Darkness filled the lab’s interior, broken only by the pinpoints of colored LEDs and the glow of several rows of computer monitors. The room’s precise, symmetrical organization brought to mind a top-level government facility, like NASA’s Johnson Space Center or the darkened rooms of Air Traffic Control. But the lab was not a government facility, and the two men who occupied it were unaffiliated with the federal bureaucracy. That is, aside from the fact that they were studying information hacked from the database of the National Research Institute.

As the data ticked in and the numbers on the screen slowly changed, the two men reacted with opposite expressions. The first man—tall, charcoal-haired and in his midfifties—broke into a satisfied grin; a smug, confident look accentuated by his relaxed, commanding posture and an expensive, custom-tailored suit.

His name was Richard Alexander Kaufman. The lab belonged to him, as did the twenty-story building surrounding it, with its rakish, angled lines and a facade of sapphire blue glass.

Kaufman was CEO and principal owner of Futrex Systems Inc., one of the largest privately held defense contractors in the world. And while Futrex raked in a fortune from the yearly defense budget, it made neither missiles nor bombs. Instead, Futrex created power through the virtual world of zeros and ones; it designed computer systems, data networks and hyper-fast programs that relied on a type of architecture called massive parallel processing.

Futrex programs were used in the design and testing of weapons platforms; they linked AWACS aircraft and satellites to ships, tanks and men on the ground. It was said that battles were not won or lost with weapons but with information, and Futrex Systems enabled American soldiers on the street to see the same information their counterparts in the air and back at headquarters had access to. The military considered this particular data-stream so vital to national security that its contracts included a healthy premium paid specifically to prevent Futrex from adapting the technology for any other purpose. Because of this Futrex had no presence in the civilian world and, as they were privately held, no ticker on any stock market. The result was an oddity in the modern industrial world: a twenty-billion-dollar corporation that almost no one had heard of.

Two decades of such success would have been enough for most people, but not for Richard Kaufman. He wanted more. Kaufman wanted the next wave: an unconditional chance at success, a chance to change the world and, perhaps more important, to tell everyone that he’d done just that.

He was a man accustomed to getting what he wanted. He had friends in high places and low places, he had the money, power and expertise to do anything. All he needed was the right vehicle, something he’d spent the better part of a decade searching for.

Kaufman looked to his left. “What do you think?”

The man beside him appeared exasperated. Norman Lang was close to forty but he dressed in the wrinkled casual way of a college student: corduroys and an untucked flannel shirt, now covered by a lab coat. His thin hair was buzzed and his goatee neatly trimmed.

Lang was Kaufman’s chief scientist in areas of unusual interest—the head skunk in the skunk-works, as it were. A brilliant scientist, Lang had fallen into disgrace when he’d been caught falsifying the data on some experiments, ending up in the academic world’s version of purgatory, until Kaufman had hired him.

To some extent, Kaufman admired a man with a little larceny in his heart, and at the very least, Lang’s record gave him nowhere else to go, something Kaufman knew would make him extremely loyal. And so he’d brought Lang on board, given him an almost unlimited budget and sent him to work on the long shots, to swing for the fences. Lang’s marching orders were simple: to find Kaufman’s next wave, to bridge the gap between the theoretical and feasible. So far Lang had struggled.

The scientist scratched his head and then pulled the black plastic-framed glasses from his face, rubbing at the indentions they left behind on the bridge of his nose. As was his habit, he answered a question with a question.

“Why are there no abstracts or explanations attached to any of this?” he asked. “Why all this raw data?”

Kaufman had wondered about that himself, but in truth he liked the raw data approach—it forced Lang to reach his own conclusions. “I don’t know,” he said. “Is it a problem for you?”

Lang put his glasses back on. “I can run it. The problem is, a lot of it seems …”

“Fabricated?” Kaufman asked.

“Beyond the realm of current theory,” Lang replied.

Kaufman exhaled. He had always been an expert at reading people and knowing which buttons to push. With some he used kindness, on others force; with Lang it was constant reminders of his failure to spur him on, to push him into taking steps he would otherwise avoid.

“As a research scientist,” he said, “you are without peer, but your thinking is shallow. The NRI stole these crystals from the Museum of Natural History and created a fake story to cover the theft. Spent millions of dollars testing them and then encrypted the results in the highest level of code. They then dispatched two separate teams to the depths of the Amazon to find the source of these crystals. Now, what does the scientific method tell you about that?”

Lang held his tongue.

“I’ll answer for you,” Kaufman said. “They think they’ve discovered a new source of power—a clean, unlimited source of power, nuclear energy without that annoying little problem known as nuclear waste.”

Lang nodded. “Fusion.”

“Exactly,” Kaufman said.

Nuclear fusion was considered by many to be the energy source of the twenty-first century—the solution to a world choking on fumes, sweating under global warming and allegedly running short of fossil fuels. After all, nuclear fusion had already given us the hydrogen bomb, and a similar type of reaction powers the sun. As the theory went, if such a process could be harnessed without incinerating entire cities, fusion could power the world. And as a result, nations around the world were studying it, and almost universally they were focused on a particular type of fusion: hot fusion.

To be a player in the hot fusion game required a massive entrance fee. The effort cost billions, took years, and so far had led only to monstrous machines that actually used more energy than they produced, the equivalent of burning two barrels of oil to pump one more up to the surface.

Despite that fact, billions more were going into the next step, a sprawling project in the south of France called the ITER, an acronym which in Latin meant “the passage” or “the way.” Whether that moniker would prove true or false was anyone’s guess, but certainly it would take a long time to find out. The latest estimates had construction of the ITER lasting through 2018. And even if all went as planned, it would only lead to bigger, more expensive prototypes before any working reactors were produced.

Estimates on the debut of a viable system ranged from fifty to a hundred years. And in all likelihood, the energy source of the twenty-first century wouldn’t actually arrive until sometime in the twenty-second. A date that was too far off for Richard Kaufman.

Instead, he pursued a different goal, a smaller, more controversial form, one forever tainted by the scandal of its birth: cold fusion.

“Now,” Kaufman began, “assuming they’re not the village idiots, are they or are they not onto something?”

Lang hedged. “If their measurements are accurate, then yes, they may be on to something.”


“Based on their descriptions, it appears that they studied four crystals, two of which contained inclusions, filaments of palladium. And yes, almost every successful cold fusion experiment that’s been run has used palladium. Even Fleishman and Pons used palladium before they were burned at the stake as heretics.”

Fleishman and Pons were the researchers who’d first discovered cold fusion. They were hailed for a while, before the hot fusion community, fearing for their grants and endowments, attacked and savaged both them and their experiments. Very quickly Fleishman and Pons found their reputations destroyed, their concept shunned and treated as a hoax. In the aftermath, scientific journals followed suit, refusing to publish papers on cold fusion, while mainstream universities barred their fellows from working the field. To even express an interest in the subject was considered the death knell for a career.

“Palladium,” Kaufman repeated, one eyebrow raised. “Interesting. What else?”

Lang plucked one of the printouts from the stack and handed it to Kaufman. “If the NRI is correct, the crystals show the following: a background level of radiation consistent with a low energy reaction, indications of metallic transmutation on the inclusion, primarily streaks of silver and copper at the tip. A high concentration of sulfur in the quartz. And a measurable residue of trapped, gaseous tritium.”

Kaufman studied the printout, moved by the magnitude of the moment. Tritium was the one element they’d been looking for, a radioactive waste product that could only form during a nuclear reaction of some kind. The inclusion’s other properties were rare and extremely odd, and they could almost be explained, except for the presence of the tritium. It proved that the crystal had been used in a reaction that released nuclear energy. Its continued existence could only mean that the reaction had been a type of cold fusion.

“If their data are correct,” Lang repeated.

Kaufman had no doubt that the NRI had gotten its data correct. “What else does the data describe?”

Lang acquiesced. “First of all, the crystals are primarily quartz. But they’re also filled with microscopic lines running in geometrically precise patterns—almost molecular in size. I’m talking several angstroms, here. I don’t know how they were made or what they’re for, but they act like fiber-optic channels, directing specific wavelengths of light through the crystal while screening others out. The effect is only visible under a polarized light.”

“What wavelengths are we talking about?”

“High-energy spectrum: violet, ultraviolet and beyond. According to the report, the tunnels are present in all four crystals, and they’re similar on the crystals containing the inclusions. But the pattern on the other two is far less complex.” Lang paused. “The NRI report tentatively labeled them as blanks. You know, like a hunk of metal that hasn’t been drilled and lathed into whatever it was supposed to become yet.”

“What about the last data transfer?” Kaufman asked. “Were you able to make sense of that?”

Lang reached over and clicked open a new program on the monitor. “There you go,” he said smugly.

Kaufman saw a bunch of dots spread randomly about the computer screen—dots of various sizes—along with a few streaks and arcs on a black background. The screen was divided into four by a pair of lines that crossed in the center. It meant nothing to him.

“What am I looking at?” Kaufman said.

“This is the data displayed in a graphical form,” Lang replied.

“Is this some kind of distribution?”

“No,” Lang said. “Of all things, they’re star charts—four separate panels of them.”

“Star charts?”

“Like the kind old sailors used to navigate with,” Lang said. “I’ve done a little work on the first one. It’s a sky pattern viewed from the southern hemisphere.”

Kaufman grew deeply interested. The NRI had their people in Brazil, looking for the source of the crystals. “Assuming the chart is accurate, does it correspond to a particular longitude and latitude?”

“Not sure yet,” Lang said. “The best I can tell you: Western Hemisphere, south of the equator.”

Before Kaufman could reply, his cell phone rang. He stepped away. “What is it?” he asked.

“We’ve been checking the hospitals, like you asked,” the German-accented voice reported. “And we’ve found a man who might interest you. He’s a John Doe, resting up in a small hospital on the outskirts of Manaus. He was brought in ten days ago, after spending some time at a clinic upriver. Apparently, he was pretty bad off when he first arrived: delirious, suffering from exposure, dehydration and first-stage malnutrition, along with a compound fracture of the right leg. But the fact is, he’s alive, and he’s still here. And I think you’re going to want to meet him.”


“Because he says he works for Helios.” Very rarely was Richard Kaufman at a loss for words, but for a moment, he was struck silent. Kaufman had acquired two contacts in the NRI, frustrated parties who were willing to sell out the organization for a fair price. One had been part of the first mission into the rainforest, a group that had stopped signaling and disappeared. He’d given that man a code word to be transmitted over the radio when he needed to be extracted from the jungle, after he’d stolen what the NRI group recovered. That code word was “Helios”: the Greek god of the sun. It had seemed appropriate.

“Worked for Helios?” Kaufman repeated. The right word but the wrong statement. “Are you sure those were his words?”

“Absolutely. He wanted to know who we worked for and when we didn’t tell him, he said he worked for Helios and we should know what that meant. He says he has something that might interest Helios. Something he’ll only give up in person.”

“Have you tried to persuade him otherwise?”

“As much as we could. But he is in a hospital.”

Kaufman appreciated their finesse. “All right. Keep an eye on him, and make sure he’s not an NRI plant designed to draw us out. Once you’re certain, I’ll meet with you, and then, when I’m ready, I’ll meet with him. But he goes nowhere without our approval, got it?”

Kaufman switched off the phone and glanced over at Lang, who’d turned a subtle shade of green.

“What the hell was that all about?” Lang asked.

Kaufman smiled. “Our next stop. Western Hemisphere, south of the equator.”

Lang did not look pleased, but Kaufman knew his man, he knew that Lang would follow along, chasing the carrot of his own greed as much as taking orders. All Kaufman had to do was avoid bombarding him with too much truth at once.

Black Rain