Authors: Paul Draker
Mayhem Press LLC
PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA
lake shook his head in disbelief. “You called a U.S. senator an ass-clown, Trevor. To his
“He’ll live,” I said. “Politicians are basically sociopaths—incapable of feeling true embarrassment.”
“Mistake.” He looked away, but not before I caught the flicker of a microexpression across his jowly face. The corners of his mouth had pulled toward his ears for a fraction of a second—almost too quick to notice.
He was afraid.
I snickered. Fifteen years on DARPA projects, most of them black, and Blake still had no clue how the money side of defense spending worked. High IQ didn’t always translate to real-world smart. I’d learned that lesson well enough watching my classmates at MIT.
Blake fumbled with his cigarette pack. “I suppose you’ve got a commercial-world job lined up, then,” he said. “But you still shouldn’t burn bridges.”
He was afraid my comment to the senator would get all our funding cut—not just mine, but his, Kate’s, and Roger’s, too—maybe the entire outlay for DARPA’s Pyramid Lake facility. Blake had spent his whole career inside the bubble that was the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It was all he knew. He’d be unemployable in the commercial sector now.
“You’re a moron,” I said. “Linebaugh is the majority senator for Nevada.
“And you just insulted him.” Blake’s lower eyelids tightened briefly. Fear again. “It’s been nice knowing you, buddy. They can give your hundred-million-dollar toy to the DOE to run nuclear safety models.”
“That’ll never happen,” I said. “Using Frankenstein to simulate nuke stuff would be like using a Formula One Ferrari to deliver pizza.”
Blake’s expressive face made catching his tells easier, but I couldn’t do it reliably. Very few people could, even with extensive training. Many microexpressions—involuntary signals of suppressed emotion or hidden intent—lasted less than a thirtieth of a second, which was too brief for the human eye to register. Every once in a while, a study would turn up a “truth wizard” or “human lie detector” with a freakish ability to detect even the most fleeting microexpressions, but they were one in a thousand. I knew I wasn’t one of them, but then again, I didn’t need to be.
I clapped him on the shoulder, and stepped over to the railing that encircled the roof of our five-story lab building. “Our funding is untouchable, and I’ll tell you why,” I said. “What do you see all around us?”
“Is your demo ready to roll? The Senator wanted to tour the labs after lunch.”
“Big deal. So he’ll have to wait.”
“Nobody your age should be so cocky, Trevor. You may be DARPA’s fair-haired golden boy of the moment, but I’ve watched ’em come and I’ve watched ’em go.”
“Right now, it’s probably toxic even to be
with you,” he said. “I need to think of my career. I should have just stayed inside.”
“You’re the one who needed a cigarette break.” I didn’t have to catch microexpressions to see the worry on Blake’s face now. He was a big, heavy guy, two hundred sixty pounds and six-foot-five easy, but his stoop-shouldered slouch and deferential posture made him look no taller than I was. “Relax,” I said. “Our money’s safe, for reasons that lie in every direction. Or actually, reasons that don’t.”
He shambled over to join me at the rail. “Okay, I see what you’re saying. You think our grants are protected because our facility’s smack in the middle of the Paiute Indian reservation. I understand the politics.”
I chuckled. Blake understood organizational politics about as well as his clumsy robots did.
“Wrong,” I said. “Not even close.”
I looked out at the silver water lapping the shore a mile away. Closer to the facility’s outer fence, the Needles—gray and white towers of calcified tufa—stood in eerie silence. They jutted from the shore of Wizard’s Cove and poked up from the water like giant broken fingers. The Needles were closed to hikers because they were ecologically fragile—a fact that also helped the Navy enforce a secure perimeter around the facility.
Blake lit another cigarette, buying himself time to figure out what I was getting at.
Off to the right, close to the lakeshore and just outside the perimeter fence, the geyser spewed its continuous jet of steaming water twenty feet into the air. The gurgle and hiss carried to the rooftop where we stood, five stories up. The geyser’s steam plume drifted through the chain-link fence, nearly reaching our height before it dissipated in the cool air.
Glancing at Blake, I decided that I needed to get out of the defense industry once my work at Pyramid Lake was done. Another two years at most. Stay in too long, and I’d end up like him, plodding from grant to grant, working pork projects that would never see the light of day. His robots would never leave the lab, I knew.
I leaned my elbows on the rail and took a deep breath of the clean, faintly alkaline air. White pelicans swarmed above Anaho Island in the distance. From where I stood, I could see the entire two hundred square miles of Pyramid Lake’s mirrored surface. As on most days, not a single boat, Jet Ski, or Waverunner rippled the glassy water.
“So what are these supposed reasons all around us that protect our funding?” Blake waved a clumsy hand at our view, trailing cigarette smoke. “We have the lake itself. Too far off the beaten track, fishing restricted while the Lahontan cutthroat population recovers, and the tufa’s too ecologically fragile for tourist dollars. The lake’s beautiful, I’ll give you that. But it didn’t bring the Paiutes a dime until the Navy leased it from them in the mid-forties.”
“As a bomb and torpedo range.” I shook my head in disgust. “Bureau of Indian Affairs must have loved
“You know there’s still tons of vintage ordnance down there?” he said. “I got hold of a bathymetric survey. We should go diving some day, see what we can find.”
He ground his cigarette out against the railing and dropped it into a seventies-era sand-bucket ashtray. “Okay, so I agree, it’s probably less expensive for the Navy to keep extending the lease and subleasing to DARPA.”
I nodded. “Lot cheaper than that half-assed environmental cleanup they started ten years ago and never finished.”
“But none of this means Senator Ass-Clown has to put up with your arrogant bullshit, Trevor.”
“No,” I said. “It doesn’t.”
“Maybe if you apologized to him—”
“Think about it for a moment,” I said. “What’s north of here?”
“Black Rock Desert. A whole lot of dry, dead nothing, except during the one month a year when Burning Man’s on.” He cleared his throat. “You really have a talent for making enemies, you know.”
“Well, we have Reno, Carson City, then miles of desert, then Vegas—”
“Forget all that,” I said. “I’m talking about military, research, and government installations.”
“Okay, we’ve got UNR and UNLV. A couple Air Force bases down south—Nellis, and the drone command center at Creech. Nevada Test Range, of course. There’s the naval air station, Fallon, where they train the TOPGUN guys—”
“Yucca Mountain,” I said.
Blake frowned. “Yucca Mountain’s dead. Nobody wanted high-level radioactive waste stored there, no matter how deep they dug it. The not-in-my-backyard folks won. Obama’s Blue Ribbon Nuclear Future Commission took Yucca Mountain off the table forever, last January.”
I gave him a big grin. “Exactly.”
He tried to hide his surprise but did a lousy job. I spotted the momentary lift of his upper eyelids. Even Blake could connect the dots now. It didn’t take a genius.
Linebaugh’s only real job as senator was to bring federal money to Nevada. He had weaseled his way onto all the important funding committees, and the more pork he grabbed for his state, the better his odds for reelection would be. Pork meant military and research funds, including black project dollars for Top Secret work in Nevada. Linebaugh had to find a way to spend it all or he’d lose it, and killing Yucca Mountain meant he had fewer choices now. It was time for Pyramid Lake to get a bigger slice of the pie.
“You still shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds you,” Blake said. “But maybe I’ll keep quiet, because after the senator crosses your ridiculously oversize line item out of the budget, there’ll be plenty left over for the rest of our projects.”
I laughed. “Just for that, Blake, I’m going to call Linebaugh an ass-clown again. Right to his face. And then you’re going to watch him
I left him standing at the rail, shaking his head, but I needed another twelve million for Frankenstein. The reason was simple: I liked staying ahead of the competition.
I had heard that IBM had another expansion planned for Sequoia, the Blue-Gene/Q supercomputer at Lawrence Livermore National Labs. Already capable of forty petaflops, Sequoia was supposed to be the fastest computer in the world right now.
Only, I knew it wasn’t.
enator Grayson Linebaugh didn’t look very impressed by the front room of my lab, but that was okay. The real magic happened next door, through the steel double doors in the back wall. He strode across the raised computer floor, leading his little entourage over to where I sat in front of a terminal. The heels of his glossy burgundy oxfords clicked loudly on the two-foot square tiles. I had opted for antistatic frosted-glass flooring instead of the usual steel-clad particleboard—more expensive, but I liked the way the glass tiles looked: slick and high tech instead of boring and institutional.
Blake, Kate, Roger, and McNulty trailed behind the senator and his aide like zoo animals following the keeper at feeding time. The three research heads had already done their song and dance, and now they were tagging along for the rest of the tour, probably out of concern that I’d do something to make us all look bad. Blake looked nervous. Kate was giving me her usual look of disgust. Judging by the expression on Roger’s face, he had already mentally clocked out for the day and was probably deciding whether to drive down to Reno tonight, as he usually did, or just pick up a twelve-pack on the way home.
McNulty, our facility administrator and liaison with the Navy, stared a warning at me.
Without getting up, I swiveled my chair around to face them.
“I won’t waste your time and mine with a bullshit PowerPoint dog-and-pony show,” I said.
Behind Linebaugh and his aide, I saw Kate’s face darken. I grinned. For the past two weeks, she had spent every waking hour polishing her presentation slides—your taxpayer dollars at work—just so she would be ready for the senator’s visit.
Linebaugh looked amused. “You’re asking for another six million this year,” he said. “Let’s hope you have something better to show me than PowerPoint slides.”
I smirked. “Oh, I’m sure that when we’re done here, you’ll have no reluctance asking the American taxpayer to shell out for my work. But the grant request you got is out of date.” Leaning forward, I handed him a sheaf of paperwork. “Here’s the correct one.”
McNulty cleared his throat and moved to intercept, but wasn’t fast enough. Linebaugh was already flipping the document to the last page.
million?” Linebaugh’s eyebrows went up and stayed up. It was an affected gesture, I knew, because true surprise lifted the eyebrows for maybe half a second, tops.
“Senator, I apologize.” McNulty said, reaching for the paper. “This wasn’t—”
“McNulty hasn’t had a chance to sign it yet,” I said.
it? I haven’t even…” McNulty shut up and let his hand drop.
Linebaugh handed the paperwork to his aide. He raked back the lapels of his suit coat with his thumbs, tucked his hands into his pockets, and looked at me for an explanation.
“McNulty can sign it after you do,” I said. “Any ass-clown can see how vital to national security this work is.”
The stricken look on Blake’s face was priceless.
A frown creased Linebaugh’s forehead, but he made it disappear almost instantly. He was good, I had to admit.
“I can see why you didn’t last long at Lincoln Lab, Trevor,” he said. “Although I understand you moved here for ‘family reasons.’”
I wouldn’t let him push my buttons. Still, my face felt tight. I couldn’t help thinking of Jen and Amy.
Amy was seven now, and one lousy weekend a month with her was not enough for me to be a proper father. There was something going on with her—some new problem that Jen, my ex-wife, wouldn’t talk to me about. But in our last few strained calls, I could tell she was worried about it.
I squeaked my high-top sneakers against the floor tiles—a harsh screech that silenced the background murmur of conversation—and stood up.
“Would you like to see what your tax dollars are buying, Senator?”
ADRID. Machine-Aided Deception Recognition and Intent Detection,” Linebaugh said. “I hear you’ve achieved some impressive
results.” He took another look around the lab. “I didn’t get a chance to read your abstract on the plane, so why don’t you bring me up to speed on how it works.”