Read an Excerpt
The Nobel War Prize
The skies were clear and bright outside NATO Headquarters in Brussels, the many colorful flags of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s member nations flapping lazily in a gentle breeze, as if to say all was well with the world.
But within the massive, twentieth-century–modern central structure, in the auditorium-style seating of a darkened briefing chamber, twenty-two NATO military commanders and their aides were listening, some on translation headphones, to talk of war.
This talk, at least—courtesy of James McCullen of MARS Industries—posited warfare that might spare populaces of some of the carnage and destruction associated with history’s favorite pastime.
This descendant, and namesake, of a certain James McCullen had a similarly strong, angular face, and eyes that carried a similar proud defiance. His dark business suit was beautifully tailored to his slender, muscular frame, set off by the distinctive and unusual touch of a round red medallion of a tie tack that rode his silk tie.
No one present but McCullen himself had any reason to know that this was the symbol of an ancient Scottish clan that had made its fortune and fame in the sales of arms.
The man addressing these military commanders was in the same line of work, for which he made no apologies.
“Tragic as they are to fight,” McCullen was saying, “wars must be won. Wars that linger and go on in a seemingly endless fashion destroy the social fabric of both sides of any conflict. If we can agree that wars are as inevitable as they are tragic, however, perhaps we can take steps to minimize their devastation. Perhaps these conflicts don’t have to be as destructive as they have been in the past.”
Behind the speaker at his sleek podium, on a huge wall screen, a series of complex schematics rolled continuously.
“Nano-mites,” McCullen said, biting off the words. “Perfect little soldiers. Originally developed, as you know, to isolate and destroy cancer cells . . . but we at MARS Industries . . . with the help of a little NATO funding . . .”
A few gentle laughs rippled. This audience knew how many billions had gone into “a little” funding; and the speaker seemed to soak up this benign, good-humored response.
“. . . we discovered how to program them to do, well, almost anything. What, for instance? How about . . . to eat metal.”
On the looming screen behind McCullen, a soldier was remotely starting a tank before gunning it forward. Another soldier fired in response at the racing tank, using a shoulder-launched missile. The warhead struck the tank head-on, bursting not into flame, rather into a shimmering silver wave that washed ripplingly over the metal, eating it away like a school of piranha devouring a horse.
With a gentle gesture, McCullen indicated this bizarre sight, saying, “What you see here are millions of microscopic nano-mites, ladies and gentlemen. Seven million, to be precise, the payload of a single warhead, with the ability to consume anything from a single tank to an entire city.”
The not easily impressed military minds gathered before McCullen were clearly startled, even shaken by what they were witnessing on the screen, which was the disappearance of a heavy tank, with the silver nano-mites scurrying on toward a nearby jeep.
“No innocent casualties,” McCullen said, with smooth salesmanship. “No loss of human life. Which is why the development of nano-mite technology has been such a priority for me and my company.”
On-screen, the soldier who fired the shoulder-launched warhead flicked a switch, and the nano-mites instantly went motionless around the jeep, as if they’d dropped dead.
“Once a target has been destroyed,” McCullen said, “the launcher triggers a kill switch unique to each warhead, short-circuiting the nano-mites, preventing any unwanted destruction.”
The entire chamber broke into applause.
Or rather, almost the entire chamber: Retired Army General Clayton Abernathy—a handsome if hardened man in his early fifties, a grizzled veteran of countless battles, as the many ribbons on his dress uniform indicated—alone of the assemblage did not seem to be buying into McCullen’s sales pitch.
From his seat at the back of the hall, with a lovely female aide just behind him, the dryly smiling man who was called General Hawk (by his friends and comrades and even his enemies) spoke up: “I guess this means you’ll be the first arms dealer in history ever to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.”
That got some laughter going, but McCullen only smiled, his demeanor that of a good sport.
“Let’s just say, General,” McCullen said, with his own dry, if slightly sly smile, “I prefer the term ‘armament solutions engineer.’?”
That got some laughs, too.
One of the few not laughing was an individual known only as Zartan, McCullen’s aide-de-camp—a tall, broad-shouldered man with black hair cut close to the scalp and an oval face whose handsome features bore a touch of cruelty. His dark business suit helped him blend into the sidelines, despite the distinctiveness of his appearance, which was a good thing, because Zartan had a habit that many might find disturbing.
McCullen’s aide had a way of studying individuals and categorizing their tics and traits. As he recorded these in a computer-like mind, his face would reveal the process—one general in the audience would arch an eyebrow, and so would Zartan; another general would scratch an ear, and so would Zartan; another might laugh distinctively and so, quietly, would Zartan, the perfect natural mimic.
“Gentlemen,” McCullen was saying, “I’m pleased to announce that tomorrow morning your first order of nanotech warheads will ship from my factory in Kyrgyzstan.”
Again applause rang through the chamber.
Soon, followed by Zartan, the speaker exited the briefing room into a modern, beige-walled corridor where he paused briefly to shake hands with various supportive military commanders from around the world.
Not lost on James McCullen was the fact of General Hawk taking this all in.
At Hawk’s side was his own aide-de-camp, Court-ney Krieger, a lovely, statuesque young woman in the uniform of a Czech lieutenant, with the appearance of a fashion model belied by her somberly businesslike presence.
The general waited until McCullen had dealt with the well-wishers, then approached.
“Mr. McCullen,” the general said. “Clayton Abernathy . . . if I might have a moment.”
McCullen’s smile seemed genuine enough as the two men shook hands.
“I know who you are, General Hawk. And from your questions and comments back there, I’d say you’re as sharp in a briefing room as you are on the battlefield, if your reputation is to be believed.”
“Not sure about that,” Hawk said, offering the man his own good-natured smile. “You did provide an old soldier a broad target, and I guess I couldn’t resist.”
“Fair enough. At any rate, it’s an honor to meet a military man of your many accomplishments.”
With another smile and a nod, McCullen invited Hawk to walk along with him.
The two aides-de-camp fell in behind. Zartan stared unabashedly at the gorgeous Courtney Krieger, who walked alongside him. She noted, but did not comment on, these terrible manners.
McCullen was asking genially, “So what’s on your mind, General?”
“Your warheads, sir.” He shook his head with unhidden concern, even displeasure. “Securing them in transit is questionable to say the least . . . and how many ears in that room back there now know the when and the where of it?”
McCullen shrugged and smiled yet again, casually. “Those ‘ears’ all have top security clearance, General. You know that.”
“And we both know what that’s worth.”