions of presidential commendation vanishing with the opening of the door to that boondoggle building.
'Just the same,' Isaacs insisted.
'Very well.' Floyd gestured to the driver, and they were deposited in the drive of the far building. Perhaps, he thought, this will finally distract them from the condition of Krone himself.
Floyd dawdled over his keys, but finally accepted the inevitable and opened the door. The small group stopped immediately inside the door and craned their necks upward. The building was essentially one immense room, ten or eleven stories tall and somewhat larger in length than width. What arrested their attention was the behemoth construction which dominated the room, towering almost to the ceiling. It had the complex unfinished look of a research project as opposed to some of the production prototype devices they had just seen. An array of massive tubes projected radially from a hidden core, giving the whole structure the look of a giant monstrous hedgehog.
If Isaacs had any doubts that this was it, the look on Runyan's face banished them.
Runyan stood transfixed as his brain catalogued the components he vaguely recognized and wrestled to identify myriad paraphernalia which were foreign to him. Then he slowly moved towards the device, circled it and within a minute was scrambling up ladders and around catwalks in a furious desire to lay hands on the machine.
Ralph Floyd jittered from foot to foot, aware of the change in mood which had come over his visitors, but unable to comprehend it.
Isaacs turned to him.
'Do you know what the purpose of this thing is?'
'Only very vaguely,' replied Floyd. 'I believe Or Krone was studying states of matter at very high density. I believe he had some goal of generating large amounts of cheap energy in a new way.'
He snickered behind one hand.
'To tell you the truth, the technicians who worked in here had a private name for it — Gravel Gertie.'
Isaacs raised an eyebrow.
'Well, when the thing was working, if that's what you could call it, it consumed vast amounts of material. Lead bricks! My god, you don't know how he had me scouring the whole country for lead bricks. He'd feed them in over there at a whopping rate -'
Floyd pointed to an extension of the machine at the far side.
'They would vaporize and disappear. And at the same time he'd feed it granite from that hopper up there — vaporize that too. At one point about a year ago he hired fifty dump trucks. Fifty of them! And he kept them working around the clock for a month dumping gravel into that hopper. That's where the name came from. Just the overtime alone I had to pay! My head still spins.
'That's where that clear area out back came from, by the way. Disappeared into that hopper.'
Isaacs looked at the little man and refrained from asking him where he thought all that rock went to. Instead he said, 'My companions and I would like to look around here a little. Would you mind waiting outside?'
'Oh, no, of course not. I'll, I'll just be outside.' Floyd dreaded the thought of leaving his visitors alone, unable to make convenient excuses and explanations, but he turned to leave, pulling the door shut behind him.
Isaacs looked at his watch. 3:40, local time, twenty till six in Washington. The world was still in one piece. Apparently rationality reigned, if only for a little while, and global catastrophe was held in abeyance. He hadn't really expected a first strike, yet some small fatalistic corner of his mind would not have been surprised to see a mushroom cloud rising in the distance as they walked between buildings. Now he could be confident their mission would not be a total disaster. If they could learn nothing from the machine that loomed before him, others would follow who could. With this the Russians could be stalled, if not convinced. There was time to look a bit here, he thought, try to see Krone, and still get back in time to lay the whole story out for the President. He stood and watched as Runyan scrambled around the device like a kid on a city park playscape.
A call from Pat Danielson came from the far side of the room.
After a minute of staring at the gargantuan, incomprehensible device, Danielson had looked around the room. Along its perimeter individual cubicles had been partitioned off. Although dwarfed by the looming device in the centre, they were normal sized rooms, some even fairly large. She walked the perimeter peering into each through their large glass windows and discovered they were shops. The first was crammed with oscilloscopes, amplifiers, power supplies, and other electronic accoutrements. Next was a machine shop with a multitude of drills, lathes, and saws, and a carpet of coiled, oily shards on the floor.
After wandering past several more rooms, one housing a late model large capacity scientific computer, Danielson found a small windowless room just opposite the door from which they had entered. She tried the door and stepped in, groping for and finding a light switch. There was a small but comfortable desk, shelves filled with books and computer output. What caught her eye, however, was a bound laboratory notebook resting alone on the desk. She reached for it and thumbed rapidly through. The book was three— quarters empty. She found the last entry, read briefly and then walked to the door.
'Mr Isaacs,' she shouted, 'Bob? I've found something!'
Isaacs rounded the device looking for her and hurried across the intervening space, stepping over cables strewn on the floor.
Danielson watched him approach with an air of excitement.
'Look here! I've found a lab book describing the experiment.' She twisted to let him read over her shoulder where her finger marked a place. 'The experiment has been a tremendous success,' Danielson read aloud, 'much has been learned about the properties of matter at ultrahigh densities and the transition to the final state of that matter. The experiment is not over, but it is no longer in my hands.'
There was a gap and then other entries in a more hurried, scrawling manner.
'How could it have gone wrong!' Danielson read. 'The sudden loss of containment is shocking, some instability, something unexpected in the containment process. The principle is now established. Must 1) study containment 2) study implications 3) retrieve them.'
The two exchanged a long glance.
'That's the last entry?' Isaacs wanted to know. Danielson nodded.
'Are there any more of these?' Isaacs inquired, turning to examine the shelves.
'Not in here,' Danielson replied. 'There is a computer. It may have files of interest, but this book seems to be where he records his personal insights and reactions.'
'Let's keep looking,' Isaacs said.
They toured the rest of the perimeter, but found only shops. There were no more lab books. Isaacs went outside and spoke briefly with Floyd who was fidgeting in the driveway. He returned and explained to Danielson.
'Floyd says anything connected with this experiment should be here, unless Krone has other books at home. He worked at home a lot.'
He raised his voice.
'Alex? Time to move on. We've got to go see Krone.' Runyan was near the top of the device. His voice carried faintly.
'A little longer. I've hardly explored a tenth of this thing.' Isaacs allowed control of his temper to slip a little.
'Goddamnit, Alex, we're on a tight schedule. You're never going to understand that thing poking around by yourself. It's not going anywhere, and we've got to talk to Krone if we can!'
Runyan muttered something unintelligible at the height, but began to climb down, feet clanging on the scaffolding steps. When he reached the bottom, his eyes still contained a glow of passion.
'That thing is fabulous! Do you see those immense particle accelerators?' He pointed at the hedgehog protrusions. 'And apparently a gigantic superconducting magnet. Inconceivable that one man did that!'
Danielson clutched the lone lab book to her chest and felt a pang of jealousy. Jealous of a machine! Damn him! she thought.
Back at the administration building, Isaacs gave Floyd a receipt for the lab book.
'We'd like to try to see Krone. Perhaps we could borrow your van.'
'I'm really afraid that won't -' Floyd said, then halted, stopped by the steel in Isaacs's eyes. He thought desperately, but could see no recourse. He could try to stymie this group, but others would follow. Silence had been his only defence, and now that silence would inevitably be shattered. Why had these people come?
'Yes, of course,' he conceded. 'I'll give instructions to the driver.'
'That won't be necessary. The pilot who flew us up can drive. I don't want to cause you excess trouble.' Or let you in on any more than necessary, Runyan finished to himself.
'Fine, if that's what you wish. I'll give directions to your man, it's just a short drive, perhaps fifteen minutes.'
'Is there anyone else in the house?' Isaacs inquired.
'There is a, ah, woman. She's lived with him in the big house for, well, I guess about two years now. I believe she's been taking care of him while he's — incapacitated. There is also a Mexican couple who come in to help, but they are only there for half a day. They wouldn't be there at this hour.'
Isaacs herded his team into the van and made sure they had the directions straight. A woman. He remembered the stories of the Russian refugee he had heard from his contact in the FBI. Of course, she could be some old peasant lady who changes his sheets.