[April 12, 2020]
I woke up staring at a flashing line of text.
Sam. . . you awake?
The timestamp on the message said 22:47, and the clock at the bottom of the screen read 22:51. Lucky -- I'd been crashed out for at least an hour, but at least Jenna wouldn't know that.
Of course I'm up, I typed back.
Kitchen's closing down in an hour. You want to go grab something?
Food. Ugh. Definitely not.
Nah. Nah, I'm good. I'll drop by later and say hello.
Don't work too hard.
Jenna's Instant Messaging window disappeared, and I got up to stretch. That hour of sleep was the most I'd caught in days, at least in one shot. I'd been surviving on catnaps and coffee for at least a week, and I didn't see the situation changing anytime soon. Not unless I made some progress.
The chalkboard on the far wall hadn't changed -- it was still fifteen feet long by eight feet tall, and still mostly covered with a long, unbroken string of numbers and characters. The whole mess stared at me, daring me to figure out what it meant, just as it had been for the past two and a half weeks. Even with that hour nap under my belt, I still had no idea what I was looking at.
My large coffee cup, the one that said DARPA on it, was still half-full, but the contents were bone-cold. I dumped the cup out and rinsed it in the small sink behind my desk, then set it down next to the coffeemaker, which was empty. Of course. I opened my lab door and stuck my head out -- there was a new guard on duty from the last time I checked. I don't know when that was, honestly.
"Hi," I said, rubbing my eyes and smiling.
"Dr. McGregor," the guard nodded. I don't remember ever meeting him, but he'd no doubt been briefed on the names and faces of everyone in the facility. He was a young guy, tall and thin, but dressed in the same black Civil Protection fatigues and boots as every other guard.
"Hey, I'm out of coffee in here. Mind escorting me down to the kitchen to grab some more?"
"Coffee's out, Doctor. They covered that in the afternoon briefing. They sent someone into town to get some, but I don't know if he's back yet. We can sure check, though."
"Excellent. And call me Sam, OK? What's your name?"
"Officer Ellison. Jim Ellison."
"Right. Jim. After you, Jim," I said, gesturing down the low, blank hallway. The two of us walked for a few minutes, taking a few twists and turns. If it'd just been me, I'd have gotten lost -- which was one of the reasons the Civil Protection guys were there. As we walked, I talked to Jim a bit -- he was a former high-school basketball player, just like my son Max.
"Huh. What do you know. Perfect timing," Jim said as we arrived in the kitchen. Two more Civil Protection guys, one in plain clothes, were unloading grocery bags from the elevator across the hall from the kitchen.
"What'ya need, Jimbo?" the plainclothes agent asked.
"Dark or light roast?"
Jim looked at me.
"Dark," I said.
* * *
I stared at the blackboard again as I sipped a hot cup of coffee. It was a code -- or, at least, we were pretty sure it was a code. Late last year, a convict unit had pulled a smash-and-grab on an advanced projects lab in Pyongyang. They'd grabbed all the data on six projects codenamed "Bad Omen." The first five all made sense -- the EM-pulse, a virus, some mechanical stuff. And then there was this. Project six of six.
When they'd first accessed the files, the Air Force Cyber guys had figured that they'd been corrupted in some way -- that they were looking at artifacts from a hashed, fucked-up bit of a file that'd been deleted or written over. Then one of the convicts from the Marine Unit -- the hacker who'd gotten them into the Chinese Army network in the first place -- started seeing patterns in the chaos. The whole thing was wrapped up tight and sent back stateside, where it landed on my desk.
Not originally, of course. At the time, I was on leave from my job teaching Theoretical Mathematics at MIT. When DARPA had first approached me, I wanted nothing to do with the military or the Department of Defense. That changed a month later, and they moved me into my current digs, more than five hundred feet below the outskirts of Olathe, Kansas.
I stared at the board for a while longer -- couldn't tell you how long, at least three coffees -- without anything suddenly making sense. When the symbols all started to blur together, I poured another cup of coffee, walked out into the hall, and stretched. Jim was still there.
"Hey, Jim. We're heading down to Lab 14," I said, sipping my coffee.
"I can take you to the elevator. I'm not cleared to go down that far," he said.
"It's fine. I know the way from there," I told him.
In the elevator, I scanned my security card, and the car started to descend. I went another three levels down and went left as soon as the doors opened. I'm only cleared to be on this level because I did some of the initial math for the Exo project -- it was in the engineering phase now, but I still popped by to visit whenever I needed some human interaction.
The lab was shut down, and all the lights were off. Dammit. They must've called it a night hours ago. I'd have to pop back later. Still, though there was no one there, I went inside and sat in one of the nice, padded desk chairs they had. I didn't turn the lights on, instead watching the tiny LEDs on the Exo prototype blink once every three seconds.
I must've sat there in the dark for an hour, at least. It was more calming down in the Exo lab than it was in mine -- just me and Exo, quietly sitting, thinking. I couldn't tell you what Exo was thinking, but my thoughts, as they often did, turned to that day five months ago.
The day when two Army officers, a Captain and a Staff Sergeant, showed up at my door in full dress uniform to let me know that my son, Specialist Max McGregor, had been killed defending Firebase Comanche the day before. There were no remains to bury -- he'd been vaporized by the huge guns on a CDM.
The lights clicked on -- six a.m., I guessed. Jenna walked in and saw me sitting there. She just smiled and nodded -- me hanging out in a dark lab after hours was nothing new.
"You two have a good talk?" she asked, nibbling on a breakfast burrito.
"Oh, fascinating," I smirked.
"You see we've got the chestplate coated?" she asked, tapping Exo's chest with the back of her pen.
"Yeah, I saw that. Kevlar/titatanium mesh?"
"And a couple of other tricks, but yeah, mainly. Took a hit from a Browning .50 at the range yesterday. Didn't even leave a mark."
"Still won't hold up to the gatlings on a CDM, though," I said.
"Well, we think the material will. Just. . . the body inside would liquefy from the impact, cook from the heat. We're working on it. Maybe in the next version. Maybe Eddie'll crack that problem before this one goes to Beta. How're you doing upstairs?"
"About the same."
"I guess. When was the last time you slept? Like, a full six hours?"
"Um. . . December?"
"That shit wouldn't fly on my project. My guys -- off to quarters by midnight, in no earlier than 6 a.m. You should consider it. And for God's sake, get some food in you. You look horrible."
* * *
Quarters were on Level Five. I'd never been in anyone else's, but I'm sure they weren't all as Spartan as mine. I had exactly the following: five pairs of jeans, seven t-shirts, three button-up shirts, seven pairs of socks and underwear, one pair of Converse Chuck Taylors, one pair of black work boots, one framed picture of Max, one iPod with charger. Those were all of the personal possessions I'd brought with me. There were also a few lab coats hanging in the closet with my name on one side and "DARPA Station 12" on the other. I don't know why they issued me lab coats -- I guess in case I spilled some math on myself?
I'd stopped by the kitchen and grabbed some eggs and bacon and orange juice, then went back to my quarters. The bed was still made -- I don't remember the last time I'd used it. Come to think of it, apart from quick showers and clothing changes, I don't remember the last time I spent more than a few minutes in my quarters. As soon as my head hit the pillow, I was out.
Couldn't tell you what time it was when I woke up, or when I went to sleep, really. I hadn't dreamed, not that I could remember. A quick shower and some fresh clothes, and I was back in the lab, staring at the same chalkboard. Again.
I knew I wasn't the only mathematician working on this problem. I probably wasn't even the only one in this facility. And computers were working overtime trying to crack it, too. But without context, and without any hint as to what the symbols and numbers even meant, we weren't likely to break it short of, say, a miracle.
I checked my email, and saw that I had one from the Marine Corps Convict Affairs Office. It was one I had been waiting on. I'd put in a request to speak to the convict who'd originally found the data -- when I opened the email, I found that the request had been approved. She was apparently attached to a unit called 47 Echo, and their schedule was pretty up in the air, but I could try them until I got them. I brought up the secure connection on my netbook and clicked the link in the email, which routed me, through a long, twisting path of servers and satellites, to a base in Russia.
"Firebase Zulu," a bored-looking young Marine Sergeant answered.
"Um, hi. This is Dr. McGregor from DARPA. I'm looking for, uh, 47 Echo?"
"Let me check for you, Doctor. Echo. . . right. They're out in the field. No real ETA on when they're back. I have your info -- want me to have them contact you when they return?"
"Yes, Sergeant. Specifically, a convict. . . um. . . I have her designation around here somewhere. . . Delta Flight 4175. Air Force, I think?"
"Right. I know who you mean. I'll let her know."
"Much appreciated, Sergeant."
The connection terminated, and I was back to staring at the wall. The shapes and lines started to blur together, like they always did when I looked at them for too long, but this time, I just let my eyes unfocus and let my mind wander off. For a second, I thought I saw something. Then, I was sure of it. Then --
Alarms. I jolted up in my chair, and the numbers and symbols on the board snapped back into focus, just a meaningless jumble of numbers and symbols once more.
"All personnel -- we have a security breach on topside level one. All personnel to secure stations," a hidden speaker blared.
Dammit. So close.