Researching The Zero Game

By Brad Meltzer

I make my living sneaking into government buildings. Seriously. I do. In my first novel, I snuck into the Supreme Court. In the second, I snuck into the DA’s Office. In the third, it was the White House. And in the fourth, I managed to get inside the underground tunnels below Disney World. Okay, so maybe I didn’t really “sneak” inside. I was invited. I had all the official clearance. But once inside, we always seemed to wander off the beaten path—like when a tour guide, taking me through the White House, said, “Hey, wanna see the attic?” My days are spent writing thrillers. My job is to scare the pants off my readers and take them to worlds they’ve never seen. You better believe I wanted to see the White House attic.

Which brings me to the moment when I decided that my newest thriller would be about Congress and the secrets of the Capitol. First, a disclaimer: I write fiction. I know ….. I know ….. it’s fiction. It’s not real. So why do I take the time to do all this research and get the details right? Because that’s the part of writing I love. I love getting it right. I love showing readers where the actual bomb shelter is below the White House. I love showing them the entrance to the tunnels behind Cinderella’s castle in Disney World. In my mind, fiction is complete fabrication trying to masquerade as absolute truth. The only way to paint that truth—and to convince readers that you’re revealing something—is to arm yourself with facts. And so, when it came to my fifth and most recent novel, I once again started with my feet firmly in reality—with a real-life story I once heard when I was a 19-year-old intern for the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Here’s how it went (okay, admittedly, this may be urban myth, but at nineteen, I loved it): There were two Senate staffers who were so sick of picking up their Senator’s dry cleaning, they decided to put the words “dry cleaning” in their Senator’s next speech. One of them took a pen and wrote, “Although many people think of the environment as an issue that is dry, cleaning it should be our top priority.”

“You can’t put that in his speech!” the other aide said.

“Sure I can,” the first replied.

“No, you can’t!”

“Wanna bet?”

At that moment, in that story, my novel The Zero Game was born. I decided to write about a secret game on the Hill, where staffers—literally—gamble on Congress. Right there, I knew what I had to do: If I wanted to write about the Capitol, I had to get inside.

In truth, getting inside the Capitol hadn’t presented much of a problem. After four novels, I had pretty good contacts in D.C. Plenty of sources had offered to help. And then, two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, another hit the Pentagon, and a fourth went down in Pennsylvania. In the course of it, my wife and I lost a dear friend. As I began writing the novel in this post-9/11 world, I realized that this book would be my hardest to research and write. There were new stakes…increased security measures. The U.S. Capitol was no longer an easy place for a novelist like me to “sneak into.”

But, when I finally decided to get back to work and try to unlock some of the best details about how Congress works, I had one secret weapon: my wife, who was a lawyer for the House Judiciary Committee. For the next two years, it was Take Your Husband to Work Day. She took me into public and private meetings, to hearings, to mark-ups, and anywhere else I wanted to go. From there, she made introductions. Doors began to open. People agreed to be interviewed. A few months passed, and security looked as if it might return to normal. And then, one morning, a great idea for a pivotal twist came to me. And where was this great secret hidden? On the front page of The Washington Post. According to the article, Sen. Tom Daschle was trying to get a legislative rider attached to an appropriations bill. Apparently, the Senator wanted to turn an old abandoned South Dakota gold mine into an underground science lab.

Disclaimer Number Two: Yes, appropriations bills, legislative riders, and South Dakota usually make for a nice big “Hey, let’s see what’s on page two!” but in this case, I was looking for an interesting locale. An abandoned gold mine set my writer’s antenna tingling. And if it had me interested, maybe it would pull a reader along as well.

After making some initial phone calls to Daschle’s office and to the mining company, I learned a few key details: The Homestake Mine in Lead, S.D. had been built in 1876 and was 8,000 feet deep, making it the deepest existing gold mine in North America. To put that in perspective: Remember those miners who were trapped underground in Pennsylvania a few years ago? They were 240 feet down. This was 8,000 feet. That’s six Empire State Buildings straight down. I couldn’t stop thinking: What kind of science lab needs to be that far underground?

Disclaimer Number Three: I hate science. I really do—I can’t touch it…it never makes sense to me…I took no joy in dissecting a cat in my 12th grade anatomy class. But after a few more calls, I teased out a little nugget of fact: that the primary purpose of the underground lab would be to study subatomic particles called neutrinos. At that depth, way below the Earth’s surface, all above-ground radioactive noise is shut out, which is why it’s one of the few places where neutrinos are able to be detected.

“So what’s a neutrino?” I asked my source, who worked at one of the government’s top scientific facilities.

“It’s a subatomic particle,” he replied. “Some people think that neutrinos will help us unlock the beginnings of the universe.”

It was a nice answer. “Unlock the beginnings of the universe ….. ” Sure, why not? I’d like to unlock the secrets of the universe. But something smelled wrong. Since when has the government cared about the secrets of the universe?

Disclaimer Number Four: This is why every thriller writer, no matter what they tell you, is, at heart, a complete paranoid. Let me be the first to admit it: (Here I am, standing up from my chair right now) “My name is Brad Meltzer, and I’m a complete paranoid.” And, since I am, I asked my source the following question:

“Besides unlocking the universe, what else can the government do with neutrinos? Can they make a weapon with them?”

For the next half hour, he put out various scenarios, eventually settling on one that was theoretically possible. As he explained, “Although no one has ever done it, and no one is even close to doing it ….. some would argue that it’s possible to use the properties of a neutrino to transmute one element into another.”

“Like King Midas?” I asked. “To make gold?”

My source looked across the table at me. His eyes narrowed. “Gold?” he replied with a laugh. “Why would you make gold? Gold is cheap. What is it—a few hundred dollars an ounce? Forget gold. If you truly had the power to transmute, you’d be a fool to make gold. In today’s world, there are far more expensive things out there. Like this…”

He pointed to the makeshift periodic table he had drawn between us, on a scrap sheet of paper. His finger stopped at the atomic symbol Pu.

“Pu?” I asked.

“Plutonium,” he said. “The most valuable element on the chart.”

Welcome to the new Midas touch.

Disclaimer Number Five: This is when I should’ve been creeped out. I mean, think about it, put yourself in my place ….. remember where we were:

This was right after 9/11.

In Washington, D.C.

We were all terrified.

And here I was ….. at a cozy diner in Bethesda ….. with a source from one of the government’s top scientific facilities telling me how to make plutonium from scratch in an underground lab that most people would never even know existed.

I still didn’t freak. It was all theoretical, right?

For the next few days, I spent my time researching the potential link between neutrinos and plutonium. Did I think Daschle was trying to use an underground lab to build the world’s most dangerous element? Of course not. Did I think someone could build plutonium from the atomic level up? That’s what I wanted to find out. A few weeks after our initial meeting, I reconnected with my source and asked him a few more questions about his plutonium theory. Soon after that, he stopped returning my calls. A month after that, when I finally did get hold of him, he asked that his name be removed from the acknowledgments of my book. Then he asked that his organization’s name be pulled out as well.

Disclaimer Number Six: That’s when I was creeped out.

As a thriller writer, I can scare you by putting knives in people’s necks and describing giant, Hollywood-enhanced explosions. But I have no desire to do that. Mindless violence and bloody gore are easy, boring, and, at least to me, not scary. What’s scary is to walk into a quiet house, step into an unlit bathroom, and hear a scratching noise on the other side of the closed shower curtain. Why? Because it can happen. We can picture it. We can smell it. And, somewhere in the back of our brains, we worry that it will happen tonight.

So where did all this leave me? Right where I always wanted to be: in reality. The gold mine in South Dakota really exists. So does the neutrino lab. To get the details of the mine right, I flew to South Dakota and went all the way down to the 8,000 foot level. Then I took all my research and crammed it into 460 pages of story.

I’ve snuck around in the White House, the Supreme Court, and the U.S. Capitol, but none of it was half as scary as what I found buried below the earth in a small town in South Dakota. So what else did I find on my trip into that mine? That’s a very simple question with a very simple answer: Don’t ask a thriller writer to give away the ending of his book.

© Brad Meltzer