Excerpt from The Kafir Project, by Lee Burvine (Atheist Republic Publications, 2016). Reprinted with permission from the author.
Foreword by Lawrence M. Krauss
I have to admit that when Lee Burvine came up to me after a lecture I gave in Pasadena and asked if I would look at his book, The Kafir Project, I agreed to do that expecting to glance at it later and send a polite note encouraging him to keep working. Then, a day after the meeting, he sent me an electronic copy of the book and it got buried in my inbox. A few weeks later I received a hard copy, but I departed almost immediately on a trip and left it in my office. Two months later he kindly asked me if I might write a blurb for the book, and I told him I would try to do that in the coming weeks.
Unfortunately I was close to finishing my new book, putting everything aside to complete it including outside travel and all other commitments. And once again Lee’s book got short shrift. Showing remarkable patience, two months after that Lee wrote to ask if I might consider composing a foreword for the book, and took time to describe its contents.
By this point my new book was done, and I had time to respond to a backlog of requests. Something in Lee’s description of his book struck a chord. I finally managed to download a copy of the draft onto my computer and started reading it on a plane. The problem then became that I couldn’t put it down (because I had other pressing work to do before landing). In my spare time the next week I would open my computer and read. Eventually I wrote back to communicate with Lee with some thoughts about the book, in particular the main character, Gevin Rees, and the way he interacted with other scientists. Lee responded with thanks and asked for additional suggestions in order to make these interactions more realistic. It was particularly embarrassing when he then informed me that I had served as one of the models for that character.
Although flattered, I was initially skeptical about getting involved in contributing to what might be called science fiction, because I have a kind of love-hate relationship with sci-fi books. Clearly I have enjoyed the genre, but ever since The Physics of Star Trek I have been called on to comment on almost every new major sci-fi book or movie. And in fact while I read a lot of sci-fi as a young person, I quickly found as I got older that actual science interested me far more. In addition, most science fiction requires one to suspend disbelief, and the more one knows about science, the more suspension is required.
Ultimately what makes such suspension possible is not the plausibility of the imagined science, or lack thereof, it is the quality of the story. As a famous sci-fi writer once told me when we were on a TV panel together, the operative word in science fiction is not science, but fiction. A good story allows one to forgive the speculative or even the impossible science that one might encounter in the story, either because one wants to find out what is going to happen next, or because the characters are particularly gripping. This latter aspect is what usually grates on me the strongest in sci-fi, because the representation of scientists and their interactions with one another is often stereotypical or stilted. Too often they simply don’t sound like the people I have worked with throughout my professional career.
Happily, reading the Kafir Project I had no problem suspending any disbelief. The story is fast paced and riveting with unexpected plot twists at every turn. The characters are likable and believable—even the scientists and engineers! And the science touches on subjects, like quantum computing, which while very speculative nevertheless build on legitimate, current research.
But the most fascinating thing about this exciting story is the premise on which it is based. Anyone who has read even lightly about the history of the world’s religions knows that the sacred books, as usually represented, are essentially fraudulent. The New Testament, written by various authors at best decades after any actual events took place, helped to deify someone who at the time made no such claims. The Qur’an is highly derivative of earlier myths, and Mohammed never visited a Mosque in Jerusalem on a winged horse because (for one thing) there were no Mosques there at the time. And the Old Testament refers to the use of camels in a period when camels had not yet been domesticated in that region of the world. All of this, of course, is independent of the numerous miracles described in all three books which undoubtedly never happened.
While modern scholarship has already largely dispensed with the myths on which all three of the world’s major religions are based, wouldn’t it be nice to have more direct evidence contradicting them? Of course, I suspect that even if such evidence did exist, the guardians of theology would find ways for the doctrines based on the myths to persevere. Too much money and power rides on the institutions created to propagate them.
Ah, but The Kafir Project is a work of fiction, and in the fictional world we can sometimes live out our fantasies. While I would certainly not relish living through any of Gevin Rees’s experiences in the book, it was a thrilling roller coaster ride to read them. For those of you who just bought a ticket for the ride, enjoy the trip, and I hope you come out the other end thinking a little differently about the real world.
Lawrence M. Krauss, 2016
The face to face meeting came as a huge surprise to Gevin Rees. To begin with, Edward Fischer was notoriously reclusive. The world’s most celebrated physicist never granted personal interviews to a science communicator like Rees, let alone asked for one.
Additionally, he was dead.
Or he was supposed to be anyway. Rees leaned into the salt mist blowing cold off San Francisco Bay and watched as Fischer, looking very much alive in dark sunglasses and a red and gold ‘49ers hoodie, continued to scour the waterfront.
“Are we expecting someone else?” Rees asked.
“Yes, but we can’t wait any longer. Gevin, you’re in serious danger. You weren’t directly involved in the research, so I wasn’t as discreet with your identity as I was with the others. That was a mistake.”
“Others? Wait, what kind of danger?”
“You didn’t tell anyone you were coming out here to meet me?”
“No. I did exactly as you asked.” Rees was trying his best to look calm. Given how he really felt, that amounted to lying with his face. “Can you just tell me what the … what’s going on here, please? Everyone thinks you died in the explosion at Fermilab. They’re saying they found you. Pieces of you.”
“Yes, I want them to believe they succeeded in killing me. They think they’ve destroyed all my data, but it’s still right here in my DNA. Oddly enough we owe that one to church. Herodotus will have it all soon if not already. Five hundred exabytes. He’ll be contacting you.”
“An alias. For his protection. Another man we’re calling Anaximander is bringing the artifacts. The science I’m entrusting to you.” Fischer dug into a beaten up leather pouch he had slung over one shoulder and mumbled to himself. “It’s all coming together. The end of their authority.”
Artifacts? Jesus, he’s lost his mind. Rees wondered if the shock of the explosion had thrown the man into some kind of psychotic episode. By reputation he wasn’t all that mentally stable to begin with.
At thirty-three, Fischer was ten years younger than Rees. But right now, shaky and slump-shouldered, he actually looked the older of the two men.
He began to pull a notebook of some kind out of the pouch, but stopped in mid-motion. He was looking over Rees’s right shoulder, eyes tracking something back there.
Rees turned and looked too.
A middle-aged Japanese couple—tourists, judging by the guidebook they were consulting—strolled close by. Apart from them, this stretch of Fisherman’s Wharf near Pier 35 was mostly deserted. Swept clear by dark skies and the imminent threat of a chilling December rainstorm.
Behind the two tourists, a white van pulled up to the curb nearby and stopped.
As Rees turned back toward Fischer, the scientist jerked the pouch off his shoulder. “No! They can’t have it.” He heaved it over a nearby railing, into the bay. Then he turned back to Rees. “Run!”
Before Rees could even move, he heard a loud pop. Fischer dropped in place like someone had just flipped off his master power switch.
A man in sunglasses and billed cap, wearing a Jimmy Buffett T-shirt, stood outside the van now, maybe a hundred feet away. He held a gun in front of him in a two-handed grip. A fat, black cylinder stuck out from the end of the barrel.
Rees tried to run and couldn’t. His feet seemed bolted to the walkway.
The two Japanese tourists didn’t have the same problem, apparently. They turned and fled up the waterfront.
The gun popped again. Once, twice.
As Rees watched, the man and woman both dropped. The man lay there quietly. The woman screamed as she tried to crawl away.
A third shot silenced her.
Rees, meanwhile, had finally come unstuck.
Survival instinct kicked in and the rest was automatic. Without looking back he took a single long step and launched himself headfirst over the railing.
Another pop behind him.
Gray sky and green water rotated, trading places while he tumbled.
Cold shock as he plunged into the bay. The taste of salt water in his mouth.
Rees reopened his eyes underwater, fighting the sting after shutting them reflexively. Disoriented, twisting this way and that, he hunted for the surface, having already formed the intention to swim the hell away from it.
He spotted the green glow of daylight filtering through the murky waters. Above and below suddenly fell into place again in this weightless and featureless expanse.
Making his best guess, Rees swam downward and in the direction that he fervently hoped would take him back under the walkway. He couldn’t see much farther than the tips of his fingers, though. For all he knew he would be forced to resurface in full view of the gunman.
He swam using breaststroke and frog kick. On and on. The green emptiness all around killed any sense of forward progress. His lungs felt about to burst.
This had to be too far. If he were going the right way, he’d have reached—
Something materialized out of the haze in front of him. A pylon encrusted with barnacles and marine algae.
His lungs burned as he let himself float upward alongside it. It looked dark above him, so he was coming up under some kind of structure, thank God.
Rees broke the surface, purged his lungs explosively, gulped briny air, then dove right back down. He held his breath as long as he could, and then floated up again for another quick lungful of air.
He repeated this process maybe twenty times.
Eventually, Rees reasoned that if the man with the gun were coming for him, he would probably have been discovered by now. The next time he came up for air, he stayed on the surface and looked around.
He was under the walkway from which he’d jumped. No sign of the shooter.
After another five minutes or so of waiting, he decided to risk a move. The situation merited an abundance of caution, so he planned to swim from pylon to pylon, staying under the walkway wherever possible, and to head for Pier 39. There was a marina over there. And people. He could call for help.
Rees had just started out when his hand bumped something floating half-submerged in the water.
Fischer’s leather pouch.
He pulled the strap over his shoulder and began to swim.
Making good on its threat, the sky finally let loose torrents of frigid rain. The splashes of thousands of heavy drops hissed loudly around him as Rees slogged toward Pier 39 and that marina. The swim seemed to take forever.
When they pulled him from the water, his teeth chattered so violently he couldn’t make himself understood.
Finally, he managed to get out two words.
Police and murder.
“Sometimes regular people look a lot like famous people,” the officer whose nametag identified him as Honeycutt explained. “We have an ID kit that works on exactly that principle. Some guy’s got Brad Pitt’s eyes, John Travolta’s chin, or what have you.”
Within minutes of Rees being hauled out of the bay, Honeycutt and his partner had arrived at the marina in a patrol car, siren wailing and lights flashing. A rescue vehicle followed another minute later, repeating the noisy show.
“No, it wasn’t a lookalike,” Rees said. “Okay? Edward Fischer asked me to meet him here. I flew out here to meet him. He said someone was trying to kill him. He wanted them to think he was dead. But he isn’t. I mean, he may be now, but…”
It sounded insane even to Rees. And that was without the bit about the ancient Greek code names he’d intentionally left out. Nevertheless, the officers called it in. From what he could make out, a police unit was dispatched to the scene near Pier 35.
Honeycutt rode in the back of the ambulance with him for the short trip to San Francisco General.
Hospital staff in the ER stripped off Rees’s wet clothes and buried him under layers of warm blankets.
Shortly after that, Officer Honeycutt took the full report. Lanky and bug-eyed, Honeycutt actually looked a lot like a young Christopher Walken—though Rees certainly wasn’t going to mention it.
“So you got a phone call last night from Edward Fischer?” Honeycutt asked.
“Yes, he called me in New York.”
“This is after he was killed in the explosion?”
“Yes. No. Obviously he hadn’t been killed. He wanted me to meet him here in San Francisco. And no, he didn’t say why. Just that no one could know. I grabbed the first flight out of La Guardia this morning.”
“And were you friends? Had you worked together?”
“No. we’d spoken before, just once. I’m a science communicator.”
“Uh huh. And what is that exactly?”
“Well, you’ve heard of Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson? I’m basically in the same line of business.”
Honeycutt jabbed a finger at Rees. “Ah, yeah. On TV, right?”
This was good. At least the officer might be less inclined to think he was just some random lunatic. “You recognize me now.”
Honeycutt shook his head. “No, sorry. I’ve seen those other two guys.”
“Oh. Anyway, the point is that’s why Fischer wanted to speak with me. There was some science he needed to make clear to the public, to non-scientists. Something that he was working on.”
“Right, okay.” Honeycutt wrote something in a spiral notepad.
In Rees’s imagination the officer was drawing a caricature of him in a straightjacket, running away while men in white suits with giant butterfly nets chased after him.
Honeycutt asked for a description of the gunman. Rees couldn’t give him much. Only that the shooter had been a white male of average height and weight, who might have had blond hair. He apologized for not being able to offer more.
“No, that’s good. It’s a good start.” Honeycutt put away his pad and pen, and excused himself to check in with his superior.
Rees lay back under the mound of blankets in the busy ER, amid the beeps and pings of medical monitors, and the sharp smell of disinfectant. Pins and needles sensations pricked his hands and feet as the restored blood flow woke up the peripheral nerves there.
He closed his eyes and tried to put it all together.
Six months ago, when he got that first call from Edward Fischer, he thought a colleague was pranking him. The famous physicist’s Brooklyn accent and staccato cadence were easy enough to imitate. Rees humored the caller, working in a few wisecracks about Fischer’s well-known eccentricity, which was said to border on outright insanity.
When he realized it really was the great scientist on the phone, he felt simultaneously thrilled and mortified. “Dr. Fischer, I’m so sorry. I really thought someone was pulling my leg.”
“Not to worry. It was a reasonable hypothesis. Also, I’m well aware people think I’m half-crazy. They’re right. It’s fortunate for me the other half of my mind functions pretty well.”
Fischer informed Rees that his current research, when completed, would be impactful—as he put it. He wanted to know if he could call on Rees when the time came to help make it all more comprehensible to the general public.
“Yes, of course,” Rees told him. “That’s what I do, and I’d be honored. But I have to ask—when did you become concerned with what the public understands?”
The popular press loved to compare Fischer to Albert Einstein. In temperament, however, Fischer was more like the solitary and obsessive young Isaac Newton. He made Rees, who also tended to keep people at a distance, look positively gregarious.
Fischer replied, “I’m concerned with the public’s understanding because their confidence in the accuracy of this work affects its larger purpose. Beyond that, I can’t say anything right now.”
Rees wondered if perhaps all this was about some breakthrough in climate change modeling. The credibility of science and the course of public policy did intersect there. But before he could say anything, Fischer spoke again.
“Gevin, I understand you’re not a religious man.”
“I … no, not in the traditional sense.
“You were raised Mormon, though.”
Where the hell did that come from? Rees knew the information was out there on the internet. But it was hard to picture the twenty-first century’s most famous genius seated at his desk, Googling your name.
“Yes, I was a Mormon,” Rees said. “Can I—”
“How did you lose your faith?”
And it gets even weirder. “Okay. Well, as you yourself are fond of saying, the theory didn’t fit the evidence. Israelites in the Americas. The ‘reformed Egyptian’ and the Anthon transcript. It just doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny.”
“And did it stop there?”
Rees wasn’t sure exactly what Fischer meant, but the conversation was making him increasingly uncomfortable. “Can I ask what all this has to do with the work you want me to help popularize?”
“Thank you for your time, Dr. Rees.”
Fischer disconnected then without even giving him a chance to say goodbye. Was he offended by something Rees had just said? The whole call had been exceedingly strange. He remembered it had left him wondering for days whether there was something he missed.
He opened his eyes at the sound of approaching footsteps in the ER.
Officer Honeycutt was returning. Something in his demeanor had shifted. It was subtle, but Rees picked up on it right away.
Honeycutt reached Rees’s bedside and stood looking down at him, eyes probing. “Sir, are you currently under the care of any physician or institution we should notify?”
Tactfully put, but the meaning was clear enough. Rees sat up in the hospital bed. “I know how crazy this sounds. But one of those poor people back by Pier 35 really is Edward Fischer. The Edward Fischer. Was anybody still alive there?”
Honeycutt paused a moment. “I just spoke with my supervisor, sir. The units that responded to your report didn’t find anything at that location.”
“What do you mean, ‘anything’? No bodies?”
“No bodies. No blood. No bullet holes or shell casings. On the chance that you may have misremembered or been confused about which part of the wharf you … jumped from, officers checked the nearby piers. Nothing there either.”
It had poured down buckets as Rees swam for the marina. The rain must have washed away any blood. As for bodies and shell casings, well, obviously the gunman didn’t want to leave any evidence behind. And apparently he did not.
“So what now?” Rees asked. “Someone killed three people today. And tried to kill me too. Dr. Fischer said I was in danger. And that gunman is still out there.”
Officer Honeycutt nodded along, as if he agreed completely. “What we’ll do, sir, is we’ll file a suspicious incident report. My supervisor will be looking into this thoroughly.”
“A suspicious incident report?”
“Yes, sir. That’s really about all we can do at this point. Would you like us to contact your family?”
“No, thank you.”
Officer Honeycutt finished by asking if Rees was staying in town and if so where? Rees gave him the name of the hotel Fischer had instructed him to use. He was too tired and mixed up to attempt to fly back to New York right now anyway.
Honeycutt produced a business card and handed it to Rees. “You can reach me at this number if you have any questions.”
Rees read the card and looked up again. “I’m not crazy, Officer Honeycutt.”
“I didn’t say you were, sir.”
“I know how this sounds. If I were you, I don’t guess I’d buy it either. But just … please. Just take this seriously. Because something very strange and terrible has happened here. And someone needs to get to the bottom of it.”
Honeycutt nodded with a solemn expression. “We’ll do everything we can, sir.”
And that was it. Officer Honeycutt left.
Rees looked around at the controlled chaos of the ER.
Nearby, hospital staff cut the bloody clothes off the victim of a car accident and prepped her for emergency surgery. It brought back an unwelcome memory from Rees’s teens, images of his late sister. He felt a pang of sadness mixed with resentment, and turned away.
The room was buzzing with life and death crises. And as was the case with many big city ER’s, the resources here appeared to be strained to their limits. If someone walked in off the street, claiming to suffer from a severe allergy to leprechauns, not a lot of staff time and energy would be assigned to him.
The San Francisco Police Department was in exactly the same boat. Rees didn’t think they were really going to investigate the shooting of a man who had already died the day before.
The two Japanese tourists, the only other eyewitnesses, had to be dead now too. If they were foreign nationals here on vacation, it could be days or maybe even weeks before the SFPD received any formal inquiries regarding their disappearances. Would someone then connect two missing tourists back to Rees’s “suspicious incident” report? He didn’t know, but it didn’t seem very promising.
You’re in serious danger, Fischer had told him.
Three thousand miles away from home, in a city where he knew virtually no one except a colleague or two he might see at a scientific conference, he felt completely alone. Ordinarily, that was a condition Rees immensely enjoyed, even cultivated.
Today, he would happily make an exception.
He lay back down in the bed and tried to think productively. Somebody wanted him dead. It might help to know more precisely…
He needed to plan his next move. But it was no use theorizing without any real data to work with. Somehow, on his own, he would just have to generate it.
How he’d do that, he didn’t have a clue.
An orderly appeared then, carrying Rees’s wet clothes in a clear plastic sack. And something else.
Fischer’s waterlogged leather pouch.
Excerpted from The Kafir Project by Lee Burvine. Copyright © Lee Burvine, 2016. All rights reserved.
Lee Burvine is the author’s anonymous pen name. Sadly, we live in a world where publicly speaking certain truths can be very bad for your health. Burvine’s lifelong thirst to get to the bottom of things and to tell cracking stories about what he found has culminated in The Kafir Project, his first novel.
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