Ty squinted against the sunlight streaming in through the jet’s windows. Richter was moving through the cabin, raising the shades, flooding the narrow space with light.
Ty could feel the jet descending, preparing for landing.
“What exactly did DARPA find?” Ty asked. “What’s in those files?” “They won’t tell me. Not remotely. Only in person.”
When the plane landed at a private air strip in Northern Virginia, Ty followed Richter out onto the tarmac and into a waiting black SUV. It sped away, into the Virginia countryside, heading north toward DC.
Ty checked his watch, which had automatically adjusted to the local time: 10:34 a.m.
In some ways, he felt like a time traveler. They had left Zürich a little before 8 a.m. and the flight had taken almost nine hours, but DC was six hours behind Zürich, so it was still morning here. Their jet had essentially chased the sun, and it made Ty glad he had taken a nap on the plane. Still, he felt jet-lagged, bruised, and shell-shocked at the tsunami of revelations the last few hours had brought. But most of all, he felt hopeful. Very soon, he would learn what was being transmitted over the quantum radio he had discovered at CERN. Deep down, he felt that it would change everything, perhaps in ways he couldn’t even grasp.
“Where exactly are we going?” he asked Richter.
“DARPA’s administrative headquarters is located on North Randolph Street in Arlington, Virginia. But we’re not going there. We’re going to their quantum research facility.”
Ty knit his eyebrows together. “I’ve never heard of a DARPA quantum research facility. I would have heard of that—it would be big news in our community.”
Richter smiled. “You might have and not even known it.”
“What does that mean?”
Richter took out his phone and tapped on it for a few seconds. “If you have a secret, do you know the best way to keep it in this day and age, when virtually all information is available on the internet and some very dedicated people spend their life chasing down conspiracies—even fake ones?”
Ty shrugged. “No.”
“You announce it. Even better, you ask for the public’s help.”
Richter handed Ty his phone, which displayed the official Twitter account of DARPA and a tweet posted August 28, 2019:
Attention, city dwellers! We’re interested in identifying university-owned or commercially managed underground urban tunnels & facilities able to host research & experimentation. https:go.usa.gov/xVWCn
It’s short notice… We’re asking for responses by Aug. 30 at 5:00 PM ET.
The three pictures posted with the message showed a vast underground complex with steel doors and massive pillars supporting it.
Ty looked up. “Is this real?”
Richter pointed at the phone. “It is. Look at the one below it.”
Ty scrolled down and read the next message from the official DARPA account:
The ideal space would be a human-made underground environment spanning several city blocks w/ complex layout & multiple stories, including atriums, tunnels & stairwells. Spaces that are currently closed off from pedestrians or can be temporarily used for testing are of interest.
The next two pictures showed an abandoned subway and an underground corridor with pipes running along the ceiling.
Ty shook his head. “Underground tunnels blocked off from public access that span multiple city blocks. It would be perfect for a small-scale collider and other quantum research.”
Richter took the phone back. “Precisely.”
They rode in silence until they reached the Virginia suburbs of DC. It went by in a blur to Ty, whose mind drifted again to the quantum radio data
stream and what it might represent. And then to Penny. He wondered where she was. And if she was safe.
Within thirty minutes of landing, the convoy was pulling into the parking garage of a building in the Navy Yard neighborhood in southeast Washington, DC. Ty and Richter were ushered into a building with bare white walls and exposed pipes and data cables running along the ceiling.
Around every turn, Ty hoped to see his mother, Helen. Instead, their handlers took Richter’s phone (for security purposes) and deposited the two men in a conference room with no windows, only a long table, rolling chairs, and a large flat screen on the wall.
A few minutes later, someone came and requested Richter’s presence, leaving Ty alone to pace and count the minutes. He counted twenty before the door opened again, and a man who looked to be in his mid-fifties stepped inside and gently closed the door. He wore a rumpled sport coat that looked like it had been slept in and faded jeans that had been washed too many times. He peered at Ty through thick glasses with black plastic frames.
“Dr. Klein, I’m Sanford Bishop. Chief nerd around here.” Ty smiled. “Call me Ty. I too am a nerd, based at CERN.” Bishop nodded. “Your reputation precedes you.”
“What did you find?”
“That’s… actually what I wanted to talk to you about. While we appreciate what you’ve come up with—and you coming all this way, and certainly what you’ve been through—I just wanted to personally let you know we’re going to take it from here. We’re going to put you up in a hotel in Arlington until we can arrange transport home for you—”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Bishop’s smile disappeared. “I’m afraid you are. What we’re dealing with here is a little bigger than a hobby project.”
“You wouldn’t have what you have without me. Without my hobby project.”
Bishop took a step toward the door and reached out for the handle. “It’s a tough break.”
“Wait. At least tell me what you found.” “Can’t do that.”
“What can you tell me?”
“I can tell you thanks. That’s the other reason I wanted to see you. Take care of yourself, Ty.”
The man marched away, leaving Ty standing at the end of the conference table.
It was over. They were shutting him out. Just like that. Taking his work and running with it. He was mad enough to pick up one of the chairs and hurl it across the room.
The door opened again, and Richter strode in, followed by Ty’s mother.
Without a word, his mother walked over to him, arms stretched out, and pulled Ty into a hug.
For a moment, no one said anything. The three of them hadn’t been in a room together in thirty years. And the last meeting was still like an open wound in Ty’s mind, a moment of hurt that seemed to have been carved with a magic blade that even time couldn’t heal.
When Ty’s mother squeezed the hug tighter, Ty winced and grunted. She instantly released him and held him at arm’s length, studying him, worried.
“Gerhard told me they blew up your apartment.” She looked him up and down. “We need to get you to a hospital.”
“Mom. I’m fine. Just sore.”
“Which might imply internal bleeding.”
“I’m not bleeding internally, Mom. Please relax.”
“Well, it’s hard to relax when someone is trying to blow up your son.” “It’s also hard to relax when someone is stealing your research.”
She squinted at him. “What do you mean?”
Richter’s gaze drifted away from the two of them. It was clear to Ty that he knew what was going on. Ty said to him, “Do you want to tell her?”
“No,” he said simply. “Tell me what?”
“They’re cutting me out,” Ty said. “Taking my research and running with it.”
Helen exhaled. “Well, it’s probably for the best. It’s safer that way.” “I don’t want to be safe.”
“What I want is to finish what I started. I bet you said that to me a million times when I was a kid: ‘you finish what you start.’ That’s how I
got where I am, Mom. And it’s how I made this discovery—I kept going, and now they’re taking it from me.”
“You’re upset, Ty. You’re tired, and you need rest and food—”
“This is my life’s work, Mom. I want to finish it. I just need a chance to do that.”
She studied him for a long moment, then seemed to make a decision.
She turned to Richter, and Ty could practically feel the air in the room grow colder. He had felt like this once before in his life, the last time the three of them had all been in a room together. His parents were older now, but they stared at each other as they had then: unblinking, both still as statues, sizing each other up, like gunslingers in the middle of an Old West town about to draw on one another. And the words that came were like gunfire in Ty’s mind, sharp and bracing.
Helen spoke first. “Did you know about this?” “I just found out.”
“Or just decided?” “It wasn’t my call.” “Make it your call.”
“You overestimate me.” “That’s not possible.”
Richter turned away and paced the room. He had flinched first. “Do it, Gerhard, or I will.”
“We could be putting him in danger,” Richter said, not meeting her gaze. “He’s likely in danger either way. At least give him a chance to be part of
Ty threw up his hands. “Will you two quit talking about me like I’m not here? I’m not a kid anymore. Tell me what’s going on.”
Richter shook his head as he paced the length of the room again. He clearly didn’t like what was about to happen.
At the door, he reached out to the handle and locked it. He turned his head and stared at the camera in the corner for a second before letting his gaze settle on Ty. The stare was like a laser drilling into him.
When Richter spoke, his tone had changed. The words came out slowly, with a rhythm similar to a chant or incantation. “Tyson, listen to what I’m about to tell you. Focus. Think about what it implies.”
The room seemed to fade away as Richter spoke.
“The data stream you discovered contains seven distinct characters. One of the subatomic particles is clearly a terminator. There are four major terminating sequences, implying demarcations of five distinct files.”
The door handle rattled. Outside, a muffled voice said, “It’s locked.” Another voice: “Break it down.”
Richter never flinched. “The first file contains only two characters. The characters appear in groups of eight before a terminator, then the groups of eight are grouped by eight and terminated.”
The solid wood door shook once, then again, hard enough to rattle the metal frame around it. The drywall cracked. Dust particles drifted down from the ceiling like the first snow flurries of winter.
“The two characters in the first file do not appear in the other four files, which are composed of the remaining four characters and the terminator. The characters appear in groups of four—and every character is present in each group. The sequences of four appear in twenty-four supersets composing 3,088,286,401 strings of four.”
The door burst open, and a uniformed marine stumbled in, a hand outstretched to catch himself on the chair at the head of the table.
Still, Richter stared at Ty. “Do you know what it is?”
“Yes,” Ty breathed out, his mind on fire, reality shattered.