Jim Jansen tilts back in his chair, reading.
He's a fair-haired man, in his mid-thirties: hair razor-cropped, skin the color of overwork. Spectacles, short-sleeved white shirt and tie, DNA badge on a chain round his neck. The room is air-conditioned and has no windows.
The file he is reading frightens him.
Once, when Jim was barely a teenager, his father took him to a family day at Groom Lake, out in the Nevada desert. Sunlight glared brilliantly from the polished stealth coating of the hypersonic re-entry vehicles, sitting in their concrete-lined dispersal bays behind barriers and blinking contamination monitors. The bright-hued flags draped over their maneuvering fins lent them a strange, almost festive appearance. But they were sleeping nightmares: once awakened, all matter within a hundred miles would become gray sludge.
Looking at the dispersal vents honeycombed across them, Jim had a premature inkling of the fires that waited within, a frigid terror that echoed the siren wail of the air raid warnings. He'd chewed nervously on his nails and only forgot his fear when the cute girl in the group leaned against him to stay awake.
He has the same feeling now, as an adult reading this intelligence assessment, that he had as a child, watching the nanite missiles sleeping in their concrete beds.
There's a blurry photograph of a Ganymede crater, snapped from above by the Voyager 2 flyby. Three coffin-shaped shadows, bulking dark and gloomy beneath the distant sun. The same crater, shot from GOLDTOOTH five years later - only two shadows, caterpillar tracks heading from the cluster towards the moon's equator. And finally, Keyhole Twenty earth-penetrating telemetry: a rectangular tomb dug into Gobi desert, surrounded by the endless hashmarks of camouflaged gigawatt-scale photovoltaic arrays. A sleeping giant pointed across the Pacific, more terrifying than any nano-weapon.
The following presentation is classified TOPSECRET / WOODSTAKE. If you do not have TOPSECRET / WOODSTAKE clearance, leave the room now and report to your section security chief for debriefing. Failing to observe this notice is an offense under 18 US Code Chapter 37, Paragraph 793. You have sixty seconds to comply.
Video clip begins
Freeze-frame: a room with two agents and a suspect. The floors are made of coarsely poured concrete. The suspect does not see the asbestos lining wrapped around each of the agents' shoes, up to the ankle.
Los Angeles FBI Field Office, time zero-nine-two-seven, the twenty-seventh of December, the year two thousand and sixteen. This is the first documented failure of MULBERRY containment protocols.
Video clip resumes
"You could say I did it for the money, but seriously, Julie and I, we had a real thing going. We always did it high on ludes - she got them from that producer who did her when she was sixteen. It was weird, you know, like this gift from the first guy she'd been with to me."
The two agents are silent.
"You're not cops, right? Like, this ain't one of them entrapments, right?"
The door to the room opens. An older, middle-aged woman walks in, her bucolic smile a mirror image of her appearances in a dozen blockbuster films. The suspect looks up, clambers to his feet and then falls out of his chair in one smooth motion. The agents remain still.
"Julie! Julie! You're alive! Holy - " On all fours, the suspect looks around like a lost dog, flushes crimson. "I mean, yeah, glad to see you're okay, fuck, you were close - "
The woman places her hands onto him, the rentboy begins to scream and flames shoot out of his mouth. Both collapse onto the ground, enveloped in flames. It is over in less than fifteen seconds. As it happens, one of the interrogators removes a plastic bag containing a brownish powder, and the other pulls out a silenced Glock. The scene continues with muffled shots and freeze-frames on the bright flash of thermite consuming both bodies.
MULBERRY was developed following the recovery of animate crew remains bearing extraterrestrial-origin genetic base pairs in the Apollo 18 mission. The procedure was extended to include all suspected cases of WOODSTAKE contamination, and included as a formal recommendation for all parties to the Osaka Accords.
Video clip resumes
As the flash subsides into a glowing puddle of molten calcium salts and aluminosilicate, the agent holding the Glock sits back down at the desk while the other agent turns to speak to him. They speak for thirty seconds as the puddle loses incandescence, when the puddle flows of its own volition, climbing onto the standing agent's leg, which immediately catches fire.
Screams are heard; the standing agent collapses into a burning mass, which begins to flow forward. The sitting agent empties his magazine at the burning mass, reloads, then empties his magazine again, but the mass continues to creep towards the desk. The sitting agent then presses a button on the wall and vents open above it. Then he crosses himself, puts the gun to his temple, and commits suicide.
A shape rises out of the flames for a split second. Molten jets of an unknown substance shoot from the vents and the video feed whites out.
The ability for said entity to survive thirty-second exposure to temperatures exceeding two thousand degrees centigrade was outside the considerations of all researchers on the original MULBERRY project team. The Department of State has submitted an updated draft of the Osaka Accords to recommend exploring NIGHTSHADE as a backup to MULBERRY for containment purposes, pending development of methods to minimize collateral damage.
Still photographic sequence
The room is now completely blackened, the desk melted into an unrecognizable pile of twisted steel. On the floor, a glassy sheen marks where the alien entity had originally crawled, almost like a patch of obsidian.
Subsequent investigation of the FBI field office revealed no trace of WOODSTAKE contamination, but noted that vitrification was a telltale sign of this WOODSTAKE variant upon target destruction.
Still photographic sequence
From above the stratosphere - possibly in orbit - an overhead view of a remote town in the desert. Fifty or so huts huddle together along a dried wadi, goats graze nearby.
In the second photograph, something has rolled through the town leaving a trail of devastation. The path is quite unlike the trail of damage left by aerial bombardment: something roughly ten meters wide has shaved the sand smooth, melting it into a glassy sheet as if with a terrible heat. A corner of a shack leans drunkenly, the other half sliced away cleanly. Blackened, charred bones dot the track; no vultures descend to stab at the remains.
These images were taken in April two thousand and seventeen, on successive orbital passes of two KH-20 satellites. The orbital passes were twenty minutes apart. This town is the home of a noted Islamic State leader. Note the similar footprint to residue in the FBI field office seen recently.
These indicators were present, denoting the use of at least one WOODSTAKE entity by unidentified forces in Syria: the total molecular breakdown of organic matter present, the ten meter reach of the assimilation track. The speed of destruction - the event took slightly over a thousand seconds to completion, no survivors were visible, and the causative agent had already been uplifted by the time of the second orbital pass. This, despite the approximately five hundred residents of the community being armed with 23mm anti-aircraft cannons, TOW antitank missiles, 122mm field howitzers, and captured T-72 and BMP-1 armored vehicles. Lastly: there is no sign of the causative agent even deviating from its course, but the entire area is depopulated. Except for cremated residue there is no sign of human habitation.
In the presence of such unique indicators, we have no alternative but to conclude that the deploying party has violated the Osaka Accords by deploying a WOODSTAKE entity in a combat mode near Ar-Raqqah. There are no grounds to believe that, without NIGHTSHADE, a Western or Russian mechanized battalion would have fared any better than this town...
Most people think spies are afraid of guns, or bombs, or prison cells, but in fact the most dangerous thing they deal with is documents. Documents carry secrets. Documents carry death sentences. Documents like this one, with its faked nuclear test photographs and estimates of time/survivor curves and population psychosis ratios, drag Jim awake screaming in the middle of the night.
It's one of a series of highly classified documents that Jim is summarizing for the eyes of the National Security Council and the President Elect - if his head of department and the DDCIA approve it - and here he is, having to calm his nerves with a cigarette before he can turn the next page.
After a few minutes, Jim leaves his unfiltered on the eagle stamped into his ashtray and picks up the report again. It's barely twenty pages long, but is the distillation of thousands of pages of research, hundreds of images, and dozens of circumstantial rumors. Jim can tell, that as of 2011, its date of preparation, the CIA still knew very little about the Gobi coffin, but enough to give it a name.
The report ends on a positive note. Lacking the Chinese lead in that particular field, the Joint Chiefs had decided to try for an "ablative capability" with a "moderate confidence of success": two Ohio-class submarines each armed with twenty NIGHTSHADE ballistic missiles and four "conventional" Tridents, ready to tackle The Quotient should the Chinese show signs of unsealing the coffin. Jim has to remember that conventional, in this context, refers to nuclear weapons.
Translation: forty nanite warheads and ninety-six nuclear ones, and nobody was certain it would be enough for this single target.
Jim's spent the past four hours staring at this twenty page folio, itself a summary of thousands of pages and hundreds of photographs, trying to think of a way of condensing their drily quantifiable terror in words that will give the reader power over them, the power to think the unthinkable: but it's proving difficult. The new man in the White House demands straight answers, preferably in 140 characters or less. He's a hardnosed dealmaker, confident enough in his own domain of bricks and mortar and construction unions. There is probably no way of explaining The Quotient, or NIGHTSHADE, or von Neumann machines, or the Singularity, without reducing them to just another weapons system - which they are not. Weapons acquire a morality from the intentions of those who wield them, but in Jim's mind, these projects are indelibly stained by a patina of evil.
His phone rings. It's nineteen hundred hours, late, and Andrea is asking if he'll be home in time to tuck Jason into bed. He makes affirmative noises and puts down the receiver, slides the thin folder into the safe behind his chair, turns the locking handle and spins the dial, then signs himself out of the reading room and goes through usual exit search.
During the thirty mile drive home, he recites a silent prayer - that if the sirens ever do wail, his wife and his son will die a merciful death in the first wave of nuclear fire.