Chapter One: Hidden In Plain Sight
By the summer of 2009 the line had a life of its own, and two thousand men were digging and boring the strange home it needed to survive. Two hundred and five crews of eight men each, plus assorted advisors and inspectors, were now rising early to figure out how to blast a hole through some innocent mountain, or tunnel under some riverbed, or dig a trench beside a country road that lacked a roadside—all without every answering the obvious question: Why? The line was just a one-and-a-half-inch-wide hard black plastic tube designed to shelter four hundred hair-thin strands of glass, but it already had the feeling of a living creature, a subterranean reptile, with its peculiar needs and wants. It needed its burrow to be straight, maybe the most insistently straight path ever dug into the earth. It needed to connect a data center on the South Side of Chicago* to a stock exchange in northern New Jersey. Above all, apparently, it needed to be a secret.
The workers were told only what they needed to know. They tunneled in small groups apart from each other, with only a local sense of where the line was coming from or where it was going to. They were specifically not told of the line’s purpose—to make sure they didn’t reveal that purpose to others. “All the time, people are asking us, ‘Is this top secret? Is it the government?’ I just said, “Yeah,’” said one worker. The workers might not have known what the line was for, but they knew that it has enemies: They all knew to be alert to potential threats. If they saw anyone digging near the line, for instance, or noticed anyone asking a lot of questions about it, they were to report what they’d seen immediately to the head office. Otherwise they were to say as little as possible. If people asked them what they were doing, they were to say, “Just laying fiber.” That usually ended the conversation, but if it didn’t, it didn’t really matter. The construction crews were as bewildered as anyone. They were used to digging tunnels that connected cities to other cities, and people to other people. This line didn’t connect anyone to anyone else. Its sole purpose, as far as they could see, was to be as straight as possible, even if that meant they had to rocksaw through a mountain rather than take the obvious way around it. Why?
* The principal data center was later moved to Aurora, Illinois, outside Chicago.
— By Michael Lewis