A knot of anxiety...
Updated: Jun 1, 2020
A knot of anxiety the size of a football filled Jeff Draid’s chest.
The Pentagon’s most powerful men were on the hot desert road that led to Keldraid Defense. When they got there, he was going to ask the U.S Military to invest twenty-five million dollars in a company that amounted to four people in an isolated industrial shed in Nevada.
He was on a small stage in the centre of Keldraid’s main room. The space was double height and painted white. It was the size of a car mechanic’s workshop but it felt huge to Jeff. He was a skinny guy, around five feet eight inches tall, with the air of a geek about him.
He imagined the dozen or so chairs in front of the stage full of tough guy Army generals. They would be built like tanks and would have seen plenty of action. They would not naturally like him, or some of what he had to say.
Jeff began to run through his speech again. "Gentlemen, the pace of change in military technology is accelerating. There were about ten thousand years between the bow and arrow, and gunpowder, another thousand until the machine gun. After that, things picked up and we got airplanes, tanks, radar, missiles and the H-bomb in fifty or so years. In the last thirty, we've had decent satellite imagery, drones and cyber-attacks."
Draid glanced down as Professor Kelman parked his wheelchair slightly to the left of Jeff’s lectern. His mentor and business partner looked up from under bushy white eyebrows and a thinning crop of gray hair. He was wearing what he always wore, a button-down shirt with a sports jacket and jeans. It broke Jeff’s heart to see that where once the professor’s athletic frame had filled his clothes, they now hung off his emaciated body. Before lung cancer had got to him, the professor had roared around the world as though he was too smart and busy to bother with most of it. Now, he could only wheel himself back and forth for short distances before he was out of breath. The Professor managed a weak smile. His watery blue eyes conveyed encouragement.
Jeff carried on with his rehearsal. "The thing is, gentlemen, the caveman with his bow or spear might have wondered at our satellites and aircraft carriers. But as Osama Bin Laden proved, he would have done it from a cave we couldn’t find. We may have got him in the end, but it was intelligence, not technology or boots on the ground, which found Bin Laden.”
“So, gentlemen, the American military has the same problem now that it had in Vietnam. We are too advanced and too big to fight small groups or individuals. When it comes to big, obvious enemies, the military has moved on from the tactics and equipment that saw us stare down the Russians in the Cold War. We can hold up Iran’s nuclear program with a cyber attack, or have our satellites spy on North Korea’s troop movements. But we can’t find the little guys, let alone take them on.”
Jeff broke from his speech to talk directly to the sickly-looking Kelman. “Professor, I still think this is a little strong. We’re going to be telling guys who spent a lot of money blowing up rocks at Tora Bora that they made a bad call.”
A small smile played on the face of Hank Kelman. Even that was clearly an effort. His skin was pale yellow and he had a drip attached to the back of his wheelchair. The cancer had left him with thirty percent of the air he needed and less than a year to live. With a visible effort, he wheezed at Jeff, “They know they just spent trillions trying to get revenge on one guy. Trust me, when you offer them the solution, they will be trying to sign a contract before we can write one. We’ll be offering them the deal of the century. They’ll only be spending millions instead of trillions.”
Kelman’s words did the trick. Jeff felt a little taller, a bit more able. He checked the two TV screens at the back of the small stage. One was white with static, the other showed their assistant Nick Hennessy in a cave. It was a live CCTV loop. The hugely overweight New Yorker was deep inside a rough-hewn mine-working, three miles from their facility.
"Nick, wave, will you?”
Hennessy ran a fat hand through his untidy hair and flipped him the bird.
"Nick, they'll be here soon. Can you start doing some ‘busy’ work?"
They saw Hennessy walk over to a bench where they had laid out a Kalashnikov. He picked it up and shouted, "Death to the infidels!"
His voice came through on the monitors like a tinny and distant radio transmission. The attitude was still enough to irritate. Kelman was firm, even with his weakened voice. "Enough, Nick. Big day."
"Sure, Professor." Hennessy sounded like a kicked dog. Draid and Kelman could see him drop his head and start fiddling with the Kalashnikov.
Jeff took a breath, smoothed the front of his shirt and started up again. "Gentlemen, the trouble for us is that Al Qaida in the Yemen, the Taliban in Afghanistan, or even Somali pirates can just crawl under a rock. They literally go back to the Stone Age and are lost to American military eyes. They can run. And they do hide.”
He raised his voice and firmed it up as the Professor had instructed him to. “Not anymore. Thanks to your trip out here today, Uncle Sam will be able to see everywhere. America’s enemies will have no hiding place.”
He stepped to one side so the TV screens would be visible to the audience. “On the left hand screen you can see a feed of our assistant, Nick Hennessy, who is half a mile into an old mine about three miles away from here. The screen to the right shows a feed from Keldraid's Delphi unit." He broke from his presentation. “At this point, Nick, I'll ask you to set off the charge.”
Kelman tapped on the arm of his wheelchair to get Jeff’s attention. He spoke quietly from below the stage, each word a big effort. “Once you’ve asked Nick to set off the charge, just wait. Don’t be tempted to fill the silence while we wait for the pictures. Twenty-five seconds will feel like a lifetime, but you’re building up to the big reveal.”
Kelman pointed to his wristwatch and then waved his finger like a conductor. Jeff stared at the professor, then surveyed the empty seats in front of him as though he were making eye contact with a lot of hardened military professionals. Time dragged.
From the kitchen, he heard the banging of cupboard doors as their other assistant, Eamer, made coffee. She was a big Irish girl of twenty-three with red hair and a red face. The heat of Nevada didn't suit her at all.
Jeff tuned out the noise Eamer was making and looked around the building. He figured the military men would do the same while they waited the interminable twenty-five seconds for the Delphi’s calculations to end. He looked from the stage around the cool interior. Half the building was taken up by a sealed-off clean area they used to build their machines. The other half was the open plan area where he now stood. Despite their best efforts, he knew it felt like a high school science lab compared to the big boys of the Defense industry.
Jeff stood further back from the monitors. The Delphi’s screen remained white with static but he knew exactly what it would show during the demonstration. They had tested the system in this exact configuration and situation forty-eight times. It had worked on each occasion. They had forty-eight perfect 3D scans of the interior of the mountain. Each showed a shadowy image of the mine works and cave system within it. The later ones, the last thirty or so, had shown better and better results for organic matter.
Draid thought about just how much money the Delphi would be worth as he rehearsed the most telling part of his presentation. “Gentlemen. Thanks to a combination of Quantum computing and some very smart scanning technology, the Keldraid Delphi can X-ray mountains. Within thirty seconds, we can show you what’s going on through three thousand feet of solid rock.”
Jeff heard tires on the gravel at the front of their compound. He visualized the generals stepping out of their vehicles and stretching their legs.
The professor smiled at him and wheeled his chair slowly toward the door. It was Kelman’s reputation that had got these guys to travel out to them. It was only right that he would greet them and bring them in.
Jeff heard the sounds of car doors slamming out front. The professor was struggling to wheel his chair to the door, but Jeff knew from experience he would not want any help. He distracted himself by checking around the cables, monitors and computers that would all contribute to the demo. They all serviced the processor, that was about the size of a box of Krispy Kreme. The white box, with nothing on it but a tiny green power light, was on a workbench that had been dragged next to the stage. It represented three years of his and the professor’s lives.
Jeff knew that a few miles away, across one side of the hill the mine was in, there were a few hundred small, simple sensors. On the opposite side, there were the explosives that would act like a camera flash. The Delphi was ready. He looked from the processor itself to the bank of equipment that enabled it. There was nothing but green lights.
The rolling door squeaked upwards. The noise and light from the bright noon sun caught Jeff’s attention and he turned slowly towards it. The sunlight made him squint a little and he saw the professor hold up a hand to shield his eyes.
The flaring crack of a gunshot filled the cold, white cavern of a room. Professor Kelman's wheelchair was blown away from the door. Jeff saw a huge wound blossom in his friend’s chest. The wheelchair flew backwards and hit something on the floor. It spun around and tipped upwards for a moment. The professor's head lolled backwards. Kelman’s eyes were wide open. His face was covered in a spray of his own blood. The wheelchair spilled over, sending the body to the floor in an undignified mess.
As the door slowly rose upwards, a man in what might have been a general’s uniform ducked under it. He carried a smoking shotgun. Jeff was petrified by shock. The man with the gun walked further into the room and Jeff realized he was wearing a clear plastic mask that distorted his face.
Eamer ran into the room from the kitchen. She did not freeze like Jeff. As the ‘General’ came fully into the room and a second man appeared, she hurled both of the full coffee pots in her hands. Her face red with fear and anger, she turned to Jeff.
The coffee pots arced through the air and went nowhere near the gunmen, but she had caught their attention.
Jeff began to come out of his shock as a blast hit Eamer in the head. Clumps of her long red hair were detached as her face was obliterated. Something wet and warm hit Jeff. He made the simple, unconscious decision between fight and flight. He ran.
The fire door off the small main room at Keldraid was behind the big TV screens they had set up. As he ducked behind them, he ripped the Delphi from its cradle. He heard another blast and one of the TVs rattled on its stand next to him. There was a sting in his shoulder.
There were only three yards from the back of the stage to the door. He smashed the bar mechanism across the middle of the door downwards and tried to hurl it open. The door opened halfway, then stopped dead with a hard crack. Jeff was disoriented by the door’s failure to open properly, but he was most of the way through by the time it bounced back and caught him hard enough to spin him around.
The brightness of the desert day confused him, but fear brought Jeff’s mind into line. He span outwards from the door as another blast splintered the doorframe. Emerging fully into the sunlight, he saw the reason the door had stopped moving. There was another guy. He was big, white, had a shaven head and a mono-brow. He had his hands clutched to his face. A gun was still bouncing on the floor where he had dropped it.
Instinctively, Jeff swung what he had in his hands at him. He realized as it slipped from his grasp that he was throwing a couple of million dollars’ worth of cutting edge computer technology at a goon with a gun. It hurt badly as he saw it just glance the guy’s head and smash into pieces against the wall.
Jeff kept running. There were about ten yards from the back of the building to a row of dilapidated sheds that marked the back end of the lot. He covered the ground quickly. His Yamaha Tenere dirt bike was parked in the shade, on the far side of the nearest shed.
Jeff fumbled the keys and they dropped from his hand. Without a single conscious thought crossing his mind, he swooped to catch his keys. The tiny CalTech key ring that held together the few keys he needed for his life stuck between his fingers.
Another shotgun blast blew away the corner of the shed. He rammed the ignition key into the bike and stamped on the kick-starter. He stabbed the bike into gear and tore the grip throttle around. The acceleration as he took off through one of the gaps in the old chain link fence at the back of the lot lifted the front wheel and nearly slid him off his seat. He hung on and flew straight out into the dirty yellow scrubland of the Nevada desert and towards the hills beyond.
He felt a cloud of warmth near him for a moment and a second later heard a blast. He figured it was another shell from the shotgun.