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Chapter 18

From his helicopter seat, Robert Isaacs looked down on the lights of the ellipse, the thrust of the Washington Monument , and the illuminated sheen of the White House. His exhaustion ran so deep that the sight barely stirred him. His hands stung from burns and his belly ached from the cold, greasy, hastily packed box lunch that he had grabbed from the commissary at Holloman Air Force Base and shared with Pat Danielson on the flight back to Andrews. With luck, he thought, the car would be depositing Danielson at her apartment about now. He, on the other hand, had to face the most important meeting of his career with scarcely the energy to hold his head up. There would be shock, a lot of heat, a search for scapegoats. He knew he would be a target if his collusion with the Russians were revealed.

He hoped he didn't look as bad as he felt. The clean jacket that an aide had picked up from his home and delivered to Andrews helped, but he could see singe marks where the shirt cuffs showed. He looked at his watch as the helicopter settled onto the pad on the White House lawn. 11:37. A helluva time to decide the fate of the nation. He thought he might prefer to change places with Runyan, trussed up in a hospital bed, or the two agents who had gone chasing a Ferrari through the mountains of New Mexico. Isaacs wondered whether they had got anything to eat. He steeled himself as the door swung open and climbed down into the rotor's wash. He supervised the unloading of the precious footlocker, keeping one of the lab books to show the President and then headed for the nearest door of the White House.

Inside, a White House guard escorted him to the cabinet room. Isaacs thanked the guard, opened the door and stepped inside. Seventeen people were seated around the large table which filled the room. Isaacs nodded to the Vice— President, several cabinet officers, the Chairman of the National Security Council, and various others he knew. He recalled that the Secretary of Defence, smart enough to beat the August heat in the capital, was absent on a tour of European defence installations. Some of the faces displayed excitement at the state of emergency, others, blasй and disgruntled at the lateness of the hour, glanced at him long enough to ascertain that he was not The Man and returned to desultory conversations. The President's chair, halfway along the table, its back to the window, was still empty.

Howard Drefke rose from his seat at the far end of the table in front of the unlit fireplace. Wayne Phillips, who had been seated next to him, also stood as Isaacs walked the length of the room to join them.

'Bob. How are you?' Drefke's voice was low m the hush of the room, but warm.

'I'm fine.' Isaacs grimaced slightly at the pain of the handshake, but offered his hand as well to Phillips. They sat down, Isaacs taking a spare chair next to Phillips. He placed the scorched lab book carefully on the table. 'Sorry to call you back here so suddenly,' Isaacs said to the physicist.

'No problem at all. I'm so happy to be of service.'

'You brought the slides from Gantt?'

'Yes, they're in the machine.'

Phillips gestured at a projector sitting on the waist high table next to Drefke in front of the fireplace. Isaacs checked the alignment of the screen at the other end of the room, next to the door through which he had entered. He confirmed that Drefke had brought the satellite photos. All seemed in place.

'I caught one of those commuter flights from La Jolla to Burbank just after you called this morning,' Phillips continued, 'and Ellison was ferried over from Arizona. We had several hours in Pasadena to assemble the data and make the slides before my flight east. I'm sorry that Ellison isn't here to help with the presentation, especially since poor Alex is hurt. His condition is not too serious, they tell me?'

'No, he lost some blood, and he'll be in a bit of Paul for a while, but he'll be fine. In any case, you're the head of Jason, the man the President will want to hear from.'

The door banged open and the President barged through. Isaacs immediately perceived that the individual normally so bluff and hearty on television press conferences was thoroughly steamed. He strode to his chair and sat down so quickly that no one had a chance to stand. There was a momentary bobbing of bodies as several of the people started to rise, thought better of it, and resettled themselves. The President had a piece of paper partially crushed in his tight grip. He slammed it on the table.

'The goddamned Russians have gone berserk! This is the third hot line message from them today. This morning they wiped out the nuclear device that was our protection against their laser. All afternoon they've been methodically picking off pieces of space junk, showing what they can do. There are rumours in every major capital that our surveillance system is compromised and that one side or the other is on the verge of a preemptive strike.'

He poked a rigid finger at the paper.

'If we so much as blink we'll be at war and our NATO allies are panicked to the point where any one of them could push the wrong button.'

He looked around the table. 'The Russians are mad, and they are scared, and they are blaming us. I want to know what the hell is going on!'

The President paused and forcibly composed himself. He continued with a quieter but still strained tone. 'They seem to think that we have developed and are testing some fantastic new kind of weapon which can be fired through the earth.'

He turned towards the Director of Central Intelligence at his far right. 'Howard, you indicated you could shed some light on this. I hope you don't mind sharing one or two of your secrets with me before the whole world goes up in a goddamned nuclear war!'

A look of anguish passed over Drefke's face. The sarcastic attack from his old friend pained him, and he knew the President was not going to like the story he had to tell.

'Mr President,' his voice quavered, but then grew stronger, 'the case I have to present is highly unorthodox. My associate, Mr Isaacs, has only just this moment returned with the evidence to confirm that we are faced with a peril of unprecedented proportions. Through a bizarre set of circumstances, the earth itself has become mortally endangered.'

'I've always considered nuclear holocaust dangerous,' the President said, his irritation still plainly evident.

'I don't mean war, but something far more insidious,' Drefke pressed. 'If our understanding is correct, the issues we currently regard as crises, including this exaggerated light sabre rattling of the Soviets, become nearly irrelevant.'

Drefke could sense that his strong statement, coupled with the ire of the President, had created a profound air of discontent around the table. He rushed on.

'Our current understanding has been developed by the Office of Scientific Intelligence under Mr Isaacs with the collaboration of the Jason group chaired by Professor Wayne Phillips who is here to answer questions of a technical, scientific nature which may arise.'

Phillips nodded at the array of severe faces which surrounded the table.

'I will give you a brief overview,' Drefke continued.

'Mr Isaacs will then provide details of the present situation. He paused and looked at some notes before him.

'In late April, analysis of seismic data from the Large Seismic Array showed a peculiar signal. Closer examination by members of the OSI staff revealed this signal to be quite regular with a period of eighty and a half minutes. Attempts to relate this signal to a man-made origin were unsuccessful. On the contrary, the source of the seismic waves moved along a line which always pointed to the same direction in space.'

'Hell's fire!' The expletive came from the representative of the Office of Naval Intelligence, a man of stern military bearing. Several people in the room, including the President, flinched at the outburst. Drefke, who had beer anticipating it, looked at him stonily.

'You're talking about the same thing the Navy has beer monitoring on sonar,' the Navy man continued. 'Fixed orientation and all that. We lost a ship on that mission. What the hell's going on?'

Drefke looked Godly at the President, confident of his special relationship.

'If I may continue?'

The President nodded and Drefke proceeded to ignore the hot glare of the naval officer.

'It is true,' he said, 'that the phenomenon generates an acoustic signal in water which is the counterpart of the seismic signal within the earth.'

His voice took on a slight condescending note. 'My colleagues in the Navy are aware of the phenomenon I'm discussing. They chose not to pursue the matter in a manner which would give any useful insight.' Drefke knew that this simple statement on his part would eventually cause heads to roll in the hierarchy of naval intelligence, including, perhaps, that of his obstreperous colleague at the table. He proceeded with the matter at hand.

'The Navy lost a ship, the Stinson, with tragic loss of life, while monitoring this phenomenon. That relates to another important point. At the same time, also beginning last April, another chain of events was set in motion, which.are well-known to all of you here.' Drefke hunched forward, leaning on the table, and looked intently at his colleagues. 'I am referring to the Soviet carrier, the Novorossiisk.'

There was a rustle and exchange of glances around the table. Drefke continued.

'You all know what transpired from that seemingly minor incident. The Soviets unveiled their first laser and demolished one of our surveillance satellites. We captured that satellite, thanks to the brave action of our shuttle crew, but that led to the launch of a new laser satellite and our nuclear weapon in a standoff which was broken this morning, leaving us in our current state of emergency. We now have reason to believe that the object which damaged the Novorossiisk and, in sad fact, sank the Stinson, was the very thing the Stinson was sent to monitor, the source of the odd seismic and acoustic waves.

'Mr President,' Drefke faced his commander-in-chief, 'we now believe that all these events and several more peculiar happenstances are intimately related, although it was difficult, until very recently, to see the common thread. It is very much to the credit of Mr Isaacs and his team that the crucial connection was made. The seismic information was used by the OSI to predict that the source of these waves would appear in Nagasaki and Dallas on specific dates last summer, July 7 and July 26, respectively. In each instance, there was some relatively minor, unexplained damage. In each case there was also a death, but neither was directly attributable to the source of the seismic waves. This much information was presented to Jason by Mr Isaacs in early August. A possible explanation was forthcoming.'

Drefke leaned back in his chair, took a deep breath, looked at Isaacs and Phillips, and then exhaled. He looked keenly at the President.

'Mr President, I know you have heard the term "black hole".'

'Yes,' the President answered with a note of questioning in his voice, 'some sort of gravitational trap, I believe. Supposed to be formed by a collapsing star, if I have the picture right.'

'That is the basic idea,' Drefke assented.

'So what's the point?' the President demanded. 'Are you going to tell me that in addition to the Russians threatening to blow us to kingdom come, we are about to fall into a black hole?'

'Apparently, Mr President, we are doing so at this very instant.'

This statement brought outbursts of protest from around the table. Drefke looked pained again and raised his voice.

'Mr President! Mr President! I beg your pardon! If I could be allowed to explain.'

The President quieted the group. 'Russians I can deal with somehow, Howard, but what the hell are you feeding us now?'

'Please consider my position,' Drefke pleaded in the most dignified tone he could muster. 'I sympathize with your incredulity, but you have not heard all the arguments. Understand that there is no way to introduce this idea without surprise and shock.'

'All right, all right,' said the President with protesting hands in the air. Then he dropped his elbows to the table and supported his head in his hands muttering, 'Jesus Christ!'

'At the Jason meeting the suggestion was made that, despite the seeming impossibility, the only explanation consistent with the facts was a very small black hole. In addition, a suggestion was made for a definitive test of this hypothesis. Such a thing should have a precise and measurable gravitational field. The meeting with Jason was on the second and third of August, nine days ago. An expedition was mounted a week later, and results were obtained only yesterday.

'Mr President, the answer is unambiguous,' Drefke continued. 'An object with a mass of about ten million tons and of very small size is oscillating through the solid matter of the earth as if it did not exist. The conclusion seems inescapable that the object is a black hole and that it is slowly consuming material from the inside of the earth. Left unmolested, that process will proceed to completion.'

A stillness had fallen on the room as Drefke spoke. It continued for a few moments, then was broken by the President.

'And now you are going to tell me the Russians are onto this thing and think we have done it?' he said in a forlorn voice. 'Why wasn't I apprised of this before I had World War Ill dumped in my lap?'

'Sir,' Drefke pleaded, 'as I said, the results confirming the hypothesis only became available yesterday, and even then there were important unanswered questions. You must understand that the notion was so incredible that we had to be absolutely sure before bringing it to your attention.'

Drefke paused to collect his thoughts. He had always been comfortably frank with this man before and after he became the President, but he did not care to confess in front of this group his culpability in delaying Isaacs's investigation. He chose his words carefully.

'Besides drawing us into a confrontation in space, the I Soviets have been pursuing their own investigation of the ' damage to the Novorossiisk.' He could not suppress a quick glance at Isaacs. He also did not want to expose Isaacs's role in tipping the Russians to the nature of the black hole. 'We are not sure of the details, but with their extensive naval deployment in the Mediterranean and the Pacific, they have evidently also discovered the regular sonar pattern associated with this thing. We have recently found that I they have a series of vessels deployed precisely on the path that the, uh, black hole follows as it punches through the earth's surface.'

'May we deduce then,' an abrupt voice broke in, 'that the Soviets have the same information that was available to ! our Navy?' The forceful baritone belonged to the Secretary ' of State, a diminutive man whose tone belied his physical stature. 'But they have gone ahead to reach the conclusion that this thing is a great danger?'

'I believe that is a fair statement,' Drefke replied. In his peripheral vision he could see the jaw muscles of the naval intelligence officer clinch and bunch.

'And they have concluded as you have,' the Secretary of State continued, 'that it is a black hole and have further concluded that we are responsible?'

'That seems to be the best guess,' answered Drefke.

'They have individuals with the necessary insight and imagination. Often their highly compartmentalized system keeps the people with the data from the people with the insight. In this case, however, one of their very. best scientists has been in on it from the beginning, starting with the analysis of the events on the Novorossiisk. Academician Viktor Korolev.'

There were several nods of recognition around the table. Korolev's defence-related work was known to many of them.

'We think,' Drefke continued, 'that it is very likely that, faced with the same data, Korolev would come to the same conclusions that we have.'

'Where did this thing come from then?' the chairman of the National Security Council demanded. 'Outer space?' He glanced at the Secretary of State. 'Why do they think we had anything to do with it?'

'Those questions are closely related,' Drefke said. 'I want you to follow the logic so that you can see that the Russians, Korolev, have probably done the same thing. I would like Bob Isaacs to lay that out for you and report what he found today.'

'Very well,' said the President, 'Mr Isaacs, why don't you proceed?'

Isaacs stood, fighting the fatigue of his hectic day, images flashing: the discovery of Krone's lab, the race to New Mexico , the machine, the encounter with Krone and the woman, Latvin, the flight back. He had to admire Drefke's presentation, a politician who'd scarcely heard of the phrase black hole a day earlier. He moved behind Drefke to the projector, switched it on, and picked up a laser pointer, as the officials swivelled in their chairs towards the screen.

'I'm going to leave out some of the background details for now,' he said, pushing a button to advance through a number of the slides Gantt and Phillips had prepared, until he came to the one he wanted.

'This,' he said, 'is an illustration of the path the black hole takes when it comes out of the earth, rises to a peak, and falls back in. It will then go through the earth and come out the other side. For now, I want you to concentrate on the fact that it rises to a fixed height each time. We can determine the amount of time it is above the earth's surface, and that tells us how far up it goes. The answer is fifty seven hundred feet. The simplest hypothesis is that it was formed somewhere at that altitude and always returns to that height as it swings in orbit through the earth.'

He pushed the button and advanced the projector to a map of the earth centred on the western hemisphere. He used the laser pointer to mark twin red horizontal lines.

'Here you see the path where the orbit intersects the earth's surface, one line in the north through Dallas and Nagasaki , another in the south. As you have heard, we obtained hard evidence that we were dealing with a black hole only yesterday. We immediately did an orbital survey of every point on those two red lines that was at an altitude of fifty-seven hundred feet. You can see there are not many, because of the broad expanses of ocean and low terrain, but it still took some time. You can appreciate that with the orbital path and timing data, the Russians can follow the same procedure. All the locations of interest were empty save one.'

Isaacs paused and looked at the floor as he gently cleared his throat. He looked up and found, not to his surprise, that he was the centre of undivided attention. He pointed to the map.

'That exception is here in New Mexico , east of the White Sands proving grounds and just south of the Mescalero Apache reservation in the Sacramento Mountain Range.'

'Wait a minute now,' the President said excitedly. ' New Mexico ? You're claiming this thing was made in New Mexico ?'

Isaacs flipped through several more slides to reveal a blown-up photograph.

'This is a satellite photograph of the point of interest taken late yesterday afternoon,' he explained.

All around the table the members of the council peered intently at the complex of buildings perched on top of a mountain range.

'We found out this morning that it's a private research laboratory, subcontracted to the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, two hundred miles to the north. The man who runs it is Paul Krone.'

'Krone? Of Krone Industries?' the President inquired. 'Yes, sir,' answered Isaacs.

The President exchanged a glance with Drefke. They both knew that Krone had heavily financed his opponent in the last election.

'And now you're going to tell me he made a black hole? There?' The President extended a pin-striped arm and pointed a finger at the slide without removing his eyes from Isaacs. 'At a government sponsored laboratory? Right in our own backyard? Without our knowledge? Without my knowledge?'

'Yes, sir, that seems to be the case. When we discovered the site this morning, I took a team for an emergency visit to confirm our suspicions.

'There is a machine in this building,' Isaacs said, using the pointer on the screen, 'the details of which we do not understand. But it is of gigantic proportions and appears to have consumed the rock missing from this ridge.' He pointed to the bare patch of mountain top bordering the lab. 'That's over ten million tons of rock, and the strong circumstantial evidence is that it was compressed by this machine to produce the black hole.

'We then proceeded to a home which Krone maintains near the lab. We found him in a semi-catatonic state. He attempted to commit suicide about four months ago and has some brain damage. We recovered from his study a set of laboratory notebooks, of which this is one.'

Isaacs stepped around behind Drefke, picked up the lab book from his place and walked half the length of the table to set it by the President's elbow.

'We haven't had time to study them) but they seem to contain a complete record of Krone's experiments which led to the creation of the black hole. There may also be important computer files.'

'It's burned!' exclaimed the President.

'Yes, unfortunately. A woman who lived with Krone attempted to burn them. It was a ruse on her part to distract us while she smuggled Krone out the back door. Some were badly damaged before we could stop her.'

'She smuggled him out? While you were there?' The President was incredulous 'Where are they now?'

'The woman got away with him, at least temporarily. They're somewhere in the mountains. We have air and ground search parties after them.'

'Who is this woman?' the Chairman of the NSC inquired.

'Her name is Maria Latvin. She's apparently a refugee,' Isaacs explained. 'From Lithuania. Krone met her in Vienna after she escaped, and she's been living with him ever since.'

'A plant?' the Chairman asked.

'Not that we can tell,' Isaacs answered. 'We're still looking into her background, but the escape from Czechoslovakia seems genuine enough. It's in Krone's character to take up with such a person, to flaunt the possible security risks.'

'Why would she run off with Krone?' the Chairman pressed.

'We haven't come up with any motive yet.'

The President slumped back in his chair.

'All right, let me summarize this.' He shook his head in dismay. 'Krone somehow eats a mountain at government expense and makes a black hole. That black hole punches a hole in this damn Russian carrier?' He looked at Drefke, who nodded his assent. 'The Russians from some perverse instinct, which turns out to be right, assume we are at fault, and start our first space war.

'I thought we had everything fought to a standstill up there,' he jerked a thumb at the ceiling, 'eyeball to eyeball, and all that, and all of a sudden they don't just blink, they haul out a baseball bat and crack me upside the head. And turn all our low orbit stuff into a damn shooting gallery with their laser. God knows what else they've got in amid.

'Now, Howard,' he turned to look at his Director of Central Intelligence, 'you seem to be saying that what's happened is that the Russians have followed the clues and deduced that we made a black hole there and are more convinced than ever that we're out to get them.'

Drefke straightened in his chair, his thoughts equally divided between the crisis before them and the years of friendship with the man at the centre of the table. Those years would be swept away if he didn't handle this properly.

'We have no final proof, although we are working through our contacts in the Soviet Union to find out just what they know. The circumstances strongly suggest that they reached the conclusion at virtually the same time we did, that we manufactured a black hole there. Blowing up our nuclear satellite was apparently their way of letting us know that they're on to us.'

'Mr President.'

All eyes turned to General Whitehead, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was a large man with bristly close-cropped hair and, at this hour, stubble on his stern jaw to match.

'I've been out of my element with this black hole stuff, but now we are beginning to get into my territory. As I see it, we need to get the Russians back into their corner while we sort all this out. First of all, we need to make crystal clear to them that they've absolutely got to put a cap on any escalation of the current situation. All this skeet shooting they've been doing is one flung, but if they so much as scorch a surveillance satellite, they had better put their population on alert. I also recommend we go after that laser again, to give ourselves some breathing room.'

Drefke ignored the General and spoke to the President again.

'The immediate task before us is to defuse the anxiety of the Russians, not to scare them further. I think that candour is the best policy here. I recommend you tell them everything we know, give them all our data and let them reach their own conclusions. Yes, there is a black hole. Yes, it was made at that site,' he gestured at the slide. 'That should add to our credibility. We must convince them that it was an accident, not an offensive act.'

'I agree with that sentiment,' the Secretary of State firmly announced. 'Mr President, the problem we face here is a unique one. We must bear in mind that, although a US Government lab is involved, the threat is a universal one. I believe it is incumbent upon us to share the information we now have not just with the Soviet Union, but with all our major allies, the People's Republic, and the Third World.'

There were outbursts of protest. The National Security Advisor finally gamed the floor.

'Mr President, I sympathize with the desire of the Secretary for openness and candour, but it seems to me premature to broadcast this problem until we fully understand all the ramifications. At all costs, we must avoid the widespread dissemination of this information and the panic that would ensue.'

'We already know the basic nature of the problem,' protested the Secretary, 'and we may very well need to call on the resources of other countries to devise a solution.'

'This country has plenty of resources on its own,' rumbled General Whitehead, 'and in any case I don't like telling the Communists any more than we have to.' He shot a glance at Drefke. 'There's no way they won't twist this around and throw it in our face, or somehow use it as a lever against us. We should keep the Russians on a short leash and the Chinese should certainly be kept out of it.'

'I don't disagree that the Chinese have very little to offer us in the current context,' the Secretary appealed to the President, 'but for the sake of our future relations with them we must keep them apprised of a problem of this magnitude and of such universal concern. The same argument applies even more strongly to our allies.'

'If these fellows are right,' replied the General, gesturing with a thumb towards Isaacs and Drefke, 'we may not need to worry about future relations.'

'And if that is the case,' rebutted the Secretary, 'there is certainly no point in maintaining your cold war mentality towards the rest of the world. On the contrary, we can throw out the historical constraints and solicit the aid of the world community to tackle this common menace.'

'Rot!' said the General, heatedly. 'If knowledge of this situation becomes widespread, it will just put more pressure on everyone. There will be an every-man-for-himself scramble, and the world political situation will go to hell in a handbasket.'

'If we sit on this until it is too late,' the Secretary insisted, 'and then spring the problem on the world, something like you describe may well occur. That is why it is of the utmost importance to proceed immediately and discreetly to inform others of the situation so that a cooperative and measured response can be orchestrated.'

'Mr President,' the Security Advisor cut in, 'I think we must make a guarded release of information to the Soviets. We must make them understand we are aware of the problem and taking active steps to explore the facts. I believe we must also inform our closest allies of the basic situation. They deserve to know what has caused the Soviets to react so dangerously. I confess I would proceed gingerly in spreading this information any further than absolutely necessary. I would suggest holding off with the Chinese and the Third World countries.'

While the Security Advisor was speaking, an aide came in and banded the President a message.

'Hold it!' he said, cutting off the Secretary of State, whose mouth was open to reply. The President read the message through again, then looked around the table.

'We may not have the luxury of designing our response to the Soviets. I have here a message from Colonel Grigor Zamyatin, head of Washington KGB.' He turned to fix first Drefke and then Isaacs with a steely glare. 'It says that fifteen minutes ago Paul Krone and Maria Latvin were put on an Aeroflot flight from Mexico City to Moscow.'

Isaacs felt the room spin and his hurriedly consumed meal congeal into a knot.

'Colonel Zamyatin would like an audience,' the President continued. 'He's waiting at the front gate.'

'You can't have him in here,' General Whitehead protested.

'Show him in,' the President addressed his aide.

The room was deathly quiet as they awaited the arrival of the Russian. Isaacs strained to understand what had happened. Had Latvin been a spy? How could she have known what Krone was up to when his own government didn't? Or was she put onto Krone on general principles and just happened to hit the jackpot?

The door opened and the aide ushered Zamyatin in. He walked to his left along the wall until he was directly across the table from the President. The President nodded and there was some shuffling to vacate that chair. Zamyatin sat in it with deliberate calm.

'Colonel.' The President greeted him. 'I'm rather surprised Ambassador Ogarkov is not bringing whatever message you bear.'

'When the river reaches floodtide, new channels are carved,' Zamyatin replied. 'I assure you my authority comes from the highest levels.'

'That will, of course, be checked,' the President responded. 'Am I to understand, Colonel, that you have openly confessed to the abduction of an American citizen?'

'Ah, you attempt to seize the initiative,' Zamyatin replied, unruffled. 'But you have a weak hand. Of course we have taken him, and the event pales next to the heinous act the individual committed, the one for which you are ultimately responsible.'

'What act are you talking about?'

The Russian left the question hanging for a long moment. 'If you are going to be stubborn,' he finally said, 'this discussion can be carried on in a more public forum.'

The President met his hard gaze, and again there was silence.

'Why did you take him?' the President asked.

'We intend to know everything there is to know about this crime against humanity. Paul Krone is the ultimate source of that information.'

'He must be returned to us.'

'Ah,' said Zamyatin, 'precisely what we had in mind.' He enjoyed the look of surprise that flashed on the President's face. 'We would like to return Dr Krone to you along with his charming companion.'

'You just kidnapped him: now you want to return him,' the President said, with mild scorn. 'What's the rest of the deal?'

'The deal,' Zamyatin said carefully, 'the deal is an exchange. The two people for the complete set of those.' His eyes went to the charred lab book that still sat, momentarily overlooked, beside the President. 'Krone is of no use to us in his present state. We want those lab books and any other written or computerized records.'

'Mr President,' General Whitehead said in a low warning voice, 'we don't know what sort of valuable information may be in those.'

'Of course you don't,' Zamyatin snapped, his gaze fixed on the President, 'not the way you have bungled this affair. Mr President, there is undoubtedly information in those books that would be considered priceless for defence matters under ordinary circumstances. We are not concerned with that now, nor can you afford to be.

'Mr President,' the Russian's voice turned cold and hard, 'you have delivered a mortal blow to my country, your country, the very planet itself. There is the merest wisp of hope that the peril can be removed. The Soviet Union is prepared to take any steps that may rescue us from the monumental insanity which you have visited upon us.

'First,' he continued in a matter-of-fact tone, 'we must understand the problem in minute detail. That means knowing what is in those books and other records, and in the mind of Paul Krone. We have Krone, you have the records and the sophisticated medical techniques that may restore Krone's health. We will swap.'

'You must return Krone,' the President said firmly, 'but we do not need your spy: you can keep the woman.'

'Spy?' Zamyatin cracked a small smile. 'Yes, she is one of us, an illegal escapee, but no spy. Let us say she was merely susceptible to persuasion, a family in the old country, you understand? And you do need her. She is the only contact with the man. Yes, we could keep her, exact the usual punishment, but we believe her presence will hasten the day that Krone becomes rational and useful. You see we are trying to be reasonable.

'Of course,' the Russian shrugged, 'we will also send a more reliable representative to monitor your progress with Krone. We expect you to relay to us every scrap you learn from him.'

'That's outrageous,' the President said, 'you can't expect us to put one of our citizens under a microscope for your pleasure.'

'The outrage has already been committed,' Zamyatin replied. Godly. 'You will put Krone under that microscope to serve your own ends. We are merely asking you to share the proceeds.

'Mr President,' Zamyatin continued, his voice suddenly friendly, 'I think you do not adequately appreciate the spirit of the offer we are making. There is no shrinking from your ultimate responsibility here, but the problem is immense and complex. We do not demand Krone and his records. You will have Krone and his machine, and, of course, you will keep a copy of the records. We must share this information and seek a common solution to our common peril.

'The seeds of cooperation on this problem have already been planted.' The Russian glanced for the first time at Isaacs. Although no one else seemed to notice, Isaacs felt as if a spotlight had just been turned on him. His heart raced, and he could feel his face flush.

'To further this spirit,' Zamyatin continued, 'we will make the following additional offer. Mr President, you know Academician Korolev, our distinguished scientist?' 'Yes, of course I do,' the President replied tentatively. 'Academician Korolev took an early and active interest in this problem. You know that he is crucial to our defence effort and has never been allowed to travel to the West. Mr President, as a gesture of good will and of our intention to hasten the day when a solution may be devised, we are prepared to place Korolev at your disposal as our scientific ambassador.

'Mr President,' Zamyatin continued, cordial and reasonable,

'I do not expect a reply to our offers just now. I deduce you have only just learned of the problem. You will need some time to fully appreciate the situation, and the generosity of the proposals I have presented. I would remind you that there are factions in my government that are not amenable to such a cooperative approach. There are some who would advocate immediate public exposure, an attempt to wrest full propaganda value from your predicament. Others would contemplate far more serious and direct reprisals.

'Before I go, there is one other thing. I stress that we have proposed a cooperative approach to the problem at hand. We presume that you do not want the situation and your role in it to become widely known. We will follow your lead in such matters if you will but cooperate with us in one other regard. The problem with which we are now faced arose from a certain line of investigation.'

The Russian paused, holding the eyes of the President.

'We ask that you immediately cease all research and development on beam weapons and related technology.'

The room filled with a crescendo of outrage. General Whitehead was among the loudest, shouting, 'I knew it, I knew they'd turn this against us.'

Zamyatin rose and departed, as if oblivious to the uproar his demand had caused.

'Mr President,' General Whitehead continued to shout, 'we cannot even think of responding to that crap. If we make the slightest concession there, they'll come after our nuclear arms.'

The President cracked a loud palm down on the table, resulting in a rapid, strained silence.

'It's nearly one A.m.,' the President said. 'I'm going to adjourn this meeting. I want you all on call by six. In the meantime,' he addressed his National Security Advisor, 'I want to know precisely the line of authority Zamyatin represents and the makeup of the other factions he mentioned.' He turned towards Drefke. 'Howard, I want you, Isaacs and Professor Phillips to stay. I need a little more perspective on this.'

The President led them to an upstairs study and poured brandy all round. They sat in silence for a while, each man trying to assimilate the rush of events in his own perspective. For Isaacs, the shock of Zamyatin's announcements had waned, and he could feel the deep fatigue again, but he carried a burden he knew he must unload. He appreciated Drefke's attempt, not completely altruistic, to avoid mention of Isaacs's communications with Korolev. For that matter, Zamyatin could have roasted him, but chose not to. He knew, though, that the President could not reach a cogent decision without knowing all the background. From a strictly personal point of view, he would be better off confessing his involvement with the Russians rather than having the President discover it, as he surely would. He broke the silence.

'Mr President.' The eyes of the three men swivelled to him. 'I have been in on this affair from the beginning. There are some things about Zamyatin and Korolev you need to know.'

Drefke lifted his eyebrows in surprise, but remained silent.

'Let's hear what's on your mind,' the president said.

'I have been aware for some time,' said Isaacs, searching for the right words, 'that there is a contingent in the Soviet Union which has some sympathy for our situation. I believe Academician Korolev is a key person in that contingent. I think that he has led them to the understanding that we are dealing with a black hole and that it was made here, but I think he recognizes the true nature of the problem, that it transcends geopolitics. Korolev is under pressure; he had to tell them what he knew. But he is sympathetic to us, and he had influence there. I believe the offer to have him work with us is highly significant, both scientifically and politically. Mr President, I think it is crucial that we reach out to the people Korolev represents.'

'Even though they demand we abandon our research on beam weapons, giving them full head to develop an antimissile technology unilaterally?'

Isaacs had no reply to that.

The President looked sharply at Isaacs. 'How can you be so sure that this one man can and will be of help to us?'

Isaacs knew what was coming. He looked at the floor and then back at the President. 'I've been in touch with him,' he mumbled.

'What was that?' the President demanded.

'I said, I've been in touch with him,' Isaacs replied.

Phillips stared at Isaacs in surprise. Isaacs vividly recalled his private conversation with the physicist in La Jolla , his suppressed desire to confess his communications with Korolev.

'You mean the Agency has?' the President asked.

'No sir, it was a personal correspondence.'

'Personal?' the President blurted. 'You mean to say you've been communicating with Korolev directly? On the most sensitive issue of the decade? Goddamnit, Howard,' he turned to Drefke, 'don't your people know what channels are for? I've got black holes in my back yard, laser cannons in the front, and hired hands sending postcards back and forth discussing policy!'

'At the time there were extenuating circumstances,' Isaacs attempted to explain.

'Extenuating?' the President exclaimed. May I ask just what you and Korolev were discussing behind my back, that you didn't care to have me know?'

'I knew that Korolev was in charge of the Novorossiisk investigation, that he was puzzled and frustrated by it. That much was clear from official communications. Our effort was bogged down after the Stinson was sunk.

'Frankly, sir,' Isaacs continued, 'I was frightened. I thought something was smiting ships, triggering a global confrontation. For a variety of reasons, my efforts were stymied. I thought that Korolev might have more luck getting to the bottom of things.'

Isaacs rolled the brandy snifter in his hands. 'I told Korolev about the seismic signal and my suspicion that it was related to the damage to both ships.'

'You told him that?' The President was angry and bewildered. 'You gave us away? Virtually inviting him to look for and find the black hole and pin it on us?' He rose and paced to a window, peering into the dark outside.

Isaacs spoke to his back, trying to explain more than defend his actions. 'I had no idea we were dealing with a black hole at the time, certainly not that we were in any way responsible.'

The President turned from the window and spoke to Drefke. 'My god, Howard, you sandbagged me! Did you know your man had been talking to the Russians? This borders on treason.'

'Jim,' implored Drefke, falling into old, first name habits, 'it was a lot more complicated than that. Yes, I did know it, and I had already had it out with him. It's not what it seems. You can't take it out of context.'

'Why don't you just put it into context for me then?' The President was still angry, frustrated at events that had spun so rapidly out of his control.

'The simple fact is that we wouldn't be anywhere on this thing if it weren't for Isaacs here,' Drefke continued his appeal. 'The black hole would still be there, eating away, and we wouldn't have the faintest idea. This thing was bound to blow up in our face one way or another. We know that after the Novorossiisk, one thing led to another and we've got into a fine jam over it, but we would still have no idea why. Isaacs broke every rule in the book to reach out to Korolev, but I agree with him that that contact is probably our only way out of this problem. Without Korolev, we could be dealing with a bunch of generals ready, anxious, to finger the button.

'As it is,' he continued, 'there is some evidence that the Russians have been calmer to react than they would have been if Isaacs hadn't been in touch with Korolev.'

'Calmer?' The President was incredulous. 'They just blew our nuke out of the sky!'

'They were on the verge of it six weeks ago, when they first put up the hunter-killers. Cooler heads prevailed, and we have reason to believe that Korolev was instrumental.'-

'How do you know that?'

'We got it from Zamyatin.'

'From Zamyatin? What the hell is his role in all this?'

'We don't fully understand. His appearance this evening was a total surprise to us. But he does seem to be in Korolev's camp. He's been the liaison between Korolev and Isaacs.'

'Oh, for crying out loud!' The President returned and dropped back into his armchair, slopping brandy over the side of his snifter and onto the carpet. 'Honest to god, Howard, how am I supposed to run this country if things like this are going on behind my back.'

'Jim, this has been a complex and rapidly changing situation. We have only begun to appreciate the stakes in the last couple of weeks, to see how it all ties together. You've got to look at the signals,' Drefke implored. 'There are people over there trying to understand, trying to keep a lid on things. Sure, they're trying to get some advantage from it: they have to cover their own asses internally. But we still have to seek them out, appeal to the rational ones who see the common danger if we're going to keep the crazies in check. We need to pacify the Russians and figure out what to do with this damnable black hole, but we must tackle both problems together. We've got to open up and work with them on this thing. If we don't, they'll cram it all down our throats, the black hole, their laser, everything.'

Drefke stared at the familiar figure, unsure whether his arguments were effective.

Isaacs had scarcely breathed during the intense discussion. He appreciated Drefke's stout support and thought that the Director had established his moral motivation as well as possible. Still, his breach was massive. There were immutable political forces once such things came to the attention of the President. Without seeing the specifics, Isaacs numbly recognized that his career at the Agency was over.

The President got up and went to the serving cart. He put down the sticky glass and poured some more brandy into a fresh one. He sat and took a reflective sip. After a moment he said, 'Let's put aside the political factors for now. I need to get some feeling for the broader perspective.

'You say,' the President continued, looking at Drefke, 'that this black hole is consuming the earth, that the earth is falling into it, as you remarked previously. But apparently there is little directly noticeable effect now. How soon before we have an emergency on our hands? That is to say, a public emergency?'

'That's a difficult question to answer,' Drefke said, glancing quickly away from the President to Isaacs and Phillips and then back. 'The ultimate danger is apparently many generations away. But let me stress that although that is farther in the future than we are normally used to dealing, the threat is real and implacable.'

'But what is the future course of this flung?' the President asked. 'Professor Phillips, I haven't heard from you. What is your prognosis?'

Phillips set aside his brandy and clasped his fingers in his lap before replying.

'If it continues on its course,' Phillips said, 'there will be a phase of increasingly violent earthquakes. As the object grows bigger it will be able to trigger large earthquakes by releasing stress already stored along fault lines. At a somewhat later stage the tunnels themselves created by the passage of the object will be so large that their collapse will engender a continuing series of major earthquakes. As the hole grows even larger, the earth will begin to orbit it. The oceans will be sloshed from their basins by huge tides. The earthquakes will grow in magnitude until the whole earth is rent by them and totally uninhabitable. In the final stage, all the material of the earth will be consumed, and only the black hole grown to about this size will be left orbiting the sun.' He made an OK sign for illustration.

Silence filled the room as Phillips finished his description. The President stared into his glass. He gave his head a small shake and looked up towards Phillips. 'I must ask again how long it will be before this thing becomes overtly dangerous in the way you have just described? With the earthquakes and tidal waves?'

'Such a thing could happen now,' Phillips said, 'particularly in the Far East or along the coast of California where the orbital plane intersects regions of tectonic activity.'

'But when will such things begin to occur with regularity? ' the President inquired.

'Very difficult to answer,' Phillips shook his head, 'perhaps a hundred years, maybe as much as a thousand.'

'In a sense then, we have that long before we must cope with this thing directly,' the President asserted, 'that long before massive deaths begin to occur.'

Phillips thought for a moment. 'Yes, the hole will become a deadly menace at some point, but that may not be a measure of our grace period in terms of taking active steps against it.'

The President raised an eyebrow in question. Phillips unclasped his hands to draw an elliptical path in the air with his finger. 'As the hole follows its orbit, it is subject to drag forces as the inevitable adjunct of its consuming the matter of the earth. These drag forces will slowly cause the hole to spiral to the centre of the earth. After a certain period of time, the orbit of the hole will no longer carry it above the surface of the earth. After that it will be totally inaccessible to us and our fate will be truly sealed. Right now it is difficult to say whether the hole will disappear beneath the surface before or after the massive earthquakes begin. We will not have to rely on theoretical estimates for long, however. Observations currently under way will tell us directly how fast the settling is occurring even if we have no accurate way of predicting when regular extensive damage will begin.'

The President rested his forehead against his hand, leaning on the arm of the chair. He rotated his head from that position and once more inquired of Phillips, 'There remains one more major question then, doesn't there?' He looked straight into Phillips's eyes. 'What can we do about it?'

Phillips returned the President's gaze forthrightly.

'Mr President, on this issue I must be perfectly candid. So far none of our discussions have produced a glimmer of cause for optimism.'

Phillips glanced at the other two men and then returned his attention to the President. 'Understand that I do not mean that we must accept defeat. We have only just begun to study the problem, and it would be foolhardy to suggest that because a possible solution is not apparent now that one will not be forthcoming in the future, if enough ingenuity and manpower are brought to bear. But it would be equally foolhardy to minimize the magnitude of the problem. This object is so tiny and so massive that it cannot be moved except by the most titanic of forces. My colleagues and I are far from ready to give up on the problem, but we must all be prepared to concede at some point that there is no solution. It certainly is conceivable that the earth is doomed.'

The President absorbed the gloomy assessment. 'Well, we can't give up without a fight. You spoke of manpower and ingenuity, Professor. What can this office do to provide the resources necessary to find a solution to this problem, presuming one exists?'

'Just now the stress must be more on ingenuity than brute manpower,' replied Phillips. 'At the present stage we need an idea, or set of ideas, some hint of a useful programme. Then I imagine that a massive engineering programme such as the Manhattan Project or the Apollo programme would be called for.'

'From the scientific point of view,' the President rubbed a hand over tired eyes, 'can we proceed without the Russians?'

Phillips pondered his answer. 'I appreciate the dilemma you are in. You cannot lightly submit to coercion. We have many great scientists in this country, men and women who would gladly give up careers of research to work with you on this. Perhaps, no, we don't need the Russians in that sense. But you ask me as a scientist. I will tell you this. I do not know the depths of Korolev's political connections, although I have every reason to believe that he has great influence. But I do know that there is no brain on 'earth that I would rather have working on this problem than that of Viktor Korolev.'

The President nodded, then spoke. 'Gentlemen, I have much to think about. Please keep yourselves on call.'

They left the White House by a side exit and climbed into Drefke's waiting limousine which whisked them away through the quiet Washington streets.

Chapter 17 | The Krone Experiment | Chapter 19