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John McGarvey, pushing sixty-five, the age at which he and his wife, Lilly, who was the same age, planned to retire, sat back at his desk, scanning for a third time the results he’d just received from the Cray supercomputer.
It was late on Friday, and except for a few techs across the way in the cavernous Building F, which was the workshop for the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s high energy and applied physics department, he was alone. But it was midsummer and still light out. He was excited by the results that the Cray had been chewing on for nearly three weeks—and vindicated. The concept was viable. The damned thing would work. And it was due in large measure to Lilly’s progress with quantum information systems.
They’d met in their senior year at Garden City High School, in southwestern Kansas, she a town girl and he a rancher’s son living ten miles northwest. They’d fallen instantly in love, both of them dubbed the school’s brainiacs. She went to Caltech, where she earned her PhD in mathematics, while he went to MIT, on the opposite coast, earning his PhD in advanced computer design and applied physics.
They never took summers off, only snatching a week or so here and there to get together, and despite the strong advice of their major advisers, they got married in a brief ceremony in Garden City, followed by a one-week honeymoon in Paris, after which they went back to school for two more years of study and then two years of postdoc work. Both of them were hired by Los Alamos during the same week in 1956 and had worked there continuously, on a variety of projects, for more than thirty years. Eight years ago, the facility was renamed the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and John knew that, in a lot of ways, after they retired they would miss the science, the day-to-day interactions with some of the brightest minds on the planet.
“Where to next?” Lilly had asked him a few years ago, when they’d decided to retire at sixty-five.
“The ranch, full-time.”
“I hoped you’d say something like that,” she told him, and he didn’t think he’d ever loved her more than at that moment.
“Farmers at heart?”
She’d laughed. “What do you suppose the kids will think?”
“Joanne has her own life with Stan and the two grandbabies in Salt Lake, so I don’t think she’d want to come back to help out when we get doddering.”
“And Kirk’s got a start at the CIA, so it’s not likely he and his wife and the baby would come home.”
“Spies retire early,” John had told her.
“So we leave the ranch to him?”
“I think so.”
Locking the printout in his safe, John went to the window of his third-story office and looked across what, in the past thirty years, had become a vast campus that no longer specialized in nuclear weapons design and testing but had branched out to a host of other disciplines, including Lilly’s quantum mechanics, chemistry, energy systems, superconductivity, and all the earth sciences.
It was going to be strange to leave it, and yet some of the kids coming up were doing work that, five years ago, he’d never even dreamed about. Some of it was almost science fiction.
At six three, with a lean, almost lanky figure and a narrow face with what Lilly called the kindest, most expressive eyes on the planet, he looked more like a rancher than a scientist. And his wife liked that, too.
“We’re just a pair of Great Plains country bumpkins, and that’ll never change,” she’d said just last week, when they were sitting on the porch of their ranch house having their usual sundowners—pinot grigio for her, a gin and tonic for him.
She was right, of course. As usual, he thought, turning away from the window. But they would miss the lab.
Her office was on the opposite side of the complex. When he phoned, she answered on the first ring.
“What do you think?” she asked.
“It’s better than I thought it would be.”
“I’m looking at it now, for the umpteenth time, and I think it’ll work.”
“Because of you.”
“And it scares me just a little. The Russians get hold of this, they’ll go even crazier than in eighty-three when Reagan came up with SDI. And God only knows what they’ll do.”
“That’s up to the politicians.”
“You mean the ones we elected?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said. Sometimes they would agree about something—especially politics—when anyone around them would swear they were having a knock-down, drag-out argument. “You ready to pull the pin?” The Fourth of July was on a Tuesday, so a lot of people were taking four-day weekends.
“Give me five minutes to lock up.”
“I’ll meet you out front.”
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Kevin Hagberg