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Monday, February 26, 11:30 a.m. EAT

The USS Black Cat

Fifty miles off the coast of Djibouti, Africa

Mark Johnson was still waking up when the light indicating a message had been intercepted flashed red. The resulting jolt to his 220-pound frame was stronger than the effect of the black coffee he drank religiously each morning. The USS Black Cat, a submarine built for stealth and solo operation, was conducting counterterrorism surveillance under the orders of the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). It had been two weeks since any encrypted message from an unidentified source had been detected. Adrenaline jump-started his human circuitry and chased any remaining drowsiness from his mind.

His eyes focused on the terminal screen as the words came across in real time. The encryption was military grade, and a ghost protocol was in play. He would be lucky to capture a coherent sentence given the scrambling and the speed of transmission. Jesus, what is this? He executed a counter-protocol program that might protect the data integrity. There was a delay. He sat his coffee mug precariously on the right arm of his chair as he focused his full attention on the transmission.

“Loading . . .” in a small white box mocked his efforts. “Come on, damn it!” he said out loud to no one. The next few seconds would determine whether he would salvage anything of value from this message.

His fingers flew across the keyboard like a virtuoso pianist. He stopped two maintenance programs, shut down the Wi-Fi and prayed this would free up enough of the CPU to do its job.

“Executing . . .” flashed on the screen, and the thumping of his heart softened a bit. He waited.

Arabic words danced on the screen, wooed in by Mark Johnson’s melodious improvised code that augmented the system’s already-powerful AI. Though machine learning enabled the AI to get smarter every day, it was a virtual AI arms race. Human intervention still sometimes made the difference. He memorized the message in case there was a hard drive failure, then sat back and breathed a sigh of relief, catching the wobbling coffee mug before it could crash to the metal deck. He took a long pull and set it down safely on the desk. Not wanting to waste a minute more, he typed up the report and transmitted it to Langley, VA, to the only person authorized to read transcripts like these.

Translated: 26 February 12:32

Operator: Canary

Transcript: Partial

Manual intervention needed once again. Please have the machine learning model updated with this new data to train it. I barely got it. Here is what we were able to gather post translation from Arabic to English:

“. . . Affirmative, message received. A recruit is in play . . . Identity unknown, asset suspected to be exceptional like the others. Age range 19–23. Initiate Game Protocol . . .

Mark knew where this was headed. He felt his stomach churn with a mixture of excitement and dread. His agency wasn’t the only one playing games with the lives of America’s most promising young minds.

Monday, 6:35 a.m. EST

CIA Headquarters

Langley, Virginia

Richard Bachman sipped his espresso as he read the transcript for the fifth time. He smiled as he thought about the events that led up to this transmission. There were only three people in the world who knew about the operation it referred to. Now there would be more. After thirteen years, the biggest gamble of his career was about to play out. He picked up a pair of dice from his desk. Throwing the red cubes with white spots was a nervous habit of his. He compulsively tossed them against the glass paperweight that served as a backstop. Snake eyes.

He made a sound that was a cross between a snicker and sigh of frustration. It had been two years since he had thrown dice for money. The habit had been too costly and threatened to derail his otherwise meteoric rise through the agency. He was now only one step away from being the highest-ranking intelligence officer of the most powerful nation in the world, though his actual rank was a secret from most even in the agency.

The director, Thomas Sands, knew that Richard wanted his job and that he felt more qualified, having better instincts and more experience with the Company. But Sands had some fairly effective leverage on Richard that he used to keep the older man in his place, at least for the time being.

Back when Sands had been NCS director, Richard had convinced him to funnel department funds into one of the prominent cryptocurrencies of the time, Ethereum, in a bid to beef up the Division’s budget. Sands had agreed on one condition: that he would disavow any knowledge of the scheme if it blew up in Richard’s face. He’d lost millions when the Chinese hacked the Ethereum blockchain with a 64-qubit quantum computer to promote their own cryptocurrency, Neo. The scandal could have spelled the end of Richard’s career, and probably some time in a white-collar prison. But Sands had decided to hold the information over his rival’s head. Some creative bookkeeping ensured that the debacle stayed between the two of them, and Sands took every opportunity to twitch the leash and remind Richard who was in control.

Richard didn’t let it bother him; not too much, anyway. That was how the game was played. He had ways of working around and even through people who did not openly support him. And if Sands really decided to push the issue one day, Richard had something big on him, something the man wouldn’t even see coming.

He’d clung to his position despite such challenges because the people who really mattered—not including the self-righteous jackass of a director—knew that to win big, you had to gamble big. And Richard could feel the biggest payoff in his career coming.

The worn leather of his office chair creaked softly as he settled back, eyes darting over the profiles arrayed on his computer monitor. Exceptional indeed. But the team was still one member short. He pursed his lips, then moved the mouse over the tenth profile and clicked to maximize. Yes. IQ 155, superb problem-solving skills . . . a worthy candidate. Besides, this is a dangerous business, he thought grimly. Best to have a spare. The mission would always come first.

He fired off a one-line email to the director of the CIA: “The Game has begun. It’s time.”

Chapter 1

Wednesday, February 28, 9:10 a.m. PST
Building 120: Philosophy of Science Test

Stanford University

Beads of sweat glistened like pearls as the sunlight cascaded down Cassidy Hutchins’s face. Twenty minutes remained before the professor would require exam books up front. If only she hadn’t lingered so long at Theta Beta Chi last night, she would have heard the alarm and started the exam with everyone else.

Frat parties weren’t really her thing, but as happened occasionally, loneliness had driven her to seek a crowd and at least the illusion of a social life. This time, rather than wandering from group to group and fending off guys seeking a hookup, she’d wound up cross-legged on a sagging couch listening to a half-drunk boy named Pete pour out his life’s story. Talk of their majors had led to a discussion of psychology, which led to a morose account of his absent father. The man had apparently used his one contact with Pete to criticize his son’s interests. The more she listened, the more compassion she felt. Had he adopted a party lifestyle in college to be the kind of guy he thought his dad would approve of? She could certainly sympathize on the subject of disappointing fathers.

The clock was ticking. With an effort, she pulled her attention back to the test.

“How did the Kuhn Cycle challenge the then-current conception of science?” Cassidy closed her eyes and shut out the frat boy from her mind. She then pushed through. This was what she called it when she was somehow able to go beyond conscious thought directly into the storehouse of her subconscious. It was tough for her to describe what it felt like and impossible to tell others how she did it. The closest analogy she could formulate was this: the moment a new idea floods into your mind, it seems to pop from nowhere to somewhere, passing through some imperceivable membrane. People describe the experience as an “ah-ha” moment. Pushing through was similar, only Cassidy could do it in reverse and on demand.

“The Kuhn Cycle is a simple cycle of progress described by Thomas Kuhn in 1962 in his seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In Structure Kuhn challenged the world’s current conception of science, which was that it was a steady progression of the accumulation of new ideas. In a brilliant series of reviews of past principal scientific advances, Kuhn showed this viewpoint was wrong. Science advanced the most by occasional revolutionary explosions of new knowledge, each revolution triggered by the introduction of new ways of thought so different from the status quo that they must be called new paradigms.”

The words poured through the rift between her subconscious mind and her conscious one. She lifted a few words from the mental textbook, rephrased them in her style, and had the answer on the page just a few minutes later.

Her love of philosophy was not measured in the time spent studying but in how she applied it to her life. Thomas Kuhn, famous for popularizing the terms “paradigm” and “paradigm shift,” was her current lover as he provided her curious intellect something to chew on during the dull cracks of time found in everyday life. What paradigm are we caught up in that we don’t even realize? she often wondered. As fish don’t know it’s water they swim in, what subconscious beliefs limit our thinking and our way of being without our knowledge?

“Apply the Kuhn Cycle to a modern body of knowledge and draw the logical conclusions of an exposed falsehood.” The portal still open, the term “punctuated equilibrium” wafted through, waiting to be grabbed by her conscious mind. She looked up at the clock: ten minutes left.

“The broad paradigm of evolution was a body of knowledge worth challenging. How could such a diverse range of species gradually evolve through natural selection? Punctuated equilibrium, an unproven addendum to the theory, proposes that in rare instances, evolution is not gradual. There is a sudden break from the typical genetic mutation pattern such that two distinct species are formed suddenly as opposed to gradually. Even more aggressive is the theory of quantum evolution where entire families and classes of organisms can develop instantaneously without graduation.”

She drew a model and labeled it with gradualism on the left side, punctuated equilibrium in the middle and quantum evolution on the far right. She then created a Venn diagram of the three paradigms to create a fourth utterly new paradigm at the intersection of the three. “All three paradigms presuppose virtually unlimited time for natural selection to happen,” she wrote.

Time. Unlimited time. A thought came to her that made her pulse quicken. Einstein’s theory of relativity links time and space. But according to quantum theory, time, space and consciousness are intertwined because when a conscious observer is present, light must choose whether to act like a particle or a wave because it’s forced to represent itself in time. Thus, how could unlimited time exist without a consciousness to observe its passing? Doesn’t quantum theory essentially say that consciousness and time are somehow entangled, like space and time? For any of the theories involving the passage of time to be true, consciousness must have been ever-present. If ever-present, then that means a fundamentally different understanding of what constitutes reality. “In conclusion,” she wrote furiously, “quarks, strings, atoms, molecules and their derivatives are not the primary building blocks of the universe. Consciousness is.

“Drop your pencils. Bring your exam books up.” When no one moved, the professor added, “Now, please.”

She was relieved to hear those words. Her over-amped brain had had enough of focused attention. It was already taking her back to the couch and the guy who was charming, conflicted, and not quite like the other frat boys she had met.

Chapter 2

Wednesday, 9:30 a.m.
Theta Beta Chi Fraternity House

Pete Townsend woke up with a rowdy neighbor in his head. The incessant thumping was the tax extracted from his muscular, six-foot-three body for a night of drinking games, shirtless dancing, and flirtatious behavior. His dad would be proud. Maybe. The thought of his father brought a series of emotions that clashed like competing weather systems.

Jim Nolan was the consummate guys’ guy. He had spent a lifetime in the military as a fighter pilot. Pete didn’t encounter him until he was 16. Having just watched the iconic 1980s fighter pilot movie starring Tom Cruise, Pete was inspired to reach out to the father he’d never known. He sent him a collection of things he had written: short stories, poems, a few essays on Vietnam. Jim’s reaction to his second son’s overture was a spectacular display of insecurity masked as machismo. He had replied with a letter that questioned Pete’s upbringing, whether he’d had enough male role models, whether he was the type of kid who, when asked what time it was, told how to build a clock. Pondering his dad was not something he was up for this early in the morning, and certainly not after a night of debauchery.

His mind swirled over to more pleasant skies. An image of a mysterious blond whose lips curled in the most charming and erotic shape formed in his mind. Damn. He wished he hadn’t had so much to drink by the time he met her, both refilling their red plastic cups at the keg. She was interested in him; that, he did not question. She wouldn’t have continued their conversation for so long—thirty minutes? An hour?—if she weren’t drawn to him. He felt uneasy about how readily he’d fallen into deep waters with her. Never be too eager. Life had taught him that. A few painful lessons along the way had paid their dividends in wooing women, often into bed. He didn’t claim to know a thing about what made women tick. However, results spoke for themselves. He had mastered the cocktail of seduction: one part aloofness, two parts confidence, and a dash of vulnerability.

She had this mesmerizing effect on him. They’d talked about psychology and a class on mind control she was taking at Stanford, about hypnotism and the powerful influence it can exert over the right individuals. Had she secretly applied some of her learnings on him? Surely not. However, his dash of vulnerability had turned into a torrent of confessions fit for the ears of a priest. He’d disclosed how he had a drinking problem that he couldn’t control, even blacking out sometimes. How did she have that effect on him? The more he remembered, the more ambivalent he felt toward her. She was dangerous. His father’s stinging backlash had left him wary of opening up so completely again. But his mind kept lingering on those lips.

A mental alarm reminded him he had to get in gear if he wanted coffee from the CoHo before Macroecon at 10. He passed his roommate asleep on the futon as he headed to the door. It was the first time he had seen Ryan sleep in over a week. He glanced at the book still in the hands of his precocious companion: Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I’ll stick to Wealth of Nations, thank you very much. He quietly closed the door behind him.