22 September 2022
Abel stared out the car window and saw nothing but rolling hills. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting. Perhaps to be escorted by several sunglassed men to a private Air Force jet and then whisked off to peril and excitement.
Instead, Shaffer had driven him in a rental to the airport, where they'd spent two hours waiting in line; apparently not even USAF colonels were above the purview of the TSA. When Abel made a crack about their flying coach, Shaffer looked at him coldly and explained that he'd visited the professor on his own recognizance. It seemed that Abel was not the military's last best hope after all, but one avenue of attack among many.
Abel had tried repeatedly to ferret more information out of the colonel, but he'd remained tight lipped since leaving the university, brushing off Abel's inquiries with a promise that Abel would "be briefed on the ground." They'd touched down at SFO an hour ago, had taken the I-80 past Berkeley and kept right on going, so it seemed like a good time to ask where they were heading.
"Travis Air Force Base. We would have preferred somewhere more secure, but when we approached J.D. with our offer for relocation and protection, he was adamant about not going anywhere farther away than that. In fact, he wouldn't consider any move at all until we sat him down and played back some of the death threats."
"I credit you for getting that much. J.D.'s not the most flexible person I've met," the professor said.
Shaffer glanced over at him. "No kidding. 'Course, unless we can figure out what happened down there, I suppose the whole thing is moot."
"'What happened'? You're U.S. military. You're supposed to have the most advanced surveillance tech in the world."
"Oh, we do. But--" He checked the GPS. "Look, we get to Travis in about twenty minutes. I'm sure they'll answer all your questions to your satisfaction once we're there."
Abel was mollified. He'd waited this long for answers; he could wait a little more. Having barely slept on the plane, he closed his eyes and tried to catch a few winks.
"---you, sir. Go ahead."
Abel jolted awake to find they were at a guard station, the gate raising in front of them. An airman waved them forward, two others standing alertly nearby, M-16s in hand. Shaffer guided the car down a freshly paved road until they rolled to a stop outside one of the smaller buildings. Shaffer turned off the engine and told Abel to stay put, then left and approached two more MPs standing at attention by a door speckled with rust and peeling paint.
Abel blinked sleep from his eyes and took the opportunity to survey his surroundings. They'd passed a couple dozen buildings of varying size, some sleek and new. By contrast, the dilapidated hangar before him had seen better days. He guessed it was built back in the '80s. He didn't know why they were stopping here, but suspected it wasn't their final destination.
As Shaffer approached the hangar, the two guards stepped into his path. Shaffer handed them some sort of ID. He pointed back towards Abel in the car, who felt strangely self conscious as the guards looked his way. One of them had a brief conversation on a walkie, and then returned the ID, visibly relaxed. Shaffer beckoned Abel over.
As he drew close, he began to say something but was cut short by Shaffer holding up his hand. Shaffer took out his phone and keyed in a code, and the nearby door unlocked audibly. Abel followed him inside, the guards issuing a smart salute as they passed.
The door clicked shut behind them, and Abel tried again. "Well, we're here. So, where are we?" The hangar they'd walked into seemed to be in an even worse state of disrepair on the inside. There were oil-stained tarps covering what he took to be jeeps or humvees, and cobwebs floated idly in musty corners. It was the last place he would expect to find the most cutting-edge research on the planet.
Shaffer read the confusion on his face. "It's not much to look at, I know. Ordinarily the Air Force frowns on security through obscurity, but we make do with what we have. The ID I gave them was mostly for show; they would have checked my ident broadcast before we got anywhere close." His words echoed off the hangar walls.
"We have teams of guards," he said conversationally, "stationed outside every building on this base, but they don't know which one houses the lab. Officially, it's still considered classified that J.D. is even at Travis. We never expected that to hold up for long, though; we were only trying to keep the media from sniffing around."
As they walked, Abel became aware that the path they were tracing looked well-used, free of the dust and dirt that coated most of the hangar. Shaffer continued: "Actually, this is one of three buildings that serve as access points to the lab complex, which itself is completely underground. Security may have seemed light when really it's anything but; these days, the majority of our safeguards are either fully automatic or remotely operated"---he paused to point out several oppressive-looking minigun turrets mounted on the ceiling that Abel had overlooked---"and if that makes things appear lax, so much the better."
They reached a worn elevator door and stepped inside. Three plain buttons shone dully on the panel: G, B1, B2. Rather than press one, the colonel tapped something on his phone, and the elevator lurched suddenly downwards at a surprising speed. Some twenty seconds later they came to an abrupt stop, and Shaffer lead the way through the sliding door into a fluorescent-lit long, narrow hallway. Closed circuit cameras gazed down from the ceiling every couple of meters. Several more guards---Abel couldn't tell what rank they were, but noticed additional stripes on their insignia---saluted as they walked by, evidently expecting them. Abel felt vaguely embarrassed. A guard at the end of the hall opened a door for them, and they passed through.
One look and Abel knew he had reached the complex proper. Every surface was a pristine white; it smelled of purified air and taxpayer dollars. He wouldn't call it spacious, but he could tell everything had been laid out carefully to make it a comfortable environment. All of the interior walls were spotless glass, and he stood in a corridor that ran around the outer edge of a central cluster of lab rooms extending up and down several levels. A generous number of large touch-response terminals had been installed in the desks and walls, a few with autostereo displays better than anything he'd seen on the market. Peering into the nearest lab, he saw much equipment he recognized, and a few unfamiliar pieces. Perhaps a dozen techs were scattered about in ones and twos, drinking coffees or Mountain Dew and working intently at their stations, most either oblivious to or ignoring their arrival.
After Abel had time to take this in, Shaffer steered him down one of the hallways toward a large octagonal room where a severe-looking middle-aged brunette was studying a screen built into the matching large octagonal table. Shaffer gestured to the door. "Vicky'll get you up to speed. I have some things to take care of," he said, and walked away.
Abel pushed the door open tentatively and entered the room. Without looking up, the woman said, "Thanks, you can leave it on the table."
Startled, the woman looked up. "Oh! Dr. Abel, my apologies, I was expecting---come in, come in." She stood up and shook hands. "A pleasure to meet you. Go ahead and have a seat. My name is Victoria Stone; I'm the director here. Would you like any coffee? Tea? How was your flight in?"
Abel settled heavily into a chair. "I---the flight was fine. Tea would be wonderful. And you can call me Arthur."
Vicky pushed a button on the desk. "Tea in Conference B, please." She folded her hands and looked carefully at Abel, sizing him up. "It really is a pleasure to meet you. You know, we considered bringing you on board when we started up. I suppose that's no big surprise given your reputation in the field. Anyway, the only reason we didn't approach you earlier was at Dr. Driscoll's explicit request---he never did explain his objection, but he was really very stubborn."
Abel was momentarily lost; it had been a long time since he'd heard J.D.'s real name. "I'm not sure whether to be flattered or offended."
Vicky chuckled politely. "You know how he is. You can ask him about it yourself if you find him. At any rate, I'm glad we've got you here now. I'm not sure how much you were already told, but we find ourselves at a bit of a loss."
Abel hesitated. Something had been bugging him since Shaffer first walked into his classroom, and he decided to finally voice it. "Ms. Stone, I appreciate there's some kind of situation here, but to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure what I could possibly help you with. My background is in theoretical physics, not security."
"In this case, it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. I suppose I ought to back up. Walls," she said to nobody in particular, and the five large outward-facing glass walls immediately turned opaque, light levels within the room adjusting automatically to compensate. Vicky started speaking in earnest.
"You were told about the threats on Dr. Driscoll's life?" Abel nodded, and Vicky went on. "It's partially true that we relocated him and his team for their own protection. But, naturally, their work itself was of critical interest to the U.S. government. There were endless debates over whether to militarize it, commercialize it, reserve it for humanitarian endeavors, and even whether it should be pursued, but the one thing that all of us could agree on was that so long as this project existed, we needed it on a very short leash.
"We've been following Driscoll's research for months. We keep tabs on most high-tech university labs across the country as a matter of course, and we found out about their 'transmission from the future' not long after it happened. It was no problem getting copies of their schematics, and we reproduced their equipment precisely, but at that point they'd only figured out how to receive, not transmit. And since it seemed that no more transmissions were forthcoming, the most valuable asset remaining was that one actual burst of information that they'd picked up from the future.
"Problem was, Driscoll kept that data-burst encrypted at all times. We procured a copy, but our friends at the NSA informed us that the encryption was like nothing they'd ever seen. 'Might as well be noise,' or something like that. We speculated---and we turned out to be right, by the way---that one of those intact pieces of code that Driscoll recovered right at the outset was the algorithm for that encryption."
The door opened. It was a perky blonde holding a folder and Abel's tea. "Thanks, you can leave them on the table," said Vicky, and the girl set them down and scurried out. Abel took a sip of the tea, and on some level he realized that it was delicious, but mostly he was busy digesting Vicky's story.
"As I was saying, it became clear that we weren't going to get anywhere without the willing participation of Driscoll and his team. We started work on this complex before we'd even approached them. Turned out that we finished right after they made their announcement. They were reluctant to leave Berkeley, but once--
BOOM. Story cuts out here.