“It is what it is,” Gallen heard Bertoldi tell him over the phone. Gallen grimaced; he couldn’t stand that cliché. Every since it came into general use years ago, he hated it on an intrinsic basis. If it meant anything at all, which was a point he would also debate, it meant “I don’t have a real answer for this problem so I’m just going to acknowledge its existence then leave it alone.” To Gallen, it was a helpless verbal shrug. It infuriated him.
He slipped his phone back into his pocket to devote his attention back to Weston. Weston resumed his presentation.
"Tesla's genius came from his unparalleled innovation," he said, "his failure arose from his unsupportable faith in mankind."
Gallen shifted from one foot to the other as he squinted across the hundred-acre farmland. The day looked as if God had paid particular attention when he created the Maryland Chesapeake watershed. Cerulean filled with white-flint cirrus floating behind the larger cumulous, he could imagine nothing more primal.
“Tesla? Really? You can’t seriously be hauling out that old canard,” he said.
“What?” Weston asked. He wore the standard-issue lab coat over a hand-tailored charcoal Tom Ford.
“Nothing,” Gallen said. “Go on.”
The building where they stood had the appearance of a government pillbox, the kind the feds sold off after 40-plus years of neglect. Its wraparound concrete porch came with a black metal railing that allowed Gallen to lean while viewing the rolling countryside that unfolded before him. The building sat at the highest point in the immediate area, giving him a clear view of the structures Weston had erected. Black-eyed Susans littered a six-foot wide mulched dirt area between the building and the pasture that stretched out before them, as if someone, long ago, had thought that planting them would make the military instillation somehow less austere.
“He never really mastered the marketing end, the public relations part,” Weston walked the porch, hands clasped behind him like the pompous rectum Gallen remembered.
Gallen never liked Weston, not even back in their days together starting out at High Castle. Weston’s manner, his pretentiousness and haughty air always irritated Gallen. How he had been singled out to witness the debacle that would surely ensue in the next few minutes escaped him. After all, High Castle wasn’t Weston’s shining moment, not by any measure. Still, Gallen hoped Weston didn’t harbor any grudges.
“That’s why he lost so much so precipitously,” Weston continued. Gallen detected that annoying drone he used to loathe so often back at High Castle.
“If he had just paid a little more attention to the self promotion, he could have convinced Morgan to stay on with him. He would have conquered the world.” Weston paused for emphasis. “Or, at least, the America power and defense industries.”
“You know I know this,” Gallen said.
Weston looked him in the eye. “Of course I do,” he said, “but I merely express this as background for the benefit of our correspondent here.” He gestured to the reporter from Quantum Field magazine, Tanya O’Connor. She glanced at Gallen then lifted her shoulders in commiseration; a grim smile lifted the corners of her lips.
“It’s background,” she said. “It can’t hurt.” The smart pantsuit she wore featured three varieties of black.
Gallen looked back at Weston. “So what are you saying, Raymond?” he said. “Are you telling me that you cracked the Tesla secret?”
Weston held his hand up, closing his eyes as he said, “I know, I know. Others greater than I have attempted it and failed.”
“Some spectacularly,” Gallen added.
“Indeed,” Weston said, missing the sarcastic edge to Gallen’s tone.
Out on the farm, a building that looked like a silo, only thinner, stood amid smaller, squatter structures that peppered the grounds around it. The tower had to stand 100 feet, Gallen thought, as he looked over the tableau. Weston had obviously gone to a lot of effort, he thought, this better be worth it.
Weston grinned that shit-eating smile he always flashed whenever he felt he had an advantage; Gallen had seen it a hundred times over the poker table: huge plate-sized teeth in a wide grimace. Food from that morning’s breakfast still clung between Weston’s incisors and canines. Somehow, Gallen thought, it fit with the rest of his appearance. Weston had a bald spot at the crown of his head; an otherwise full head of thick black hair left him with look of a tonsured monk, as if he had just walked out of a Hair Cuttery twenty dollars lighter.
Staring at the toes of his shoes, Gallen shook his head. The morning looked as though it would evolve into a long one.
Weston said, “What I’ve done is used Tesla’s notes for the supposed ‘teleforce’ he had claimed to have developed in 1940 and combined it with some of his other writings.”
“What writings?” Gallen’s eyes narrowed as he asked. “Nothing connected to the so-called ‘death beam’ has ever been made public. It’s well known in the scientific community that, historically, none of the material left after his death had any relevance to that work.”
Weston’s apparent delight remained unblemished. “Ah, but I’ve uncovered that data.”
“And you believe you’ve duplicated his ideas, even though no one in the community’s – no, wait. No one in science’s been able to for 70 years? Or worse, you think you’ve surpassed Tesla’s vision?”
“On his shoulders, Mark, I only stand on his shoulders.” Gallen winced. Even Weston’s attempts at humility sounded pretentious.
Gallen wanted to press him on how, along with other questions like where and when and what, but he decided that, to do so, would only lengthen a visit that had already descended into tedium. He’d demand the notes, as was his right under the regs, after the demonstration.
He remembered back to their clash at High Castle. Weston wanted to move in direction with particle beams that Gallen found pointless and, frankly, too expensive to justify. He quashed the project in the early stages. But, Gallen thought, it wasn’t the only time he had shot Weston down.
“Fine. Whatever. Let’s get on with it, shall we?”
Weston moved to retrieve his tablet. He glanced at it, moving his fingers on the screen for a few moments. Then, looking up to the field, he announced, “Behold.”
The very top of the tower gleamed with a light as bright as a star, its shine red then white hot in the daylight. For a moment, a halo grew out of the glow, then in an instant, a beam as wide as a tractor trailer flashed downward toward one of the buildings nearby. The building, about the size of a small house, exploded into kindling as wood, plaster and concrete showered the area around it.
Gallen’s jaw loosened. Despite himself, the shock of what he had witnessed stiffened the follicles of his scalp. He looked over at O’Connor who typed on her tablet without looking up. She met his gaze for a moment, her expression reflecting the awe he felt.
Another blast came loose, the red-white light surging from the tower to strike one of the other buildings. A sound saturated the air around them, a high-pitched buzz like a yellow jacket but much louder. I sounded as if an enormous bee hovered over them, its wings beating in the atmosphere. Gallen felt the teeth vibrate in his skull. He darted his eyes to the field. The ray smashed another building into pieces, each the size of a matchbox.
Weston waved his hand toward the farm. “That,” he said, “that is all due to Tesla.”
“But how?” Gallen asked. He looked at O’Connor who seemed buried in her iPad.
Weston turned to Gallen then froze. “Think about where we would be if Tesla had been allowed to continue – or even get financing for – his wireless experiments. If, as he envisioned, we had gone wireless in the 1940s instead of the 2000s, think where we’d be today.”
Gallen could not conceal his smirk. “Ray, you’re replowing ground that’s been turned over before, many times. At this moment, physics professors all over the country, and around the world, are saying these very words to the students in university classes.”
He took a step toward Weston, pointing his finger. “I need specifics.”
Weston looked confused. Clearly, he didn’t expect Gallen’s hard line. Weston said, “Tesla harnessed electricity, specifically, electromagnetism, one of the four primal forces of the universe –”
“Spare me the lecture,” Gallen said, his palm toward Weston. “I passed my history of science course long ago. Long ago.”
“What I was going to say – what you interrupted me for – is that what I found out was that Tesla was not just the master of EM. He had managed to conquer another of the primal forces.” He paused as if to allow the comment to sink in.
Gallen blinked. Despite himself, he said, “What?”
“What I discovered is that Tesla was able to unlock the secret of the strong force. Back in 1941, he devoted his attention to exploring it nature, its limits and its power. Most importantly, Tesla calculated a way to bypass the attractive force of the meson and discovered how to counteract it – how to undo it.”
Weston strolled a bit as he spoke, another feature in his bottomless quiver of persnickety mannerisms. “This material was part of what the FBI confiscated when he died two years later, part of the treasure trove of genius that went undeveloped for all those decades.”
Gallen looked again at O’Connor. She seemed immersed in her typing. He gave up trying to learn her perspective.
“Shall we repair to my office?” Weston raised his palm upward to point the direction. Gallen felt his skin crawl once again at the weak attempt at grandeur. He thought, I mean, he knows he has my attention – no one’s even come close to this kind of accomplishment; why does he have to be such a dick?
As they walked through the facility, Gallen noticed that the three of them were the only ones on the site. Curious, he said, “Ray, I’m wondering about the lack of personnel I see here. Surely, you didn’t complete the construction and maintenance on this alone.”
“No, you’re right,” Weston said. “But, for the purposes of the demonstration, I wanted an Eyes Only approach.”
“Ah, there’s the true genius in this. I felt that it was critical to develop my system to be functional on a rudimentary basis. That’s why only the three of us are here. I think Mike Bertoldi and the others you report to will be most impressed with the simplicity of my execution.”
Entering Weston’s private office, Gallen suppressed his gag reflex. The ornate paintings, baroque statues and lavish furniture reflected Weston’s personality, each piece as outward representation of his ego and self love. Gallen sat on a white plastic swivel chair that could have been used to decorate a 1960s spy movie.
“So what’s the plan going forward?” he asked.
Weston sat on the edge of his desk facing Gallen, his heels on the carpet. O’Connor had chosen the retro leather couch, her fingers dancing across the lit screen.
“Well, I expect that after the inquiry, we will move ahead to complete orders with Defense. I think that they’ll want to fill their ranks with this, that they’ll want one in the hand of every soldier.”
Gallen blinked. “Wait, what?” He looked up at Weston. “The model you demoed wasn’t handheld. Have you developed that as well?” Ave you
Weston reached for an object on his desk. It looked like a 12-ounce soda can with a wraparound handle. Pointing an end at Gallen, he said, “Oh yes. Of course, it was a priority. I mean, really, what good is a weapon like this if it can’t be used in hand-to-hand?”
Gallen felt a wash of fear spread over him. He looked to O’Connor for help.
“Don’t bother looking at her for help,” Weston said. “I’m afraid I lied about her. She’s not who I said she was. She’s a stenographer, not a reporter. She’s only here to record my every word.”
Gallen stiffened to stand. As he did, a beam shot out of the end of the device, striking the coffee table. The table evaporated into atoms.
“Do you remember how you sabotaged my project at High Castle ten years ago?”
“Wait, wait. I didn’t sabotage it. I – I just – ”
Weston shook his head. “No, no. You sabotaged it. Not only did you badmouth it to Bertoldi and the other higher ups, you repudiated the numbers, the data, so that they eventually rejected my project outright. All the time you did this behind my back, when we were supposed to be friends. You ruined my life.”
Another beam shot out from the device striking Gallen on the foot just at the top ridge of his left arch. It burned a spot into his shoe that bore into the leather making smoke rise in a black waft that smelled like cooked game. Slipping out of the chair to the floor, he felt intense pain as the beam struck his flesh, a pronounced itching sensation that drove into his skin like a hypodermic injection from a large bore needle.
Gallen cried out as he bent over to remove his shoe. The underlying sock had started to burn, tiny flames erupting from the clothe. He abandoned that too.
The spot glowed on the skin of his foot, an iridescent red that seemed to pulsate for a moment before it began to grow. The spot widened, eating at his flesh as the red of the center expanded outward, the edges turning yellow then black as it destroyed the matter of his skin.
The pain was incredible, the burning sensation driving deep into his mind became the only thought he could manage. He felt every millimeter of progress as the ray devoured him in each measured, agonizing inch.
His coprophagic leer intact, Weston appeared quite pleased with himself. “I deliberately made this work slowly. It will take its time as it proceeds. We wouldn’t want it to be quick, right? I mean, what fun is that?”
Gallen’s fingers clenched and unclenched in helpless anguish, the pain unbearable as the ray finished dissolving his foot. It proceeded up his leg, eating, vaporizing the skin and blood and bone as it progressed. He screamed against the pain in a futile attempt to express the agony he felt. His mind had become centered on this and this alone; the intensity of his extremis overpowered everything.
The red beam moved upward at a steady rate, gnawing away at Gallen at a slow, inexorable pace. As the ray inched its way toward the knee, it melted his flesh like an acid consuming meat. He felt both the skin and bone as they burned away, each cell exploding in agony as it died beneath the radiation. Then the ray approached his groin.
As it crept upward toward his genitals, the pain increased, growing as it spread across a greater area and lingered on his body. Full-throated, Gallen screamed his pain, his head tilted to the heavens.
The beam moved up toward his abdomen.
The pain, however horrible until now, was infinitesimal compared with how it erupted now as the beam began to erase his internal organs. Whatever nerves existed there, they all burst in pain at the slow methodical disintegration of his body. He quivered with anguish.
The light dissolved his entrails, chewing the meat of his guts in a measured progressive rate the caused Gallen to feel each cell, every portion of the consumption of the beam’s upward movement. As he watched in horror, his small intestines burned into red mist before his eyes. His right leg, severed at the hip as the beam marched up his body, lay on the floor, the red light ate it as well, feeding on its matter like termites composed of red light.
The pain caused Gallen to choke. Without a complete body, the stress on his existing systems grew as the light approached his head. Still, he strove to speak.
“You – you won’t get away with this,” he said, the sound of his voice weak and feeble.
The smirk on Weston’s face widened. “Of course I will, Mark, of course I will.” He took a step toward him as the disintegration reached Gallen’s neck.
“You never studied law as I did,” Weston said. “There’s a little thing called corpus delicti.” He leaned toward Gallen as his vision blurred, filling with bright red. “The body of evidence that proves a crime’s been committed. There will be no body. Without a body, it will be very hard to prosecute. Very hard indeed.”
Gallen’s sight left him as the last thing he heard was “Corpus delicti.”