| After Shock |
By Stephen Kyle
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GENERAL BENSON CREWE of the U.S. Marines felt a cold sweat as he stood in the Pentagon's National Military Command Center watching his country come under attack, though he knew it was just an exercise. The big board screen showed an enemy missile speeding through space a hundred thirty miles above the Pacific, heading for California. Ben's eyes flicked to the exoatmospheric kill vehicle launched to intercept and destroy. If the EKV missed, the ICBM's nuclear payload would strike Los Angeles in eleven minutes. His heart thuddedthe EKV's trajectory was off. It flew past the intercept point, missing by miles, and the missile raced on at fifteen thousand miles an hour, straight for the U.S.A.
"Close, but no cigar," an Air Force major nearby muttered.
Ben let out a tense breath. The ICBM was only a Minuteman with a dummy warhead launched from a U.S. Air Force Base; the EKV had been launched from an atoll in the Pacific. As chief of the Office of Naval Research, Ben was among a roomful of military, political, and corporate leaders gathered to observe the latest test in the National Missile Defense program, the president's socalled nuclear shield.
But the catastrophe felt almost real. His palms were clammy.
He glanced around. Raytheon and Boeing executives stood critiquing the disappointing results, but looked unfazed. No wonder. The NMD program pumped a hun-dred billion their way, win or lose. Their calm unnerved Ben. Couldn't they imagine the devastation from a missile strike like the North Koreans' new Taepo-dong 2? Didn't they suffer the nightmares he did, knowing how helpless the country was against such an attack?
And yet, had he expected it to go any differently? This was just the latest in a long series of test failures in the president's overhyped initiative. The success rate was a miserable twenty percent. National Missile Defense was a crock.
He knew what really had him so on edge. Carol's message on his voice mail. "Dad, we have a problem."
Her tone had been businesslike, as always, and she'd left no details, just a time and place to meet for lunch, but he'd heard the undercurrent of fear. A problem. His daughter wouldn't use the word lightly. He was seeing her in an hour. Hell, he was feeling too jumpy, but he'd taken too many risksillegal onesto stop now.
"What's your call on this, Ben?"
It was Graham Sloan, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. The five-star general was a head shorter than Ben, with a bland face and quiet manner that led some to under estimate his toughness, something Ben had seen him use to his advantage. They'd been friends since the day thirty-two years ago when Ben had carried Sloan's bleeding body off a Vietnamese jungle path under sniper fire and took a bullet in the thigh. In captivity, they'd kept each other sane. Now, as the nation's top soldier, Sloan supported the NMD program. Can he take the truth? Ben wondered. Can't give him anything less.
"Primitive, inadequate, and impractical," he answered. "Primitive because the EKV intercept principle is like trying to hit a bullet with a bullet. Inadequate because if an enemy launches multiple warheads, your bullet can go after only one, letting others through. Impractical because the program's sensitive to political cancellationit's already got the Russians crying foul about ABM treaty infractions, barely a year after the president made it top priority. In any event, estimates indicate three years to develop the system plus three more to deploy, so what we get is guaranteed obsolescence with a hundred billion price tag." He shot a glance at the corporate suits. "This isn't a policy for defense, Graham. It's a policy for defense contractors."
Sloan's smile was wry. "Don't be shy with your opinions."
Ben felt an itch to go the last step, reveal his secret. HARC overcomes all these obstacles. But he held back. Not the time or place. Just a few more months. Then, Sloan will shake my hand and thank me. The country has the capacity to deal with all threats except nuclear missile attack. HARC will truly make our nation safe.
But the news his daughter brought him that muggy July day compelled Ben to a change of tactic. If he'd known the horror it would unleash, the lives it would claim, he would never have given his physicist the order he did that night.
Rupert's Grille was Georgetown's "in" restaurant of the moment. Carol always kept up with these things, Ben reflected as he walked into the chrome and terra-cotta atrium. Part of her job: see and be seen. She'd built a hot PR firm in Boston by being on top of trends. At eleven-forty, though, the Washington lunch crowd hadn't yet left their offices, and the string quartet CD was playing to an almost empty room.
He spotted her at a table in the corner, tapping at her Palm Pilot beneath an arty photo of a Parisian street market. Ben thought Carol herself always had a touch of Paris about her. Even in an unadorned blue business suit she looked chic, poised, beautifully turned out, like her mother, with Julia's perfect features, fair complexion, rich blond hair. He felt a raw twinge. Since his wife's death two years ago, he saw her more and more in Carol.
"Not late, am I?" he said as he kissed her cheek.
She smiled. "You're never late."
Ben sat opposite her, dropped his napkin across his knee, and looked around to check that no one could hear. "What's happened?"
Her smile slid away. She folded her arms, elbows on the table, as if it were her desk, and lowered her voice.
As she too glanced around, Ben's fears for HARC rekindled. Litvak was the senior member of the Senate appropriations committee. "I had breakfast this morning with another senator's aide," Carol said. "The word is, Litvak's about to make an announcement. He's fired up about excessive spending on military research and he's going to call for a comprehensive investigation. It'll hit everybodythe Army Research Office, the Air Force's Philips Research Lab, and you at ONR. You know how these things go, Dad. Once teams of accountants start digging, they'll look under every rock."
"Does Litvak suspect anything? Has he got anything?"
"My sense of it is that he's just taking up a cause 'cutting the waste,' and all that. Good for his reelection. But if this goes ahead" She stopped, and seemed to shiver. "Dad...we could be talking prison."
"Can I take your order, General?"
Startled, Ben looked up at the young waiter at his elbow. He ordered an omelet he didn't want; Carol a crab salad.
"Fresh Malpeque oysters today as an appetizer, Mrs. Ryder. Can I tempt you?"
"Not today, Tony. Thanks."
The waiter filled their water glasses, collected their menus, and left.
Ben's thoughts were already on containment. The appropriations committee chairman was Harley Gustafson, the senior senator from Alaskaand Ben's secret ally. "I'll go see Harley," he said.
"You think he can stop Litvak?"
Ben had never seen her so anxious. Not good. He needed her to stay strong. "Carol, Harley's our best bet. But I'm also going to light a fire under Crosbie to move the schedule ahead. We may have to make this thing fly sooner than planned, before Litvak can get to us."
"And Mike?" she asked. "Do we finally tell him?" He saw the worry deep in her eyes, and felt at a loss. His son-in-law was HARC's lead scientist, crucial to making Ben's bold strategy work, but Mike Ryder didn't know Ben's full plan as Carol did. HARC was, in fact, Mike's creation: the High-frequency Auroral Research Center, almost operational in Alaska, would focus the world's most powerful beam of high-frequency electromagnetic energy up to the ionosphere, superheating a patch of it into a virtual mirror to reflect back lower frequencies for use in submarine communications. Or so Mike believed. From day one Ben had intended HARC to be a weapon. Still, he thought of Mike as his own son, and he'd found it painful maintaining the deception. It had been necessary, he reminded himself. Still was. "Not yet," he answered. "Not until we have to."
Carol began tidying her place setting, an obsessive habit, moving the fork a fraction, the water glass, the dessert spoon, the yellow rose in its vase. Ben knew she was trying to recover her composure. Hiding the truth from Mike had been tough for him, but worse for her. He felt an impulse to let her know how much her loyalty meant to him. He reached across and covered her hand with his.
"You've shown great courage in this, Carol. I'm proud of you. Proud that I can rely on you. And believe me, once we've demonstrated HARC's capability, Mike will recognize our foresight and be as proud of you as I am. But until then, the course we're on is bestfor Mike too. I'll talk to Harley, and I'll get Crosbie moving. It's all going to work out, for Mike, for usand for our country."
She looked into his eyes. "Oh, Dad. I know." It was a relief to see her smile again.
A blast of rap music assaulted Ben as he stepped into the college hangout in Tuscaloosa that evening, stale-mouthed from the flight. Why would Crosbie pick this dive? he wondered, heading for the bar. Black walls. Sticky concrete floor. The stink of spilled beer and cigarette butts, and a whiff of backed-up toilets. Raucous talk rose from the clusters of unkempt kids at long tables with beer pitchers, others playing pool.
Meredith Crosbie looked up from her bar stool. "How's life in the nation's capital, General?" "Hot," he said, taking the stool beside her.
"Hotter here in 'bamawith the added drawback of no intelligent life." She raised her beer glass. "With the exception of yours truly."
Ben looked at her. Mid-forties, no makeup, no flab, the wiry build of a track and field athlete, which she had once been. Her cloud of curly red hair, feathery as a child's, gave an impression of innocence. A wrong impression, Ben had quickly learned in his association with her. Dr. Crosbie was a physicist with a mind like the proverbial steel trap. A professor of physics here at the University of Alabama, she was a fallen star doing time in a backwater, teaching undergraduates, and Ben knew her exile rankled her. He'd made use of that, kept her dependent. Until now. Tonight, he needed her. A speaking engagement in D.C. tomorrow meant he couldn't get out to see Gustafson until the day after. He had to start with Crosbie.
"So, what brings you, General?"
He looked around, wondering if this was a secure place to talk. He'd dressed to look inconspicuous, gray slacks, tan golf shirt, and navy sports jacket, and Crosbie was in a plain black pants suit, but in this crowd they stuck out like teachers at a high school rock concert. On the other hand, their age made them so dull to the kids, they were virtually invisible. And with the blare of rap, plus three bar TVs tuned to the ball game, no one could overhear.
A trio of girls in skimpy summer dresses were laughing at the end of the bar, and Ben noticed Crosbie stealing glances at them. He knew of her taste for nubile undergrads. That's why we're here, he realized: it's where she scores. He thought of the official position: Don't ask, don't tell. Crosbie was a civilian, but he figured it still applied. Anyway, he didn't give a shit about her sex life.
"What'll it be?" the bartender asked. Young, laid-back, an Asian face. Ben recoiled inside. Asian features always did it to him. It was reflexive, beyond his control, a bug in his nervous system ever since they'd kept him in that bamboo tiger cage, half-demented under the broiling Vietnamese sun.
"Mineral water," he said. "Only soda." "Fine."
The kid scooped ice cubes into a glass, poured soda from the jet, slid the glass toward Ben, and walked away. Ben looked down at it. In the cage, they'd given him water they'd pissed in.
"Maybe you should go crazy for once, order a martini," Crosbie said, amused.
He turned to her. Time to do business. "I need the parabolic capability. How soon can you upload it?" She looked startled. "Upload? No way. I've just started the beta testing."
"That's not critical. I need you to speed things up." She shook her head. "I've created a new kernel that's the core of the software. I think it's clean, but it's inconceivable there won't be bugs. With any new program there are thousands."
"But they're usually insignificant, aren't they? Screen refreshers, details like that?"
"General, you know my work. I don't do sloppy. I've given the software to my lab assistants for beta testing, and I'll await the results. As I said, I think it's fairly clean, but the last bugs have to be worked out." Ben couldn't let this hold him back. "Could they be worked out on-site?"
Her eyebrows lifted. "At HARC?" "Yes."
"They could, but..." She cocked her head at him, intrigued. "Why the sudden rush?"
He met her gaze. Time she knew. "Doctor, what you've been working on is more important than I've led you to believe. It's not only about improved sub communications. It's a breakthrough in antiballistic weaponry."
Her eyes widened. "The parabolic capability?"
"Yes." Mike had conceived HARC's high-frequency beam to superheat a patch of the ionosphere into a virtual mirror to reflect power back, which was a brilliant development. But it reflected the power in a broad band. Crosbie had taken it one step further: she'd found a way to make the mirror parabolic, to focus HARC's reflected power with precision on whatever its controllers wanted.
She shrugged, her moment of surprise past. "Makes sense. It's the military's job, after all. Weapons 'R' Us." Her eyes narrowed. "There's more to this though, isn't there, General? I've always wondered, Why just me? I could understand you signing me to that secrecy agreement the size of a phone book, but I've never understood why you've had me working alone. Since we're being so candid, let me ask. Is our agreement your personal initiative? A little side project, away from the Pentagon's management?"
Ben bristled. "Hardly little. It'll revolutionize our strategic missile defense. At present, we have none. Despite satellites that can show us the moment a missile is launched anywhere on the globe, we still haven't got the means to shoot down an ICBM in flight. We're vulnerable to attack from any of our enemies. And China... they've begun playing hardball, yet we continue to underestimate them, at our peril. In our rush to sell Coke to them, we seem to have forgotten that the Chinese have amassed the largest standing army in the history of the world."
"Really," she said, clearly unmoved. "And HARC's going to change this...equation?"
"In HARC we'll have a weapon that can destroy any incoming missile with stunning accuracy. Better, can reach around the world and take out enemy targets without having to fire a shot."
"Great. So why aren't a hundred scientists like me working on it? For that matter, why isn't Mike?"
Ben caught her sourness as she said Mike's name. Mike had been her research partner at MIT until her ambition had led her to publish fraudulent data. They'd both paid professionally for her offense, but Mike went on to build HARC, while Crosbie's reputation had been shattered. Precisely the reason Ben had sought her out.
"Because," he answered, "to openly develop such a weapon would violate our antiballistic treaties. We need HARC, but I couldn't hide such a huge project. So I built it in plain sight, as a research venture."
"Ah. Mike runs the squeaky-clean part, gets it operational, and gets the glory, while I use his data to make HARC your secret weapon, stuck here in the armpit of America. Thanks a million."
Ben allowed her the moment of disgruntlement. No need to tell her that he'd personally risked everything to get HARC this far. That for four years he'd illegally held back funding meant for other ONR projects and channeled it into HARC's development. Harley Gustafson had enabled the money flow, and Carol had managed its diversion through her PR company. But now this grandstanding Senator Litvak could rip it all apart. Over my dead body, he thought. Presenting HARC's capability to the Joint Chiefs as a fait accompli had always been his goal: if it impressed themand he knew it wouldthey could black-box the project overnight, make it a classified operation, removing it from congressional oversight. He'd scheduled HARC to be ready by October, but unveiling it sooner might now be necessary. Unless Gustafson could intervene with Litvak.
"The point is," he said, "I need the parabolic capability sooner than I'd anticipated, so I need you to upload the software immediately. Mike's already begun limited testing, so let's let him work out your last small bugs onsite. Then, with his results, you can finish the fine-tuning."
"Only, without him knowing any of this, right?" "That's essential." Ben was suddenly uneasy. Mike Ryder wasn't just a brilliant scientist, he was a hands-on manager. Would he notice Crosbie's changes? "Keeping him ignorant is doable, isn't it?"
"No problem. The interface stays identical, so he won't even know the software kernel's been modified. Anyway, people on his team at a half-dozen university labs are writing new HARC subroutines constantlyto optimize calculations, put data in graphic displays, that sort of thing. Mike expects new code. He just doesn't expect me."
She gave Ben a shrewd look. "Seems it all comes down to me, doesn't it, General? Seems now might, in fact, be a good time to renegotiate."
Ben had been expecting this. "What do you want?"
"Out of Tuscaloosa, for starters." "Once the weapon's operational, I can guarantee you a position at HARC. Not before."
"I could speed things up a lot more efficiently if you gave me Mike's job."
It threw him. She was serious. It wasn't an unreasonable requestshe'd done remarkable work, and deserved credit. And he knew she could have been a leader in her field, had it not been for her damaged reputation. But he hated the thought of displacing Mike. He trusted Mike. All he could trust in Crosbie was her ambition.
"Let's get where we need to be," he said. "Then, we'll talk."
"I'll hold you to that, General. So I'm with you all the way. Let's upload." Her smile was sardonic. "To Alaska, with love."
Ben looked her in the eye. "Do it tonight." She raised her beer. "And damn the torpedoes."
Excerpted from After Shock , by Stephen Kyle . Copyright (c) 2002 by B.J. Kyle. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top