The four of us – Jaspers, Henry, Sergei, and myself – all looked back at the tall, gaunt scientist who’d spoken. I felt the eyes of my team members swiveling towards me, checking how I’d respond as the team leader.
“Explosives?” I echoed, looking back at Orville. “Why?”
Orville opened his mouth to respond, but was cut off by a shout from another one of the men standing behind him, hunched over a control panel. “He’s breaching!” the other scientist shouted. “He’s overwhelming the data banks, trying to force a core dump!”
“Well, shunt it off to overflow!” Orville snarled, spinning to pierce the unfortunate who’d spoken with a glare. “Get rid of it!”
“Overflow buffer is already nearly full – he’s pouring more into it faster than we can dump it!”
Scowling, Orville took two long steps, putting him beside the console of the other panicked scientist. “Then don’t bother dumping it at all,” he declared, his fingers flying over the keys. “Just overwrite it as-is; hell, if it gets too bad, send someone in there with a bloody magnet to scrub the drives!”
For a few tense seconds, no one spoke; the only sound in the control room was the clicking of Orville’s fingers on the keys. Finally, Orville let out a breath, and I saw the shoulders of the other men in the room drop in relief.
“There,” Orville sighed. “That should control things for a minute.” He turned around, back to us. “Listen, you need to destroy this place. Bring it all down, bury it under as much rubble as you can manage. That might be enough.”
“We’re not blowing up anything,” I countered firmly. I thought that I heard Henry let out a little sound of dismay, but I pressed on. “Not until we’ve got some answers. And right now, we’ve got a lot more questions than answers.”
Orville didn’t take this news well. I saw the man’s fingers tighten into fists, digging into his palms until his knuckles were white. “Ask quickly,” he hissed, his eyes squeezing shut.
“How about you start by telling us what the bloody hell this place is,” Jaspers growled before I could ask a question. Fair enough; he’d phrased the same request I held in my mind, although perhaps in slightly coarser and plainer language.
“How much do you know about quantum physics?” Orville countered, his lip pulling back in a sneer as he took in Jaspers’ beard, bulging muscles, angry glare.
Jaspers just growled and lifted his weapon, but I stepped forward, holding out a hand between them. “Give us the overview,” I stated. “This is a military contractor, isn’t it? I’ve seen the name Blue Diamond before.”
Orville turned his attention to me. “And who are you?”
“Captain Brian Richards, 75th Rangers.”
“It’s probably above your pay grade,” Orville said, but I’d expected an arrogant response from him. I flicked my eyes over to Sergei, who stepped forward, magically producing a knife from thin air.
I watched as Orville shrank back from the razor-sharp blade, his eyes flicking between my calm expression and Sergei’s glittering eyes. “You can’t-”
“Listen up,” I said, my voice still level. “There’s a world-wide disaster out there. Billions are gone, presumably dead. Don’t give me shit about the command structure. The clues we’ve found have led us here, and this is possibly the densest concentration of survivors we’ve found so far, across the entire United States.” I saw a couple other scientists turn towards me, listening with open mouths, from behind Orville. “If you’ve got answers, you’re going to give them to me. Is that clear?”
Orville swallowed, his eyes darting between my face and the blade of Sergei’s drawn knife. “Black book,” he choked out.
I raised my eyebrows. “What’s that?”
“Black book research. This is a black book project.”
I rocked back slightly on my heels, not entirely surprised, but adjusting to this new information. “Black book projects” was a term used for research that often wasn’t declared on official budgets, the kind of stuff that often touched on unpopular and sometimes even illegal areas of science. Germ warfare, gas attacks, deadly diseases, digital hacking – all of these projects tended to end up as black book, kept off the official records. “Can you explain what the project actually is?”
Orville paused to lick his lips for a second before answering, his eyes flicking over again to Sergei’s knife. I gestured at the Russian to put the blade away, and the tall, thin scientist breathed a little more easily.
“Have you heard of neural networks?” he asked.
“Like, brains and such?” This came from Henry, surprisingly!
Orville nodded. “Yes, very similar, although artificial. We believe that quantum physics offers great opportunities for dimensional manipulation, but we can’t build an interface that handles this level of minuscule change using conventional electronics. We’d need a neural network, a digitally built thinking engine – that could serve as the interface. That’s been our goal.”
“And you failed dramatically, is that it?” Sergei asked.
The tall scientist turned to look at him as if he’d just sprouted a second head. “Failed?” Orville echoed. “No, of course not. We succeeded.”
Before I could answer that, another blaring alarm went off behind Orville, and he had to once again spin away to deal with another crisis. The other members of my team exchanged wordless looks with me. Orville seemed to have a few screws loose, but it was clear that some sort of Event had happened. Could this black book project, whatever it was, be tied to what happened?
Again, in the back of my head, I felt that little prickle of suspicion. It all still felt too… easy, in a certain way. We’d been led here by Sara, and it seemed to be exactly where we needed to end up. How had we found the source so easily, when we were all but roaming blind?
I opened my mouth to ask Orville another question, but closed it without speaking when I heard the beeping coming from my watch. I glanced down, sighed. It had been half an hour since we entered the control room, and I needed to alert Feng.
I lifted the walkie-talkie to my ear, but didn’t hear anything. Maybe the main room was shielded. I slipped back outside the control room and hit the button on the radio. “Feng? You there?”
“We’re listening, too,” called out Corinne, also on the channel. “What’s going on up there?”
I hesitated for a second, but she deserved to know. “There’s a bunch of scientists in here, trying to…” Were they trying to contain something? “…to do something. They don’t seem to be an immediate danger, although we’re still trying to figure out what they’re doing.”
“Any sign of…” Corinne paused, but I knew what she wanted to say. Nathaniel Hobbson, Sara’s father.
“Not yet, but we haven’t talked to everyone,” I answered, although that was pulling the punch. Nathaniel’s card had listed him as the lead scientist. If he was here, wouldn’t he be in charge, rather than Orville?
There was silence on the channel for a minute. “Listen, I’m going to step back inside, try and get some answers,” I said. “Stay tuned.”
“Yes,” Feng said, one last time.
To be continued…