“This sir,” Jobby said, pulling up the sim on the screen and running it. “This is the same speed as we ran the previous playback. We could run the first sim faster or slower and it wouldn’t show you much else.”
Again, the same shining globe zipped across the screen, lighting up the Colonel’s office for a second.
“It looks exactly like the first one, Jobby. One signal flashing by. It’s still amazing to see though. Man, I can’t get over that.”
“Have a look at this, sir. It’s the same signal we just watched, and I have to be clear here: what we’re slowing down is the simulation. The speed of this signal is the same as in the first sim I just showed you.”
The screen lit up, flashing like a strobe as signals went blazing past by the hundreds.
“You sped it up?”
“No sir. It would be more accurate to say we slowed it down. It’s the same signal we watched, the resolution’s just better.”
“Shit, Jobby, you’re hurting my head again. You’re telling me that what I’m watching now is the exact same thing I was watching a second ago.”
“Yes, sir, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Except, what you’re seeing now is less than a millionth of the actual full picture you saw before. That’s what’s interesting about this thing. To the computer, it looks like a single erroneous signal, so it’s ignored.”
“Are all these rogue blips like this one?”
“No, sir. I looked at fifty or so normal rogue signals at different resolutions just to see if there was anything to learn from any of them. This was the only one like this. But after I found this one, I set the bots to record at this specific resolution and found a few more.”
“How many more?”
“Five or ten, out of every few million rogue signals.”
“Imagine the odds of you finding this thing, then.”
“It was pretty much nil, sir. I was lucky to see it.”
“Now the real question, Jobby. What the hell is it?”
“That is the real question, sir. And I can’t give you a comprehensive answer. But I can tell you this much: it’s not our technology; it doesn’t make any sense; and it’s ordered.”
“So, there’s an ordered sequence there?”
“Oh, yes, sir; very much so. I ran the sequence through Norris as if it were a simple digital code of ones and zeroes, and this is what it came up with.”
A new frame flashed up on the floating screen, which changed its shape to display the data in the format of the information. Between the men, a flat panel of glowing characters appeared as though ordered in a graph. In each square, a figure resembling a Chinese character stood. The display showed twenty squares by length and height.
“No, sir. It’s a code. Each square is a grid itself with a thousand slots along each axis, and each slot is either a one or a zero represented by a dark or a light pixel.”
“It sure looks Chinese to me.”
“That’s just the way the Norris chose to display it. But it shows one thing definitively, just as the sim did: this is no anomaly. This thing is ordered.”
“Norris couldn’t decode it?”
“No, sir, are you kidding? This thing’s impossible, and what you’re seeing is just the top left corner. This sequence alone has over a million squares. You can scroll down if you like.”
The Colonel began to move the display down to reveal row upon row of these same odd characters. The screen pulled back to display a hundred squares in both directions, then a thousand, until each one looked like a tiny pixel on an expansive grid.
“The other thing, sir, is there would be no way to know how to interpret these signals. It’s not any code we know. I’ve tried over a hundred decryption algorithms, and on top of that, I don’t even know if Norris ordered the figures you’re seeing correctly.”
“So, what do you think is going on here, Jobby? What are we dealing with?”
“I have no idea, sir. That’s why I called the meeting. Everything else is on schedule with the project. But this thing? I mean, I don’t even know what to make of it.
“It’s so strange too, because this signal not only shouldn’t be in there, it has no purpose in there. The entire code that you see on the display registers as a single blip in Norris’s processors. The Norris can’t read it as a code, because Norris doesn’t even know it’s there. If this code were a virus, or a worm, or something like that, it wouldn’t even be able to infect the system, because the system can’t even talk to it.
“It doesn’t make sense, sir. There needs to be another generation of technology that can read it, and it simply doesn’t exist—not in Norris, not anywhere else.”
“Not that we know about, Jobby. I mean, your little bots found it, right? They found the signal. Maybe there’s something else in Norris we don’t know about that’s reading this code.”
“Sir, this is generations of computing power beyond ours. Imagine if every one of those trillions of normal signals in Norris encoded something like this. That would represent a near infinite leap in our computing capacity.
“We’re not talking about technology that’s years ahead, we’re talking decades. And I know what you’re thinking; the answer is no: it’s not the Indians, it’s not the Chinese, and it’s certainly not the Russians.”
“Is it us? You might have stumbled onto another top-secret project here, Jobby. Did you consider that?”
“We can’t do that, sir. It’s impossible.”
“No, you’re probably right, Jobby. I’d have heard something about it even if you hadn’t,” the Colonel said, wearing the same puzzled look as his young Major. He took a deep breath and stroked his broad chin, casting a probing gaze across the empty desk at the young man. “What do you want to do about it, Dietz?”
“I don’t know what to do about it, sir. I figured it was serious enough I had to come up the chain of command. I mean, if this is in the Pentagon’s Norris, where else could it be? We need to do our best to find out what it is, right?”
“That’s a given, Jobby, but put yourself in my position. I can’t help you clear up this mystery; clearly you didn’t think the LC could help; you said we don’t have technology like this, so we’re not going to have any other Army researchers who know anything about it. What would you like me to do? I’m sure this meeting has already spun up the chain of command by now, given its nature. What would you do if you were me?”
“If I were the Army, sir, I’d do what I did when I was a student and didn’t understand something.”
“Ask your professors for help?”
“That seems like the most logical course of action, sir,” Jobby said, shrugging.
“Did you have someone in mind, Dietz?”
“I didn’t think of it before, but if I were going to ask anyone about this it would be Dr. Lao, my nanotech professor at Berkeley.”
The bio came up on the screen between the men. The Colonel perused the public profile of the esteemed programming professor Hao Lao as Jobby continued.
“He’s the smartest programmer I’ve ever met, sir. If anyone has a chance of figuring this thing out it’s Lao.”
“This says he’s Yi Lao’s son, Jobby. Is that right?”
“I didn’t know you studied under Yi Lao’s son. That’s impressive. Did you know him?”
“Who, sir, the elder Dr. Lao or Hao?”
“Well, either of them, I guess. You must’ve had thousands of students in your lectures at Berkeley, did you ever have a chance to meet him?”
“Dr. Lao and I are friends, Colonel. We used to socialize on the top layer and still keep in touch. But I never got a chance to speak with his father.”
“I had no idea you socialized in such high circles, Dietz. Let me run this up the chain, Jobby, because I don’t have any better ideas about a course of action.
“Patty, clip the pertinent meeting files to the General and attach the bio of Lao to the request for consult.”
As he was speaking, the dim light grew darker to the Colonel’s left and his digital assistant flashed into the room. She took on the appearance of a rather plain-faced woman in her early twenties, clad in a basic Army dress uniform with no rank or insignia.
“Colonel, the meeting spun up the chain as you supposed,” Patty said; her manner, like all Army digital assistants, was devoid of expression, personality, or emotion. “General Holden has already informed General Diaz-Navas, who is expecting your formal request and is reviewing Dr. Lao’s pertinent history.”
“Look at that, Jobby, already making waves here, kid,” the Colonel said. “Thank you, Patty. DV signature Clarence Audette CFR. You may send my formal request.”
With that, Patty flashed out of the room. Within a second of her disappearance, another change in the light occurred to the Colonel’s left, and another digital assistant flashed in. The name plate read Kerry.
“Sir, General Diaz-Navas has authorized your consultation with Dr. Hao Lao of Cal Tech. However, she advises that only the nature of the code discovered by Major Dietz may be discussed. Dr. Lao is not to be informed of Major Dietz’s covert nanobot surveillance system, as this project is classified. She reminds you, Colonel, that Dr. Lao will need to be sworn in pursuant to section 318H of the Secure Information Act. She will be monitoring the situation from Guam as it progresses.”
When Kerry finished, she flashed out, leaving the two men on opposite sides of the desk with the profile of Lao still hovering in the air between them.
“Well that settles that, Jobby. Let’s get your friend in here.
“Patty, get over to Cal Tech and touch base with Professor Lao’s assistant. Make sure you mention that this consultation is at the request of Major Jobby Dietz.”
Patty flashed in to acknowledge the Colonel’s request and then flashed out again.
“In the meantime, Jobby, I’d like to see if you can’t find out a little more about the nature of this code. I’ve got a few unrelated pieces of business to clear up, but as soon as Lao gets back to us, I’ll advise you to flash back in.”
Just as the Colonel finished speaking, the light in the room changed and Patty flashed back into the room.
“Professor Lao has agreed to consult with you, sir. He’s awaiting your signal.”
“That was fast,” the Colonel said. “I didn’t expect he’d be up at this hour.”
As he was about to give Patty permission to show in Dr. Lao, Jobby interrupted. “Sir, there’s something I have to tell you about Professor Lao before you meet him.”
The interjection sparked a clear touch of chagrin in Audette’s manner. He took a deep breath and didn’t say anything, but the Colonel demanded clarification from Jobby with a stern look.
“Well, sir, it’s just that Professor Lao is a bit of a character. You don’t really know what you’re going to get, and a lot of the time it’s hard to take him seriously. Make no mistake though, he’s the smartest person I’ve ever met. He may not seem to be taking something seriously, but I guarantee you’ll get the best answers anyone could give you.”
“Okay, Jobby, we’re trusting your judgment here. If you say Lao’s the best, I believe it.
“Patty, send Lao an encryption sequence, set up a secure stream, and show him in. I can’t wait to meet this character.”