PRIME DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ELEMENTS RESPONSIBLE FORHIROSHIMA AND NAGASAKI
Soshi thought aloud. “The elements responsible for Hiroshima and Nagasaki . . . Pearl Harbor? Hirohito’s refusal to . . .”
“We need a number,” Jabba repeated, “not political theories. We’re talking mathematics‑not history!”
Soshi fell silent.
“How about payloads?” Brinkerhoff offered. “Casualties? Dollars damage?”
“We’re looking for an exact figure,” Susan reminded. “Damage estimates vary.” She stared up at the message. “The elements responsible . . .”
Three thousand miles away, David Becker’s eyes flew open. “Elements!” he declared. “We’re talking math, not history!”
All heads turned toward the satellite screen.
“Tankado’s playing word games!” Becker spouted. “The word 'elements’ has multiple meanings!”
“Spit it out, Mr. Becker,” Fontaine snapped.
“He’s talking about chemical elements‑not sociopolitical ones!”
Becker’s announcement met blank looks.
“Elements!” he prompted. “The periodic table! Chemical elements! Didn’t any of you see the movie Fat Man and Little Boy‑about the Manhattan Project? The two atomic bombs were different. They used different fuel‑different elements!”
Soshi clapped her hands. “Yes! He’s right! I read that! The two bombs used different fuels! One used uranium and one used plutonium! Two different elements!”
A hush swept across the room.
“Uranium and plutonium!” Jabba exclaimed, suddenly hopeful. “The clue asks for the difference between the two elements!” He spun to his army of workers. “The difference between uranium and plutonium! Who knows what it is?”
Blank stares all around.
“Come on!” Jabba said. “Didn’t you kids go to college? Somebody! Anybody! I need the difference between plutonium and uranium!”
Susan turned to Soshi. “I need access to the Web. Is there a browser here?”
Soshi nodded. “Netscape’s sweetest.”
Susan grabbed her hand. “Come on. We’re going surfing.”
“How much time?” Jabba demanded from the podium.
There was no response from the technicians in the back. They stood riveted, staring up at the VR. The final shield was getting dangerously thin.
Nearby, Susan and Soshi pored over the results of their Web search. “Outlaw Labs?” Susan asked. “Who are they?”
Soshi shrugged. “You want me to open it?”
“Damn right,” she said. “Six hundred forty‑seven text references to uranium, plutonium, and atomic bombs. Sounds like our best bet.”
Soshi opened the link. A disclaimer appeared.
The information contained in this file is strictly for academic use only. Any layperson attempting to construct any of the devices described runs the risk of radiation poisoning and/or self‑explosion.
“Self‑explosion?” Soshi said. “Jesus.”
“Search it,” Fontaine snapped over his shoulder. “Let’s see what we’ve got.”
Soshi plowed into the document. She scrolled past a recipe for urea nitrate, an explosive ten times more powerful than dynamite. The information rolled by like a recipe for butterscotch brownies.
“Plutonium and uranium,” Jabba repeated. “Let’s focus.”
“Go back,” Susan ordered. “The document’s too big. Find the table of contents.”
Soshi scrolled backward until she found it.
I. Mechanism of an Atomic Bomb
B) Air Pressure Detonator
C) Detonating Heads
D) Explosive Charges
E) Neutron Deflector
F) Uranium Plutonium
G) Lead Shield
II. Nuclear Fission/Nuclear Fusion
A) Fission (A‑Bomb) Fusion (H‑Bomb)
B) U‑235, U‑238, and Plutonium
III. History of the Atomic Weapons
A) Development (The Manhattan Project)
B) Detonation 1) Hiroshima 2) Nagasaki 3) By‑products of Atomic Detonations 4) Blast Zones “Section two!” Susan cried. “Uranium and plutonium! Go!”
Everyone waited while Soshi found the right section. “This is it,” she said. “Hold on.” She quickly scanned the data. “There’s a lot of information here. A whole chart. How do we know which difference we’re looking for? One occurs naturally, one is man‑made. Plutonium was first discovered by—”
“A number,” Jabba reminded. “We need a number.”
Susan reread Tankado’s message. The prime difference between the elements . . . the difference between . . . we need a number . . . “Wait!” she said. “The word ’difference' has multiple meanings. We need a number‑so we’re talking math. It’s another of Tankado’s word games‑’difference' means subtraction.”
“Yes!” Becker agreed from the screen overhead. “Maybe the elements have different numbers of protons or something? If you subtract—”
“He’s right!” Jabba said, turning to Soshi. “Are there any numbers on that chart? Proton counts? Half‑lives? Anything we can subtract?”
“Three minutes!” a technician called.
“How about supercritical mass?” Soshi ventured. “It says the supercritical mass for plutonium is 35.2 pounds.”
“Yes!” Jabba said. “Check uranium! What’s the supercritical mass of uranium?”
“Seventy‑four point eight,” Susan snapped. “But I don’t think—”
“Out of my way,” Jabba commanded, plowing toward the keyboard. “That’s got to be the kill‑code! The difference between their critical masses! Seventy‑four point eight!”
“Hold on,” Susan said, peering over Soshi’s shoulder. “There’s more here. Atomic weights. Neutron counts. Extraction techniques.” She skimmed the chart. “Uranium splits into barium and krypton; plutonium does something else. Uranium has 92 protons and 146 neutrons, but—”
“We need the most obvious difference,” Midge chimed in. “The clue reads 'the primary difference between the elements.'”
“Jesus Christ!” Jabba swore. “How do we know what Tankado considered the primary difference?”
David interrupted. “Actually, the clue reads prime, not primary.”
The word hit Susan right between the eyes. “Prime!” she exclaimed. “Prime!” She spun to Jabba. “The kill‑code is a prime number! Think about it! It makes perfect sense!”
Jabba instantly knew Susan was right. Ensei Tankado had built his career on prime numbers. Primes were the fundamental building blocks of all encryption algorithms‑unique values that had no factors other than one and themselves. Primes worked well in code writing because they were impossible for computers to guess using typical number‑tree factoring.
Soshi jumped in. “Yes! It’s perfect! Primes are essential to Japanese culture! Haiku uses primes. Three lines and syllable counts of five, seven, five. All primes. The temples of Kyoto all have—”
“Enough!” Jabba said. “Even if the kill‑code is a prime, so what! There are endless possibilities!”
Susan knew Jabba was right. Because the number line was infinite, one could always look a little farther and find another prime number. Between zero and a million, there were over 70,000 choices. It all depended on how large a prime Tankado decided to use. The bigger it was, the harder it was to guess.
“It’ll be huge.” Jabba groaned. “Whatever prime Tankado chose is sure to be a monster.”
A call went up from the rear of the room. “Two‑minute warning!”
Jabba gazed up at the VR in defeat. The final shield was starting to crumble. Technicians were rushing everywhere.
Something in Susan told her they were close. “We can do this!” she declared, taking control. “Of all the differences between uranium and plutonium, I bet only one can be represented as a prime number! That’s our final clue. The number we’re looking for is prime!”
Jabba eyed the uranium/plutonium chart on the monitor and threw up his arms. “There must be a hundred entries here! There’s no way we can subtract them all and check for primes.”
“A lot of the entries are nonnumeric,” Susan encouraged. “We can ignore them. Uranium’s natural, plutonium’s man‑made. Uranium uses a gun barrel detonator, plutonium uses implosion. They’re not numbers, so they’re irrelevant!”
“Do it,” Fontaine ordered. On the VR, the final wall was eggshell thin.
Jabba mopped his brow. “All right, here goes nothing. Start subtracting. I’ll take the top quarter. Susan, you’ve got the middle. Everybody else split up the rest. We’re looking for a prime difference.”
Within seconds, it was clear they’d never make it. The numbers were enormous, and in many cases the units didn’t match up.
“It’s apples and goddamn oranges,” Jabba said. “We’ve got gamma rays against electromagnetic pulse. Fissionable against unfissionable. Some is pure. Some is percentage. It’s a mess!”
“It’s got to be here,” Susan said firmly. “We’ve got to think. There’s some difference between plutonium and uranium that we’re missing! Something simple!”
“Ah . . . guys?” Soshi said. She’d created a second document window and was perusing the rest of the Outlaw Labs document.
“What is it?” Fontaine demanded. “Find something?”
“Um, sort of.” She sounded uneasy. “You know how I told you the Nagasaki bomb was a plutonium bomb?”
“Yeah,” they all replied in unison.
“Well . . .” Soshi took a deep breath. “Looks like I made a mistake.”
“What!” Jabba choked. “We’ve been looking for the wrong thing?”
Soshi pointed to the screen. They huddled around and read the text: . . .the common misconception that the Nagasaki bomb was a plutonium bomb. In fact, the device employed uranium, like its sister bomb in Hiroshima.
* * *
“But—” Susan gasped. “If both elements were uranium, how are we supposed to find the difference between the two?”
“Maybe Tankado made a mistake,” Fontaine ventured. “Maybe he didn’t know the bombs were the same.”
“No.” Susan sighed. “He was a cripple because of those bombs. He’d know the facts cold.”
Jabba eyed the VR. “PEM authorization’s going fast. Last line of defense. And there’s a crowd at the door.”
“Focus!” Fontaine commanded.
Soshi sat in front of the Web browser and read aloud. . .Nagasaki bomb did not use plutonium but rather an artificially manufactured, neutron‑saturated isotope of uranium 238.”
“Damn!” Brinkerhoff swore. “Both bombs used uranium. The elements responsible for Hiroshima and Nagasaki were both uranium. There is no difference!”
“We’re dead,” Midge moaned.
“Wait,” Susan said. “Read that last part again!”
Soshi repeated the text. “. . .artificially manufactured, neutron‑saturated isotope of uranium 238.”
“238?” Susan exclaimed. “Didn’t we just see something that said Hiroshima’s bomb used some other isotope of uranium?”
They all exchanged puzzled glances. Soshi frantically scrolled backward and found the spot. “Yes! It says here that the Hiroshima bomb used a different isotope of uranium!”
Midge gasped in amazement. “They’re both uranium‑but they’re different kinds!”
“Both uranium?” Jabba muscled in and stared at the terminal. “Apples and apples! Perfect!”
“How are the two isotopes different?” Fontaine demanded. “It’s got to be something basic.”
Soshi scrolled through the document. “Hold on . . . looking . . . okay . . .”
“Forty‑five seconds!” a voice called out.
Susan looked up. The final shield was almost invisible now.
“Here it is!” Soshi exclaimed.
“Read it!” Jabba was sweating. “What’s the difference! There must be some difference between the two!”
“Yes!” Soshi pointed to her monitor. “Look!”
They all read the text: . . .two bombs employed two different fuels . . . precisely identical chemical characteristics. No ordinary chemical extraction can separate the two isotopes. They are, with the exception of minute differences in weight, perfectly identical.
“Atomic weight!” Jabba said, excitedly. “That’s it! The only difference is their weights! That’s the key! Give me their weights! We’ll subtract them!”
“Hold on,” Soshi said, scrolling ahead. “Almost there! Yes!” Everyone scanned the text. . .difference in weight very slight . . .gaseous diffusion to separate them . . .10,032498X10?134 as compared to 19,39484X10?23.** “There they are!” Jabba screamed. “That’s it! Those are the weights!”
Jabba palmed his calculator and started entering numbers.
“What’s the asterisk?” Susan demanded. “There’s an asterisk after the figures!”
Jabba ignored her. He was already working his calculator keys furiously.
“Careful!” Soshi urged. “We need an exact figure.”
“The asterisk,” Susan repeated. “There’s a footnote.”
Soshi clicked to the bottom of the paragraph.
Susan read the asterisked footnote. She went white. “Oh . . . dear God.”
Jabba looked up. “What?”
They all leaned in, and there was a communal sigh of defeat. The tiny footnote read: **12% margin of error. Published figures vary from lab to lab.
There was a sudden and reverent silence among the group on the podium. It was as if they were watching an eclipse or volcanic eruption‑an incredible chain of events over which they had no control. Time seemed to slow to a crawl.
“We’re losing it!” a technician cried. “Tie‑ins! All lines!”
On the far‑left screen, David and Agents Smith and Coliander stared blankly into their camera. On the VR, the final fire wall was only a sliver. A mass of blackness surrounded it, hundreds of lines waiting to tie in. To the right of that was Tankado. The stilted clips of his final moments ran by in an endless loop. The look of desperation‑fingers stretched outward, the ring glistening in the sun.
Susan watched the clip as it went in and out of focus. She stared at Tankado’s eyes‑they seemed filled with regret. He never wanted it to go this far, she told herself. He wanted to save us. And yet, over and over, Tankado held his fingers outward, forcing the ring in front of people’s eyes. He was trying to speak but could not. He just kept thrusting his fingers forward.
In Seville, Becker’s mind still turned it over and over. He mumbled to himself, “What did they say those two isotopes were? U238 and U . . . ?” He sighed heavily‑it didn’t matter. He was a language teacher, not a physicist.
“Incoming lines preparing to authenticate!”
“Jesus!” Jabba bellowed in frustration. “How do the damn isotopes differ? Nobody knows how the hell they’re different?!” There was no response. The room full of technicians stood helplessly watching the VR. Jabba spun back to the monitor and threw up his arms. “Where’s a nuclear fucking physicist when you need one!”
* * *
Susan stared up at the QuickTime clip on the wall screen and knew it was over. In slow motion, she watched Tankado dying over and over. He was trying to speak, choking on his words, holding out his deformed hand . . . trying to communicate something. He was trying to save the databank, Susan told herself. But we’ll never know how.
“Company at the door!”
Jabba stared at the screen. “Here we go!” Sweat poured down his face.
On the center screen, the final wisp of the last firewall had all but disappeared. The black mass of lines surrounding the core was opaque and pulsating. Midge turned away. Fontaine stood rigid, eyes front. Brinkerhoff looked like he was about to get sick.
Susan’s eyes never left Tankado’s image. The desperation. The regret. His hand reached out, over and over, ring glistening, deformed fingers arched crookedly in stranger’s faces. He’s telling them something. What is it?
On the screen overhead, David looked deep in thought. “Difference,” he kept muttering to himself. “Difference between U238 and U235. It’s got to be something simple.”
A technician began the countdown. “Five! Four! Three!”
The word made it to Spain in just under a tenth of a second. Three . . . three.
It was as if David Becker had been hit by the stun gun all over again. His world slowed to stop. Three . . . three . . . three. 238 minus 235! The difference is three! In slow motion, he reached for the microphone . . .
At that very instant, Susan was staring at Tankado’s outstretched hand. Suddenly, she saw past the ring . . . past the engraved gold to the flesh beneath . . . to his fingers. Three fingers. It was not the ring at all. It was the flesh. Tankado was not telling them, he was showing them. He was telling his secret, revealing the kill‑code‑begging someone to understand . . . praying his secret would find its way to the NSA in time.
“Three,” Susan whispered, stunned.
“Three!” Becker yelled from Spain.
But in the chaos, no one seemed to hear.
“We’re down!” a technician yelled.
The VR began flashing wildly as the core succumbed to a deluge. Sirens erupted overhead.
“High‑speed tie‑ins in all sectors!”
Susan moved as if through a dream. She spun toward Jabba’s keyboard. As she turned, her gaze fixed on her fiance, David Becker. Again his voice exploded overhead.
“Three! The difference between 235 and 238 is three!”
Everyone in the room looked up.
“Three!” Susan shouted over the deafening cacophony of sirens and technicians. She pointed to the screen. All eyes followed, to Tankado’s hand, outstretched, three fingers waving desperately in the Sevillian sun.
Jabba went rigid. “Oh my God!” He suddenly realized the crippled genius had been giving them the answer all the time.
“Three’s prime!” Soshi blurted. “Three’s a prime number!”
Fontaine looked dazed. “Can it be that simple?”
“Outbound data!” a technician cried. “It’s going fast!”
Everyone on the podium dove for the terminal at the same instant‑a mass of outstretched hands. But through the crowd, Susan, like a shortstop stabbing a line drive, connected with her target. She typed the number 3. Everyone wheeled to the wall screen. Above the chaos, it simply read.
ENTER PASS‑KEY? 3
“Yes!” Fontaine commanded. “Do it now!”
Susan held her breath and lowered her finger on the ENTER key. The computer beeped once.
Three agonizing seconds later, nothing had happened.
The sirens kept going. Five seconds. Six seconds.
Suddenly Midge began pointing wildly to the screen above. “Look!”