The Last Sword Maker
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Chapter 1


  Cover design by Sean Thomas



 The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big.
—Richard P. Feynman, 1959


Seven years later . . .



JANUARY 13, 2025

Dear George:

I know you’ve been getting the updates on Tangshan. I wish I could dismiss their progress as exaggeration, but ***** is our best and his reports are confirmed. I’m still trying to swallow it: a programmable virus within the next seven months, and full replication within eighteen. I have to admit, I’m worried about this one. The more I learn about this stuff, the more it scares me. Worse, the boys at NRL say that second place isn’t good enough. Whoever replicates first will likely stay ahead as these things learn and grow by themselves. It’s sobering to think that military supremacy could pass entirely to the Chinese.

What’s the word on funding? I’m hoping you can do your magic between NSA, Homeland, and DOD.

Working to get Eastman on board as soon as possible. Considering Curtiss as Project Lead. Thoughts?

My regards to Katherine and the girls.

Michael T. Garrett



JANUARY 14, 2025

Dear Mitch:

I share your pessimism on Tangshan. We’ve been screaming about this for years, and it’s only now getting the attention it deserves. The good news is, we finally got the right people scared and the funding is secure for at least three years, so go get the best you can.

While you get things up and running, I’ll investigate ways to slow down our friends in Tangshan. We may have to sacrifice **** and the other operatives, but those losses will be acceptable if it gives us the time we need—perhaps six months to a year.

While I agree things look bleak, the good news is that ****, *****, and ***** are feeding us excellent intel on almost everything they’re doing, which means we should be able to catch up quickly.

Was surprised to hear you are considering Curtiss. I have to strongly recommend against it. That son of a bitch should never have kept his stars after what happened in Syria. I know he’s done some impressive things, but you’ll never be able to control him, which frightens me, considering all the money and power that is coming your way. Pick somebody else.

Warm regards,

Chapter One

US Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD
January 27, 2025

Rear Admiral (upper half) James Curtiss awoke with a gasp, instinctively reaching for the FN Five-SeveN pistol on the nightstand, pulling the slide with a metallic clank and sweeping the room. His heart pounded against his ribs as the tactical light of the pistol illuminated ghostly circles in the dark room: the dresser, his uniform hanging on the closet door, the TV. Then he saw a flicker of movement. Someone was here, in the room. He acquired the target, center mass, and began to squeeze the trigger . . . Then he saw his own face, painted with fear, reflected in the mirror. He lowered the pistol and let out a long exhalation.

It had taken him a bare second to go from deep sleep to “the hardness”—to the soldier with his weapon cocked, teeth clenched, ready to kill. But just as quickly as he had filled with violence, he deflated. Reality flooded in. It’s just a dream, he reminded himself. Just a fucking dream. But not just any dream. It was the dream he couldn’t shake. Ever since Syria.

He was standing in a huge tunnel: the enormous gray fuselage of the C-17 Globemaster. He was dressed in his ceremonial whites, a wide rectangle of colored ribbons on his left breast. In the dream, there was no sound. Someone had muted everything but the staccato click of his heels on the corrugated metal deck. Click, click, click . . . Attached to the fuselage, surrounding him like giant bullets in the cylinder of a revolver, were six coffins draped with American flags. Ramírez, Chen, Thompson, Anderson, Day, Edwards. As he moved forward into the belly of the plane, another six coffins appeared, draped in flags just like the first six. Moses, Brewer, Hoffman, Vargas, Lightfoot, Jackson. Click, click, click . . . On it went. Every few steps, another six coffins would appear out of the gloom, each name conjuring a hard drive of images: a smiling young face, a joke told at a picnic, a man pushing a child in a swing.

The cargo door opened, and he raised his hand to shade his eyes from the light. He couldn’t see, but he knew what was out there: fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, and children. They were waiting for what was left of their boys and girls, their husbands, wives, fathers, mothers. He didn’t want to go out there, but he made himself. There were hundreds of them, and they were, like his soldiers, all races and creeds—white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and, like him, Native American. They stared at him, their faces blank, expressionless. No one spoke, no bugle played taps. But now, in addition to the clap of his heels, he heard the wind blowing—a lonely, solitary sound that whistled and echoed inside his head.

As an honor guard carried the coffins from the plane, a little girl in a white dress emerged from the crowd. She came to him and took his hand. It felt like forgiveness, her small hand in his, and he followed her willingly. She led him to a small lectern. But he had no speech prepared, because there were no words that could soften this. He fumbled. He saw an interminable line of hearses moving like an assembly line toward the open aircraft. The girl was holding a present. A red box with a white bow. He took the box and untied the ribbon. Inside was a revolver. He took it, cocked it, and put the barrel in his mouth. It seemed the right thing to do; a fair trade for what he had taken from them. He glanced down at her, then sideways at the families. Then he pulled the trigger.

He sat on the edge of the bed, the sudden sweat on the inside of his T-shirt cooling, making him shiver. Nothing in the room looked familiar.

Where the fuck am I?

You’re back in Annapolis, you stupid Indian. He ran his left hand through his hair, then looked down at the pistol in his other hand. It had been eight years since he last led his soldiers into combat—eight years since he was promoted to a maker of PowerPoint presentations, since he became a senior officer who conducted warfare from a command center in Florida, watching live satellite and webcam feeds as his soldiers risked their lives in dusty streets nine time zones away. Eight years, but the training was still there—the reflexes, the familiarity. The gun felt so comfortable in his hand . . . and the dream. He put the barrel into his mouth, just as he had done moments ago in the dream. He tasted the cold polymer and gunslick. Just for a second, he considered pulling the trigger but he stopped himself and put the gun down gently on the nightstand.

One thing was for sure: he needed to get that little bitch out of his head. If she hung around in there much longer, he was going to take her up on her offer.

Jim, as your commanding officer, I think you should consider seeing a psychiatrist.

Shrinks are for pussies, sir.

That’s what I thought you’d say.

Then why’d you open your goddamn mouth?

A shrug. All right. I won’t force you, but if Evelyn leaves you, don’t come bitching to me.

He looked at his watch—4:15 a.m. You’ve slept enough, old man. The chopper would be here in an hour anyway.

He got dressed, and twenty minutes later he was standing on the seawall on the east side of the Yard, looking out at the Severn River and the Chesapeake Bay beyond. It was bitter cold, the temperature just south of zero. He shivered and his teeth chattered, but he didn’t care. He welcomed the discomfort; he felt he deserved it. Beyond the snow-covered stones, the bay was undulating in grey scale, rolling high and beautiful and forbidding as only the deep water could.

He had been summoned. Ordered to report, but without details or explanation. At his rank, that was unusual. It annoyed him, but it also piqued his curiosity. Something was up. But what, he wasn’t sure.

The world was more or less at peace. The eighteen-month civil war in Saudi Arabia had turned into a stalemate, and—much to the relief of global markets—both sides were now exporting oil as fast as they could pump it. The rest of the Middle East was as stable as it ever was. There were monsoon floods in Bangladesh, and China was rattling its saber over PACFLT operations in the South China Sea, but that had become routine. Whatever they wanted him for, it was something else. Mitch’s call had come late, and while the CNO’s voice had been cool, Curtiss had still detected an urgency there.

Behind him, snaking across Dewey Field, were the footprints he had left in the snow. They led back across Holloway Drive to Bancroft Hall—to Mother B, the biggest dormitory in the world. She was mostly dark and still, with only a few windows lit. He imagined the cadets inside clutching desperately to their last moments of peace before reveille, just as he had done when he called the place home thirty-seven years ago. It had changed little since then. It still sat huge and daunting, at rest but never sleeping. It struck him now as it had when he first saw it. The building was a living thing—a massive respiring organism. It held not only the entire brigade of over four thousand midshipmen, but also the residue—the pain, humiliation, tenacity, and tears of every cadet who had ever come through its doors. A huge aggregated mass of emotion that encompassed everything those boys and girls had been when they arrived—brave, frightened, optimistic youth—and everything they became: hardened, beaten, and burned into officers of the United States Navy. Inside those walls, you felt their essence like a layer of greasy paint. Their victories and their tragedies, wherever they had gone, even if they had gone nowhere.

All cadets hated Annapolis, but he had hated it more than most. And year after year, he had avoided coming back here. But this year when they asked him to give a guest lecture, he had agreed. Now he knew it had been a mistake. Whatever he was looking for, whatever he needed, it wasn’t here. Jesus, you do need a shrink.

He supposed he had come looking for himself, for the man who had arrived here in 1988. The young man who had believed the recruitment posters. Join the Navy. See the world. Adventure. As well as the thing the posters didn’t say: that along with that life of adventure, someday, in some distant port far from the shitty Oklahoma reservation he had escaped, he would meet a beautiful girl and live happily ever after. That was the boy he wanted to meet. The boy who had looked on the veterans with envy, who saw ribbons and medals as things to strive for, not as reminders of pain and suffering and destroyed families. He saw traces of himself in the cadets, but the way they looked at him made him uneasy, because it was just the way he had looked at the decorated Vietnam vets in 1988: as heroes, as someone to emulate. They could read the ribbons and medals on his uniform like a résumé, and to them, he knew, he seemed the epitome of a badass: Bronze Star with “V.” Combat Action. Sharpshooter Award. Navy Cross. “The Budweiser.” Bosnia, Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom, Syrian Liberation.As the cadets had huddled around him after his lecture, pestering him with questions, he suddenly felt that he was on the other side of a great and terrible lie.

That was when the CNO had called. He had excused himself and gone into the wings. “Jim, I’m gonna send a chopper up for you in the morning. Something’s come up and we need to talk.”

Now, standing in the bitter cold, he turned his attention away from Bancroft Hall and back to the Chesapeake. It was rolling rough and surly, with long deep swells, as if huge humpbacked monsters were roving just beneath the surface, stretching, trying to break free. A bit of orange sunlight reached his face, and he felt the slightest change in temperature on his lips. At that moment, he heard the approaching thump of rotors, steady and smooth. A minute later, the Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King appeared just over the treetops and banked majestically over the roof of the Nimitz Library. It was a beautiful sight, and he was touched by a sudden sentimentality. Taken all together—his sleepless night, the history of this place, the brooding Chesapeake, the white Sea King in flight and the way the sun flash refracted through its dragonfly rotors—it stirred something in his chest. Beautiful. But he dispelled the romantic feeling almost immediately and strode across the snow to meet the chopper. It flared up a moment, then settled onto the snowy field. The door opened immediately, a gangway was lowered, and a marine sergeant stepped out and saluted him. He returned the salute and climbed aboard. Then they were off, rising quickly. As they banked to the west, he looked down over the Yard. He still hated the place, yet he had to admit, grudgingly, that Annapolis had also given him a great deal. He drew on this place—particularly the fact that he had survived it—over and over again. It came down to something very basic. It had trained him to do things he didn’t want to do. It sounded simplistic, but it was the truth. There was a wide gap between a man who could force himself to do difficult things, and other men who could not. And not just the horrible things he had done: killing a young man with a knife, extracting a bullet from a friend’s guts with rusty pliers, sending men off to die. No, it was the-day to-day things that made the difference: getting up at four thirty every morning, voluntarily going five days without sleep, swimming six miles. Over a lifetime, that discipline added up.

But now, as the school and his past shrank behind him, he feared the meeting with Admiral Garrett because he feared that they were once again going to ask him to do things he didn’t want to do. Terrible, terrible things.

* * *

“These are images from a village called Dagzê, in the Nyingchi Prefecture in the Tibetan Autonomous Zone,” the commander said, stepping toward the huge iSheet mounted on the wall. Curtiss was in the Pentagon, at a huge conference table with CNO Garrett and a group of high-level officers and spooks. “The official Chinese media says that these are victims of a new disease, which they are calling Tibetan fever. They claim it only attacks Tibetans and that everyone else is immune, including the ethnic Han Chinese.”

The images were haunting: hospital wards full of sick Tibetans—men, women, and children. Then a scene from a filthy morgue: bodies stiff and stacked like lumber, not even covered with sheets. The camera had caught one weary hospital worker, a young man who looked sick himself, his eyes open wide, horror legible on his face. Next, an image of a school yard with a playground made from wood and plumbing pipes. Four girls in colorful Tibetan clothes: white blouses, sky-blue silk skirts, elaborate beads in braided hair. They lay unmoving on the ground, apparently struck down while at play.

Curtiss found himself pushing his coffee away. As much death as he had seen, he should have gotten used to it. But he never did. In fact, the older he got, the more it seemed to bother him. And those Tibetan girls’ clothes—they were so familiar, so Indian, almost identical to Choctaw dress.
He had seen a briefing on the outbreak yesterday, but had considered it minor. Wrong assumption. But how could it kill so quickly? It didn’t make sense. Unless . . .

“This is satellite footage from near the Ganden Monastery, close to Dagzê.”

Now Curtiss had to lean forward to sort out what he was seeing. A green, windswept hillside dropping away to a huge valley with sharp white mountains in the distance. It would have been strikingly beautiful if not for what he also saw there: five huge funnels of black smoke rising off five distinct hillsides, each ascending like a black tornado into the stratosphere. Massive towers of smoke. And there was something else in the air, also swirling and rotating—a huge column of them. The commander gave an audible, and the image began to zoom down toward the earth. The things in the air were birds, he realized—thousands of them. No, tens of thousands. Tan and brown, resembling eagles, with enormous wingspans. The camera seemed to pass very close to them as it fell through their mile-high vortex.

Tibetan vultures.

On the hillsides there were thousands more, in a seething, squabbling mass. Shoulder to shoulder, they pecked and clawed and fought among themselves. Only here and there did he see what was underneath: the red and pink and white of human corpses. Rib cages and spinal columns.
He had to rack his brain to remember his East Asian history. Sky Burials. Most Tibetans didn’t bury their dead; it was not the Buddhist way. They laid them out on hillsides, prayed, and sang mantras while the vultures came and devoured the remains. He remembered that nothing was left behind; that would be bad Karma. Even the bones were ground up, mixed with meal, and fed to the birds. It struck him as a ghastly custom, but then again, he supposed being stuck in the ground and fed to worms wasn’t all that pleasant, either. Supposedly, it was soothing to the Tibetans to know that the remains of their loved ones were flying over the earth, quickly recycled into the living.

“When was this footage taken?” asked Brigadier General Corey Wilson.

“This is live,” the commander said, “and it has been going on for three days. The funeral pyres you see are for people of high status, since wood is scarce in this part of Tibet.”

The commander’s words had sent a chill through the room. There was something about watching things live that hit you harder.

“Officially, the Chinese say that seven hundred people have been infected and a hundred have died; however, these images show that’s impossible. Our estimates show at least four thousand infected, with almost one hundred percent mortality—sometimes happening very fast, as you can see.
The screen went blank for a moment, as if to emphasize the sensitive nature of what the commander was about to say. “We have a man—I’ll call him the Fly—inside the Tangshan project, who has been updating us on the Chinese program.

“His report of yesterday gave us a shock. The Flystated that the outbreak is not a real disease at all, but a new weapon system——a nanovirus, designed in the Tangshan lab, that can selectively kill based on a victim’s genetic code. This synthetic virus was intentionally released in four villages in the Nyingchi Prefecture as a weapons trial.”

This caused a stir, and the officers began to whisper and mumble among themselves. Curtiss kept his mouth shut.

“We believe his report is accurate, for many reasons. We already knew that the Chinese were working on a weapon system like this, but we thought they were at least seven months from completing it. Also, the choice of villages is significant—this was the epicenter of the 2021 uprising, and the headquarters of the Gedhum Freedom Movement (GFM), which has been sabotaging Chinese infrastructure projects for years.

“Indeed, our reports say that while the four villages have been decimated in the literal sense—with one in ten citizens dying—the GFM has been completely wiped out. All the members that we track, which is close to three hundred people, are believed dead, along with most of their families. The Fly says that the nanovirus was able to seek them out specifically from blood samples taken when many of them were arrested after the uprising.

“As you know, there is a complete media blackout in Tibet, and the only news that reaches the outside world is what the Chinese government decides should be released. However, an attaché from State obtained this video, taken yesterday in the house of Kewtsang Rinpoche, the leader of the GFM.”

A shaky image appeared on the iSheet. The admiral saw a modest kitchen, a card table with mismatched wooden chairs, and peacock feathers decorating the walls.

And bodies.

A woman lay on the floor near the sink, and a girl was sprawled out at the table, with her hands over her head. The cameraman was speaking in Tibetan, his words indiscernible but feverish with emotion. He seemed to be saying the names of the dead, his voice cracking, holding back tears.

The camera spun into another room. At a desk, head down, face tilted toward the camera, was a wide-eyed man of no more than forty. This, the admiral somehow knew, was Kewtsang Rinpoche. Although he wore no robes, his head was shaved like a monk’s. He had a gentle face that struck Curtiss as too kind for a guerrilla leader. The camera panned. A crude bassinet stood in one corner of the room. Mercifully, the camera did not approach it.

The camera moved down a dark hallway and turned into a bedroom. On the floor lay a teenage girl. Her posture, now frozen, spoke of incredible pain—her back was arched too far, like an overextended gymnast’s. On the bed was the body of a teenage boy, facedown, naked from the waist up. Curtiss involuntarily leaned forward in his chair. Of all the images he had seen today, from the morgue until now, this one affected him the most. That young man . . . There was something about him. It was in the shape of his back. He must have been sixteen or seventeen, with the look that boys have at that age: lean, sinewy and strong, but not yet as bulky as a man. Logan, Curtiss’s oldest son, was sixteen, and he had a physique that was almost identical. He knew that back. He saw it when Logan leaned into the refrigerator after soccer practice, his sweat-soaked shirt over his shoulder, he saw it when the boy walked down the hall after a shower with a towel around his waist, and he saw it when he woke the boy in the morning.

“Jesus,” he muttered under his breath.

“As you can see,” the commander continued, “the nanovirus must have killed Kewtsang and his family almost instantly. The Fly’s report indicated that this was unexpected. The Chinese were surprised that it killed so quickly, and they actually hope to slow it down for future, um, applications. They also hope to design different viruses that will mirror the symptoms of other diseases so that the deaths do not raise suspicions and are essentially undetectable.

“Of course, the impact of all this is enormous. With just one sample of a person’s DNA, the Chinese can assassinate anyone they wish, and only the most detailed autopsy would prove foul play.”

Everyone started talking, but the commander raised his hand for quiet.

“While it does look bleak, it’s important to remember that this virus is crude compared to what will be possible after replication. Yes, it can identify DNA strands and decide whether to switch on or off, but it is not truly programmable, and the Chinese are still a long way from replication. Which, of course, is the real prize.” There seemed to be a hopeful gleam in Holder’s eye when he said “the real prize,” which Curtiss didn’t like. Be careful what you wish for.

Curtiss looked around the room. There were eight officers and two suits—Edmund Peters from Langley, and Bill Dawson from NSA. He knew them all, had worked with them (and occasionally against them) for decades, across wars and conflicts covering much of the globe. He checked off his assessment of each of them as he glanced at their faces: prick, asshole, prick and asshole, insufferable sycophant, pussy.

There were only three he admired: CNO Garrett, his boss; Edmund Peters (CIA), the most competent spook they had; and Lieutenant General (marines) Ellis Carlson, admittedly a bastard, but a straight shooter and one of his only true friends from Annapolis. All the officers outranked him (O-9s or higher), and all but those three hated his guts. That made him a little uneasy. He still didn’t know why he was here, but he suspected he wouldn’t be leaving this room without a size-seven asshole.

“Which is why we have to move fast,” the commander continued.

Admiral Garrett crossed his huge meaty forearms and leaned back in his chair. He was looking straight at Curtiss now, and Curtiss didn’t like it. Garrett was the head of the whole damn Navy, and he was made for the part: a huge, fat Texan with a bald head and dazzling blue eyes that belonged in the head of a movie star. He was known as the Preacher because, most of the time, he was gregarious and affable and could make you feel all warm and fuzzy. Duty, honor, country, and all that shit. Enormously likable—people wanted to please him. Which was perfect for him. In fact, most of the time, you didn’t even feel as though you were receiving orders; he’d make it seem as if you had thought it up yourself. “What we maybe oughta do is . . .” or “You might want to consider . . .” And the next thing you knew, you were busting your hump for him, but you didn’t care, because it just seemed like the right thing to do, and besides, you certainly didn’t want to disappoint the Preacher, because you knew he had another side to him, a side you didn’t want to see.

Garrett’s stare, combined with the commander’s last words—with the right team and the right leadership—was enough to make it click.

They had chosen him. They wanted Curtiss to lead the project. They knew all that he had done in his thirty-seven-year career. Annapolis, Dive School, BUD/s, SEAL Team 4, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, his Purple Heart, the Navy Cross, and, of course, Syria. They knew what kind of sailor he was. The navy was split into thirds: engineers, bureaucrats, and soldiers. He wasn’t an engineer, and he wasn’t a bureaucrat. That alone told him what they thought about this little project. This was war.

But Syria. He had been sure they would never give him another command after Syria. Now he realized they wanted him not in spite of Syria, but because of it. Even for those in the room who hated him, Syria had solidified his reputation as a man who was ruthless, calculating, and, when necessary, very, very cruel. To them, he was not the one who had returned with so many body bags, but the man who had ended the war so succinctly, annihilating the enemy. Looking at their faces, he knew they had fought over it. They had fought, and Garrett had eventually gotten his way. Because it was Garrett who knew him best. Garrett knew what he had become—the change that had started in Annapolis and ended in Syria. And Garrett alone knew the whole truth.

Curtiss stared into Garrett’s dazzling blue eyes, and in that moment, he hated him. He hated him for insisting that he go back, that he reach into himself one more time for the hardness, for making him once again become the man they wanted, the man who would sacrifice other men and women for a greater good.

It was Garrett who spoke, realizing that Curtiss understood full well why he was here. “Jim, this is now the nation’s top security priority. The job is straightforward: Make sure our team wins this race. No matter the cost, no matter the consequences. To do that, the first thing you have to do is get one man: Bill Eastman. He’s got more smarts than a rattlesnake whip, and that’s more than most of those Chinamen put together.” Garrett leaned forward for effect, his meaty forearms heavy on the table. “Get me Eastman and you’re halfway there.

“Now, I realize all this nano-crap might be throwing you for a loop, so Ed is going to fill you in on what it’s all about. If you thought this little trick in Tibet was impressive, you’d better pucker up your O-ring, because what Ed’s about to tell you is gonna knock you on your Indian ass.”

Ed Peters got up, cleared his throat, and began to speak.

* * *

Seven hours later, Curtiss left the Pentagon. Shaken. Foggy. Overwhelmed. And a little angry. Why didn’t you put all the pieces together yourself? A part of him kept rejecting what they had told him. That was his gut reaction: to deny that it was true and return to his old understanding of the world. To go back to the world of this morning, the sunrise in Annapolis. But that was what other men would do. And wasn’t that the sort of denial that had gotten them here in the first place? That was why they were so far behind the Chinese: because people had refused to see what was happening.

His assistant opened the car door for him. Vacantly, he got into the black Lincoln. Safe behind tinted glass, unseen by any subordinate, he pulled his hand down his face.

Again he lectured himself. Why didn’t you see it coming?

He had always prided himself on being keenly aware of the evolution of warfare. He had studied it with a professor’s discipline ever since Annapolis. He had measured it in the changes from one war to the next—the fits and starts and sometimes startling leaps in technology, and their gruesome effects. It was plain to see in specific battles, usually in the first encounter between sides: the musket wars of New Zealand, the German invasion of Poland in 1939—the Polish cavalry against the machine guns of the Wehrmacht. The rate of technological change since that day, September 1, 1939, was equally startling. It had been the great catalyst. World War Two had begun on horseback and ended with a B-29 Superfortress dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima six years later. Only fifteen years after that, the world was locked in mutually assured destruction, with ICBMs poised to make their insane volleys over the North Pole.

But then it seemed that technological change had slowed. The same B-52s that had bombed Vietnam in the 1960s also bombed Afghanistan and Syria. Yes, there were drones and webcams and real-time satellite footage, but the rate of change did not feel quite so awesome as before.
Now he realized that this perceived deceleration had been an illusion. The changes had been happening all along. He just hadn’t seen them, because the changes were, quite literally, not visible They were invisible, microscopic. Since World War Two, technology had gone away from things that people could see and appreciate (aircraft carriers, submarines, thermonuclear explosions) toward the invisible—the molecular, atomic, subatomic, quantum.

But were they really on the cusp of doing what they hoped to do? Were the Chinese really almost there? It was so big—not just one or two additions to the arsenal. No, the whole arsenal would change, and most of the current weapons would be useless against those who wielded the new science.

And it would come from a single major breakthrough: what they were calling “replication”—when they figured out how to bring these things to life.
He reminded himself that he didn’t have to take the job. He could tell Garrett to go to hell. The Preacher would sigh and shake his head and say he was disappointed, but he would let Curtiss out because he wouldn’t want a man who wasn’t fully committed to the project. Then Curtiss would be free to retire in peace. Yet it was clear there would be no peace. The peace was ending. That much was clear from the image of the dead Tibetan boy on the cot, his shape, his strong back.

* * *

That night, he lay in bed beside his sleeping wife, running over everything he had learned. The spiraling vultures, the rib cages and spinal columns, the bassinet in the corner.

At four thirty a.m., Curtiss found himself in Logan’s doorway, looking at his son as he slept. It was a ritual he had performed religiously when the boy was younger—the evening check that he was safe, a ritual that began when he was a newborn, fresh out of the hospital. Back then Curtiss would check three and four times a night just to make sure the boy was still breathing, often stepping into the room and placing his hand on his back. And that simple act, that simple piece of evidence—the rise and fall of his chest—was still the most soothing thing in the world to him.

Logan was snoring loudly. Curtiss looked around the dim room, saw the silhouettes of the boy’s soccer trophies amid all the things that he knew were there yet were concealed in the darkness: the prize he won for a state writing competition, a picture of the boy and their dog, the Pink Floyd prism poster, the life-size cutout of Lionel Messi.

He gave a heavy sigh as he remembered the Tibetan boy. He didn’t want the job, but he was going to take it. It came back to Annapolis and Bancroft Hall. It was the way he had been trained: to do the things that he didn’t want to do.

Chapter Two

Advanced Micro Laboratories, Sunnyvale, CA
February 28, 2025

Two men sat on a rooftop overlooking Silicon Valley.

From here, they could see the top floors of the other tech giants—silver-and-glass towers jutting above the trees, like Mayan temples above the rain forest. On the streets below, workers were pulling out of parking lots and heading home for the day—a long stream of red brake lights making their way to the foothills. To the East lay the San Francisco Bay and the vibrant green wetlands that made up its southern tip.

But the two men weren’t looking at the buildings or the traffic or the bay. They were gazing up at the fiery sunset that filled the western sky. A warm high-pressure system had moved up from Baja in the afternoon, colliding with cooler air from the north. The effect was astonishing. The clouds were stacked up like shelves, each tier refracting a different hue of red or purple or orange, reaching high into the troposphere. Between the layers, shafts of light broke through, spotlighting distant patches of earth and water.

The two men sat in rapt silence. They had come here as part of a ritual, to mark the end of an era. Thirty-two years ago, they had been on this very rooftop together, confident young men celebrating the launch of their first company. It had been a big party: two thousand invitees, thirty tables of food, a swing band, and a hundred and twenty gallons of ice cream. Reporters from all the major magazines and newspapers in the country had been there for “the Startup of the Decade,” and the party had run late into the night.

Now the scene was very different. The building was abandoned—the electricity, water, and gas turned off. There were no witnesses, no reporters. The only light was a single candle on the plastic table between them. And while the company would live on under new leadership and in a new facility, for these two men it was over.

Finally, when all the light had drained from the sky and the first stars began to shine, Jack Behrmann stirred. He was a massive man, over seven feet tall and built like Paul Bunyan. He had a thick beard and spoke with a deep, gravelly voice.

“Can we trust him?”

“Curtiss?” Bill Eastman asked.

Jack nodded.

“It’s still bothering you, isn’t it?”

Another nod. “I suppose it’s not really him, exactly. It’s the whole idea. Weapon systems. I just never imagined . . .”




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