She had been forewarned.
Rachel had called Ellie and suggested that it was perhaps time for her to reconcile with her nemesis, that some interesting ideas could be discussed, that her contributions and guidance would be appreciated and that some moderate resourcing could be available. She also said that she wanted this research to be controlled and released by the Whitehouse; that Hadden Corp were not to be involved; that the intention was to make findings public, should they not be considered a security risk; and that if she agreed with the proposal Kitz would have final veto on publication. Ellie had been unambiguous in saying that she did not want Kitz involved in the influence of research direction at any level.
Rachel had also required more transparency from Michael Kitz. When she had eventually been furnished with the report she convinced herself that Ellie should now assume the helm, and felt confident that this trust would be reciprocated. Certainly the current science advisor had entirely the wrong background, unless stem cell research came into it somehow.
Kitz, while not a convert, had faced the inevitable conclusion that there were events and conundrums that were not able to be simply dismissed from his perspective.
He had intimated to the Chiefs of Staff the presence of a heartbeat in the final signal. Being tantamount to a promise it was satisfying, and career saving, that it turned out to be just that. There were further riches in the breathing; alpha rhythms; the induced cyclic rhythm of the various annuluses of the gimbal; audio and six seconds of video showing the inside of the pod. It included showing Ellie releasing herself from the seat in mid-drop, an action which saved her life. All of this would have been perfect evidence for his conspiracy theory. Perfect, except for one stumbling block: the Fractal Transform of telemetry into 18 hours of noise in some ‘frequency space’ was performed in 6 seconds of real time. Yet it took eight months for a hot-off-the-press supercomputer to unravel this mathematically. How and why? It did his head in! If the recording was performed in real time, then did the whole pod exist outside of normal time during the six seconds? Where the blazes is ‘outside of normal time’?
He had reached a new impasse, and Ellie was the only person in the world with the knowledge and first hand experience. With the Chief of staff now breathing down his neck he knew some humility was in order. He relinquished his control over the research, and initiated the contact with Ellie’s team. Knowing the subdermal feelings festering since Ellie’s indictment he asked John to sell the idea to her. Containment was crucial, but the balance between inhibiting communication progress and security was a difficult line to imagine. Lesson two: let the research dog have more leash than the defence dog.
Kitz was not intending to completely relinquish the project though. He requested that the NSA place a watch on it. This would allow any connections to be strung together by Mark Beregons team with their new data mining and machine learning systems. He asked for the analysis to include the last six months. His rationale was sound. This whole business implied the existence of a rogue copy of the SETI data, one that did not include the embedded metadata of the public version. This data would go right back to the original event and had much more serious implications.
Although he could not deny Eleanor Arroway’s right to the data he could not be sure of her security protocols, his were watertight. If events had conspired to converge Ellie’s team with his separate efforts, it was conceivable that the facts surrounding the project could be derived independently, possibly by a foreign power. Thanks to Hadden Industries the Russians, Chinese, Europeans, and who knows who else, were all armed with similar machine learning infrastructure, and they may already have extracted connections. He needed to know where the seed was planted. A six month gestation was sufficient, although also quite demanding. If something showed up it would justify a larger window.
A knock came at the door.
“Ms Arroway, may I come in?”
General John Meredith stood at the office door to Ellie’s hot desk at Howard University in DC. Ellie wasn’t sure how to react. She also wasn’t sure whether to expect Kitz or someone else. Evidently it was to be someone else.
John waited at the door with his military cap under his arm as a token of respect. He had taken a gamble. He could have come in “civvies”, but could not in all honesty pretend to be anything other than military.
He seemed alright. Ellie beckoned. “Come on in.” She stood and went to shake hands with the General.
The fear was palpable. This was no drill.
When the perspiration became a threat Sergeant Frank Valetti stopped running and crouched down behind the wall. He was soon joined by his team.
He signalled for Josh and Arnout to go right on five, and for Craig and Marek to circle around left on eleven. He indicated that he would provide covering fire.
Fingers count: one, two, three, burst, five, burst, seven, burst, burst, burst, eleven, burst, thirteen, burst, burst, check. He risked a glance to confirm the health of his squad and was relieved to see they had made it.
As he often did he contemplated home and thought of his step-sister, turning seventeen in two days. He set himself a goal, as soon as he could get back to the DSN hub at base he would call and wish her a happy birthday. Whether superstition or not he often set a goal like this, as if invoking a prescient moment provided either a protective aura or motive to survive. With any luck this sortie would soon be over and he would soon be back at base. Right now he had to focus on how he could get to the next point some nineteen or so metres in front of his current position.
‘Never be predictable’, this had been drilled into him by the Staff Sergeant, a veteran of many theatres and tours. Again he signaled to his team; they knew what to do and followed the same firing sequence from the flanks. Frank counted with it. As anticipated, while the sniper had not picked up any rhythm he knew that the barrage of fire would precede a quick advance. The sniper declared himself expecting a target and was met with a further volley of gunfire from Josh and Marek. Once they had roughly located the source of the gunshots Arnout and Craig began a quick new volley. His cue on twenty three came. He was off, run, sidestep, no distant shots came, slow, sprint, dodge, nearly there, slide … click.
He woke up startled and short of breath from his recurring nightmare. The phantom pain in his left forearm was there. He tried to bend his mind to convince himself that the pain wasn’t real, which seemed to provide some relief. He couldn’t tell if his assertion represented imaginary or absolute truth. For all he knew he could be in excruciating pain and the last vestiges of sensation were being issued through what remained of his C3-C4 spinal injury. He doubted it. He had injuries elsewhere on his body, and these never bothered him. His quadriplegia was complete.
The relief he obtained was only possible through his ‘DBS’. The Deep Brain Stimulation device placed in his brain served two purposes. It was able to alleviate his pain through electrical stimulation, but it also had the latest Neurochips. This technology enabled both the reading and stimulation of parts of his brain. Through the plasticity of grey matter, and no insignificant force of will, Frank had been helped to train his mind. Repeated stimulation of the electrodes generated new signals which traversed through the hypothalamus to the pituitary gland. This manufactured the welcome endorphins, and pain relief.
The system had also been augmented to try to provide mobility and sensory input. The successes were minimal but gave him a purpose as well as hope. He could learn to manage his pain, and that was something. He was also the perfect subject for the research now being conducted.
John was there before him. He swallowed some air to get the breathing started.
“Hello son,” said John.
Frank took some time to collect his thoughts. “Another test Sir?”
“Relax Frank, I’d like to introduce you to Eleanor Arroway.”
A womans face. “Ma’am.”
“Hello Frank, I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Frank, Eleanor will be working with us for a while. She, Willie and James, who are also here with her, have some ideas that we want to try.” Willie and James nodded and waved sheepishly from behind Ellie. “It will be mostly the same as previous tests. Are you okay with that?”
Frank was relieved. The oblivion he found in the tests was an escape, most certainly, but it was more. He felt personally and unusually compelled to do these tests. He eagerly anticipated them.
He had also always wanted to make the best of what he had. He had been told he had balance; he did gymnastics. He had been told his reflexes were good; he played baseball. He had been told the Marines were recruiting; he signed up. He had been told he had a small team; he did what he could to bring them home. He had been told he was lucky to be alive… He was checking to see if this was true.
The notion that all that he had left was from the neck up at least left him something to work with.
“What’s different?” he ventured.
“Well, Ellie’s assistant James would like to record the output in order to modify the input.” John looked at Frank as if measuring his readiness to know more. He then looked at Ellie, James and Willie. His decision was palpable.
“Ellie could you explain to Frank here please?” He hoped that Ellie could distil the previous discussions more effectively than he could.
Ellie moved in to look into Frank’s eyes.
“Frank, the signal that has been provided to you through your neurochips so far has been a raw stream. The hope was that you could learn to interpret it. So far it hasn’t worked. We’re now taking a slightly different approach. We have obtained some encryption ‘keys’ that we believe decrypt the raw stream.” Ellie paused. She had more but wanted to be sure that it he was following the story so far.
Frank looked at her, “Ms Arroway, I was trained in military communications, I understand encryption.”
Ellie went on. “Frank we believe this signal does not represent a simple replay. It’s not just a movie, it’s adaptive, something like a computer game. If so, it will adapt to your input. This is why we need to record your brain signals and encode them with the same key.”
She paused to let this sink in, Frank didn’t flinch so she went on.
“We think by reading your brain signals and keying them we can close the loop. The new signal is fed to a special computer loaded with the original signal. We think it generates a new signal which we then record and feed back to your brain.”
Dr Jan Shelley, a neurologist specifically assigned to Frank’s case, stood in the background. Frank looked at her for some form of approval.
“I think it will be fine Frank. It should be no worse than what you have had so far, and perhaps better.”
Ellie acknowledged Jan and continued. “As to what you might experience. Well,” Ellie paused to show a picture on her phone, ”here’s a picture of my father. I encountered him, or an avatar of him, in the original machine, and, well, I really have no idea what you will encounter. I can say that I don’t believe anything you encounter will be malevolent,” Ellie paused and smiled, “Say ‘Hi’ if you see him, okay?”