The Footprints of God
“My name is David Tennant, M.D. I’m professor of ethics at the University of Virginia Medical School, and if you’re watching this tape, I’m dead.”
I took a breath and gathered myself. I didn’t want to rant. I’d mounted my Sony camcorder on a tripod and rotated the LCD screen in order to see myself as I spoke. I’d lost weight over the past weeks. My eyes were red with fatigue, the orbits shiny and dark. I looked more like a hunted criminal than a grieving friend.
“I don’t really know where to begin. I keep seeing Andrew lying on the floor. And I know they killed him. But…I’m getting ahead of myself. You need facts. I was born in 1961 in Los Alamos, New Mexico. My father was James Howard Tennant, the nuclear physicist. My mother was Ann Tennant, a pediatrician. I’m making this tape in a sober state of mind, and I’m going to deposit it with my attorney as soon as I finish, on the understanding that it should be opened if I die for any reason.
“Six hours ago, my colleague Dr. Andrew Fielding was found dead beside his desk, the victim of an apparent stroke. I can’t prove it, but I know Fielding was murdered. For the past two years, he and I have been part of a scientific team funded by the National Security Agency and DARPA—the government agency that created the Internet in the 1970s. Under the highest security classification, that team and its work are known as Project Trinity.”
I glanced down at the short-barreled Smith & Wesson .38 in my lap. I’d made sure the pistol wasn’t visible on camera, but it calmed me to have it within reach. Reassured, I again stared at the glowing red light.
“Two years ago, Peter Godin, founder of the Godin Supercomputing Corporation, had an epiphany much like that mythical moment when an apple dropped onto Isaac Newton’s head. It happened in a dream. Seemingly from nowhere, a seventy-year-old man visualized the most revolutionary possibility in the history of science. When he woke up, Godin telephoned John Skow, a deputy director of the NSA, in Fort Meade, Maryland. By six A.M., the two men had drafted and delivered a letter to the president of the United States. That letter shook the White House to its foundations. I know this because the president was my brother’s close friend in college. My brother died three years ago, but because of him, the president knew of my work, which is what put me in the middle of all that followed.”
I rubbed the cool metal of the .38, wondering what to tell and what to leave out. Leave out nothing, said a voice in my head. My father’s voice. Fifty years ago, he’d played his own part in America’s secret history, and that burden had greatly shortened his days. My father died in 1988, a haunted man, certain that the Cold War he’d spent his youthful energy to perpetuate would end with the destruction of civilization, as it so easily could have. Leave out nothing….
“The Godin Memo,” I continued, “had the same effect as the letter Albert Einstein sent President Roosevelt at the beginning of World War Two, outlining the potential for an atomic bomb and the possibility that Nazi Germany might develop one. Einstein’s letter spurred the Manhattan Project, the secret quest to ensure that America would be the first to possess nuclear weapons. Peter Godin’s letter resulted in a project of similar scope but infinitely greater ambition. Project Trinity began behind the walls of an NSA front corporation in the Research Triangle Park of North Carolina. Only six people on the planet ever had full knowledge of Trinity. Now that Andrew Fielding is dead, only five remain. I’m one. The other four are Peter Godin, John Skow, Ravi Nara—”
I bolted to my feet with the .38 in my hand. Someone was rapping on my front door. Through thin curtains, I saw a Federal Express truck parked at the foot of my sidewalk. What I couldn’t see was the space immediately in front of my door.
“Who is it?” I called.
“FedEx,” barked a muffled male voice. “I need a signature.”
I wasn’t expecting a delivery. “Is it a letter or a package?”
I shivered. A package from a dead man? Only one person would send me a package under the name of the author of Alice in Wonderland. Andrew Fielding. Had he sent me something the day before he died? Fielding had been obsessively searching the Trinity labs for weeks now, the computers as well as the physical space. Perhaps he’d found something. And perhaps whatever it was had got him killed. I’d sensed something strange about Fielding’s behavior yesterday—not so easy with a man famed for his eccentricities—but by this morning he’d seemed to be his old self.
“Do you want this thing or not?” asked the deliveryman.
I cocked the pistol and edged over to the door. I’d fastened the chain latch when I’d got home. With my left hand, I unlocked the door and pulled it open to the length of the chain. Through the crack, I saw the face of a uniformed man in his twenties, his hair bound into a short ponytail.
“Pass your pad through with the package. I’ll sign and give it back to you.”
“It’s a digital pad. I can’t give you that.”
“Keep your hand on it, then.”
“Paranoid,” he muttered, but he stuck a thick orange pad through the crack in the door.
I grabbed the stylus hanging from the string and scrawled my name on the touch-sensitive screen. “Okay.”
The pad disappeared, and a FedEx envelope was thrust through. I took it and tossed it onto the sofa, then shut the door and waited until I heard the truck rumble away from the curb.
I picked up the envelope and glanced at the label. “Lewis Carroll” had been signed in Fielding’s spidery hand. As I pulled the sheet of paper from the envelope, a greasy white granular substance spilled over my fingers. The instant my eyes registered the color, some part of my brain whispered anthrax. The odds of that were low, but my best friend had just died under suspicious circumstances. A certain amount of paranoia was justified.
I hurried to the kitchen and scrubbed my hands with dish soap and water. Then I pulled a black medical bag from my closet. Inside was the usual pharmacopoeia of the M.D.’s home: analgesics, antibiotics, emetics, steroid cream. I found what I wanted in a snap compartment: a blister pack of Cipro, a powerful broad-spectrum antibiotic. I swallowed one pill with water from the tap, then took a pair of surgical gloves from the bag. As a last precaution, I tied a dirty T-shirt from the hamper around my nose and mouth. Then I folded the FedEx envelope and letter into separate Ziploc bags, sealed them, and laid them on the counter.
As badly as I wanted to read the letter, part of me resisted. Fielding might have been murdered for what was written on that page. Even if that weren’t the case, nothing good would come from my reading it.
I carefully vacuumed the white granules from the carpet in the front room, wondering if I could be wrong about Fielding’s death being murder. He and I had worked ourselves into quite a state of suspicion over the past weeks, but then we had reason to. And the timing was too damn convenient. Instead of putting the vacuum cleaner back into the closet, I walked to the back door and tossed the machine far into the yard. I could always buy another one.
I was still eerily aware of the letter sitting on the kitchen counter. I felt like a soldier’s wife refusing to open a telegram. But I already knew my friend was dead. So what did I fear?
The why, answered a voice in my head. Fielding talking. You want to keep your head in the sand. It’s the American national pastime….
More than a little irritated to find that the dead could be as bothersome as the living, I picked up the Ziploc containing the letter and carried it to the front room. The note was brief and handwritten.
We must meet again. I finally confronted Godin with my suspicions. His reaction astounded me. I don’t want to commit anything to paper, but I know I’m right. Lu Li and I are driving to the blue place on Saturday night. Please join us. It’s close quarters, but discreet. It may be time for you to contact your late brother’s friend again, though I wonder if even he can do anything at this point. Things like this have a momentum greater than individuals. Greater even than humanity, I fear. If anything should happen to me, don’t forget that little gold item I asked you to hold for me one day. Desperate times, mate. I’ll see you Saturday.
There was no signature, but below the note was a hand-drawn cartoon of a rabbit’s head and the face of a clock. The White Rabbit, an affectionate nickname given Fielding by his Cambridge physics students. Fielding always carried a gold pocket watch, and that was the “little gold item” that he had asked me to hold for him one day.
We were passing each other in the hallway when he pressed the watch and chain into my hand. “Mind keeping that for an hour, old man?” he’d murmured. “Lovely.” Then he was gone. An hour later he stopped by my office to pick it up, saying he hadn’t wanted to take the watch into the MRI lab with him, where it could have been smashed against the MRI unit by the machine’s enormous magnetic fields. But Fielding visited the MRI lab all the time, and he’d never given me his pocket watch before. And he never did again. It must have been in his pocket when he died. So what the hell was he up to that day?
I read the note again. Lu Li and I are driving to the blue place on Saturday night. Lu Li was Fielding’s new Chinese wife. The “blue place” had to be code for a beach cabin at Nags Head, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Three months ago, when Fielding asked for a recommendation for his honeymoon, I’d suggested the Nags Head cabin, which was only a few hours away. Fielding and his wife had loved the place, and the Englishman had apparently thought of it when he wanted a secure location to discuss his fears.
My hands were shaking. The man who had written this note was now as cold as the morgue table he was lying on, if indeed he was lying in a morgue. No one had been able—or willing—to tell me where my friend’s body would be taken. And now the white powder. Would Fielding have put powder in the envelope and neglected to mention it in his letter? If he didn’t, who did? Who but the person who had murdered him?
I laid the letter on the sofa, stripped off the surgical gloves, and rewound the videotape to the point at which I’d walked out of the frame. I had decided to make this tape because I feared I might be killed before I could tell the president what I knew. Fielding’s letter had changed nothing. Yet as I stared into the lens, my mind wandered. I was way ahead of Fielding on calling my “late brother’s friend.” The moment I’d seen Fielding’s corpse on the floor of his office, I knew I had to call the president. But the president was in China. Still, as soon as I got clear of the Trinity lab, I’d called the White House from a pay phone in a Shoney’s restaurant, a “safe” phone Fielding had told me about. It couldn’t be seen by surveillance teams in cars, and the restaurant’s interior geometry made it difficult for a parabolic microphone to eavesdrop from a distance.
When I said “Project Trinity,” the White House operator put me through to a man who gruffly asked me to state my business. I asked to speak to Ewan McCaskell, the president’s chief of staff, whom I’d met during my visit to the Oval Office. McCaskell was in China with the president. I asked that the president be informed that David Tennant needed to speak to him urgently about Project Trinity, and that no one else involved with Trinity should be informed. The man said my message would be passed on and hung up.
Thirteen hours separated North Carolina and Beijing. That made it tomorrow in China. Daylight. Yet four hours had passed since my call, and I’d heard nothing. Would my message be relayed to China, given the critical nature of the summit? There was no way to know. I did know that if someone at Trinity heard about my call first, I might wind up as dead as Fielding before I talked to the president.
I hit START on the remote control and spoke again to the camera.
“In the past six months I’ve gone from feeling like part of a noble scientific effort to questioning whether I’m even living in the United States. I’ve watched Nobel laureates give up all principle in a search for—”
I went still. Something had passed by one of my front windows. A face. Very close, peering inside. I’d seen it through the sheer curtains, but I was sure. A face, framed by shoulder-length hair. I had a sense of a woman’s features, but…
I started to get up, then sat back down. My teeth were vibrating with an electric pain like aluminum foil crushed between dental fillings. My eyelids felt too heavy to hold open. Not now, I thought, shoving my hand into my pocket for my prescription bottle. Jesus, not now. For six months, every member of Trinity’s inner circle had suffered frightening neurological symptoms. No one’s symptoms were the same. My affliction was narcolepsy. Narcolepsy and dreams. At home, I usually gave in to the trancelike sleep. But when I needed to fight off a spell—at Trinity, or driving my car—only amphetamines could stop the overwhelming waves.
I pulled out my prescription bottle and shook it. Empty. I’d swallowed my last pill yesterday. I got my speed from Ravi Nara, Trinity’s neurologist, but Nara and I were no longer speaking. I tried to rise, thinking I’d call a pharmacy and prescribe my own, but that was ridiculous. I couldn’t even stand. A leaden heaviness had settled into my limbs. My face felt hot, and my eyelids began to fall.
The prowler was at the window again. In my mind, I raised my gun and aimed it, but then I saw the weapon lying in my lap. Not even survival instinct could clear the fog filling my brain. I looked back at the window. The face was gone. A woman’s face. I was sure of it. Would they use a woman to kill me? Of course. They were pragmatists. They used what worked.
Something scratched at my doorknob. Through the thickening haze I fought to aim my gun at the door. Something slammed against the wood. I got my finger on the trigger, but as my swimming brain transmitted the instruction to depress it, sleep annihilated consciousness like fingers snuffing a candle flame.
Andrew Fielding sat alone at his desk, furiously smoking a cigarette. His hands were shaking from a confrontation with Godin. It had happened the previous day, but Fielding had the habit of replaying such scenes in his mind, agonizing over how ineffectually he had stated his case, murmuring retorts he should have made at the time but had not.
The argument had been the result of weeks of frustration. Fielding didn’t like arguments, not ones outside the realm of physics, anyway. He’d put off the meeting until the last possible moment. He pottered around his office, pondering one of the central riddles of quantum physics: how two particles fired simultaneously from the same source could arrive at the same destination at the same instant, even though one had to travel ten times as far as the other. It was like two 747s flying from New York to Los Angeles—one flying direct and the other having to fly south to Miami before turning west to Los Angeles—yet both touching down at LAX at the same moment. The 747 on the direct route flew at the speed of light, yet the plane that had to detour over Miami still reached L.A. at the same instant. Which meant that the second plane had flown faster than the speed of light. Which meant that Einstein’s general theory of relativity was flawed. Possibly. Fielding spent a great deal of time thinking about this problem.
He lit another cigarette and thought about the letter he’d FedExed to David Tennant. It didn’t say enough. Not nearly. But it would have to do until they met at Nags Head. Tennant would be working a few steps up the hall from him all afternoon, but he might as well be in Fiji. No square foot of the Trinity complex was free of surveillance and recording devices. Tennant would get the letter this afternoon, if no one intercepted it. To prevent this, Fielding had instructed his wife to drop it at a FedEx box inside the Durham post office, beyond the sight line of anyone following her from a distance. That was all the spouses usually got—random surveillance from cars—but you never knew.
Tennant was Fielding’s only hope. Tennant knew the president. He’d had cocktails in the White House, anyway. Fielding had won the Nobel in 1998, but he’d never been invited to 10 Downing Street. Never would be, in all likelihood. He’d shaken hands with the PM at a reception once, but that wasn’t the same thing. Not at all.
He took a drag on the cigarette and looked down at his desk. An equation lay there, a collapsing wave function, unsolvable using present-day mathematics. Not even the world’s most powerful supercomputers could solve a collapsing wave function. There was one machine on the planet that might make headway with the problem—at least he believed there was—and if he was right, the term supercomputer might soon become as quaint and archaic as abacus. But the machine that could solve a collapsing wave function would be capable of a lot more than computing. It would be everything Peter Godin had promised the mandarins in Washington, and more. That “more” was what scared Fielding. Scared the bloody hell out of him. For no one could predict the unintended consequences of bringing such a thing into existence. “Trinity” indeed.
He was thinking of going home early when something flashed in his left eye. There was no pain. Then the visual field in that eye swirled into a blur, and an explosion seemed to detonate in the left frontal lobe of his brain. A stroke, he thought with clinical detachment. I’m having a stroke. Strangely calm, he reached for the telephone to call 911, then remembered that the world’s preeminent neurologist was working in the office four doors down from his own.
The telephone would be faster than walking. He reached for the receiver, but the event taking place within his cranium suddenly bloomed to its full destructive power. The clot lodged, or the blood vessel burst, and his left eye went black. Then a knifelike pain pierced the base of his brain, the center of life support functions. Falling toward the floor, Fielding thought again of that elusive particle that had traveled faster than the speed of light, that had proved Einstein wrong by traversing space as though it did not exist. He posed a thought experiment: If Andrew Fielding could move as fast as that particle, could he reach Ravi Nara in time to be saved?
Answer: No. Nothing could save him now.
His last coherent thought was a prayer, a silent hope that in the unmapped world of the quantum, consciousness existed beyond what humans called death. For Fielding, religion was an illusion, but at the dawn of the twenty-first century, Project Trinity had uncovered hope of a new immortality. And it wasn’t the Rube Goldberg monstrosity they were pretending to build a hundred meters from his office door.
The impact of the floor was like water.
I jerked awake and grabbed my gun. Someone was banging the front door taut against the security chain. I tried to get to my feet, but the dream had disoriented me. Its lucidity far surpassed anything I’d experienced to date. I actually felt that I had died, that I was Andrew Fielding at the moment of his death—
“Dr. Tennant?” shouted a woman’s voice. “David! Are you in there?”
My psychiatrist? I put my hand to my forehead and tried to fight my way back to reality. “Dr. Weiss? Rachel? Is that you?”
“Yes! Unlatch the chain!”
“I’m coming,” I muttered. “Are you alone?”
“Yes! Open the door.”
I stuffed my gun between the couch cushions and stumbled toward the door. As I reached for the chain latch, it struck me that I had never told my psychiatrist where I lived.