Chapter 1 - Last Day of Paradise
If Jason Rawlings had known that today would be the last day of his youth, he might have decided to stay home. He might also have decided to keep his promise to his wife and enjoy the time they had left together. But instead, he was sacrificing the first day of his vacation to report back to work for yet another in a long series of tedious project meetings. Intellectually, he knew that the decision to return to work would have ramifications for his already stressed marriage, but it would take another thirty years before he finally realized the full extent of those consequences.
His phone buzzed for the third time as he awkwardly attempted to fish it out of his pocket while racing across the large parking lot. A picture of his wife’s smiling face appeared on the phone’s glassy surface. He knew, at this moment, the smile was a lie. Beth was not going to be happy.
“Shit,” Jason mumbled before nervously pressing the answer button. “Hey honey, what’s up? I’m running a little late here,” he said, trying to sound nonchalant.
“I thought you were supposed to be on vacation this week, Jason.” Beth sounded more than a little annoyed. “I’ve barely seen you in the last month and now I only rate a hastily scribbled note on the fridge that you’re going back into work? You promised me this week was going to be just for us, Jason. I took off work, damn it! Just because you work for the NSA, doesn’t mean that your work is more important than mine.”
“Baby, I know and I’m sorry. They sprung this meeting on me late last night. Dr. Fenner insisted that I be here for a ’Dog and Pony’ show for the higher-ups. We’re set to go live in a couple of days with this new project and we’ve got to answer to a lot of people,” Jason explained as he continued to rush across the parking lot toward a drab, two story office building. “I’ll make it up to you. I should be home by eight as long as traffic isn’t a bitch.” Jason could hear Beth’s exasperated breaths on the other end of the call. He could just imagine her little fists balled up in frustration and anger.
“Beth? You still there?” he cringed, waiting for the reply.
“Whatever,” came the terse response a moment later. “I picked up a shift tonight at the hospital seeing as you weren’t going to be here anyways. So, don’t expect to see me when you get home.”
“Crap,” thought Jason. “She must be mad if she volunteered to work tonight.”
Beth worked nights as a nurse at Fair Oaks Hospital. She enjoyed her work in labor and delivery, but she enjoyed her time off even more. Jason had never once thought that he would be one of those people that had a hard time balancing work and family. But here he was, stealing promised time from his wife to give to a burgeoning career with the National Security Agency. He knew that very few people would have given a 24-year-old untested computer programmer a chance like Dr. Fenner had for him. Jason felt obligated to give the man his very best to prove his faith in him and his marriage was starting to suffer for it.
In Jason’s mind, the problem really all came down to physical distance. Beth had always teased him about her short commute to the hospital from their home in Chantilly, Virginia, while his commute to Fort Meade, Maryland often took three to four hours with the insane Northern Virginia traffic. The commute was long enough that he often stayed at the office during the week and the stress of his absence was beginning to show in their relationship. He also knew that it probably didn’t help that, due to its classified nature, he was not able to discuss his work with his wife. He could understand her frustration with him, but people at his work were depending on him too and they were about to make history.
“Beth, again, I’m sorry. I’ll make it up to you. Once I’m home, I’m home for the rest of the week. I’m sorry. I’m at the building entrance and I have to give up my phone now. I love you and I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” he waited for a response, but there was only an electronic click as the connection dropped.
“Damn,” he said aloud as he turned off his phone then handed it and his car keys to the stern looking Marine guard manning the door. He tried to clear his mind of Beth and mentally prepare himself for the upcoming meeting. He stepped into the full body scan machine and waited until the guard disinterestedly waved him through. He collected his things on the other side then inserted his Passkey card into the slot by the elevator. The screen lit up green then opened a small hole for his index finger. Jason hated the new DNA scanners. When they had replaced the older fingerprint scanners last year, Jason had seriously considered quitting. The damn scanner hurt, despite the assurances of all the security consultants. It scratched his finger tip with something sharp to collect the DNA. When Jason had realized that no one else was complaining, he decided to keep his mouth shut too. After all, he didn’t want to look like a pussy in front of his co-workers. The security panel finally turned green and the elevator doors slid apart. Jason gave the guard a short wave, stepped inside, and soon felt the familiar sinking sensation as the car quickly dropped dozens of stories underground. The elevator doors finally opened onto a bustling corridor.
Jason swung his head around to see his boss, the Theia Project director, Dr. Edward Fenner. “I’m sorry doctor, but you didn’t give me much notice and it’s not exactly a quick trip for me.”
Fenner seemed to accept the excuse without comment and smiled, “I’m sorry about the short notice. The Intelligence Committee Chair insisted on another full briefing before we get the green light to go live. I’m glad you’re finally here. I wouldn’t want to present this thing without my genius programmer. They are getting the conference room set up for us now. We’ll begin in about a half an hour.”
Jason blanched at the “genius” comment. He knew that next to Edward Fenner, he was a moron.
Someone handed Fenner a piece of paper that seemed to capture the scientist’s interest immediately. “I’ll see you at the briefing,” he said as he absently waved goodbye and meandered down the corridor while intensely reading the note. Jason watched admiringly as the crowds automatically parted for the great man as he walked away.
Jason made his way to his cluttered work cubical then plopped down in front of his terminal and logged in using his Passkey card and the damned DNA scanner which was installed right on his desk. He wanted to review his presentation once more before the briefing. He had lost count of the amount of times that he had presented this particular briefing, but today was special. It was the final clearance before the Theia Project could go live.
The Theia Project was the brainchild of world renowned physicist Dr. Edward Fenner and named for the Greek Titan Goddess of sight. Jason did not understand a tenth of the physics involved with the project, but he thought he understood the basics and its implications. The Theia Project was essentially a global surveillance system based on a revolutionary new form of neutrino detection developed and pioneered by Edward Fenner. Neutrinos are tiny, naturally occurring subatomic particles that pass harmlessly through the Earth every day by the trillions. By utilizing many pairs of specialized orbiting satellites, called detectors, the Theia Project could record neutrinos as they passed through the planet and out the other side. Although neutrinos rarely interacted with normal matter, Fenner had discovered a side effect of a neutrino’s travels through matter, which he had named a “quantum wake”. This incredible natural phenomenon was what made the Theia Project possible and, in turn, had elevated the obscure neutrino into conversations within the most elite circles of the national security infrastructure.
Whenever a tiny neutrino passed between the atoms of normal matter, the neutrino was affected by the strong nuclear force generated by the protons and neutrons of that atom. The affect manifested itself as a vibration of the neutrino particle itself. Each atom, or element, gave the neutrino a different frequency of vibration, thus allowing the element passed through to be identified. As each new element was encountered, the last elemental vibrations would be displaced behind the speeding neutrino, creating an observable wake of differing vibrations along the quantum field following the particle. This “quantum wake” would quickly dissipate, but at the incredible speeds of the neutrino, the receiving detector satellite could gather the information of the particle’s travels through the Earth before the full wake of elemental information was lost.
By plotting an existing neutrino’s quantum wake along a timeline and comparing the results against the recording of the neutrino before it passed through the planet, Theia could capture a detailed three-dimensional image of everything between Point “A”, when the neutrino entered the planet, and Point “B” when the neutrino exited the planet. And by scaling up to examining, not one, but billions of neutrinos in the same collection, the process could capture, not only a simple image, but the composition of all objects passed through, right down to the atomic level, including DNA. The implications were mind boggling.
Being able to capture this vast amount of data was truly a miracle of science, but without some very sophisticated software to analyze and make sense of the raw information, it would only be jumbled noise. This is where Jason and his team entered the picture. The Theia Project was already many years in development before Dr. Fenner recruited Jason to join his team. Jason had spent the last couple of years perfecting the data mining techniques that made the Theia Project actually produce usable information. And now they were on the cusp of performing their first global scan.
“It’s time, Jason,” interrupted Dr. Fenner’s secretary, poking her head over his cubical wall. “They’re all gathering in the conference room now.”
“Thanks,” said Jason as he gathered his things and headed down the hall.
“Now, let me make sure I understand this,” boomed Senator Matherson in his thick southern drawl. The man was a God damned living stereotype as far as Jason was concerned, but he was the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Theia Project required his support.
“Has it been confirmed that there are no side effects from these neutrino thingies passing through the human body? Now doctors used to tell us that x-rays were perfectly safe too. I don’t want to find out a few years from now that half the world has cancer and it’s our damn fault,” the Senator stated bluntly.
Jason could see the frustration being forced down in Fenner’s expression. This had been explained to the Senator at least a dozen times. Fenner picked up the briefing packet and turned to page two then placed it on the conference room’s object projector or Ob-Pro for short. The Ob-Pro was a nifty recent invention that had quickly become a requirement for any modern conference room. Essentially it was like an old overhead projector, except that any object could be place on its surface and then be enlarged and projected in three dimensions for all to see. Using it to simply project a 2d printed page was a bit of overkill, but Jason suspected that Fenner was really attempting to drive the point home to the rather obtuse Senator from Mississippi.
“Senator, there are no side effects from the neutrinos. As we explain here on page 2 of the briefing packet, neutrinos are naturally occurring. They are already passing through your body by the millions as we speak. They have been doing that your entire life as well as the entire life of every human that has ever existed. We are merely going to start monitoring what already exists in nature. We are not generating anything new,” Fenner explained with the patience of a saint. “In fact, it is our great hope that we may someday be able to harness these particles for communication as well, but, of course, that is beyond the scope of this current project.”
As Matherson pretended to thoughtfully review page two of the briefing, Senator Bill Carson interjected in an agitated tone, “I feel that I must again lodge my objection to this entire project on moral and legal grounds. The level of surveillance detail that you folks are describing here is frankly frightening. I mean you are telling me that with a simple DNA sample, you can find anyone’s location anywhere on the planet within a single day. And not only that, but you can essentially see inside any structure anywhere with such fine detail that you can know someone’s damn toothpaste brand. I still think that we need to at least limit its use to outside of U.S. borders. I mean there is no way this is constitutional…”
“Stop right there, Bill,” interrupted Jill Grate, the Senator from North Dakota, in a firm, annoyed voice. “We have been over this a hundred times. You know as well as we do that when Mumbai disappeared in a nuclear mushroom a few years ago, all this privacy crap went right out the window. The Guardian Act gives us all the authority we need to operate this program anywhere in the world, period. Frankly, I think this is a heaven-sent piece of technology. Come on… think of it. We’ll be able to find every identified terrorist before they can act. There will be no place that they can hide. We’ll be able to detect a nuclear bomb being constructed weeks before it could be activated.”
“It’s just too much power for one organization to wield,” Carson insisted.
“I’ve heard enough, Bill,” Matherson decreed forcefully. “I feel that there are more than sufficient safeguards in place to prevent any misuse of the program and the benefits to this county, and frankly the world, are just too great to ignore. I move that this committee allow the project to enter pilot operations as soon as possible. All those in favor…”
Jason arrived home to his small apartment just before 9:00pm that evening. The stress from the traffic had given him a headache but at least the unplanned trip into work had been worth it. Theia was a “Go”. He just didn’t know what he would do if all his work for the past two years had been tossed out on some Congressional whim. But, fortunately, the committee had agreed to proceed at least on a probationary basis subject to further evaluation.
As expected, Beth was at work, so he had the small one-bedroom apartment to himself. They certainly could have afforded a bigger place. Jason was starting to make some pretty respectable money and Beth’s steady nurse’s paycheck could easily pay for the place all by itself. But they were saving money for a house and a family. He knew that both would be ridiculously expensive in Northern Virginia.
Beth had begun pushing for starting a family sooner rather than later. Jason suspected that her job as a labor and delivery nurse had only strengthened her determination to do so. Maybe it was all those strong female hormones floating around there, he thought. Either way, the question was being brought up more and more often and if he was honest with himself, it scared him.
For Jason’s part, he felt they had all the time in the world to start a family and he just wasn’t sure that he could be the father that he wanted to be right now. He was just too damned busy with Theia and that was only going to get worse in the next few months. He slowly shook his head. Those weren’t the real reasons for his trepidation and he knew it. It was the thought of losing Beth forever that most frightened him. They both knew the risks of her becoming pregnant again, but it seemed to Jason that Beth was stubbornly ignoring those dangers. Anytime he broached the subject, she would become offended, as if he had questioned her very femininity. He knew he would have to come to terms with his fears or he would lose her in an entirely different way.
He kicked off his shoes into the bedroom closet then knelt down to open the combination fireproof floor safe that he had installed there. As required by regulations, he tossed his Passkey card and project ID badge into the safe, before locking it back up. The lid was always hard to close, as Beth had insisted on packing it full of “irreplaceable” family mementos. Jason had never really seen the point of keeping those types of things, but Beth seemed to draw strength from them and demanded that they be kept in the fireproof safe. Jason understood her reasons. Beth’s childhood home had burned down in an electrical fire when she was young. No one had been home at the time, but most of the family’s possessions had been lost. Since then, Beth had always been very careful with the objects that she held dear.
Jason was exhausted. He decided that he’d call it an early night and start his vacation well rested in the morning. Maybe he could catch breakfast with Beth in the morning before she went to bed. They might finally be able to really talk and make some plans for their vacation and their future. He stripped off his work clothes, leaving them piled on the floor, and then padded into the bathroom. His reflection in the mirror caught his attention. He looked horrible. He was only twenty-six but he looked ten years older at least. The stress and long hours of his job were definitely taking their toll on more than just his relationship. The dark circles under his eyes and the first faint signs of grey streaks through his thick, wild, brown hair told him all he needed to know. His job was aging him horribly and prematurely. He needed to take more time off and maybe start exercising again. He reached down and grabbed two handfuls of gut flesh and shook them.
“Good Lord, when did that happen?” he asked himself incredulously. “Too much late night fast food and sitting in front of a computer screen all day,” he thought. “That’s gotta change or I’m gonna end up an old man before my time,” he threatened himself before brushing his teeth, turning out the lights, and crawling into bed. He was unconscious within minutes.
Beth tucked the loose strand of brunette hair behind her ear for the hundredth time that night. It had been a slow shift with only one delivery on the entire floor, but often the slow nights seemed the longest as time dragged on into the wee hours with nothing to occupy your mind. She was ready to head home and get some sleep, however, she knew that Jason would be there ready to talk. It was always about his schedule. She deeply loved him, but lately she felt like their goals in life were starting to diverge sharply.
They had dated all through college and had planned to get married soon after graduation once both of them had landed a job, but life has a way of thoughtlessly changing well laid plans. Beth had become pregnant late into her sophomore year. The news hit them both hard, but it was Jason who suggested that they simply accelerate their current plans and get married a few years early. Jason was about to graduate with his degree in computer science and already had a few recruiters knocking on his door. He was confident that he could support her and the baby while they got their footing as a family.
Beth distinctly remembered the mix of terror and joy that seemed to ebb and flow throughout those days. She knew she was hardly the first bride to plan a wedding while pregnant, but that knowledge didn’t make what she had to do any easier. To complicate things, Beth started suffering severe morning sickness in her second month, but her doctor assured her that many women experienced similar symptoms and that there was nothing to worry about. That changed the morning Beth woke up feeling like someone was driving a sword through her stomach.
Her memories of that morning were nothing but a blur of blood and pain. She awoke in the hospital two days later, with Jason sitting by the bed, holding her hand. She had miscarried and lost the baby, but the bleeding had almost killed her as well. It had taken an emergency surgery and many blood transfusions, but she had pulled through. The doctor had informed them that it was still possible for her to have children, but it would always be high risk. Beth absently wondered if part of Jason’s reluctance to try for another baby was his fear for her safety.
“Girl, I thought you were off this week. What are you doing here?” Lisa’s boisterous voice yanked Beth out of her sour memories.
“Janet’s nephew’s birthday is tomorrow. She asked if I could pick up her shift,” replied Beth.
Lisa’s expression looked skeptical. “Mmm hmmm,” she grunted as she picked a folder up from the nurse’s station.
“What?” Beth replied innocently. “She asked.”
Lisa tilted her head slightly. “Girl, I know you’re nice and all, but you did not pick up a shift to help out that lying bitch, Janet. You and I both know she doesn’t even have a nephew,” Lisa stated bluntly. “Jason didn’t start his vacation like he promised again, did he? Is he still not coming home some nights?” she asked, raising one eyebrow suggestively.
“He’s not cheating on me if that’s what you’re thinking,” Beth said a bit more forcefully than she had intended. “At least I don’t think he is,” she added meekly. “I’m sure he’s just busy at work…too busy for me, I guess.”
Lisa raised an eyebrow. “Mmm hmmm,” she added suspiciously.
“What?” Beth asked indigently. “He’s not!”
“OK fine. I believe you,” Lisa said conciliatorily. “But Honey, its dead here, you need to clock out and go on home. You ain’t gonna fix this by trying to give him the same treatment that you’re getting. Men just don’t get that type of subtlety.”
Beth smiled. She hadn’t even realized that was what she had been doing, but Lisa was right, as usual. “Thanks,” Beth said and gave Lisa a hug. “I’ll see you next week.”
Beth fumbled in her purse for her phone as she precariously made the turn onto Route 50 toward home. It was one of the biggest perks of working the night shift that she was always heading in the opposite direction of most rush hour traffic. She finally retrieved the phone from her purse and positioned it in front of the steering wheel so that she could somewhat keep her eyes on the road. She hovered her finger above the icon of Jason’s face glowing on the sleek screen. Her eyes flicked to the dashboard clock and then she put the phone back down. It was only 7:30am. She’d let Jason sleep in a bit longer. They had an entire week of vacation together and besides, she would see him in a few minutes.
Jason’s eyes blinked open and then immediately looked over to the clock on the nightstand. It was 7:30am. Beth would be home any minute. He debated whether he should pretend to still be asleep until she slipped between the covers with him or get up and start making them breakfast. He opted for the breakfast option, after all, he was hungry too.
He got up and pulled on his favorite pair of sweatpants and a ratty, vintage Metallica t-shirt that should have been thrown away years ago, then walked the short distance into the kitchen. He grabbed the clicker and turned on the Today show as he passed the TV, then opened the fridge and pulled out a carton of eggs.
“Good Morning and welcome back to Today, for Tuesday, June 17th. It’s just past 7:30am here in New York and it’s looking like another beautiful day for most folks along the east coast…,” The talking head on the TV droned on as Jason pulled out the frying pan and placed it on the stove.
Without warning, a staggering pain shot though his body and he screamed in shock and agony. It seemed as if all of Jason’s senses were being violently assaulted at the same time. He tightly squeezed his eyes shut as his hands flew up to cover his ears in a vain attempt to block out the sensory overload. It seemed to be coming from inside his head and all around him simultaneously. He doubled over in pain and screamed again.
“Oh God, I think I’m having a stroke!” was the last thought that passed through 26-year-old Jason Rawling’s mind.