Regular readers of NJ Spotlight know that August is our time for kicking back and taking advantage of the lull in the news cycle. To tide you over during our summer hiatus, we’re posting excerpts from books by New Jersey authors or with Garden State hooks. We’ll be back tanned and ready on September 3.
“The Singularity Witness” explores an intersection of science and medical research, and what happens when a radical technology ushers in an ominous future. A U.S. senator is missing. A covert lab disposes of its research subject. Thomas Parker, a neurologist and professor, and FBI Special Agent Kate Morgan must unlock secrets that start with murder, abduction, and inhumane research. And who is the singularity witness?
Chapter 3/Fragile Freedoms
Princeton University, School of Engineering and Applied Science, Princeton, New Jersey In his fourth floor engineering lab, Thomas Parker shifted his weight onto his knees and slid a baking sheet-sized, data acquisition blade server into the bottom rack of a coffin-sized enclosure. The corrugated edges of the slatted platform on which he knelt dug into his knees, and a nagging throb permeated his brain, the aftermath of violently kissing a door earlier.
He grimaced, a sign of frustration more than recognition of pain or discomfort.
He’d become the poster child of “100 Ways to Kill Your Ivy League Career.” His single-minded endeavors never included a fallback plan. In five days, he was in danger of becoming what he feared most — another streeted academic, forced to peddle his talents to keep his research alive.
Rising, he surveyed his neural-net lab through industrial-style windows. A waning dream now. The two-story research space was crammed floor to ceiling with equipment, computer servers and monitors, nitrogen cooling tubing, and its central focus, an assessment chair.
Why would someone break in the lab and not take anything?
That thought didn’t add up.
Apprehensiveness put him on edge, like a tightrope walker on a frail thin rope spanning a dark chasm. One fatal slip and that would be the end.
With his academic corpse not yet at room temperature, he wondered how long it would take his colleagues, stalking the proverbial fence like buzzards, to pick off his lab. Even given the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment expansion, research areas on campus were in limited supply. Everyone knew that Vladimir Valentine, a DuPont Plunkett Award honoree and tenured professor, was maneuvering to secure a lab for his seven-figure, space-age nanopolymer research using buckyball molecular tube configurations. He would not be the only scavenger.
Valentine! Parker vowed to leave him nothing, not even a paperclip.
A phone rang beneath a mound of computer schematics and endless lines of program code. Three rings passed. He tried to tune out the interruption.
A voice barked from somewhere below. “Answer it!”
He shoved papers aside and snatched up the phone. “I’m in the middle —”
“I’m sure you are, Dr. Parker!” a woman’s voice interrupted.
He spun toward the windows. Below, his second-year graduate assistant, Becky Ward, looked like a multitasking waitress juggling trays of dishes, cradling a laptop in one arm, typing on a console with her free hand, and speaking to him via a Bluetooth headset synced to a phone clipped to her waist.
“Oh, so sorry, doc,” Becky said, with a mock gag. “I’m being rude. How’s the head?”
He turned his head from side to side. “Still attached.”
“Well, while you’ve been recovering from head trauma, I compiled initiation sequences. Did your work too: clarified interface exchanges, filtered oscillatory noise in cellular clusters, and sequenced neuro-grid routines — all done. Fini,” she said in a bad French accent.
Parker massaged his brow. “Are you sure nothing is missing?”
“I’m hurt you don’t believe me. Yes, yes. I did a thorough onceover. The lab is fine.”
He sucked in a frustrated breath. “My apologies, Ms. Ward.”
“What are you not telling me?” she called up to him, not using the phone. She returned to the phone. “We lost the appeal?”
“We? That’s an admirable deduction,” he said. An awkward moment passed. “It was decreed that I depart at midterms.”
“Midterms? That’s Friday!”
“An ABD,” he said — an all-but-dissertation Ph.D. student — “will cover my remaining lectures.”
“Well, you got the short end there,” Becky snapped into the phone.
He hung up and slumped into the chair behind the desk.
The metal floor to the mezzanine platform rumbled with thunderous vibrations, and he could hear her ranting as she bounded up the stairs and bolted into the office loft.
“This reeks of bureaucratic incompetence.” Her breathing grew labored as she approached. “Other universities wouldn’t dump you — not in a million years.”
“Those programs might cut me sooner.” Parker watched her march across the small room and back again. He’d come to know his confidante as a rabid, vocal, marathon pacer. Becky had a habit of walking off miles in white Nike cross-trainers.
An intense energy radiated from her face and sobered her youthful features. Silently, she churned over potential solutions to a current problem — his problem — their “we” problem. A keen intellect was hard at work.
Over the past two years, he had grown to appreciate her vibrant mind. He held up his hand. “Rebecca, I’m grateful for your incredible dedication.”
She inched closer. “Doesn’t this outrage you?”
He rose to meet her halfway around the desk, before she could trap him behind it. If not kept in check, Becky had a habit of encroaching on personal boundaries.
“Not sure. I’m in uncharted territory.” He turned away to avoid eye contact. “We’ll have a guest joining us.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You swore you’d never sell out.”
Parker pondered her statement. “Perhaps there’s a higher order at work? Karma telling me that reality trumps ideology?”
Her expression softened, like an ice sculpture melting under a splash of spring Jersey sun. She glanced away as if to show him that she grasped the complex realities of acquiring tenure at an Ivy League institution. She slid a red elastic band off her wrist and tied back her brown hair into a ponytail. As she did, he caught sight of her bare wrist and a tattoo.
Last summer, after an earth-shaking day in the lab, Parker broke his rule of fraternizing with students and bought Becky a pint of Sam Adams at the Ivy Inn. Over another round and wings, Becky admitted to having two tattoos, but declined to say where the second one was located. He speculated, but never asked. None of his business.
The visible tat encircled her wrist. A three-colored Pisces-bracelet of red, blue, and green dolphins cresting an endless stream of ocean waves — swimming through an open sea of freedom.
Their days of unrestrained freedom had just ended.
“What happened?” she asked, breaking the silence. Her white Nikes took wide strides as she started to pace again.
He could see she was hurt. “I grew addicted to the rarefied air of academia, and I thought our research would keep the bureaucratic hazards at bay.”
“Dr. Parker, this may not be the right time. If someone takes on your research, I want to join you.”
“No. Complete your studies. Publish. That publish part is what I took for granted. Don’t repeat my mistakes.”
“I believe in our work, so I’ll work for free.”
“That you already do, Ms. Ward. Although, I will admit, I wish I could live up to your lofty standards.”
“I won’t take no for an answer.”
Her eyes sparkled. “Absolutely.”
He pointed to the stairs. With a nod, she disappeared without another word.
As the rumble of footsteps trailed off, doubt germinated inside his aching head.
Parker leaned against the windows and took in his neuro-net lab below.
For more than four years, Princeton had been the closest thing he had known as home. And because he refused to heed the call to publish, he had squandered everything.
Excerpt from The Singularity Witness by Dan Grant. Copyright © 2018 by Dan Grant. Published by MindScape Press, Inc. Excerpted by permission of the author.
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