In the beginning, there was a myth. This myth gave Man answers and boundless power without binding him to a code of ethics or subordination to a higher power. And the myth was good. But all myths require an official stamp and education's protection from public detraction. Wherever the myth empowers its people, truth is the only sin.
It has been a long time, however, I still remember the day that changed my life. The day was not random and without meaning of its own. This was the day of my daughter's senior prom. Although it is the reason that I recall it so clearly, I can only wish that was the reason that I shall never forget that day. She will never be told the truth.
Jenny wore an off-white gown that I'm sure she would have a more detailed name for. She was my angel, grown a great deal since the first time I had seen her in her mother's arms. I had a hard time, watching her from the foot of the stairs, accepting that the woman at the top of the stairs had once been the little girl in the cradle. To see my smile, I'm sure you would have thought that she was my date for that big day in my little girl's life.
She ran back to her room for something when the knock on the door finally came. Time for her ran as fast as it was running to me. Hurried as everything around me was, I took my time in answering the door. Moments overlapped as I touched the door and I was on both sides of the doorknob for that instant. I remembered standing in the cold air waiting for my date on my prom night.
The boy at the door wasn't much different than I had been at his age. His tuxedo was a bit crumpled and ill kept as I saw him for the first time. I invited him into the living room where he burned off a little bit of his nervous energy to straighten himself up. He was almost blind with anticipation. This was the only time that he would ever have to make a first impression on me.
"Jennifer will be ready in a moment." I motioned toward a full length mirror in the den with my left hand. "You can wait over there if you like."
His voice was so high that I could barely hear its pitches. "Thank you, sir."
"You are very much welcome."
He walked past me into the small room, off the main room, while I went to check on Jenny. The door was open and I wasn't expecting him to actually steal anything so I didn't watch him as closely as I should have. I looked back to see him trying to straighten his tie, remembering back to what it had been like for me. Then his form was blocked from my view by the door.
Jenny was in her room at the top of the stairs with her mother. The door was half-open and they were feverishly working on something out of my view. I chose not to actually enter the room. Jenny's mother knew infinitely more about wearing gowns than I did so I kept my distance. There was nothing that I could help my grown daughter with.
"Your date is here, Jenny."
"Alright. Tell him that I'll be right there." She didn't turn to face me as she spoke.
When I returned to the den, I saw something disturbing. I had left my notes on the white board at the far end of the den and Jenny's date was rapidly copying down the encryption algorithm I had forgotten to erase. Earlier that day, I had been discussing security with another researcher on my project. It was against policy to bring secure information out into the civilian world as I had done. Writing the formula out on the board in the den was the worst security breach I had ever made.
"What are you doing?"
"Sorry, sir." He paused his writing for only a moment while he spoke. "This formula suggests a solution and I just have to know if I'm right."
"Don't copy that down, young man." I hurriedly wiped the evidence of my sin from the dry board even before the echo of my last word faded. "Give me that page as well."
"Sure." He actually seemed eager to give it to me. "It is for you anyway. I just have to know if I got the answer right."
"You shouldn't have even seen that. Wait for Jenny in the living room."
The formula on the page did not match the one that I had mistakenly left in sight. It was written in shaky handwriting, yet that did not account for the discrepancies. He had done some form of a calculation in the middle of the page, although most of it had been done in his head. His insistence that he had to know if he had the answer stuck with me. I put the page in the middle drawer of my desk and didn't return to it until the next day.
Before returning to base, I took out the page and looked it over one last time. My first thought was to destroy the page so that my secret would be safe. The symbols on the page seemed to call out to me as they had called out to the young man the night before. I entered them into my computer to play with later, then burned the sheet of paper.
My actions haunted me all through the day. Suppose it wasn't just an innocent kid who stumbled upon my next transgression? The systems that I worked on saved lives and I had jeopardized that. We could not afford to have an enemy gain access to our secure networks and I knew that.
Later that night, I committed another sin. Programming the kid's calculations into a couple hundred lines of Ada code, I actually used the algorithm. It was dark and I didn't think that anybody could see me. The scribbling didn't look like it would actually do anything, even though I was compelled to toy with it. Why would a young kid be so compulsive over a mathematical expression that he could not have understood?
His formula was not statistically better at encrypting data than the one he had started out with. To my eye, the output would have been easier to decrypt. It exposed too much of the message in the completed cipher. My mind could almost see through the encryption. I was almost ready to wipe the data completely from my hard drive when I had a silly idea.
Just for fun, I fed an encrypted message through the program. It wasn't an important message or I wouldn't have had it in such an insecure location. Sleep fled my mind as megabits of military grade cipher melted away from the payload message. My mind just couldn't accept that there was a flaw that bad in the original system, so I tried another message.
I didn't sleep at all that night. The formula ate through every message that I could throw at it. There were only small errors that any good tactician could work around, but all of the important data was broken out of the ciphers. The hardest encryption that we had in the systems had just been exposed to a skeleton key. My daughter's prom date had destroyed years of research in less than three minutes.
There was no way that I could slip the program through security on the base. However, security cannot scan the contents of your mind. Having seen the formula that many times, I just memorized it to get it into the cluster. Somebody had to know about this discovery. I was unused to taking credit for another man's work and that is the only valid solution I could come up with.
Every message on the system broke down with the program running on a workstation microcomputer. Each time my colleagues congratulated me, I cringed with the knowledge that I hadn't done the actual work. This flaw was beyond my understanding and I had no way of patching it. My work had given way to the nervous computation of a school kid who seemed average in every other way.
The risk of honesty was greater than its benefit. I had to find some way of bringing to the project the original mind that had broken the code. If I did not bring him in, then I would have to complete a task that I had no idea how to start. Failure at that level would expose me. Mine was an industry that did not forgive transgressions.
Later that night, John came by as he had two nights ago. We'd been meeting in my study to work out little bits of code over the years of our acquaintance and this was the first time that I had let my guard down. John was the only person that I honestly trusted with the occultant truth. He shared some of the guilt with me.
We closed the door before even beginning to speak. My family knew that I was not to be disturbed when I closed the door to my den. I was hesitant, unsure of how to confess even to such a close friend as John was. He got his usual drink from the hidden bar and walked over to his seat in front of the white board.
At work, we were in suits and ties all day. When we got together, John usually wore old sweat pants and a tee shirt. It was a cool night so he was wearing a well kept sweater over his traditional bumming uniform. We had both been growing older in the years of labor we had given to these projects and the ends of John's hair were turning grey. His once perfect vision was aging as much as his body and he wore reading glasses.
I took pride in the greying of my own hair, yet I did not expect John to do the same. The Bible referred to grey hair as the crown of wisdom and I wore it as a badge of honor. It was something that I had earned after decades of endurance. Old age did not bother me. My life had been worth the living that I had been awarded.
John was thoroughly modern. Given the choice, I knew that he'd have stayed an ignorant child for as long as he could. The weight of the world was on his shoulders at all times. I'd tried to get him into the church a bit more, releasing some of the overwhelming responsibility to the power which could handle it. But John drifted away from his faith. He had chosen to be crushed under the wheels of responsibility's juggernaut so that he could feel the perceived omnipotence of playing God.
Taking my own chair from behind the desk, I sat down beside him. It was much harder for me to sit still than it was for him, although I managed when I had to. Time passed slowly for each of us while we sat in silence. I was too alive to sit and wait for death, even if death's coming would be slowed by doing it.
"That was a real zinger you pulled on us, Louis. How ever did you come up with that formula?"
Time for truth had come and I found it hard to breathe the words aloud. "I screwed up, John."
"We all saw the computations, Lou. The algorithm looked virtually uncrackable with current technology. All of us came up holding the bag."
"No, John." I took a sip from my glass trying to draw my focus away from my pounding heartbeat. "When you were last here, I left the equation on the board over there."
"It was an honest mistake, Lou. How bad have we been compromised?"
"As bad as we can be. I guess that I'm just getting old."
"Watch the old remarks, Lou." He tried to break the tension with a smile, yet I was in no mood for humor. "Tell me about it."
"It was prom night. I had my daughter's date wait in the den and the formula was on the board."
John laughed under his breath. "So a school kid saw your notes. We'll be more careful in the future."
"When I came back, I saw him writing things down. I thought he was copying it all down, at first."
"You did take the notes away from him, didn't you?"
"That's not the point, John. He created the formula you saw. I was gone less than three minutes and he broke the code by the time I got back."
"That doesn't happen every day. Relax, Lou. It's probably just a fluke."
"I don't think so, old friend. He knew that he had the answer and seemed to want to impress me with it."
"Has he told anybody about this?"
"Not that I know of. He wanted to impress me so he'd have no reason to tell anybody else."
"Except for Jenny."
"She wouldn't care." My mouth was either dry or too stressed to shape my words without another sip from my cup. "But I know that I cannot fix the formula."
"What are you going to do about it, John?"
"There's only one thing I can do. I have to get that kid into the project."
"Security is not going to like that, Lou. You cannot bring in strangers to work on this stuff. Especially not outside of the labs."
"I wouldn't risk that, John. He has to come into the project through the front doors. I've already made enough of a mess."
"You'll do better if you fixed the flaw yourself, Lou. You are not giving yourself enough credit."
"I've devoted more time than I can log to trying just to figure that key solution out. It's some kind of encapsulated quantum algorithm from what I can see. I cannot really understand it."
"It's not like you to give up, Lou. Just give yourself time."
"If this kid understands this, then how many others do? We need his brains, John."
"I cannot stop you Lou, but I'm telling you this is a bad idea."
John had nothing more to say on the subject and I let his silence speak for him. He charted out the equation, even after the mistake I had made, and wouldn't discuss anything else. We worked on any method of increasing the entropy in the recipe of variables for the next five hours and nothing really worked. Maybe he was right and I was being held back by my belief that I couldn't do it. After all, believing is seeing.
I still knew that I was right in fearing that there were others like this kid. Every solution to the problem that I found would be countered in less time than it would take for me to write the code. Our only hope was in having at least one of these kids on our side to update the code before it was broken. Manipulating the variables on the white board was less important to me than manipulation of the boy who would save my world.
Before John left, he stood up at the board. He turned back to smile at me while he wiped the record of our labors from the white surface. I did not return his smirk. Instead, I picked up a sponge and washed the residue from the board. Both of us knew that the damage had already been done.
Everybody has a weakness at some point. Once I figured out Elliot's vulnerability, getting him to fill out the application was no problem. He cared about my daughter and he wanted my acceptance of him as her suitor. It took very little time to get his signature on the dotted line after I figured that out.
His application was sparse in the way of credentials yet failure was not an option. I wrote a letter of recommendation and attached it to his application without revealing my sins.
Getting him through the process was not going to be easy and I took it as a challenge. Maybe getting Elliot to actually want what I was offering would bring the full powers of his unbelievable mind to the task. He already knew that it was what I wanted.
Truly, he was an average kid. Either he was disguising his vast potential or he had only one gift to bring to the table. He was neither an athlete nor a scholar. All of the free time that he did not have devoted to my daughter was spent reading. His reflexes were slow and clumsy, when he did chose to play games with the other boys his age. I was surprised how easy he was to beat at chess. The only thing that he was vastly superior to everybody around him was with puzzles.
A few days after submitting the application, John stopped me in the hallway. He took me into his office and I went in full knowledge of what he had to say. John spoke his mind when he had something on it. Even knowing that he couldn't sway me, he was compelled to speak his peace. The words were a mere formality.
"You're actually going through with this-aren't you?"
"Did you have any doubts?"
He closed the door. "You're putting yourself on the line for this and it's not going to happen. He's not going to get in without a degree."
"And the number of the beast is PhD."
"It's a paper world and he hasn't got any."
"Then I'll recommend him for the scholarship program. You know that he doesn't need this paper to do the job."
"Ok. Recommend him for the scholarship program, Lou. Don't push your luck."
"I don't believe in luck, John."
He released a quick breath that was half of a sigh and half of a laugh. "Reality is what remains when you stop believing in it."
"Anything that exists when you stop believing in it shows your failure to stop believing and nothing more."
"I don't know what's gotten into you, Lou. But, I don't want any of it."
"It's not always easy to do the right thing, John."
I gave him no chance to answer me. Turning abruptly, I opened the door and walked calmly through it. John was still my closest friend so I did not close the door behind me. His fear was understandable. He closed the door as I walked on down the hallway.
Elliot was called in for the interview a few days later.
Although his singular focus was an asset for doing the job, I was worried that it would fail to impress the board. He lacked any distinguishing characteristics that would be noticed by a hiring board that knew personnel, yet none of the job for which it was hiring. It was the credentials of the board that I doubted.
Nothing that happened during the interview came back to me through the gossip channels. I was left to sweat blood and bullets for the next two days while nobody spoke to me on the matter. Even John kept his distance during that time. My old friend, who I knew could sympathize with my position, avoided me for the entire duration of my torment. The effort that I put into forgiving him provided a helpful distraction.
The problem at hand was immense, especially when viewed through my distracted eyes. Lines of code filled my days and nights. Without John's help, I calculated the effect of every potential solution to the cipher problem. Nothing seemed to work. Each step confused Elliot's equation a bit more and the data was slowly becoming hidden to the miraculous solution, but, I worried how long that would last. My work took days to complete, at a slow, methodical pace. Elliot's calculation took minutes of hurried scribbling.
After a time, I considered repeating my earlier sin just to see if my answer would hold. All that I had to do was allow Elliot to see the new version of the core process of the code. Just letting him see the shape of the lock would let me know if he could make a new skeleton key for it. I could excuse the new slipup to John and let nobody else know about the problem until I had a new solution. Maybe it was best to not let John know about my actions.
But, it was all a test and I knew that I was close to failing it. Who would I go to, except for Elliot, when I had trouble like this? I risked becoming addicted to the easy road. Each time I allowed Elliot to see the work that I was doing, the risk of a leak increased. Sooner or later, somebody else would slip into the loop.
And Elliot had no loyalty to me. I knew that he had an interest in my beloved Jenny, yet I did not know how long that would really last. He was just a young kid. One slip of his tongue would be enough to sink me forever. Anybody who knew of my transgressions was a threat to me. Elliot did not, as far as I knew, even know that he had been used for the project. As far as he knew, he was in the wrong in taking my formula.
At the end of the three days, John chose to break his silence and speak with me concerning my solution to Elliot's key. It would have been foolish for the two of us to talk anywhere on base. John knew that I would mention Elliot and it was a chance that neither of us could take. He chose to leave me a note, inviting me to dine with him in the local park. It was a blend of security from both prying eyes and curious ears.
I got the note in an instant message through the internal system. We would not get together on base to talk. It made sense for security to watch us closely just because we were not talking to each other while on base. A truce had to be called and I'm glad that John extended the offer to me. His loyalty to our friendship was in doubt.
The park was a place where we had lunched together in the past. It was in walking distance to the lab, and we would usually get together in the change of seasons to eat surrounded by the glory of God's redecoration. Our usual season in the wild had already passed through into the annals of the waning year. Overhead, the trees had shed their foliage and would provide us with no shade.
My walk to the bench, down the winding paths, had an eerie feel to it that I am unsure that I can put into words. It was like walking through a dead forest. The seasons had not completely changed at that point to give the cold nip of winter to the winds. Currents of air held the dirty scent of the decaying leaves on the ground, delivering the aroma to my nose with every gust. Color had been drained from the whole terrain of the Earth.
Upon my arrival, I saw John on the usual bench, using his briefcase as a table. He did not look up to see me enter the scene. My steps were not so spry as they once had been and I am sure that he heard my feet shuffle through the fallen organics as I got close to the clearing in the path. Not looking at me was his choice and we both knew it. The next step in the journey was reserved for me.
Opening a conversation, even with so good a friend as John had been to me, was not my strong suit. He knew that I was a barely passable conversationalist. I took my place on the bench, formulating my opening remarks. Being a sloppy eater, I chose not to use my briefcase as a table. John knew that I would eat directly from my lunch pail, leaving my crumbs to feed the wildlife.
"It is good to see you again, John."
He paused with a sniffle, wiping his face with a napkin, before saying a word. "I hear that you cracked the factoring fault in the program."
"I hope that I have. It works, but I don't know how hard it will be to crack."
"Lou, I told you that you could do it. If there's another key out there, then you will fix that as well."
"You were right, John. But, I still believe that we need Elliot in the labs."
"Have a little faith in yourself, Lou. All that you really need is a little confidence."
"I'd have an easier time accepting that if I could see it. Elliot cracked the original code in seconds."
"You know that was a fluke, Lou. Elliot could not have even begun to understand what you were doing."
"I'll believe that when I see it, John. What if there are a million Elliots out there?"
"You believe in God, don't you?"
"Yes. You know that, John."
"Well, have a little faith in other things that you cannot see. Elliot was just a lucky kid."
"This isn't like faith, John. I was there and I saw this kid break my code."
"It's necessary for you to have a little faith in yourself. You are amongst the best in this field, Lou. Elliot didn't break your code. Elliot broke you."
"I cannot deny the truth for convenience, John. My heart knows God and it knows that Elliot was more than lucky."
"Then Elliot has beaten you, Lou."
"I'm not going to give up, John. I want to know how bad we've really been hit."
"Please drop this Elliot nonsense before it drops you."
"I don't want you to think that I don't hear what you're saying, John. I value your opinion."
"Then what is this all about, Lou?"
"Whatever Elliot did was real. Whether fluke or a process that we haven't uncovered yet, we have to know what it is that he did."
"What are you suggesting Lou?"
"We need to examine Elliot as much as we need to examine his formula."
"You're still taking a big risk here. I want nothing to do with it."
"The original papers that Elliot created have been destroyed. You'll see what I mean about Elliot when you get to see him in action."
"You're putting the cart in front of the horse, Lou."
"Maybe. Elliot has to take the entrance exam. We will have a sample to study."
"Watch your back Lou. If you can promise me nothing else, then promise me that."
Security arranged a meeting with me that afternoon. Elliot's references would have to be checked so I didn't panic. It was the first time that I had acted as a reference, although I knew the procedure. With a few omissions, I would tell the truth and I figured that it would be fine. The worst that could happen was refusal of the application.
Dishonesty does not come easily to a man of honor. I could not convince myself that omission was any less of a lie than if I had made up every word that I spoke under oath. Elliot's main qualification for the job was the one thing that I had to keep to myself, although it is the only thing that I honestly wanted to report. At the time, I would have given almost anything to get out of the interview.
The room was blindingly hot and I was sweating a river. Buzzing around me, the white coated and black suited vultures hovered in relative comfort. I had been in the room before when I had gone in for my own interview years earlier. It had been less of an oven to me back then. Confession is good for the soul and my soul was sicker than it had ever been.
But, I had to hold my tongue. If not for myself, then for all the people who depended on me. My family was depending on me. John, potentially my only friend, would be as damaged by the truth as I would. As much as I wanted to lay bare my sins, I could cause the others no harm. They meant too much to me.
With my stomach in my mouth, I swore to tell the whole truth. Where no ear but my own could hear me, I begged God to forgive me. The greater truth is that I did not want to be forgiven. I wanted to pay for my crimes.
"Are you Dr. Louis Vraiment?"
"I am." Answering to my own name sounded like a lie to me.
"And you are sponsoring the candidate Elliot Lyra?"
"Yes, I am."
The examiner would have to have been blind not to see how badly I was sweating in the hard, wooden chair. I did my best not to squirm about under the close scrutiny. A dozen sets of eyes pierced my skin in response to any question put to me. Only the dark clad examiner spoke to me. He stood in front of the light so that I could only see his outline.
"How long have you known Mr. Lyra?"
"Less than a year now. He is a friend of my daughter."
"What skill do you believe Mr. Lyra will bring to the working group?"
"He enjoys puzzles and seems to have a gift for obscure mathematics. I suppose that his major contribution will be his logic."
"I see that Mr. Lyra does not have a degree. Why do you believe that we should bring him into the group without one?"
"I've found practical experience to be far superior to classroom time."
"What practical experience does Mr. Lyra have that would be a benefit to us?"
I wanted to answer the question and I'm sure that my delay exposed something. "He has a talent that has not been developed. I fear that, with a few years in higher education, he may have his ability to think in a less linear fashion trained out of him."
"What is this talent?"
"When I've seen him working on puzzles, he seems obsessed. He needs the answer to even the simplest riddle and will not stop until he gets it."
"When have you seen this talent?"
"He dates my daughter from time to time and I've seen him relax with some of the toys that I keep around my house."
"Have you seen his school records?"
"I'm not sure that would be legal."
"His numerical skills are not as impressive as we would have expected from the letter of recommendation you wrote."
"As I replied earlier, I do not base my assertions on class work. My letter is based upon skills that I've observed around the house."
"Does Mr. Lyra do homework with your daughter?"
"Some of the time."
My examiner turned his dark head into the breeze of whispers surrounding me. I could not make out more than that the sounds were in the right frequency range for voices. It was in my nature to try to hear what was being said. Knowing that listening in was a bad idea, I tried very hard to hold back. The examiner had to see my eyes dart around the room, trying hard not to pry into things which I should not be involved in.
"That will be all we need from you, Dr. Vraiment. You will be contacted again if we need anything more. "
Any more words would have made me seem simple. It was not like I was going anywhere. I left the room through the door that was opened for me and went back to my office. Maybe it was the sweating, but my office felt cold. The strain left me tired for the rest of the day.
Elliot had to go in for the entrance exam like all of the other candidates. I chose to watch over my charge in the testing room. One of the guards alerted me when Elliot entered the complex and I went to the monitoring section on my break. Since he was being sponsored by me, I could not be part of the team that watched over the test. As long as I did not interfere, I was allowed to stand silently at the back of the monitoring center and watch the room on the security displays.
My candidate tried very hard to look professional, although I doubt that he had it within him. His pinstriped shirt looked like it needed to be ironed and his tie was crooked. It was not his environment anymore than it was mine when I first took that test. He took deep breaths trying to overcome his discomfort at having to sit still for so long.
His stylus passed down the computer screen choosing answers faster than many people can even read. Every so often, he would try to shake something from his head and place his hand against his left temple. Security noticed that and put more emphasis on it than I did. The room was shielded against radio transmissions and all of the candidates had been screened at the entrance gate. It just looked like something that it could not have been.
I figured that he would do best on the next section. Math was his real gift. Even though his methods were unorthodox, he had a clear direction in his thoughts. Every step flowed cleanly into the next like a complex dance done on the screen. I'm sure that we could learn from the shortcuts that he somehow knew to take.
Peculiarities just reinforced suspicion. Although his score was only a 97, it appeared that he had the answers before taking the test. My position as his sponsor brought an uncomfortable spotlight on me. I believed in Elliot's abilities, although there was reason for investigation.
Comfort was the thing that he had the least of when he was taken from the group after the test and yet I could not go to help him. His actions, even though innocent, brought the shades of doubt and spotlight of inquiry to me. I could not even let him see that I was there when he was guided away from the testing room to one of the interrogation rooms at the far end of the compound.
He did not know that I was there, but in spirit, I never left his side.
The interrogation rooms were in the security section of the administration building. I dared not try to follow them there, however, I had work to get back to anyway. Leaving the building, the guards had to take Elliot through a scanner in one of the doors. It was common procedure for moving between sections in the compound. These scanners have overhead displays so that the entire watch team knows the results without the delay of verbal communication.
Just before I turned to walk the other way down the hall, I saw something that I had to deny. Those scanners are more than the mere metal detectors at the entrances of the compound and they saw things that often got through the outer perimeter. In this case, they saw a small object in Elliot's left sinus cavity. I thought it odd that no mention of the implant was made as Elliot was allowed through. Friends told me later that Elliot was only given basic questions and released.
I had only one confidant that I could discuss the matter with and that had to wait until we left the base. John would be over to see me that night as he came by almost every night. Telling him more was a calculated risk, yet the alternative was losing my own mind. He had my best interests at heart and I believe that line. It was his view of my best interests that bothered me all that day.
We got together on a warm night that I considered chilly. My nerves are odd that way. When I don't rest, I can never get warm. It was a warning sign to me. If I did not do something to discharge the tension, then the tension would discharge me.
John pulled up in front of my house at just after 1900 hours. I met him at the side of my parking loop just as he got out of his car. His midnight blue car was just as practical and cold as he was. It served a purpose and was happy to leave it at that. Neither fancy nor decrepit, results were both its goal and its reward.
Given that I'd already broken security once by speaking out of turn, we said nothing aside from conditioned greetings until we got into the study. The room seemed somehow darker to me and I was not sure that I liked it. I'd slipped into the cloak and dagger routine that I'd dreamed about as a boy, however, I was no longer that boy. My stomach turned with the rush of the thrill.
My old friend never let it get to him. Maybe, deep down, he was still that little boy who wanted to save the world against overwhelming odds. The odds are better that he simply didn't care any longer. His hair was dry while mine was soaked with perspiration.
"Done anything interesting today, Lou?"
Without volition, a nervous laugh slipped through my lips. "You know me too well, John."
"You still surprise me, Lou. You're the adventure I signed up for."
"Did you hear that Elliot passed the entrance exams? He could have done better, but he did well enough."
"Lou, I think that you should take better care of yourself. This Elliot mess is getting you in over your head and I'm not going to be able to tow you to shore."
"Is that your way of telling me to get to the point?"
"You have a point, then?"
My smile was tense and beyond talking through. I held my teeth clenched in the fake expression of my inner pride from fear that the nervous chatter would otherwise crack the enamel from their surfaces if I relaxed. "I think that I saw something that I should not have."
"Then why are you admitting to it, Lou? You know that is death in our industry."
"We're supposed to be the good guys, John. Since when do we sacrifice the lives of our own civilians on a whim?"
"That's a serious charge Lou. You had better not make that one in public."
I refilled my glass, calculating the effects of my next sentence. Any word spoken on the edge of a razor can cleave the world in two. "Do you know those new scanners between the labs and administration?"
"If I say no, will this be the end of the conspiracy? I mean it that this is getting out of hand Lou."
Two steps back to my seat from the bar where I had prepared my drink and I spoke aloud the best of the words that formed in my mind. "I saw an implant in Elliot's skull when he walked through the scanners, John."
"So what you're saying, Lou, is that Elliot was abducted by aliens and they put a code cracking supercomputer in his head. Listen to yourself, Lou. We used to laugh at people who made claims like that."
"If you or I had seen something like that, it would have been as though Bin Laden had walked down the hallway and you know it. Security handled it as though the director had spinach stuck in his teeth. You remember that, don't you John?"
"And it's easier for you to believe that security missed this alien calculator in that kid's head than to admit that you're seeing things. Give it up Lou. See the company shrink and get your head realigned. I mean that as a friend, Lou. You're on the brink of a real breakdown and I want nothing to do with this."
"From what I saw earlier, I think that security knew that it was there. I think that those guys knew what they were looking for."
"So we're working with aliens now. When do Roswell and Arura enter this script? Am I on some secret camera here?"
"You brought the aliens, John. I think that implant has something to do with limiting Elliot's abilities."
"Alright, Lou. What brings you to that conclusion?"
"Elliot's skills are intermittent. He seems to hold that part of his head when he's having a hard time concentrating, like it hurts him."
"If you're going to Martian this kid out, then be my guest. Just, please, do not mention this at the office."
"That much I can guarantee you, John. This is just between us."
John's sigh was so heavy that I could feel that he did not even want the secret to go that far. I chose not to mention Elliot's name for the rest of the night. It was not as though I had a great deal to discuss on the subject. To that degree, John was right. We were wasting words with no ideas behind them.
For all of John's words, it was him who broke the bargain. I found a copy of a book on crop circles on my desk at the office two days later. Some of my e-mail was signed by characters from old science fiction programs from when John and I were children. He even sent me a picture of my supervisor with antennae airbrushed into her hair. The simplistic humor was drawing attention to both of us.
Many of his childish pranks were so stupid that I will not embarrass him by detailing them here. He is still a friend of mine. Security was not so kind to either of us. Each of us has a file in his permanent record from the event.
Eventually, the heat got to John and he stopped the pranks in the secure areas. We no longer sent joke mails through the company messaging system. I'd have liked more for him to take me seriously than he did. At least he didn't toy with me in public after that. It hurt me, although, he stopped embarrassing me.
A week and a half passed when I would not speak to John outside of the lab complex. He didn't come by for our usual brainstorming sessions and I didn't eat lunch anywhere near him. That time, security had a logical reason not to think anything of the avoidance. My wife, however, was a completely different story.
She knew that something was up and that I couldn't tell her anything about it. I would not have been comfortable in her place, although she handled it well. Each night, she would ask me if John was coming by on the next day. It wore me down over time and I gave in.
The next day, I called John. Security was still tight concerning us, so I chose to use his cell phone to reach him before we got to the lab. I was not comfortable with the cell phone I had. It was just for emergencies. Using it just made the conversation more uncomfortable for me.
"What's wrong Lou? You never call me on this thing."
"This is getting out of hand, John. I figure that this is the only safe way that the two of us can speak right now."
"Just tell me that this does not involve Elliot."
"No Elliot or three headed Martians, John. Just the two of us."
"You've been obsessing a long time, Lou."
"I told you the absolute truth and you have been slipping me extraterrestrial gag cards."
"You have to come back down to Earth, Lou. It's time to get back to the real world."
"How do you know that I'm not already there, John?"
"If that's the direction you wish this conversation to take, then I'm going to hang up."
"A true prophet is never accepted in his homeland."
"Being a nut does not make you a prophet, Lou. Is this Elliot mess worth this much trouble?"
"I thought you didn't want to talk about it."
"Okay. You stop the ET gags and I'll leave Elliot out of this."
"You must be near the lab now. I'll see you for lunch."
"I'm pulling in now. See you then, Lou."
My trip to the lab took an extra twenty minutes. John ate breakfast in the mess hall each morning and had done so since I had first met him. I believe that the real reason John got to the lab half an hour earlier than I did was one of the mess hall ladies whom John had mentioned on more than one casual occasion. He actually lived closer to the complex than I did.
Upon arrival, I was stopped by one of the receptionists at an inner security checkpoint. Such checks were not uncommon at the inner levels of the complex so I paid it no attention. I was checked over with an extra level of scrutiny for explosives and weapons. Everything was routine. Since I had nothing to hide that the hardware would find, I hid nothing from the scan.
When I was allowed through the main door, my coordinator came up behind me. Maria had a hard time keeping up with my quick walk, but she managed to catch me in a few steps. "Lou?"
I did not turn to face her when I answered her call. "Yes, Maria."
"You're scheduled for a meeting this morning."
"Okay, I'll be right along."
"I was sent to get you directly."
That grabbed my attention enough to spin my face toward her.
"Any idea what this is all about?"
"All I know is that it involves Elliot Lyra."
"Who am I meeting with?"
She pointed me through a security door into a dark corridor of the inner complex. It was a place that I had never gone before. "Second door on the left."
"Wish me luck."
Her smile was almost worth the troubles I'd had since meeting Elliot. Maria was one of the most real people inside the lab complex. When she smiled, you could feel that she meant it. If she didn't like you, then you could read that truth in her face as well. The building itself seemed to share her every feeling.
For that reason, I knew that my meeting was not as bad as it could have been. I passed through the security door and down the dim hall reading safety into Maria's warm expression. She could not have embodied all the warmth of the sun if word of my appointment had come from a bad place. Everything else felt wrong.
Down the hall, the second door on the left opened at my approach. Past the door, the lights were dim, although they were all on. Most of the lights in the hall had been extinguished. I could feel several presences in the room and felt the reflection of my own body heat from the walls. My eyes adjusted to the change in light before anybody spoke.
I stood in the small room, looking at the fidgety, older man who paced about along the far wall like a trapped animal. He wore a dark blue suit with silver buttons and a black tie. It was out of place with the untied combat boots on his feet. The identification badge pinned to his jacket was all black. Only the machine readers were meant to know who this man was.
He was not really that old. His hair was about half grey, but I cannot tell if he dyed it. From the wrinkles in his suit and the unkempt nature of his wild hair, I assumed that he didn't care enough about appearance to go through the trouble of coloring his hair. Even though he tried to maintain his calm by clasping his hands together, I could see that his hands were shaking. I knew that his appearance had not been crafted to intimidate me, yet, the alternative was worse.
"What can I do for you, sir?"
The pacing did not stop. His eyes never met mine. "Do you know what the hardest part of all of this was?"
"Excuse me, sir."
"Convincing people that they wanted answers. Most people can go through their entire lives and not care about a single explanation."
"I'm not sure that I follow you, sir."
He began to gesture with his hands as he spoke. "A small problem has been brought to my attention."
"If you mean the kid, sir, I've seen him in action and he is a real find. We need him on our side before the other side gets him."
"Do you believe in God, soldier?"
"Do you believe in my right to not believe in God--to be free from religion?"
I often wonder how many people would have told the truth in my shoes. Are we all afraid to risk the ridicule by standing up in the crowd and telling the emperor that he is naked? It was a test I failed with seven words. "I had not thought about it, sir."
"This kid's real gift does not lie in cracking codes. He has to be contained as any enemy of the American way."
"Sir, I still do not follow you."
"Our numerologists tell us that this kid is a prophet for your God. He's one of the two who come at the end of the world."
"How would a numerologist know that? None of us knows the time of the second coming."
"Up until now, you've had a choice that some of us have been denied. Many things have been kept from you so that you would have the freedom to doubt. You don't know how badly I want that option right now."
"You planted that thing in his head to save the world because a numerologist told you to?"
"You're in on this now. There's no going back. You will see things within our group that will shake your belief in reality."
"Have we become so bad that we take people's lives away for our own comfort?"
He then used his fingernails to pick his teeth for a moment. "When you stepped through that door, your life ended as mine did long ago."
"I understand, sir."
"Not yet," he said. "This secret is more important than anything you've ever been trusted with. It's more significant than any of us. Even threaten this trust and everything you care about will pay for it."
To some men, threats are a challenge to be resisted. Such men would work tirelessly in dark and dusty corners of their worlds to defeat any agency that used such tactics against them. They would prevail against any odds and at any cost. Although I trace my decent from men such as these, I cannot count myself amongst them. I caved in to the threat without even knowing what I had been sworn to.
The door was opened from the outside and nobody came through it. It was abundantly clear that I was expected to leave without saying another word and I complied with this command as well. My malefactor stood in a corner of the room where he could not be seen through the partially open door. I could have shown a moment's rebellion by opening the door wide enough to expose him as I walked out into the hall, however, I was too much of a coward.
After that, the first person to approach me was my old friend John. I know now that I should have been more understanding of his human frailties which I had condemned until that time. We shared the aftertaste of the same cowardice. Neither of us was blinded by the promise of unlimited power and prestige. The truth was that we were both afraid to even know the truth.
"Good morning, Lou."
My mind was still half asleep, groggy after the attack. My words were formed by my reflexes. "Good morning, John."
"I missed you getting in this morning. Maria said that you had a meeting this morning."
"It was something like that."
"Anything you can talk about, Lou?"
"It's a bit soon to test my loyalties, don't you think?"
Our eyes did not meet anymore than our minds had been together. I walked on by, departing from my old friend before I even knew what I had said. Had my new masters gone so far as to drug me?
Placing my bare forehead against the cold stone wall on my office, I tried to think my way clear of my cage. My own actions no longer made sense to me.
The mythos and I were one. The omnipotent numbness of chosen ignorance betrayed all that I believed in and denied all that I truly loved. They've asked nothing of me since that day, yet I still cannot look Elliot in the eyes when he comes by to see Jenny. I cannot handle the knowledge that I had slain a brother because his offering found better favor than mine had. Maybe Jenny will eventually move on and I can be free from the reminder of what I had done.