THE SKY BETWEEN TWO WORLDS
THE SKY BETWEEN TWO WORLDS
A story of intrigue, love, battle and survival in a future world of titanic East-West conflict. ( Amazon Kindle $1, bit.ly/MZ38qx ).
June 2047, Central Atlantic Coast, North American Alliance
In a helicopter circling the ruins, Colonel Kantak Johnson, former governor of Alaska and current member of the North American Parliament, surveyed the craters of the two bombs that had devastated the city: one an underwater blast near the harbor and the other an airburst over the city center. The sub-megaton blasts had left only steel skeletons of skyscrapers, a few recognizable buildings, car-shaped objects and tidal wave debris, all coated with pulverized rock and ash. Weeds, bushes and a scattering of small trees had begun to claim the ruins.
Kantak viewed the exposed, twisted girders of the city. They seemed naked, vaguely obscene. It should have a proper burial. He sniffed the air: the smell of seaweed and salt water. But to Kantak, who had lived in the once-vibrant city, it was now a smell of death. Then he saw a small segment of a bridge that once had crossed the river. He pointed to it for his pilot: “Land there, please.”
As they landed, Kantak looked toward a reed-infested swamp on the southwest bank. He saw a broken dome and fallen fluted columns projecting from brackish water. But, contrary to his hopes, nothing visible remained of the engineering library that had once stood there. This is the bridge. He had crossed it many times. He said, “There’s something I want to check.”
Kantak and the pilot donned dust masks and scraped debris off the broken concrete walkway near the remains of a lamp post. The cleaned concrete revealed the painted words “Halfway to.” Behind the mask, memories closed his eyes. This is where it all began, on this spot, twenty years ago, here in Boston.
CHAPTER 1. INTERLUDE AND DISCOVERY June 2027, Boston, Massachusetts
It was a time of magic, a time for planning, singing a song, or just lying on the sunlit grass. Final exams were over, senior theses handed in, and graduation would come in three days. A perfect spring day with nothing to do: MIT students do not get many such days.
Wearing his light varsity jacket, Kantak Johnson trotted across the Harvard Bridge toward MIT. He heard a roar in the sky and looked up to an air force jet approaching Logan Airport. Soon I will be flying one of those. Kantak loved to fly. His father, a Norwegian petroleum engineer, had begun Kantak’s flying lessons on his twelfth birthday.
At the midpoint of the bridge, where some Techie had painted “Halfway to Hell” on the walkway, Kantak paused to view the sandstone buildings of MIT, their Great Dome, massive columns and the grassy Great Court. Not bad for a village boy from Alaska. The wind that flowed with the Charles River fluttered his jacket and his hair.
Three approaching teenage boys seemed taken aback by his jet black braid. The largest of them, who was about to offer a comment, reconsidered when he noticed Kantak’s 6-foot-2 frame and saw the word “Wrestling” on the jacket. Amused, Kantak smiled, giving a friendly wave as he passed. They don’t see many Inupiat around here.
Many Alaskans were concerned about what would happen in Alaska’s remote regions when the oil money ran out. Kantak was one of the few who came to the Lower 48 to do something about it.
Reaching the campus, he connected to the Tech wireless router, finding his senior thesis for industrial engineering graded A-. His instructor had added, “Your proposed development corporation would be an excellent approach for increasing the self-sufficiency of Alaska. Not likely to be profitable (that’s why the minus), but highly beneficial to Alaskans. Best of luck in your endeavors.”
Yes! We don’t need to make a profit. She’s right; we will need money.
Kantak entered the Great Court, a manicured grass lawn larger than a football field, which presented broad views of the Boston skyline. Students relaxed everywhere. He walked among them, waving to friends and picking up snippets of conversations.
One group chanted a parody of the Ivy League:
Princeton’s run by Wellesley,
Wellesley’s run by Yale,
Yale’s run like Vassar, and
Vassar’s run like jail.
Kantak approached a group of varsity athletes, catching and returning a football tossed at him. Ellen Fitzgerald, a slender biology major with blue eyes and Irish spontaneity, sat on the grass watching the horseplay, her straw-colored hair blowing in the breeze. He liked Ellen, but there was nothing serious between them. Their common interest was in cold weather crops that could thrive in Alaska.
Bob Kivak, a fellow Alaskan with a flair for organizing, hawked a contest: “Step right up, Kantak. The competition is one-arm push-ups for these two bottles of ambrosia.” He raised two bottles of soda. “The current leader with twelve is Randy Madison, the enforcer on our hockey team.”
Kantak could hardly decline: he and Bob had played high school football together. Bob was the agile quarterback; and Kantak, the pounding fullback. Too bad MIT didn’t have a football team.
Kantak dropped to the grass. Urged on by Ellen and his wrestling teammates, he pumped fifteen. There were no further challengers.
Bob handed him the two sodas, which were warm. Kantak gave one to Ellen, who planted a congratulatory kiss on his cheek. The group cheered, “Wrestlers rule!”
Bob then distributed more warm sodas.
“I know how to get those sodas cold,” Kantak said, “follow me.” He led them into the building and down hallways to the physics lab where an insulated container held liquid nitrogen. They cooled their drinks with small dollops of the super-cold liquid.
Randy plopped too much in his soda, freezing it solid. Annoyed, he dropped the frozen bottle into a metal waste basket. The bottle exploded, flinging some fragments against the side of the basket with a metallic clang and shooting others onto the ceiling. Fortunately they hit no one.
Someone asked, “Hey, Randy, how did you ever pass first semester physics?”
“Sorry, folks, no physics in my political science curriculum.”
Soon the hard-core jocks in the group left to watch the broadcast of a Red Sox game.
Ellen and Kantak returned to the Great Court. They wandered over to a remaining group where they saw Harvey Jamison actually sitting down rather than zooming past on his skateboard. Harvey, a bright, geeky materials science major, had never outgrown his pre-teen love of action and outdoor adventure.
Frequently flipping an unruly lock of brown hair, Harvey described to the group an unusual experience with his senior thesis project for Professor Abba.
“I formulated a new kind of carbon fiber by doping it with silicon. Then I tried to determine the structure of the fiber by measuring its transmission for different frequencies of microwaves. No luck! The damn fibers wouldn’t transmit microwaves at all. Even cutting the fibers short didn’t help. I was panicked. Professor Abba at first didn’t believe me, and I saw my grade going down the tubes.”
Someone asked, “So, are you going to graduate?”
“Yep, Old Sour Face inspected my experimental apparatus and agreed I was right. And get this, he gave me an A, telling me I didn’t even have to submit my write-up! He seemed in a rush and said something about leaving shortly for an international conference in Dubai.”
When a cool breeze picked up, the students retreated toward the women’s dormitory lounge for pizza, sodas and frappes. They strolled along the river walkway admiring the Boston evening skyline. As Kantak draped his jacket over Ellen’s shoulders, he heard the cry of a distressed bird near a lamppost ahead. Beneath the lamp, a seagull struggled to escape fishing line tangled on a bench. The gull had a distinctive black and white feather pattern, unlike any that Kantak had seen before.
He said, “Excuse me for a minute, Ellen,” and ran ahead to free the gull. The bird struggled in his grasp. Kantak hummed a song that seemed to calm it. Freed, the gull flew over the river toward the lighted Harvard Bridge, and Kantak returned to Ellen.
“How did you quiet the bird?”
“I sang a lullaby for birds that my mother taught me.”
“Yes, mother’s father was a shaman. People in her family have a close relationship with animals.”
Harvey exclaimed, “Awesome, Dude!”
“Well,” Ellen said, “it makes more sense than quantum mechanics.”
At the lounge, the group devoured long-delayed dinners, drifting into a discussion of politics. Domestic politics was not simple in the 2020’s. The traditional Republican Party had split into the hyper-conservative Teacons, the anti-government Teanons, and the anti-contraception Social Teas. And now a new party, the Fundamentalists, had gathered an evangelical bloc. Several students were particularly concerned that the Fundamentalist candidate for president, a charismatic Netcast evangelist named Edmund Roberts, had no practical experience in government, finance, diplomacy or child-bearing.
International politics was even more complex. Growing populations and diminishing resources kept reducing the size of the pie, while all countries sought bigger pieces of it. Europe had yet to achieve its goal of economic union, and according to an exchange student, the underdeveloped countries of Mid-Asia were unduly constrained by the peace treaty that ended the Oil Embargo War. The student feared that the outdated peace treaty now, ironically, threatened the peace.
Late at night, the group broke up; everyone stuffed with fast food and satisfied that he or she had upheld their point of view.
Kantak said goodnight to Ellen, and he began his return walk across the bridge. He tried to compare Ellen with Eleesa, the girl back in Alaska who had stopped writing to him, but decided they were entirely different. There I go again. What’s up with Eleesa?
The wind along the Charles picked up. Near the Halfway to Hell midpoint, several seagulls hunted dinner. One looking just like the gull he had rescued hovered a few feet above the railing. The hovering gull reminded Kantak of the stealth fighter he hoped to fly in the air force.
Suddenly it all came together: microwaves, fibers and stealth planes. Radar waves are microwaves. Harvey’s new fibers completely absorb microwaves. Coat them on a stealth plane, and they will prevent radar detection. Kantak looked up to thank the gull, but it had flown away. This could be big.
CHAPTER 2. THE GAMECHANGER
Same day, Dubai City, United Arab Emirates
The Kingdom of Dubai, neither a member of the Western Alliance nor the Mid-Asian Consortium, was one of the few remaining neutral countries. As a consequence, its crowning jewel, Dubai City, thrived as a center, not only for tourism but also for meetings to facilitate the commerce that passed between the West and Mid-Asia. The two blocs had traded but otherwise remained hostile during the years since the Embargo War.
On silken bed sheets within a hotel of gold-colored stone, Professor Abba awoke late. In the full-length dressing mirror, he contemplated his sunken eyes and the wrinkles extending around the downturned corners of his mouth. Ironic. They said I was a happy child. Then he inspected the spots growing on his chest and back. Still spreading. He opened the curtains and gazed onto a turquoise sea. His face suddenly broke into an unaccustomed smile as he thought about why he was here rather than in his modest Boston apartment. If things go as I hope, I will die by my own hand, and the balance of world power will shift.
An expert on carbon fibers, Abba had spent the last two days proving his identity to the man he sought to see. The inquest had not only tested his knowledge of fibers, but also confirmed his fingerprints, his handwriting, and strands of his hair, presumably for DNA analysis. It had further included examination by a physician.
His two well-dressed escorts arrived in the mid-afternoon. Abba, carrying a portfolio of papers and fiber samples, accompanied them into a cream-colored limousine. He consented to blindfolding. After twenty minutes of circuitous driving, his escorts parked, removed the blindfold and led him into a windowless, well-appointed office. A barrel-chested man entered.
Abba recognized the face, mustache, and bald head of Habeed Khan, Supreme Leader of Mid-Asia. Abba knew that Khan came to power after the Asian Uprisings following the disastrous Embargo War and that he now led more than one-third of the world’s people. He ruled a territory that extended across Asia to the borders of Europe.
Khan smiled at Abba and ordered the escorts outside.
Abba bowed. “Your Majesty, thank you for granting my request to see you.”
Khan pointed to an upholstered chair in front of his large mahogany desk. “If what my people tell me about your samples is correct, it is we who should thank you on behalf of all Mid-Asia. Our people confirm your identity and expertise. They also confirm your condition and prognosis. But we need to hear from you why you give this discovery to us.”
“Your Majesty, it has been my life’s pursuit since the Embargo War. Western bombs killed my family.”
“Do they know that in the West?”
“No, the bombing destroyed the records of our village. I vowed to seek justice. I have at last found the means. This portfolio describes how to produce fibers that can make Mid-Asian stealth planes invisible to Western radar.”
“We are grateful that you have chosen to give us this technology. Your sample fibers have tested as you say. If our engineers can duplicate them, you will have done us an immense service.” After a pause, he said, “You know, do you not, that all our efforts would fail if the West should also obtain this information. Is there anyone else who knows how to make these fibers?”
“Yes, Your Majesty, I understand. One of my students at MIT, a young man named Harvey Jamison, made them and kept a laboratory notebook. But he did not recognize their significance.”
Khan’s face hardened as he recognized that he had no choice. “We regret that we must deal with all loose ends. But failure to do so could mean the deaths of hundreds of thousands of our people.”
“Is Jamison a loose end?”
“We believe that to be true.”
“We would welcome you in Mid-Asia. Would you wish to defect?”
“Your Majesty, my defection might arouse suspicions and inquiries. As your physician has surely confirmed, I am in the late stages of an incurable cancer. I would have only a few painful months to live. I can now justify removing myself from this world.”
“So be it.” said Khan. “You will be honored as a martyr and be placed in the history books of Mid-Asia.”
They arose and bowed. Khan pushed a call button, summoning the two escorts to return Abba to his hotel. Khan then made appropriate arrangements.
Thirty minutes after Abba returned to his room, he heard a soft knock on the door. He opened it, and his eyelids snapped wide with surprise. There, dressed in the tradition of Abba’s homeland, stood a strikingly beautiful woman.
“My name is Fatina. I have brought you something from our supreme leader. May I come in?
“Yes, of course.”
Fatina stepped inside and closed the door. She opened her purse, removing a capped plastic container.
“I have been told to tell you that the contents are painless and untraceable. Our supreme leader asks that you write an appropriate note.”
Abba thanked her, starting toward the door, but she stood in the way.
She said, “I understand that you lost your family in the Embargo War and that you have given us something that will help exact justice against the West.”
“Please,” he replied, “you are a beautiful woman. The less you know about this, the better.”
“I need know nothing more. I lost my husband and children in the same war. I understand your pain, and I seek the same justice you seek. I wish to stay.”
In the morning, her eyes wet with the thought of his inexorable fate, she gave him a last lingering kiss, bowed and left.
Opening the container, Professor Abba found a single white pill. As he swallowed it, he thought, perhaps I will once again see my family.
CHAPTER 3. DEADLY INVENTIONS
Next day, Boston and Cambridge Massachusetts
In the Boston University weight training center, Bat Sung added iron plates to equal his 275-pound body weight. Although large, Bat did not look fat, but rather like an overdeveloped villain in a martial arts Netvideo. He capped off his usual early morning workout by pumping twenty bench presses.
Bat answered to the cover name Roger Wang. He pretended to be an exchange student from Korea. Until two days ago, his only assignment in the United States had been to study, observe and keep fit. Then he had been ordered to break into the office of MIT Professor Abba for samples of the professor’s handwriting, fingerprints and hair. The assignment had seemed strange to Bat, but it came from the highest level.
Last night Bat had received a second high-level assignment, this one regarding a student named Harvey Jamison and a laboratory notebook that described new carbon fibers. He had smiled as he decoded orders. This was the kind of task he had signed up for. Jamison’s FacePlace blurb displayed his picture, listing his address in Cambridge at Apartment 1B, 121 Massachusetts Avenue.
Bat showered to cool the heat of heavy lifting and changed into street clothes, including the MIT sweatshirt he had worn for the Abba break-in. He also concealed his knife in the sweatshirt front pocket.
Since the weather was perfect, he jogged the mile or so to Jamison’s red-brick apartment building. Conveniently, the Cambridge Diner across Mass Avenue provided an excellent view of the building entrance. He entered the diner just before Kantak Johnson arrived at the apartment building.
* * *
Kantak rang the bell for Apartment 1B.
“Who is it?” Harvey’s voice blurted from the intercom.
“’Hey, Harvey, it’s me, Kantak. I’ve gotta talk to you, man. It’s about that material you described yesterday. Can I come up?”
“Gimme a few minutes to get decent.”
An electronic buzz opened the entrance door. A few minutes later Harvey, with a cup of hot coffee in hand, greeted Kantak at the apartment door. “What’s the deal?”
“I think we can make some serious money with that material.”
Harvey’s face lit up with interest. “How so? What would we use it for?”
“We patent it for stealth airplanes. You invented the fibers and the method for making them. I invented mixing them in resin adhesive and painting them on stealth planes. Whatever radar hits the plane will be absorbed.”
Tugging his forelock, Harvey thought for a few seconds. “Why didn’t I think of that? You took the patent seminar. What do we need for the applications?”
“A program licensed at the MIT word processing center will take us through the preparation, step-by step. We’ll need to describe how to make the fibers and the coatings.”
“No problemo,” said Harvey. “In my lab notebook, I’ve still got the draft write-up that I didn’t hand in.” Harvey went to a desk holding a pile of papers, pulled out the notebook and removed the stapled write-up. They left for the word processing center.
* * *
At the Cambridge Diner, drinking his second cup of coffee, Bat saw Harvey walking from the entrance with a tall black-haired student. Bat handed the cashier a ten dollar bill, telling her to keep the change and leaving quickly.
Bat followed the two down Mass Avenue and into the center. He sat at a nearby booth, pretending to type a report, listening to them and hearing the words “new carbon fibers,” “stealth coatings,” and “aircraft.” He also heard that the other guy’s name was Kantak. Bat didn’t understand why a man who looked Scandinavian had a braid, but clearly his orders now included Kantak.
In the late afternoon, with Harvey and Kantak still going strong, Bat returned to Harvey’s building. He followed a group of students through the entrance, proceeding to Harvey’s apartment, knocking on the door. As expected, no one answered. He picked the lock, entering the cluttered single room and finding Harvey’s lab notebook on top of the desk.
Spotting a small gas cooking stove in the kitchenette, Bat flipped the entrance light switch to see which bulb it lit, then carefully broke the bulb while leaving the filaments intact. Bat then closed the windows and curtains. Next he extinguished the pilot light on the stove, turned on the gas, closed the door tightly and left the apartment.
In the early evening, Harvey and Kantak completed a draft of the patent application. They walked from the center together. But while they were walking toward the exit, Kantak realized that he had left out some things they needed in the application.
Kantak explained to Harvey, “The draft describes coating only aircraft. But the coating can also make stealth tanks, trucks, rockets and even ships. I need to revise it. You go ahead, and I’ll catch up with you afterwards.”
“Okay, then we can celebrate with a drink.”
So while Harvey continued home, Kantak returned to the center.
Bat walked to Cambridge Central Square where he mailed Harvey’s notebook and a brief report to a safe drop. On his way back to the word processing center, he passed Harvey returning home. Bat was disappointed by the absence of Kantak, but he nonetheless grinned in anticipation as Harvey turned off behind him to enter the apartment building.
Upon opening the door and seeing the apartment dark, Harvey reflexively switched on the light. The explosion blew him across the hallway, through the window onto the lawn. The subsequent fire incinerated the apartment contents.
Bat heard the gas explosion and the fire alarms. He whispered, “One down, one to go.” As he continued toward MIT, he closed the concealed knife: it would be more interesting to perform the next task with his bare hands.
Within MIT, Bat walked past the center. After confirming that Kantak was on the same computer, filling blanks in some program, Bat located the nearest exit, which led out to a walkway between a row of rhododendron bushes and the grass of the Great Court. He stepped behind the bushes and waited patiently.
Kantak completed his application and electronically filed it with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Leaving the empty hallways, he stepped out onto the walkway along the now-deserted Great Court. The sun had gone down.
The stars shone brightly in the cool night sky. He stopped to see if he could identify the constellations. A rustling in the bushes startled him, and he turned around to see a pigeon fleeing the bushes. He then saw a large man running at him like an unblocked linebacker. Is this a joke?
The man barreled into him.
Kantak only had time to brace for the impact, a jolting slam in the ribs. He felt a cracking sensation, a sharp pain in his lower right side, and the thump of the lawn against the back of his head.
He found himself on his back, mounted by a larger, stronger man pressing him down. The man gripped opposite sides of Kantak’s collar, choking him with his own jacket. This guy is crazy.
Kantak grabbed the man’s right wrist with both hands and pushed his left foot against the man’s right leg. Then, despite the pain, Kantak arched his back, leveraging the man up and forward, tumbling the man onto his back. Kantak then spun in the opposite direction onto his hands and knees. Got to get away from this nut!
Kantak sprang up and ran back into the building. He looked back.
The man bounced up, fumbling in his sweatshirt pocket and bolting after him.
Kantak ran through deserted hallways and empty staircases. He looked for a guard. No guard.
The man followed, something glinting in his hand.
Kantak yelled for a guard. No answer. He saw that the glinting object was a knife. He ran faster.
The man speeded up.
Kantak looked for someplace safe. Turning a corner, he saw the familiar physics lab, leaped in and locked the door.
A few seconds later he heard pounding footfalls as the man rounded the same corner. Then he listened to soft, deliberate footsteps, as the man searched the nearby classrooms, one by one. The steps reached the physics lab. The doorknob silently turned but the locked door didn’t open. There was a crash against the door. The lock held, but Kantak realized that the glass-windowed door would not stop this man. Trapped.
Kantak scanned the Lab for some defense. No weapons. He saw the insulated beaker and the canister they had used yesterday to cool their sodas. He grabbed the beaker. Kantak heard metallic clicking as the man apparently tried but failed to pick the lock. Kantak filled the beaker from the canister.
Kantak startled at the crash of glass raining onto the stone tile floor and saw a hand reaching through the shattered window to unlock the door.
The door opened, and the man entered the lab.
Kantak stepped back, but the man moved toward him, weaving the knife from side to side.
Kantak retreated towards the back wall. Still hoping to attract attention, he shouted, “Why do you have a knife? What are you doing with a knife?”
The man answered, “I’m sending you to join your friend Harvey.” Then he brandished the knife so that Kantak could only retreat toward a corner.
Kantak shouted angrily, “What did you do to Harvey?”
The man only smiled, continuing to force Kantak toward the corner.
Now in cold fury, through narrowed eyes, Kantak analyzed the man’s every move. When only a few feet separated them, he saw the man look pointedly at the beaker, then at his own knife, and then flash another smile. The man glided toward Kantak in small steps, always leading with the same front foot. So he’s a fencer.
Kantak saw the man straighten his knife arm, preparing to lunge. He’ll bring his back leg forward to drive his lunge at me.
The man started his back leg forward, momentarily immobilizing his front foot. He’s committed. Kantak threw the full beaker of liquid nitrogen toward the man’s face. In mid-lunge with all weight on his front foot, the man could not evade the super-cold liquid. The nitrogen splattered on his face and head, vaporizing from the contact, and sucking the heat from everything it touched.
The man made no outcry. Through the vapor, Kantak saw the still-smiling frosted face advancing. Can’t anything stop him? The man continued forward, falling over his collapsing front knee. He fell, face-first, onto the tile floor, his frozen forehead shattering into a dozen pieces.
The surge of adrenaline ending, Kantak slumped into the corner. He heard shouting guards racing down the hallway.