Three Sides To Every Story
Nick saw the car just ahead, parked under an elm on Jefferson Drive. He and Ashleigh picked up their pace as they covered the last fifty yards to it.
Charlie Miles sat at the wheel, a silhouette in the near-darkness. He'd waited here while the two of them had gone to find Becktel in his hideaway office. Now Miles saw them coming, and Nick heard a soft thunk as the car's locks disengaged. Ashleigh opened the rear passenger door and Nick followed her through it, leaving Miles alone up front.
"Drive," Nick said, and gave directions to the place he had in mind: another cheap motel like the one he'd checked into earlier. Dirty, random, anonymous—safe.
Miles pulled away from the curb and took a left onto 3rd Street. The Capitol Dome slid by on the right; to the left, the broad swath of the National Mall slipped past.
Nick stared at the back of Miles's head and thought of the videotape he'd seen just days earlier. Women bound to tables, pleading for their lives, only to be executed while their husbands were made to watch. Miles had obviously played some role in those abductions and murders—after all, he'd known exactly where Ashleigh was being held when he'd staged his mock-rescue of her.
How involved was this guy? Neck deep? Waist deep?
Either way, he couldn't be trusted. Unfortunately, there was no real choice but to work with him for now: he had the connections the two of them needed. He also had the same enemies they had, and there was a kind of bleak reliability in that. It would do. For now.
"You get what you wanted?" Miles said.
Nick felt the shape of the USB drive in his pocket. "Yep. Every file."
Nick's laptop was in the gym bag at his feet, but he made no move to turn it on and upload what he'd copied from Senator Becktel's computer. There was something pressing harder on his mind just now: the words he'd seen on Becktel's monitor while the download was in progress.
Popov wants action.
The Brethren want the Apocalypse.
Putin wants Little Big Boy.
"We need to sort out who exactly we're up against here," Nick said. "Who and what. After all I've seen in these past few days, here's my read on it: there are three separate entities moving toward the same objective: control of some weapon system called Little Big Boy." He ticked off the three players on his fingertips: "Senator Becktel wants it, Putin wants it, and the Brethren want it."
"Are we assuming my father is acting independently?" Ashleigh said. "Given his real past... his origin... isn't it possible that he's just serving Putin's ends at this point?"
"Neither scenario is good," Nick said. "Let's just consider both to be plausible until we know more."
Up front, Miles cocked his head. "What are you saying about Becktel? He's working with the Russians?"
"Strictly speaking," Ashleigh said, "he is Russian."
In the rearview mirror, Nick saw Miles's eyebrows knit together. Saw the man's gaze darting back and forth, not over the traffic ahead but over some logical terrain in his own mind: a landscape of rivalries and double-crosses, of power and all its less-than-scrupulous suitors. He looked like a wolf who'd just learned of some new dynamic among the pack's leadership, assessing possible impacts on his own standing.
"Interesting," he said at last.
"The name Popov mean anything to you?" Nick aksed.
Miles expelled a breath that was almost a laugh. "I should've guessed," he said. "The son of a bitch. If Becktel really is still working for the Russians, Popov is his handler. Bank on it. But, like you said, even if the Senator is on their team, he might still be playing his own game. Maybe he has his own ideas for Little Big Boy."
"Why do you say that?" Ashleigh said.
"Because there's one thing that sets Senator Becktel apart from everyone else in this game: Putin, Popov, the Brethren, the three of us... we all know that Little Big Boy is a weapon of some kind. We know it has some relation to nukes, and we know that it's somehow related to the PRIMROSE system of radiation sensors. But that's all we know. We don't know what
Little Big Boy actually is, or what it does. But Becktel does, which is a hell of an upper hand to have and not take advantage of. Especially for a man like him."
For a long moment they all rode in silence. No one could argue against that point.
Nick's hand returned unconsciously to the USB drive.
"It's time we had that advantage ourselves," Nick said.
They reached the motel five minutes later, checked into two adjacent rooms on the second level, and gathered in the one Nick and Ashleigh had taken. It could've doubled for the place Nick had stayed in earlier, right down to the constellation of drop-burns on the ragged carpet.
Nick took the laptop from his gym bag, opened it on the bed and, within a few minutes, had the USB drive's contents uploaded to it. Then the three of them went through the files one by one, opening each of them and scanning them closely, no matter how innocuous they looked. It was an old trick to bury sensitive information deep inside an otherwise-boring document.
Their shovels hit pay dirt on the seventh file. It was a JPEG image, an optical scan of a memo with the Defense Secretary's letterhead at the top. It was almost entirely redacted, not with magic marker like in the old days, but with digital processing. Neat black rectangles, maybe right out of Microsoft Paint, had been dragged to cover all but one paragraph in the middle of the document:
The Secretary would like to meet with you at your earliest convenience to discuss security measures surrounding LBB (formerly Whiskey 7). This is
a matter of some urgency.
Nick heard Miles's breath catch, and then the man's hand shot to the computer screen. His fingertip traced an underline below the words LBB (formerly Whiskey 7).
"L-B-B," Miles whispered. "Little Big Boy... Whiskey Seven. Holy hell..."
He stood upright and paced to the window overlooking the parking lot, plowing his hands through his hair. Nick and Ashleigh watched him, trading a quick look between themselves.
"I know what it is," Miles said. "I've known all this time, and didn't even realize."
"Tell us," Ashleigh said.
For a moment, Miles didn't reply.
Then, still looking away over the sodium-lit sprawl, he nodded.
"Early in my career I did a stint with DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. I did security and monitoring for a special division designated Engineering Unit W, though everyone just called it Whiskey. Probably the scariest people I ever met. A dozen engineers, not one of them able to hold a conversation like a human being. None of them had a wife or kids, or even a friend in the world. These men had all faked their deaths—as if they had lives to start with—to come and work for DARPA, designing things that weren't even possible to build."
"What would be the point of that?" Ashleigh said.
Miles turned from the window. "I should've said, ‘things that weren't possible to build yet.' Whiskey's role was to design ahead of present technology. Develop weapons that would only become feasible ten or fifteen years down the road, with predicted advances in computing power, scaling-down of chip sizes, all that stuff. Project Seven seemed like the least realistic thing Whiskey ever came up with—on any timeline."
"What was it?" Nick said. "What is it?"
Miles paced. Somewhere out in the night, a car horn blared. Voices yelled, laughed.
"At a glance, it's a missile," Miles said. "Man-portable. Hell, it's probably child-portable. It's about the size of the tube inside a roll of paper towels. It flies just above the ground, fast as a .30-06 bullet, and then it kicks out a little drag chute and sets down right beside its target, soft as if it fell off a couch."
"And then what?" Ashleigh asked, not sure she wanted to hear the answer.
"It opens and releases its payload,
which is the part I thought could never
be built." He stopped pacing and stared at them. "The payload is a swarm of remote aircraft, each one about the size of an apple seed. They communicate wirelessly with each other, and with a chip inside the rocket casing. The rocket, in turn, communicates with the operator, who controls the device from a wireless terminal with a range of 10 miles. That person directs the swarm to enter the target through air ducts, wiring ports, plumbing or any other available opening."
Miles shook his head. "Nope, only one kind. A nuclear missile silo."
Nick felt his pulse begin to press against his eardrums. He thought he could guess the rest of what Miles would say.
Miles saw his expression and nodded. "The swarm takes control of the nuke. Seeks out the key access points in the arming electronics, hacks in within a few minutes. At that point, the remote operator who fired the little rocket has full command of the silo."
"When you say the swarm controls the nuke," Ashleigh said, "you mean the remote operator could actually launch the damn thing?"
"Not only launch it, but re-target it to any coordinates he chooses. He could also detonate it right there in the silo, or just fry all the circuitry and render the nuke useless. The last option is probably what the guys at Whiskey had in mind. Use it against some upstart nuclear power like Pakistan or North Korea. Send in teams of Force Recon marines to stake out every silo in the country, and then in one coordinated night, eliminate their entire arsenal."
Nick thought about it. His eyes went to the laptop, and the one paragraph that hadn't been redacted.
"Becktel helped the Defense Secretary establish security for Little Big Boy," Nick said. "Which means he knows the security inside and out. If he decides to make a move to get control of the system... he can probably do it. God knows what he has in mind for this technology."
"Or what Putin or The Brethren would do," Ashleigh said, "when and if they learn its capability. This could get out of control. Rapidly."
"Right," Miles replied, "and there's one more thing: PRIMROSE is useless against this. Think about it…our network of radiation sensors have to be pre-programmed with the locations of our current nukes, otherwise there'd be constant alerts."
Before Nick could reply, his phone rang. He took it out and checked the display.
Nick answered, then listened for several seconds as Fletcher spoke. He'd just arrived at the White House, having recovered from Miles's tazing a half an hour earlier. And there'd been news waiting for him when he reached his office. Lots of it. Nick remained silent while he relayed it, and then they ended the call.
He glanced at Miles and then Ashleigh.
"Russian military forces worldwide just stepped up to a heightened level of readiness," Nick said. "The president is about to move us to DEFCON 3 in response. So we can drop the future tense. Whatever this thing is, it's already happening."
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