Nothing protrayed in this novel is impossible. Nanotechnology is real.
The United States Army, Air Force, and Navy are currently working
to develop nanocapability for use as a weapon.
WHEN THE RICHEST MAN IN THE WORLD calls a press conference to announce the most important discovery in the history of the human race, a crowd can be expected. When the man calling that conference is also the head of the largest computer technology firm on the planet, Jennifer Rayne will be in attendance.
At twenty-eight, Jen no longer passed for young in the technogeek community which she covered for TEK magazinebut by any standard, she did pass for beautiful, and that quite easily. Black-haired and emerald-eyed, her features spoke of intelligence and culture, with a dash of the rebellious. This impression was not misleading.
Jennifer Rayne was not, however, at the press conference. The reason was a rodent.
A blinding white flash rent the darkness, illuminating and then obliterating the desert landscape. The air became red-orange with gamma-heat spreading outward at the speed of light. The earth trembled with the seismic shockwaveon its heels the crushing blast wave which left no thing behind. Next came the mind-shattering roar of detonation, and the demon-howl of supersonic winds. Last of all, the blinding whiteness faded to the mere scintillating brilliance of a rising thermonuclear fireball.
John Marrek would not see the cloud which followedgiven its distinctive mushroom shape by the greater drag of the atmosphere at the cloud's expanding edgesbecause his eyes melted from their sockets even as his body turned to vapor, leaving only a shadow on the ground where once had stood a man.
John awakened with a jolt, eyes haunted by the nightmare fireballa familiar afterimage burned into his vision as surely as the genes of his ancestors were encoded in his DNA.
Disturbed by the sudden motion, three pizza boxes fell from their perch on the running desktop to the floor. Rubbing tired eyes, John stared at the framed photograph on the desk before him. "Your nightmare, not mine," he said, and pointed at the picture. "And it's over."
Ten of the thirty-three computer monitors occupying the fifty foot-long, wall-hugging desktop and the shelf above it flashed to life, displaying the words IT'S SHOWTIME as a particularly annoying rendition of Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" blasted over speakers hung from the walls.
Shaking his head to clear it, John reached past a stack of NanoTechnology Magazine back-issues to kill the alarm clock program. Checking his watch, he rose from his chair and moved to the refrigerator. The photo on the desk peered after him with eyes more haunted than his own.
John Marrek's thoughts were not the thoughts of an ordinary man, and never had been. Ordinary men debated the relative merits of cubic-inch-displacement vs. horsepower, sports team performance, next Friday's hot date. John Marrek pondered the hazards of benevolent dictatorship vs. technotyranny, the probable nature of a technological God, and the undeserved fates of extinct species. And he knew, better than anyone else, that the ranks of the latter might soon include Man. That was the nightmare, in one of its infinite permutations.
Arguably not the worst.
John speculated often upon the mechanisms by which intelligent life might have spread itself throughout the universe. He possessed a fervent hope, almost religious in its intensity, that intelligent life did exist elsewhere; that Man was not alone in the cosmos. And each time he examined his fellow-travelers upon the small and fragile jewel-in-the-void which was earth, this hope grew more fervent. The reason was simple.
He longed for better company.
Guiding a rented Lincoln Navigator along a wooded two-lane blacktop on her way to the press conference, Jen checked her look in the mirror, then her watch, and then the curving road aheadwhere four sets of startled skunk eyes stared back at her.
She jerked the wheel hard left. The truck swerved violently, turning on two wheels and flying over the ditch at the side of the road. Crashing nose-first into a tree, the Navigator fell to earth.
Punched in the face by the forward airbag, Jen took a moment to wiggle fingers and toes and, convinced no major damage had been done, wrestled the deflating airbag out of the way. She checked her look in the mirror again: hair flattened, makeup ruined, nose bleeding.
"Good move, Jen."
Gazing through the open side window, Jen spotted her cell phone on the ground outside. Forcing open the crumpled driver's-side door, she stepped from the vehicle. Immediately, a cloying cloud of skunk-stench wafted over her. Looking to the road, she saw the mother skunk and her babies looking back at her. "You stinkers!" she yelled.
John's current home was a living room-like corner situated on the second-story of a battered Los Angeles warehouse. He slept here, ate here, and worked a few feet away during every waking hour. It had been that way for longer than he cared to remember.
Opening the refrigerator, he withdrew a bottle of absurdly expensive champagne and a chilled crystal glassboth of which had been waiting five years for this moment. He then made his way to an old leather lounge chair before an oversized Microtron digital television. Beside the chair was a small table, atop which was a telephone. In a few moments, simply by dialing the words NEW WORLD, John would create one. He smileda thing he did too seldom.
Popping the cork on the champagne, he poured a full glass and settled in to watch the media frenzy of the approaching press conference with the self-satisfied expression of a man who knows he is one of only two living humans to know already what the world is about to learn.
The other being Mitchell Swain.
The centerpiece of the sprawling Microtron Global Headquarters Complex was the "Black Pyramid," an imposing dark glass pyramid thirty stories high. The great glass panels reflected the sky overhead in darker hues, turning the brightest of days into omens of foreboding. The symbolism was appropriate, for when it came to computer technology, Microtron ruled the world, and its founding CEOMitchell Swainwas Pharaoh.
One mile distant from the pyramid, a cab screeched to a halt in the parking area. Jen climbed from the back, thrusting money at the driver.
"Keep it," he said, holding his nose and speeding off with the windows down.
Spotting Jen, Microtron Press Liaison Bernie Jensen hurried over. "Miss Rayne."
"Sorry I'm late."
Bernie stopped, then retreated a step at the smell. "We're, uh, about to begin," he coughed. Hurrying to keep ahead of the skunk-scent, he led Jen to one of several walk-through scanning devices. "If you'll just step through here, we'll be on our way." Walking through himself, he turned and waited for Jen. Several nearby security men became suddenly interested in the scanner's display screen. More interested, thought Jen, than they should have been.
"How much detail does this scanner show?" she asked.
"Uhmm, let's just say it's anatomically correct," said Bernie.
Jen cut him a look.
A heavyset security woman appeared, shooed away the men and took over at the monitor. Jen hurried through, getting a thumbs-up from Madge, who clamped her nose shut with the fingers of her other hand.
"Right this way," said Bernie from the driver's seat of an open-air shuttle. Taking a seat in the back, Jen began her pilgrimage to the center of Microtron's domain.
The van band came first; satellite trucks with their oversized dish antennae atop telescoping poles, poised to beam the press conference to the world at the speed of light. The trucksseveral of them semis containing portable television studiosformed a single, thin line so that each might have an unobstructed view of the proceedings via telescopic lenses large enough to be bazookas.
Stationed beside each truck and constantly patrolling the grounds were well-dressed, efficient-looking Microtron security men. Moving beyond the line of vans, Jen's shuttle approached the lawn.
Microtron's front yard was the size of a football stadium, and packed to capacity. Jen passed through what seemed a mile-deep ocean of reporters and newscrews from around the globe. The print reporters were seated, while video journalists and newscasters addressed their cameras in English, Japanese, German, French, Russian, Spanish, Farsi, and a dozen other languages she couldn't identify. Rising above the crowd on both sides were camera platforms topped by still and video photographers. Portable, cottage-like restroom facilities were tucked discreetly out of site on the far sides of these.
The shuttle pulled to a stop just before the seating area. Bernie hopped out to show Jen to her seat. "Right this way, Miss Rayne."
Jen walked along one of two paved roads normally used to ferry Microtron employees from the parking lot to the complex and back again. The walk was a long one. The only reason she could think of for making this journey on foot was that Mitchell Swain wanted to make a point. And as always where Swain was concerned, the point was hard to miss: this was the biggest press conference in history.
Oddly, an area fully the size of the great Black Pyramid itself had been roped off on the open ground to the audience's left. Improbably, a single, gleaming payphone stood at the center of this grassy tract.
The stage was massive, overshadowed only by the sheer enormity of the Pyramid behind it. Arriving at her front-row seatjust before and to the right of the black marble podium with gold Microtron logoBernie removed the TEK placard from the lone empty chair and checked off Jen's name on his guest list. The list was, of course, stored in a wireless networked palmtop computer built by Microtron and running Microtron software.
As the press liaison departed, Jen noted that a small leather pouch hung from a clip on the back of her seat. Gazing about, she saw small, identical-looking devices perched in the hands of other journalists. Lifting the pouch from the chair, Jen opened it as she took her seat. Nearby journalists leaned away from her in an effort to escape the skunk-smell.
Removing the sleek black palmtop computer inside, Jen found a small card reading: "Compliments of Mitchell Swain." Beside the gold-inlaid, pyramidal corporate logo was the name MicroTek III. Its predecessor was still the best-selling palmtop in historyand here Mitchell was, trumping his own product before obsolescence. It was the kind of signature move which distinguished the man from his lesser corporate brethren, and largely spared him the unending vitriol heaped upon them daily by both consumers and the press.
Estimating the size of the crowd and the probable cost of manufacturing the five hundred dollar device, Jen used the palmtop itself to calculate what it had cost Microtron to give one of the things away to every invited member of the press. The figure was impressivebut less than a moment's pocket change to Swain and Microtron. The release of the product had not even been announced.
Whatever this conference was about, it was going to be shattering. Only Mitchell Swain, earth's first trillionaire, could schedule a press conference without telling anyone what it was aboutand have the entire world show up to find out.
Unsmiling security men in thousand-dollar suits ringed the elevated stage, scanning the crowd with predatory eyes. A veteran of several Microtron press conferences, Jen had expected to see these menbut something about them still made her flesh crawl. The impersonal gaze which passed over and through her each time one of them looked her way brought to mind a well-attired raptor sizing up its next dinner opportunity.
The fact that they showed zero reaction to her beauty or to her perfectly-tailored ruby-red dress didn't score them any points, either.
One man in particular caught Jen's attention. Older and harder-looking than the rest and with colder eyes, he moved among the others like a lord among vassals. It wasn't so much the man's own mannerisms which drew Jen's attention; rather, it was the manner in which the others reacted when he passed by, or looked their waya combination of respect and awe.
Standing at the rear of the elevated stage, Mattman surveyed the crowd and the area beyond through twenty-power binoculars. The view did not waver in his steady hands. At fifty-two, Mattman's face was as hard as his mind. A former Army Ranger, Secret Service agent and Kennedy Space Center security chief, Mattman was the highest-paid security specialist on the planet. His eyes, and his network, missed little. He'd advised Swain against making this appearance, recommending instead a more limited, indoor appearance with a live feed to the media. Large events made Mattman nervous because they rendered complete security impossibleand a man of Mitchell Swain's influence attracted enemies like blood drew sharks.
Because of the resources at their disposal and their record of success, there was a tendency among Swain's security forcedubbed the SS by the media, for Swain's Securityto veer toward an invincibility complex. Mattman fought that constantly, disciplining or firing anyone who fell below his own standard of vigilance. The standard he set for others, that is; no one could be expected to match his own, personal standard.
Mattman did not worry about the lone lunatics who sometimes took out Presidents or pop stars; Swain's actual, in-person public exposure was minimal, and Mattman's security was second to none. Celebrities and politicians were required to make frequent public appearances; Swain was not. No, what concerned Mattman was the fact that, with each passing year, other companies, other nations which had once hoped to dominate Microtron or the United States in computer technologies saw themselves slipping further behind. That, and the possibility that an enemy of vast resourcesa nation, perhaps, or a large corporationmight one day take it into its collective head to better its own position, or to alter the course of world affairs, by taking out Mitchell Swain. For though Microtron was a brain-drain on the rest of the world's high-technology companies, Swain was, largely, still the brains of the operation. And though Microtron would not fall with Swain, it might be sufficiently weakened to provide rival companies or nations an economic advantage not otherwise attainable. A bit paranoid, Mattman thought, at timesbut then, his was a profession of paranoia.
Lowering the binocs, he listened through a flesh-colored earpiece as his seventieth perimeter scout reported in with his all-clear code. "Scout Seventy. Code: Rhino. Clear."
The man beside Mattman checked the only printed list of scouts and code-words, confirming that the man was using his assigned clear-code; use of any other word would trigger an immediate security scramble. "Two more and we're clear," said Mattman's companion.
Mattman's eyes scanned the crowd. "Run the dogs through the parking lot again," he said. The seventy-first perimeter scout checked in as Mattman turned and headed down the steps behind the stage. Pausing before a steel door with camera above, he tried the handle; locked, as it should be. A gunport slid aside in the door, revealing the muzzle of an integrally-silenced, MP7SD3 submachine gun. An eye blinked behind the iron sights. The door opened as the last perimeter scout checked in. As the first door was closed and locked behind him, Mattman approached a second, which was featureless. A ceiling-mounted camera turned to track him.
"Mattman," he said to no one. A hidden microphone picked up his voice, which was matched with a recording made earlier that day. Once his identity was confirmed by the camera, the microphone, and the guard in the hall via radio, the second door opened.
Mattman stepped through into a combination command center and high-tech office located beneath the stage. Corporate assistants worked phones and computers as stern-faced security men took radio reports and monitored surveillance devices. Unlike many corporate honchos, Swain was at ease with heavy security; to him, it was just one more cost of doing business. Mattman had quit more than one gig in the past because of the principal's "I'm-not-going-to-let-security-change-my-life" attitude; those who wanted to have a life, adapted.
Glancing toward the chief executive, Mattman made his way to the monitoring station.
Across the room, before a clean desk bearing three laptops connected to a satellite dish, sat Mitchell Swain. Tall and a shade too thin, Swain was intensebut just a tad too geekish to be considered handsome. He worked the three laptops simultaneously while speaking into a headset.
"Uh-huh," he said. "Say this: If they'll give us an exemption on property taxes and defer corporate taxes for three years, I'll put up a billion-dollar complex and hire six thousand people in six months. Full benefits. Ten days to decide."
Swain cut the call as his lead attorney approached, laying a contract on the desk. "The BrightStar acquisition," he explained. Swain clicked into another call as he glanced through the pages, which concerned themselves with the purchase of the world's third-largest private satellite network. Under his guidance, it would quickly become the largest.
"Swain," he said into the microphone. Picking up a pen, he signed the document and nodded to the attorney, who departed with the contract. "No, I won't do business with his country. Tell him I might reconsider if he starts treating people like human beings and stops pirating my software. Also tell him I laughed when you asked."
He hung up. One of the two security men in charge of Swain's food appeared with crystal glass in one hand and Cherry Coke in the other. Setting down the glass, he opened the bottle and poured. "Your drink, sir."
"Sir," said Swain's communications assistant, "I have the Prime Minister on five."
Swain turned to look at her. "Which Prime Minister?" He checked his watch. "Nevermind. Tell him I'll get back to him after the press conference."
"Yes Mr. Swain."
"Some privacy, please," announced Swain. The room emptied in moments. Mattman was the last to leave, eyes scanning the room before closing the door behind him. Shifting his attention to the center laptop on the table before him, Swain spoke. "Prometheus."
After confirming Swain's voiceprint, the computer began to dial.
On the table beside John Marrek, a notebook computer beeped. John glanced at the monitor screen, which displayed the words SECURE CALL in gold letters. "Caller?" he inquired.
Gold letters appeared from left to right: CRASSUS
The face of Mitchell Swain appeared on the screen. "Behold," he began, "we say "Let the world be born anew," and it shall be so."
"You should be here."
"Not my style," said John.
Swain gazed downward. "Everything I've ever done... Next to this..." He looked up, meeting John's eyes. "...it's nothing. Thank you."
"Soon the world will be thanking you."
"We'll see," said John.
Swain grinned. A sharp knock sounded on the door behind him. "Showtime," he announced, a bit nervously.
"Knock 'em dead."
Standing, Swain nodded, then cut the connection.
Returning his gaze to the television, John raised his glass in toast. "To a new world," he said softly.
Moving to the steel door, Swain checked the video feed from the hall beyond before pulling it open. After four years with Mattman, the security man's penchant for caution was becoming second nature to him as well. The hall, of course, was filled with security men.
"All clear, sir," announced Mattman.
Swain stepped from the room.
Two thousand miles away, a laptop computer rested atop an antique desk in a dimly-lit office. A leather chair creaked as its occupant swiveled around to face the computer. On the monitor screen was an image of the Black Pyramid and the stage before it. Across the bottom of the screen, in flashing red letters, were the words: GUN READY.
A manicured hand moved to grasp the joystick beside the computer. The hand bore a ring depicting a dragon. Using joystick and keyboard, the hand manipulated the image on the screen via satellite, bringing the stage into sharper focus. The hand moved again, aligning crosshairs on the Microtron logo affixed to the podium.
From her front-row seat before the podium, Jen checked her recorder and went over her notes for the interview she'd wrangled with Swain immediately following the mysterious press conference. A few well-placed questions had elicited from Microtron's public relations coordinator the flattering revelation that Swain had read every article she'd written for the past three years. From there it had been a short step to securing an interview.
She suspected, but was not quite certain, that the interview had been Swain's idea and not hersand that she had been deftly maneuvered into seeking it. No matter. Still, despite her knowledge of the industry, it was difficult to structure interview questions without knowing in advance what the primary topic would be.
On the stage, Joseph Jenningsthe man who'd arranged Jen's interviewapproached the podium, tapping the microphone a few times for attention. The crowd quieted.
Jen switched on her Microtron digital recorder, checked for the RECORDING light, and dropped the device in her purse. Opening a small notebook, she sat with Fisher Space Pen poised over write-anywhere paper. An apostle of high tech Jen might bebut when it came to interviews and press conferences, she'd learned the hard way not to place her faith in high-tech gadgets.
"Ladies and gentlemen," said Jennings from the podium, "President, Founder, and CEO of MicrotronMitchell Swain."
Leaving a group of security men, the richest man in the world by a factor of ten took the podium wearing white sneakers, tan chinos, and a white turtleneck with the pyramidal Microtron logo sewn into the collar. A forthright and idealistic-looking man in his mid-forties, Mitchell Swain stood six-foot-two. Though not quite handsome, he was an impressive speaker.
Taking a deep breath, Swain surveyed the massive crowd gathered before him. "Good morning," he began. "I'm sure you're all wondering why we're here..."
The scene on the laptop moved upward, focusing on Swain from chest to head.
Swain paused, sniffing the air for the source of the skunk-odor which suddenly assailed his nostrils. His gaze fell upon Jen. She felt like cringing, but flashed her most devastating smile instead. Swain smiled in return, and continued.
"You know that I am not a man given to overstatement. Nevertheless, I am here today to tell you that the world, as we know it, is about to end. In its place will be a new world, unlike anything we can imagine..."
Jen wrote "NEW WORLD" on her pad.
The image on the laptop moved upward again, focusing on Swain's face.
"I've summoned you here today, to announce the ultimate technological breakthrough. An achievement that is without doubt the most important development in the history of the human race..."
Jen gazed up at him, wondering what came next. Swain's normally placid features seemed possessed; ecstaticas though in the throes of religious revelation.
The laptop display zoomed closer, until Swain's face filled the screen and the crosshairs settled on a point over the bridge of his nose. The hand bearing the dragon ring left the joystick and moved to hover over a gray button.
"The development of a radically new technology which will forever alter, the destiny, of Mankindand perhaps the very universe itself."
Brain matter spattered Jen's face and clothing as Mitchell Swain's head exploded before her. The deafening thunder of a distant rifle-shot rent the air an instant later. Jen leaped up, at once startled and horrifieddropping pen and notepad to the grass.
Before her, Mitchell Swain pitched forward onto the podium, then slid lifeless to the stage.
Security men rushed toward the body with guns drawn and radios at their lips. Mattman looked at Swain, then moved to the front of the stage and raised his binoculars, as if daring the shooter to take his life as well. Others radioed for a medical teambut Swain was beyond help. Shot through the medulla oblongata, he was dead before the .50 caliber, depleted uranium-core bullet left his skull.
Recovering from the initial shock, Jen whirled around. Standing on her chair, she strained to see past the shouting, screaming crowd around herlooking for an impossibly distant sniper who was already gone.
Seated in the warehouse before the television, John lowered the glass from his lips to the table beside him. His hand trembled so badly the glass fell to the floor and shattered. A single tear coursed downward over solemn features.
Man had just taken one giant leap toward extinction.
There was, John now knew, at least one other living person who knew what Mitchell Swain had been about to say. And if that person knew of and could locate John, what happened to Mitchell would happen to him.
The nightmare, he realized, was not over after all.
It was only beginning.
>>>END OF CHAPTER<<<
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