Authors: Matthew Palmer
ALSO BY MATTHEW PALMER
The American Mission
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Copyright Â© 2015 by Matthew Palmer
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For my father, Michael Stephen Palmer.
“I continue to be much more concerned, when it comes to our security, with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.”
“Given current policies and practices, a nuclear terrorist attack that devastates one of the great cities of the world is inevitable. In my judgment, if governments do no more and no less than they are doing today, the odds of such an event within a decade are more than 50 percent.”
Harvard Kennedy School of Government
“A more rational anti-terrorism policy would focus resources heavily, perhaps almost exclusively, on threats of nuclear and weapons of mass destruction terror.”
t is not an especially large weapon, as such things go. But then again, there really is no such thing as a small nuclear bomb, just one of which, as the bumper stickers had it, can ruin your whole day. The simple gun-type enriched uranium warhead generates an explosive force of some one hundred and fifty tons of TNT. Some of the larger thermonuclear bombs in the American or Russian arsenal, the strategic city busters, weigh in at twenty or thirty megatons. This bomb, however, belongs to one of the alphabet soup of Middle Eastern terrorist groups rather than to a superpower. For their purposes, it is more than adequate. Nor does the group's membershipâthose who are not themselves incinerated in the initial fireballâmind especially that they could not arrange for the airburst at three thousand feet that would have maximized both the blast damage and the radiation effects of the bomb. Their delivery vehicle is an old Ford panel van parked in front of the Empire State Building near the corner of Thirty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue.
One second after the small explosion that shoots a subcritical cylinder of highly enriched uranium onto a matching uranium spike, a shock wave with an overpressure of twenty pounds per square inch has reached out four-tenths of a mile from the square meter of Manhattan that instantly and irrevocably wrests the title of Ground Zero from the World Trade Center. The 102-story-tall Empire State Building disintegrates. The fifteen thousand or so people who work there and several hundred assorted tourists waiting patiently for their turn to see the fabled views on what had been a sparkling clear day die instantly, vaporized by the eight thousandâdegree heat or crushed by hurtling chunks of rock and metal. Other iconic buildings within the blast zone fare no better. The New York Public Library, Penn Station, and Madison Square Garden are transformed into indistinguishable piles of radioactive rubble. At midday, there are nearly eighty thousand people within a circle with a radius of .4 mile from Ground Zero. Not a single one survives.
Four seconds after critical mass, the shock waveânow reduced to a mere ten psiâhas traveled nearly a mile from Ground Zero. The thermal pulse ignites thousands of fires, most of which are promptly snuffed out by the blast wave. It is a small mercy. The top thirty stories are blown off the Chrysler Building. Even so, the misshapen stump of the art deco landmark is once again the tallest building in Midtown. The glass-and-steel UN headquarters building on First Avenue at Forty-fifth Street is a multinational deathtrap. Viktor Janukovski, the newly elected Secretary-General of the United Nations, is torn to pieces by flying glass and decapitated by his own iMac. The steel frame of the building remains largely intact. Ten blocks to the south, however, Bellevue Hospital has been leveled. There are now more than three hundred thousand dead.
Six seconds after detonation, the ring of destruction reaches out a mile and a half from the Empire State Building. At the outer edge of the ring, the blast wave has dropped to five psi, enough to blow out all of the windows at Lincoln Center. Carnegie Hall is on fire. The thermal pulse is still strong enough to kill anyone in the direct line of sight. Approximately thirty thousand people perish in exactly this fashion. All together, another two hundred thousand people die in this ring.
The iconic mushroom cloud now hovers like a specter over New York City. Radioactive falloutÂ .Â .Â .
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“Damn. The system froze again.”
Dr. Adam Birnbaum looked up from the screen where a computer-generated image of a devastated New York City was overlaid with graphs and charts offering arcane technical details about pressure waves and radiation levels. Although he knew his way around a database and understood the fundamentals of nuclear fission, Dr. Birnbaum's field of specialty was neither computer science nor atomic physics. He was a political scientist, widely recognized as one of the world's leading academic authorities on terrorism.
“That can't happen on Thursday,” said James Smith, who was the interface between Birnbaum and the source of funding for the project to which he had dedicated the last three years of his life. The Cassandra Project had started at DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. When it began to produce results, the enigmatic Mr. Smith had taken over responsibility from DARPA. Perhaps the best word to describe their new paymaster was, somewhat ironically,
. He was a gray man in a gray suit with gray hair that was neither short nor long. Even his skin had a grayish tinge, like that of a chameleon on a concrete wall. According to his business card, Mr. Smith represented a private consulting company called Agilent Industries that had the contract with DARPA to manage the project. Birnbaum had been in and around the Washington establishment for long enough to know that this was horseshit. Mr. Smith was with one of the various U.S. clandestine intelligence services with their own complex ecologies. And if his name was Smith, then Birnbaum would eat his hat. Whoever he worked for, Smith was able to provide the kind of computing power that made the project possible. Birnbaum did not particularly care if the money for the project came from Agilent Industries or the Central Intelligence Agency. In the end, what did it matter?
One of the first things Agilent had done after taking control of the project was to move Cassandra from downtown D.C. to a bland office park off the Dulles toll road. This was consistent with the division of spoils among researchers in the metro Washington region. Suburban Maryland, with the National Institutes of Health and a plethora of advanced genetics labs, had a virtual monopoly on the life sciences. Northern Virginia got the death sciences.
Birnbaum's research was at the cutting edge of modeling for complex social behaviors. There was no behavior more complex in his view than political violence. Complex, however, was not the same thing as unpredictable. The behaviors involved could be disaggregated, expressed as algorithms, andâwith enough computing powerâmodeled. At least that's what Birnbaum had set out to prove. He was starting at the top of the Richter scale. The nightmare scenario. The Cassandra Project was focused exclusively on how different terrorist groups might acquire and utilize one or more nuclear weapons on American soil.
“What's Thursday?” Birnbaum asked.
“You're demonstrating Cassandra to the board of directors,” Smith replied with equanimity. “The full dog-and-pony.”
“That's in three days. We're not ready,” said Dr. Dora Karamanolis, Birnbaum's primary collaborator on the Cassandra Project. She
a computer scientist and, in addition to designing the hardware, Karamanolis had also developed the programs that modeled Birnbaum's behavioral algorithms. The diminutive Greek was Birnbaum's physical and temperamental opposite. The corpulent Birnbaum tipped the scales at more than two hundred and fifty pounds. Karamanolis barely broke triple digits and had the delicate bone structure of a bird. Where the political scientist was pugnacious and short-tempered andâhe would have been the first to admitâsomewhat slovenly, Karamanolis was preternaturally calm and precise almost to the point at which it would have been considered a disorder. She was enormously proud of her brainchild. Cassandra's existence was classified. But if the project had been stacked against the competition, Karamanolis was confident that the trailer-truck-size Cassandra would be among the five fastest supercomputers on the planet.
“You will be ready,” Smith said. It was not phrased as encouragement. It was a command. Everything Smith said was a command.
Karamanolis shook her head. “The hardware is ready, but we are still having trouble with the graphics software. It's just too much data, even for Cassandra. We could mock something up with stock footage, but otherwise there's no guarantee we can avoid another system freeze.”
“Stock footage would defeat the purpose of the program,” Birnbaum interjected. “We're modeling the real world and trying to capture all of the variables. Everything from how the bad guys acquire the weapons, to how they use them, to an assessment of the fallout. Political as well as radiological. That way, when we alter the input variables, we can model probable outcomes and assess risk. If al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb gets ahold of a bomb, the mullahs are likely to use it in a considerably different way than the Haqqani network would. There are thousands of variables that we need to account for. Stock is the opposite of that. You only get out what you put in. You can't adjust the variables and there's no room for serendipity.”
“The board isn't terribly interested in serendipity,” Smith observed. “They understand the science, but they're not looking for variables so much as they are constants.”
“What do you mean?” Birnbaum asked. In their nearly two years of association, this was the first time that Smith had said anything about the nature of the “board of directors” responsible for Cassandra's continued funding. If there was an opportunity to learn something useful about the keepers of the cash, Birnbaum wanted to seize it.
“Variables lend themselves to scenarios,” Smith explained. “Constants lend themselves to action.”
“But variables are what Cassandra is all about.”
Birnbaum looked blank.
“What's the one thing that's constant in nearly every scenario, every regression that you've run?”
“The source of the weapon,” Birnbaum replied. “Everyone always assumed that Iran or North Korea would represent the biggest threat, but they are strong states. Too strong, really. They aren't going to surrender control of the crown jewels to a bunch of wing nuts with a messiah complex. Cassandra has been remarkably consistent on that point. The real threat comes from weak states that can no longer exercise effective command and control over the nuclear infrastructure.”
“That's right,” Smith said. “It's hard to plan for the variable, but you can plan for the constant. The primary source of the threat. Our ally. Pakistan.”