His footsteps echoed across the marble as Dr. John Scott navigated the intricate maze of hallways within Georgetown University. He was no stranger to these hallowed halls, but this evening held an air of mystery that electrified the atmosphere around him. Yesterday he’d received a voicemail from his old friend and colleague Charles Carter:
“John, we’ve done it. We’re testing it for some General tomorrow at 5 p.m. Please come. I know it’s been a while, but I’d really like you to be there.” His voice sounded weak, yet there was a certain excitement buried in its timbre. The kind only heard from someone on the edge of greatness.
John could scarcely guess at what Charles had uncovered. After six years of silence, hearing the voice of his old friend conjured memories from the dark expanse of his own past. Last-minute cram sessions, hacky sack challenges in the quad, late nights when Charles would come crashing into the apartment. Each step closer to his destination pulled John further down the rabbit hole of their friendship until its abrupt end six years earlier.
The last time the two friends spoke it was 1981 and to say they had a falling out back then was putting it lightly. While they’d both been hired on at Georgetown as Adjunct Professors, Charles wasn’t satisfied with lecturing. He was a researcher, a dog with a bone, so to speak. And it had been the same bone for years: unlocking the secrets of the human mind.
One seemingly insignificant Thursday night in ’81, Charles was on his latest bender, spewing all sorts of ideas to anyone that would listen at the bar just off campus. Ideas that if one could tap into the thoughts of men, the free-flow of information would undermine the need for infrastructure as it was known. No need for police when everyone would know what the other was thinking. No need for politicians to put a limit on sharing knowledge. It would be a world solely based on the pursuit of knowledge—a lofty albeit naïve goal. As Charles continued his sermon on the barstool, John noticed the other patrons beginning to stare at his friend with more than a little contempt.
That’s when John tried to step in and corral him back to the university for the night—Charles had been living out of his office for months instead of their shared apartment in Lyon Park.
“Charles, you can’t say those things around everyone. What you’re working on, I don’t think the world is ready for it yet,” John said as he tried to maneuver the inebriated man down the street, crossing into campus grounds.
“Oh shut up, John! You’ve always been too much of a fuddy-duddy, even in grad school. You never went out with us, you just worked and studied and ran off to that girl’s house all the time,” Charles said as he fell off the curb, almost crashing into a group of undergrads on their way across campus. “And who are you to tell me about telling people things? You never tell anyone anything. You play it so close to the vest, thinking that somehow, ya know, it’s better or whatever. It’s not, John. It’s not. That’s a load of malarkey, if everyone knew about everything, just think how much we could accomplish as a society! No more stupid secrets, no more fighting over what we think the other person is thinking or doing or all the boobish stuff people fight about.”
“That’s not true. Come on, buddy, let’s get you home. You don’t mean that.” John struggled to get Charles through the double doors of his building, his inebriated ramblings echoing down the empty hall. It proved especially difficult to get the man into at least a semi-upright position as John tried to lean him against the wall while unlocking the door to the office.
“I do mean it. You’re a crackpot, John. You try to hide what you’re working on, not because you don’t want anyone to see it, but because you don’t want anyone to see that you’ve got nothing. N-o-t-t-thing.” Charles’s wild gesture sent him stumbling, but he managed to get a foot under himself at the last moment. “You just like to go around and criticize everyone else’s work because you will never be as smart as any of us and will never do anything worthwhile with your life. You’ve always been nothing and will always be nothing!” he screamed out as he stumbled his way to the couch facing his desk. Clearly Charles had forsaken cleaning up after himself; the stench of old Chinese takeout and curdled coffee creamer was enough to make anyone sick, and John didn’t want to be there when the already drunk Charles got a good enough whiff.
John stared down at the mess of a grown man who he thought had been his friend. His jaw tightened. Is that what you really believe? John thought to himself as anger threatened to overtake reason. If you only knew the alternative. He let out a breath and shook his hands, realizing he’d balled them into fists. “You’re drunk and have no idea what you’re talking about, Charles. And I don’t need to explain myself to you.” He turned to leave.
“That’s right, get back on your high horse and run off. Go off into John-land where you matter and no one else exists. You’ll see, one day I’m going to be someone, and the world will know my name and my work. No one will ever know the name John Scott.”
Shortly thereafter, John left the university. He resigned from his teaching position and started a new life away from the world of academia, choosing to pursue a different goal. John did up marrying “that girl” he always ran off to see and they were happy. Charles was right about one thing, though: the scientific community forgot the name Dr. John Scott, an anonymity he came to value. But not Charles. Charles Carter never forgot him.
Fast forward six years and Charles—now the head of neuroscience research at Georgetown University—had reentered John’s life with a simple voicemail.
What did you get yourself into now, old friend? John wondered as he turned the last corner into the research lab on level five. He had always thought these hallways had a haunted air about them. As if the long-dormant diseases studied within their walls could resurrect themselves at any moment to claim their next victim. John tried to shake the uneasy feeling he had walking into Charles’s lab. If he had finally achieved his goal, it would have a profound influence not only on John’s life but on humanity as a whole.
The labs at Georgetown had remained the same structurally, but the interiors had grown and advanced as quickly as the computer age progressed. The old DN100s that John had been familiar with before were now replaced with Lambdas that filled every inch of free space in the room. Computer terminals lined the walls with one workstation in the center. At least John imagined it was a workstation; the entire thing was concealed underneath a large, white cloth, overhead lights pointing at it from every direction. What little workspace remained in the room was occupied by a menagerie of research assistants, lab techs, and military men all presumably here for Charles’s great unveiling.
The moment John entered the room, Charles caught sight of him. “John! You made it!” He ran over with the gusto of a child reuniting with his long-lost dog.
The years hadn’t been kind to Charles. His auburn, curly hair was already receding from the corners of his forehead. Gray teased at his sideburns. His gaunt face and the dark circles under his eyes indicated that he hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in some time. Not to mention a neglect of regular meals, typical for a man who had focused too much on one pursuit.
“It’s great to see you,” Charles continued, “I’m so glad you made it. We need to talk, after the test. You and I need to go grab a beer or something. So much has happened…” Charles’s anxious gaze bounced across John’s face, as if trying to unearth some meaning behind his guarded expression.
“Yeah, of course.” The two men exchanged a look of remorse and more than a bit of gratitude. Gratitude at their reunion and remorse for having lost touch—they were once thick as thieves but had allowed petty disputes and time to separate them.
“But first, science!” Charles turned to the rest of the room, surveying the horde of research assistants and military men. John recognized General Eli Kalani in the center of the group and they exchanged a quick glance. He was surrounded by a number of lesser military men, including a young lieutenant who looked especially eager to please.
As John continued to review the room, he remembered a few of the assistants from his teaching days, but there were two he didn’t recognize. A young man with dark black hair, cut unfashionably short for the eighties, and a middle-aged woman whose face looked to be pulled back as tight as her bun. She seemed too old to be a research assistant, but John hoped that maybe Charles had finally found a research partner that could put up with him for more than a week.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Charles began, “I called you all here to be witness to the future of human knowledge. For years we’ve been in the dark about our deepest intentions. Restricted by the fear of others’ opinions, our work constrained within the limits of our technology. Too many people hiding their agendas behind a curtain of uncertainty. But tonight we aim to pull down the curtain and turn on the lights. Sasha, if you would please begin.”
Sasha, the middle-aged woman, pulled off the cloth covering the central workstation to reveal a single monitor encased in a plexiglass box. A green line blinked at the top left-hand side of the screen.
“Now keep in mind this device is tuned to me and no one else right now. Young man,” Charles said, pointing to one of the lieutenants standing near General Kalani, “we’ve never met before tonight, correct?”
“No, sir. I don’t believe we have,” he responded hesitantly, looking to General Kalani for approval on his response.
“Great. So I wouldn’t have known what your name is before tonight. Can I ask then, what is your name and rank?”
“Lieutenant Tyler Ashmore, sir,” the man said with a pride that could only come from a member of the US Army.
“Thank you very much,” Charles responded as he closed his eyes. Buzzing began to sound from every corner of the room and the green line began to move. Lieutenant Tyler Ashmore flashed across the screen.
“That’s it?” one of the other young lieutenants asked. “What exactly are we looking at, sir?”
He’s actually done it, John thought to himself.
“Ah! Now that’s the question, isn’t it, young man? I call it the CarterScott Device.” Charles looked at his old friend, acknowledging him with a genuine smile as if to seek redemption. John caught the glance and nodded his head in acceptance. “You see—”
The lights went dark.
A loud bang echoed throughout the small room. Was that a gunshot? John thought, frantically searching for somewhere to take cover. He barricaded himself behind one of the terminals at the side of the room as more shots rang out into the air. Only three seconds passed before the red emergency lights flickered on. John peeked from behind the terminal to see a wasteland of bodies and the young, dark-haired research assistant pointing a gun at Charles, who was blocking the monitor.
“What are you doing, Bruno?” screamed Charles.
“Move, signore.” The young assistant stood firm and defiant against his mentor.
“No! I don’t know what you think you’re doing, Bruno, but I can’t let you take my machine.” Charles rose to the challenge with more courage than John thought the man possessed.
“Domino.” John let the word slip from his mouth without realizing it.
Bruno whipped his head around in the direction of the noise, narrowing his eyes as they landed on John. “You’re one of them, aren’t you?”
Charles took this opportunity to lunge forward, attempting to grab the gun in the confusion. Unfortunately, he never had been exceptionally fast. The young man barely flinched as he pulled the trigger, dropping Charles to the floor. In one motion, Bruno grabbed the small monitor and turned the gun toward John. “Stay back, old man.”
At that moment General Kalani managed to pull himself up on the desk and began firing. The emergency lights continued to flicker as the young man darted out of the way. Bullets ricocheted around the room, and one seemed to hit its target as Bruno shouted in pain. Then he was out the door, machine in tow.
John scrambled over to his friend. “Charles, hold on, we’re going to get you help.”
“You were right, old friend, guess I finally told the wrong person about my work.” Charles coughed up blood as he reached for his pocket, pulling out a small, rectangular device and handing it to John. “At least I didn’t tell them everything…”
He closed his eyes and John felt the light of a brilliant scientist go out. Even though it had started as an assignment—to get close to this young scientist with radical ideas and notions of grandeur—over the years, he had truly become a close friend. He was there through so many good times, and though Charles never knew the full extent, he was there for John’s bad times too. Whenever things seemed to be getting to John, Charles was always there with a beer and a good laugh. For all that he was and all they’d been through, the world would be a bit darker without Charles Carter in it.
“We have to go,” said General Kalani, putting a hand on John’s shoulder. “We can’t stay here.”
“I know,” replied John. His chest tightened and a tear fell from his face as he rose, having to say goodbye to his friend for the last time.
“We have to get to the Library,” General Kalani started, his eyes darting around the room, surveying the carnage. “We need to tell them what’s happened. Did Charles really crack the code on zetas?”
“It looks like it.” John exhaled as he rose to leave. The air felt thicker somehow, as if the souls of the recently departed lingered ever so slightly in the gloom of the red emergency lighting.
General Kalani looked down at Lieutenant Tyler Ashmore—he was only twenty-four. He’d been assigned to Kalani’s detail just last month and now he was dead. Kalani couldn’t help but imagine his own son lying there. His heart began to pound as he fought to suppress the thought. “We’re going to need more help.”
“You’re going to need more help. I’m out,” John said, turning to face General Kalani. Fear and rage battled inside him as the repercussions of the evening played out in a hundred different scenarios in John’s mind. “They know who I am now. I have a family to think about, General.”
“You can’t be serious? The Library needs you now more than ever.” Kalani felt an anger rising within him, tempered only by the sorrow of loss. “There are so few of us left.”
“I know, but I can’t help them anymore. I’m getting my wife and son and getting out of here.” John looked around the room. He knew it wouldn’t be easy to leave, but he couldn’t risk this happening to his family. “But you’re right, you will need help. Form a team, hell, form a whole agency if you need to. You’re a general, you have the power. But keep the information tight. Tell them nothing beyond what they absolutely need to know to do their job. Keep the rest of the Library secret. The fewer people that know the history, the better. Domino got too close this time. We can’t risk another leak.”
“But what will their jobs be?” Kalani asked, his eyes still pleading with John not to leave.
“Protect and serve the people. And above all, keep the Library hidden.”