Algorithm

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Chapter 3

Dawn brought with it rattling surges of rain against Adam's bedroom window. He couldn't sleep. His mind had been racing feverishly through the few hours of darkness that remained when he got back from the lab, looping endlessly through each analysis and each conclusion, fruitlessly seeking out rational explanations. This went on and on until, at last, the subdued glimmer from the tempest outside heralded the arrival of a new day. Adam arose from bed and bounded down the stairs for a cup of coffee, not at all surprised that he was still dressed.


A gray smear of a sky hung overhead as he entered McArdle Hall. A glance along the length of the hallway toward the analytical lab availed him of nothing but a cavernous gloom. He was about to enter the stairwell leading upstairs when a movement in the dark caught his attention. Thinking it might be George, he paused, turned, and stuck his head back into the hallway for a closer look. Someone pierced the single cone of light from an overhead ceiling lamp.

"Oh. Hi, Dr. Dove … Adam."

It was Linda. Startled, Adam took a moment to respond. "Linda! I thought you were someone else."

Her mouth curled up slightly, pausing before answering. "Sorry to disappoint. I'm on my way to get a cup of coffee. Would you like to join me?"

God…she's beautiful. Maybe it's the lighting. The scent of her.

Besides offices and analytical labs, the first floor boasted a small breakroom equipped with the requisite coffee maker, microwave and a last-resort donut vending machine. Adam had almost forgotten about the DNA pattern recognition analysis he had started up the previous day. It already seemed like ages ago.

"Let me get my stuff upstairs. I'll be back down in a few minutes. Sure, coffee would be great."

No one else had come into work, at least not into his lab at this early hour. When Adam arrived at his office, he immediately fired up his laptop and downloaded a brief progress report on the analysis. With billions of base pairs making up possible patterns, he did not expect to see much. However, a cursory look suggested that even at this early stage there was some evidence of repeating patterns surfacing, and he could bring these up to Linda over coffee. He waited for the printout before going downstairs to the breakroom with laptop in tow.


Adam sipped carefully at his Styrofoam cup, as he listened.
"I'd have to check with my database, but these sequences you've identified as repeating are probably well known. The current thinking is that they may represent 'spacers' between coding regions."

"That may be, but the results of my analysis thus far suggest a more subtle purpose. It would appear that the coding regions are more random than the non-coding regions." Adam let that comment sink in for a moment before continuing. "The coding regions, responsible for all the protein that we're made of, consist of base pairs that are statistically random, and the non-coding regions, which represent the vast majority of our DNA, are full of non-random sequences. At first I thought that this was odd, but on second thought it does make some sense. The base pair sequences coding for all kinds of protein would necessarily resemble random numbers. I guess it's weirder that the non-coding stuff is not very random."

Linda put her coffee mug down, sat back, and replied, "So, what kind of patterns are these that exist in the non-coding DNA?"

"Too early to tell. The next stage of the analysis will begin to tease them apart, and that will take at least a few days, even with the speed afforded by our networked system. In fact, I've got a suite of language translation programs which will automatically kick in, programs that will look for possible meaning in the patterns. Basically looking for relationships between these less-than-random patterns."

Adam finished his coffee and stood up to leave. As he did, their eyes met and for a moment Adam glimpsed the promise of a deeper future connection between them. He was still staring when the flash of a bright light transformed her into a dark silhouette. Hallway window panels cracked, followed by a whoosh. A shower of glass shards blew into the room, followed by a burst of heat and a deafening roar. From overhead insulating panels tumbled down around them. Adam instinctively fell forward covering Linda, and the two rolled onto the floor beneath the table they had shared moments before. After a few seconds, Adam shook his head, throwing off dust and glass. A worried look on Linda's face confirmed she was all right, for the time being. He stood, shaking his windbreaker of chalky debris when the wall behind him exploded. He flung himself back to the floor but not before catching a glimpse of a silvery blur flying past his head. It crashed into the wall to his front. He stared at the impact site in bewilderment, recognizing the massive silvery object as a five foot gas cylinder. Its valve stem had broken off, turning it into a rocket. Gas was still shrieking out of it, enveloping the pair in a whirlwind of choking dust. The contents of such a cylinder typically exceeded several thousand psi. A broken valve stem could turn it into a missile. Adam wasn't sure what the cylinder contained but wasn't interested in sticking around to find out, especially since it might be a flammable gas that could ignite at any moment. Linda was already on her feet and he grabbed her arm, leading them out into the smoke-filled hallway. They were greeted by teeth-chattering alarm bells as they ran toward the building's entrance.

Adam yelled, "Is there anyone else upstairs?"

"I'm always the first one in the morning. I didn't see anyone else up there."

A hissing sound from above provided the barest of warnings as they were promptly soaked by several gushing sprinklers. He was sure he had not seen any lights on the second floor. The two held onto each other and hurried along the darkened hallway skirting showers and thick black smoke, exiting through the glass entrance doors. As they slowed to a walk aimed at the parking lot, they heard alarms simultaneously clanging within the building and broadcast on outside speakers. Students from nearby dormitories roused by the commotion were showing up, slogging through the wet grass of the quadrangle toward McArdle.

Troglodytes. They look like they just crawled out of their caves.

Young men and women garbed in undershorts and nightgowns began appearing out of the twilight mist and smoke. Prodded from their dry dormitory hollows, they meandered toward McArdle Hall, transfixed by the siren call of the alarm bells. On the bright side, the rain had ceased by the time Adam and Linda reached his Pathfinder.


Adam's mother finished pouring coffee. Linda nodded thanks. Her cup shook in her hand as she turned to Adam. "Look at me. I'm shaking."

"Maybe you're drinking too much coffee."

They both laughed. Adam placed his arm around her shoulders and their eyes met. Her straight dark hair was wet, the ends curling up. She had an ethereal glow.

Maybe that's just the wet hair.

Adam's mother said, "Oh dear, it's a bit chilly in here this morning. I'll get a blanket for you."

"Oh, no. That's quite alright Mrs. Dove. The coffee'll warm me up."

Adam rubbed Linda's shoulder. He could feel the tension dissolve as they huddled together.

"You can relax now. We both had a close call."

"What happened back there?"

"It looks like something in the analytical lab blew up."

"But there was no one working there this morning, was there?"

"Not that I noticed. The lights were off when I arrived. I was in that lab last night, hmm, actually, earlier this morning. We had a number of instruments running."

"We? What were you doing there so late?"

Adam wasn't sure how to answer. His natural inclination was to remain secretive, sensing that the less people knew about his medallion, the better. Although with what had just happened, he felt closer to Linda than to anyone else.

"I was down there with George. We were running analyses on … on a coin I had found a few years back."

Linda pursed her lips and asked, "Was there anything you did that could have set off such an explosion?"

"Far from it. It was just some analytical work George was doing on this."

Adam pulled out the medallion and held it out to Linda. She moved her head closer for a better look.

"Wow, it's beautiful. What kind of coin is it?"

"Well, actually, I'm not so sure it's a coin. In fact, that's basically what we were trying to find out."

"And, did you?"

"Yes and no."

Adam was about to elaborate when the phone in the kitchen rang. He stood up and answered, then looked at Linda. "It's George. He's frantic. Excuse me a moment."

Adam moved away from the kitchen table, leaving Linda and his mom to chat while he positioned himself outside the kitchen door to continue his conversation with George. After a few minutes he cradled the phone and sat down.

"George is beside himself. He was calling from McArdle. It was his lab that blew up and he's afraid that everything in there was destroyed … equipment and data, even data that collected last night. He's there now with the firemen trying to sort everything out."

Looking up at the kitchen ceiling, Linda responded, "What a mess. Thank goodness no one was hurt." After a moment, she added, "You could always analyze that thing again … somewhere else."

"I suppose you're right."

Actually, we found out quite a bit last night.

The photos were with his laptop, which, he just recalled, he left behind in the breakroom.

"Linda, I've got to go back. Back to the chemistry building, to get my laptop. I left it in the breakroom."

"You think there's a chance it didn't get destroyed? You could call George."

It was not so much the laptop that was of concern.

"Why don't you stay here with my mom. I should be back in a half-hour."

Before Linda could respond, Adam had fetched his windbreaker and was out the door. Linda turned to his mother. "Is your son always so headstrong?"

Adam's mother calmly topped off Linda's coffee cup and replied, "He's a very focused person. If I've learned something over these many years it is that Adam has a way of seeing things that is unique, and when his mind wraps itself around something, nothing can stop him."


When Adam stepped out of his car, he winced at the acrid stench of smoke which had reached the parking lot. There were several fire engines surrounding the chemistry building. People in red and yellow helmets were moving in and out of headlight beams. Some had gathered near their equipment while others rolled up firehose. The fire was out. As he neared the entrance, someone yelled out. "Sir. Sir, you can't go in there yet!"

Adam turned to the approaching policeman. "But I just want to get to my laptop. It was on the first floor, in the breakroom."

"I'm sorry, sir. You'll need the fire marshal to clear you. They've got men inspecting on the second and third floors, and I think he's up there with them. You'll have to wait until he comes down."

The policeman resumed his position near the entrance. Adam turned away and walked slowly toward the parking lot, thinking of options.

"Adam!"

It was George. He ran up and began describing the devastation in the analytical lab. It seems the explosion may have been due to a gas leak of some sort, triggered by one of the electrical contacts in the equipment. At least this was the fire marshal's preliminary finding. Then George frowned and shook his head.

"Is there more, George?"

"The only gasses we had in there were argon, nitrogen, oxygen and helium … none of which are flammable. None of those would cause such an explosion." George was staring at the ground and muttering to no one in particular.

"Whatever it was, it scared the hell out of us. We were next door."

George's head shot up. "You were in the breakroom? My God, I saw that room. The explosion must have knocked over a nitrogen cylinder. It flew through the lab wall. You could have been killed ... We?"

"Linda and I were lucky."

Adam paused a second as George's mouth formed an 'o'. "George, are you sure there was no one in the lab this morning?"

"I locked up the lab last night. Besides the janitor, I've got the only key. So, I don't think so. Why do you ask?"

"Oh, nothing. Just worried that someone could have been hurt."
Adam recalled the shadowy figure in the hallway earlier that morning. "Do me a favor?"

George peered over his glasses at Adam.

"I need to get into the breakroom, to get my laptop if it's still there. The firemen don't want me going in, but I really need to get to my computer. If you could talk to that cop at the door, kind of distract him? You know, kind of move him away from the door?"
"While you scoot inside?"

Adam nodded. At first George grimaced, then smiled and returned the nod. In short order, the policeman at the entrance was enmeshed in an animated conversation with George who was making noises about his equipment and the fire. Adam slipped inside and entered an alien landscape. An emergency flood light at the far end of the hallway silhouetted snake-like tendrils of smoke hanging from the ceiling. The sprinklers had done their job, leaving everything wet and dripping. Feeling his way forward, Adam came to the glistening metal breakroom doors which stood ajar, as if beckoning him inside. Just then, he heard the front doors squeal open and someone saying they had to wait for the fire marshal before they could go in. It had to be George and his new friend, the policeman. Adam slipped into the breakroom, crunching glass underfoot and hugging the shadows along a wall for cover. As the disembodied voice continued on with its cautionary monologue, Adam heard the front entry doors swing closed and the voice fade away. Adam looked over the overturned tables and debris-strewn floor for signs of his black leather laptop case. He spotted the upturned table that he had shared with Linda what seemed only minutes ago. Beyond that there was a gaping three foot hole in the wall through which the silver missile had flown and through which he now peered into the analytical lab. His arm brushed up against the now empty and silent gas cylinder still lodged in the opposite wall. He lowered himself to the floor on all fours and began to crawl toward the table. Before he could move ahead a pace or two, a movement caught his eye. He froze. Something was moving in the analytical lab. The only people in the building were the fire and safety inspectors on the floors above him.

So there shouldn't be anyone downstairs right now.

Adam maneuvered a little closer for a better look through the hole. He tensed when he saw a beam of light moving along a benchtop, followed by sounds of drawers opening and closing.

Who is that and what is he searching for?

After a few minutes he heard only the sounds of dripping water and saw nothing more of the light. Craning his head forward through the hole, he confirmed that there was no one inside the lab, but he did see light coming from a window, or rather, where a window used to be.

Maybe it was a fireman and he went out that way.

The opening led to the rear of the building. His level of anxiety clicked up a notch. Crawling along the floor of the breakroom, he found the laptop beneath part of the wall, still inside its leather case, only slightly wet. Since it was likely that the building entryway was guarded despite George's best efforts to distract, he slipped through the hole in the wall, baby-stepped between ruined lab equipment, and leaped out the window. Seconds later, within the dark solitude of the lab, where the only sounds came from the tick-tock dripping of water on flooded floors, the suspended ethereal wisps of smoke overhead moved suddenly as a figure emerged from hiding in the shadows and quickly made its way out the same broken window. A few minutes later Adam met George in front of the building and the two walked back to the parking lot.

"Well, is that it … your laptop?"

"Sure is," Adam answered while lifting up the case for George to see. He opened it while they were walking, pulled out a sheaf of photos. "And, see what I've got?"

"Well, at least that's something. It's probably the only data that survived. All the stuff in the lab is gone. By the way, the cop I was talking to told me that they won't be letting anyone into the building for a few days. Looks like the explosion took out the building's electrical system. So, between that and the clean up, they'll be busy in there for at least a week. I guess that means we're on vacation." George forced a half-smile.

"Did you see anyone leaving the building in the last couple of minutes?"

"Nope. Anyway, I was busy distracting the guard, remember?"

Adam prodded further. "Is there any chance that someone knew about the analyses run last night?"

George adopted his contemplative, furrowed eyebrow look which Adam guessed he found most useful either to hide outright confusion or use as a prelude to pontification. "Well, I certainly didn't tell anyone. However, the instruments are networked to enable data to be archived. It's theoretically possible for someone on the network to monitor which instruments are gathering data. They could even take a look it, but it would mean that someone had to be up late, or rather, early this morning, and have an interest in doing so. Why do you ask?"

"How would someone go about monitoring the instruments?"

"Anyone with a valid userid and password can get on the system from almost anywhere on the campus, and …"

"With the right commands, they can access the instrument files," finished Adam.

George nodded, looking perplexed. Adam turned as he started to walk back to his car.

"George, that was a great job you did last night. Do me a favor and please don't tell anyone about the medallion, especially anything about our findings. I need to see someone in New Jersey before we make any of this public."

Adam got into the car and rumbled away. He thought about George and the daunting prospect of replacing and rebuilding the lab. He had a nagging feeling that something was off, a disquieting certitude that there was something going on, something hidden just out of view. As he exited the parking lot, he watched George in his rearview mirror fade off into the distance, little realizing how justified his concerns would soon prove to be.

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