An excerpt from ‘The Quantum Spy’


A cold mist hovered over Lake Washington, a vaporous green after a morning of rain, when John Vandel arrived in Seattle. The CIA official had traveled from Washington to visit an electronics engineer named Jason Schmidt, who ran a small, privately owned computer company that hadn’t yet built its first product. The plant was a low-rise brick building on the southern end of the lake, near the Boeing factory in Renton. A sign announced the initials of the company, “QED,” short for Quantum Engineering Dynamics, etched in cobalt blue.

Vandel rang the buzzer. He was a lean, putty-faced man with a bad haircut that spiked short gray hairs in odd directions. His complexion was scarred; his body had an elastic bend at the joints. The only things that sparkled were the slate-gray eyes that retained an intense focus even when the rest of him was slack. He was wearing a rumpled black suit and carrying a briefcase.

The doorbell stuck for a moment; it was answered eventually by a young woman in a black t-shirt with three small diamond studs in one ear and a silver piercing through her eyebrow. The building had a musty odor, as if it had once been something else.

A round-faced man wearing a knit shirt and a jacket bearing the company logo walked toward Vandel. He looked like he hadn’t been outdoors in a year.

“I’m Jason Schmidt,” he said shyly. “I guess I’m the boss.”

“I’m Mr. Green,” said Vandel. “Do you have someplace quiet where we can talk?”

Schmidt led him down a nondescript corridor to a conference room that had a view across Rainier Avenue to the southern shore of the lake. On the way, they passed the detritus of a start-up that hadn’t yet made its start: rows of grubby cubicles; glowing computer screens flanked by pal- lid faces that hadn’t gotten enough sleep, ever; the strange sounds from a nearby recreation room for over-caffeinated employees—the click-click of Ping-Pong balls and the knock-knock of foosballs scudding toward the goal.

Vandel had a loose, ambling gate as he strolled down the corridor, peering into doors and windows. He had the gift of a good case officer, which was that he looked harmless. In his wallet, he kept a card on which he had printed the advice he had received from his first station chief in Damascus: “Always remember that you are a snake handler, not a snake charmer.”

Unkempt as he appeared at first glance, Vandel was meticulous in his work as the CIA’s deputy director for operations and acknowledged as the agency’s top spy even by the many people who feared or disliked him. He had come to Seattle to do the essential, manipulative business of a case officer, which was to recruit a reluctant agent.

“I’m here because of your letter,” said Vandel when he was seated. His eyes wandered the room for a moment and then locked on Schmidt. He removed a two-page letter from his briefcase and read the opening sentence aloud:

“ ‘I am writing to the Central Intelligence Agency because I have infor- mation that is important for our national security.’ That rang our bell.”

Schmidt was nervous. He cleared his throat. “You must think I’m a crank, you know, or a kook, or something.” He was fumbling for words. “You probably get crazy letters from people all the time.”

“We do. But not like this. And we knew about your company. The NSA checked you out months ago. So when this letter arrived at the CIA, it interested people. Someone sent it to me, and I wanted to come see you myself.”

Schmidt mumbled an apology. He was embarrassed at having sum- moned a senior representative of the U.S. government all this way.

“I wasn’t sure who to contact. There are so many intelligence agen- cies. But I have a cousin who works for the CIA. Maybe I’m not supposed to know that, but I do. So I sent the letter to my cousin and told him to give it to the right person. I guess that’s you, Mr. Green. Although that’s probably not your real name.”

Vandel shook his head. No, “Green” was not his real name.

“I need to talk about two things in your letter, Mr. Schmidt. First, you said you had made a breakthrough in building a quantum computer. I think your exact words were, ‘I’ve solved the puzzle.’ Our engineers looked carefully at the paper you sent. They’re not convinced, but they don’t think you’re crazy, either.”

“I promise you, I’m not crazy.” Vandel scratched his head.

“You understand what a big deal this is, Mr. Schmidt? We’re spend- ing billions on quantum research. This is a race. The White House pounds on me every week wanting to know where the Chinese are, and we say relax: It’ll be ten years before anyone builds a machine, probably twenty, and we’re way ahead. And now you say bang, you’ve done it. I won’t pretend to understand what you wrote about ‘liquid electrons’ and how they interact near absolute zero. That means absolutely nothing to me, but our computer scientists say it’s plausible.”

Schmidt held up his hand. He was an engineer. He didn’t want to overpromise.

“It’s still a prototype. It has a lot of bugs. It’s not a fully program- mable machine. It needs work.”

“Details,” said Vandel. “Here’s the issue. It’s not just that you think maybe you have a breakthrough, but that someone wants to steal it. That’s the bell-ringer in your letter, about the venture fund that wants to buy you.”

“I don’t know anything about them except their name. ‘Parcourse Technology Partners.’ I’ve never heard of them. Nobody around here has. But their fund manager said they would pay cash for control of QED. When I asked for a number, he said a billion dollars, maybe more.

I mean, we’re still beta testing our first machine. It didn’t make sense. Who are they? Do you know?”

“They’re Chinese. They have an office in Menlo Park, owned by   a nameplate company in Panama. The Panama shell is a front for the Chinese Ministry of State Security. I’m assuming the Chinese govern- ment is so impressed with what you’re doing that they want to buy you out. So I’m here to make you a better offer.”

“I don’t want to sell the company, to anyone,” said Schmidt. “I just want to make my machine work. QED. Quantum Engineering Dynam- ics. We think we have a shortcut that can give quantum solutions, now. The purists say it’s not really quantum computing, but I don’t  care. If  it does what I think it can, then everything else will take care of itself. So just let me build it. I don’t want to sell the company to anybody, not even you.”

“We don’t want to buy it. We just want to be your customer. Every- thing you make, you sell to us. We’ll agree on a price that will make you very rich, I promise, and you keep control. There’s just one rule we have for all the people we buy things from, Mr. Schmidt, and you have to fol- low that. Otherwise, you’ll get in a lot of trouble.”

“I don’t like rules. I’m a scientist. If I wanted rules I could work for Microsoft up in Redmond. But tell me anyway: What’s the rule?”

“As soon as we make our agreement, starting today, I hope, every- thing you do is classified. Your company goes black. It doesn’t publish papers. It doesn’t have a website. When it gets inquiries from outsiders, it contacts the FBI.”

“Ugh! That sounds horrible. Why would I do that? It sounds like going to prison.”

Vandel fixed his gaze on the gifted, fragile computer scientist across from him.

“Because it will help your country. Your government needs the ideas that are in your head. It needs to make sure that other people don’t get them. Like I said, this is a race. If we lose, we have a nightmare ahead. You must understand that, or you wouldn’t have written the letter to your cousin at the CIA.”

Schmidt sighed. Of course, he understood. He wasn’t a man who had romantic ideas about a technological Arcadia. He thought that Edward Snowden was a self-deluding traitor. But still, he didn’t want to sign away his career for indentured servitude.

“I thought something like this might happen when I sent my letter. I dreaded it, but I did it anyway. And do you know why? Albert Einstein.”

“Come again?”

“Einstein wrote a letter to Franklin Roosevelt in 1939. Two typewrit- ten sheets of paper. He wanted the president to understand that scientists in Europe were turning uranium into a new kind of energy. Here, I have a copy in my desk. Wait a minute.”

Schmidt rummaged in his desk and retrieved the sheets he had cop- ied. He held them as if they were a piece of scripture.

“It’s 1939, remember, sir. Here’s what Einstein said: ‘Certain aspects of the situation which has arisen seem to call for watchfulness and, if necessary, quick action on the part of the administration.’ Certain aspects of the situation. My God! And then he says, listen to this, ‘This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable … that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may be constructed.’ Itis conceivable. What if he hadn’t written the letter? That’s what I asked myself. What if he had said: ‘I’m just a scientist. Science has no flag.’ What would have happened then?”

“You know the answer.”

Vandel paused, then he repeated: “We want to be your customer.

Your only customer.”

“I need to think about it. You haven’t even seen my laboratory. Come, I’ll show you. Then I’ll think about the other business.”

“We need to make a decision now. Today. I need to tell the White House science adviser we have this locked. People will come see your lab later. We’ll learn everything you can tell us. But right now, you need to do the right thing. Which is to sign a nondisclosure agree- ment that I have brought along, so we can get started with every- thing else.”

Schmidt had clasped his hands. His arms were trembling slightly.

His lips were parched dry, suddenly. His voice had gone hoarse. “I need a bit more time, really. This is such a big step.”

Vandel tilted his head. The light through the window illuminated some of the ancient scars on his face, momentarily. He reached across the desk and took the big man’s hand in his own, and held it still for a moment. Schmidt’s face softened.

“I brought you some presents,” said Vandel. He reached into his briefcase and pulled out three objects, each wrapped in blue paper. He handed them across the desk. Schmidt quickly unwrapped the first and removed a translucent box that contained an ochre-red substance that seemed to have come from a kiln.

“What the hell?” asked Schmidt.

“It’s fused sand. It was taken from the crater of the first nuclear-bomb test at Alamogordo, New Mexico. James B. Conant kept one of these as long as he lived, to remember what the Manhattan Project had been. There are just a few of these sand samples left in the government. I wanted you to have one of them. Because you’re in a Manhattan Project, too.”

Schmidt nodded. He didn’t speak as he unwrapped the next box. Inside was a jagged piece of concrete marked with spray paint. It was mounted atop a marble base that had been inlaid with the CIA’s seal.

“What is this? It looks like junk.”

“That’s a piece of the Berlin Wall, my friend. Not many of those left either. So many people sacrificed to see that damn thing come down. I don’t want to be too corny about this, but we’re in that kind of struggle again. When you’re in your lab and you think everything is turning to shit, I want you to look at that shard of concrete and remember that the good guys can win if they work hard enough. Okay?”

“Okay,” said Schmidt. He was softening.

“Open the last one,” said Vandel. “That’s the one I thought about the most.”

Schmidt began tearing at the paper. Inside was a book. He saw its back jacket first, and he didn’t recognize the title. He looked quizzically at his visitor.

“It’s a biography of the leading computer tycoon in China. This guy’s mother was a factory worker in Chengdu, and his company now com- petes with Microsoft and Google. Look on page seventeen, where I put the yellow sticker.”

Schmidt opened the book to that page. Vandel had underlined a quotation from an American business executive. Schmidt read it aloud.

“If you are one in a million in China, you’re one of 1,300 people.”

“The numbers say they’re going to win this race,” said Vandel. “Read what I wrote on the title page.”

Schmidt read the words, written in Vandel’s sinuous hand: “Your country needs you.”

“So do we have a deal?” asked Vandel.

Schmidt paused, but only for a moment. “Yes,” he answered. “Of course.”

On the flight back to Washington, John Vandel began planning his oper- ation against the Chinese intelligence service. He was taking the “red eye,” to make a meeting at the White House the next morning about Russia. Washington had become obsessed with Moscow. Not Vandel. Russia was a declining power. It was China that worried him. He took a pill, but he couldn’t sleep.

So he curled his long, elastic body around a pad of paper so that nobody could look over his shoulder and began scribbling notes: He wrote “Ministry of State Security,” underlined it, and then put a question mark.

It offended Vandel that the Ministry was operating so boldly inside America. The MSS was once thought to be cautious, stealing America’s technology secrets by debriefing Chinese scientists or hacking into com- puter systems. A thousand grains of sand, one at a time; that was how they were said to collect intelligence. But their attempt to capture QED in Seattle had been brazen, and it had nearly succeeded: A greedier owner would have taken the money rather than write to his cousin at the CIA.

Vandel wrote: “Risks,” followed by another question mark. Why was the Ministry taking so many chances? Vandel had a stack of analysts’ reports back at Headquarters that said the MSS was a target of the Party leader’s anti-corruption campaign. Perhaps it was desperate for success and taking more chances to stay in business. But there was another, more frightening possibility: Maybe the MSS knew where to look. Maybe its operatives had found a portal into America’s garden of secrets. Vandel wrote the word “mole” in small letters, and then scratched it out.

Vandel wanted to own this case. The China “mission manager” was not managing her mission. Agency operations had been “modernized” so many times that people had forgotten how to run an aggressive counter-espionage program. But Vandel remembered. And he had just enough authority as chief of the operations directorate, even in the labyrinth of the new organization chart, to make something  happen.

Through the night, as Vandel flickered in and out of consciousness, he saw in his mind the strands of what might be a successful operation against the Ministry—one that would exploit its vulnerabilities and turn it upside down; not just stop it, but break it apart. He was just dozing off, late in the flight, when the scattered thoughts formed themselves into a pattern as clear and bright as a runway landing.

Vandel sat up in his seat, took that pad again, and wrote the rough sketch of an operations plan, boxes and arrows, like a flow chart. The CIA had been lucky in Seattle. He didn’t like having to depend on luck.


An excerpt from 'The Quantum Spy'