When he had accepted the government’s offer in the 60’s, his friends from graduate school ostracized him. Working within the military-industrial complex was a career killer if he had wanted to switch back onto the academic track, but he hadn’t cared. His graduate thesis had been on weak nuclear reactions propagation through plutonium. Where else could he continue that type of research but at a nuclear lab with one of the fastest supercomputers in the world and tons of plutonium to work with?
Los Alamos was working on developing smaller, less lethal, warheads allowing a single Minuteman III to carry up to 10 warheads each independently targeted. Now, just a year from retirement, he was a Division Director without warheads to design or build. But these were still city busters, but the last warheads he’d designed and even built were far smaller, almost micro in size, and produced in complete secrecy in a hidden underground facility, more than a decade before. Now the talent was focused on something called “Stockpile Stewardship” which was just another name for waste of valuable high priced talent as they tried to estimate the likelihood that the existing stock of warheads would work if ever used. Half of the people working under him spent more than half their time playing video games for lack of anything really constructive or interesting to focus on. Deciding if a twenty year old nuclear warhead will actually explode when fired without trying one out was nearly impossible. Any enemy must assume that an American weapon will likely do what it’s supposed to do irrespective of reading a thousand page report filled with graphs and charts.
“Ben?” Marty Robinson asked stopping his car beside the road. Arnstein stared at a point just across the open space at the lab’s well-guarded Site 58, where plutonium metal was stored for use in making the next generation of plutonium triggers for newly designed hydrogen bombs. The facility might never be finished. It was already billions over budget and years behind schedule. Turning, reluctantly, he walked to the car where Robinson waited.
“Are you going to the meeting tonight?” Robinson asked.
“I wasn’t planning to, why?”
“Mike Stetzer is speaking on the advantages of small sample statistical analysis for plutonium pressure tests. Roger Carlton from JPL is coming too and promised to give a short briefing on his project to snag an asteroid and tow it back into lunar orbit. I remember you said you and he worked on something ten years ago. Right?”
“Yes,” he answered thinking about that time and how exciting it was to work on Project NorthStar, and yet how destabilizing the NorthStar project was to the delicate balance between the major powers that had kept the peace for more than sixty years.
Ben watched Roger Carlton get hemmed in by some of the younger engineering types who idolized him and probably wanted jobs at JPL rather than Los Alamos. It had been nearly ten years since they last met. Carlton’s expertise was robotics, the art of crafting machines that could assemble or repair satellites in space, or shut down nuclear reactions inside hot zones. He was visiting Los Alamos, at the request of the director, to discuss developing better robotic arms for the assembly of new plutonium triggers.
“How many years has it been?” Carlton asked once the lecture started and he could break away.
“Ten, no almost fifteen,” said Carlton recalling the last time they had been together. They’d been at Vandenberg watching the last of three NorthStar modules launched.
“There’s a Starbucks down the block from here.” K
Over coffee they talked about family and children, but not their work. Security personnel were everywhere.
On the way back to the meeting, Carlton asked the question that had been bothering him for years. “You said something that confused me when the third bird went up,” Carlton said remembering the question he’d carried in his head for ten years.
“Won’t they be surprised,” Ben said with a laugh recalling the moment.
“And what the hell did that mean?”
“Exactly that,” Arnstein said without explaining more, “won’t they be surprised.”
It was time to change the subject.
“You still have the ring?”
Arnstein held out his hand. The gold ring was there on the opposite hand from where he wore his own wedding band.
Carlton held up his own hand, flashing his own, nearly identical ring.