Why was Rick calling again? It had only been 30 minutes since Ed’s last check-in.
Work could wait; Ed swiped Ignore on the cracked screen of his old phone. “Alright Danny, let’s…”
Where was his son? Ed whipped his head around, looking from one end of the massive roadside truck stop to the other. “Honey, where’s Danny?”
“He was right h-” His wife, Ivana, paused as she turned to face the candy aisle that Danny ran down just moments before. “Uh, Danny? Danny?!”
A moment of silence followed, one that stretched to near-unbearable levels of agony, before Danny shouted, “I’m right here, Mommy!”
Ed released the chestful of air he’d been holding. He turned the corner, finding Danny staring at the colorful options in the snack-sized potato chip aisle. Ed leaned down and scooped up his adventurous six-year-old. “Come on, buddy, we need to get back on the road!”
“Daddy, can I get Doritos?”
Ed glanced at the price sticker, hiding his displeasure from his son who stared intently waiting for a response. He’d already had to put back the bottle of water he stopped for in the first place; still, he was always terrible at telling his kids ‘no’.
Ed looked back over his shoulder where Ivana was standing. “Alright, but don’t tell your mother. She would kill me for letting you have those kinds of snacks!”
Danny whispered back in a breathy, excited tone that was far too loud for covertness. “Ok, I won’t!” Well, at least he tried.
Ed made a show of concealing the bag inside the edge of his jacket – not so much that the clerk behind the register would grow suspicious - to Danny's delight. The faux ruse would’ve worked, too, if not for Jessie’s high-pitched squeal as the pair rounded the corner out of the chips aisle.
“Daddy’s hiding Doweetos!” His daughter just couldn’t let her big brother get away with anything.
Ivana chuckled. “Trying to slip one by me again, huh?” She walked up and pinched Danny’s sides as he yelped and let out a high-pitched laugh.
Ed put his son down and approached the counter, nodding his head slightly to the older gentleman behind the counter. “Good afternoon sir. How’s your day going?”
“Eh, it’s a’ight. Can’t complain too much. Not like anybody’d listen to me if I did." THe old man looked up after scanning the chips. "That’s a beautiful family you got there, partner.”
Ed looked back, catching a glimpse of Jessie’s attempts to join in on the tickling. “I sure do. I’m a lucky man.”
“You folks heading on vacation?”
“No, we’re moving upstate actually. Got a promotion at work, a big one. Kind of unexpected.” Ed fished some change out of his pocket, counting out a dime, nickel, and three pennies. “Not a moment too soon, either. I’ve-”
The vibration against his thigh interrupted Ed mid-sentence. Rick was sure being persistent today. Ed thanked the clerk and squeezed his phone through the faded denim of his jeans, silencing the device for the moment.
“Alright everyone, let’s get back on the road!”
After leaving the truck stop and its pungent gasoline fumes behind, the trip resumed at its previous rhythm. Jessie giggled at every passing wonder - the trees, the sky, even kids in other cars. Danny shouted out for Baby Shark through a mouthful of chips. Ed’s eyes met Ivana’s, and he laughed when hers inevitably rolled up. “Looks like Mommy’s on board! Do-do do-do-do-do!”
Jessie squealed, “Daddy! Look, doggie!”
Ed glanced at the SUV passing on his left; sure enough, a poodle in need of a good grooming was perched in the front seat. The driver looked familiar.
“Hey! It’s that guy from the truck stop earlier. He must be headed to the same place we are, huh?”
Jessie laughed. “Maybe we could pet his doggie then?”
Another buzz from his pocket cut him off before he could hypothesize about dog visits. He shifted his weight to the left and pulled the phone from his pocket- not bothering to look at who was calling.
“Hey Rick, what’s-”
Rick exhaled - loudly - before cutting him off.
“I told you to check in every 100 miles, Ed! That was non-negotiable!”
Ed noticed his wife turn to face him – Rick’s yelling must have been pretty loud. “Rick, I am checking in every 100 miles. We stopped for gas and a potty break. It’s only been… one second, let me see which mile marker we’re at…”
“Ok, ok, my apologies.” Rick’s voice was quieter but no less anxious. “Tell me, have you hit exit 140 already?”
“One second, Rick. I’m waiting to see the mile marker. Um… looks like we’re at mile 131.”
Ed could hear Rick talking with someone else in the room with him; his attempt to cover the phone with his hand belied his old age, as he was still used to handsets mouthpieces that could easily be covered. He hadn’t mastered the art of subtlety in the age of cell phones.
Still, Ed couldn’t make out what they were saying. When Rick spoke to him again, the anxiety in his voice had lessened considerably. He spoke deliberately, authoritatively. “I know 100 miles would be around mile 157, but I want you to check in as soon as you pass exit 140. Understand?”
Ed looked over at Ivana, squinting and shaking his head. She mouthed, ‘what?’; he held up his finger to tell her to wait a second.
“I understand, but I still don’t get why I'm checking in so much on this-”
“Good, good. Call me as soon as you’ve passed the exit. Bye.”
Rick wasn’t going to explain his reasoning; he avoided the question days ago when he told Ed of the odd stipulation. Initially, he insisted that Ed call in every 25 miles; however, after Ed argued that it was impossible to move his family hundreds of miles away with two young kids to tend to and constantly check in. Rick relented, agreeing to 100 miles. Ed tried to push further, but that was Rick’s limit.
Ed didn’t mind so much; in fact, he was elated to be getting this opportunity in the first place. These were the fruits of his lifelong laboring in researching quantum physics and, more recently, quantum computing. His breakthrough article was published two weeks ago in Reviews of Modern Physics: he’d cracked the quantum computing puzzle. His office would soon have a working version of a computer capable of running Shor’s Algorithm – a benchmark for quantum computers.
Shor’s Algorithm factored large numbers - by itself not a huge deal. However, most encryption models used RSA encryption, which Shor’s Algorithm easily cracked. It just needed a quantum computer to run… and Ed just demonstrated that it was possible.
He sought to publish his findings and receive the well-deserved recognition that came with publishing. The head of his department, Rick Shuler, pulled the document and redacted large portions related to the construction of the quantum architecture. Rick seemed to be hiding the critical steps that Ed had just figured out. Could he want the University of San Diego to have the only working version of this computer in the world?
If so, why then did he push Ed to accept a promotion and a position at a research institute that Ed had never heard of in upstate California?
And why did he insist that Ed had to accept the position within 24 hours?
Why, too, did he have to move with his family within three days?
These questions bothered Ed when he was considering taking the position – though the doubled salary helped to squash any anxiety he might have had about them. Ivana was also wary at first, but after the first night of consideration, she too seemed to be pushing Ed to take the position. He could push the concerns out of his mind at the time...
...but now, with the van silent, he started to feel a slight tingle crawling up his spine.
“Rick wants me to check in as soon as we pass exit 140.”
“Did he say why?”
“No, he wouldn’t tell me. He-”
Having sat patiently during the phone call, Danny could no longer stay quiet. “Daddy! Can you put Baby Shark back on?”
“No, not right now, Danny. I’m talking to your Mo-”
“But you turned it off in the middle of the song! Please!”
Ed opened his mouth to respond, but before he could, Ivana reached out and turned the radio on. “It’s ok, it’s just the end of the song.”
Ed sighed audibly, looking over at his wife and shaking his head. We’ll have to talk tonight about contradicting each other in front of the kids, he thought. On some level, though, he knew she was right. The kids weren’t at fault for anything.
The kid’s song and Danny’s accompanying vocals were the only sounds in the car as they passed mile marker 136. Fortunately, the song didn’t have much time left when he paused it earlier and went off before they reached mile 137.
As soon as it went off, Jessie shouted, “Look! It’s the doggie again! Daddy, Mommy, look!”
Ivana spoke up before Ed could turn. “Jessie, that man doesn’t want us all staring at him.”
Ed felt compelled to look. Sure enough, it was the same man from earlier. He was already looking into the minivan - and eyeing Ed.
“Ivana… do you see how he’s looking at us? At me?”
There was a pause before she responded. Ed turned to find her busy on her cell phone, not paying attention to the situation. She saw him turn to her and looked up. “Oh, I don’t think he’s staring at us… or you. You’re just being paranoid.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Surely, that was it. It was just Rick’s anxiety rubbing off on him. Right?
Still, as exit 138 passed, Ed could feel his heart racing. His breaths came short and quick; he felt like he’d just ran the 100 yard dash on a mountaintop. Only, instead of catching his breath, the passing highway just intensified his laborious breathing.
“Why do you think he’s so worried about exit 140? He must be worried about something specific.”
Another pause. She looked up from her phone after a moment. “I wouldn’t worry about it. Rick’s always blowing things out of proportion, remember?”
“But not like this. I’ve never heard him sound like that.”
“Well, he’s losing his best researcher. Of course he’s panicking.”
No, that didn’t make sense at all. Rick was the one who pushed him to accept the position. “If you say so…”
“You’re worrying too much. What would take your mind off of things?”
Ed shook his head. “Nothing… I’m fine. Really.”
They passed mile marker 139, with every passing second elevating Ed’s heart rate.
What could possibly happen on the highway?
That car behind me is close. A bit too close?
I've never noticed how many cars were around us on the highway. I feel... boxed in.
“Honey, can you look up alternative routes? Is there one of those parallel roads we could drive on for a while? Better safe than sorry.”
Ed glanced over to see his wife on her phone chatting with someone instead of pulling up her Map. “Ivana! Please, can you just pull up the map?”
She turned her head, lips pursed. “No. No sir, you are not going to take the fact that you’re nervous for no damn reason out on me - or the kids!”
“What?? Who’s taking anything out on the kids?”
A screeching wail sounded from the backseat. Jessie hated when they yelled.
“See? Your yelling made your daughter cry! Honestly Edward, you need to just shutup and drive.”
“I’m just asking-”
“Whatever, I’m done.” Turning to the backseat, she consoled Jessie. “It’s ok baby, Daddy’s just worried about imaginary stuff.”
Ivana rarely lashed out and almost never argued. She must’ve been feeling the anxiety of the situation too. It was weighing on them all, it seemed.
The momentary distraction took his mind off of the road long enough for exit 140 to pass by in the rearview mirror. He breathed a sigh of relief and picked up his phone.
“Rick, it’s me. We've just passed exit 140.”
More muffled discussions followed with someone in Rick's office. When Rick moved his hand from the phone, though, the other man hadn’t finished speaking. Ed overheard him tell Rick, “he has to check in more often, Mr. Shuler”.
“Thanks for checking in, Ed. Is everything ok? You haven’t run into any, um, trouble have you?”
“No, Rick, I haven’t… but between you and that other guy in the room, you’ve got my whole family worried. What the heck is going on?”
Before Rick could cover his phone with his hand, Ed caught the other gentleman exclaiming, “he needs to know, Mr. Shuler”. Then, the conversation returned to garbled words and muffled phrases. As he waited for Rick to come back, Ed realized that he’d become acutely aware of the cars in his immediate vicinity. The white Honda Accord in front of the van with a kid in the backseat. The red Dodge Ram 4x4 pickup truck that was riding his ass. He couldn’t even see the driver, they were so close. Ed breathed easier when the truck whipped out from behind him, cutting off a small Corolla in the process. Better them than him. Cars, vans, trucks, SUVs… Ed eyed each of them as he waited for Rick to return to the call. What were they up to?
“Yeah, Ed? There’s nothing to worry about, I’m sorry if-”
“Nothing to worry about? You browbeat me into taking a new position that required me to move my family hundreds of miles away with almost no notice, refused to answer any of my questions, force me to check in like a goddamn child, freak out my family with this exit 140 crap, and now you’re telling me that there’s nothing to worry about? How about you put your boss on the damn phone since they seem to actually know what the hell is going on.”
The line was silent for a moment before Ed heard more muffled words.
“No, no Rick. Don’t try to cover the phone and talk to whoever the hell is in your office. I need answers now. Now!”
Jessie began crying again in the backseat; she was soon joined by her brother. It didn’t matter; Ivana would take care of them. He needed answers.
“Ed, you need to calm down. I can hear your children crying on the other end of the line. There’s no reason for this. We just need you to get to the National Quantum Research Lab as soon as possible. Their reps are here with me asking for regular updates, that’s who you’re hearing.”
It was all bullshit, of that Ed was sure. It hard to pay attention, though, with Jessie screaming in the backseat. Danny's soft sobs only added to the cacophony of sounds vying for Ed's attention.
“You need to be straight with me Rick. I haven’t signed anything; I don’t have to go through with this move. I’m about 5 seconds away from turning around… JESSIE, PLEASE!”
The backseat wailing stopped for a brief moment before returning tenfold. Ed couldn’t think, his mind felt like it underwent a factory reset after being overwhelmed with stimuli.
“Ed, I promise I will explain everything. They’re really wanting to make sure you get there tonight. It’s a matter of some urgency, they need your expertise as soon as possible. It’s-”
The voice of the other man cut in. “Mr. Thompson, this is Special Agent Dale Marston with the FBI. The situation is urgent, we don’t have the luxury of beating around the bush anymore.”
“Wait, did you say the FBI? What the hell is going… hold on one second, sir. Ivana, can you please take care of the kids??”
Ed heard a beep as he turned to Ivana; her arm was extended towards the screen in the center console, her finger pressed against the “End Call” button.
He heard the light click next. The small pistol in her hand was aimed at Ed’s face.
“I’ve been waiting far too long for this day, for you to finish your work. You will not be turning back now, Mr. Thompson.
Ed’s brain was still flooded, still shut down. It couldn't comprehend the sound of a Russian accent coming from his wife's mouth or the sight of a gun pointed at him. “What’s going on, baby? Why are you-”
“Just shut up and drive, Mr. Thompson. After all these years, I can finally end this charade.”