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The complete novel Echelon, by Timothy Geigner in non-professional, unedited PDF eBook format.
The complete novel Echelon, by Timothy Geigner in non-professional, unedited PDF eBook format.
Echelon Echelon A novel by Timothy Geigner email@example.com This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by- nd/3.0/us/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA. 1 Echelon Ch. 1 Mathew King could feel the sweat on his fingers as he typed. This whole ordeal would soon be over, one way or another, and he could only hope it worked out his way. Everything in the airplane cabin was soaked in sunlight from the windows. He leaned in close so he could see the screen on his laptop, resting on the food tray. Next to him a woman who couldn‟t have been more than twenty-five was bouncing an infant on one knee while simultaneously trying to screw the nipple onto a formula bottle. The infant batted at the bottle, unwilling to open her mouth. “Come on, darling. Just a little more and you‟ll be ready for your nap. Just a little more. Here comes the choo-choo train...” 2 Echelon King tried to ignore them as best he could. His fingers continued to fly over the keyboard. Beside him, the infant gurgled and belched, then finally seemed to be placated. He was certain that would change the moment the engines roared for takeoff, but for the moment it was obligingly quiet. He continued to work, trying to find out if and how they were gong to come after him. Regardless, his life was effectively over. His wife, the kids, they would all have to leave Virginia immediately. But him first, of course. Like the stewardess had said during their preflight instructions, you had to save yourself before you could help anyone else. If they only knew. Even now he was surprised by how at ease everyone was. It might not be as bad as before the terrorist attacks, but still, flight attendants were chatting idly with one another, and King had even seen the pilot flirting with one of the passengers before the flight had gotten underway. It all struck him as very unprofessional, and unsecure. Probably the crew did that type of thing to stay fresh. Even pilots must have to stretch their legs once in a while. But he was certain that if the crew had any idea who he was, or who was after him, they too would have sweat dripping down their skin. With a lurch that shook his laptop, the airplane began to taxi backwards. The woman beside him was shifting around, and instinctively King turned to look at her. She had put the baby back onto her lap and was looking out the window. The baby stared up at him with that half curious, half astonished look that infants got. 3 Echelon “Sir, you‟re going to have to close that during takeoff,” an attendant‟s voice came from the aisle. He turned to see her indicating his laptop. “It interferes with the radio communications.” That was bull, he knew. The reason that all electronic devices had to be turned off during takeoff and landing cycles was because of terrorism. Most attacks on aircraft occurred during or near takeoffs and landings. Not being forced to monitor CD players, laptop computers, and Gameboys made it easier for the attendants and the Air Marshall to watch the passengers for suspicious activity. In the 80‟s there might have been an actual risk of radio disruption, but in the digital world of the new millennium, such interference just wasn‟t possible. However, in the post 9/11 world, you also didn‟t argue with flight attendants, so King smiled and closed the screen on his notebook. That didn‟t actually shut it down, of course. Instead, it went into its partial hibernation mode, ready to flicker back when he reopened the screen. The stewardess didn‟t seem to know that, however, and she thanked him and moved down the aisle. Beside him, the baby smiled and blew bubbles with her spit. The mother turned and saw him looking, and she favored him with a grin. “Nervous flier?” “No more so than most people,” he answered automatically. Despite everything that had happened, his training still took over. Answer in a way that doesn‟t draw attention. Be charming, but forgettable. Be funny, but not memorably so. “I guess I just prefer to be on the ground.” The woman nodded seriously. “This is my first time flying.” 4 Echelon “You‟re handling it very well,” King said absently. How long until the flight attendants were done with their rounds and strapped themselves in? Then he could open the laptop and finish checking the military radio bands. “Having Jessica here helps,” the woman said, nodding towards the infant. “When she‟s keeping me busy I don‟t have time to imagine all the terrible things that could happen.” “She‟s a beautiful baby,” King said. The airplane shuddered to a halt, no longer reversing. With the barest of vibrations, it began to turn forwards toward the runway field. He leaned to peer over the chairs. He couldn‟t see any of the crew, so he reached for the laptop and flipped it open. “You‟re not supposed to do that,” the woman beside him said sharply. King looked over to see her staring at him nervously. “The attendant said it screws up communications with the tower.” “It‟s okay,” he said, putting a soothing tone into the voice. “That‟s only when they‟re emitting wireless internet signals, and this one doesn‟t have a wireless card.” He reached over and tickled the infant under the chin. “We‟re not going to let anything get in the way of Jessica‟s first flight, are we?” “Are you sure it‟s safe?” “I work in the flight industry,” King lied to her, anything to shut her up and let him get back to work. “Believe me, I wouldn‟t do anything to endanger one of my birds.” 5 Echelon That seemed to placate her. She continued to glance nervously at the notebook as he resumed typing, but when nothing happened and no attendants came running she went back to her infant. The military bands were quiet, aside from a slight uptick at an Air Force base one state over. It’s probably a training exercise, he thought. Certainly there was nothing in the satellite data to indicate any serious activity. The takeoff went smoothly. The woman was predictably nervous during the procedure. She had gone stiff and ignored the infant‟s wailing once the engines geared up. During liftoff she had reached over and dug her nails into his arm. Soon they had reached cruising altitude. The woman retracted her claws and King finally began to relax. He had participated in flight sabotages in the past. King himself had organized a rather notorious incident in Minnesota, though that plane had been a single engine Cessna carrying only a Senator and his family, nothing like this monster Boeing 747. Still, he thought again that the easiest time to carry out an attack on a flight was right before or during takeoff. Not because the plane was more vulnerable during those times, but rather because there was so much else going on upon which to lay the blame for the ensuing tragedy. To his side, as if agreeing that they were now out of danger, the infant was sleeping on the woman‟s shoulder, blissfully making sucking motions with her mouth. Things were finally becoming calm. Abruptly the plane shuddered and began to turn towards the Potomac River. It was severe enough that King could feel his seatbelt digging into his stomach. He heard 6 Echelon the dull thuds of the overhead luggage knocking around and the passengers began whispering to one another. The pilot‟s voice came over the intercom after a brief crackle. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you will return to your seats and please secure your seatbelts, we are going to be momentarily delayed. We have been diverted by the United States Air Force to avoid flying into one of their training exercises. We should be back on course shortly.” King began sweating again. Something was wrong, he was sure of it. From the front of the plane, he heard heated chatter, different than the calm tone the pilot had used over the intercom. He worked at the laptop again, updating his satellite images. In the last twenty minutes, the chatter ticker had spiked at the nearby Air Force base. There was also corresponding activity from the runways. They were moving quickly and the satellite images he had access to only took a picture every twelve seconds, but it looked like two F-16 Tomcats had made liftoff. Their pilot might have been informed correctly. Maybe those two Tomcats were indeed running a training drill near Washington D.C. airspace. It wasn‟t unheard of, particularly in the years since 9/11. But King couldn‟t stop sweating. After several more minutes, the plane banked again. More shouts came from the front of the plane, this time louder. “I‟m running out of land. Where are you guiding me,” he heard the pilot shout. When he looked out the window, King was startled to see the ocean, flat and blue. They appeared to be heading over the water. Why? To minimize collateral damage, he thought. There were no houses or offices for the plane to fall on over the Atlantic. 7 Echelon Immediately he pulled his carryon bag from under the chair and stuffed the laptop inside. Then he stood and started up the aisle. Predictably, one of the stewardesses stepped to block his path. “Sir, the fasten seat belt sign is-,” she began, and then screamed as he shoved her to the side and continued on. When he arrived at the cockpit door, he found the Air Marshall standing with his sidearm drawn. “Stop right there. On the ground, face down.” King took another step forward. “Tell the pilot he has to land the plane. Get us back over land, and get us on the ground.” “I said down!” The Air Marshall made a deliberate show of clicking off the safety. “Idiot, you‟re already dead,” King said and turned to walk back to the rear of the plane. It was rare, and he wasn‟t sure if they were high enough for a jump anyway, but occasionally there were crew parachutes at the back of the coach cabin. The Air Marshall followed him cautiously, repeating his order to get down and warning him not to harm any of the passengers in the aisles. King glanced back occasionally to make sure he wouldn‟t be rushed from behind, but kept moving to the rear of the fuselage. He had almost reached the rear of the cabin when he heard the angry howl of jet engines roaring past. Barely noticing that he was back to his original seat, he leaned and peered out the nearest window. One F-16 Tomcat was hovering forty-five degrees off of the wing, looking jagged and menacing. King quickly leaned over the seats in the other 8 Echelon aisle. Another Tomcat was there, too. As he watched, it slowly pulled back, disappearing from sight. He turned back to the Air Marshall. “Put your gun down. We‟ve got about two minutes left, so we might as well not spend it fighting with one another.” The Air Marshall kept his aim trained as King flopped heavily into his seat. The woman and the baby were both staring at him, the latter with a grin. “What the hell?” the pilot shouted from the front of the plane. The Air Marshall looked conflicted, as though trying to decide whether to stay with King or return to the cockpit. The pilot continued, “They‟re targeting us!” The plane immediately went into a steep dive. Probably some kind of evasive maneuver, for all the good it would do. One of the stewardesses went tumbling down the aisle, knocking the Air Marshall to the ground and sending his sidearm rattling under the seats. Oxygen masks dropped and people hurriedly began putting them on. The woman next to him was pleading with him to help her put a mask on the infant. King looked at her and the shrieking baby, and then looked away. It was too late for them anyway. There was nothing he could do. He was being pressed hard into his seat by the force of the dive and it continued to get worse as the pilot lost control. Passengers that had failed to attach their safety belts began rising into the air and slamming into the windows. King looked over at the woman once more and noticed that she had lost the baby and that blood was trickling from her earlobe. Alarms were going off everywhere, mixing their shrieks in with those of the passengers. All of this for a DAT tape, he thought. 9 Echelon And as he heard the pilot yell something about a missile impact, he lowered his head and began to pray. 10 Echelon Ch. 2 “United flight one-oh-two, what is your location?” The dank, crowded control room of the Washington Dulles Air Traffic Authority building rang with the din of one-sided conversation. Four-year control officer David Barker had been tracking the movement of United Flight 102 for the last seventeen minutes, immediately after it had been handed off from the Dulles control tower. For the final ten or so, his senior advisor had been leaning over his shoulder. The problem was the deviation from the flight plan. Barker was tracking the plane‟s path via the transponder beacon that all airlines installed on their birds. He had first noticed the deviation roughly twenty minutes into the flight. Because it had taken off from Dulles, he hadn‟t even had time yet to hand the flight over to the next leg‟s controller. Its proximity to DC when the flight first diverted from the flight plan had nearly caused Barker to issue the terror alert, but its path never went near the capital. 11 Echelon Instead, it flew southeast over Fredericksburg, south of Quantico, and over the Chesapeake Bay. At that point, they were effectively over the Atlantic and out of harm‟s way. Shortly before they had reached water, Barker had radioed the pilot to ask him what the hell was going on. The pilot had responded with some story about an Air Force training exercise, which didn‟t make any sense at all. The nearest Air Force base that regularly ran airborne drills was in Langley, and they usually conducted them over the water to minimize collateral risk. Regardless, any military exercise would have been logged with the FAA and passed down the switchboard to all of the controllers at Dulles. Still, mistakes sometimes happened and Barker had put a call in to their Air Force liaison, who told him that no training exercises were planned for another week. So what the hell was this pilot talking about? He hadn‟t sounded hysterical, and Barker had dealt with flight crises enough that he could tell when pilots were speculating or lying. He decided to just play along, ready to hit the terror alert if the plane turned back towards Washington. He had logged the new flight path and maintained contact with the pilot, listening for any sign that something was off. Eventually Barker grew frustrated and told the pilot that there was no training exercise and that he was going to alert the Air Force if he didn‟t turn the plane around and get back on course. “But I‟m telling you, they‟re the ones that gave me this heading,” the pilot said, sounding like he was getting frustrated himself. “And I‟ve got two fighter jets tailing me that won‟t let me deviate from this course.” 12 Echelon Barker immediately rechecked his radar. There were no fighters according to the screen. Only Flight 102. He frowned and began to wonder if the pilot might be having a breakdown after all. That‟s when he‟d heard angry shouts about targeting locks and missiles over the radio. Barker glanced at his supervisor, who looked equally perplexed. Back on the screen, Flight 102‟s readings had gone all screwy, registering severe pitches and oscillations that looked to Barker like evasive maneuvers. It wasn‟t the kind of thing that commercial aircraft were built to withstand. Then the radio crackled and went silent. Barker looked back at the radar screen. United Flight 102 had disappeared. And now he‟d been trying for ten minutes to raise the pilot on the radio, but there was nothing but static. “What the hell,” Barker shook his head. He turned to his supervisor. “I don‟t get it,” the supervisor frowned. “Log the coordinates when the transponder went offline and issue the terror watch. I‟ll call the FAA.” *** John Baez had been the one on call for the FAA‟s Washington-Dulles office, just down the Potomac. His office was in charge of supervising all of the commercial carriers, and he was one of the six agents assigned to United Airlines. It was an enormous job, one that far outreached the FAA‟s funding, something about which his supervisor had reminded him after providing him with an agency sedan and a map to the 13 Echelon crash location in the Chesapeake Bay. With fare hikes coming frequently and ridership plummeting due to the economy, the airline business was getting squeezed and the old whispered demands of deregulation were starting to be heard again. It was causing even the senior agents in Baez‟s office to worry about their jobs and update their resumes. He made the turn off of the highway and drove along the coast of the bay. Eventually he saw the flashing lights of ambulances and cars marked NTSB, for the National Transportation Safety Board. He parked on the shoulder and made his way through the grass towards a rocky, dirty beach. One of the NTSB lackeys who‟d been milling about came jogging to meet him. “You from the IAD office?” IAD was the abbreviation for Dulles International Airport. “Yes, what have you found?” “We just confirmed that it‟s Flight 102 from the serial numbers on part of the fuselage.” The young man squinted in the sun. “Truth be told, there isn‟t a whole lot left.” “Uh-huh.” Baez pulled out his blackberry and began typing notes as he asked questions. Was the flight recorder recovered? Was it intact? Had they confirmed the entry point? What was the condition of the flight deck? Were there any survivors? Were there any bodies? The young man answered negatively or uncertainly in nearly every case, prompting Baez to lower the Blackberry and glare. “Look, you have to have found something.” 14 Echelon “Like I said, sir, there isn‟t a whole lot left.” “Let me talk to lead NTSB agent on site then. He ought to know more.” “I‟m the lead agent, sir.” The young man squinted again. “Look, maybe you should just take a look for yourself.” They made their way towards the water. Baez hadn‟t been able to see them before because of the high grass, but the agents had assembled three distinct piles of debris out of the reach of the water. One was tail, one was fuselage, and the other was flight deck. He could tell by material of the fragments and their shape. The piles were fairly small, with maybe fifteen pounds of scrap in each. In the water were several inflated rafts manned by more agents. They were reaching into the water or casting out fishing nets. None of them seemed to be making for shore to drop anything off. “This is all you‟ve collected?” “Yes, sir, somewhere around fifty pounds.” “And you‟ve scanned under water?” “Using passive sonar and magnetic response for the metal. We‟ve got nothing, sir.” The agent bit his lip. “Something to add?” Baez asked him. “Sir, some of the men have heard rumors that the Air Force shot something down over the bay. Something big. And there was the rogue flight warning issued from Dulles.” His implication was obvious. “The Air Force doesn‟t shoot down civilian planes,” Baez sighed. “Tell your men to stop spreading rumors.” “But if it really was terrorists, wouldn‟t they—“ 15 Echelon “They haven‟t shot down a civilian aircraft in the entire history of flight,” Baez cut him off. “Perhaps they will have to, sometime in the future, but I can guarantee you that they didn‟t shoot down this plane.” “How do you know?” “Because they had no reason to,” Baez said, trying to maintain his patience. “They were over water and headed due east over the Pacific. What danger could they be?” The NTSB agent seemed to consider that and then nodded. He said he was going to gather up the other senior agents and have them issue warnings to their crews about spreading false rumors. In the meantime, Baez made his way back to the salvage piles and picked through them. He found the remains of the FDR in one of the piles. Flight Data Recorders were one of the infamous black boxes that the media constantly referred to. Reporters talked about them like they were they eyes of God on a flight, able to spit back exactly what happened on any commercial airliner. In truth, FDRs were notoriously unreliable. Single faults in one of the data drives could and often did result in faults throughout the machine. He was just about to bend down and collect the contents when he heard shouts from further up the beach. He saw the NTSB lead agent gesticulating angrily as he argued with two men in dark suits. The men were frowning and kept shaking their heads, one of them repeatedly holding up a piece of paper. He stood and made his way over. “John Baez, FAA,” he said to the two men, reaching out his hand. 16 Echelon They ignored it. The one with the paperwork held it up. “This area is being quarantined by the NSA. Everyone needs to be off of this beach in the next twenty minutes.” “This is a crash site,” Baez said sharply. He couldn‟t imagine what the NSA would be doing here. “We need time to investigate.” “Not possible,” the NSA agent replied. “Twenty minutes from now, this beach is going to be hit by low-grade napalm. We believe that the plane that crashed was carrying a biological weapon. You‟re to remove nothing from the site and vacate immediately. We need to cleanse the area to ensure it does not spread.” Baez immediately felt unclean. He turned to the NTSB agent. “You heard them. Gather your men and let‟s get the hell out of here.” “But sir,” the agent began. “Biological weapon,” Baez said, emphasizing the words. “You want to stay here and catch whatever they were carrying, fine. I‟m going back to Dulles.” The NTSB agent frowned again, but then went off to gather his men. It was only after he was out of earshot that Baez asked to see the NSA agents‟ identification and paperwork again. It all appeared to check out. There was little else he could do, so he began making his way back up the beach and towards the highway. The NTSB agents were already back on shore and gathering their equipment. He looked and saw the two NSA agents digging through the salvage piles. One of them reached down and pulled out a thin black laptop computer. He broke the laptop apart and retrieved some sort of data disc. He looked around quickly, not noticing Baez, and slid it into his trench coat. 17 Echelon Baez frowned. Something wasn‟t sitting right about all this. But his supervisor‟s statements about their budget and lack of pay rang in his memory. After one last look over the beach and the water beyond, he returned to his car and drove back to the office. 18 Echelon Ch. 3 “Uncle Doc, are you going to hunt aliens today?” Payton Connor was standing in the kitchen of his apartment on the northwest side of Chicago. He hadn‟t yet made it into his suit and coat, instead concentrating on the perfect over-easy flip of his niece‟s eggs, getting his caffeine intake from his coffee, and watching the television on the counter. Payton was just shy of thirty, an investigator at the Center for UFO Studies in Chicago. His niece, who was ten and enthusiastically told her friends that her uncle chased little green men, was waiting at the table for her breakfast. She was staying with him for the week while his sister was away on business. He had a sneaking suspicion there was a lot less work going on than she had let on, but he liked Jennifer‟s company and she seemed to enjoy her time at the small two-bedroom apartment. She was partially disabled, having had a small stroke when she was an infant. 19 Echelon It had happened slowly, starting in her left leg before presenting in the other. Than it took the knees, the thighs, and pelvic area. The doctors never did figure out what had caused the stroke. His sister had cried in his arms when the doctors confronted her with the paralysis, but eventually she‟d reverted to cold anger when she overheard one of the interns saying that all patients were puzzles to be solved. Why had they given up on her daughter‟s puzzle? For whatever reason, the idea of life‟s problems as a puzzle had stuck with Payton, persisting in his personal and professional life. “Well, are you?” Jennifer asked from her wheelchair at the table. “Are you going to find flying saucers and kill the aliens?” “You know that‟s not what I do, Jenny.” “I know. You tell people they‟re crazy liars.” Payton laughed. “Close enough.” Actually, as a senior investigator at CUFOS, his job was to respond to sightings of UFOs and other paranormal phenomena, determine the validity of the report, and catalog it. It was true that most of the time the reports were cranks and lies. Payton himself had gotten a reputation for dissecting stories like a surgeon. In fact, that was how he had earned the nickname Doc. Now everyone used it, so much so that somewhere along the line even Jennifer had picked it up. He dropped two eggs onto her plate and pulled up a chair. “You look tense,” Jennifer said. Despite her condition, she appeared to enjoy mothering him. This was her concerned tone. “Do you need a cigarette?” “And what does a little girl like you know about cigarettes?” “I know that they kill people,” she said matter-of-factly. “And I know you smoke one whenever you‟re not happy.” 20 Echelon Such a wonderfully observant child, Payton thought. “Just finish eating so we can get you ready for sports camp. Mrs. Sloan should be here to pick you up soon.” “Uncle,” she said severely. “I‟m your niece. I have a right to know. Are you having trouble with a girl?” Unfortunately. “Eat,” he said again, taking a seat. “You‟re not going to make me late again.” She stuck out her lip. “I hate camp. All the kids are in wheelchairs.” Payton chuckled. “So are you.” “I want to play with the normal kids.” She got like this from time to time, when she would suddenly become intensely aware of her disability and want to break free from it. It was admirable, and it was sad. He was going to try and reassure her, but the reporter on the news caught his attention. Apparently there had been a crash out east. The terror alert had been issued, some kind of chemical weapons threat. The reporter breezed through the facts so fast it was hard to follow. Then the camera cut away to some FAA representative named Baez. He was explaining crash procedure, but the reporter didn‟t seem interested. She kept trying to bring the conversation back to casualty numbers and the monetary value of the damage. Payton was about to give up on the report when that Baez guy mentioned something about the government napalming a beach. “Christ,” he muttered. “Language,” Jennifer clucked at him. “What‟s the girl‟s name?” Payton thoughts returned to his niece and his coming day. “Chanel, honey.” “Like the perfume?” Jennifer loved perfume. 21 Echelon “Yes, like the perfume.” “Is she your girlfriend?” “No, she‟s my new partner,” Payton said, making an effort not to grimace at the word. He‟d had partners in the past. It had never worked out. “And if you don‟t eat your breakfast, I‟m going to be late for her first day. That wouldn‟t be too good, would it?” “No,” she shook her head. “Never keep a lady waiting.” Then she broke out laughing. Payton laughed with her. “Where do you learn this stuff?” “Television, Uncle Doc.” They ate in silence for a while. The anchorman back in the studio was onto a story about some kind of charitable donation to a scholarship group from Jonathan Dowd, a well-known businessman in the energy industry. Then there were the local sports scores. The Cubs had lost again, no surprise. He swore inwardly, watching the highlights as he cleared the table. He was just finishing when he heard a honk out front. Jennifer pushed away from the table and started rolling towards the front door. “Bye Uncle Doc.” “How about your jacket, sweetheart,” Payton called after her. “I‟ll be fine. It‟s not even cold out.” “Take it anyway.” “But Uncle…” “Don‟t but Uncle me,” Payton said, trying to bury a laugh. Even the frustrating times with her made him smile. “Get your jacket, missy.” 22 Echelon He made sure that she retrieved her jacket from the front closet before she made her way out the door. Payton followed her onto the front stoop of the two flat. He shared the porch with two other apartments. He waved once at Jennifer as she was being lifted into the van. She lifted he hand briefly, but it was a halfhearted gesture. She had already switched personas to her social setting. Now she was cool, indifferent Jennifer. She had once told him that the other kids looked up to her, that she was a “queen on wheels”. As he watched the van make for the end of the block, he saw a dark sedan sitting at the corner. It was parked on the other side of the road and he noticed that there were several cigarette butts outside the driver‟s side door. This part of Wicker Park wasn‟t the best neighborhood in the city, but most of the crime problems arose from nearby gang territory. For all of their menacing and posturing, gang-bangers didn‟t roll around in black sedans. He thought about calling the police, or walking down the street and investigating himself. Before he could decide what to do, however, he heard the text message alert on his phone going off. He went inside and flipped the phone open. CUFOS HQ ASAP – IFI TDAY “Damn,” he muttered. Something must be up. It was from the director, telling him to get to the CUFOS building in a hurry. It was still almost two hours before he would normally be due at his desk. The last abbreviations told him why. He would be leaving on an IFI later. That was an in-the-field investigation. Somebody somewhere had called in a report. 23 Echelon Ch. 4 Morning traffic was notoriously frustrating in Chicago. Fortunately Payton‟s apartment and CUFOS headquarters were both near Western Avenue, allowing him to avoid the crowded highways and drive his Jeep Wrangler to work without too much of a hassle. Payton took a peek in the rearview mirror. He hadn‟t had time to do much more than shower and throw on his clothes. His short dark hair looked disheveled and his naturally thin and angular face made the bags under his eyes look like moon craters. He used to be more active, playing volleyball at his health club, jogging after work. Lately he‟d been spending more time in his apartment, trying out pricey bottles of Irish whiskey. It wasn‟t that he was depressed, and he didn‟t think he was an alcoholic. But when you‟re an investigator at the Center for UFO Studies, there were few people who could help from laughing at your vocation, and in modern times, your job was who you were. That made him a kook. His niece might enjoy telling people that he chased little 24 Echelon green men, but Jennifer‟s glee was everyone else‟s disdain. Parents, former friends, old professors, all of them had expressed surprise when he‟d left the corporate world for CUFOS. He‟d worked in human resources after graduating from Illinois Chicago. He had a BA in Psychology with a minor in Business. To make his job prospects worse, he had also chosen to pursue a focus on ancient languages, largely due to his interest in religion. His grades had been good enough that some of Chicago‟s largest companies had come calling, including Leo Burnett, where he‟d ended up as a recruiting executive. That had lasted a little over a year. Somewhere between growing up in a rigid Catholic family and a near obsession with his studies of human behavior, Payton had picked up a rather impressive ability to determine when people were lying. He‟d long since shed his parent‟s religion, but his hatred for liars had remained. That made the business world difficult to navigate, since everyone lied, particularly during the interview process. He found he had trouble recommending anyone he interviewed for hire, since he always detected a lie at some point in their interview. He‟d left Leo Burnett before they could fire him. He had briefly tried again at Prudential, but before long he gave that job up as well. He had considered going back to school, maybe getting his advanced degree and applying for a teaching job. Then he‟d gotten a call from a Professor Hiroshi Mikora asking him if he believed in UFOs. He‟d said no. Then the Professor had invited him to lunch. Mikora was the director of CUFOS, a group comprised mostly of Astronomy and Physics professors from Northwestern. He said that he was friends with one of the Psych professors at UIC and that he‟d heard of that special talent he had, the one that made it 25 Echelon impossible for him to work in a corporate environment. Mikora told him that this same trait would take him far at CUFOS. Payton had argued at first, mainly because he didn‟t believe in UFOs. “That‟s good,” Mikora had told him. “Most of the reports we get are fakes. You‟re going to help us figure out which ones to study and which to throw away.” He‟d also mentioned that the Center had moved beyond exclusively dealing with UFO reports. Now days they investigated all types of paranormal reports. The pay wasn‟t great, but it wasn‟t bad either. And the work had turned out to be interesting, though perhaps more monotonous than many would expect. Most days he spent behind a desk, armed with only a computer and a telephone. There were times when he was out in the field, and the travel was fun. But the truth was he preferred the work behind the desk. That was where most of the puzzles were, and he loved solving puzzles. In return for solving those puzzles, he had access to virtually every level of the Center. There were a few other investigators, all of them older than Payton, but none of them was given the same amount of freedom. Records, physics, and forensics: he had the run of them all. He knew that his title of Investigator sounded more impressive than it was. It had the ring of law enforcement, with none of the authority. The few times that he‟d gone in the field and been confronted by local detectives or the feds, they had snickered while treating him like a mentally disabled cousin. But CUFOS had its own following. It had been mentioned on television shows. Ufologists treated the Center with a mixture of reverence and wariness. The Center was one of the institutions that gave credence to the 26 Echelon paranormal, though the inherent skepticism that investigators like Payton brought to the job caused flying saucer chasers to shy away from their final reports. They just couldn‟t understand why he didn‟t believe, and couldn‟t seem to make them understand that he never believed anything. He was still on Western, halfway to work, when Jennifer‟s voice began ringing in his ears. Never keep a lady waiting. “Shit.” He yanked his cell phone from the charger and dialed the main number at the Center. It rang once and Carla picked up on the other end. Carla had been the Center‟s secretary since its inception. Rumor had it that she was ex-CIA. Payton doubted she‟d ever been a spy, but no one knew more about the inner workings of CUFOS. “Center for UFO Studies.” She sounded bored. She always sounded bored. “It‟s Payton.” “You better get your ass in here, Doc,” Carla said. “What‟s going on?” “Schuda is going crazy,” she said. “No one else seems to know anything. Rumor is it‟s something big, though. Did I mention Schuda is going crazy?” Professor Michael Schuda was the head of research. He was also a notorious occultist, even by CUFOS standards. Like all the other department heads he was a professor at a local university; Columbia, in this case. Unlike the others, he taught classes in the liberal arts, specifically American History. His most popular class was called Who Killed Kennedy. 27 Echelon “Are you there?” Carla asked. “I‟m here.” “What are you going to do about your new partner?” “I wasn‟t aware I needed to do anything,” he said. “The Director wants you to pick her up and bring her in for the meeting this morning. Didn‟t you get the email?” “Uh, no.” Actually, he‟d forgotten to check his laptop before leaving. It was something all investigators were supposed to do each morning, although there was rarely anything in his inbox at seven in the morning. It was just one of those bureaucratic rules that permeated all institutions, even weird ones like CUFOS. “Where does she live?” “South Side.” “You have to be kidding.” The Center was on Peterson. He‟d been heading north on Western for the last twenty minutes. “How far south?” “Near Midway Airport.” “That‟s forty-five minutes away. We‟ll never make it on time.” “Good thing I sent her an email asking her to meet you at your coffee place down the street.” She was laughing, toying with him. He got coffee at the same shop every morning to supplement whatever he had managed to make for himself at home. “When?” “She should be there in the next ten minutes.” He sighed. “Have you met her?” “When she interviewed.” 28 Echelon “How bad is she?” “She‟s…eager.” Christ, he thought. “UFO nut?” “At least this one‟s pretty.” He asked her to tell Schuda that they were on their way just as he was turning into the parking lot of the coffee shop. Craig‟s Coffee was one of those special places that only remained in big cities like Chicago. It hadn‟t yet been tainted by big company politics. They served strong coffee, plain bagels, and coffee cake. The kids behind the counter tended to have dark, spiky hair, regardless of their gender, and they all seemed to know his name. Payton placed his order with a pouting teenage girl: one black coffee and one plain bagel. He paid and took his tray to the nearest window. He‟d taken a brief look around the shop upon entering, looking for anyone who might be his new partner. Carla‟s description didn‟t give him much to work with, particularly with what appeared to be several good-looking women in the shop. Most of them looked high school or college aged, however, so he had a seat and pulled his new partner‟s file from his briefcase while he waited. At least Chanel Falasco had an impressive history jacket. She had graduated from Western Illinois with degrees in both Criminology and Forensic Science. According to the interview notes, she‟d had the opportunity to do some photo modeling work, but she came from a long line of Chicago cops, and she joined up immediately after she graduated. There she progressed through the ranks with surprising quickness, 29 Echelon particularly for a woman. She‟d gone from patrol to narcotics in less than two years and had earned her detective‟s badge shortly after. Then CUFOS had come calling. When the interviewer had asked why she wanted to leave behind a successful career in law enforcement to join the Center, Chanel had revealed that she‟d had an uncle growing up that used to tell her stories about his work looking for aliens for the government. He‟d been part of the SETI program, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life, something of a running joke amongst the scientific community. It was a joke amongst the rest of her family too, apparently, since her father had all but barred her uncle from the family home. “Excuse me?” came a voice from behind. Payton turned to see a woman in suit pants and a garish button down striped shirt. It was the kind that college graduates were wearing, with vibrant colors and a wide, thick collar. Business casual clubbing gear, as he usually referred to it. She was a bit tall, and her hair was that distracting kind of dark brown that seemed to reflect every photon of light. He recalled from her file that she had gotten some modeling offers in college and he decided that she could have made a career of it if not for a slightly largish nose. Please don’t let this be her, he thought. “You aren‟t Payton Conner by chance, are you?” So much for wishful thinking. He stood up and offered his hand, doing his best to put a smile on his face. “Call me Doc. Everyone else does.” “Chanel,” she smiled and took his hand. “Pronounced like the perfume.” “We don‟t have long, Ms. Falasco, so have a seat.” 30 Echelon She pulled up a chair, looking comfortable and at ease. Payton remembered his first day at CUFOS. He had met the then ranking investigator in this very coffee shop. And he had been nervous as hell. Either this woman, this girl with the perfume name was extremely confident in herself or she had no idea what she was getting herself into. “Everyone I‟ve talked to has told me about you,” she said. He noticed that she had a stylish mug in front of her instead of a paper cup like the one in his hand. Brown foam was nearly spilling over the top, one of those expensive drinks that were in vogue. “How can you drink that swill?” She smiled. “I‟m looking forward to getting in the field with you.” The field? “The Center‟s brochure gives an inflated impression of our job, I can assure you. If you are expecting excitement at CUFOS you are going to be disappointed, even on the rare occasion that we are in the field,” he said. “Rare? I thought you were the lead field operative for the organization.” “I am, and even for me, field work is rare. We go out four or five times a year, on average.” “What do we do the rest of the time,” she asked. She looked uneasy. “Research more than anything else. Chances are you will spend the overwhelming majority of your career at a desk behind a computer.” “Sounds boring.” He sighed. “What is it exactly you think we do at CUFOS?” “We investigate reports of unidentified flying objects, unless I have the acronym wrong.” She was pouting 31 Echelon “The acronym is right, just outdated. CUFOS was started years ago by a college professor, a man who was skeptical of reported UFO sightings and abductions. Obviously he managed to keep an open mind about the subject, but his roots in the sciences remained. Today, the Center studies a variety of unexplained phenomena, any that we deem worthy of investigation. That boils down to about five or six cases per investigator per year.” “Yes, I was briefed, you know.” “Then you know that nine out of ten reports we get are deemed not credible enough to investigate. The majority are hoaxes so fake that we dismiss them without going out into the field.” She seemed to consider for a moment. “For a group created to study the occult, it seems like you are being very judgmental about what is legitimate and what isn‟t.” Payton sighed. He hadn‟t meant to broach the subject this soon, but what the hell. “You‟re a believer, I gather.” She gave him a dazzling smile. “In UFO‟s? Absolutely.” He shook his head. “Is that a problem?” He paused a moment. “There are two types of Investigators at the Center. There are people like you, who believe in UFO‟s and aliens and every other crazy little story they hear. The other type of investigator is like me.” “Annoying?” she asked, this time her smile was wicked in a way he wouldn‟t have thought possible. 32 Echelon “Competent,” Payton replied. He would not have his emotions played upon, certainly not by a rookie. “I don‟t believe in anything when it comes to this job. There are things I can prove and there are things that I suspect. You say you believe in UFOs, but all it means is that you don‟t have any proof. You just want it to be true. This, of course, means your judgment is affected. That‟s very dangerous in this line of work.” “And if you don‟t accept anything except what you can prove, then you have closed yourself off to any possibilities that might be un-provable.” He leaned across the table to look her more closely in the eye. “My way works.” She smiled, but did not reply. He glanced at his watch and then quickly drained the rest of his coffee. “Let‟s get moving. I‟ll meet you in the lobby.” He almost left, but then turned back to where she sat. “And from now on, you dress like me. White button down or blouse, everything else in dark colors.” She looked at him sharply. “What... like the men in black?” Payton grinned. “Hey, you‟re the believer. Get moving.” 33 Echelon Ch. 5 She walked through the revolving doors at the CUFOS building some five minutes after him. Somehow she had managed to change into a white button-down to match the same pair of black suit pants she‟d already been wearing. Payton was left to ponder the reason she might have a clean shirt in her car. He carefully avoided the image of the actual disrobing, of course. His traditional problems with partners not withstanding, he had grown up with a firm understanding that romantic interest with a coworker was never a good idea. His niece could insinuate all she like, but no amount of attraction would lead him down that dangerous path. He had been trying to get details about the IFI out of Carla at the front desk. Officially, she wasn‟t supposed to be informed about remote investigations, or much else for that matter, so of course she probably knew everything about the IFI and a likely a great deal more. But whatever was going on, Carla wasn't telling. 34 Echelon Chanel walked up and stood next to him. “Do I look boring enough now?” Carla chuckled. “You‟re right,” she said. “She is a pain in the ass.” “I told you,” Payton sighed. Chanel rolled her eyes. “Can we get started?” “Follow me.” They boarded the lobby elevator. On the way up, he turned to her. “You familiar with the history of CUFOS?” She said that she only knew what he‟d told her at the coffee shop and what was on the website, so he filled her in. It was Allen Hynek, a doctor of astronomy at Ohio State University who started the Center for UFO Studies. The professor had first served as an advisor to both the Senate and Executive Office during the late fifties and early sixties. Hynek had also been the astrological advisor to the United States Air Force on an operation called Project Blue Book. Blue Book had been a military study to determine possible natural causes of reported UFO sightings. It had also been one of the Air Force‟s greatest failures, embarrassing enough that the official reports for Project Blue Book were buried six layers deep under government clearance, too far for most anyone to find. It had been the Blue Book team‟s inability to explain nearly every one of the incidents they studied that had convinced Hynek to start CUFOS in seventy-three. The Center became the first private, scientifically lead organization studying UFO reports. Meanwhile, Hynek wrote a book on the subject, becoming the first person to coin the phrase close encounter. He was humiliated among most of his peers, save the scientists who agreed to come work with him. Their funding came entirely out of their 35 Echelon own pockets at first, although after a few years they began accepting donations from private citizens who believed in their work. Eventually they landed a few commitments from wealthy eccentrics who gave grants and donations, usually as a way to fuel their own fantasies. That had been roughly ten years before present, and those donations had allowed the Center to expand to include non-scientific personnel who were more specifically suited towards investigation rather than science. People who were more like detectives with some scientific background, rather than the vice-versa. People like Payton. “And people like you, too,” he added. The elevator door opened and they walked into the hallway. In the last five years, the Center had expanded their research to other unexplained phenomena. They had conducted a formal investigation at Loch Ness four years ago. They had released an updated report on the Kennedy assassination less then two years ago, with their own breakthrough research on the homemade films being featured on Sixty Minutes. Last year, Payton had led an investigation of illegal government monitoring through American currency, based on a tip from a disgruntled Treasury Department employee. “The point is we investigate more than just UFO sightings and abductions these days. But our main focus is always to determine validity. And we almost always find the reports to be false.” “Almost?” Chanel repeated as they continued walking down a long corridor towards the glass-paneled door at the end of it. 36 Echelon “Yes, almost,” he answered, walking through the door and nodding to the woman behind the desk. “All the rest remain unexplained. Either way, every time we investigate, we fill out a full report including any evidence we obtain. Those reports are all stored in house, on floor five. That entire story of the building is dedicated to maintaining a library of our investigations. We‟re on six, which is the main office floor. This is where the division heads have their offices. Two through four are labs. Everything from a full forensic detail to nuclear and chemical labs. We are still a step behind the government agencies, but only a step. We can do all kinds of science here, something that comes in handy for forensics.” He continued through the halls of the sixth floor, introducing her to each of the department heads, all of them professors at local universities in conjunction with their role at CUFOS: Rob Garcea ran Astronomy, Dan Hobbes did Forensics, Travis Eliason headed up Physics, and Mike Schuda was in charge of their Research division. Payton tried to imagine Schuda‟s office through Chanel‟s eyes, as if for the first time: small, cramped quarters with a desk that surely would have been dusty if only there wasn‟t a mountain of paper and folder upon it. The walls were covered in tack boards, rife with more reports, maps, and charts than anyone could hope to keep organized. The wall behind the desk was a top-to-bottom window overlooking Peterson Avenue and a few trees. It would have been pretty if the glass weren‟t covered in a film of grime that gave everything a muddied sandblasted tone. The man behind the desk was a contrast to the office. Mike Schuda was short, nervous, and primly dressed. Others at the Center joked that he looked like the bookkeeper of a mob outfit. 37 Echelon Payton said, “Mike Schuda, meet Chanel Falasco.” Schuda stood. “Chanel, welcome.” He gave her a nervous smile before turning back to Payton. “Close the door please, so we can go over your IFI.” Payton glanced at Chanel, who was frowning. Obviously she had not been made aware of Schuda‟s reputation of paranoia. “What have you got, Mike.” Schuda waved them into their seats. “A classic, to be sure,” Schuda said with a smile. He reached across the desk and pushed two manila file folders to the edge, which Payton and Chanel picked up and thumbed through. “Roswell in New Mexico, the location of the most famous UFO sighting in history.” “Yes,” Payton said. He glanced over at Chanel, noting with disdain the eager expression on her face. “And that sighting has been debunked over and over again. I was there myself four years ago and found nothing.” “Maybe you weren‟t looking hard enough,” came Chanel‟s voice from beside him. He closed his eyes and lightly bit his tongue. “Yes, well, either way, there‟s a farmer who claims not only to have footage of a sighting, but apparently there‟s something going on with his crops he wants you to look at.” Schuda gave them a nod towards the files. “You can bone up on the material on the plane. Your tickets are in the paperwork. I just booked them. Flight leaves tomorrow.” “What do you mean tickets?” Payton asked. He studied Schuda closely and saw his eyes flick nervously to Chanel. When he turned to glance at her again, he seemed to register for the first time the fact that she had her own file, which surely included a plane ticket. He turned back. “No way, Mike.” 38 Echelon “Sorry, Doc, nothing you or I can do about it. She‟s going.” “Not if I have anything to say about it.” “You don‟t. This came from the Director.” Payton stood and immediately walked out the door and started down the hallway. Chanel was on his heels. “What‟s your problem,” she demanded, struggling to keep up with him. “Are you kidding? Today is your first day. You don‟t have the background or the science to participate in an IFI yet.” “You might be surprised if you gave me a chance.” He stopped and turned to her. “This isn‟t personal. I‟ve been doing this for a long time. I‟m told that I‟m…one of the better investigators here. And even I wasn‟t ready to tackle an IFI on my first day.” “It‟s hard to imagine you as a new recruit,” She smiled. “But perhaps I‟m better than you were.” “I hope you are. That would be good for the Center, not to mention it would mean I could sooner wean you off as my partner if you progress quickly.” He took a step closer to her, fixing her with a stare. “But trust me, you aren‟t ready for this. You don‟t have the science.” And with that, he turned and started once more down the hallway. She followed. Soon Payton was striding past the Director‟s secretary and into his office. Director Mikora had already met Chanel when she had interviewed, of course, but Payton introduced them anyway. 39 Echelon “Ah, yes, investigator Falasco,” the director said, his white beard widening as he smiled. Payton could feel his partner‟s eyes on him as the director had used her formal title. “It‟s good to see you again. We‟ve been looking forward to your arrival for some time now.” Director Mikora glanced at Payton. “Some of us have, anyway.” “Thank you Mr. Director,” Falasco said. “I‟m already learning so much. I can‟t wait to get out in the field.” Payton cleared his throat. “Boss, Schuda seems to be under the impression that two of us are going on an IFI tomorrow.” “Of course,” Director Mikora said, and Payton could feel the beginnings of a headache forming in his temple. “You and your new partner.” Payton stared across the desk for a moment, an uncomfortable silence dropping like a blanket across the room. He could feel Chanel‟s eyes boring into his head, and Director Mikora had a look of waiting expectation across his face. “Mr. Director, could I speak with you in private a moment?” The Director took off his glasses and began to polish them. “No, Payton, you may not. I think I have already made myself clear on this matter, and you agreed to cooperate. If you‟ve changed your mind, we can always find you a desk in the investigative division.” He had a desk already, of course. The Director was threatening to take the field work away permanently, something that only happened to agents who reached the age of fifty, not thirty. It wasn‟t that he loved the field work, but there was a status implication that went along with being a field investigator. To have that taken away would have 40 Echelon limited the puzzles that they would ask him to solve, and he loved the puzzles too much to give them up. The conversation he was referring to would have been better described as a verbal free for all. A new investigator was one thing. One that had Chanel‟s kind of history jacket was something different all together, and Payton had made it well known that he did not approve of the hire. She simply did not have the scientific background, in his opinion, and he had considered her assignment as his partner as something of a babysitting job. “I understand sir,” Payton managed through gritted teeth. “But I think that having her in the field on her second day might be a bit premature. She needs the background in the office.” Director Mikora waved a dismissive hand. “Investigator Falasco has outstanding detective skills, as exemplified by her jacket. You can help her along with the science.” It was an obvious dismissal, the end of any chance for discussion on the topic, so they both got up and started out of the office. He led the way and could feel Chanel glaring at the back of his head again. He was almost through the door when Director Mikora‟s voice came from behind them. “And Payton, I want you to pay attention. You just might learn a thing or two from your new partner.” Seething, Payton continued on through the door. They walked back the way they had come, towards the main office where the bullpen and their desks awaited. Payton knew the silence would not last. “Look, if you‟re going to say it, just say it.” “Sounds like you don‟t care for my appointment,” Chanel said as they walked. 41 Echelon “It‟s not personal. You don‟t have the background for this job.” “I have investigative skills.” He shook his head, and they came to a stop. “Four years in the Chicago Police Department hardly qualifies you to investigate the type of cases you‟re going to see here.” “I have degrees in criminology and forensic-” she started in a huff. Then she took a deep breath and glared at him. “This is because I‟m a woman. Because of how I look.” He turned on her. “You were hired because of how you look. And even worse, you took the job because you believe in science fiction.” He shook his head again. “You don‟t have the science.” “Looks like I‟m going to have the chance to prove you wrong earlier than you thought,” she said. Without another word, she shoved passed him and stalked down the hall. Payton sighed and turned after her. “You have any idea where you‟re going?” She stopped. “Where‟s my desk?” “This way.” Payton showed her around the bullpen. It was where nearly all of the investigative and non-scientific personnel were set up. They worked in cubicles, the same as he‟d had in the corporate world. He showed her his system: these files go in this drawer; there are extra pens in this cabinet, and so on. She commented on the bullpen‟s similarity to her old precinct quarters. It seemed to be comfortable to her, and she picked up on the organization of the office quickly. They were finished sooner than he expected. 42 Echelon Afterwards, it was a simple matter of having her fill out her employee paperwork, and they were done. Payton glanced at his watch. It was just before noon. They had finished with the IFI brief and paperwork in record time. “Now what?” she asked. “Now we go home, pack, and get familiar with the file,” he answered, tapping the manila folder. “Memorize it, even if you have to stay up late to do it. Tomorrow‟s an early day, so be at the Southwest terminal at eight AM.” “We‟re going home?” she asked disbelievingly. “It isn‟t even noon.” “There‟s nothing else for us to do here, and I need to find a sitter for my niece.” Payton tapped the folder again. “Spend the time memorizing the file. It‟s important.” 43 Echelon Ch. 6 The plane had ceased moving backward and was now taxiing towards one of the many runways at O‟Hare Airport on the northwest side. They sat in coach, squeezing into the seats. Chanel had watched impatiently as the rest of the passengers boarded. Once they had started moving, she had lowered the meal tray and propped up a rather slick looking notebook computer. Payton tried to move around and get comfortable. Between the near vertical position of his chair and his knees constantly knocking into the chair in front of him, he couldn‟t get settled. We need more contributions, he thought, not for the first time. Like all investigators, he enjoyed occasional field work, but first class seats would make the travel more pleasurable. “Do we get a meal on this flight,” Chanel asked with no pause in her typing. “Peanuts I think,” Payton said. “It‟s a short flight. We‟ll be on the ground in a few hours.” He noticed that she kept glancing out the window. “Afraid to fly?” 44 Echelon Her face soured. “No. Any second now one of those stiff bitches is going to come over here and tell me to close my computer. She‟ll tell me it can mess with the flight communications.” “So?” “She‟ll be lying. Ignorant of her lie, yes, but lying nonetheless,” Chanel said. She must have seen the look on his face because she explained. “Digital transmissions make all of this precaution meaningless. In reality, they make you shut everything off for law enforcement reasons. It makes the passengers easier to monitor.” Payton nodded. “I suppose you ought to know. So you‟re what, anxious for the stewardess to come by so you can pick a fight?” “No. Schuda emailed me some satellite data I want to get familiar with.” She turned back to her notebook. “Know the territory in which you‟ll be working. That‟s good practice,” he said. “What did you think of the background file?” “I was familiar with most of it already,” she shrugged. “I was surprised by the witness profiles. It makes those people look like nut jobs. I‟ve been reading and hearing about some of those same people for years, and now my file says they‟re attention seeking crazies.” “Like I said, we‟ve known this one was false for some time. I wrote most of those witness profiles myself when we were here a few years ago.” The stewardess came by and asked Chanel to close her computer and return her meal tray to the full and upright position. 45 Echelon Chanel watched her continue down the aisle. “We‟ll see,” she said simply, and then returned to look out the window. “Given the historical complications of the incident, I‟ll be excited to finally get a look at the terrain.” Payton sighed. It was hard to blame her, though, and she was right about the incident‟s history being a convoluted mess. The world‟s most famous UFO incident occurred on June 24th, in 1947. An amateur pilot named Ken Arnold reported seeing some kind of flying disc while he was in the air. Very little was made of the report initially, since it was uncorroborated. The fact that the nearby Roswell Air Force Base was long suspected to be the launching pad for experimental aircraft led most of the media to conclude that Arnold simply did not know what he was looking at. All of that changed on July 2nd, when a rancher named Mack Brazel reported to the Roswell sheriff that he had discovered a large amount of unusual detritus on his property, some seventy-five miles northwest of Roswell. The sheriff in turn contacted Colonel William Blanchard at the RAF base, who sent a team of counter-intelligence officers out to investigate the debris. They were led by Brazel to the sight and promptly carried off the debris, keeping some of it at the RAF base outside of Roswell, and sending the rest to Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. Days later, Colonel Blanchard released an official Air Force statement, in which he stated that a flying disc had been recovered and sent to higher Air Force authorities for investigation. The report was backed up when an Air Force official told the local newspaper, The Roswell Daily Record, that the 509th Bombardment group stated that they had come into possession of a flying saucer. 46 Echelon The very next day the RAF base released a contradictory report, claiming that what they had come into possession of was in fact a high altitude weather balloon. There were follow up interviews in the Daily Record, as well as a piece on the local radio station. An Air Force weather officer was flown in within days, confirming the find as a “hexagonal weather balloon”, and making the Air Force report official. In the following years, several investigations and reports threw confusion over the Roswell incident. High-ranking officers from the Roswell Air Force Base retired and claimed they were ordered to start a cover-up of the story, mostly in best-selling books. Mack Brazel‟s story also seemed to contradict itself. Almost at once, he had told officials that he was now sure that the find was a weather balloon, but also told them that he had found such balloons before and that none had looked anything like the debris. The Roswell sheriff refused to comment, besides referring any investigators to Roswell Air Force Base officials. Friends and family members of the witnesses made reports in the following years, claiming that they had been confided in regarding what had really happened during the incident. Accusations flew, including everything from the Air Force having an intact aircraft to study, to strange hieroglyphics being discovered on the recovered debris, to government representatives having actually recovered living bodies of the alien life forms who had been piloting Mack Brazel‟s UFO. These accusations were fueled most recently by the advent of the Internet, on which anyone with a story to tell could do so, often with a false sense of validity. “The point is, no one really knows what happened that day,” Payton commented to Chanel, who was listening with a skeptical look on her face. “But the Air Force‟s 47 Echelon story certainly makes more sense than the others. And they have something that all their accusers do not.” “What‟s that?” Chanel asked. “Evidence,” Payton said simply. “They have physical evidence.” “Manufactured evidence?” Chanel smiled. “Possibly,” he shrugged. “Like I said, nobody really knows, but it‟s better than nothing.” The plane pitched steeply during take-off, banking to point southwest before leveling out. Chanel dropped the tray in front of her and once more opened up her laptop. Moments later, the computer screen was filled again with satellite images and topographical displays. Payton practically knew the layout by heart. There was the town itself, now with a population of over fifty thousand. The RAF base was a half hour‟s drive outside the city limits. The ranches and mountains were to the west, where the site of the crash was located. The city itself had changed quite a bit since the forties. RAF airbase had closed briefly, sending Roswell into a recession that cost the town half its population. The abandoned airbase was now an industrial yard, mostly for utility companies servicing Arizona and California. The Air Force had opened the new base nearby, though it was substantially different, being constructed not of large hangars and aircraft sheds, but underground bunkers set beside the runway strips. The real cause for the newfound prosperity of the town of Roswell was the emerging tourist market resulting from the UFO reports. When Payton had last visited 48 Echelon the town a few years back, he was disappointed to see that every shop along Main Street was in some way trying to associate itself with the reported crash. There was the Crash Landing Café and Alien Records. Other World Travel Planners had brought a particularly bad taste to his mouth, especially with its statue of a flying saucer atop the façade. Not that he could blame the townspeople. Main Street was thriving once more, and the town was expanding, unlike most other smaller municipalities in New Mexico. Year after year ufologists, as they called themselves, flocked to the small town to hear lectures from supposed experts, or to take official Roswell UFO tour, or to participate in the yearly “UFO Parade and Celebration”. Most of the interested parties couldn‟t tell truth from fiction, most of the supposed experts did not have a clue as to what they were talking about, and neither group seemed to care. The idea of UFO‟s and government cover-ups was fun, and those people were relishing in that fun. The townspeople would have been foolish not to cash in on their amusement. Chanel stirred next to him. “What is this lake to the west?” Payton peered over at the display, getting a whiff of whatever perfume his partner was wearing. Perfume, he thought. On a CUFOS agent. “It‟s not a lake,” he said, burying his contempt. “It‟s called Two Rivers Reservoir. There are a series of dams that power the town along the rivers.” “That much power for a town that small?” Chanel asked, her brow furrowed. “Well, they sell a lot of the electricity to Arizona and California. The state of New Mexico bases a large part of their economy on energy export, not to mention the 49 Echelon private firms.” But still, now that he thought about it, it was kind of strange, having that many dams along the rivers. It might even be worth taking a trip down Highway 175A to check them out, just to be thorough. God forbid she should mention something about the dams to Schuda and Payton not have an answer for him. “I‟m going to go over the rest of this data,” Chanel said, typing away at the keyboard. “Yeah, that‟s good,” he replied, unbuckling the restraining belt. “I‟m going to hit the bathroom. If I‟m not back in five minutes, I may have flushed myself down the toilet. I hear the suction will rip your head clean off.” Chanel‟s head did not move. “Lovely, Doc.” Figures, Payton thought, coming to a halt as the bathroom door was marked occupied. He shifted from leg to leg a few moments. He thought idly of the way Jennifer did when they went grocery shopping and she was forced to hold nature at bay. Without the use of her legs, she tended simply squirm and scoot in her wheelchair. Payton smiled thinking of her. Finally the colored lever clicked and shifted and the bathroom door opened. An older gentleman in a trench coat shuffled through the narrow opening to exit the bathroom. Payton barely had time to think who wears a trench coat on an airplane, when the old man caught his toe on the ground and lurched sideways. Payton reached out and caught hold of him, cradling him in his arms. “Are you alright?” he asked, feeling the old man‟s hands grasping at his body. “Yes,” the old man responded. “I think I‟ll be fine.” 50 Echelon And then he looked up into Payton‟s eyes, looked down at his pants pocket, back to his eyes. And winked. Payton‟s eyes shifted to look at his trousers, and when he made to look back at the older gentlemen, he found he was already trudging down the aisle, presumably back to his seat. With a frown, Payton continued on into the bathroom. It took a moment to relieve himself and then the toilet was flushing with an angry hiss. He returned to the sink, washed his hands, and then twisted the faucet so that it was barely dripping. He had learned a trick on a trip to Washington D.C. during his high school days: turning the tap slightly on an airplane bathroom sink will create enough of a vacuum to suck a careful amount of cigarette smoke down into the drainage system. When he had first attempted the trick high school he had been terrified of getting caught. Now he was a pro, enough that the post 9/11 restrictions on bathroom conduct didn‟t even faze him. He dug into his breast pocket for his pack of smokes and pulled one from the packaging. Where is my lighter? Normally he kept it alongside the box of Camels, but it wasn‟t there. He began digging through his pockets. His hand gripped the round plastic of his lighter, framed by some other type of material. Rigid, like plastic, but with a slippery feel. Laminated, perhaps? He pulled both out at once, seeing his red plastic lighter sandwiched in between a flimsy square something. Laying the lighter on the stainless steel sink, Payton unfolded the material. It was the corner from one of the in-flight emergency instructions, cut 51 Echelon roughly, as if in a hurry. Payton unfolded it, noting the pictures of people plunging to their doom, calmly sitting with their heads between their legs and air masks held firmly to their mouths. Of more interest was the hasty message scrawled across the pastel graphics. Meet me in the clubhouse at Spring River Golf Course on 8th Street. You will want to hear what I have to say. I’m the one that brought you here. Keep the young puppy on her leash. Tomorrow at 8am. John Doe Payton stared at the torn parchment another minute, going over the old man‟s stumble in his mind and trying to decide how he had gotten the message into his trouser pocket. There was no doubt it had come from him, not in Payton‟s mind. When else would someone have had the time to pass the cryptic message along? No, it had to have been him. The only question was what he ought to do about it. Confront the man in his airplane seat, where there was nowhere to go? Or ignore the situation completely? Should he tell Chanel about the note, or leave her be? That last one was simple enough. The note made it pretty obvious that John Doe, that age old moniker notwithstanding, did not want his new partner anywhere near the Spring River Golf Course. Whatever he decided, whether he went to meet his informant or not, he would not tell Chanel about the note or the encounter. And if he chose to meet 52 Echelon the old man after all, he was certain that he could make the early morning request without his partner ever being aware that he‟d gone. He knew 8th street fairly well, and was pretty sure he recalled the golf course‟s location. It wasn‟t terribly far from their motel. He ought to be able to leave his room, meet the old man, and be back within an hour or so. Chanel might still be sleeping by the time he got back. Payton smoked the cigarette, exhaling into the sink drain. With it seemed to go any consternation about what would happen the next morning. The plane would be landing at Roswell Industrial Air Center in a few hours, and he might as well settle in for the rest of the flight. After all, it seemed that no matter what happened the following day, his trip was going to be far more interesting than he‟d expected. Interesting, he mused. He would have preferred routine, but fate wasn‟t being cooperative. He folded the note back into his pocket and exited the bathroom. Soon he was back in his cramped little seat next to Chanel, desperately trying to recline far enough so he could take a nap. Chanel looked at him a moment and he thought she was going to ask him something, but she said nothing and soon the darkness of sleep overcame him. Roughly three and a half hours later they were driving away from the airport in their rental sedan. Chanel let out a long breath. “That seemed like it was longer than four hours.” Payton shrugged. “You get used to it,” he said. What did she expect? Flashing lights and perps in the backseat? Bookings at the station and overtly serious briefings? If it was excitement she was after, she might as well have stayed with the Chicago Police 53 Echelon Department. I had the most excitement of anyone on the flight, he thought. And all it got me was an invitation to a golf course to meet a wrinkly old man. Is that what she wants? “Will there be any press involved in this?” Chanel asked. “Probably not. We‟ve got one rancher outside of the major population center,” Payton answered. “There isn‟t any tape or pictures, so they‟ll probably leave it alone.” “But what if it‟s true?” “Truth doesn‟t matter,” he said. When she looked confused, he continued. “Look, you were in law enforcement. How many homicides were there in Chicago last year?” “I don‟t know the exact figures,” she said. “Something around three hundred, probably.” “Actually it was just a shade over four hundred,” he corrected her. “Which ones do you remember? The gang member on the west side that killed four prostitutes and one of their customers? How about the south side woman who drowned her three children and then phoned it in as an accident to 911?” “I thought that south side thing was a vehicular homicide case,” Chanel frowned. “No, that was a different incident altogether,” he said as he pulled into the parking lot of the Roswell Motel. “But that‟s the one you remember because it was on the news. And it was only on the news because they had security camera footage of the woman as she drove over two of her victims. And it wasn‟t a homicide case, it was attempted vehicular homicide. No one died, but it made the nine o‟clock news, all because of the video.” Chanel said nothing. 54 Echelon Payton and Chanel checked into their separate quarters. She said she wanted to review their briefing records again and to expect not to hear from her the rest of the night. Payton settled in, flipping on the television to one of the twenty-four hour sports networks and ordering a pizza for delivery. He had another cigarette and thumbed through his copy of the briefing, thinking about the strange old man on the plane and listening as the announcer on the television rambled on about the current Chicago Cubs losing streak. Some things never change, he thought. Looking at the Roswell briefing, he remembered that the old man had suggested he was behind the UFO report to begin with. Did that mean that the report was a farce, designed specifically to get Payton to New Mexico? Or maybe the old man had simply used the event as a way to contact him. Then again, the old man might just be lying, or crazy. This wasn‟t something he‟d had to deal with on an IFI before. I guess some things do change, he thought to himself. A short while later, a knock at the door signaled the arrival of his pizza. Payton paid the delivery boy and opened the box. He sighed. The sauce had gone sloppy at some point in transit, and a few bites confirmed to Payton for the millionth time that nobody outside of Chicago could make a pizza. Best to get to sleep as early as possible, he thought. He was going to have to wake up early if he was to make it out to the golf course by 8am. Chanel would not be happy about him taking the rental car, especially if she wanted to go out for breakfast, but he was fairly sure she‟d stay put. They were due on the ranch to speak with the farmer who had supposedly made the initial report at eleven in the morning. That meant a trip to 55 Echelon the golf course, back to pick Chanel up after, and then they would shoot down Highway 246 around ten-thirty. It might be tight, but he thought he could make it. And if his partner slept in a little, she might not even realize he had left. He looked down at the box on the bed and was surprised to see he had nearly finished the fourteen-inch pizza. He closed the lid and took it out to the dumpster, noticing how the stars shone with clarity Chicagoans never saw. Oddly enough, though the sky above him seemed clear enough, he noticed that he couldn‟t see any stars off to the west, the direction from which the weather came in this part of the country. He made a mental note to check the Weather Channel in the morning to see if there might be any severe weather coming through, then returned to the room and slipped underneath the covers. 56 Echelon Ch. 7 Things began smoothly the next morning. Payton got his wake up call on the phone next to his bed at six-thirty. He showered with the breaking sun streaming through a little porthole window that only opened half way in the stall. The continental breakfast was a joke, of course, but a donut made for decent fuel as he pulled the rental out of the motel parking lot. From there it was a short trip down Montana Avenue, one turn west on Eighth Street, and then he was parking next to a couple of luxury cars at Spring River Golf Course. Payton walked through the main entrance to the clubhouse. When he swung open the door, a large billow of dust chased away from him. The first thing he noticed was the lack of light, particularly above, where the ceiling was wood and looked unstable. Beams crisscrossed like scaffolding, and he fleetingly wondered whether they might serve some actual structural purpose, or if they were simply some tasteless person‟s attempt at 57 Echelon decoration. The rest of the clubhouse was the size of large sitting room. Broken rays of sun that looked as though they ought to shine upon the Ten Commandments instead found a few shabby wooden tables, a glass front desk, and a motley bar in the back. An immense man behind the register hardly looked up from his crossword puzzle as he walked to the bar. Seated there, the sole patron on his stool was the old man from the airplane. As he sat next to him, he saw a group of men in golfing clothes shooting the old man wary glances. Probably it had something to do with the sifter of brown liquid lying half empty on the bar. “That looks like whiskey,” Payton said. “It‟s eight in the morning. I was wondering whether you were crazy or drunk. I suppose I have my answer.” “Order yourself one, my friend,” the old man said. “You‟ll need it, with what I‟m going to tell you.” Payton caught the stench of the liquor from his breath and winced. “You‟re drunk.” “Don‟t you want to hear why I brought you here?” he asked. Payton shook his head. “You didn‟t. I‟m here investigating a UFO sighting.” The old man looked at him evenly. “And who do you think contacted The Center for UFO Studies? Some rancher trying to farm acres of desert, who probably still has a rotary phone?” “It was you?” Payton asked him. “Bingo, kid.” 58 Echelon “So the sighting was another fake?” He thought about it for a minute. “Of course it was. I knew it was.” “That sighting is inconsequential,” the older gentlemen said. “There are so many reports coming from this area year after year, no one could hope to separate them. But I do know a researcher at CUFOS with a soft spot for the Roswell incident. A few well placed calls, and here you are.” Payton frowned. The old man knew Schuda? Or at least knew enough about Schuda to be familiar with his interests and tendencies? How could he know about the Center‟s directors? “You‟re right,” he said, motioning to the bartender. “I think I will have that drink.” “That‟s a lad. We have a great deal to discuss and I know you have an appointment to keep, so I‟m afraid we will need to get to the point rather quickly.” “Who are you,” Payton asked immediately. “And don‟t tell me your name is John Doe.” “Yes,” the old man chuckled with a boozy grin. “It is such a tired alias, isn‟t it? But my name isn‟t important. Let‟s just say that if you want to get into the real conspiracies perpetrated against the American people, I‟m the one that can give them to you.” Payton shook his head. “And this UFO report?” “Small potatoes, even if it is true,” he said. “Which I suspect it isn‟t, given the surrounding circumstances.” “Surrounding circumstances?” 59 Echelon “I was sent here to make sure that you followed up on that report.” He smiled. “And only that report. There is a great deal to be discovered here in Roswell, and most of it has nothing to do with your little green men and flying saucers. I‟m talking about real, tangible crimes committed by men who operate above the law. Above all nationality, in fact, so much so that they have no allegiance to any country or religion, only to currency and power.” “And these people would be…” The old man stared at him a moment, then took a long drink from his glass, draining the whiskey inside and motioning the bartender for a refill. “A group of men,” he said. “Energy industry heads, defense contractors, bankers. Powerful men that rule without votes and determine global policy without any checks or balances.” “What the hell are you talking about?” Payton asked. He drained his glass. “Are you familiar with a group called the Illuminati?” the old man asked. The Illuminati. “You have to be joking.” “It‟s no joke, I can assure you,” the old man said, and indeed his expression was grave. “Under one name or another, the Illuminati have been around in this country since before it existed. And they were in Europe long before that. These men, some eleven families, they control a vast majority of the wealth on this planet. As they always have.” “I‟ve read the theories,” Payton said, trying to keep a straight face. “But theories are all that they are. There isn‟t one scrap of legitimate evidence that nails down any members of this supposed group. The men you‟re talking about are so wealthy that they are constantly scrutinized by the government and the press.” The old man laughed. “They own the government and the press.” 60 Echelon Payton stared at him a moment. “Why are you telling me this?” “We keep an eye on people who the group considers…curious. CUFOS members are included in that distinction. Now, I‟m relatively low on the ladder amongst the organization, simply a misinformation agent, but I‟ve read the dossier on you.” “You‟ve been watching me?” Payton asked. He found it hard to believe. “Those years when you first joined the Agency,” the old man nodded. “You worked so hard. I always liked your work.” “Uh, thanks.” “Especially that bit in Nebraska,” the old man continued. “When you figured out that those two farm boys had kidnapped that poor little girl and then forced her to lie and say it was aliens. You were a real hero that day. I remember thinking Payton Connor isn‟t like the others.” “Get to the point,” Payton said. “I have a problem.” “What kind of problem?” The old man took another long sip, and Payton noticed that there was no wince as he drank. “I‟m getting a bit…old,” the old man said with a smile. “There is something going on in our group. Something big. Now, I‟m not high up enough to know what it is, but it scares the hell out of me.” “Scares you? So do something about it,” Payton said, shrugging. “You‟re the one claiming to be a part of this group. Go to the authorities. Do something from the inside.” 61 Echelon “I can‟t,” the old man shook his head quickly. “They might be watching me. Not now of course,” he added quickly as Payton had started looking around the clubhouse. “But any move I made to go to the authorities would be useless anyway.” “Why?” Payton asked. “Two reasons. First of all, they are the authorities, the ones at the top of the power chain, anyway. Secondly, who would believe me? After all, you‟ve seen stranger things than most people on Earth, and even you are having trouble with this. But with your record, with your work at CUFOS disproving things, being so skeptical…Well, maybe people will believe someone like you.” Payton shook his head. “I mean, come on. The Illuminati?” The old man sighed. “I know. But like I said, there is something going on, and I think we might all be in danger. I can‟t look into it, they‟ll kill me. They already killed a friend of mine when he stole something from them, something about a spy network. I want you to pick up where he left off, with me pointing you in the right direction.” “And why exactly should I help you?” Payton asked. “You‟re not listening to me,” the old man said sharply. “We‟re all in danger, myself included. From what I hear, the military arm of the group is gearing up for something.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “I‟m talking about a major event here, Connor. Something larger than you, me, and your miniscule little agency.” “These are the men who sent you to make this UFO report go away?” “It‟s already happening, as we sit here,” the old man said. “I myself ordered Majestic operatives to the ranch this morning, before coming here to meet with you.” 62 Echelon Payton simultaneously recalled the word Majestic in some of what he‟d read about the Illuminati and began wondering if the old man might be telling at least some part of the truth. “You mean,” he began, and then came to a decision. He got up from the bar stool and started towards the door. “Where are you going, Investigator Connor?” the old man called out to him. “To find out if what you‟re saying is true,” Payton answered over his shoulder. He made his way towards the door. From behind him, he could hear the old man shouting at him, slurring his words. “You‟re too late, Connor. It‟s already done!” *** “Get up, Falasco,” Payton said, knocking on her motel door. He heard rustling, a yawn, the lock on the door clicking open, and finally the door opened to reveal a robed Chanel Falasco. “Doc?” she said, yawning again. “What are you doing? We don‟t have to leave for another forty-five minutes.” “Just get some clothes on and meet me in the car,” Payton told her. “What is this about-“ “In the car,” Payton said again, and turned on his heel to return to the Taurus. Moments later they were on the highway. “You want to tell me what this is all about?” Chanel asked. “We might have a problem,” Payton answered her. “A big problem.” “And that is?” 63 Echelon Payton took a deep breath. “I met with someone this morning. Someone who identified himself as both the person who called in our UFO report and the person sent to cover it up.” Chanel looked at him. “What are you talking about?” “He approached me on the plane from Chicago. Asked me to meet with him this morning, and asked that I come alone. He said he was the one who made sure the report got to Schuda. He also said that he was part of a group that is hiding something in the area.” “What group?” Chanel asked. Payton grimaced. “The Illuminati.” Turning his head to the right, he could see her staring at him in disbelief. “I know, I know. But he knew about the report. And he knew Schuda‟s name.” “Jesus, Doc,” Chanel laughed. “Every one of the department heads is named on the CUFOS website. Somebody is messing with you.” Maybe, he thought, but he stared straight ahead, speeding the rental car towards the ranch. They saw the smoke long before they reached their destination. The silo to the right was burning three-quarters of the way up. The ranch house itself was a glowing flower, spitting its black smoke into the pale blue sky. Fire trucks with the letters RFD stenciled into their sides were already there and large men in yellow flame-retardant suits were battling the blaze with long rubber hoses. “Jesus Christ,” Chanel breathed. 64 Echelon Payton pulled up to just behind one of the big red trucks, noting again the stenciled white lettering and simultaneously shifted into park while climbing out of his seat and through the door. Chanel slammed her own door shut and followed behind him. The first thing that hit him was the smell of burning wood. Chanel pointed out the firemen dressed in the white collared shirt and black hat of a firehouse Captain. Payton tapped him on the shoulder. “What the hell happened here?” The Captain looked at the two of them up and down, no doubt taking in their civilian clothing before responding. “Electrical fire, by the looks of it. We won‟t know for sure until we‟ve sifted through the ashes.” Payton looked at what was left of the ranch house. Most of it was gone, but he could still tell how small it was. He couldn‟t be certain, but it didn‟t seem like the type of home that included a great deal of electronics. “Do you mind telling me who called in the fire?” The Captain turned back to him, looking annoyed. “I‟ve got union Roswell firemen running around putting out a dangerous electrical fire outside of their service area. Lord knows what this farmer had in his home. Maybe he was making bombs in his spare time, or maybe he ran a meth lab out of his basement, either of which could set off an explosion at any time. So yes, I mind that you are pestering me.” Chanel stepped forward. “Then maybe you can point us towards someone else who might be more inclined to speak with us.” “I think it‟s time you two told me why you‟re here.” “Investigators Conner and Falasco from CUFOS,” Chanel piped up. “CUFOS? Is that government?” the Captain asked. 65 Echelon “No it‟s The Center for--" Chanel started. Payton cut her off with a stern shake of the head. “We‟re not government.” “Then get the hell out of here. Both of you.” “Fine,” Payton said. “Just point us in the direction of the ranch owner.” The Captain nodded behind them. “Over by the EMT unit. In the body bag.” They both turned to look and saw a pair of emergency medical techs zipping up a black vinyl body bag. Payton threw the Captain one last look and led Chanel back towards the car. She flopped roughly into the car seat and immediately launched into a tirade about the legitimacy of CUFOS and how the investigators who worked for the organization should not be embarrassed to say so. Payton cut her off before she could really get going. “Enough. Let me make it easy for you to understand. You start spouting off about UFO‟s and conspiracies or anything else we do at CUFOS, and you‟ll be digging holes for the both of us.” Payton pulled back onto the highway with one last look at the fire trucks in the rear mirror. “So what do we do now?” Chanel asked. “Maybe the old man will still be at the golf course.” “If you want to drop me off, I can hang out at the firehouse and see what they come up with.” Payton shook his head. “It wouldn‟t do you any good. Those weren‟t firemen.” “What?” Chanel asked, turning sharply. 66 Echelon “Two years ago, after the state of New Mexico instituted a pretty hefty income tax increase, the city of Roswell filed for emergency federal aid for primary government services.” “And?” “And that includes the fire department.” Chanel‟s brow furrowed. “I don‟t get it.” “Those fire trucks had RFD stenciled onto them. That would be the Roswell Fire Department, which hasn‟t existed for the last two years. Those trucks should have read NMFD, for New Mexico Fire Department.” They rode in silence for a few moments. “Doc,” Chanel whispered. “Who were those men at the ranch?” “I don‟t know. But I‟m hoping the old man might.” 67 Echelon Ch. 8 The old man was pissed. “I told you I didn‟t want to talk to anyone but you.” Chanel and Payton had just walked in the clubhouse door to find the old man putting on his jacket and trying to move past them. He was cursing now, and still reeking of booze. Payton wondered whether he might be too drunk to talk. Only one way to find out. “Look, she‟s with me,” Payton said, putting a hand out to keep the old man from walking by them. “You want me, you get her.” The old man leaned in close to Payton. “You don‟t get it, do you,” he hissed. “I‟m risking my life here. I know all about you. Her…well, I don‟t have any intelligence on her. No intelligence makes me nervous.” 68 Echelon Payton turned to look at Chanel. She raised her eyebrows, as if challenging him not to include her in whatever he planned to do. “Look, I told you already, you don‟t get me without her.” “Fine,” the old man sighed. “But if she gets me killed, it‟s on your head.” The old man gestured toward the bar. “Well, I‟m sure you have plenty of questions, so why don‟t we have a seat.” “Yes, let‟s,” Payton nodded. “But not here. There‟s a diner off of Main Street that cooks a decent hamburger.” “Can they fix a good drink?” the old man asked. “Sure.” Payton flashed him a smile. “Best coffee in town. And it‟s on me. Now let‟s go.” It was only a ten-minute trip in the rental to the diner. The dingy establishment was obligingly empty and in mere moments they had taken a booth and ordered food. The old man was finally starting to sober up about halfway through his corned beef sandwich. “Come on,” Payton said to him. “Tell me your name. I have to call you something.” “Not a chance,” the old man said, firmly shaking his head. “John is good enough” Chanel stirred next to Payton. “Fine John. How about telling us who were the men wearing those uniforms back at the ranch?” “Your partner already knows.” “So tell me,” she insisted. 69 Echelon The old man sighed again. “They are the soldiers of a global group called the Illuminati. They kill, they cover up, and they steal. I‟m surprised you even knew those men weren‟t Roswell firemen, that‟s how good they are at staying hidden.” “Your stenciling on the fire engines is a bit outdated,” Payton said. “Ah, the changeover to the state,” John nodded. “I had forgotten about that. In any case, we‟re talking about a network of soldiers without names, records, social security numbers, any of that.” “And you command them?” Chanel asked. “Not formally. I‟m a misinformation agent. I make sure that none of our work is exposed, and that all the right stories get to the correct people. The call to CUFOS made it necessary for a Majestic cleansing.” “Majestic?” Chanel asked. “An Illuminati code word for our troops,” the old man said. “They have a way of making people and evidence, and even themselves, disappear. As if they could do magic.” Payton saw a smile spread across Chanel‟s face. “So the UFO report was real. I knew it. And you were sent to cover it up.” “I don‟t know. Sometimes the cover-ups I‟m sent on are for false reports that are in sensitive areas of the country. Others aren‟t.” “But some of the UFO reports are real, then?” Chanel asked. Payton thought her unrelenting enthusiasm remarkable and childish at once. The old man just shrugged. “I don‟t ask and they don‟t tell. Most of what they do is military, that much I can tell you.” The old man gave the both of them a rather pointed 70 Echelon look. “I‟m surprised at the both of you. Neither of you has asked me the most important question.” “What are you getting at?” Chanel asked. “Investigator Conner knows what I‟m talking about, don‟t you?” John asked, throwing him a look. Payton nodded. “Yeah, I know the question. Tell us, why are you outing yourself to us?” “Very good, Connor. Look, I don‟t know everything that goes on with this group. Frankly, I‟m just not that high up in the ranks. But I‟ve heard whispers about some kind of conflict going on within the leadership. That puts things on edge for everyone, especially on us mid-level guys whose single responsibility is manipulating misinformation.” Payton leaned closer across the table. “You really are afraid for your life, aren‟t you?” “You learn to live with it,” the old man sighed. “I had a friend in the group, as much as people in our group can be friends, I guess. He was working with me to expose what‟s been going on.” He looked up at Payton. “I‟m sure you can guess where this is going.” “When did he disappear?” Payton asked. “Disappear?” The old man‟s eyebrows went up. “He didn‟t disappear, Connor. He was murdered, killed for all to see on national television.” “Pardon?” Chanel asked. 71 Echelon “You two see the crash on the news?” the old man asked. “You know, the one after which they nuked that beach because of some unnamed terrorist threat?” “There was no threat?” Payton asked. “Oh,” the old man shook his head. “There was a threat, alright, a threat to the group and certain individuals within the United States government. Hell, some of them are the same people.” “What did your man get?” Payton asked. “I‟m not sure, but it was big. He sent me a coded message, something about a network, and a file he had found. Or intercepted. Or who knows?” The old man looked down at the table for a moment. “All I know is that I‟d sent him to a covert base we have in Anchorage. The group keeps a lot of our records houses there, partly because of the lack of population centers, and partly because the governor there is friendly to the group. He came back with…something. Something that got him killed. Immediately after the crash, there was report of some hushed up transfer going on to one of our bases in this area.” “So you want us to continue the work,” Payton nodded. “I still don‟t understand why.” “Two reasons,” the old man grunted. “As I said, I‟m not proud of many of the things I‟ve done, but you must understand, I‟m a patriot first. For a very long time, until recently, I thought that the things I was doing were a benefit to my country and my family. Now that I‟ve uncovered a few things the group tries to keep hidden, well, let‟s just say it‟s changed my perspective rather dramatically.” “And the other reason?” Chanel asked. 72 Echelon The old man sighed. “The only leverage I can possibly have if someone decides that a sixty-year old man who probably has way too much information would be better off dead is if I have a way to release some sensitive information should anything happen to me. You two are going to be my way. By continuing the work.” Payton sat back on his side of the booth. “And we‟re going to do this for you because…” “Because if I‟m right, then you can‟t afford to bury your head in the sand.” “What do you mean?” Payton asked. He didn‟t like the tone of the old man‟s voice. “Like I‟ve been saying, something is going on within the group. One of the Eleven, our leadership, has passed away,” the old man said. Then he looked around the diner and leaned over the table. “Nobody has any specifics, but they‟ve got something planned. Something within a few weeks.” “How do you know?” Chanel asked. “I thought you didn‟t have any specifics?” “About their plans? I don‟t. But some of the instructions we‟re getting, specifically the contingency plans we‟re being asked to draw up, we‟ve never been asked to this type of work before.” “That‟s pretty thin,” Payton said. “That‟s what I need you for,” the old man snapped. “I‟m using you to try and get the specifics. But keep this in mind: last week they asked me to draw up a plan on urban citizen logistics. I had to design a plan to get potential domestic combatants out of six major cities and into concentration camps in radiating suburbs. They said it had to be completed by the end of the week. Four days.” 73 Echelon “Jesus,” Chanel whispered. “How are we supposed to contact you?” Payton asked. “You won‟t. I‟ll contact you,” the old man replied. Then he pulled something from his carry bag lying beneath the booth‟s table. “Forget that for now. I need to be getting back, before I‟m missed, but I thought you might find this an interesting way for me to prove my good intentions.” With that he flipped a manila folder onto the table and got up. “Look through that and act at your own discretion, but if you choose to help me, and I think you will, the location where they moved whatever my friend tried to take should be obvious from the information in the file. Oh, and I left you something a little heavier underneath the table.” Then the old man who called himself John turned and walked out of the diner. They sat there, both of them on the same side of the booth, for a few moments. With a quick look around the diner, Payton nudged Chanel, indicating for her to check out the underside of the table. She nodded, slid her fork off the edge of the table, and ducked beneath. For a slightly uncomfortable moment, Payton was intensely aware that her head was hovering dangerously close to his lap. It only lasted a heartbeat, however, and when Chanel lifted her head back up to look at him, she was biting her lip. “You better have a look,” she whispered. Taking another quick glance around the diner, he slid to look beneath the table. There, half hidden behind the table‟s single large center leg was the last thing he would have expected to see. It was a pistol. A Desert Eagle, fifty-caliber, if the computer shooter games he‟d played in college were an accurate source of comparison, which he knew they were. He 74 Echelon thought briefly about leaving it there, but he had already given the waitress his credit card. Surely the gun would be found and eventually traced back to him. He snatched the large pistol as quick as he could and stuffed into the inside pocket of his trench coat. Then he got back into his seat and made a show of sipping his water and cleaning off his plate. “You took it?” Chanel hissed. “Of course I took it,” Payton snapped back, trying to be as quiet as possible. “I can‟t just leave it here.” “That thing is enormous.” Payton shrugged. “It‟s a pistol.” “It‟s damned cannon.” “Nothing we can do about it now,” He said. He shuddered in the air conditioning. The diner had taken on a chill that he suspected had nothing to do with the ventilation. “What about the file,” he continued, pointing at the manila folder resting conspicuously on the table. “Want to open it here? “Hell no,” Chanel answered quickly. “That gun gives me the creeps. Let‟s get out of dodge.” “I couldn‟t agree more.” A quick call to their waitress brought their bill. Payton signed off on the credit card statement and they hurried out to the car. 75 Echelon Ch. 9 “This is incredible,” Chanel said. She had been muttering curses for the past half an hour as she leafed through the manila folder. She was splayed across her motel bed, Payton on the gaudy chair beside her. She was right. The file was incredible. It appeared to be a brief dossier on the Illuminati, from its inception right up to present day. Payton had gone back to leaf through the first couple of pages, marveling at the information they contained. According to the file, what people referred to as the Illuminati in the present day had begun as a sort of conglomerate of special interest groups. At first these factions had wildly separate goals and ambitions, not to mention biases. There were the early anti- Christian Gnostics. The anti-Muslim Persians came soon after. The Catholic order of the 76 Echelon Knights Templar followed, stemming from the Crusades and creating the modern banking system. That particular group had outlasted most of the others, but certainly it was not the last. There were the Luciferians, Rosicrucians, and the Levellers, all coming about to do battle with the Christians in general, and often the Templars in particular. These groups continued to vie for control of world resources until the seventeen hundreds. They fought over bank holdings, political power fronts, and mineral caches. And as they fought, they diminished themselves. Finally, uniting themselves under the philosophy of a Frenchman named Voltaire, the group usurped the power of the various thrones in Europe and Persia, and united under a common leadership. Most scholars thought that it was the Templars that remained in power, victorious over their rivals. In truth, they simply absorbed their competitors and went about business as usual. Modern day theorists usually surmised that the Illuminati had taken on the form and religion of a Jewish cabal. It was the basis for the fervent hollering most commonly espoused by the Nazis and otherwise prejudiced clans. This, according to the document, couldn‟t be further from the truth. They were no longer exclusively Jewish, Moslem, Catholic, or even Christian for that matter. They had become a multi-national, multi-ethnic, and multi-faith cabal. It wasn‟t just about guns, or power, or even money. The group simply did whatever it took to keep power, regardless of how detestable the act. All of the major families were in power, even then: the Rothchilds, Rockefellers, Morgans, Fords, and others. However, it was a Bavarian professor who once and for all united the families under the title of the Illuminati, both in name and philosophy. His name was Adam Weishaupt, a fierce anti-monarchist, controversial Freemason, and devout Agnostic. His departure from his local Freemason 77 Echelon lodge came as he solidified the powerbase of the Illuminati. He claimed that only a group of elder philosophers, together with the backing of powerful businessmen could unite the world under a single peaceful leadership. The Freemason lodge that banished him claimed that Weishaupt proposed using organized religion to control the masses, a notion strictly forbidden by the organization, which had always revered truth and honesty. From the very start Weishaupt understood the most basic rule of secrecy: the best place to hide is amongst the enemy. He immediately made the group a public entity, though not by the same name. They were considered philanthropists, a charitable organization. Their seemingly generous nature was especially effective at drawing the attention of German philosophers and members of the Protestant Church. The Protestants were attracted to the publicly stated goal of the group, which was to unite the Earth to bring happiness upon its denizens. In reality, the group was busy infiltrating democracies, overthrowing anarchies, and making power plays behind the scenes throughout the histories of several fledgling nations and colonies. Then, instantly changing the world in the late seventeen hundreds, something remarkable happened. The fertile land of the Americas was established. Once situated, constantly under the watchful eye of the Illuminati, the carefully formed American Government provided a breeding ground for the organization. No longer were there monarchies and despots to battle. The United States was a political clean slate, where capitalism provided the cover under which to increase the Illuminati‟s wealth, based on tried and true Templar banking practices. They single handedly created 78 Echelon the gold standard, in addition to normalizing the policy of government borrowing against its own people. Under this new iteration of the Illuminati, the group‟s leader, named the Illuminatus Minor, was protected with secrecy and arms far superior to that of the President. He was not allowed to own property beyond a personal abode, hold legitimate government papers, or even have a social security number, although it was generally agreed that he would be allowed to own and operate business interests, so long as those interests translated into capital for the group. The obsession with secrecy went to such an extreme that the Illuminatus Minor was taught to write with both hands, so as to limit anyone‟s ability to track him. According to the dossier, the group had more recently sponsored state terrorists in order to further the military-driven economy of a few home nations, most notably America, France, Britain, and Germany. There were some rumors and accusations that they had a hand in bringing Hitler to power, theoretically to battle the spreading threat of communism. They were also responsible for the creation of the United Nations, after they used the Pearl Harbor incident to put an end to a Hitler that had grown beyond their control, and whose bid for world domination directly conflicted with the Illuminati‟s control. The file emphasized that when the League of Nations was first proposed, the location of the headquarters was reportedly under heated debate. There were supposed to be several host nations, and even though the League of Nations took up residence elsewhere, it was widely believed that it would soon be moved to Switzerland, due to their infamous neutrality. 79 Echelon The next thing the world knew, the United Nations had been formed, headquartered in the United States on land donated by the Rockefeller family. Rumor had it that the elder members of the Rockefellers were still allowed to walk the grounds of the United Nations without restriction. Such access afforded the family and its friends the chance to remain in close contact with the world‟s elite players. Whether they did so to further their personal wealth or simply to influence and spy on the proceedings was a matter for debate. However, it could not be argued that the family did not to this day enjoy a familiarity with world leaders that few could match. “I can‟t believe this,” Chanel murmured into the stack of papers she‟d been examining. Her eyes were moving quickly through each page as she studied. “He even included photos. Here‟s one from 2001 of the Iraqi Interior Minister with some UN Energy Department head.” Payton leaned forward in the chair to peer at the photo she held out to him. “That could be anyone.” “I suppose,” she replied. “But the recon document that it was stapled to said „UN Energy Department head‟.” Payton sighed. “Look, I don‟t want you getting too excited about all of this. Chances are the old man was lying.” “What about the fire trucks?” “Strange, but probably explainable.” “And the gun?” “Anyone can buy a gun.” 80 Echelon “The plans the old man said he was asked to draw up? His warning that something major was going to happen in the next week?” He shrugged. “He could be lying.” “You‟re unbelievable,” she sighed, sounding disgusted. “Nobody could convince you of anything, you‟re so closed minded.” “My niece, Jennifer, can,” Payton said. “She always convinces me to let her stay up late, even when I know she…Come check this out.” He had pulled another stack of recon sheets from the folder and had marked the spot where he had stopped skimming with his forefinger. “What is it?” she asked. She flipped over on the bed and scooted to the edge. “The old man said that if we wanted to figure out where to go next, the file would make it obvious,” he said. “I‟m pretty sure he meant these aerial photos.” He tapped the pictures in his hand. “You know the location in the pictures?” she asked. “Two Rivers Reservoir,” he answered. “According to these satellite infrareds there is a considerable amount of energy coming from beneath the ground. And if I‟m reading these photos correctly, there‟s some kind of web of heat signatures stemming out from the reservoir.” “Heat signatures?” “At levels equal to a small city.” “You think maybe we ought to check it out?” Chanel asked. She smiled as she tossed the paperwork she‟d been examining onto the bed and scooted behind Payton to peer at the satellite imagery. 81 Echelon He could feel her breath on his neck. “Yeah,” Payton said distractedly. “I guess we better take a look.” He could tell with a quick glance through the open curtains that it was already dark. He wasn‟t particularly happy about the way that this had developed, and trudging around the desert in the dark was even less appealing. But he supposed they ought to be thorough, and he couldn‟t even imagine Schuda‟s reaction if he found out that they‟d left this lead unexamined. They left the room and checked out of the motel at the front desk. He thought about this puzzle, thought about its pieces and shape, and wondered, while he turned the ignition of the rental car, how it would all work out. It was frustrating. Usually he would have a question placed in front of him, neat and packaged with a simple goal and a direct set of answers. Thinking about the old man and his contentions, Payton realized that he wasn‟t even sure what the puzzle was, or how many there were, or what pieces were part of which puzzle. Certainly there was the Illuminati puzzle: were they real, what were they doing, what had the old man‟s friend stolen to get him killed, was it the Illuminati that had even killed him, etc. But Payton realized that the first question was a puzzle within itself. Were they real or weren‟t they? If they were, who was involved? What were they involved in? Why were they involved? What did they hope to gain? What could he do about it? Should he do anything about it? And if they weren‟t real, if the old man was lying or delusional, what was the reason for the lie or delusion? Who did the old man really work for, if not the Illuminati? What could he do about it? Should he do anything about it? 82 Echelon Too many puzzles, Payton thought. Too many choices. Chanel sat silently in the passenger seat as he drove onto the highway. They parked the car roughly half a mile from the reservoir. Payton felt a bit silly stashing the sedan off the side of Highway 70 next to a cactus, which held its arms high in the air as if the victim of a stickup. Chanel followed close behind him as they left the car behind and crept south towards the reservoir. The desert was cold, icy sand slipping into Payton‟s shoes as they walked. You never think about the desert like this, Payton thought. Blazing heat in daylight was the common perception, not the inky cold blackness at night. “You want to tell me where we‟re going?” Chanel asked, slightly behind him. “The map shows a pumping station just this side of the reservoir. Seems like a logical place to start.” “This is so much fun. I thought you said we weren‟t going to get to do this type of field work.” “We shouldn‟t be. You shouldn‟t be. We should be behind a comfortable desk in a warm office in Chicago.” “Don‟t be such a baby. You love this as much as I do.” “Just keep a lookout for the pumping station.” They walked in silence for the next several minutes. Visibility was surprisingly bad, owed to the abnormal presence of clouds in the sky. The moonlight streaked through in patches, but even cacti a few meters away were mere outlines. This is fun? All I want right now is to separate these puzzles and see if any of them are worth solving. 83 Echelon Why can’t I just leave all this alone? Why can’t I be like normal people and think conspiracy theorists are just nuts and let it be? Is it any surprise that people chuckle when Jennifer tells them my job is to chase little green men? No wonder the only friends I have are oddballs like me. Who would want to call me their friend? What woman could put up with me long enough to want to be with me? “I see something,” Chanel whispered. Sure enough, a few hundred meters to the south was the pumping station. It was smaller than Payton had imagined, even having reviewed the satellite data. It might have been a townhouse, or a fire station. What secrets do you hold, I wonder? I told my partner that it would probably be nothing, but she didn’t believe that. Truthfully, neither do I. I truly hope you will disappoint us both. “Stop,” Payton hissed. They were still about a football field away from the pumping station. He needed to get a better look. “Binoculars.” “Here,” Chanel said. She placed the heavy black binoculars in his hand and he lifted them to his eyes. The pumping station was made of that gray stucco that seemed to be the perpetual vogue in the Southwest. There were a few lights spilling upon the façade. There was a single door, barely visible and painted the same color as the stucco surrounding it. Payton scanned the area on and around the door for some kind of locking mechanism, but couldn‟t find one. Instead, there was only a large metallic sign to the left. It forbade access to anyone save government employees, complete with a lightning bolt stenciled across it. How effective, he thought. Locks invited intrigue. Mundane symbols of 84 Echelon authority, on the other hand, made for the perfect deterrent. Who didn‟t see these authoritative symbols every day, and ignore them? Chanel crouched down next to him. “See anyone?” “There‟s no security in sight, but that doesn‟t mean a whole lot. They could be around the side of the building, where I can‟t see them.” “I don‟t know why you‟re so sure there will be guards.” “I‟m not sure, but if the old man was telling the truth, they won‟t leave this building unguarded. You can be sure they have someone inside.” “Then what are we waiting for?” “We‟re being prudent.” He heard her sigh. They stayed prone until Payton was as certain as could be that no guards would appear once they approached the building. Then, with a stiffness brought on by the chilly air, he helped Chanel to her feet and walked cautiously towards the pumping station. They kept low as they moved; just because he hadn‟t been able to see them in the binoculars, Payton didn‟t believe that there weren‟t at least cameras or motion devices monitoring the building. They reached the door unmolested, however. To Payton‟s surprise, when Chanel pushed on the handle, the door to the pumping station was unlocked. She looked at him with a frown. He shrugged and brushed past her through the door. The interior of the building was nearly as dark as the exterior. Instead of miles of sand and cacti, here there were catwalks and large metallic red pipes. They all lead down, and Payton had a flashback to his childhood, his mother telling him the story of 85 Echelon Alice In Wonderland. She had been astonished at the fear he‟d displayed at the beginning of the story, when Alice first fell tumbling down the rabbit hole. She couldn‟t understand the sheer terror he felt imagining her trek toward the unknown. His fear had only increased as the story continued and she landed in Wonderland. Such an unexplainable place, filled with unsolvable riddles. How could Alice possibly have kept her wits about her? The interior dropped out of sight beyond the catwalk. He couldn‟t see much below, just hints of machinery and metal. The only way was forward, and since no one had met them at the entrance, they continued on and downward. “This looks like…” Chanel began, and then trailed off as they made their way down the first set of the iron grate steps. “Like a pumping station,” Payton finished for her. “I know, but let‟s not judge quite yet.” They continued down. Six catwalks, six layers of piping, and six staircases passed by before they reached the concrete floor. Payton tried to guess how far underground they were. It had to be over fifty feet, quite an engineering feat in the desert sand. Here there were valves and wheels adorning the piping, with needle meters for decoration. Occasionally soft wisps of steam would float out of some hidden recess. Hell, when did my life turn into a bad movie, Payton thought. It wasn‟t something to dwell on, however, what with the entire ground level complete with convoluted piping to rummage through. Payton thought back to his childhood again, this time to his Peewee Football days, imagining the floor as the playing field, and the pipe stations as blockers and tacklers. 86 Echelon They searched among the machinery and then along the floor for another half an hour, at first hiding and ducking behind the piping in case someone should appear and discover them. By the time they spent the final five minutes searching for doorways, they were no longer bothering to conceal themselves. Payton was just about to give up when he found it. “Chanel I-“ “Yeah, yeah,” she interrupted him. “I know, I know. You were right. The old man was lying. His folder intelligence was a forgery. This is just a pumping station.” “Maybe,” Payton said, smiling. “But we still have some exploring to do. Take a look at this.” It was a trap door in the most classic sense. Painted to match the cement, the entrance hatch had a recessed steel handle that they must have walked over half a dozen times. He noticed that opening the hatch kicked up no dust, indicating that someone had gone through it recently. Another staircase was revealed, but this one was created of sleek steps that looked as if they were made of obsidian. The tunnel the stairs followed was made of modern plaster and reinforced by beaming and studs that were made from some kind of graphite. About ten feet down, the stairway bucked and u-turned to continue on to the left. Where it made the turn, there was a light on the ceiling, bathing everything in a deep skittle blue. “Looks ominous,” Chanel said from beside him. “Scared?” Payton asked. “Excited.” She shouldered past him and started down the hatch. 87 Echelon Payton hurried after her, making the turn, and then continuing down another flight of black stairs. They reached what looked like an ordinary office, or it would have been ordinary, if not for the fact that it was located some three stories below the bottom floor of a pumping station. There were gray walls, occasionally spotted with a handful of cheap color prints by Monet or Rembrandt or whoever. In the middle of the room was a simple desk with only a calendar, pencil sharpener, and a telephone atop it. “This sucks,” Chanel said. They spent the next several minutes searching the room, the desk, even behind the paintings. The room seemed to contain nothing, not even any files in the desk. The calendar only referenced maintenance schedules pertaining to the pumping station. Payton had just taken a seat in the chair that accompanied the desk when Chanel‟s frustration finally boiled over. “Damn it, Doc, there‟s nothing here.” “Nothing we can see, anyway.‟ She rounded on him. “How can you sit there and not be pissed?” “What do you want, pictures of UFOs behind a smiling Eisenhower giving the thumbs up? Maybe some kind of obviously alien ray gun stuck in the desk drawer?” Payton shrugged. “Isn‟t this what I told you would happen? It‟s exactly as I expected.” “Did you expect this?” she asked. She walked over to his chair with startling speed and stuck out her foot. Then she gave him a vicious shove in the chest, sending him toppling to the floor. He landed heavily on his back and felt the wind rush from his gut. He glared up angrily, waiting to catch his breath and trying to decide just what kind of vulgarity with which to berate her. Instead, he caught a glimpse of what looked very 88 Echelon much like a light switch resting just underneath the desk. He reached out towards it quickly, noting with some satisfaction how Chanel flinched at the movement, and flicked the switch. To his right he saw a slot in the wall slide open. She helped him to his feet and they both stared at the open portal. “Nice catch,” she said. “I owe it all to you.” “You get the feeling that there‟s going to be something big on the other side of that door?” “Eh,” Payton grunted. “Only one way to find out.” And he led her through the door. Payton was reminded of the hospital where they had worked on Jennifer; everything beyond the door had that bright, clean look to it. They were on another catwalk, but this one was surrounded by a clear tube, at the end of which was another doorway. The grounding was solid enough, made of steel, but in every other direction they could see clearly through glass, and he immediately had to fight off the feeling of vertigo. Beyond the tube there was a one story drop to the floor of a huge chamber. It was entirely white, with white walls, white lighting, and a few men in white lab coats bustling around several labs. As soon as they saw the men below, Payton and Chanel ducked and hugged the solid steel catwalk, trying their best to remain unseen. He motioned to her and they continued through the glass tube on their stomachs. It felt like forever to Payton, but eventually they came to the door. Payton reached to his waist, removed the pistol the old man had given them at the diner, and pushed it open. 89 Echelon They rushed through as quickly as their prone positions would allow and closed the door quietly behind them. They were in what Payton guessed must be a control or security room, something like three times the size of the office they had first encountered. The entire wall to their right was a bank of monitors that showed the labs below and the glass catwalk they had just come from. So much for army crawling, Payton thought. The rest of the room was filled by two workstations, complete with lamps and computers, and roughly twenty gray metal file cabinets. Remembering the lack of files in the office, he went to the cabinets immediately, bending to look at the neatly printed labels that identified each of the drawers. He immediately thought back to Professor Schuda, who would fill the time in between UFO reports by tasking Payton in investigating all manner of conspiratorial lore. At first Payton had resisted what he had thought of as busy work. But eventually, he realized that Schuda, crazy as he was, often had genuinely interesting material at his disposal. He might be a conspiracy nut, but the puzzles he had Payton investigating were usually intriguing, and a pleasure to complete. He recognized several topics as he ran his finger down the labels, noticing absently that they were in alphabetical order. There was one labeled AS1897, another one that said ELF effect study and application, and still another labeled KtsTmplr. They were in varying abbreviated states, but Payton had no trouble deciphering them. AS1897 probably referred to the airship sighted just before the turn of the century, arguably the first UFO case ever to be reported on American soil. ELF was an obvious reference to extremely low frequency systems used by the military, predominantly the Navy, to communicate with submerged ships throughout the world. There were some concerns as 90 Echelon to the effects that such frequencies might have on the millions of people who happened to be in their way, but ELF systems were not particularly unknown, nor were they hidden by the government and military. KtsTmplr was the most obvious of the three, surely referring to the Knights Templar, that infamous order of the Catholic Church, charged with guarding Catholic treasures, the fabled Ark of the Covenant, and the legendary Holy Grail. None of these particular topics were particularly devious one way or another, and certainly none of them were classified. He fought the disappointment beginning to swell in him and kept looking. Once Payton had continued a bit farther down the alphabetical cabinets, he came across several demarcations that he wasn‟t familiar with at all. Operation: Big City, Operation: Daedalus/Echelon, Operation: Paperclip, Project: Patriot, and Project: Silverbug all caught his attention. Not knowing exactly where he wanted to begin, he turned to see what Chanel had been doing. She was studying the bank of monitors and the scientists as they worked. “Are they doing anything interesting?” Payton asked. “Very,” she answered. He walked over to join her. “You see those sealed baggies they‟re carrying from the cooler to the workstation by that big machine?” Payton leaned in to peer more closely at the monitor she was indicating. The men seemed to be shuffling what looked like several sandwich bags. It was hard to tell what was inside them, partly because of the resolution of the image, and partly because the bags seemed to be fogged from the inside. “Yeah, I see them. Why do they look frosted?” “Because they are keeping them chilled. You see the yellow and black insignia?” 91 Echelon He looked closely again. “It almost looks like one of those nuke warnings you see in power plants.” “Similar, yes. It‟s a bio-med symbol, used to denote potentially hazardous organic material. Normally they use it to mark medical waste, blood, or plasma.” “Maybe that‟s what it is.” She frowned. “In the basement of a pumping station? What use would it be? Come on, Doc.” “Yeah, I suppose not. Why do they keep it frozen, whatever it is.” “You always keep hazardous bio-material frozen. It slows down any harmful toxins and chemical reactions.” “So what are they doing with the material?” “See that machine next to the workstation? I can‟t be certain, but I‟m pretty sure that‟s a mass spectrometer.” “A what?” “It‟s a highly specialized piece of machinery that analyzes material to determine its composition, down to trace elements. Law enforcement agencies use them for DNA workups, toxicology screens on inanimate objects, and finding trace elements of forensic evidence. I‟m no forensic scientist, but I‟m not aware of any application the machinery might have for reservoir pumping.” She looked at him significantly. “Ok,” Payton said. “Come help me gather some files from the cabinets.” “What did you find?” “I‟m not sure yet. But we need to hurry up.” “Why? No one‟s here.” 92 Echelon “This is a control room,” Payton said and led her to the file cabinets. He pointed briefly at the desks. “Somebody is supposed to be sitting at those computers.” They turned to the file cabinets. “Which ones do you want to take?” Chanel asked. It was a question Payton had been considering since first coming across the files. They couldn‟t carry much without packs and he didn‟t want their limited capacity to go to waste on files for topics with which he was already familiar, thanks to Schuda‟s assignments. “The files are alphabetical,” he told her. “Take the ones marked Operation: Daedalus/Echelon and Paperclip. I‟ll get the Project Silverbug and Patriot files.” They each made their way to the respective cabinets and began digging out the folders. Payton had just grabbed his files and was closing the cabinets when he heard the door to the catwalk open behind him. He spun around to see a tall, chiseled man in a jet- black suit and tie walking through the door. The man was completely bald, lacking even eyebrows above his dark sunglasses, and there seemed to be a slight discoloration to his skin. Later he would recall immediately having the impression that the man must have had military training of some sort, judging by the way he carried himself. The implication was clear: he was a guard. Payton froze and noticed Chanel doing the same. The man in the suit took a step into the room and then he stopped and blinked, apparently noticing them for the first time. They all stood there looking at one another for what felt like forever, but could only have been an instant. 93 Echelon Then the blank stare on the guard‟s face was replaced with a snarl, and with an odd timber to his voice shouted, “You two, stop!” His hand flew to his hip where there was a metallic bulge. Before he could reach the holster that was certainly there, Payton pulled his pistol and aimed it just above the guard‟s head and braced himself for the noise. He squeezed off two shots, loosening a deafening report throughout the control room. The guard reacted quickly, splaying sideways to the floor. Payton was on him in an instant, attacking randomly and landing several blows to the abdomen before finally cuffing him over the back of the head with the butt of the pistol. It only took a moment to confirm that the guard was unconscious, and he noted that his skin was surprisingly cold and still giving off that strange tint. Chanel walked over to stand over him, gaping slightly. “Is…is he-,” she started. “Just go,” Payton said, nodding towards the door. “Go now.” They raced out onto the catwalk. Two desks, he kept thinking. What if there’s another suit walking around. I don’t want to shoot anyone. They passed the catwalk without seeing any guards and continued through the gray office and up the staircase. Payton was beginning to think that they had lucked out completely, but as soon as they had both climbed out of the hatchway and back into the pumping station, they heard shouts and the echoing pop of gunfire. Metallic pings sounded all around them, and there were an indeterminate number of sparks flying off of the surrounding metal, reminding him of the small firecrackers he‟d played with as a child. He reached out and grabbed Chanel by the collar, dragging her along to keep pace as they rushed up the catwalks and out into the desert night. 94 Echelon They ran all the way to the rental car, which Payton started and threw into gear. He slammed his foot onto the gas pedal, grabbed Chanel by the back of her head, and pushed her down below the passenger seat as gunfire continued to pop behind them. He had trouble navigating back onto the highway, as he was also doing his best to stay low in his seat. “Jesus Christ, Doc!” Chanel screamed next to him as he skidded around one last cactus and peeled onto the highway. He pressed the accelerator to the floor, glancing quickly at the rearview mirror and sitting up again in his seat. “Please tell me you got the files.” She held up one manila folder and some kind of computer cartridge. “I got two of them. The only thing in the Daedalus/Echelon file was this tape cartridge, though. There weren‟t any paper files.” “It‟ll be enough. I can‟t wait to hear what Mikora says when he sees this stuff.” “What are you so excited about?” she asked. “You don‟t even know what‟s in the files.” “Doesn‟t matter,” Payton said with a shake of his head. “Anything worth shooting us over is going to be big. You see anyone behind us?” Chanel turned around and peeked over the top of the passenger seat. “I think we‟re clear,” she said. “Good. Get out the map and find me the best way to the airport. They won‟t be able to follow us past security there, and our flight leaves in a few hours anyway.” “I thought you said this job would be boring.” 95 Echelon “Just be glad we‟re alive,” Payton answered her. He rolled down his window and tossed the Desert Eagle out into the sand. 96 Echelon Chapter 10 Payton had expected someone to try to get the files back. He spent most of the flight back to Chicago teaching Chanel how to evade questions under interrogation, something he‟d had to master during his youth. All the while, he refused to open the files they had stolen or try the DAT disc on her laptop. Chanel was incensed, of course, but he wouldn‟t give in. Once they were back on soil, and in somewhat familiar settings, maybe they would take a look. Until then, the less they knew, the better off they were. Their flight landed at O‟Hare a little before noon. It was a simple matter of collecting their bags and hailing a cab before they were on their way to CUFOS headquarters. “Turn down Irving Park,” Payton said and then leaned back in the cab to sit next to Chanel. “Don‟t we get to go home first?” she asked. 97 Echelon “Absolutely not. We need to make our report.” “And the files?” “I‟ve been thinking about that. I think we should keep them to ourselves for the moment.” “Why?” “There‟s no need to endanger the others,” he said. “If they don‟t know anything, then they can‟t be considered a liability by whomever this tape incriminates.” Payton saw Chanel staring at him out of the corner of his eye. “You really think we‟ve got something, don‟t you?” “Yeah, I do, but not what you think.” “Meaning?” Payton took a deep breath. “UFOs have never been seen or accepted by the general public. Mankind as a group doesn‟t know whether or not they truly exist. But corrupted men? Money and power hungry politicians? Evil governments? These are things we have seen, that we can virtually count on. I don‟t think we‟ll find evidence of your little green men on these files. But I think we will find information regarding what people in this country are doing to subjugate national and international law. Men that might go to great lengths to keep that information from being revealed to the American public.” “And the bio-med material?” Chanel persisted. Payton shrugged. “Unexplainable, but there‟s no evidence the material has anything to do with extra terrestrials. In fact, there‟s no lack of examples for rogue governments and scientists conducting heinous experiments unbeknownst to the public.” 98 Echelon Payton thought back to some of the background on illegal medical experimentation that Schuda had once given him. He claimed that the United States government was complicit in the acts. Payton had had his doubts, but as he told Chanel, the facts were pretty gruesome. The most notorious example was the infamous SS officer, Josef Mengele. Mengele was a Nazi physician with the distinction of inspecting incoming Jewish prisoners, deciding which of them was suitable for testing, and which of them was doomed to Auschwitz. Unfortunately for the prisoners Mengele took, Auschwitz was probably the better of the two. According to witness interviews, Mengele wasn‟t an anti-Semite, he was simply a scientist mad with power. He used the Auschwitz prisoners as an opportunity to experiment with eugenics. Of particular interest were identical twins. Jewish twins were located, tagged with tattoos, and placed in separate barracks within concentration camps. Their behavior was studied, with a particular eye towards any psychic reactions and events. Mengele wasn‟t the only such example. Federal government experiments in inoculations of viral diseases had attracted all kinds of attention, particularly from conspiracy theorists. Then there were corporate inoculation trials that just so happened to be conducted on unsuspecting Chilean families that thought they were being given antibiotics for Meningitis. “Christ, Doc,” Chanel said. “You really think this is about medical experiments? That‟s it?” 99 Echelon Payton didn‟t answer. He told the cabby to turn onto Peterson and they pulled up to the CUFOS building. “Come on, Doc. That place was too big for medical testing,” she pressed. Payton helped her out of the car. “All I‟m saying is it might explain the biomaterial. And the mass spectral thing.” “Mass spectrometer,” Chanel corrected him. “Whatever. Just remember what we talked about, keep quiet, and let me do the talking,” he said. “We don‟t want to unnecessarily put CUFOS at risk.” After they got past Carla at the front desk, who gave them a curious look and informed them that Director Mikora was expecting them, they rode the elevator to the sixth floor and walked through the office towards the Director‟s room. Payton stopped briefly to duck into Professor Hobbes‟ office along the Forensics hallway. “What was that about?” Chanel asked when he returned. He didn‟t answer, instead taking her by the elbow and leading her to the door of the Director‟s Office. Payton knocked. “Enter,” came Mikora‟s sharp voice. “You ready?” Payton asked Chanel quietly. She nodded and he opened the door. The normally well-lit office was surprisingly dark. The blinds were half drawn, making for streaks of sunlight that came into the room in harsh rays from the large window that overlooked the street. There were two men, one behind the desk and another leaning against the wall to the side. There was an air of danger in the room. Payton thought of sharks circling bloody waters. 100 Echelon After squinting a bit, Payton identified Director Mikora behind the desk. The other man, dressed in a dark suit and coat, he had never met. Payton cautiously took one of the remaining chairs in front of the desk and motioned for Chanel to sit next to him. “Good morning,” the Director said sharply. He leaned forward on his desk. “You can file your official reports with Professor Schuda later. For now I think it would be best if you tell me exactly what happened to you two last night.” Chanel started to answer, but Payton put a hand on her shoulder to stop her. “I‟m not sure what you mean, Director.” Mikora stood up from behind the desk and Payton saw his shadowy form begin to pace as he shouted, “You know damn well what I mean. We placed thirty-some calls to each of your hotel rooms last night and never received a response. We sent you text messages on your cell phones. We sent you emails. We even had the local authorities check your rooms. They said you checked out.” “They were right,” Payton answered simply. “So where were you?” the Director demanded. “We had a late dinner,” Payton said. He would tell Director Mikora the truth eventually, but he was uncomfortable saying anything else until the man standing by the desk identified himself. “After a few cups of coffee we figured we wouldn‟t get any sleep and decided to get to the airport early. You can check the timestamps on our boarding passes if you like.” For the first time, the man in the suite stirred. “Mikora, you said they would be cooperative. I don‟t want to bring an entire team of agents to Chicago simply to investigate CUFOS, but I will.” 101 Echelon “They‟ll cooperate, and I‟ll thank you to refrain from threatening me.” Mikora turned back to Payton and Chanel looking even more furious. “I get calls from the Assistant Director of the Chicago FBI Office. Now I‟m getting house calls from the NSA. Whatever you did, I want a goddamn explanation and I want it now!” Instead of answering him, Payton turned to the other man. “What does the National Security Agency want with us?” The agent looked at him a moment. “We want the files you stole. You were trespassing on government property.” “And the purpose of that property?” “I am not required to answer your questions, Mr. Connor,” the NSA agent said in a frosty tone. “You, on the other hand, are required to answer mine, or you risk being charged with obstruction of justice in addition to trespassing.” Payton didn‟t see any way out. They know we were there. They know what we took. He stole a glance at Chanel, who returned his look with one that expressed similar thoughts: we’re caught. All he could do was come clean with what they‟d done. At least with the Director here to listen to a full confession, the government wouldn‟t be able file obstruction charges. “We arrived on site and conducted our investigation as planned. There might have been foul play involved in a fire at the site we were sent to investigate, but we were turned away by the local authorities, so there was little else we could do. We were approached later by a confidential informant, who implicated a group in the cover up of the incident, and who also pointed us to the Two Rivers Reservoir facility as the location of their operation.” “And the name of your CI?” the agent asked. 102 Echelon “There‟s a reason for the word confidential in their titles, agent,” Payton answered him. “What was the shadow group he implicated?” the agent persisted. “The Ill--" Chanel began. “Unknown,” Payton cut her off with a look. Don’t give anything away, he thought at her silently. The less we know the better, didn’t I tell you that? Just sit there and shut up, and we might get out of this okay. “The CI‟s information could not be verified, so we sought to confirm his story on our own.” “What did you find?” Director Mikora asked. He took a breath. “What looked like a medical or scientific facility was hidden below a pumping station near the Two Rivers Reservoir. We came across some kind of control room that contained files implicating the workers at the facility in crimes against American citizens. We attempted to retrieve some of their files so that they might be brought to justice.” “They weren‟t criminals,” the agent sighed. Some of the tightness in his face seemed to melt away. “You don‟t say,” answered Payton evenly. The agent looked at him sharply. “They were government scientists, Connor. There have been several threats of attack upon the dams that make up the power matrix in that area made by animal rights groups and eco-terrorists that seem to think we are contaminating the rivers and harming local wildlife. Those scientists you saw were working to make sure that the government is doing all it can to protect the animals in the local rivers.” 103 Echelon “And the files?” “Extensive reports by our security assets on the terrorist groups making the threats and the fictional beliefs that are the basis for their mistrust of the United States government.” Payton couldn‟t help but laugh. “The NSA has a dossier on fictional conspiracy theories below a reservoir pumping station? That’s your explanation?” “Information is power, Mr. Connor, a concept I imagine your agency is quite familiar with. We don‟t have a better place to store our counter-intelligence files related to the threats, so we keep them there.” He held out his hand. “Now give me the files.” Payton looked at his hand for a moment, then shrugged and leaned over to where his carryon bag lay next to his chair. He pulled four manila folders from his pack and held them out to the agent. “All of these are fictional?” “Entirely,” the agent said. He reached forward. Payton pulled them away a couple of inches, just out of his reach. “Then you won‟t mind if I make copies of them.” The agent studied him for a moment. “You can have duplicates of the files, but you‟ll have to sign an NDA.” He reached further and snatched the files away. “I‟ll get you the paperwork in a couple of days.” “A non-disclosure agreement?” “Of course, Mr. Connor. We can‟t have the terrorist groups discovering what we do and do not know about them.” He stopped to leaf through the folders. “Where is the rest, Connor?” “The rest?” 104 Echelon “The DAT disc, Connor,” the agent said. Payton could tell by the rising volume of his voice and the color of his face that they had just made the jump from mild annoyance to true anger. “You also stole a DAT disc.” Payton made a show of looking at Chanel, who returned his look with barely a shrug and the slightest shake of her head. Just like we practiced, Payton thought. She‟s a quick study. He turned back. “Sorry agent. We don‟t know what you‟re talking about.” The agent started towards Payton. He rose from his chair reflexively, and they were nearly face to face with each other when the Director‟s voice rang out. “That‟s enough, Agent DeMarco,” the Director‟s voice came sharply. “They gave you the files when you asked for them. I‟m sure they‟d do the same with the disc if they had it. I‟ll make sure your Section Chief has their contact information if you come up with any further questions. In the meantime, I expect the trespassing charges to be dropped, as you promised.” Agent DeMarco‟s eyes never left Payton‟s as he reached into his jacket pocket and handed over his card. “My phone number. In case you have anything else for me.” He turned back to the desk. “Goodbye, Director Mikora.” “Goodbye, Agent DeMarco,” the Director called after him as he walked out of the room. The door to the office slammed shut. Payton waited a moment to make sure that Agent DeMarco would have moved far enough from the office to be unable to eavesdrop before speaking. “Thanks, boss.” Mikora frowned at him and pointed to the top of his desk. “Empty your bags on my desk. Now.” 105 Echelon So much for solidarity, Payton thought. Chanel looked at him. “Do it,” he said. They emptied the contents of their carryon bags onto the Directors desk. The Director spent several moments sifting through their flight paperwork, shaving kits, clothing, and identification before returning his gaze to Payton and Chanel. “So you don‟t have the disc?” he asked, eyebrows raised. “Do you really want to know?” Payton asked. The Director‟s expression softened. “No, I want you to tell me again that you don‟t have any reason to worry about the FBI or NSA.” “You don‟t,” Payton said. “Good,” Director Mikora said with a sigh and a nod. “Now I imagine you two would like to get cleaned up, so why don‟t you go home and get some rest. After submitting your report, or course, which I expect to be thorough. Show Investigator Falasco how to fill out the paperwork.” It was clearly a dismissal. “On it, boss,” Payton said, and they left the office. Perhaps Chanel had thought that paperwork at CUFOS would be more interesting than at her previous job. If so, she was soon disappointed. They sat together at Payton‟s desk in the bullpen, a bank of cubicles outside the main offices. There they entered their report into the template he had opened: flight times here, arrivals there, names of witnesses and expense receipts throughout. It left little for Chanel to do and he worried that she would start to fidget, but to her credit she paid attention, asking questions occasionally to clarify something she hadn‟t understood. In truth, it didn‟t take all that long, less than an hour. After they both signed their e-signatures to the document, Payton sent it off to Schuda‟s email account 106 Echelon and pushed away from the cubicle, almost knocking over Chanel, who had been peering over his shoulder. “Question, Doc.” “Yeah?” She lowered her voice. “The DAT disc. Where is it?” “Patience,” he told her. “Can we go home?” she asked. He looked her over. Her pants and jacket were wrinkled and her posture had become stooped as she leaned on the cubicle walls. Bags were even beginning to appear under her eyes. She was tired. Hell, we both are. “Almost,” he told her. “Follow me.” She followed him to Professor Hobbes‟ office. “I heard you had a visitor for your debriefing,” Professor Hobbes said from behind his desk. Payton didn‟t bother sitting down. “And how would you know that,” Payton asked, but he was pretty sure he already knew the answer. They‟d had to walk past Professor Schuda‟s office to get to the Director‟s. He would have been able to see everyone that had gone into the meeting. “Schuda said something, didn‟t he?” Professor Hobbes waved a dismissive hand. “Mike is an old conspiracy theorist. He can‟t keep his mouth shut about anything, you know that. Speaking of which, I suppose you want this back?” He held up the disc. “Ah,” Chanel said, nodding. “That‟s where it went.” “I‟m surprised you hadn‟t already guessed, Investigator Falasco.” He turned back to Payton. “I didn‟t try to load it, as you asked.” 107 Echelon “Good,” Payton said. He reached out to take the disc. Hobbes jerked his hand back out of reach, not unlike Payton had done to Agent DeMarco. “Do I at least get to know what this is?” Payton reached over the desk, took the disc, and slipped it into his jacket pocket. “When I know, you‟ll know. We‟re going home for the day.”‟ “Just be careful,” Hobbes called after them as they left the office. They made their way through the office, down the elevator, and past Carla, who gave them a lazy wave. She probably knew all about the meeting and their visit by Agent DeMarco. CUFOS had a small parking lot alongside the building. Payton and Chanel each made their way to their vehicles, which weren‟t parked far from one another. “This is me,” Chanel said. She patted a Toyota Prius, one of those new hybrid cars that were supposed to be good for the environment. “Tree hugger?” Payton asked with a smile. “Nah,” Chanel answered. “I‟m a dollar hugger. At three-fifty a gallon, getting better mileage is important. So are we really going home?” “We‟re really going home,” he confirmed. “What are you doing tonight?” Chanel smiled. “I don‟t date co-workers, Doc.” “Neither do I. But I do know someone who might be able to help us out with this.” Payton patted his inside coat jacket where he had stuffed the DAT disc. “And I know if I look into it without you, you‟d throw a fit.” “Damn right I would. What time are you going to pick me up?” “Around seven. And don‟t eat. My friend will want us to buy him dinner.” 108 Echelon Chanel wrote her address down for him and they parted ways, she in her Prius, Payton in his jeep. Once he had turned onto Peterson he pulled out his cell phone and dialed. “Chuck? I need your help tonight. How does Italian sound for dinner? Yeah, the place in Wicker Park. See you there. And Chuck? Just between us, okay?” 109 Echelon Chapter 11 Chanel lived on the near south side of the city. Payton knew the way and he took the highway towards Midway Airport. He pulled the Wrangler up to the front of her building and honked twice. She appeared in the doorway moments later, dressed casually in a Western Illinois sweatshirt, jeans, and a pair of white gym shoes. He flashed his hi- beams twice and soon she was seated next to him as he put the jeep into gear and pulled back onto the road. She peppered him about his friend at first, but he refused to discuss their upcoming meeting. Instead, he questioned her about her time as a Chicago cop. She had worked the eighth district, the precinct around Midway Airport. In her short time, she had attained an impressive jacket along with a roster of interesting stories. They turned off of the highway. “Do I at least get to know where we‟re going to dinner?” Chanel asked. 110 Echelon “It‟s an Italian restaurant called The Lucky Club in Bucktown.” “Why there?” “It‟s dark, not too crowded, with great food and Wi-Fi access.” They pulled off of onto a dark side street. It was another two blocks to the restaurant. Payton pulled over and had the valet take the jeep. Lucky Club had been in Bucktown for years. Though the neighborhood had undergone the pitches and oscillations that mirrored American economy, Lucky Club had remained the same. The front room was a musky bar, fully stocked with both local brews and expensive imported spirits. There was a podium just inside the door with a reservation book. The bar, the stools, and the tables were all made of the same dark mahogany wood that mixed well with the meager lighting. Tim, the owner, waved hello from behind the bar and called him over. “Who‟s your friend?” he asked. “This is Chanel,” Payton answered. “Chanel, meet Tim. He owns the place.” Chanel shook his hand. “We‟re going to need a table, tonight.” “Your friend is already sitting in back,” Tim said with a nod towards the dining area. “Double martini. You must be buying.” “Yeah, I must be,” Payton chuckled. He led Chanel to the dining area. It wasn‟t that the seating hall was large, because it wasn‟t. And it wasn‟t that the table settings were lavishly presented, though they certainly looked nice enough. Whatever it was, be it the romantic lighting or the aroma of sauces coming from the kitchen area, Lucky Club managed to be elegant without being pretentious. All manner of people ate here, from upper class executives and their wrinkled wives, to young lovers 111 Echelon from the nearby Wicker Park neighborhood, a known haven for artists and musicians. Each of the fifteen or so tables was set with a candle resulting in the softest of shadows flickering throughout the entire dining area. “Wow, Doc,” Chanel breathed from beside him. “This place is amazing.” She sniffed the air. “What‟s that smell?” “The city‟s best red sauce. Come on, I see my friend.” They walked to the far corner of the room where a young bearded man was seated on one side of a table for four. Chuck Mikuzis always struck Payton as how a mole must look if it gained a few extra pounds and put on a pair of glasses. Such an appearance might have been comical, except that the less than impressive exterior housed a genius in the field of computers and programming. Chuck was a systems administrator for a large medical company based out of Oak Brook, a Chicago suburb. He spent all day around computers, programming, networking, and doing all the other technical chores that went along with the job. Growing up, Payton had always had a typical image of computer nerds in his head: white oxfords and bad slacks, along with unkempt hair and pocket protectors. Not too far from what he himself wore to work every day, in fact. Chuck, on the other hand, was perpetually dressed in a concert shirt, a hooded sweatshirt, jeans, and a pair of designer Pumas. They had met a few years back when Payton had first joined CUFOS. One of the professors, Schuda probably, had forwarded him a list of UFO related websites. He‟d made the mistake of responding to one of Chuck‟s posts about a UFO sighting over O‟Hare Airport, and had taken him up on his request to investigate. It had been an elaborate hoax, cooked up by Chuck and a few friends that wanted to draw attention to 112 Echelon other, supposedly legitimate cases. It was the first case Payton had ever proven false at the Center, and Chuck had been impressed with Payton‟s ability to prove his report false. They‟d become friends afterwards, and whenever he needed something researched quietly, Payton knew where to go. Chuck finally looked up from his martini and saw Payton standing over him. He stood up to shake his hand. “Hey, what‟s up, Doc?” he grinned, and then burst out laughing. Payton turned to Chanel. “He thinks that‟s the funniest thing in the world, says it every time we get together.” He turned back. “Chuck, this is my new partner, Chanel Falasco.” “Chanel?” Chuck asked, reaching out his hand. “Like the perfume?” “Exactly,” Chanel said. They all took their seats around the table, Chuck on one side, Payton and Chanel on the other. Chuck forced small talk for several minutes, telling Chanel how he and Payton had met and commenting awkwardly on Payton‟s inability to keep a partner, both in his personal and professional life. He was beginning to get into some details that Payton would rather avoid when the waiter mercifully came by and took their orders, leaving the entire table a round of martinis. It was only after their food was served nearly twenty minutes later that Chuck dropped his voice a couple decibels and they got to business. “Okay, what do you have for me?” “You sure you‟re comfortable doing this in front of Chanel?” Payton asked. Chuck was notoriously paranoid and no one would benefit from a public freak out. 113 Echelon But to his surprise, Chuck merely shrugged. “She‟s with you, isn‟t she? Now what did you get your hands on?” Payton reached into his jacket pocket. “A DAT tape from a secure government facility. Unreadable by my PC at home. It didn‟t even register on my file folder.” “Yeah, well you don‟t have access to the government decrypts, do you?” Chuck smiled. He took the disc that Payton had slid across the table. “You want to do this here?” Payton shrugged. “A public setting is probably the best option.” “Am I going to be able to go home after this?” “Well, if you don‟t think you can do it without getting caught...” “Hey, Doc, you know my ninja skills are the best in the land. I just like to know what I‟m getting myself into.” Chuck reached below the table and brought back a small, thin laptop. He opened it, slid a finger over the touch pad, and reached back under the table. He spent the next minute or so plugging all manner of peripherals into the computer, explaining as he worked. “This is an outboard data decrypt CD-DAT scanner. This is the wireless booster, so I‟ll have enough bandwidth to hack into any government linkups that might help with the decoding. Here‟s the GPS signal encrypt, which will take care of any GPS snoopware. And this is my baby: a military grade wireless signal scrambler with top to bottom rerouting capability. With this they won‟t even know what country we‟re in.” Chuck plugged the last peripheral into his laptop and then looked over at Chanel. “Turned on, beautiful?” Chanel laughed. “Just check the disc out, Chuck,” Payton sighed. 114 Echelon “Yeah, sure.” He opened the tray for the scanner and popped the DAT disc inside. Then he turned back to the laptop and began typing. “Setting up the peripherals, making sure they are active and working properly. Now we turn on the wireless scrambler so we can safely get at the government‟s decrypt codes. Running the DAT tape now…” Payton waited a moment. “Chuck?” “Hold on, it‟s accessing the government databases right now. CIA, FBI, Home- Sec, INS…” Chuck frowned again. “None of the decrypt codes match. Those are all my default databases. Any idea where this disk actually came from?” “Try the National Security Agency,” Chanel said. “The NSA?” Chuck asked. His brow furrowed and he bit his lower lip. “I don‟t think I‟ve ever tried to crack their databases.” “Can you do it?” Payton asked. “Should be able to. Their public website is a front, as you would expect. They have a separate site for employees and agents where they house their intranet and where their cipher database should be. Just give me a minute while I run the search program…Okay, got it. Now we run the login key generator.” He typed continuously, his fingers never seeming to break stride. After several moments he sat back, looking frustrated. “Damn it. Sorry brother, I can‟t get in. My login codes don‟t work on the NSA database site.” “So you can‟t help us,” Payton sighed. 115 Echelon Chuck smiled. “Well, I might not be able to login into the DAT tape itself, but I doubt they encrypted the coding on all of the subsidiary files. Let‟s try to get at the meat and potatoes of the disc, shall we?” Chuck‟s fingers flew over the keyboard and touch pad again. Payton and Chanel each took the opportunity to dig into their dishes and sip their martinis. Chanel had gotten linguini in red sauce with mushrooms, a dish Payton had ordered on several occasions and knew to be delicious. He had ordered his favorite dish, the rigatoni with veal meatballs. He had finished about half of his plate when Chuck cleared his throat rather loudly. Payton put down his fork to find his friend looking at him suspiciously. “I get it. This is payback for my trying to trick you all those years ago, right?” he asked. “Is this some kind of joke, Doc?” “I was hoping you could tell me.” Chuck flipped the laptop around so he and Chanel could see the display screen. “This is the code for a program. I found it copied into a text document and saved as an accompanying file on the disc. It‟s not the main access file on the DAT tape, but it takes up a significant portion of its memory space. I would guess that it‟s an attachment file that the encrypted data refers to.” He was getting worked up. “So what‟s the problem?” Chanel asked. “The problem? Look at the damn code!” Chuck hissed. Payton peered at the display. <?Xpdt EchNav cointelpro version="3.99"?> <xpdtns="longitude - latitude"> <specVersion> 116 Echelon <major>1</major> <minor>0</minor> </specVersion> <actionList> <action> <subject#>LinkSatInfoRouter</subject#> <argumentList> <argument> <subject#>TelFaxEml <direction>inboard</database> <relatedStateVariable>killswitch accno</relatedStateVariable> </argument> <argument> <name>Maxbit transfer echelon</name> <direction>input sat info</direction> <relatedStateVariable>timedata data dump</relatedStateVariable> </argument> <argument> <name>NewFileCreate input:paperclip database</name> <direction>input</direction> <relatedStateVariable>Layer1DownstreamMaxBitRate</relatedStateVariable> </argument> <argument> <name>NewPhysicalCoInStatus</name> <direction>outbound FT.M**** database</direction> 117 Echelon “This might as well be gibberish,” Payton said with a shake of his head. “What the hell am I looking at?” “This is one of fifty-two pages of program coding that is attached to the DAT disc. Most of it is in programming language, but some of it is readable.” “So it‟s a computer program?” “Of course not,” Chuck said. He looked at Payton as if that ought to be obvious. “There‟s no executable file associated with the code. I think it was included on the DAT disc to be reviewed by anyone who was reading the disc.” Chanel shifted in her chair, bumping into Payton as she tried to get a better look at the display. “But what does it do?” “Just look at the code,” Chuck said again. “Anything jump out at you?” Payton took a better look at the lines of programming, trying to see what Chuck was getting at. “What‟s this first line?” he asked, pointing at the screen. <?Xpdt EchNav cointelpro version="3.99"?> “Very good,” Chuck nodded. “That‟s the line that tells us where this program comes from.” “It does?” Chanel asked. “Where?” “Fort Meade, Maryland,” Chuck answered. Payton and Chanel glanced at each other, mirrored looks of surprise on their faces. “How do you know that?” Payton asked. “COINTELPRO was an FBI/NSA joint surveillance program supposedly used to hunt communists embedded in America during the Cold War era. The acronym stands 118 Echelon for Counter Intelligence Program. It was started by Hoover who sold it as a program to monitor groups disruptive to American society. Apparently, to Mr. Hoover, that distinction included groups like the American Communist Party, the Students for a Democratic Society collective, and environmentalist groups. The Pentagon Papers even suggest that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was under COINTELPRO surveillance at one point or another.” Payton studied Chuck a moment. “Is this more of your paranoid bullshit, or is this for real?” “It‟s a matter of public record,” Chuck said. “And I am not paranoid. The Citizens Committee to investigate the FBI exposed COINTELPRO in the early seventies, including paperwork detailing a good deal of their espionage programs. The investigation forced Congress to shut the program down. Of course, Reagan reauthorized some of it. Then the Patriot Act took domestic counterintelligence even further.” “So bottom line, COINTELPRO still exists?” Chanel asked. “Not under the same name, but probably, yes.” “How can you be sure?” Chuck tapped the wireless booster. “You‟re the one who suggested it. Besides, the NSA isn‟t as public or as well regulated as the FBI. They can get away with shit the Bureau can‟t.” “So why Fort Meade?” Chanel asked. Payton finally put it together. “Because that‟s where NSA headquarters is.” “You got it,” Chuck said. “So you have an encrypted DAT disc from a secure government facility that refers to a semi-legal domestic spy network that hasn‟t set off 119 Echelon any civil liberties alerts for nearly half a century. Just so you understand what we‟re working with.” “Yeah,” Payton said heavily. “We get it.” “Good. Now, for the most part, the next several lines are simple procedural code. Version numbers and routing sequences. The kind of stuff you find in all kinds of commercial software throughout silicon valley. Then we get this.” <subject#>LinkSatInfoRouter</subject#> <argumentList> <argument> <subject#>TelFaxEml <direction>inboard</database> “This is a command line, isn‟t it?” Payton asked. “You know more than you let on,” Chuck said approvingly. “LinkSatInfoRouter is an opening line command that links satellite assets as a main transfer option, rather than wireless or landline routing. So when this line on the program runs, it‟s accessing a data transfer stream to an unspecified satellite, presumably somewhere in orbit. The argument list directs the program to pass along digital information it has collected to the linkup. That information is specified in the subject heading, in this case by this TelFaxEml command.” “I‟m assuming that refers to telephone, fax, and email?” Payton asked. “Sort of. According to digital collection intelligence gathering software, those three distinctions provide for virtually every type of digital and voice communication 120 Echelon known to man. Every call, email, text message, facsimile message, and pretty much every communication that can be caught by digital snoop software or physical surveillance devices is all provided for under the TelFaxEml demarcation.” “Okay,” Chanel said. “They‟re gathering communication information.” “You‟re not getting it,” Chuck said. “They‟re gathering information on every communication in America. And probably most other industrialized nations as well.” “Come on,” Chanel sighed. “They can‟t possibly be listening to every word spoken and written in the industrialized world.” “You think so?” Chuck asked seriously. “Take a look at the rest of the program.” <name>Maxbit transfer echelon</name> <direction>input sat info</direction> <relatedStateVariable>timedata data dump</relatedStateVariable> </argument> <argument> <name>NewFileCreate input:paperclip database</name> <direction>input</direction> Chuck tapped the text on the screen as he explained. “Input sat info is the routing direction of the data transfer into the stream to the satellite. A timed data dump is a sequence of transfer that is used to encode the stream, making it undetectable to anyone on the outside except when it‟s in mid-burst. All of this indicates a very expensive, very secretive movement of covert data.” “How do you know this has anything to do with American citizens?” Payton asked. 121 Echelon “This input command right here,” Chuck said. He pointed at the second to last line. “Operation Paperclip was a top-secret government operation the CIA used to smuggle some of the most intelligent scientists and geneticists this world has ever seen into America.” Chanel looked hopeful. “Aliens?” “Worse,” Chuck said with a frown. “Nazis.” “You must be kidding,” Payton said. “It‟s absolutely true, also partially declassified,” Chuck insisted. “It isn‟t widely publicized, but the fact is that throughout World War Two, Nazi technology was farther advanced than the Allies in nearly every strategically important category. Jet propulsion systems, V-2 Rockets. Hell, even particle beam technology was developed by the Third Reich. Once it became obvious that we would win the war, the allied forces, specifically America and Russia, began making plans to split up the Nazi scientists and bring them to their respective new homes. Those two split groups of Nazis were responsible for the moon race of the sixties. There are also some who say that those same geneticists began the work on the human genome project. In order to build up their databases, they began collecting the genetic information of all military personnel, starting in the early fifties. Then, they were allowed to collect genetic samples from every medically treated civilian in the country.” “How the hell did they manage that?” Chanel laughed incredulously. “Through government mandated inoculations, which just so happened to be implemented in the sixties.” Her face fell. “Oh.” 122 Echelon “So they create this genetic database of everyone in the country. They keep the genetic samples attached to the communication data they collect, hence Operation Paperclip. And they get their genetic samples from DNA taken out during inoculations. But what if they aren‟t just taking things out?” Chuck asked. “What if they decided to start putting things in?” “What type of things?” Chanel asked. Payton noticed she was no longer laughing and her mouth remained slightly ajar. “Biometric chips, perhaps,” Chuck said. “Injected in the right spot, they could give output readings of heart rate, autoimmune cellular production, even brain wave activity. If they were equipped with the right nano-technology, these chips could introduce foreign toxins or disease into an organism. They could give a person AIDS, for instance. Or the plague. Or—“ “Unlikely,” Payton interjected. “Unlikely that they would be able to inject anything that wouldn‟t show up on full body scans or x-rays. On the off chance that they could manage it, the most likely use for such an implant would be tracking.” “GPS,” Chanel said. “That would be my guess, too,” Chuck said, sounding slightly disappointed. “Global Position Satellite implants have already been proposed for American immigrants. The technology is obviously available. Besides, that would make sense for use in conjunction with the COINTELPRO program. If the satellite collecting the communication data bursts has a GPS reader onboard, or if it is in close communication with a synched up GPS satellite, then they can immediately confirm to whom they are listening.” 123 Echelon “They,” Payton repeated. “The NSA,” Chuck said. He saw the look on Payton‟s face. “Uh, right?” Payton didn‟t want to answer him. Either the old man was wrong and he would simply sound ridiculous, or he was right and the Illuminati were real, as would be the danger to Chuck if Payton passed that information to him. Instead, he pointed back to the screen. “What is maxbit transfer echelon?” Chuck eyed him a moment longer, then turned to the screen. “Well in Sat-Com language, a max-bit transfer releases the communication sequence from bandwidth restrictions. As for the Echelon heading…” he trailed off for a moment. “It‟s a Greek demarcation, of course. Probably it refers to a file somewhere in the Paperclip database. Or, maybe, Echelon…E…maybe it stands for Earth. You know, for the global spy network.” “Maybe,” Payton murmured. “Can you make a backup of the DAT tape?” “Write protected. First thing I checked.” “Can you copy an image of the disc?” Payton asked. “That anyone can do,” Chuck nodded. “It won‟t be certain that all the file data will transfer correctly, but I can burn an image onto my hard drive.” “Do it,” Payton said. He motioned to their waitress with his credit card for the check. “Then I think we should all go our separate ways and get the hell out of here.” Payton paid, they walked out of the back room and through the bar, and out the front door. They left, all in different directions, Chuck and Payton in their cars, Chanel in a taxi after Payton handed her money along with an apology for not getting her home himself. 124 Echelon Payton had the impression that he was being followed, but there was too much traffic to be certain. He considered taking an evasive route as he drove home, but decided he was being silly. Instead he directed the jeep directly to his apartment, went inside, and went to bed. But not without wishing he still had the old man‟s gun. 125 Echelon Chapter 12 Payton went into work late the next day. He skipped the coffee shop, something he almost never did, and headed directly to CUFOS headquarters. Carla stopped him as he made for the elevator. “Hey,” she said. “They‟re waiting for you again. Hobbes‟ office this time.” Payton stopped, one foot halfway toward the elevator. He turned his head sideways to look at Carla. “Any idea what they want?” “Lots of ideas.” She didn‟t elaborate. A chill caused him to shiver. He pushed the up button and got on the elevator. It was a quick ride to the fifth floor, yet it seemed to take forever. What could they want? What did they know? Had someone truly been following him last night? And what about Chanel? Or Chuck? 126 Echelon The elevator doors parted, revealing the bullpen office, usually familiar and inviting. Payton thought, for the first time, I am afraid to go through those doors. Is Chanel waiting for me on the other side? Or has she been gobbled up in the web of trouble I managed to lay for her? Payton navigated the halls and cubicles and opened the door to Professor Hobbes‟ office. He was behind his desk, with Schuda seated to the right and Chanel to the left. He paused a moment, then decided that since he didn‟t know what this was all about, it would be best if he acted as naturally as possible. He yanked a chair from beside the nearest wall, slid it next to Chanel, and then plopped into it without bothering to remove his jacket. The others were looking at him, clearly expecting him to speak, but Payton remained silent, observing their reactions. Schuda spoke up. “Hey, Doc. We have-“ “Where were you last night?” Hobbes cut in. “Last night?” Payton asked as innocently as he could manage. “I had dinner with my partner, then I went home. Why do you care?” “I care because neither you nor your partner seems to want to give me a straight answer to a simple question.” Payton looked sideways at Chanel. She was staring straight ahead, looking like some sort of seated gargoyle. Impressive, he thought. Payton turned back to the professor. “What‟s the problem.” Hobbes rose halfway out of his chair. “I have NSA agents calling my office warning me that one of my investigators has gone off the reservation and is consorting with known criminals.” 127 Echelon Shit. “Criminals?” Payton asked. “I had dinner with my new partner and a friend.” Hobbes rummaged about the papers and files on his desk. He came up with a stapled stack and tossed them across his desk in Payton‟s direction. “Here is an NSA and FBI joint dossier on one Charles Stanford Mikuzis. It contains a report chronicling several computer crimes, including recent purchases he made of illegal hacking equipment, in particular peripheral physical hardware used to get into federal intranet sites. So I wonder, why were our best field agent and his new partner meeting with him last night? And what does it have to do with that disc you had me hiding yesterday?” Payton forced a laugh. “Dan, I can assure you that Chuck Mikuzis is a lot of things, and not all of them good. But a renowned criminal he is not.” “The NSA seems to think different.” “Then the NSA wouldn‟t know their own ass from a hole in the ground. Chuck is harmless.” Professor Hobbes looked as though he wanted to argue the point further, but the tension finally eased off of his face. “You‟re sure your friend isn‟t endangering the Center?” “I‟m sure,” Payton nodded. He wondered how truthful he was being. “You had better not be playing chicken with our work.” “I already told you they‟re wrong. Besides which, what business it is of yours with whom I eat meals?” Professor Hobbes‟ face flushed red. “I‟ll thank you to take a more respectful tone with your superiors, Investigator Connor.” 128 Echelon “Of course, Professor,” Payton said. “Just so long as you stay out of my dinner plans.” Payton could tell he was still angry, but some of the color began to drain from his face. “In that case, I will set aside this dossier and inform Agent DeMarco of your remarks on Mr. Mikuzis. In the meantime, I believe Professor Schuda has another IFI for you and your partner.” Schuda passed them manila folders. “You‟re both going to Boston. An MIT professor there has managed to uncover what he thinks is an original composition by William Morgan.” “And he would be…” Chanel began. “A Freemason that lived in New York during the early nineteenth century. There was something of a controversy surrounding him, not long after he let it be known that he was writing a book that would reveal the inner workings and secrets of American Freemasonry. The print shop that had agreed to publish his work was razed, and Morgan was arrested soon after, supposedly for failing to pay two dollars owed to a debtor. Someone showed up to pay his bail that night and witnesses saw him being shoved into a carriage by a group of known Freemasons. He was never heard from again.” “And the composition this MIT guy has, he thinks it‟s this book?” she asked. Schuda nodded. “Part of it, anyway.” Payton thought of the events of the previous night. He couldn‟t leave now. Chuck might come up with something on the DAT tape, not to mention that NSA agent had obviously put his friend under surveillance. No, this was the worst of timing, never 129 Echelon mind that he was still feeling the effects of the trip to New Mexico. He handed the file back to Schuda and stood up. “Send someone else. Parker or Nadler can handle this.” Everyone stared at him, but it was Chanel that spoke first. “What‟s your problem?” “We just got back from one IFI. We shouldn‟t be scheduled for another for at least a couple of weeks. That‟s standard operating procedure.” Payton turned to Schuda. “Tell her.” Schuda looked at him a moment. “It‟s true SOP regulations require a two week waiting period, but we‟re going to have to overlook the rules in this case.” “Why?” Payton asked. “The MIT professor requested you be sent. Personally.” Warning bells sounded inside Payton‟s head. Why would this professor ask for him? How did this guy even know his name? He asked Schuda. “Apparently he‟s done work on Senate committee hearings. Says that‟s where he got your name.” That was certainly a possibility. Every once in a while, some Senator or House Committee member got a bug up his or her rear about UFOs or whatever. They would make a big show of looking into a particular event or conspiracy, they would hold some half-baked hearings, Payton would travel to Washington as an expert witness for the Center, and then the whole thing would just go away. They were media events, not hearings, but they had garnered enough attention from certain academics that he occasionally got calls afterwards. 130 Echelon Payton looked at Chanel. Her brow was furrowed, her eyes cast downward in consternation. This doesn’t feel right to her either, Payton thought. Maybe I’ve underestimated her. She has good instincts. Nearly as good as mine. I should refuse to go. I could feign sickness. I could say I have a family emergency. There are plenty of ways to get out of this. To insist they send someone else. But before he could form the words, Chanel stirred from her chair. “Plane tickets?” “In the folders,” Schuda nodded. “When do we leave?” “Six o‟clock tonight. You board at the United terminal at Midway Airport.” She let out a deep breath. For a fleeting moment, Payton thought there might be a chance of her making his refusal in his stead. But only for that moment. “Okay,” she said at last. “We‟ll need the rest of the afternoon to get familiar with the file.” Schuda smiled at Payton. “She sounds like you.” You have no idea how wrong you are, Payton thought. They were done and, what with Hobbes being less then amicable at the moment, they beat a hasty retreat back to their desks. Once they were seated, Payton attempted to inquire what exactly Chanel had been thinking overstepping her bounds and accepting the mission for the both of them. But every time he broached the subject, she shot him looks of warning. Instead, it seemed to him she was putting on an act in pouring through the intelligence files Schuda had given them. 131 Echelon They were relatively sparse. There was a detailed history of colonial and early American Freemasonry. Then a layout of Boston, with their hotel and the MIT cafeteria were labeled. Since Chanel seemed to not want to speak about why she had agreed to the trip, he tried to speak bring up the IFI itself. But every time he mentioned the MIT professor, the only logical place to begin, she threw him funny look after funny look. Finally, he‟d had enough. “You want to tell me what the problem is?” he asked her. “No problem. You have to go home and pack before we leave?” Payton stared at her. “Of course.” “Me too. I think we should grab something to eat before we hit the airport. Don‟t you agree?” What the hell was this? She was talking as though reading from a script. Well, perhaps not quite so mechanical, but there was clearly something going on. Something she was keeping from him. “Sure,” he said slowly. “I missed my morning coffee. There‟s a Starbucks outside the domestic terminal. They have decent food.” “Great. I‟ll meet you there. Say four-thirty?” “Four-thirty,” he nodded, and she walked out of the office. He was supposed to have Jennifer again that night, so he called his sister to tell her that he would be out of town for the next couple of days. She told him that he was in luck. She had found a sitter for her at the last minute, someone from her neighborhood that she had struck up a conversation with at the grocery store, or something like that. Payton wasn‟t really listening all that much, the phone on his shoulder as he began to fill 132 Echelon out his paperwork for the IFI. His sister had the tendency to ramble. All he needed to know was that there was someone to watch Jennifer. At some point his sister had taken a breath and he managed to squeeze in a goodbye and hung up the phone. It took another half an hour or so to finish up some leftover paperwork from the trip to Roswell, expense reports and time logs mostly. There were emails he answered only half consciously. The rest of his thoughts were spent replaying the last hour of Chanel‟s behavior over and over again in his mind. What was she doing? Motivation was what directed people, however contrary their actions might appear. And Chanel was obviously avoiding the IFI topic all together. That didn‟t make any sense at all. She clearly wanted to go to Boston. She had accepted the mission for both of them after all. So what was she hiding? It was so unlike her, which bothered him. She had hardly been reserved in the time they‟d spent together. In fact, if asked he would have probably said that she was too forthcoming, even embarrassingly honest at times. He resolved to ask her when they met at the coffee shop. He finished his paperwork and went home to pack. 133 Echelon Chapter 13 They had been in the air for nearly five hours and Payton‟s rear end was beginning to ache. He had spent most of the flight to Boston trying to find out what Chanel was hiding. She still wouldn‟t let him in on the secret, the joke, whatever it was. It had been frustrating and annoying when she had played this game at CUFOS headquarters. Since then, it had graduated to being flat out infuriating. The reason for the escalation was her attitude. In Chicago, Chanel had been content to avoid the subject. In the coffee shop, on the airplane, she positively delighted that he had no idea what was going on. It had begun slowly. “You mean you haven‟t figured it out?” she had asked him. He tried to explain to her that she was obligated to tell him anything important, especially given the recent events they had experienced. So wouldn‟t she just tell him what was going on? 134 Echelon “Hell no, I won‟t tell you,” She had responded. “Finally, I‟ve got the scoop on you. I‟ve figured it out when you haven‟t.” He asked her what it was he hadn‟t figured out. What did she know that he did not? What had he missed?” “I can‟t tell you. Not yet. Because I‟m not sure, and I don‟t want to have to admit that I was wrong. But if I‟m right, we should know it soon after we land.” Know what? “You‟ll see,” she had said, then seemed to reconsider. “Or if I‟m wrong, you never will.” Then she had laughed. So now they were landing and Payton‟s anticipation was beginning to mount. There was something going on here, of that much he was certain. The adolescent that still dwelt within him hoped she was wrong. But then he would never find out what she had suspected, so a larger part hoped she was proven correct. Just so long as he didn‟t have to listen to her gloat about it. The pilot had announced the Boston temperature and what not. It was the sort of thing the airlines did to make passengers feel more like family, especially after well- publicized incidents like the crash earlier in the week. Thank you for flying our airline. Please enjoy your time in Boston. Please ignore this sardine can of a flying machine in which you have been crammed. They exited the plane and went down the ramp into the terminal exit. Boston has so much history, he thought as he gazed at the city through the windows. Modernized though the airport was, the surrounding sights and people took on 135 Echelon an almost colonial air. The east coast was different from the Midwest. Older, with more pride and dignity and tradition. They exited onto the promenade and hailed a cab. The ride to their motel was relatively silent. Chanel peered out the window constantly, her neck in crooked positions that made Payton uncomfortable just looking at her. Boston was such a scenic city, it was no wonder Chanel could hardly keep her eyes off of it. “Beautiful, isn‟t it.” She turned to look at him quizzically. “The city, I mean,” Payton continued. “Oh,” Chanel smiled. “Yeah, I guess it is.” He watched as she turned to look out the window again, occasionally shifting to glance behind them. Their motel, another sleazy chain that caused him to think of traveling salesmen, was on the outskirts of the city. The taxi pulled into the parking lot and helped them haul their bags out of the trunk. Payton paid the driver who thanked him in that Boston drawl that made him think he had landed in some kind of bizarre Wonderland that Alice had long since abandoned. They checked in at the front desk and soon found themselves at the doors to their respective rooms, which were situated next to each other. Payton suggested they unpack quickly and get together in his room to go over their itinerary for the following morning. “Yeah, that sounds good,” she answered him. “Your room is probably best.” Payton stared after her as she turned the key and disappeared into her room. What the hell? Your room is probably best? What did that mean? What was so special about his room? He turned his own key and walked through the doorway, taking a moment to 136 Echelon look around critically. Was there something special in here? He ran his eyes over the meager dresser, the coffee machine, the aging television complete with videogame console chained to the entertainment center, the bed adorned with sickly brown sheets and comforter. The bed? No, he thought. She couldn‟t be thinking about his bed, could she? Sex? No, no way. She was attractive, of course, but they had a professional relationship, besides their having just met one another. In the past all of the partners he‟d been forced to work with had been men, and never before had he ever heard of a CUFOS partnership blossoming into anything more personal than mild friendship. Payton‟s partnerships hadn‟t even made it that far, what few he‟d had in his tenure at the Center. The truth was he never really felt comfortable around most people. In today‟s busy times, there were two types of people in a person‟s life: the people you work with and the people you don‟t. It was what made it so difficult for Payton to meet anyone, especially women. Those he worked with were often gawky and completely immersed in the job. Not unlike me, Payton thought. It was the job they loved, cliché as it might sound. This profession he and his contemporaries had chosen drew a certain type of person, and that person was often more adept at uncovering ionized sand particles or microscopic injection sites than the mysteries of friendship and romance. It meant that when he was around the people with whom he worked, which was most of the time, the conversation turned to shop talk. Because for them there was simply nothing else to discuss. The opposite was true with women outside of work. His friends were few and most of them were just as odd as his co-workers. Those that weren‟t completely helpless 137 Echelon in the realm of social interaction constantly pestered him to join them at the trendy bars and clubs that peppered downtown Chicago. As if he was going to meet a woman there. He could just picture it. What do you do for a living? I investigate suspected UFO sightings to determine their validity or the possible deceptions of the supposed victims. Oh, that must be interesting, right? Actually, no. What little interest you might have in the unusual nature of my work is about to be obliterated when I tell you that the majority of my time is spent behind a desk, filling out expense reports, studying topography and satellite data. Oh, well at least it must pay well. You‟d be surprised how little it pays, actually. I‟m in my early thirties and I still rent a two-bedroom apartment because I can‟t afford a house or a condo, not in this market anyway. But hey, why don‟t I buy you a drink as a manifestation of my interest in partaking in coitus with you later this evening? It was enough to make Payton chuckle as he imagined it. No, people inside the business were decidedly unattractive and the people outside the business weren‟t attracted to him. And that left nobody. Except the beautiful woman in the next room, who had impressed him with her intelligence and guile, who was fun and conversational, and who for some reason had found it quite agreeable to meet him in his hotel room, where there was little else save a few pieces of furniture, a television, and a big, comfy bed. This is stupid, he thought. I’m imagining this because I’m lonely. I’m imagining it because of everything she and I went through out west. She is not having romantic thoughts about the two of us. But what if she was? Payton found himself stowing the few clothes he‟d brought in the dresser, more neatly than he had ever done in a motel room before. He put a pot of 138 Echelon coffee on, though he knew how awful the grounds at these places usually were. He sat on the bed and leafed through a pamphlet he‟d found next to the King James Bible describing the local food spots, and he ordered a pizza large enough for two. He seemed to watch himself do all this from afar, conscious of what he was doing and why he was doing it, yet feeling a disembodied sheepishness the entire time. Payton flopped back onto the bed. It was time to clear his mind, remove this parasitic notion from his thoughts. He flipped on the television and worked the remote to one of those twenty-four hour sports stations. In what seemed like an impossible coincidence, the Cubs were in town playing the Red Sox at Fenway Park, only a few miles down the coast. The Cubs were losing, of course, as was their perpetual destiny. When the knock came at the door, Payton shouted that it was open. Chanel came in and glanced at the television. “Baseball?” Payton kept his eyes on the glowing game and tried to ignore the slight pickup in his heartbeat. “Baseball is the key to understanding life.” “Oh really?” she smirked. “Everything in the game mirrors life. Batting averages, where you put your whole life into every swing and you‟re an all-star if you‟re successful a third of the time. Pitching, where you compete with your adversary, setting him up with one pitch and cutting him down with the curveball. Power by itself is useless without speed and coordination. The symmetry, the strategy, the dance. Individuals of such skill and depth, and yet they are useless unless they manage to work seamlessly with one another. It‟s poetry on dirt and grass.” Chanel nodded. “With beer and hotdogs.” 139 Echelon “The other keys to life.” “I was working security when the White Sox won the World Series.” “Ugh, the Sox?” “Oh, shut up,” she said with a laugh. “I‟m starving. We should get a pizza.” “Already on its way.” Chanel leaned over and put a hand on his shoulder. “Doc Connor, you think of everything.” Payton felt his shoulder tingle where she had touched him, but she walked over to sit in the room‟s only chair. The next few minutes passed in silence as they both watched the game until the end of the inning. “You see,” Chanel said. “It‟s their coaching that‟s the problem. Ozzie would have made the double switch.” Payton looked at her. “Wow, you actually sound like you know your stuff.” “My Dad had season tickets.” A knock came from the door. “Pizza,” Payton said. Chanel stared at the door a moment. “Maybe. Answer it.” Maybe? He pushed himself up from the bed and walked to the door to peer through the peephole. The pizza guy was waiting outside. Payton couldn‟t really see much of him as his back turned. But peeking around the edges he could just make out the corners of a cardboard pizza box. He turned to find Chanel watching him. “Pizza guy,” he said. “Mm hmm,” Chanel said with a smile. 140 Echelon Payton turned and opened the door. The pizza guy still had his back turned. “What do I owe you?” Payton asked as he dug for his wallet. The pizza guy turned. “More than you could possibly find in your back pocket.” It was the old man from Roswell. He brushed past Payton while at the same time handing him the pizza box. He tipped his hat to Chanel and took a seat at the edge of the bed. Payton stood still a moment, simply staring at the threshold of the doorway where the old man had stridden into the room. What the hell was going on? He finally turned to deposit the pizza box, which he noticed was hot in his hands. Chanel was smirking at him. “What?” She practically jumped out of her chair. “I knew it! I knew it, and you didn‟t! I beat the great Doc Connor.” “So you knew he was going to contact us while we were on our assignment. Big deal.” The old man, who had been watching them with a bemused look on his face, broke out into a chuckle and turned to Falasco. “And I thought he was supposed to be the smart one.” He laughed again, and Chanel laughed along with him. Payton waited until the laughter died down. “Mind letting me in on the joke?” It was the old man who answered. “I didn‟t just happen to catch up with you in Boston. I called the report in. Again.” Payton grimaced. “And I take you‟re not actually an MIT professor.” “Good lord, I should think not. Never been much for the Ivy League.” The old man cocked his head. “Unlike so many of my colleagues.” 141 Echelon Payton sighed and leaned against the entertainment center, the television set still glowing. “Let me guess. All of your compatriots are Skull and Bones at Harvard and Yale.” “Don‟t forget Stanford and Brown,” the old man smiled. Payton gestured around the motel room. “Tell us why we‟re here.” “I heard you made it to our facility at the reservoir,” the old man said. His face had turned serious. “How did you make out?” Payton paused before answering, taking a breath and throwing Chanel a look. “We turned up empty,” he said, throwing as much indignation into his voice as he could manage. “Your Pandora‟s box was a bust.” “Really,” asked the old man, with raised brow. “Then how did Mr. Mikuzis get his hands on a certain program file and then try to access the NSA decryption database? You didn‟t really think that would go undetected, did you? You sent off national security warnings across half a dozen agencies. Guess who they report to.” “The Illuminati,” Chanel sighed. She walked over to lean against the television shelf next to him. “The Illuminati,” the old man nodded. He looked at them both. “I knew you two would get out of there with something good. I didn‟t realize you‟d make off with the jackpot, for Christ sake. That DAT tape is the most telling piece of evidence you could have found. Unless I‟m mistaken, my friend had a copy when they shot his plane down. And unless my sources are wrong, what‟s on that tape has something to do with this timeline I keep hearing about.” 142 Echelon Payton kicked the entertainment center with his heal to silence the old man. “Because of you the NSA is after us.” The old man nodded. “And one of your friends, too, as I understand it. Tell me, what did your friend Mr. Mikuzis get off of the tape?” “You mean you don‟t know?” Payton asked. The old man chuckled. “Mr. Mikuzis really is paranoid. So much so, in fact, that he was wearing a radio wave scrambler when he met with you. It was enough to keep the local operatives from listening in on your conversation at the restaurant.” Payton decided to let the irony of someone listening in on “paranoid” Chuck go without comment. Instead he recounted what had passed during their time at Lucky Club. Chanel piped up now and again to clarify details Payton had forgotten. Everything from the equipment his friend had used, to the coded sequence they had examined, to Chuck‟s theories on its implications. The old man listened patiently. When they had finished, he smiled approvingly. “Your friend is very smart. If my group knew how much he suspected, he‟d probably be in serious trouble. As it is, they‟re convinced he‟s just a kook with a penchant towards illegal electronics. Besides, most of them are too busy working on this deadline thing, from what I hear. Otherwise, like I said, serious trouble.” “So Chuck was right?” Chanel asked. Payton noticed that she had somehow edged even closer to him along the entertainment center. She was almost shoulder to shoulder with him now. “All that Paperclip and COINTELPRO stuff is true?” “Well, he‟s got a lot of the details wrong,” the old man said. “But yeah, he was pretty close.” 143 Echelon “So that‟s what you wanted us to uncover?” Payton asked. “Chuck said most of that stuff is declassified now. They might have started those programs up again under the guise of the Patriot Act, but there are civil liberty advocates hollering about that stuff already. Seems like an awful waste of time to me.” The old man paused a moment before smiling. “Echelon,” he said. “The Greek demarcation?” Payton asked. “Chuck said it was probably the name for a file cache in Operation Paperclip.” “Oh, but he was wrong about that one,” the old man said quietly. “Echelon is something else entirely. Something far more frightening. It‟s the reason I called in the MIT report, the reason I got you here.” “Yeah,” Payton began. “From now on, it‟d be nice if we had a couple weeks off from your craziness between your calls.” “For what it‟s worth, if I didn‟t think this deadline thing was so important, I wouldn‟t have called in another report so quickly.” “And what the hell are we supposed to tell the office,” Payton asked. “They‟re expecting a report and Freemason documents.” The old man got up from the bed and slipped a hand into his overcoat. He withdrew a leather pamphlet and tossed it at Payton. “William Morgan‟s original draft.” Payton had caught the pamphlet and stared at it in his hands. “You‟re kidding.” “Lying, actually,” said the old man. “It‟s a fake. Something a rudimentary examination by your researchers ought to uncover, but you two have your bases covered. Can we get back to business?” Payton looked at Chanel a moment, then back at the old man. “All right, tell us.” 144 Echelon And he did tell them, though most of it was so unbelievable that throughout the explanation Payton had to make an effort not to roll his eyes. According to the old man, Echelon originally started as a program of another name, the High Frequency Auroral Research Program, or HARP. It began as a program to convert the aurora borealis, the northern lights, into a usable electrical field to transmit communications to bases and stations throughout the globe. It was thought that if you could make a magnetic antenna powerful enough, the limitless bandwidth of the northern lights would allow instantaneous transmission, regardless of distance or data size. It was the basis for the creation of the extremely low frequency antennae, or ELFs, manufactured years later by the United States Navy, supposedly as a means to communicate with deep sea submarines and research centers. Other research suggested that ELFs could be used to disrupt brain activity. Some conspiracy theorists even contended that the antennae were the first step to inducing mind control over the American people. What was not in dispute was the massive amount of technology needed to power the program. The computing power simply didn‟t exist in the sixties. But modern times brought modern innovations, particularly in fiber optics. The new communication cables made the attempt to use the aurora borealis moot, offering both limitless bandwidth and speed. When coupled with the most powerful super-computers of the modern era, the goal of HARP had been realized, although through different methodology. But soon people in the highest of circles thought of other ways to use the equipment, other directions to take the technology. Echelon was still shrouded in 145 Echelon secrecy, even from much of the subterfuge groups that were involved, according to the old man. But if you knew what to look for, some startling revelations could be made. Any type of information routing would require a massive array of fiber optics and computing power. Technology of that sort would be certain to give off equally massive infrared and heat-signature readings. According to satellite imagery, there were several such signatures throughout the United States, and even a few overseas. Silicon Valley was one of those locations, albeit a relatively small one. There was the headquarters of the European Union, the headquarters of the United Nations, and the NATO building. They all had large heat signatures and fiber optic webs. Then there was Fort Meade and the Rothschild Energy Tower, both in Maryland and within fifty miles of one another. Together, their heat signatures outshone every other site on the planet. The old man passed Payton and Chanel satellite data indicating a massive consumption of power and the most centralized web of fiber optics on Earth. They came about under President Ronald Reagan, who also added information systems security, operations security training, and support combat operations to the NSA mandate after stripping the Department of Defense of their responsibilities. Critics of the administration cried foul, admittedly fearful of an authoritarian DOD but just plain terrified of the NSA, a secretive organization with almost no oversight. To comply with their new orders, the NSA had amassed the most extensive array of intelligence-gathering equipment in the world. The question was how did they pay for it? In the mid-eighties, the Reagan economy was floundering under the shadow of high oil prices. His tax cuts would eventually bring America back from recession, but at the time of Reagan‟s redistribution 146 Echelon of intelligence objectives, times were tough. It was only natural for American oil and energy companies to come to the government‟s aid. They had the most to lose from spiraling conflict in the Middle East and they still had an enormous amount of capital, despite the economic turmoil. So when the government needed to pay for all of this new surveillance equipment and new technology, they turned to the energy groups for borrowing power. Groups steeped in the history and lineage of the Illuminati cabal. The Echelon project continued to new depths and structure beyond the objectives laid out by Reagan. Emboldened by the election of President George Herbert Walker Bush, a product of the intelligence community, the NSA continued to expand their base and their operations. In the nineties they became the world‟s largest employer of mathematicians, cryptographers, linguists, and programmers. Beyond that, they added to their technology stock through continued grants and gifts from energy groups. This culminated in the need to rewrite consumption legislation in Maryland to accommodate the needs of the NSA. They had been sucking up so much power, under a significant discount from corporations like Rothschild energy, that they had violated Federal law. The United States government had an explanation for Project Echelon. The NSA had made significant progress using Echelon technology to intercept and break encrypted signals that eventually brought down the USSR. Once the shadow of the Cold War was gone, radical extremists took center stage, bred both at home and abroad. There was an NSA presence in every major terrorist investigation that had taken place since, from the Oklahoma City bombing to the attacks on the USS Cole. Some even theorized that the United States government had been involved in the terrorist attack that killed over three thousand citizens and brought down the World Trade Center. Others pointed to 147 Echelon indications that Israel knew it was going to happen and made sure their key people were out of New York and Washington as early as August. Most of these notions were baseless and steeped in aged prejudice, but certainly the government hadn‟t missed the opportunity posed by international terrorism to tighten its grip on civil liberties and expand its centralized intelligence network. The old man had finally paused to take a breath. Payton seized upon the opportunity to interject a question. “So Project Echelon is an intelligence network. We had already come to that conclusion ourselves. What's the point here?” The old man gave a nod of head towards Chanel. “Ask your partner. I looked her up. She was a Chicago cop. Ask her how her network of CI‟s was constructed.” Chanel frowned. “We had informants in all the major gang neighborhoods, spread out through the districts. They reported to multiple individual detectives.” Her forehead creased further. “I don‟t know what you‟re getting at.” “You said it yourself,” said the old man. “Your informant network was spread throughout the city, and the resulting information was reported to an equally expansive gathering network.” “Yes, it was.” “Was it effective?” the old man continued. “Very.” “So why is the Echelon network centralized? Why does all the recon and surveillance information that the network gathers go through one central location? Why does it all go to Fort Meade? And why does that information then transmit through a 148 Echelon fiber optic link to Gaithersburg, Maryland, where Rothschild Energy Corporation has its headquarters?” Payton looked over at Chanel and saw her returning a blank stare. The old man sighed. “Think of the spy network as the human body. The network intercepts signals the same way our skin and nerves register stimuli. The network then routes the information to Fort Meade and Gaithersburg, just like the nervous system does to the human brain.” “Because that‟s where decision making occurs,” Payton said with a shrug. “Of course the data has to go to the NSA, because they‟re the ones who decide what to do with it.” “True, but you two are forgetting a couple of very important points. First, the sheer amount of data collected by the network makes automation a necessity. It would take years for a team of hundreds to pour through the data collected on any given day. You‟re talking about a sophisticated computer network, designed to collect and organize communications data presented in a variety of formats. That would also account for the enormous consumption of power at both locations in Maryland. A series of supercomputers with linked processors would probably do the trick, although you‟re talking about several hundred of these machines in a single location. Peripherals and accessories would be minimized, of course, but it would still require an enormous amount of real estate.” “Like a military base?” Chanel asked. “Or below a billion dollar company‟s headquarters,” Payton suggested. 149 Echelon The old man nodded. “Second, groups like the NSA and the Illuminati do not like to share information, meaning that this computer system wouldn‟t report to many people, nor would there be very many individuals working in conjunction with it. This furthers the need for automation.” “Why?” Chanel asked. “The fewer people involved in the program, the less risk you incur of a leak or an informant. This means the computer network has to be incredibly sophisticated, intelligent enough not only to read the data it receives, but also to determine what that data represents and when higher authorities should be consulted.” “You‟re talking about artificial intelligence,” Payton said. “The most sophisticated artificial intelligence on the planet. To be effective, you would think it‟d be routed directly to government weapons systems and intelligence satellites.” “Makes sense,” Payton agreed. “Where does Rothschild energy come into the picture?” “As I said, they paid for it all. If there is one unifying factor in the entire industrialized world, it is our consumption of energy. No one sector of our society has more capital, and few have more influence. So after the spy network reports to the NSA at Fort Meade, the network then reports to Rothschild energy.” “But why?” Chanel asked. “What does an energy company want with information gathered by the spy network? It doesn‟t make sense.” Payton sighed. “It does if they are the real decision makers.” 150 Echelon The old man smiled. “My group has a vested interest in the success of the American administration. African diamond colonies, government coups in the Middle East, cheap labor afforded by Southeast Asia; none of it is possible without American involvement. And if you go beyond that, taking into account missions like Operation Paperclip and the Human Genome project, the stakes get even higher. Those operations give the Illuminati the scientific advantage to produce new and more effective weaponry, not to mention an informational leg up on potential adversarial groups and political misfits. My employers would do anything, and I mean anything, to preserve the American advantage over the rest of the world.” “Okay,” Payton said. “So what do you want us to do?” “I know why there is such an enormous heat signature coming from the NSA headquarters within Fort Meade, since that's the overwhelmingly logical place for the supercomputers. The question is what‟s causing a similar heat signature in Gaithersburg and what does it have to do with this deadline I‟m hearing about?” Payton shot a quick glance at Chanel, who was biting her lip. “You want us to break into Rothschild Energy?” “Break in?” the old man asked with a laugh. “You‟d never make it past the guards.” He reached into his jacket again and pulled out two ID cards and tossed them to both Chanel and Payton. “Welcome to the IEC.” Payton looked at the card. “The International Energy Council?” The old man nodded. “You‟re United Nations reps now. They can‟t legally keep you out of the building.” Then he reached into his jacket and withdrew a midnight-black pistol. He held the pistol a moment, and then tossed it onto the bed. It was small but 151 Echelon slick looking. Payton wasn‟t sure, but he thought it might be a SIG-Sauer. “I figured you wouldn‟t be able to get the last one aboard the plane.” “IEC carry side arms?” Payton asked. “Hell no. But you‟re not really IEC, are you?” “If they really are Illuminati, they‟ll have their own people on the council. Wouldn‟t they expect to be informed that we were coming?” “It‟s true some in the company‟s upper management have those connections. But you‟re going to make your little visit after hours. They won‟t be there. If you leave tonight, you can make it into the building by midnight, conduct your examination, and be back in Boston by morning.” “Their upper management?” Payton repeated. He thought back to the morning he‟d cooked breakfast for Jennifer and what he‟d seen on television. “You‟re talking about Jonathan Dowd.” “Correct,” the old man confirmed. “As best as I can tell, there is no more powerful member of the Illuminati than Dowd. All of our orders ultimately come from him. For a long time, no one knew it was him, not directly. But we began receiving instructions with his name on them about the same time we began hearing about this deadline.” “I presume you‟ll want us to meet you after we get back?” “Of course. Miller‟s pub is just inside the city limits, down the street from here. I‟ll be there all night. And a bit of advice, make sure you search the underground floors beneath RE Tower. That‟s where my group tends to hide the good stuff.” 152 Echelon The old man got up to leave, but Payton stepped forward to block his path. “Your last adventure got us in a hell of a lot of trouble.” “I never said this wouldn‟t be dangerous. Remember, I‟m risking my life as well.” The old man smiled at him. His teeth were yellowing. “Eat your pizza and get moving. If you get to Gaithersburg too late, you won‟t be able to get in.” With that the old man stepped around Payton and walked out the door, leaving Payton standing there, staring after him. “What do you think?” Chanel asked from behind him. “I think we‟d be crazy to go, as much trouble as we are probably already in.” “So when do we leave?” Payton laughed. “As soon as we finish our food.” 153 Echelon Chapter 13 The motel had set them up with a rental car. The ride to Gaithersburg was dark and uneventful until they crossed over the city limits. It was about the time that they were turning the rental car off of the turnpike that the bright headlights appeared behind them. Payton wasn‟t sure if Chanel was immediately aware of them, but by the time they were pulling off of the highway she had begun to glance frequently at the rearview mirror. “You see them?” she asked. He nodded. “Think they might be government?” “Not sure. Probably not officially government. If we aren‟t just being paranoid.” He stole a glance through the windshield. The Maryland scenery around them was bathed in shadowy black. The sky revealed no stars and only the vaguest hint of 154 Echelon lunar glow shone down through the unseen clouds. He couldn‟t make out any convenient good. He reached back to adjust the SIG that was stuffed in the back of his slacks. “How far to the RE Tower?” She glanced at the map that was spread across her lap. “Another mile or so.” “Okay,” Payton said. “I guess we keep going.” After a few more blocks, the headlights pulled off into one of the parking lots lining the road. The knot that had been forming in Payton‟s stomach loosened and he let out a deep breath. He thought he heard Chanel exhale beside him. We shouldn’t be so relaxed, he thought. We’re about to commit a half dozen domestic crimes, not to mention at least one international offense. There’s a very good chance that getting caught means a suite in federal prison for the both of us. “Breathe, Doc,” Chanel said. He took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “I‟m a little nervous.” She laughed. RE Tower appeared in front of them. Payton was struck by its un-tower like appearance. It couldn‟t have been more than twenty stories tall, not particularly impressive as multi-billion dollar company headquarters went. Of course, if their informant was correct, there would be floors located below ground level. It got bigger in the windshield as Payton continued to drive, a stone and stucco sentinel awaiting them, mocking their pitiful intention to infiltrate its exterior. Payton noted with surprise that they were able to drive right up to the building, into its parking lot, and past the guard gate without any more hassle than flashing the ID cards the old man had given them. They were good, complete with their photos and the 155 Echelon holographic logo of the International Energy Council. In fact, the uniformed guard had looked bored as he waved them through after lifting the gate. The parking lot was nearly empty, of course, it being so late at night. Payton pulled the car into the spot nearest the double revolving doors at the building‟s entrance. He reached into the backseat and dug through his carry bag, pulling out a black felt case. He handed it to Chanel. “Open it,” he said. She unclipped the snap and dumped the contents into her hand. There were two small devices that looked like hearing aids alongside two plastic pieces that looked like alligator clips, followed immediately by a pair of black boxes the size of battery chargers. Each of the boxes had a numbered dial and a battery light. “What are these?” she asked. She jiggled the pieces in her hand. “You never did any undercover work, did you?” “I didn‟t have time. Wasn‟t there long enough.” Payton gestured towards her hand. “The ear pieces are called earwigs. The alligator clips go on the inside of your sleeve. Transmitter on your waist, preferably underneath your shirt.” Payton looked her over. They were both in their suits, at Payton‟s direction. He figured it‟d be what IEC agents would wear. His battery pack would fit comfortably under his suit jacket. But Chanel had her oxford blouse tucked snuggly into her black suit pants. “You‟re going to have to un-tuck your shirt, I think.” She squirmed as she pulled the blouse free and attempted to smooth out the wrinkles. “This looks ridiculous,” she frowned. Payton grinned. “I never would have thought you‟d be concerned with appearances.” 156 Echelon “How could I not be, with you always sneaking looks?” she replied. She was still calmly trying to flatten out her blouse. Finally she turned to the assorted items in her hand, plucking out the transmitter and holding it up to peer at the fastener clip on the back. “Where on my waist does this thing go?” “Backside of your pants,” Payton answered her. She immediately stuck her hands between her back and the seat, attaching the device. Payton then showed her how to slide the alligator clip onto her shirt cuff and tunnel the earwig into place. “How do we turn them on?” “They‟re voice activated.” Payton lifted his wrist to his mouth. “Activate,” he said into his sleeve. Chanel watched him, then did the same. “Good. Now talk into the sleeve clip.” She lifted her wrist to her face. “Hello? Testing? I feel like an idiot.” Her voice came through clearly over his earwig. Payton pointed at his ear. “You sound like one, too,” he smirked. Then he lifted his own wrist. “Check,” he said softly. “Your voice sounds deeper over the earwig.” She flashed a smile. “Sexy.” “Just focus, please.” “I‟m focused. Let‟s do it.” They got out of the sedan and made their way to the double revolving doors at the entrance. The building had seemed imposing from a distance, and up close the effect was heightened. It might have been short, as towers went, but the obsidian colored exterior and enormous reflective windows were intimidating. Probably they had built it with just that effect in mind. As they walked toward the doors, Payton glanced at the distorted 157 Echelon images they were casting in the windows. It was as though the building was trying to tell them to stay out. Don’t come in here. It will change you. He reached back underneath his jacket and felt the weight of the SIG, snug against his backside. He let out a deep breath. Once through the revolving doors, Payton took stock of the lobby. Everything seemed to be the blinding white color of a hospital wing. Even the fluorescent lights were nauseatingly pale. The receiving area was surprisingly small. A reception desk lay to the right. Probably it was manned during normal hours by a secretary. Now it was silently vacant. A few chairs and a heavy steel door were off to the left. Three ubiquitous elevators were straight ahead. The room was silent, save for tinny piped in elevator music. They stood there like that for several moments. “Well?” Chanel asked from his side. Payton glanced at the steel door. “Watch this,” he muttered. And he took a step toward the elevator bank. “Stop right there, please,” a sharp voice rang out. A guard strode out of the steel door and blocked their path. His uniform was powdered blue. A badge gleamed from his chest. It had RE-SEC stenciled into it. A prod hung from his belt. Payton looked, but he couldn‟t see a sidearm. “We‟re here on a surprise inspection,” he said. He put as much authority as he could manage into his voice. The guard looked them over. “I wasn‟t informed of an inspection, Mr.…” 158 Echelon Payton reached into his back pocket and motioned for Chanel to do the same. “Agent,” he said, sneering. He flipped the wallet open, showing the guard the fake identification. “IEC.” The guard frowned. “International Energy Council? Shouldn‟t you guys be at one of the plants?” “The United Nations IEC charter gives us access to all corporate locations that might contain instruments of production, records of production, or related monetary and business interests with regard to all power and energy related production.” He did his best to make it sound as though he were reciting the words from memory, despite the fact that he was making the whole thing up as he went. “Now get the hell out of our way.” They took a step forward. The guard held out one hand and dropped the other to his stun holster. “Sorry, sir, but I‟m going to need both of your names as well as your authorization paperwork.” Payton stared at him a moment, then turned to Chanel. “I thought you said these rent-a-cop types were supposed to be cooperative.” Chanel shrugged. “The boys at Com Ed were downright charming.” She turned to the guard. “Of course that was after we reminded them that we are required to note any impedance we encounter. Specifically from whom we encountered it.” The guard bristled visibly. “Are you threatening-?” “You?” Chanel interrupted him with a point of her finger. “I don‟t think I need to do that. Because you security boys all talk to each other. I‟m sure you heard what happened to the guard from Tri-Solar in Sandusky who tried to stall me outside their headquarters while the CFO was shredding documents outlining an embezzling scheme 159 Echelon with several Iranian Mullahs.” She took a step forward. “See? I don‟t have to threaten. I‟m an agent of the United Nations. And if I so much as breathe the word corruption, you‟ll be on a permanent vacation underground somewhere in Geneva.” “Geneva?” the guard stammered, looking confused. Payton gave him a hard look. “Where do you think they lock up people foolish enough to obstruct international investigations?” The guard looked conflicted for a few moments. Then he seemed to come to a decision. “I‟ll be your guide,” he said with a grimace. Chanel nodded. “Like I said, charming.” They rode the elevator to one of the top floors. The guard had spoken briefly into the talkie clipped to his shoulder. Otherwise, they were silent. Payton looked at the bank of buttons. There was only one floor listed below the lobby level. It was marked BB. Payton assumed it denoted the basement. He had considered pushing the button when they had first stepped aboard the elevator, but the guard had quickly sent them upwards. He made a mental note of the basement floor, remembering what the old man had told them back at the motel. They got off at the second floor form the top. The guard led them through several executive offices. He asked them what files they wanted to inspect. “That‟s none of your business,” Chanel said sternly. The guard had begun to regain some of his bravado. “Maybe I ought to call one of the executives and let them know what‟s going on.” 160 Echelon Payton crossed his arms. “You do what you must,” he said. “Just make sure you put the phone on speaker so we can make a note of who you are contacting. And at what time. And your stated reason for—“ “Look,” the guard said nervously. “Just finish your business and get out of here.” Payton glanced quickly at Chanel, and then looked back at the guard. “Financials?” “Over in the accounting office,” he said. “It‟s this way.” Payton turned to Chanel. “You go with him. I want to get a look at the security room in the lobby.” The guard looked up. “Security room? Why?” “Because that‟s where the video monitors will show me all the rooms in all the floors in the building,” he said. “So that I can be sure you aren‟t keeping something from the IEC.” The guard looked at him a moment and then nodded. “You can find your way back down?” “I‟ll manage.” Payton made a point of coughing loudly into his right hand, where the alligator clip was snapped to his sleeve. Seeing Chanel wince let him know that she was then painfully reminded of their ability to communicate with one another. He turned back toward the elevators. “Don‟t get lost,” the guard called from behind him. Once in the elevator, Payton immediately pressed the button labeled “BB”. He noted that it took the elevator a long time to come to a stop after he had passed up the lobby. 161 Echelon When the doors opened Payton stepped out into a sizeable room tempered in dim light. The floor was barren, save for a few storage boxes heaped in the corner. A single light bulb swung from the middle of the ceiling. It threw oblong shadows in multiple directions. Grey walls were equally empty, except for another set of elevator doors on the far wall. Payton thought of old spy movies he had watched as a child, where evil villains kept underground layers that were only accessible through single entrances monitored by henchman and gun turrets and other such nonsense. He pushed the elevator button. After another trip on the second elevator he stepped into what looked disturbingly like the control room of the bunker in New Mexico. There was a bank of monitors along the far wall. There must have been a hundred or so screens. He started to count them and lost track. There had only been about ten or so floors above ground according to the other elevator. A hundred cameras seemed like an awful lot of security. He leaned over to peer closer at the bottom row of the screens. There were several that showed empty rooms. Some appeared to be labs. Others were offices. In any case, they showed nothing particularly interesting. Certainly there were no mass spectrometers or baggies containing medical waste. He turned away from the monitor bank and looked around the rest of the room. There was a desk in the corner, complete with one of those multi-line phones like they had back at the Center. Otherwise it was barren. To the side there was a recess cut into the wall. It was only a few feet wide and deep, but wedged into the space was what looked like some kind of holographic display unit, much like Payton had seen in tech displays at CUFOS and at trade shows. There was a switch at its base. That would be 162 Echelon the power supply. This meant there ought to be a data feed switch somewhere nearby as well. He found it along the wall, hidden by the desk. These displays were normally used to fashion three-dimensional images of complex architecture or data matrices. Sometimes executives would use this type of sophisticated equipment for three- dimensional video conferencing. Payton tried to imagine Rothschild Energy board members seated haughtily at the desk and adjusting whatever mechanism would make sure that their image on the display was as impressive looking as possible.. What the hell, he thought. Even if the device turned out to be nothing, at least it might be good for a laugh. He hit the switch at the base of the display and slapped the data feed. And then he jumped backwards and yelped in surprise. Swirling up from the holographic display the image of a white, vaguely porcelain- looking face appeared. Payton thought it looked like a Shakespearian theatre mask. It was huge, taking up the majority of the space within the recess. He took another startled step back and stared. “Please speak,” the face said. Its voice was a deep baritone, with a layer of some timber or tone that suggested artificiality. It‟s face and lips were exquisitely modeled, particularly the mouth and speech correlation. “Hables, por favor,” the face continued. “Tu Parles, s‟il vous plait.” Payton stared at the glowing avatar. It was cycling through languages, each time saying essentially the same thing, asking him to speak. What would it want him to do that for? He decided to find out. “What are you?” he asked, feeling foolish. 163 Echelon The face was silent for a moment, the eyes fluttering slightly. Then it seemed to focus on Payton once more. “Language analysis complete. Common American English, Midwestern dialect.” The face paused a moment. Payton had the impression that it was gathering itself. Then it smiled abruptly. “Good evening, visitor. The time is two- hundred hours, twenty minutes. How may I be of service?” Payton was taken aback by the friendliness of the face and the eagerness with which the porcelain image appeared to welcome him. But if the avatar wanted to be friendly, Payton could be friendly back. “How are you today?” he asked. The avatar cocked its head in an eerily human manor. “I do not understand your request. Please try to ask the question a different way.” Interesting, Payton thought. Clearly this was some form of artificial intelligence. One built with a significant degree of sophistication, too, given that it not only had speech recognition capabilities, but the ability to determine in what language that speech had been delivered. It implied a reasoning level that was military grade at least. Payton had some experience with this type of programming. Chuck had dragged him along to a tech conference a while back. Payton had gone along to amuse him, but had taken an interest into some of the programming breakthroughs that were on display, particularly in automation programming. The techs that worked in the field were more like psychologists than programmers, often discussing the software and Pavlov in the same breath. The programs were interesting little puzzles. He‟d particularly enjoyed some of the hands on displays that allowed users to interact with artificial intelligence. Several of the booths had displayed programming similar to what Payton was seeing with the avatar, although not nearly so slick in appearance. Still, the avatar 164 Echelon apparently could only answer questions that were posed in a specific way it could recognize. It meant the programming had limitations. Classic limitations, in fact. Artificial data recognition algorithms had been around for decades. Hoover in particular had invested hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars into data recognition techniques as Director of the FBI. His successors had continued the research, never more than mildly successful. Finally, in the early nineties, the FBI stopped funding internal research of recognition capabilities altogether. The reason came as a surprise to all those who inquired about it at the time. The simple fact was that all the scientists, programmers, and cryptographers competent enough in the field to make any serious progress were avoiding government jobs like a disease. In the nineties, amongst the scientific community, it had become increasingly clear that the real scientific work was done at academies and universities. That‟s where the true innovations were made. It used to be that if you were good at your research, you went to work for the government, built your home, had your family, and retired on your pension. All that had changed. Now you went to Cal, or UCLA, MIT, or maybe Brown. You did your clinical work on their dime. Then you patented whatever applicable research you came up with, be it genetic, cryptographic, or in programming. With a joint patent with the university, you either sold your patent to an interested firm, or better yet, you created your own firm and “sold” the licensing to yourself. Pensions were replaced by tenure and a fat Roth IRA. The bottom line was that when rudimentary data recognition programming finally appeared in the mid-eighties, it came from American University in D.C. 165 Echelon Advances in such programming came quickly in the first decade, though the public never heard about it. The government gobbled up every patent it could. Those they couldn‟t buy they simply stole from patent offices, claiming rights under national security laws. But there was a problem with all the known techniques. It was referred to as the character congruency malfunction. The original data recognition programs were created to pore over documents. The feds thought that if they could digitally log intercepted communications, the logs could then be filtered through pattern recognition software to uncover encrypted messages within the characters. They had mild success at first, but soon the character congruency malfunction became evident. The way the data recognition software worked was by creating loose parameters for each recognizable character. For instance, a vertical line with a point at its apex registered as a lower case i. A horizontal line making an acute downward angle was a 7. But the program ran into trouble with similar, or congruent, characters. The worst pairings were S and 5, B and 8, A and 4, D and O. With such like characters the program became confused, made mistakes. The people creating the ciphers were aware of such limitations, of course, and began hiding their code specifically within those characters. The necessarily ambiguous recognition parameters were what made congruent written characters so difficult to differentiate. A poorly drawn O could indeed look like the letter D, and so on. Add to that the emergence of different fonts for digital communiqués, and most of the known data recognition programs had to be scrapped. But if the congruent character malfunction was serious impedance for software designed to interpret the written word, programmers generally agreed that it made 166 Echelon automated voice recognition software a downright impossibility. You could multiply all the common fonts in type written language several times and not come close to the amount of accents, colloquialisms, and minor inflections that regularly occurred in everyday human speech. How would a language recognition program, somewhat adept at discerning the intricacies of the written word, make similar differentiations between modulated speech patterns? The answer was that it couldn‟t. Take a relatively simple sentence: Can you all make it to the party tonight? Now transform that sentence phonetically using different regional colloquialisms. A young man from Boston could say it, and it would come out Can yah all make it tah the pahty tahnight? Or an aged woman from Southern Texas: Kin ya’ll make it to der perty tonaht? Even failing to take into consideration the difference in syntax and other machinations that existed in entirely different languages, those differences made speech to data programming seemingly impossible. Payton peered at the avatar still steadily looking back at him. The simplest solution to congruent character malfunctions from a programming standpoint was to give the program a script based on pervasive and relatively unalterable keywords. If the program recognized the word hi, or anything similar to it, at the beginning of a sentence, then the program treated the rest of the sentence as a greeting. For artificial intelligence software that made use of speech recognition, a keyword like you that was located near the genesis of a statement invoked a response aimed at simulating a give and take responsive interaction. The fact that Payton‟s last request had gone unrecognized suggested this program served a more utilitarian function. 167 Echelon Payton decided to ask. “What is your purpose?” The avatar‟s face righted itself. “I am a data retrieval unit for the Echelon system. My primary function is to retrieve nominal data sets regarding inputted subjects in order to amuse investors and provide evidentiary proof of the excellence of the network.” “That‟s a hell of a mouthful,” Payton smirked. “I am sorry, that statement does not register as a request.” Touchy, Payton thought. “What is the network?” “Echelon network is a surveillance system. It includes routing systems to centralized data sets from electronic, digital, and analog mediums.” Payton thought a moment. “Do you have specifics on the routing systems?” “The system includes four-hundred and thirty-two million visual recognition units, six-hundred twenty-six million audio monitoring units, and thirty-two hundred automated still camera units.” Payton began to interject, but the avatar wasn‟t finished. “There are also thirty-four snoop-ware programs monitoring all major electronic communication systems, including facsimile and email. Public, private and institutional systems are all monitored by the network.” Payton paused to make sure the avatar was finished. “What is the purpose of the surveillance system?” “The Echelon system reports on any subversive content deemed to be a threat.” “A threat to whom?” “A threat to the Illuminated,” the Avatar answered. The Illuminated? “Give me an identity report on the Illuminated,” Payton said. 168 Echelon The avatar‟s eyes fluttered again. “I‟m sorry, there is no data set under the inputted subject.” “You‟re the one that mentioned them,” Payton said. “Give me whatever data you have on the Masters.” “I‟m sorry, there is no data set under the inputted subject.” The avatar once again gave Payton that monotonous glowing gaze. “Damn AI,” Payton muttered and turned away. He took a few steps and immediately stopped as the glow from his backside had turned dark. When he looked he saw the face had disappeared from the holo-projector on the floor of the recess. No matter. He knew where the power button was. That was the nice thing about an artificial intelligence, as long as you knew where the switch was, you could always bring it back. But it occurred to Payton that another un-artificial source of intelligence might move things along. He lifted his sleeve to his mouth. “You read me, Chanel?” After a hiss of static, her voice came through tinny but clear enough to understand. “Yeah, I‟m here,” she whispered. “The guard isn‟t leaving me much breathing room, though. It‟s going to be hard to talk.” “Forget it. Just cough once for yes, twice for no,” Payton said. It was an old trick, with clips and earwigs, but Payton was betting it was one the rent-a-cop wouldn‟t be familiar with. It was also helpful that the coughing allowed you to put your sleeve to your mouth. “You understand?” Cough. 169 Echelon “Good. I‟ve found something in the basement level, two elevators down. Some sort of artificial librarian for the Echelon system. Any chance you can get away from the guard?” Cough, cough. He had been afraid of that. “You‟re going to have to figure out a way. Make some kind of excuse.” He thought back to when he had exited the elevator with Chanel and the guard. “There‟s a bathroom back by the elevator,” he said. “Tell him you have to use the restroom and that you want him to organize some of the paperwork for you. That ought to keep him busy long enough for you to get down here. Think you can do that?” Cough. Payton waited what seemed like fifteen minutes, though he knew it must have been less. “On my way,” Chanel finally whispered. He paced the room for another few moments. What would his partner make of the avatar? Would she have more success getting useful information out of it than he? The elevator doors opened and Chanel walked into the room, giving the interior a sweeping glance as she did. “Nice,” she grimaced. “These guys must have the same decorator as whoever put together that New Mexico bunker.” She took another look around. “Clearly not Martha Stewart.” “Are you done making jokes?” Payton asked, failing to keep the impatience out of his voice. 170 Echelon “Yeah, better show me this thing quick. Our friend upstairs was starting to ask questions about you. I don‟t think it‟ll be much longer before he makes a call down to the control room.” Payton nodded. “This way.” He led her to the recess near the desk. Without hesitating, he reached down and slapped the power button on the wall. The familiar image swirled upwards, quickly resolving into the white-faced avatar. Payton heard Chanel‟s quick hiss of breath from his side. “Please speak,” it said, exactly as before. Payton took a step forward. “Come on, didn‟t we just do this?” “Language analysis complete. Common American English, Midwestern dialect.” The avatar mimicked the smile it had delivered to Payton earlier. “Good evening, visitors. The time is two-hundred hours, fifty-six minutes. How may I be of service?” “Jesus,” Chanel breathed. “What the hell is this thing?” The avatar shifted its holographic gaze to Chanel. “I‟m sorry, there is no data set under the inputted subject,” and the avatar paused a moment. “The hell is this thing,” it finished in an almost perfect imitation of Chanel‟s voice. Payton stared, startled. It hadn‟t been a recording. The voice inflections were all wrong. The avatar had mimicked Chanel‟s voice. Had it done the same with his? He couldn‟t recall. He turned to his partner. “The script on this thing is kind of finicky,” he whispered. “So how do we talk to it?” Payton answered by running the avatar threw his previous questions, save those resulting in erroneous responses. It had the desired effect of bringing her up to speed. 171 Echelon “Huh,” Chanel said. “It really is like a librarian.” “Glad you like the analogy,” Payton pressed. “What should we ask it?” “Well, what would you ask a librarian?” Payton considered. “Maybe for help finding a particular book?” “I like it,” Chanel nodded, then turned to the avatar. “Read me the file for Payton Connor.” “Excuse me?” Payton hissed, spinning on her. “Clarification needed,” the avatar said. “I show records for two-hundred and forty data sets for the inputted subject: Payton Connor. You may clarify by address, employment, fiscal records, tax ID, or social security number.” “I‟m not telling you my bank account numbers,” Payton muttered. “Or any of that other stuff, either.” “I bet I don‟t need them.” She turned back to the avatar. “Read me the file on Payton Connor in Wicker Park, Chicago.” The avatar paused a moment. Payton noticed again how the eyes fluttered rapidly, mimicking the rapid eye movement that was associated with memory retention. Then the face righted. “Payton Connor: resides at seventeen zero two North Wood Street. Currently employed by the Center for UFO Studies in Chicago. Age twenty-nine. Height: six foot two inches. Weight: one hundred and seventy-two pounds. Graduated from the University of Illinois in Chicago, Cuma Sum Laude with degrees in psychology and business.” “Jesus Christ,” Payton breathed. 172 Echelon The avatar shifted its gaze to Payton. “The subject has traveled recently. Would you like a summary?” “Tell us,” Payton said. The avatar proceeded to give them a disturbingly detailed account of their recent travels, including their trip to New Mexico, several iPass transactions on Chicago freeways, and their flight information for their trek to Boston. “No further locale and travel information is available.” “What else have you got?” Chanel asked. “Information data sets on the subject include: blood work, medical history, financial history, credit report, and extended lineage.” Payton considered. “You have my blood work?” “Yes, including type, vaccination history, and--“ “What about genetic information?” The eyes fluttered again. “Genetic information is not available from this terminal.” “Then where is it available?” “Genetic information may only be retrieved by authorized users accessing the mainframe terminal.” Chanel stirred. “Where is the mainframe terminal?” Fluttering eyes. “That information is not available from this terminal.” “Then where is it available?” “That information is not-“ “Available from this terminal,” Chanel muttered. “Yeah, we got it.” 173 Echelon “What next?” Payton asked. She never answered. Instead they both turned to the elevator, attracted by the sudden whirring as it spurned into action. “Well that‟s just not good,” he grimaced. “That has to be the guard.” “What are we going to do? There‟s no place to hide.” “We don‟t hide,” Payton said grimly. He reached towards his backside. “Pulling that pistol just might get us killed," she said. “I wasn‟t going for the SIG,” he responded with a tight smile. He tossed his wallet in the air and caught it. “I‟m going to pull rank.” 174 Echelon Chapter 14 Payton threw the rental into park and leaned back in his car seat. He let out a deep breath. They were back in Boston, far away from corporate towers and dupable guards. Chanel stirred in the passenger seat, stretching into a yawn. “We there?” He nodded. She yawned again. “I still can‟t believe we got away with that load of crap back there.” Payton was forced to silently agree. He had indeed pulled every bit of imaginary rank he could muster. The false IEC ID had only gotten him so far with the guard and his three friends. After dazzling them with its display, he had berated them, called them names, and insulted their families. He had even threatened them with their jobs. 175 Echelon Eventually, they had let them into the elevator and then escorted them to the lobby. That they had glanced around the bunker office quizzically before filing into the elevator suggested that they hadn‟t been in the room before. And had probably wondered why it wasn‟t on their monitors. “Those guys were really dumb,” Chanel mused. Then she laughed. “I swear, when you started raving about calling the Senator, I thought they were going to piss themselves.” The only time he thought they were really in for it was when they‟d made it back to the lobby. There they had been met by a large, bald man in a suit. He had no hair whatsoever, at least from what Payton could see, including where his eyebrows ought to have been. The slight tint to his skin caused him to shiver. The man looked an awful lot like the guard he‟d knocked out in New Mexico. But if it was the same man, he gave no indication that he recognized them. Instead he gave another cursory look at their IEC badges and then silently hurried them out of the building. Chanel stretched and sat up with a look out the windshield. “And we‟re where, exactly?” “Miller‟s Pub. A bit early, perhaps, but John Doe‟s a drinker. He‟ll probably be here waiting for us.” They exited the car and walked in together. Miller‟s Pub was like a coffin with stools. It seemed to Payton like an unreasonable place to go and die. The patrons looked miserable, but they also clearly had no interest in moving. They looked gruff, in an honorable sort of way. As though life 176 Echelon hadn‟t treated them as fairly as they had treated life. Payton‟s father had been that guy. He too had wasted away in a pub like this on Chicago‟s North Side. He too had been burdened by early mornings and envelopes heavy with bills. He had also found just such a coffin in which to crawl and die. Payton shook his head clear. He swept the bar in a single glance, taking in what he could without drawing too much attention. He glanced to his side where Chanel was standing, looking attractive despite everything they‟d been through. No, with her in tow, he probably wasn‟t the one that would be drawing the attention. With dark corners and semi-enclosed booths, there was no way they would be able to see every one of the bar‟s customers, of which there were quite a few. He decided instead to make directly for the bar, counting on the old man to have seen them walk in. A stooped bartender gave them a mumbled greeting. They ordered drinks, Payton a glass of single malt whiskey, Chanel a light beer. They sat down and waited. “Whiskey man, eh?” She asked, pointing towards his drink “Single malt Irish,” Payton answered. “The only true whiskey there is.” “My father was a Johnny Walker fan.” “He was a cop, right?” Chanel shrugged. “South Side traditions die hard.” Payton nodded. “Are we going to talk about that creepy librarian thing at some point?” During the trip back to Boston he had refused to discuss it with her, telling her instead to sleep. 177 Echelon “Not until our guest arrives,” Payton he answered. He took a sip of his whiskey, feeling its warmth prickle down his throat. “Until he gets here, all of our guesses are just meaningless speculation. And I want some real answers.” “You‟re worried, aren‟t you?” He looked at her. “That thing knew my name. It knows where I live. It had my travel and financial information. That‟s trouble enough. If there‟s a system that actually has my genetic workup, then yes, I‟m worried.” They sat quietly again. Payton surprised himself by finishing his whiskey in fifteen minutes or so, and he ordered another. Chanel had given him a worried glance, but went back to silently sipping her beer. From elsewhere in the bar a jukebox clicked on, buzzing Turn The Page by Bob Seger over the sound system. Payton listened to the throaty song and took another sip of whiskey. Two trips in the last week, with an eerie dinner back in Chicago to boot. Yes, Payton thought, I feel as though I’ve been on the road for some time. He thought back to their trip to New Mexico. When had that been? A week ago? Less than a week? It felt like a lifetime. Turn the page, he thought with a look into his glass. The pages had been turning quickly. Too quickly. He stole a glance at Chanel out of the corner of his eye. A critical look seemed to confirm that she was in similar form. They were tired. “You two look like shit,” came a voice from behind. They spun on their stools to see the old man, still donning the large overcoat. He was running a critical looking eye over them both. Then he jerked his head towards the depths of the bar. “Let‟s get a booth.” 178 Echelon They followed him towards the back of the pub and slid onto the padded benches of a booth. The old man had a drink on the table, something thick and brown. It looked like tree sap. “So,” the old man asked with a slight smile. He kept his head ducked low, so low that Payton noticed a bald patch on the top of his crown. “How did you make out?” “Make out?” Payton asked. Suddenly he was furious. “We lied our way into the headquarters of an international energy company and had a nice long conversation with some sort of electronic bookkeeper for your spy network. Never mind that we were doing your dirty work while you stayed here in south Boston and drank your muck. Never mind that we had to be filmed by fifty cameras in that building.” “Oh, you two have bigger problems than that.” “Bigger problems than committing international fraud and impersonating a member of the IEC?” Payton hissed, with a quick glance around. “I‟m afraid so. There‟s a warrant out for both of your arrests.” Chanel sat forward. “What are we wanted for?” The old man studied them a moment. “Murder and accessory to murder.” A chill ran down Payton‟s spine. “And exactly whom are we supposed to have killed?” “A drifter here in south Boston, apparently. Sometime after midnight, according to the police report.” The old man reached below the table and slid a file folder across the table. Payton opened it and scanned the pages. The word homicide was used several times in the description of a grisly murder of a homeless man in a south Boston alleyway. 179 Echelon Two bullets had punctured the drifter, one in the head and one through the heart. The police report said the shots had come from some distance, but the specifics wouldn‟t be determined until ballistics was done on the slugs pulled from the body. According to the report, the bullets were a serious problem. Apparently they had been cut in a checkerboard pattern. It‟s the only thing, according to the report, that could have made bullets shatter into unidentifiable fragments the way these had. “Hold on,” Chanel said from over his shoulder. “This says the drifter is as yet unidentified.” The old man smiled. “Imagine that.” But then Payton understood what she was getting at. “This isn‟t a mistake. They‟re just making it all up.” “They?” the old man asked with raised eyebrows. “So you believe me now?” “Well,” Payton sighed. “Let‟s just say that I know what I saw in Gaithersburg. And what I saw scared the hell out of me.” “Good. And yes, they‟re pinning this on you two.” “But they don‟t actually have a body. This is all fiction,” Payton said, holding up the file. “Nothing in here is real.” “Oh, they‟ll have a body alright. Maybe they didn‟t have one at first. Maybe they don‟t even have one now. But if they manage to catch you, when they manage to catch you, they‟ll come up with something real enough to convict you.” Chanel sat back heavily against the back of the bench. “What will they do? Just kill some homeless guy the way it‟s described in the report.” 180 Echelon “Yes, actually,” the old man said. For a moment, Payton thought he saw something dark cross his wrinkled face. “Something like that. Some homeless guy. Or something.” “Jesus Christ,” Chanel muttered. “What are we going to do? We can‟t go back to CUFOS. They‟ll be waiting for us.” The old man gave both of them an almost apologetic look. “There‟s nowhere to wait, actually. CUFOS headquarters was seized by the federal government last night. FBI, from what I understand.” “CUFOS? Why?” Payton asked, startled. “On charges of treason.” “God,” Chanel breathed. “I never even got to cash my first paycheck.” “So what are we going to do?” Payton muttered. The old man sat forward. “First you‟re going to tell me what happened at RE Tower. Then you‟re going to take the ID and credit cards I had made for you and you‟re going to keep working.” He shook his head sadly. “You two are in it now. And the only way out is through.” It was Payton who told the majority of the story, with Chanel only piping up to fill in necessary details. To his relief, Chanel allowed him to skip the specific name and identity of the person they had done the information request on with the avatar. “Avatar. I like that word,” the old man said. “I‟ve heard about the record retrieval AI. Never actually seen it, though.” 181 Echelon “Yeah, well, its ability to retrieve all the information it claimed to have was truncated,” Payton said. “Of course it was. That thing isn‟t meant to be fully operational. It‟s a prototype.” “A prototype?” Chanel asked. “For what purpose?” “To amuse, of course. You said it yourselves, it kept referring to you as visitors. That thing is meant to impress, not divulge.” “It kept referring to some kind of mainframe,” Payton said. “Where full records could be retrieved.” “The main terminal,” the old man nodded. “That‟s your next stop. Once you figure out where it is, of course.” Payton and Chanel exchanged looks. “Figure out where it is?” Payton echoed. “Isn‟t it at NSA HQ inside Fort Meade?” “That would be the obvious conclusion,” the old man said, and then he seemed to consider for a moment. “But I think not. The hardware is there, certainly. The heat signatures tell us that much. But I think the mainframe access point is somewhere else. Somewhere more secure.” “More secure than Fort Meade?” Chanel asked, looking incredulous. The old man sat back. “Security isn‟t only about men and guns and cameras.” “It isn‟t?” she asked. “Of course not.” When she continued to look confused, the old man sighed and went on. “Say you were a thief and you broke into a house. In the basement you find 182 Echelon two safes. Now, you know the owners are going to be back soon, so you have to work quickly. The first is a combination safe of somewhat modern design. It protects against fire damage, most tools, and cutting mechanisms. The second safe is a lockbox. It is especially designed to withstand small to medium sized explosive devices. With your limited amount of time, which safe do you decide to try and open?” Chanel looked at Payton, but he didn‟t see where the old man was going and could only shrug. “The explosive repellant safe,” she said when she had returned her gaze to the old man. “If I‟m a thief, I probably don‟t have explosives anyway.” “Wrong,” the old man said with a shake of his bald head. “Then the combination safe?” “Also wrong,” the old man smiled. “The correct safe to open is the one you never saw, buried under the basement floor. You see, security isn‟t having the safe. It‟s convincing the thief that the truly important safe doesn‟t exist. If you want to keep the mainframe access point a secret, you don‟t hide it in places like RE Tower and Fort Meade. For one thing, too many people have access. For another, how are you going to conveniently get into Fort Meade as the CEO of an energy firm without raising flags with the common military personnel that work there?” “I guess you couldn‟t.” “That‟s right. Instead, you hide it under the basement floor, so to speak. You put it someplace where others wouldn‟t think to look for it.” Something occurred to Payton. “But you couldn‟t hide it. There would still be the heat signatures from the electronics and the fiber-optics.” 183 Echelon “No there wouldn‟t, because you don‟t need that much equipment. For remote access to the mainframe, all you need is an encrypted line. Or a transmitter and receiver, if you wanted it to be wireless, which is unlikely. Those wouldn‟t give off any more of a heat signature than the telephone lines leading to and from this pub.” The old man shook his head. “It could be anywhere.” “And you‟re telling us you have no clue?” Payton asked. “I thought I did,” he answered. “What did you think I had you doing all this time? I thought it might be in the bunker in Roswell, but it wasn‟t. Then I thought, despite my reservations, maybe they had made the mistake of putting the mainframe access point at RE Tower. But I was wrong there, too. Now…” “Now what?” Chanel pressed. The old man smiled and lifted his glass in a sort of cynical salute. “Now I‟m short on guesses and sitting with two wanted murderers. So I suggest we get drunk, because I‟m all out of ideas.” They didn‟t really get all that drunk, to the best of Payton‟s recollection. He would later say that they had gotten a friendly buzz going, if any level of inebriation could be called friendly in such a dank setting. The old man had been quiet at first, before having a few drinks and opening up about some of the things he‟d seen during his time. 184 Echelon “I could tell you things that would scare the hair off your head,” the old man had told them. He reached up and rubbed his own expansive bald patch on his crown. “Wonder if that‟s where mine went.” “What kind of things?” Chanel had asked. The old man relayed to them the history of a program called MKSEARCH, originally named MKULTRA. The name change occurred in the early sixties, when the government project had moved on from the MKULTRA goal of testing potential interrogation drugs on prisoners and the unsuspecting public and onto the more focused project of procuring a usable truth serum to be tested on those same citizens. Both projects had begun as an extension of Operation Paperclip, with imported German scientists continuing the work of Nazi psychiatrists under the umbrella of the OSS and the CIA. The Nazi work had been done on Jews placed in their concentration camps and others the Third Reich had deemed to be expendable. They tested experimental drugs such as LSD and MDMA, all in the search of feasible interrogation techniques. Such experiments often led to the death of the test subjects, though total fatalities were difficult to ascertain due to an inability to identify the bodies. “But where are they doing these tests?” Chanel asked. “Offshore? Gitmo?” No, the old man told them. They were conducted in CIA and FBI safe houses in major cities: Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. CIA scientists were charged with using serums and drugs to prey on the weaknesses of the human psyche. These large cities offered a wide base of potential test subjects, with their impoverished areas and homeless population. 185 Echelon Two laboratories were founded by the secret service for MKULTRA. One was portrayed as a privately funded research center in Baltimore. There the CIA scientists were tasked with mimicking death in subjects through non-lethal carbon dioxide poisoning. The other lab was the Army Biological Laboratory in Fort Detrick, Maryland. There immunologists worked with experimental drugs designed to promote acute memory disturbance. “Were they successful?” Payton asked. The old man just shrugged. “I‟ve heard things, but nothing I‟d stake my life on.” Payton swirled his whiskey, watching the liquid cling to the glass and begin its inevitable slide downward. “What time is it?” Chanel looked at her watch. “Nearly one in the morning.” “Christ,” muttered the old man. His speech was beginning to slur. “I think it‟s time to bring this to an end.” Payton thought there was something odd about the way he said it. “An end?” “To the evening, of course.” The old man slid two folders across the table. “Your new identification, complete with driver‟s licenses and credit cards.” Payton leafed through the paperwork before peering at the license. “Oregon?” he asked, noting the state of the license‟s origin. “Why Oregon?” “Because that‟s where I came up in the organization. And that‟s where I have friends that don‟t ask too many questions.” They stuffed their new ID cards into their wallets and got up to leave, Payton helping the old man out of the booth. He stumbled a bit, and Payton caught him to keep him from falling. 186 Echelon “Let us drive you home,” Payton said. “Hell no, I‟m fine.” “At least let us walk you to your car then.” “No.” “I insist,” Payton pressed. “I‟m telling you, no. It‟s not necessary. I think it would be best if you didn‟t.” That strange chord again, struck at an off key that sent a chill down Payton‟s back. “To the door then? It‟s the least we can do.” The old man studied him a moment. Then he nodded. “Fine. To the door.” He started to shuffle off towards the rear of the bar. “I‟m parked out back.” They walked to the back door which led into a tight alley. A light rain was beginning to fall, washed out in the distant streetlamps. There were several cars lined up along the adjoining buildings. “Which one‟s yours?” Payton asked. “The Chevy.” Chanel came up behind them. “Come now, let us walk you to the car.” The old man jerked his arm away from Payton. “I said no, damn it.” Then he began to stumble into the mist and towards the black Chevy. Payton took a step forward, but stopped when the old guy spun around. “Back! Stay back!” He was becoming increasingly distressed, Payton could tell, though he couldn‟t figure out the reason behind it. He was still shouting for them to stay back, gesturing angrily, making a lot of noise. Payton heard Chanel answering someone in the bar and telling them that everything was fine. Payton took another step into the drizzle. “Tell me what‟s going on here.” 187 Echelon The old man finally stopped shouting and his voice was practically pleading. “Don‟t you get it? Haven‟t you been listening?” He took a step backward and stumbled. Payton moved forward again. “Let us help you.” “Not another step,” the old man said as he righted himself. “Stay where you are.” Payton wasn‟t listening and was about to give up the cat and mouse game and just rush forward to steady the old man. That was when he heard the high-pitched whine of a silencer hiss twice from somewhere above them. His vision streaked towards the roof instinctively and caught a glimpse of a figure in a suit and tie, at the same time he was shoving Chanel back through the doorway. She screamed and crashed to the floor inside the pub. Payton had the SIG out and was tracking towards the rooftops, but between the glare of distant streetlamps shining down and his having to blink the mist out of his eyes, the visibility was terrible. Even so, he could have sworn he recognized the rooftop figure. Well, he thought, if they were going to keep shooting at me, they would have already fired again. It’s not like I’m under any kind of cover. He turned back to the old man. He was lying crumpled on his back. No no no no no. Payton shouted for Chanel to stay where she was and rushed to his side. The old man was lying in a pool of rainwater, his overcoat splayed open to his sides. He had a hole in his oxford shirt, in the left chest, as well as one through his forehead. It would be pointless attempting to resuscitate. The chest wound looked like it was through the heart, or near enough to it that the old man was sure to bleed out. The hole through the head erased any remaining hope Payton might have had of getting him 188 Echelon any type of medical attention. There was only a trickle of blood squeezing out of his forehead, but when Payton lifted the head and saw the exit wound gashing outward in a jagged mess of ribbon skin and tattered skull, he laid the whole mess back down in the rainwater. “Doc?” Chanel shouted from the door. “What‟s going on?” “Stay there.” “I don‟t think I can. The bartender is coming. Along with some of his customers.” And they were both wanted for murder. Of an elderly drifter. Whom they were supposed to have murdered in a south Boston alleyway, with a bullet to the heart and one to the head. The old man had been correct, prophetic even. The conspirators had gotten their body. It was as neat and tidy a box in which Payton had ever been put. Apparently Chanel had vacated the doorway, because she had come up behind him and put her hand on his shoulder. “Jesus, Doc.” “Yeah, I know.” “What the hell are we going to do?” “I have no idea.” They heard a rising din at the doorway and Payton turned to see the bartender and a couple others standing there and pointing at them. “You two! What did you do to him?” the bartender shouted. Payton started to try to explain, but one of the patrons shouted, “He‟s got a gun! They shot him!” Payton and Chanel both looked down at the SIG still in his hand. 189 Echelon And then they turned and ran. 190 Echelon Chapter 15 They had run straight to their rental car, leaped into it, and made it onto the highway. Payton hardly saw the writing on the exit signs as they flew past. He had been too shocked to speak as he drove. Chanel had been equally silent. A few hours they drove like that. The whole time, Payton‟s mind worked furiously, replaying the scene in the alleyway over and over again. But no matter how much he tried to remember, he couldn‟t place the blurred vision of the shooter. Eventually the fuel light clicked on and he pulled off the highway in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. They needed to stop and rest. And think. Latrobe was tiny, despite enjoying a bit of celebrity as the birthplace of Arnold Palmer. The golfer‟s picture was on everything visible in the early morning light: welcoming signs, golf course entrances, motel facades. Payton pulled into the parking lot 191 Echelon of the Palmer Place, a dreary looking inn. Just looking at the white siding on the exterior made him think of moldy tiles in a shower stall. They checked in with a bored looking kid at the front desk. He couldn‟t have been more than twenty and he seemed preoccupied with the laptop in front of him and the videogame controller connected to it. Then he got a look at Chanel. The kid tossed the controller aside and performed a toothy greeting, asking what type of room they wanted. Chanel stirred a bit when he inquired about a single room. Payton shot her a warning look before turning back to the innkeeper. “What do you have available?” “You‟ll be our only guests for the night, so you can have any room you want. I can even upgrade you to the honeymoon suite, if you like.” The kid grinned. “Thanks, no,” Payton said. The room was fifty a night. Payton pulled out a hundred from his wallet. “Book us through tomorrow.” “Cash?” “Is that a problem?” “I guess not. You just don‟t see many customers paying with cash, is all. Even around here.” Chanel sidled up to him and took his arm. “We‟re old fashioned. In many ways. Does sound carry through the walls?” The kid‟s grin broadened. “I suppose that would depend on the amount of noise being made.” Payton peered sideways at her. She was giving the kid a look that was downright seductive, smiling knowingly while still wrapped around his arm. “Let‟s just get to our room, dear,” he said, playing along. 192 Echelon He turned her back towards the door. “Make as much noise as you want,” the kid called after them. “The walls are a foot thick. Have fun you two!” Payton dropped Chanel‟s bag next to the door and stared a moment at the single king sized bed with the atrociously patterned comforter laying accusingly in the center. Chanel squeezed passed where he stood by the door. “Excuse me, darling.” “You mind telling me what that was all about?” She pirouetted in a passable imitation of a showgirl. “Acting, Doc,” she said flashing a smile. “After all, your one room order gave the impression that we‟re a couple. My little display ought to have driven the point home.” That actually made sense. “Aren‟t you tired?” he asked. “Exhausted, though I‟m thinking that it might be a defense mechanism. You know, avoiding the idea of being wanted for the murder of a man I just saw shot to death.” “Or it‟s because it‟s nine in the morning and we‟ve been up for almost twenty- four hours. Either way, we need to get some sleep before we figure out what to do next.” “So we sleep.” “Yes we do. The question being where do we sleep. We have two bodies and one bed.” She laughed. “Come on, Doc. We‟re adults. I think we can handle taking separate sides of a king sized bed.” 193 Echelon He was feeling nervous, a giddy discomfort shivered through him. I’m being childish, he thought. It didn‟t matter that she was attractive. It wasn‟t important that they were both probably mature enough to handle whatever might happen. They were partners, simple as that, and partners could be comforting, they could be close, but they were not to be involved. He knew all this, and he agreed with the rules. So why was this single motel room making him so nervous? Because I’m worried that something will happen. And that the reason for it happening will be the terrible ordeal we just went through instead of anything real. I’m worried that it’s something we’re going to end up regretting. She was still looking at him. “I think I‟ll take the floor,” he said. “Don‟t be silly.” “Sometimes I snore.” He knew how weak it sounded. She shrugged. “And I sleep nude. But for you, I‟ll wear pajamas. And you‟ll just have to do your best to keep that schnoz of yours quiet.” He sighed. “Okay.” “I‟m going to change in the bathroom. You have pajamas?” He shook his head. “But I have gym shorts and an undershirt.” She nodded and disappeared into the bathroom. When she returned she was wearing red flannel pants and an oversized CPD sweatshirt. They crawled into bed, each of them flat on their back on their respective sides of the mattress. Payton had shut the blinds tightly and she had flipped the light off. Payton stared upwards into the darkness, feeling lost. 194 Echelon He felt her flip over to face him. “Hey.” “Get some sleep,” Payton murmured. His heartbeat picked up a bit. “Tell me everything‟s going to be okay first.” “Everything is going to be okay,” he answered. She was quiet a moment. “You know, we still don‟t know much about one another.” Payton agreed. And it was going to be a while before his thoughts would quiet down enough to allow for sleep. “All right,” he said, flipping over. “We‟re going to play a game called my story is better than your story.” They traded tales for the next hour. Payton was impressed. She had some really entertaining stories to tell. They both started off with recent history. Payton relived the last time he had braved Chicago‟s South Side Irish Parade. She chuckled through most of the recollection, but nearly lost control of herself when he described an incredibly inebriated attempt to pole dance at one of the Western Avenue bars along the parade route. He‟d made an ass of himself. Especially when he had finished his little dance and then tried to hit on the bartender, opening up with an explanation of what he did for a living. Chanel burst out again, tipping dangerously close to him. “She must have thought you were crazy,” she giggled. “A sci-fi fanatic, actually,” Payton nodded. “Your turn.” According to Chanel, her first day as a member of Chicago‟s finest had started off normally. They had taken roll, she had been introduced to the partner she would be learning from and riding with, and they had set out on their patrol. Six hours into her first 195 Echelon day, she had slowly drifted into boredom. There had been no arrests, no stops, and no shakedowns. And then they pulled over a blue sedan with expired plates. It was standard operating procedure in the eighth district to remove all suspects from a vehicle once it had been pulled over. Her partner had told her to handle it. She had ordered the sedan‟s sole occupant out of the car over the mounted megaphone atop the squad car. A middle-eastern man had stepped out of the car, young and bearded. Chanel had exited the squad car, patted the man down, and proceeded to search the sedan. On the front seat she had found detailed plans to blow up Navy Pier. And the way she told it, she had completely flipped out. “I‟m talking gun out, yelling and shouting, screaming for backup,” Chanel said. Payton laughed. “When did they let you in on the joke?” Chanel peered at him. “How‟d you know they were playing a prank?” “It‟s typical to haze the new guy,” Payton said. “Or girl, in this case. The CUFOS guys did the same to me when I first joined up.” Chanel‟s face deepened with interest. “Really?” “Yes, they did. Just replace over the top Arab guy with ridiculous looking skeletal corpse with antennae coming from the skull.” They both laughed and continued trading stories. Chanel had been arrested in college for streaking across the football field as part of a sorority prank. Payton had once drunk an entire bottle of chocolate syrup to win a bet. Chanel once dressed up as Charlie Chaplin for Halloween and had apparently passed herself off as a man well enough to have to fend off a rather aggressive young woman who‟d had too much to drink. Payton had once sat through an eight-hour expose on 196 Echelon ghost trails in haunted houses, just to satisfy a pretentious woman he was trying to sleep with. “Was she pretty?” Chanel asked with a laugh. “Gorgeous. But dumb as a brick.” “So that‟s how you like them?” Payton looked at her. “Not even a little. That was…I haven‟t dated in some time, I suppose.” “Why not?” she asked. “Well,” he said, then took a deep breath. “I guess that with work, I‟m just not focused enough to have a successful relationship. This job takes up a lot of time, with a decent amount of travel and strange hours.” He chuckled. “Besides, what woman wants to introduce her boyfriend to her parents as the guy that chases little green men?” Chanel smiled. “When I told my friends I was leaving the force to join CUFOS, they looked at me like I was crazy. My parents were less surprised, but more disappointed.” Payton nodded. He‟d had the same experience. “They‟ll get over it.” “That‟s the thing, I couldn‟t care less if they get over it or not. Assuming we get out of this in one piece, and assuming that CUFOS somehow gets reinstated, I‟ll go back to work and enjoy every second of it.” Payton looked her over, a newfound understanding and respect for her building inside him. CUFOS was unlike other vocations in countless ways, but motivation for joining was just as varied as with any other employment. All of them were interested in the occult to some degree. For some of them it was personal: a family member who 197 Echelon claimed to be abducted, or the sighting of something in the sky one wayward night. For others it was simply more interesting than working data entry or sales. Some of them were probably just collecting a paycheck. Their reasons were as varied as their numbers. But Chanel was in to it, being a CUFOS investigator. It wasn‟t personal with her. It was something she truly wanted to do, as opposed to something she needed to do. She was smart, passionate, devoted to the work. Even in the short time they had spent together, Payton could see that much. Was I like this when I first joined up, Payton wondered. Was I so full of fire? So intense? “Hey,” Chanel whispered. “You in there?” Payton smiled. “Just thinking back to when I first signed up for all this.” “All this,” Chanel repeated. She made a show of looking around the motel room. “Somehow this didn‟t make the CUFOS recruitment brochure.” Payton laughed and shook his head. “Some senior investigator I am. Two field operations in, and I‟ve got the both of us wanted for murder and on the run from the police, the NSA, and God knows who else.” He flipped onto his back and put his hands behind his head. “What a disaster.” She shifted a bit beside him. “You know, Mr. Self Pity, I seem to remember playing some part in all of this, too.” Payton kept staring towards the ceiling, although he couldn‟t really see it in the darkness. She was trying to make him feel better, he knew. It was sweet, actually, that despite everything she had just gone through, she still had it in her to try to relieve him of some of his guilt. It was a real shame it wasn‟t working. 198 Echelon He turned his head and saw she was still looking at him, concern barely discernable in the shadows. “Yeah, you played along. But I should have known better. I‟m the senior investigator. I‟m supposed to be the experienced one.” He sighed and laid back again. “We wouldn‟t be here if it weren‟t for me.” He stared at the ceiling for a few more minutes. Then, with a rustle of the covers, he felt Chanel nestle up to him and lay her head on his chest. “It‟s not the being here I mind so much,” she said. “It‟s the circumstances that could use some altering.” He felt her take a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Tell me again we‟re going to make it through this.” Payton sighed. “I‟m not sure we will.” “Well that‟s reassuring.” “Sorry. I never was very good at the whole partner thing.” He thought back to his last girlfriend, his last psyche workup, his last visit to his parents. He slipped his one arm around her shoulder, trying to put as much friendliness into the gesture as possible, and trying to keep any indication of romance out of it. “In fact, people keep telling me I‟m no good with people. Like…at all.” She looked up at him. “They tell you why?” “No, but they don‟t need to. I know why. It‟s the same thing that got me hired by CUFOS,” he said. “The same reason I have that ridiculous nickname.” “Doc,” she said, smiling up at him in a way that told him she was teasing. “It‟s because you‟re smart, right?” “I‟m not smart,” he replied, returning his gaze upward. “It‟s just that I can tell when people are lying. It‟s what I‟ve always been good at.” 199 Echelon “A useful talent,” she murmured. “Not in relationships,” he sighed. “Parents, friends, men, women…they all lie. And for some reason, I can‟t play along with them. I can‟t pretend that I don‟t know the truth. I have to call them out. I have to let them know that I know.” A shiver ran through him. “I don‟t know why it‟s so important to me, to find the lie.” “You‟re an honest man, so you expect the people in your life to be honest as well.” “That‟s my point: I don‟t expect others to be honest with me at all. I expect the lie. I look for it in everyone I meet. I look for it until I find it.” He looked down at her, expecting to see revulsion. She was indeed looking at him, but there was no hint of revulsion. That intensity was back, but softer, with a shade of compassion in it. “I won‟t lie to you, Doc. I promise.” He continued looking down at her and smiled. “But what if that’s the first lie?” She looked hurt and laid her face on his chest again. “Where‟s the gun?” He had left the SIG slipped into one leg of his slacks on the floor beside the bed. “Close by,” he told her. “Tell me we‟re safe.” Payton held her a little closer, telling himself that he simply wanted to comfort her. “We‟re safe for the night,” he said. It was silent for a few moments. Then Chanel spoke very quietly into the darkness, so quietly that at first Payton thought she was talking to herself. “I won‟t lie to you, Doc. Never to you.” 200 Echelon Payton‟s mind instinctively recoiled at the words, the notion. Everyone lies, he thought. Everyone. 201 Echelon Chapter 16 Payton awoke early in the evening. He didn‟t move at first, afraid to wake Chanel in case she was still sleeping saddled up close to him. But he didn‟t feel any pressure on his chest and when he opened his eyes he saw that she had twisted away from him to lie in a fetal position in the opposite direction. He smiled. This is the way life was. The way things really happened. In the movies last night would have gone much differently. They would have talked and laughed, sure. But then they would have been helpless to resist a long passionate kiss with one another. And then they would have made love, slowly and artistically, before falling asleep wrapped in each other‟s arms. But life was not a movie. They had enjoyed their conversation and Chanel had even gone to sleep with her head on his chest and his arm snaked around her back. But 202 Echelon there was no kiss. There was no sex. And in the middle of the night, despite his touch, Chanel had twisted away from him to lie comfortably alone on the other side of the mattress. He climbed out of bed. He slid on his slacks and shirt and tucked the SIG out of sight in his waistband. He decided he needed clean clothes. Chanel had the travel bag on the floor, but Payton had assumed they would be back in Chicago before he would need a change of clothes. Now their plans had been altered and, for whatever reason, the prospect of spending the day in the same suit jacket and slacks he‟d been wearing the night before seemed unbearable. He recalled a Kmart up the street from their motel. In small towns, such places were not only convenience stores with household and office products, but they also were somewhat accomplished clothing boutiques. They would have something more comfortable and far less gamey for him to wear. Payton felt the keys in his pocket. He considered waking Chanel to tell her where he was going, but she was sleeping peacefully and he didn‟t have the heart to wake her. Twilight was setting in as he cautiously exited the room to the parking lot. He got into the rental sedan, depositing the SIG in the dash. The Kmart was only a mile or so down the road, but he would still have to drive very carefully. Chances were pretty good that their plates had been tagged in the warrant. At the very least there would be a BOLO on the car, a police acronym for be on the lookout. It was unlikely that the authorities would be actively searching for them this far from Boston, or any other major city for that matter. But if he sped, rolled through a stop sign, gave them any reason to run his plates, he was certain to be in trouble. 203 Echelon Briefly he toyed with the idea of leaving Chanel on her own, driving to the nearest police station, and turning himself in. The only weapon he had on him was the SIG, and it wouldn‟t match whatever weapon had killed the old man. He momentarily thought that might be enough to vindicate him. Don’t be stupid, he thought. Any group cunning enough to organize that setup the day before would certainly be good enough to falsify the ballistics, or at least the report. No, it’s better to remain on the run for now, to take some time to figure out what the hell we are going to do. He put the sedan in gear and pulled out of the parking lot. It was still early evening, around dinnertime. It would probably be as busy a traffic time as this little town was likely to have. Even so, in the one mile trip to the Kmart, Payton couldn‟t have seen more than ten other cars on the road. He passed a bait shop, and then a small diner. There had been a moment of panic, when Payton had passed up a local police car taking radar. But he‟d been traveling the speed limit and the angle probably wouldn‟t have allowed the cop to get a good enough view of the sedan‟s rear to run his plates. Soon he pulled into the Kmart parking lot. The Kmart was big and blue, looking for the entire world like an oversized tool shed, some twenty thousand square feet of retail space within its walls. Payton had spent enough time in small towns during his tenure at CUFOS that he knew big box stores like this were the epicenter of these communities. He wasn‟t surprised to see quadruple the number of cars parked in the lot compared to on the streets. He left the SIG in the dash as he got out of the car and made his way to towards the front doors. 204 Echelon The people working at the store were friendly, happily pointing him to the men‟s clothing section. The clothing was cheap, which was a good thing as they were running low on cash and he had no intention of using his credit card. He leafed through the racks, picking out two pair of ten-dollar jeans and a couple of reasonably priced polo shirts. He carried them by their hangers, picked up a few packs of boxers and socks, and made his way to the checkout lines. After another few minutes, and with the removal of a good portion of his remaining cash, he was making his way towards the exit. At the last moment, he stopped at a periodical kiosk and picked up a local newspaper and walked out the door. After loading the bags in the trunk of the sedan, he climbed into the front seat and opened the paper, scanning the headlines. He had half expected to see their names splashed across the front page, or at least some blurb about the shooting in south Boston. There was no mention of it at all, however, and the headlines indicated a rather slow news day: unexpectedly warm weather across the country, an impromptu meeting of the Tri-Lateral Commission in Washington, and a scathing report on the current administration and its failure to stem the tide of rising oil and gas prices. He folded the paper back up and tossed it on the passenger seat before pulling out of the parking lot and heading back to the motel. This was all going smoothly, so much so that his heartbeat hardly picked up when he passed the diner and its idle squad car once more. He wasn‟t sure he completely trusted all this good fortune, but he‟d made the conscious decision to shed his paranoia by the time he parked the sedan once more in front of their room at the motel. He was 205 Echelon feeling an unexpected sense of calm as he removed the SIG from the dash opened the door to their room. “You stupid son of a bitch!” Chanel was standing next to the bed, fully dressed in khakis and a blouse, and glaring daggers at him. “Uh…” “Where the hell have you been?” she asked. Her fists were clenched. Payton took the clothes he‟d bought and tossed them on the bed. “Secret mission,” he said with a smile. “To get me some clean clothes. It was tough, but I figured I could handle it myself.” She took a furious step forward and crossed her arms. “Damn it, Doc, leave me a note next time. I had no idea where you were. I thought you had left me. I thought you had decided to do something stupid like turn yourself in.” She caught her breath. “Just leave a damn note next time.” Payton studied her a moment, uncomfortably aware of how accurate her concerns were. He had indeed thought about turning himself in as a way to get the heat off of her and onto him alone. But she didn‟t need to know that. “I‟m going to shower,” he told her. He never liked to admit fear, but still he gave her a wide berth as he made his way to the bathroom. She continued to glare at him as he walked past. The motel might not have been luxurious, but there was nothing wrong with the hot water. Payton locked the door, stripped, and placed the SIG on the sink before starting a long hot shower. He hadn‟t realized the toll the past couple of days had taken 206 Echelon on him until the steamy water hit his shoulders. The ache washed off him with the dried sweat and grime, swirling on the porcelain below before slipping into the drain. Between the sleep he‟d gotten earlier and now the shower, he finally felt normal again. He began to work through their options for the day. The problem was that they were going to need cash. The CUFOS credit card Payton carried would be useless, likely cancelled, and their personal credit cards were sure to be flagged. Checks were a better option, since there would be a two or three day delay before the transaction was reported, but Payton still hoped to avoid leaving any kind of trail for the authorities to follow. It might be something they could use once or twice, but they would have to be on the move immediately after they issued a check, and the purchase would have to be small. No matter how they managed their funds, there was one thing Payton was sure of. They were going to need a friend. His mind continued to work as he toweled off. He had few friends, truth be told, but those he had he trusted. One catch was going to be getting them to take the situation seriously. Being wanted for murder would get their attention, of course, but if he and Chanel were going to continue on their search for the location of the mainframe terminal, they were going to need the kind of help for which Payton had only one reliable source. He was going to have to try and contact Chuck. This presented a different set of challenges. Using their cell phones was out, obviously. In fact, they probably ought to get rid of the CUFOS issued phones altogether. Payton had made a point of making sure Chanel had shut hers off, but technological revelations seemed to be coming at a fast clip this past week, and he didn‟t trust the GPS tracking capability that came in all modern phones to be completely idle. Emails would probably be better, although those too were 207 Echelon sure to be monitored. Fortunately he was fairly certain that Chuck‟s unregistered email drop addresses would go completely undetected by anyone trying to monitor him. It was also fortunate that Chuck had long ago made Payton commit those addresses to memory. Payton had thought it was funny back then. Now, however, he was thankful that his friend had a way to be discreetly contacted. No, the real problem was getting on the web to send the message at all, preferably without alerting the authorities. The laptops they carried with them, again issued by CUFOS, had a unique signal sure to be monitored. Even if they accessed the web on the computers through a public connection, say the motel‟s wireless network, the IP address would still show as being registered to Payton Connor or Chanel Falasco of CUFOS, and would provide any snooping agents a relatively precise location of the access point. So where could they go for a discreet connection? Payton finished drying his hair and looked at himself in the mirror, mussing his scalp to get the moisture out. He peeled the tags off of his new clothes and pulled them on. He thought he looked kind of silly in the jeans and light blue polo, but with little choice he simply tucked the shirt in, pulled on a fresh pair of socks, and took one of the single-serving mouthwash bottles and emptied its contents into his mouth. As he swished the blue liquid in his mouth, his thoughts drifted to Chanel and his hope that she wasn‟t still angry with him. Thankfully she wasn‟t; when he returned from the bathroom he found her sitting at the edge of the bed with the television on. He looked at the screen and saw the Cubs and the Fenway Park in the background. “They winning?” he asked. “Up three in the fourth,” she answered. 208 Echelon “You‟re watching the Cubs? I thought you were a Sox fan.” “Somebody told me once that you can learn a lot about life by watching baseball.” She smiled at him. Payton took a breath and braced himself. “I want to get a message to Chuck,” he said. To his surprise, she merely nodded. “I was thinking the same thing.” Payton must have given her a funny look, because she went on to explain. “Oh, don‟t look so shocked. He‟s still got the code from the DAT tape. It might be able to tell us where the mainframe access point is.” Payton gave himself a mental slap on the back of the head. He had been so focused on Chuck‟s ability to get around any government monitoring that he‟d completely forgotten about the DAT tape they had stolen from the pumping station in New Mexico. “We‟re paid up through tomorrow morning, and my inclination is to get him out here. But I‟m having trouble figuring out how to get a message to him.” He went on to explain his concerns about how they were to get online to send the email. “Well,” she said. “What are you going to have him do?” “I think he ought to just come out here,” Payton said. “He might have a tail on him, too, but I trust Chuck to be able to get around that kind of snoopware.” “Will he fly out here if you ask?” Chanel asked, looking doubtful. “Trust me.” She studied him a moment, then got up and went to the nightstand next to the bed. She reached into the drawer and retrieved a paper pad and pen. “Here,” she said, handing 209 Echelon it to him. “Write down what you want me to put in the email & the address you want it sent to.” Payton paused. “You figured something out?” He would have waited for an answer, but Chanel was busy altering her appearance. She started with her hair, tossing it to one side in a seductive sweep. Then she reached into her blouse and cupped each of her breasts, giving them a not so subtle lift. Finally, she slid her jeans down her waist so that they were hitched low, the belt clinging to her hipbones. “Uh, what are you doing?” “The kid at the front desk, Doc,” she muttered, not looking at him, still adjusting herself. “He had a laptop. Playing a game on it, if I remember correctly. He was really into it, too.” She smiled slyly. “Until he saw me, that is.” Of course, Payton thought. The kid had his laptop. More than likely it was his personal machine, what with the games on it and the controller. This meant that when it accessed a network, say a motel‟s wireless network, it would list the IP address under the kid‟s name. Even if by chance the laptop was company issued, that would only help. Then it would be the motel‟s laptop accessing the motel‟s network. What could be more routine? A message to one of Chuck‟s discreet email accounts would probably go through unexamined. “Okay,” he said. “Give me the pad and pen.” He toyed with the idea of putting the message in some easily deciphered code, but thought better of it. Speed was something of a concern here, and misjudging Chuck‟s ability to translate whatever cipher he used might lead to delay. Instead, he kept the message short and simple, informing his friend that they were out of reach by cell phone and he would have to find them once he reached town. To get him there, Payton left 210 Echelon several references to Arnold Palmer and the motel‟s proximity to one of the championship golf courses the legendary player had designed. Finally, he included one of Chuck‟s email accounts. He handed the pad to Chanel. “That should do it. When you send it, see if the kid will let you hang around for a few minutes. Chuck should respond fairly quickly.” She scanned the message, looking skeptical. “Is he going to be able to figure this out?” “Chuck‟s a paranoid ass,” Payton smiled. “But he‟s not short on smarts. He‟ll get it.” “But when will he get it? Who knows when he‟ll check his email?” “You don‟t know Chuck,” Payton said, his smile widening. He glanced at his watch. Nine-thirty at night, his clock read. “Chuck will be online when you send the message.” Her expression wrinkled. “On a Friday night?” Is it already Friday, he thought. “Trust me, he‟ll be on. Just send the message.” She twirled around slowly in a manner that reminded Payton of a fashion model. “So? Do I look fetching enough to manipulate a twenty year old geek?” Payton refrained from the response that jumped immediately to mind. She didn‟t look good; she looked great. He‟d already recognized that she was attractive, especially in casual clothing. Between the seductive hair and the jeans riding low, she added a certain degree of sensuality to her appearance. Payton was having trouble forcing himself not to stare. “Just don‟t give the poor kid a heart attack,” he said. 211 Echelon After she had left, Payton had busied himself with the coffee machine on the dresser. Motel coffee was usually terrible, but he was pleasantly surprised to find the room stocked with several name brand grounds. Soon the entire motel room was filled with the bold aroma of brewing java. While he waited for the percolator to work its magic, Payton folded his dirty laundry onto the seat of the room‟s only chair. Then he placed the SIG under the folded clothes so that it was hidden from view, but within easy reach. By the time he was pouring himself his first cup, Chanel had been gone for nearly fifteen minutes. Payton sat on the edge of his bed with his coffee and watched the baseball game. The Cubs were still in Boston and they were enough to momentarily distract him from all the trouble in which they were in. He had said that baseball was a game about life back in Boston. Could it really only have been twenty-four hours ago? He suddenly felt tired again and began drinking the coffee quickly to get a caffeine buzz going. Chanel returned a few minutes later, about the time the Cubs closer struck out the side and won the game. She looked hungrily at the coffee machine a moment, and Payton poured her a cup. She told him she‟d convinced the kid to hand over the laptop, although he‟d insisted on watching over her shoulder, more to look down her blouse than out of any interest in her activities. She‟d sent the message without incident, and then had endured fifteen minutes of flirting with the kid while he showed her “how cool” his personal laptop was, with all of its upgrades and peripherals. He saw her shudder visibly. “God, that kid was creepy.” 212 Echelon Payton laughed, thinking that the kid sounded very much like a Chuck-in-training. “I take it you got a response.” “Yes,” she said. She handed him a computer printout and then stood back and took a long sip of her coffee. “You‟ve got some strange friends.” Payton opened the printout out and read it to himself. To: firstname.lastname@example.org From: email@example.com P: Good to hear from you. I heard your trip out East was a killer. I received your message and need to see you right away. Have information that cannot wait. I’ll fill you in when I come out, but let’s just say that there are some very powerful people applying pressure on you to turn yourself in. You can expect me in the morning. Maybe we can play a round of golf or something. C. Payton let out his breath slowly. Chuck had gotten the message and his reference to playing golf made it certain that he knew their location. The message also indicated his friend would be leaving immediately, catching a redeye so as to get to Latrobe into the early hours the following morning. He wasn‟t quite sure what to make of the reference to people applying pressure on him, but he‟d get the full story soon enough. 213 Echelon It was roughly ten in the evening. It was about four hours by plane from Chicago to Pennsylvania. Ideally he would fly into either Penn State‟s tiny airport in University Park or at least into nearby Pittsburgh. That would mean he‟d be exiting the tarmac at roughly three in the morning. From either location, it wouldn‟t be more than a few hours by car to their motel. “When do you think he‟ll get here?” Chanel asked. Payton had already done the math. “I‟d guess somewhere around six or seven tomorrow morning.” “What do we do until then?” she asked. “Well, you‟re already dressed up,” he answered. “How about we get something to eat?” Her eyebrows went up. “The entire world is after us and you want to take me out on a date?” A date. “Not a date,” he said, perhaps a bit too quickly judging by her smirk. “But there‟s no sense in starving ourselves. I checked the local paper this morning. There was no mention of the old man in Boston. Between the distance and our fake identification, I think it‟d be safe for us to grab a bite to eat in a rural town restaurant.” “Ah, so this isn‟t just idle talk. You have an eatery in mind?” He hadn‟t thought it that far through, actually, but he immediately thought of the diner half a mile down the road. It had had that backcountry look, invoking thoughts of heavy waitresses with cheery dispositions and molasses accents. That type of place was downright exotic to a city rat like Payton. He offered the diner as his choice to Chanel. 214 Echelon “Sounds wonderful,” she responded. “Did you buy anything dressier than that polo this morning?” “I‟m afraid not,” Payton grinned. “I guess you‟re going to have to slum it with me.” Chanel sighed theatrically. “That‟s okay. I‟m used to being the good looking one.” Payton laughed, grabbed his jacket, and made for the door. Before exiting the motel room, he briefly thought about returning to the chair and retrieving the SIG, but thought instead of his own words to his partner moments earlier. Surely in this small Pennsylvanian town they would find no trouble. He turned to walk back out the door into the parking lot where Chanel was waiting in the sedan. They were seated at the diner and leafing through their respective menus. It was mostly rural American fare, heavy on the red meat and vegetables, short on any type of cultural or ethnic flair. They had already ordered their drinks, light beer for both of them, and were now deciding on entrées. Payton had just begun piecing through the listings when Chanel closed her menu, placed it on the table, and caught the waitress‟ attention. He looked up. “What are you having?” “Southwest burger with coleslaw and fries, cooked rare. Oh, and I could use another beer,” she said. She saw him staring at her. “What?” “How do you eat that crap and manage to look like that?” he asked, wrinkling his nose. 215 Echelon “Aw,” she crooned, grinning at him devilishly. “You think I look good, do you?” Payton felt blood rush to his face. He turned back to his menu. When he looked back up at the waitress, he found she too was grinning at him knowingly. “Chicken sandwich,” he said. “And as big a side of cottage cheese as you can find back there.” The waitress left with their order. Payton was about to make conversation, but saw Chanel still giving him that look. “What?” he asked. That smirk was still playing across her face. “Doc thinks I‟m pretty,” she chimed in a singsong voice. He took a sip from his beer. “I think you‟re my partner,” he told her, trying to make it sound stern. “And partners don‟t talk about that type of thing. And they definitely don‟t get involved.” “Hey, don‟t get so defensive, Doc. It‟s okay to tell a woman she looks good.” “Fine,” Payton sighed. “You look good.” She smiled. “Well thank you.” Her face grew more serious. “Besides, we‟re not partners anymore.” “We‟re not?” “I don‟t think so,” she shook her head. “We can‟t be a CUFOS investigating team if there‟s no CUFOS, can we?” A technicality, Payton thought, but ultimately true. For now. “We‟ll get the Center cleared,” he said, forcing confidence into his voice. 216 Echelon “I hope so,” she replied, her facing showing creases. “What if we can‟t do it? What if they never reopen CUFOS? I know I only just started, but after the past week I can‟t imagine doing anything else.” Payton knew what she meant. It was an interesting job, working for CUFOS. Fun even. And there was always that first case or investigation that really grabbed you, caught you up in the web so that you couldn‟t dream of leaving. To have that case occur in your first week must have been nearly overwhelming. “What would you do if you couldn‟t work at CUFOS anymore?” she asked, interrupting his thoughts. Payton considered the question, but could not come up with an answer. “I have no idea,” he said. He chuckled. “Mall security, maybe. Chasing after little shoplifters instead of little green men.” Chanel laughed with him. “Can I still be your partner?” Payton nodded. “It‟d be worth it just to see you in the uniform.” Their food came and they dug in. Her burger looked delicious and his sandwich wasn‟t half bad. The waitress had even made good on the cottage cheese, heaped in what looked like a cereal bowl on the side. When he‟d been young, Payton‟s father had often taken them fishing and hunting in the country. His father liked to refer to them as their “little adventures”, and part of the fun was eating at the local joints, enjoying the country food. For a kid born and raised in the city, it was a treat to taste country cooking. And the diner didn‟t disappoint. The chicken was cooked perfectly, with poppy seeds and mustard on the bun. The cottage cheese tasted like it was homemade, not that garbage that came in the plastic tins. It was a throwback to days long gone, when farmers 217 Echelon sold their foodstuffs to local diners. Farmers that took pride in their stock, and cooks who took equal pride in their craft. It made the food taste that much better, just thinking of the work that went into each bite. From the way she was wolfing down her burger, Chanel too was enjoying her meal. “You know,” he said conversationally. “Before the move toward corporate agriculture, this must have been how all food tasted.” Chanel took a swig of her beer and washed down what she had been chewing. She then raised her bottle in salute. “To the independent farmer.” Payton smiled and clinked bottles with her. “Are you an anti-globalist, Doc?” she asked between bites. “Last week I‟d have said no. After everything we‟ve seen…I‟m not so sure.” Payton shook his head. “My whole career at CUFOS has been built on disproving crackpot stories. Now I‟m living one.” “Fun, isn‟t it?” Fun? “I want to go home,” he said. They ate in silence. Payton started thinking about the task ahead of them. Evading arrest until they managed to clear themselves was a daunting task in itself. The thought of also trying to find the mainframe access point was enough to bring on exhaustion. Having Chuck with them would be of help. But without the old man to guide them, Payton was beginning to feel lost. Their mole, their guardian angel was no more. How would they know where to begin? How would they decide what to do next? 218 Echelon As if he were shouting his thoughts instead of internalizing them, Chanel reached across the table and patted his hand. “Relax, Doc,” she said. “We‟ll get this straightened out.” Payton smiled at her. “I thought I was supposed to comfort you,” he said. “So sorry for not playing the damsel in distress for you,” she mocked. “Especially after you did it so well last night,” Payton said. Her face went cold. “Hey, I was kidding.” “Forget it,” she said, and returned to her burger and beer. “I just think we should have this discussion now. I wouldn‟t want something to happen simply because of all the stress we‟re under. We‟d probably regret it later,” he said. “It‟s not a problem,” she said gruffly. “You sure? Because it seemed to me that you‟ve come on pretty strong lately.” “I said drop it, Doc,” she snapped. Her face flushed red and he immediately regretted speaking so frankly. He tried to make conversation throughout the rest of their meal, but her normally congenial disposition had been chased away and was replaced by a perpetual scowl. Suddenly she began complaining about the food, the service, the beer. Eventually he gave up trying to be friendly and concentrated on eating. They finished and he paid in cash. It was a quick and silent ride back to their motel room, where they watched a little television and then went to sleep. On separate sides of the bed. 219 Echelon Chapter 17 She still wasn‟t speaking much when they awoke the next day. Checkout was at eleven, and Payton had no intention of spending another night in this dingy motel. Sharing a bed with an angry woman had made the cramped room exponentially more uncomfortable. They took turns in the bathroom, drank their coffee from the machine, and sat on separate sides of the bed watching Sports Center. Twice he considered trying to talk to her, to put an end to this quiet siege. Both times he changed his mind after giving the matter further thought. If he tried to drag her back to civility, she was likely to resist and the situation would worsen. Allowing her to get there herself, on the other hand, was far more likely to yield an agreeable outcome. He just hoped she got there quickly. Chuck was due any moment, and their situation was simply too dire to put up with the added tension. 220 Echelon What made this so difficult? So he had touched a nerve being frank about her behavior. So what? Perhaps she was feeling vulnerable and was the type of person that didn‟t like that feeling. I’m one of those people, too, he thought. Her comment about being a damsel in distress was ringing in his ear. It rattled around there along with his poke at their interaction with each other in bed the previous night. He hadn‟t had to worry about such pretzel closeness this last time around. His partner had bade him a curt goodnight and fallen asleep without another word. Silent though she might be, lying on her side and facing the other direction near her edge of the mattress spoke volumes. When was this going to end? He swung his legs over the edge of the comforter and got up to go to the bathroom. Payton loved coffee, good or bad. He had grown up drinking it early, as far back as high school. Maple coffee, iced coffee, caramel coffee, black coffee, Irish coffee; they were all good. At mid-adulthood, the very idea of not beginning the day with a morning brew was laughable. The effect on his bladder was a tolerable side effect. He walked around the heap of wet towels on the tiled floor. True to his earlier predilection, the grout in between the squares was darkened with grime. The mirror above the sink offered a poor reflection thanks in large part to condensation streaks left from their earlier showers. As he flipped up the seat he noticed rust marks around the bolts that held the cover in place. Where were all these things last night? He finished relieving himself and walked back into the other room. Chanel looked up. “The Cubs won,” she said. Payton looked at her. “What?” 221 Echelon “Last night. We left for dinner before the fourth, and I thought you‟d want to know that they won.” It was a considerate thing to do, tell him his favorite team had won the night before. Not a big gesture, to be sure, but it was a sign the healing process had begun. He thought it best not to put a spotlight on her, though, so he thanked her and shut his mouth and went back to standing quietly. She didn‟t let him stand idle for long. “Look,” she started. Payton watched defiance flair across her face for the briefest moment and then give way to sheepishness. “About last night…” “Forget it,” Payton cut her off. “I didn‟t mean to upset you.” “That‟s no excuse for me being a bitch,” she said with a smile. Payton could tell she was as relieved as he was, but he didn‟t know where this conversation was supposed to go next. She had apologized, he had expressed his regret…Now what? His father had been the old school military type. The old man had enjoyed his coffee strong, his whiskey stronger, and movies that featured John Wayne. The Duke‟s policy of never apologizing had been instilled into Payton for as long as he could remember. Now, confronted with a remorseful compatriot, he had no idea how to proceed. “This makes you uncomfortable, doesn‟t it?” Chanel asked as though she were reading his mind. He grimaced. “I thought I was hiding it better than that.” 222 Echelon “You weren‟t,” she said with a smile. Her expression turned serious. “The next few days isn‟t going to be easy for us. It‟s important that we‟re on the same page. I won‟t let petty confrontations get in the way. You have my word.” He was about to respond, but twisted at the sound of a knock on the door. “Speak of the devil,” Payton said with a smile. He went to the door, reached out for the handle, then thought better of it and peered through the keyhole. The man on the other side of the fisheye had his back turned. The profile from behind was framed by a long trench coat, beige and hanging low. Poking out from the other side of the coat Payton could see the edges of a cardboard pizza box. His stomach dropped an inch or two. The old man! How could it be? Payton fumbled with the deadbolt and tore open the door. “You son of a bitch,” he laughed with a slap on the other‟s back. Chuck turned around with the pizza box in his hand. “Well I‟m happy to see you too, bright eyes,” his friend said with a grin. He lifted up the pizza box. “Breakfast?” They sat around the hotel room and dug into the pizza. He and Chanel were back on their opposite sides of the bed, minus the animosity, and Chuck was seated in the room‟s sole chair. Chuck had somehow come up with a pie that included scrambled egg and bacon for toppings. It would have been disgusting if he hadn‟t been starving. And the truth was it didn‟t taste half bad. Judging by the way she was efficiently demolishing the four pieces she‟d taken thus far, Chanel concurred. 223 Echelon “You said you had something for us?” Payton asked through a mouthful of bacon and sauce. “So let‟s hear it.” “Uh, yeah, Doc,” Chuck started. Then he bit his lower lip. “There‟s something you need to know.” Chuck rarely had this kind of grave expression. Payton put his pizza down. “Why do I get the feeling that you‟re about to tell me about this pressure that‟s being applied to me?” “Yeah, about that,” he said. He sat down on the bed. “Doc, your niece is missing.” Payton stood up. “What?” “Apparently Jennifer was taken out of her babysitter‟s house yesterday,” Chuck said solemnly. “They left a note.” Payton sat back down, dread washing over him. “What did it say?” “It said: you have two days to return the disc or she dies.” Chuck shook his head. “Jesus, Doc. I‟m so sorry.” Chanel put a hand on his shoulder. “Where are they holding her?” Payton asked, ignoring her touch. “Actually, I might have an idea about that,” Chuck said. He reached into his bag and pulled out some papers. “I think the answer might be in the code you had me looking into.” “Just tell me where my niece is.” “I‟m pretty sure I can do that. You‟re not going to believe this,” Chuck said. “I went through the DAT tape with a fine tooth…well, mouse, I suppose. It‟s really genius 224 Echelon stuff, light years ahead of anything else I‟ve seen, but whoever encrypted this stuff is a complete moron. They encrypted the actual file object with 256 bit AES, but they left the back door open for the code, so to speak. I was able to pull a significant amount of the coding for the sequencing and transportation. It‟s not the actual meat of the file, but it gives us a ton of information we didn‟t know before.” “Chuck, they have Jennifer,” Payton interrupted him. “Get to the point.” “Oh yeah. Right.” He reached into the briefcase he had brought with him and retrieved a pair of printouts. He handed one to each of them. “I went through what I could decrypt, looking for anything that you might be able to use. Here‟s what I came up with.” Payton scanned the printout. Executing "Echelon COINTELPRO run 2008btel” Process: Echelon COINTELPRO sequence overclock Link: SatNet Pioneer Link Dest: <DeepSat USS Tannenbaum> Link Reroute: Tandem LinkSat Station Exit NCords <334.32x67.2> Return code to parent process: COINTELPRO Executing "DataWrite Sequence to backup device “LogKeeper”” PreWrite: to <334.32x67.2> \Backup sequence to “LogKeeper” Process: DataWrite w/Limiting agent Link: 2ndary destination <MobileSat NavySat 22399> Link Dest: <SatNet Pioneer> 225 Echelon Link Reroute: <Direct> Exit Ncords <224.00x109.99> Return code to parent process: COINTELPRO Executing "DataRip to recovery native” EndWrite: to <224.00x109.99> Process: DataWrite to native Enter full sequence and unRip Process: Recover Data<native> from <SatFile Cmprss> Exit <224.00x109.99> Return data to parent directory: MJ12:\COINTELPRO_ROOT\ Access point for MnFrm <512.02x115.99> encrypted sequence For Access point MnFrm: Pswrd Req Payton looked up at Chanel. He watched her brow furrow, lacking comprehension. Eventually she looked back at him and shrugged. Payton turned to his friend. “Chuck, you know you‟re going to have to walk us through this.” His friend sighed. “What jumps out at you?” “COINTELPRO is all over the place,” Chanel piped up. “Sure is,” Chuck nodded. “All over the rest of the coding too. The DAT came out to something like two hundred pages of coding, with COINTELPRO listed over four hundred times throughout the language. But this sequence is different. It doesn‟t just designate the program, it designates its routing sequence.” Payton looked back down at his copy of the printout. “It does?” “Sure. See all the program lines with the link demarcation? Those are routing sequences, moving the data stream collected by network to and from specific locations.” 226 Echelon Chuck read off of his own copy. “In the first sequence, data is streaming to a satellite called Pioneer, presumably somewhere in orbit. Then it goes to some Navy ship, where it‟s sent back out under an encrypted tandem router before finally coming to rest at these coordinates: three-three-four dot three-two by six-seven dot two.” “Hmm,” Payton frowned. “Latitude by longitude?” “That‟s what I thought,” Chuck nodded. “But when I ran the numbers, I came up empty. All the normal mapping numbers led to locations that were incongruent with the data, or they else they were totally nonexistent points.” Chuck stood up. “But let‟s come back to that. Take a look at the second sequence.” “The same coordinates appear in the second line,” Chanel murmured. “Correct. They denote the pre-write location, or the starting point for the next sequence. The data goes from those coordinates to a backup site with a limiting agent. This programming object called LogKeeper. That one I‟m lost on, unfortunately. I‟ve never heard anything like it in programming language.” Payton looked at Chanel. Might this LogKeeper be their librarian in Gaithersburg? “Weird,” he said mechanically. “Yeah, well, it‟s obviously storage space, meant to backup the collected data stream for later analysis. The data stream splits there and also gets routed to a mobile Navy satellite, bounces off of the Pioneer, and ends up at a second set of numbered coordinates.” “I assume those aren‟t typical demarcations either?” Payton asked. “I‟m afraid not. I knew right away they wouldn‟t be, after running the previous numbers, but I did check to be sure.” Chuck smiled. “The last sequence is by far the 227 Echelon most enlightening. You‟ve got the previous coordinates again, this time the starting point. The code directs the program write the data to the parent directory in its uncompressed format.” Chanel tapped her sheet. “What is this tech-speak about? Recover data? Un-rip? Native?” She looked back up at Chuck, thoroughly lost. Chuck turned to her to explain. “When information is transmitted over this type of data stream, it has to be compressed. You familiar with zip file algorithms?” Chanel shook her head. “JPEG formatting?” She sighed. “No, other than when I convert my digital photos into a JPEG file.” “Good,” Chuck brightened. “Take your digital picture, composed and captured in hi-res and stored on your hard drive. Now when it is originally captured, the picture is made up of a series of points on a matrix and instructions determining what color they should be. Thirty-two bit settings mean over two million colors, but the truth is the average digital photo only utilizes about a third of that.” When Chanel frowned at him, he explained further. “Take a picture of a flower, say a rose. You‟re going to have lots of reds and greens, probably some yellow, and maybe a touch of blue for the sky, right? But you probably won‟t have a lot of grays, or blacks, or purples. And there are a lot of shades of those colors that you can omit from the two million totals. Follow me?” “Yeah, I get it,” Chanel nodded. “Well, even with only a third of the colors in the picture, you‟re still talking about a lot of information. The average hi-res photo has something like a million points on the 228 Echelon matrix for which it has to define a color. When all of these million or so points are colored in, you get your photo. Got it?” Chanel nodded. “Now, what takes up so much space and data for these types of photos is that you have to write instructions for colors at each spot on the matrix. That‟s one million lines of instructions. Compression programs cut those lines of code tenfold.” Chanel‟s frown deepened. “How?” “We already agreed that the majority of the colors in a typical photo are the same, or similar. And we know that in its uncompressed format, each line of instruction denotes one point on the photo‟s matrix. For your flower, the program might read that point one by one is green, one by two is green, one by three is green, and so on. JPEG compression rewrites the file to say that point one by one is green, and so are the next twenty points, or whatever. Depending on the photo, you cut your lines of code by as much as fifty percent or so. This reduces the file size and allows for quicker copying, pasting, or transmission.” Chanel brightened. “I get it. Less code means reduced file size.” Chuck nodded approvingly. “Now, instead of a digital photo, consider other data, say vocal recordings. The same theory applies. Much of what occurs in audio recordings is repeated information: large sections of silence, sounds that are similar, etcetera. So audio compression works the same way as our JPEG compression formatting.” “Well…” Payton piped up from the other side of the bed. “Hey,” Chuck shot him a look. “Layman‟s terms.” “Yeah,” Chanel smiled. “Layman‟s terms.” 229 Echelon “So,” Chuck continued. “Our program here transmits its data stream in a compressed format, bouncing it off all of these locations, before coming to rest at this parent directory, marked as MJ12. There we can assume that a decompression program is integrated to un-rip the file back to its native state so that it can be read.” “So in programming language, native means uncompressed?” Chanel asked. “You got it,” Chuck said. He tapped his page again. “In this case, the native files are located in this parent directory, which is accessed from this final set of coordinates.” He looked at Payton. “And before you ask, these coordinates are in the same uncommon format as the previous demarcations.” Chuck had a way of building to suspense like this, Payton knew. Especially when he was particularly proud of whatever he‟d come up with. “Just tell us what you found out about the coordinates,” Payton said. He did nothing to keep the impatience out of his voice. His friend gave him a plaintive look. “No foreplay?” “Chuck.” He sighed. “Each time the coordinates are first mentioned in the code, they are preceded by this designation: Ncords. It wasn‟t a plotting format I was familiar with, and I was at a loss for a while. Until I started looking at the relays.” Payton glanced down at his sheet. “The relays?” “Come on, Doc,” Chuck smiled. “It‟s not that tough.” “N cords…” Payton trailed off. “Navy coordinates?” “Close,” Chuck said. “But no cigar. Navy coordinates have followed the traditional longitude and latitude format for the past hundred years or so. But before they 230 Echelon made the transition, they used an older format, one that hasn‟t been used outside of the military in almost three hundred years.” He pointed at his printout. “These are nautical coordinates.” Payton glanced at Chanel and saw her return a blank expression. He turned back to Chuck. “Never heard of them.” “That‟s the point,” his friend said. “Other than the Navy, no one has used this format since colonial times. I did a little research on them and found out the nautical format was developed by European bankers who needed a way to divide up investment properties in the New World and Africa in the fourteen hundreds. It was a collaborative effort by the major financial institutions in France, Spain, and Portugal.” European bankers. “Templars?” Payton asked. “That would seem likely,” Chuck nodded. “At least some within the group, almost certainly. I‟ve looked into them a couple of times in the past and this type of thing was their forte. In any case, I found an old copy of the format key on the website for the Nautical Historical Society and plugged in the numbers.” “And?” Payton pressed. “The first coordinates, where this LogKeeper object is employed, are in a suburb in Maryland. Some place called Gaithersburg. There‟s not much there, other than the homes of a few politically connected families and some corporate buildings.” Payton glanced again at Chanel and saw similar recognition across her face. She now knew as well as he did to what the LogKeeper object in the coding referred. The memory of the avatar came to mind. In fact, now that he knew what he was looking at, 231 Echelon the limiting agent the coding referred to was probably what had kept the program from divulging the full data banks available through the mainframe. He looked back to Chuck, who was continuing as he ran his forefinger down the paper. “The next set is even creepier,” Chuck said. “You‟ll never guess the location of these coordinates.” Payton smiled. “Fort Meade, Maryland?” Chuck stared at him. “How did you know?” “Come on, Chuck. It‟s an NSA DAT tape. You already told us their headquarters is in the Fort Meade facility.” Chuck stared at him a moment more. Then his face cleared and he smiled once more. “I‟ll bet you can‟t tell me the location of the last coordinates.” Payton shrugged. “Nope, sure can‟t.” “Think close to home,” Chuck smiled. Home? “Chicago?” Payton asked after a moment‟s hesitation. “Not quite. Like I said, close to home. It‟s out in the west suburbs, actually, in the town of Oak Brook.” He must have seen the skeptical look that Payton could feel crease his face, because he hurried to continue. “Don‟t look so surprised. That suburb is one of the wealthiest townships per capita in the country. It has the nation‟s largest outdoor mall, vacation homes for politicos and the elite, and the headquarters of one of the world‟s largest corporations.” Payton nodded. He had passed the McDonalds building many times when traveling to Oak Brook Mall in his youth. Still, it was difficult to imagine the quiet 232 Echelon suburb hiding anything as insidious as an Illuminati building. He voiced as much to his friend. Chuck shrugged. “I‟m just telling you where the coordinates are,” he said. Chanel shook her head. “So the access point is in the McDonalds building?” “No,” Chuck said. “These coordinates point just to the northeast of the Oak Brook Mall property.” Payton dug through his memory for the layout of the area. “That land has several bank administration buildings on it.” Chuck nodded. “And one small laboratory building registered to the United States government.” “And you think that‟s where they have Jennifer?” “This building in Oak Brook isn‟t just a coincidence, Doc.” He bit his lip again. “Plus there was this other bit of code that pointed to the Oak Brook building, but I‟m pretty sure…It can‟t be real.” Payton looked up again. “What do you mean?” “Well, it‟s just,” Chuck began. “Look, Doc, it can’t be real.” “What does the code do?” Chanel asked. Chuck sighed. “Part of it is a countdown. It‟s been running for years, since sometime during the Hoover days.” He paused. “At the end of the countdown the second part of the code runs a program that basically shuts everything down.” “It shuts down the Echelon network?” Payton asked. “Why would they want to do that?” 233 Echelon “I didn‟t say it shuts down Echelon, I said it shuts down everything. And I mean everything. Basic government services, utilities, power plants, government facilities, missile silos, NORAD, CIA, FBI, NSA. It all goes dark. All except this one building in Oak Brook, which would still be plugged in and have access to the net.” “Jesus,” Chanel whispered. “Can they really do that?” “No,” Chuck said, shaking his head. “No way. It‟s not possible. It can’t be possible. There have to be a million checks on this type of thing.” Payton stared at him a moment as his mind worked through all the information with which it had just been presented. It all pointed to one thing: they had to get into this building in Oak Brook. His mind began to churn. Breaking into the government building was sure to be far more difficult than anything else they had thus far attempted, especially without the old man as a resource. They were wanted for murder, and the warrant was sure to extend far beyond the Boston region, probably nationwide. If they were going to have any chance at bargaining for their freedom, they would need some kind of leverage over the NSA and its co- conspirators. It meant not only knowing where the access point was, but they would also need a way to shut it down before the countdown ran out. Shut down the code, you shut down the program, and that would prevent whatever these people were planning. The NSA and the Illuminati were both adept at manipulating the press and putting forth misinformation, so attempting to simply expose this whole thing was out. What they needed was a way to threaten the mainframe, a way to bring it down around their collective ears before they sent the country back to the stone age. 234 Echelon He posed the situation aloud to the others. “I don‟t know, Doc,” Chanel said doubtfully. “I still don‟t think that code is going to do what it says it will, but even if it did, how are we going to disrupt the data stream? Or the mainframe itself? It‟s not like we can shoot the satellites out of the sky, and I don‟t even want to think about trying to sneak into Fort Meade to plant explosives on the mainframe itself.” Payton had to agree. Aside from their lack of means, that type of action was unlikely to endear the NSA to the idea of clearing them of the false murder charges. It all came back to their need to get into this building in Oak Brook. He turned to Chuck. “How about a more subtle approach?” His friend regarded him warily. “What do you mean?” “All we have to do is disable the mainframe, right?” Payton asked. “If we do that, then all of this code is useless. They can gather all of the information off the network they want, but it won‟t do them any good if they don‟t have anywhere to put it. Plus it would take out this doomsday program, since it runs centrally from the mainframe.” Chuck seemed to think about it for a moment, and then nodded slowly. “I suppose that makes sense. Even if they amassed enough hardware to create a new mainframe, they would have to totally rewrite most of the three million lines of code in the routing software. That could take them years.” Chuck frowned and nodded towards Chanel. “But she‟s right. Fort Meade is probably one of the ten most secure facilities in the world. You‟re not going to be able to get in there.” “Maybe we don‟t need to go to Fort Meade at all,” Payton mused. “Why can‟t we corrupt the mainframe through the access point in Oak Brook?” 235 Echelon Chuck frowned. “What are you thinking?” “How about a virus?” Payton asked. “A digital phage,” Chuck said quietly, his frown deepening. “The drawback of most viruses is that it‟s impossible to keep your fingerprints off of them. That and most viruses try to make use of the data it is corrupting. In this case we wouldn‟t have to worry about either. You‟d want them to know it was your virus, and the idea is to destroy the mainframe with the virus, not employ it.” He smiled. “A phage might actually work.” “Can you make one?” Payton asked. “All it has to do is destroy the software?” “That‟s it.” Chuck reached into his pack and pulled out a tablet laptop computer. “It‟ll be done in an hour. I have a few code templates that practically write themselves. I just have to make a few alterations to the software. What else will you need?” “A quick tutorial on how to upload the virus to the access point,” Payton said. “Also, a ride back home would help, since the authorities will be looking for our rental car.” “You got it. Anything else?” Payton looked at Chanel. She held up her thumb and forefinger and rubbed them together. “Oh yeah, and as much cash as you can spare.” 236 Echelon Chuck smiled and nodded. A few moments later, he was hard at work on his tablet. Payton and Chanel sat on the bed and worked out what they were going to do once they got back to Chicago. Where, one way or the other, he was going to get Jennifer back, stop whatever the Illuminati had planned for the end of this countdown, and all of this was going to come to an end. 237 Echelon Chapter 18: They checked out of the motel shortly after eleven and piled into Chuck‟s rental car, another non-descript sedan. Chuck insisted on driving, prompting Payton to continuously caution him not to do anything to attract attention. Soon Chanel announced that she wouldn‟t play audience to their bickering any longer. She was now lying across the cramped backseat, fast asleep. “She‟s a firecracker,” Chuck said from the driver‟s seat. “Just drive.” “Not bad looking, either. It‟s about time you had a woman in your life.” Payton shot his friend a look from the passenger seat, silently ordering him off the topic of his partner. Instead of conversation, Payton busied himself watching the Pennsylvania countryside fly by. Highway Ninety would take them all the way home, to 238 Echelon Chicago. Chanel had said she had a friend on the South Side of the city they could stay with while they were still on the run and Chuck had helped her send him a secure email letting him know when they would be arriving. According to her it was close to her apartment, giving them access to her car the following morning. Chuck had promised to drop them off before returning home to keep from raising too much suspicion with anyone who might be keeping tabs on him. But first they had to get there. They drove for a couple of hours. There wasn‟t much for variety, other than the different classic rock radio stations that fuzzed in and out from the dashboard. They soon left behind the hills of Pennsylvania and crossed into the plains of Ohio. Once they had passed the “Welcome to Ohio” sign, the topography seemed to change as if on cue. The highway would take them through Cleveland, if they didn‟t take the bypass. Chuck suggested altering their course and Payton agreed. They turned off of Highway Ninety and made their way through the small Cleveland suburbs. Payton nodded off for a while until Chuck woke him around one in the afternoon. “Where are we?” he yawned. He sat up in the passenger seat and looked around. They were on one of those truck stop overpasses. There was a diesel station with a few regular pumps. Alongside it was a convenience store. Atop the overpass was a visitor‟s center, a rental car station, and the promise of food and refreshments. He turned to Chuck. “You hungry?” His friend patted his round lump of a stomach and smiled. “Always. But this place should have wireless access, too. I want to run the virus past a couple friends of mine.” 239 Echelon Payton shot to sit straight up. “Oh, no you‟re not. You log onto a wireless network through your tablet and we‟ll have NSA agents crawling up our ass. I‟m not yet old enough for a prostate check.” Chuck looked him up and down. “And how would they get up your ass with such a large stick blocking their path?” His friend waved his concerns off with his hand. “My anonymity software will keep them from tracing the ISP number to me.” Payton wasn‟t so sure. He thought back to Chuck‟s similar assurances at the Lucky Club in Chicago, when he‟d linked up to a wireless network while examining the DAT tape for the first time. Certainly they hadn‟t suffered through any serious consequences, but he remembered thinking he‟d been followed leaving Lucky Club. And that Agent DeMarco seemed to have been able to track them, as well. He told Chuck to be careful. His friend got out of the car and made for the visitor‟s building, leaving Payton to wake up his partner. “Hey,” he said softly. He reached out and shook her shoulder. “Time for all good little girls to get up.” “Then I‟ll stay right where I am,” Chanel murmured. Her eyes fluttered open. “It‟s been a long time since I‟ve been a good little girl.” Payton smiled. You had to admire the girl‟s ability to keep a light tone with all that was going on. “Does the bad girl want food?” She immediately flipped up and made for the door. “God, yes. I‟m starving. Come on, Doc. I‟ll buy you a cheeseburger.” Chuckling to himself, Payton got out of the car and hurried to catch up to her. 240 Echelon Chuck flipped the tablet closed. “Looks like we‟re good to go,” he smiled. Then he slid the notebook across the food court table to where Payton and Chanel sat. “It‟s all yours.” Payton exchanged glances with his partner. “Uh, okay. What am I supposed to do with this?” Chuck grinned. “Check your email. Play a game. Message your friends.” He leaned in close. “And when it‟s time, use it to bring down a highly illegal domestic spy network,” he finished in a whisper. Payton stared at the tablet. “How?” “With this,” Chuck answered. He reached into his pack and pulled out a yellow cable and pushed it across the table. One end culminated in a single silver jack. The other ended in a double jack, one larger than the other. “It‟s a connection cable. One end is standard, the other is Ethernet. You‟re covered either way.” Chuck tapped the tablet. “All you have to do is hook up to the mainframe access point, press control and the letter F to bring up the search field. Then type in LET FREEDOM RING, all of it in caps. That is the command that will upload the phage.” It was simple enough, assuming it actually worked. Plug in the appropriate cord, type in the code phrase, hit enter, and upload the virus. Payton lifted the cord and the tablet into his bag. He briefly scanned the rest of the food court to make sure no one was paying them any attention before turning back to his friend across the table. “Let freedom ring?” “Oh come on. If I can‟t stick it to these bastards myself, I can at least instill a little poetry in your justice.” Chuck leaned in. “How are you two going to do this?” 241 Echelon It was a good question, one Payton had been hoping to answer during the drive back to Chicago. Breaking into the building hiding the access point under the cover of darkness seemed like the obvious choice. But upon further thought, it carried plenty of risks. Anyone guarding the building would be far more alert to trouble at night. And if they were caught, hauling them away to the closest NSA or Illuminati safe house without alerting the public, the press, or the local authorities would be far easier early in the morning. Payton voiced his concerns. Chanel looked at him skeptically. “You want to walk in there in the daylight? How the hell are we going to get in?” It was another good question, but one for which he was prepared. When he‟d been in high school, Payton and his friends had often wanted to buy alcohol. The problem was that they had no access to fake identification. Being a teenager in the suburbs offered plenty of advantages, but finding shady ways to buy beer on the weekends wasn‟t one of them. Fortunately, one of his friends had looked rather older than his age. They key, as his friend was fond of telling him, was find a less than reputable liquor store and walk in like you owned the place. Those types of places knew how liquor sales worked. Half of their weekend take came from underage consumers. As long as you didn‟t give them a reason to bust you, they would look the other way. So his friend would park the car, stroll into the store, haul two thirty packs onto the checkout counter, and make idle chitchat while he paid. Then he would smile and whistle his way out the door, toss the beer in the backseat, and they would drive back home. 242 Echelon Chuck and Chanel were both staring at him. “You want to walk into an Illuminati building with a smile and a whistle?” Chuck gaped. Payton shrugged. “I don‟t really see any other option.” “I do,” Chanel said with a sad shake of her head. “Why don‟t we just slap a pair of cuffs on our wrists and turn ourselves in to the Chicago Federal Building? It would save us a trip to Oak Brook.” "Lost your nerve?" Payton asked, smiling lopsidedly. Chuck leaned forward. "Doc, going in during daylight is suicide." "And going in at night isn't?" Chuck just stared at him. Payton turned instead to Chanel. "You have a say in this, too," he said, inclining his head. "I can't do this without you, partner." Her face brightened a bit. Then her brow creased once more. "You really think it's our best chance?" "I wouldn't be willing to do it myself if it wasn't." He paused to think a moment. "Morning would probably be best. As early as possible, like just before dawn. Trained or not, everyone's a little groggy at daybreak." Chanel studied him for another moment, then nodded. "You two have certainly got balls, I'll give you that," Chuck said, leaning back in his chair. He looked at Chanel. "Figuratively speaking, of course. So I drop you off at your friend's place tonight and you guys make for the suburbs tomorrow morning?" Payton nodded. Chanel sighed. "I wish we had more help." 243 Echelon "You'll have the best help there is," Chuck smiled. "Me." Payton glanced at his friend. "And what kind of help are you going to be?" "Hey, I may not be stupid enough to go strolling into that building with you, but I can certainly create a diversion." "Computer stuff?" Payton asked. Chuck nodded. "Might buy you a little time." They walked out of the visitor's center together. As they crossed the parking lot, Payton looked up into the sky and squinted at the sun. It was well into its trek towards the western finish line. Glancing at his watch, he noted that it was after three. They needed to get moving again if they were going to reach Chicago by nightfall. He was adamant about their need for a restful night, and the quicker they made Chicago, the more time they would have to allot for sleep. Like either one of them was going to sleep that night. A glint caught his eye and he shifted his gaze back to mother Earth. A man in a black suit was walking past their rental car. Payton thought he looked vaguely familiar, though with only his back profile to look at, he couldn't quite see enough of the man to place him. He shivered involuntarily, staring at the black Lincoln into which the figure had disappeared. "Did you see that guy?" Payton asked to no one in particular. Like him, they had come to a halt just inside the parking lot grounds. "He walked right past our car. Did you see?" 244 Echelon Chanel looked at the black Lincoln and then back to him. "Jumping at shadows, Doc?" "Yeah, Doc," Chuck frowned at him. "Shouldn't we be hitting the pavement?" "Just hang on a minute," Payton replied impatiently. The black Lincoln pulled out of its parking space and made for the exit ramp, which was just out of sight behind the visitor's center. It was probably nothing, of course. But Payton still had that nagging feeling that he knew the man in the suit, had met or seen in somewhere before. And suddenly the memory clicked. "Turn around," he told the others. "Back to the visitor's center." "What?" Chanel asked, looking thoroughly perplexed. "Why?" "Call it an overabundance of caution." Payton nodded in the direction from which they had come. He caught sight of the car rental shop and altered his direction. "We need new transportation." Chanel looked over her shoulder. "What's wrong with our car?" "Maybe nothing," Payton shrugged. "But you don't think it's nothing." "No," he shook his head. "No I don't. Time to see how good the old man's false identifications are. Like if they'll work well enough to rent a car." He turned back a moment, looking at their rental car. It was glinting innocently on the blacktop, inviting them, beckoning them. It’s lucky, Payton thought, that no one else seems to be parked near it. That should minimize the damage of anything they might have done to it. 245 Echelon Chuck pulled on his sleeve, slowly backing him away. "Jesus that thing suddenly looks creepy." Payton lead them to the car rental. The credit cards supplied by the old man proved to be every bit as good as they could have hoped for. They apparently stated that they had outstanding credit and were welcome to rent any car currently in the inventory. They need only make their selection from the inventory list and wait for the porter to pull around the front, by the parking lot. Chuck, who'd always had a bit of an environmentalist bent, suggested a blue Mini Cooper. Chanel, who seemed to thinking more logically, pointed to a nondescript maroon Chevy Malibu. Payton mulled it over another moment, and then tapped a third choice, his choice, further down the pamphlet. It was a midnight black 2008 Ford Mustang. Four seats, two in the bucket, with Tremec five-speed manual transmission. A four liter V6 twelve-valve engine promised two-hundred and ten horses worth of power behind rack and pinion steering. Payton had always been reasonable with his automobile purchases, including his used Wrangler back home, but this was his dream car. "You're kidding," Chanel said, looking up from where he'd laid his finger. "No joke," Payton smiled. He turned to the rental clerk. "We'll be waiting out front for it." He told the clerk to bill him at the address on the identification, to which she agreed, owed certainly to the excellent credit report associated with his alias. Once they had walked back out to the parking lot, Payton saw the other two turn to him. Typically, it was Chanel who spoke. "You want to explain why we're making 246 Echelon the rest of our trip home in one of the most conspicuous vehicles imaginable instead of the rental sedan that got us here?" Payton nodded towards the lot and their former transportation still motionless and reflecting the sunlight. "That guy I mentioned? I think it was an NSA agent." Chanel hardly reacted, still staring at him, but Chuck flinched. "NSA? You can‟t be serious?" He gave Chuck a hard look and filled him on the surveillance file they‟d had on them after their dinner at Lucky Club. "Okay, okay. You're serious. How do you know this particular guy is NSA?" "Because he told me so," Payton said. He turned back to his partner. "And he told you, too." Recognition dawned upon her face. "DeMarco?" Payton nodded. "It looked like him anyway." "You think he did something to the car, don't you?" Chuck asked. Payton shrugged. "Either way, it would certainly behoove us to be cautious.” The other two were quiet for a moment, before Chanel piped up. "So why the Mustang?" "Because I've always wanted to drive one," Payton smiled. "Besides, in this case, since they know who we are and how we're likely to behave, driving a flashy car might be just what we need to get back to Chicago." Her eyebrows went up. "How's that?" "Any spotters are going to immediately disregard-". Payton broke off, somehow consciously feeling his own jaw drop. "Immediately disregard this ridiculously beautiful 247 Echelon automobile." He took a step forward as the porter pulled the car to a stop. It looked like the angry offspring of a Formula One car and a fighter jet. It even sounded furious, the engine grumbling with barely bridled power as the car came to a halt at the curb in front of them. Chanel took a step forward and let her hand trail over the finish as she circled its perimeter. "It certainly is pretty." Chuck grunted. "A Mustang isn't pretty, darling." "No," Payton agreed. "It's too powerful to be pretty." They piled in, Payton behind the wheel and Chanel in the passenger seat. Chuck had tried to jump shotgun, but she had shoved him towards the back door, making an entirely inappropriate reference to never having felt so much power between her legs and not missing this opportunity. With a laugh, Payton worked the clutch and got them moving towards the on-ramp. As he neared the edge of the parking lot, he eased the car to an idle stop. Reaching up to tilt the rear-view mirror, he caught sight of their previous method of transportation. It was still resting peacefully vacant in its parking space, surrounded by nothing but empty space. Its nearest neighbor was a blue Volvo, something close to two hundred feet away. Chuck got closer in the mirror, sitting forward in the backseat. He clapped Payton on the shoulder. "You all right, man?" Payton considered a moment, hesitating. But with so much empty space surrounding the sedan, really...what could happen? "Chuck?" "Yeah?” 248 Echelon "You still have the keys from the sedan?" He heard some jingling as Chuck dug through his pockets. "Yeah. Why?" "Is there a button for keyless ignition?" Payton saw Chuck look down. When his eyes came back forward he was frowning. "Yeah..." Payton took a deep breath and got his feet in position to hit the clutch. They had enough gas in the Mustang to make it to Chicago, or nearly so. They hadn't checked the rental car back in, but it was registered to a Mr. Charles Mikuzis. After seeing DeMarco, it wasn't any great leap to assume that the NSA and whomever else would connect the dots between Chuck and the two wanted CUFOS agents on the lam. Payton turned to his partner, locking eyes with her as she squinted at him. "Hit the button, Chuck." Before he did, they all turned in their seat to stare at the rental car through the rear window. And Chucked pushed the button. Later, Payton decided he wasn't sure what he'd expected after ignition. Big, small, he couldn't decide. But what came next was decidedly unexpected. Nothing happened. The sedan had shuddered a bit, the product of its ignition. The ghostly plume of initial exhaust emanated from the trunk. And the car sat there, hundreds of feet away, stifled by its park gear, looking every bit as innocent as it had moments ago. "Well," Chuck breathed, and there was a relief in his voice. "I suppose you were wrong." 249 Echelon Payton just stared at the sedan. Chanel put a hand on his knee. Any other time it might have sent a tingle through his body. Now, however, he hardly noticed. "Doc," she said, rather sharply. When he turned to look at her, she was giving him a hard stare. "We need to get moving." He sighed. "Yeah." With a pop of the clutch into first gear, he got the Mustang moving towards the ramp. "Don't beat yourself up, Doc," she continued. "Everyone's wrong once in a while." I guess so, he thought. And then everything was thrown into a kind of orange relief as the sound of a massive report rang through them. It might have only been the surprise and sound of the destruction, or maybe it was some kind of residual shock wave, but the steering wheel became unstable in Payton's hands and he swerved onto the shoulder of the ramp. He finally fought the powerful vehicle to a standstill. All three of them jerked to look through the rear window. It was like something out of the Middle East. The sedan had probably jumped a standard foot, but now it was resting, charred and blackened. Smoke was pouring from its bowels, and there were a surprisingly small number of flames licking up the splintered metal side-panels. A group of onlookers was congregating outside the visitor's center shouting and pointing. Payton thought he heard sirens in the distance, but quickly identified the sound as the ringing in his ears. "Jesus Christ," Chuck whispered. 250 Echelon Chanel turned to stare at him. "You saved our lives," she breathed. "You were right, and we...I'm alive because you kept us out of that car." Payton looked at them both a moment. Then he put the Mustang back into gear and got onto the highway as quickly as he could. 251 Echelon Chapter 19: They had been on the highway for an hour before anyone spoke. They were all rattled from the explosion, lost in thoughts of what almost was. Payton had to admit that he‟d been guilty of that kind of thinking himself. Even now he hardly noticed the mile markers zipping by, exit signs blurred as made their trek up the Mustang's windshield. Chanel and Chuck had both started in on thanking him again. He tried to brush them off, to change the subject. Eventually, the platitudes faded away, and they were silent once more. At first he was relieved, but that entire void left his mind free to race through their situation, think about what these people were doing to his niece, and fret over the coming morning. Something occurred to Payton. He turned to Chuck. "That building we're going to tomorrow," he said. "You're sure it's a government building?" 252 Echelon "Absolutely," Chuck nodded. "I double checked with the Department of Records. It's registered to the United States government." "Then what's its name?" Keeping his eyes on the road, Payton couldn't see much of his friend's face, but the silence indicated the other's confusion before it was voiced. "Excuse me?" Chuck said. "It's name, the name of the building," Payton answered. He glanced in the rear view mirror for what seemed like the millionth time to make sure no one was following them. He noticed that Chanel was sitting forward and paying attention. "Government buildings usually have names. The Hoover Building, The Eisenhower Building, The Dirksen Federal Building. All of them have names. So what's the name of the Oak Brook building?" "Uh, um…" Chuck murmured. He threw up his hands. "Oh, I don't remember the damn name, Doc. It was the Perez Building. No, that's not right. Pena Building? I don't know. It was something like that." "The name wasn't Peron, was it?" "Sounds about right,” he shrugged. “That means something to you?" "Yeah, it means I might actually know who we‟re up against." “No kidding?” Chanel asked. “Who?” “The National Socialist Party,” Payton answered. “And I know what you‟re going to say, but from some research I‟ve done in the past, plus the Paperclip connection, I think we can assume that the Illuminati is either a group of Nazis, or at least a group affiliated with the Nazis.” 253 Echelon Chanel leaned further forward. "You want to fill us in?" He gave them the short version. While Paperclip had been one of the most widely publicized extradition of Nazis during the World War II era, it certainly wasn‟t the only such operation, nor was it the largest. It wasn‟t as commonly known, but while many Nazis found safe havens in Europe, Russia, and the United States, the largest group of expatriated Nazis went to South America. Specifically Argentina. No other South American leader was more accommodating that Argentinean dictator Juan Domingo Peron and his wife Eva. After assuming control of the country with a military coup in 1943, Peron won a majority election with his platform of the elimination of poverty and returning pride to the Argentina worker. He was elected despite intense opposition by the United States, who correctly feared that Peron would nationalize American businesses. After the election, American and British influence decreased, and German influence began to rise. Luftwaffe pilots trained Peron‟s air force. After the war, large numbers of Nazi SS and Gestapo fugitives served in the Argentine Army, after escaping Europe on Vatican issued visas. Although he was generally seen as a despot, Juan Peron is still regarded as a champion of the working class. His citizens didn‟t realize that he was stashing away some half a billion dollars in European banks, which he reciprocated by allowing war criminals to immigrate to his country. Peron was also fascinated by Adolph Hitler. He had studied German during his youth so that he could read Mein Kampf. He agreed to shelter Nazis ranking from simple SS and Gestapo officers all the way up to Deputy Fuehrer Martin Bormann. There was 254 Echelon significant evidence that Peron also supported Bormann‟s flight capital program, an operation designed to transport all of the war loot the Nazis had amassed out of Germany before the end of the war. Depending on which rumors you listened to, this valuable cache included everything from cash, precious stones, religious artifacts and documents, government documents and secrets, the Holy Grail, and even the Arch of the Covenant. Peron‟s wife, Eva, acted as liaison between Peron and the Nazis. In 1947 she embarked on tour of Europe, was treated as royalty in Spain, met with shipping companies in Genoa to acquire their services in transporting Nazis, and finished up with a series of meetings with bankers in Switzerland. There she arranged for proceeds from Nazi conquests to be laundered through legitimate banking interests, which then provided funding for the Nazi escape networks, commonly referred to as ratlines. Years later, in 1955, the relationship between Peron and Bormann deteriorated. Most of the circulating reports indicated that Bormann had more power within the Argentine military and police than Peron, and that Peron didn‟t like it. Shortly after the rift became public, Peron was ousted in another coup and was forced to flee to Spain. For all intents and purposes, the National Socialist Party had a new nation in which to operate. The impact of these transplanted Nazis continued to have an increasing effect on the continent. Argentinean Nazis began to win new converts amongst South American military wings and were helpful in teaching them torture and tactical methods. Left wing pro-Nazi students were responsible for the junta that launched the Dirty War in 1976. South American Nazis began running guns between Bolivia, Peru, and Chile. The most notorious of these was Klaus Barbie, the “butcher of Lyon”, who ran a massive gun 255 Echelon running operation that eventually expanded to illegal drug trade. According to the DEA, it was because of Barbie that Bolivia became the primary source for cocaine for several leading drug cartels. The CIA-run company Interarmco worked directly with Barbie on both sides of his business. "Nice story," Chanel sneered. "So you think the Peron Building is named after this Juan Peron Nazi sympathizer?" "That seems likely,” he nodded. “I don‟t know if that means we‟re actually going up against a group of Nazis or not, however. There have been longstanding investigations as to whether there was a wealthy group of plutocrats that organized and supported American democracy, Nazi socialism, and Russian Communism, all designed to be in opposition with one another.." "That‟s a hell of a dangerous game to be playing," Chanel shuddered. Payton shrugged. "It was about profits and control. You create a conflict that effectively allows you to sell required materials to all sides, which builds you massive profits. Then, in the aftermath, you use the war as an example of why there ought to be a unified world government. Then you take said profits and use them to purchase influence or direct control of this world government. If they pulled it off, the group could take over the entire world without firing a single shot." "Sounds a lot different from what we were taught in School," Chuck said. "So if the plan was to use World War II, or any other war, to take over the world, what‟s taking them so long?" 256 Echelon "It‟s already in action," Payton shook his head. "The United Nations has effective control over most of the nations in the world." Chanel's brow wrinkled. "Excuse me?” "It‟s true,” Payton said. “They don‟t advertise it that way, but in a majority of the nations on the planet, the UN has some or complete control over basic services for the citizens. Medical care is provided by the Red Cross. Political pressure is applied via groups like Amnesty International, which was started by the UN. They supply over half of the citizens of the world with their daily food and nourishment. It‟s just in the fully industrialized nations like America and Russia that they don‟t have such a heavy hand.” "I don‟t know, Doc," Chuck said. "People think I‟m crazy about this stuff, but even I have a hard time believing the UN really has that much control. Besides,” he continued. “Why haven‟t they done all of this in America, too?” “I can‟t be certain,” Payton answered, a final piece of the puzzle clicking into place. “But I think they simply underestimated democracy. Our freedom of the press, particularly over the internet, has allowed us to share information with each other instantaneously. The big media outlets might be and probably are controlled by these plutocrats, but what about small outlets and blogs? As citizens, we are more connected than ever before. If the UN tried to assume control or infringe upon our civil rights, the ensuing revolt by the common people would begin immediately.” He saw Chanel staring at him out of the corner of his eye. “You‟ve figured something out, haven‟t you?” Payton nodded. “The countdown is real, the program to shut off all essential services in America is real, and we have to stop it. Because if they succeed in keeping 257 Echelon Americans from communicating with each other, which is what will happen if that program runs, they will be able to take over. Between the confusion and the chaos, they‟ll have us all by the time they flip the switch back on.” He turned to Chanel. “I think we should get to Oak Brook earlier than we planned. Chuck can‟t tell us exactly when this countdown ends, only that it‟s sometime in the next day or so. We can‟t afford to risk a single second.” “How much of a time difference is that going to make?” She asked. “Shouldn‟t be much at all,” he said. “I wasn‟t allowing for much sleeping time anyway. We were planning on getting to the Peron building early in the morning. We‟ll just have to get their really early. Like four in the morning early.” “What about me?” Chuck asked. “You‟re going with us as far as the outskirts of the mall,” Payton answered. “Then you‟re going to take the car and go do whatever it was you were going to do anyway.” Chuck shook his head. “All of this secret society stuff is beginning to give me a headache.” “That‟s the point,” Payton smiled. “Groups like this have always wrapped themselves in such a confusing shroud that no one really trusts any answers anyone comes up with about them. The Nazis modeled themselves after those types of groups. It was really only by mistake that they came to power in the first place. Until the twenties they were every bit as secretive as the groups they modeled themselves after.” “What groups?” Chanel asked. 258 Echelon “The Freemasons, mostly,” Payton answered. “And the Neolithic peoples from whom they originated.” “Neolithic?” she repeated. They were identified by the grooves they carved into their pottery and they spread from the coasts of Europe to their most prominent settlements in England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. They were responsible for thousands of Neolithic structures still standing in present day, the most famous of which was Stonehenge. They built with skill, and they built with purpose. But mostly, they built according to the orientation of the stars. It has since become known amongst the more educated present day Masons that their roots were with the Grooved Ware society. Both groups shared many of the same traditions, including building the Boaz and Jachin columns, symbolizing the rise and fall of the sun, into their most prominent structures, not to mention a deep respect and worship for the planet Venus. The similarities between their building techniques and those of the architects of Solomon‟s Temple thousands of nautical miles down the coast suggested that the Grooved Ware culture had moved far enough along to develop seafaring transportation. There was even evidence to suggest that the Grooved Wares had established trading posts in Egypt and Phoenicia. "That makes sense," Chanel nodded. "The Grooved Ware people established posts in Phoenicia, which assimilated the culture around them." "That's the conclusion others have come to," Payton nodded. "Though it certainly isn't accepted by the majority of the scientific community." "Why not?" Chuck asked. 259 Echelon "Embarrassment, mostly," Payton said. "As long as the question has been posed, scientists in a dozen different fields have all agreed that civilization began in Northern Africa. You can imagine their reluctance to admit that it actually came from Scotland, thousands of miles away." Chuck cleared his throat. "None of this explains why this modern day secret society is infiltrating the Federal government and using this elaborate spy network. I mean, the countdown ends, they shut everything down, and then they take over the world? If these people are who we think they are, they‟re already in control." Payton thought into the silence for a while. More exit signs slipped by overhead. Occasionally, when they passed by stables on one of the farms, the Mustang would fill with the sweet smell of manure. The sun was finally starting to set, turning sherbert- orange in the western sky. They were still something like two or three hours outside of Chicago. It meant they would be entering the city at night, something that appealed to Payton. "This group, the Illuminati,” he began. “Whatever this is, it isn‟t about profit and it isn‟t about government. There is something else planned, something big. And although I don‟t yet know what it is, I think we all know that it must be stopped.” He pressed the pedal down further and sped them back home. 260 Echelon Chapter 20: Hours later, Payton looked back upon the final leg of their journey home and he was sure that it must have happened in fast forward. He could recall blurring farms until they hit Gary, Indiana. From there it was all granite and smog. Gary had the kind of pollution problem that that made him sure the Mustang must have left a wake as it cut through. From there they shot past the Casinos in Hammond, onto 90/94 through the far South Suburbs and Beverly. As they got closer to Oak Brook he began performing some time consuming but effective evasive maneuvers to ensure that they weren‟t being tailed. Several times he back tracked and retraced their path on side streets. Every once in a while he would pull suddenly into a gas station or a convenience store and watch how the few vehicles behind 261 Echelon them reacted. By the time he pulled the rental into the Oak Brook Mall parking lot he was fairly certain that no one was following them. “We‟re early,” he said. “So we‟re going to have to hang tight for a while.” “You want me to stick around?” Chuck asked. “You can go,” Payton answered. He peered towards the other end of the parking lot, beyond which stood a few banks and the Peron Building. The entire lot was lined by decorative brush. A quick look up at the light posts confirmed that mall security didn‟t have surveillance cameras this far out. “We‟ll be fine. Just give me a minute.” “Take your time,” Chuck said. “This is only the most dangerous thing I‟ve ever done, after all.” Payton pulled out his pack. “Earwigs and sleeve clips on,” he said and handed them to Chanel. Then he stuck the SIG into his pant waist. “Once we‟re inside we don‟t talk, we whisper. We maintain total com-silence whenever possible. I‟ll carry the pack with the laptop and the DAT tape.” “You‟re going to make me go in there unarmed?” she asked. “Absolutely,” he nodded. “If things get dangerous I want you running, not shooting. Understand?” “Got it,” she said. Based on her tone of voice, he wasn‟t convinced she would comply. They got out of the car and Chuck got behind the wheel. “Be careful,” Payton told him. “How long do you want me to wait before I give you your distraction?” 262 Echelon Payton glanced at his watch. It was just after four. Sunrise would be sometime around five-thirty. He hoped they would have exited the building by then. “Twenty minutes or so ought to work,” Payton told him. They started off towards the bushes and the banks. There was an AMC movie theatre on the right, and Chase and Royal Scotland banks on the left. The buildings were high, and the word sniper came to mind unbidden. Chuck had pulled out of the parking lot to go wherever he was going. Meanwhile they had arrived at the line of bushes and squatted down behind them. “How are we going to know when Chuck does his thing?” Chanel whispered. “We‟ll know.” Chanel looked at him. "You okay?" He nodded. "Just self-analyzing.” "Will it help if I keep your mind occupied for the next twenty minutes?" "Sure." "Good. Because I want to know more about the Freemasons." "Anything in particular?" he asked. He couldn‟t help but be touched by the effort. "You've already been given an overview." "How about some specifics on how they came to power," she suggested. "That's easy. Power comes from money. They didn't have any." Payton took a deep breath. "Then they did." "Excuse me? How did they get their money?" "Partner," Payton smiled. "That is something no one knows." "No one?" 263 Echelon "Not for sure. But we have some guesses." The most difficult aspect of the Freemason equation was deriving its origins and successors, the latter being groups that split from or in conjunction with them. The history was a complicated one, made all the more so by hyperbole and pure speculation. The official story included the subculture's genesis from the Neolithic groups of Western Europe, its rise to power during and immediately after the Crusades in Israel, and culminating when the Pope worked directly with the French Monarchy to capture and kill the Templars in their entirety. Officially the Masons were a sort of friendly group to the Templars. They shared some knowledge, according to the Masonic ritual, and they continued on long after history books claimed that the Templars had been killed in the inquisition. As it so often was the case, the history books got it wrong, often in spectacular fashion. After all, history was written by the winners of wars, as the saying goes, and the overwhelmingly victorious Catholic Church and, eventually, the Republic that resulted from the French Revolution had been the authors of those texts. Teachers, biased or otherwise, tended to keep things simple. The official story was simple. And the truth was anything but. It had been recently discovered that the Masons were partly the evolution of a persecuted Knights Templar, but to really understand the pup, one needed a thorough knowledge of the sire. While officially the Pope brought his power to bear on the Templars for insubordination towards Mother Church, it was actually for two very different reasons. 264 Echelon The first was wealth. Since returning from the crusades, the Knights Templar had amassed an incredible cache of wealth. According to most theories, this came from the excavation they were allowed to perform beneath Solomon's Temple. The legends of a treasure beyond all others hidden inside Solomon‟s Temple were prevalent throughout Mid-Eastern lore. What no one could agree on was exactly what that treasure consisted of. Some said it was gold bullion. Others claimed it was religious and artistic artifacts. Still others claimed there were secret documents that outlined the true history of all monotheistic religion, something for which the modern day Church paid them to keep quiet. "Which brings us to the second reason the Pope went after them," Payton said. "What better reason could there be than all the money in the world?" Chanel snorted. "The oldest reason of all," he responded. "Heresy." If you asked the Catholic hierarchy for a historical account of the Knights Templar, you usually get a heroic tale of chivalry and servitude. Depending on which member of the clergy is doing the telling, the order began with somewhere between ten and twenty monks as initiates. They made their money and their reputations by guarding Europeans making pilgrimage to the holy land. Ten to twenty knights, guarding what were literally thousands of caravans each year. Never mind that the majority of the path such pilgrimages took travelled through hostile Muslim territory. It was a task for thousands, not twenty. But wait, says the stammering clergyman. The Knights Templar began with ten to twenty, but as time went on they recruited new members. 265 Echelon That was to be expected since the order lasted hundreds of years before their supposed destruction in the thirteenth century. But according to all recovered records, the Order of the Knights Templar never grew larger than a few hundred members at any given time. And that included the low level members. Like most secular cult organizations, the Templars were a layered society. Most of the group worked with and for the order on the outskirts, believing themselves important cogs in the machine, but never privy to the true secrets of the group. More to the point, even at these slightly inflated numbers, the story of the Templars as muscle for hire on lonely stretches of foreign road simply didn't hold historical water. And yet the order was definitely involved in the excavation of Solomon‟s Temple, which was perhaps the single most important moment in its history. It was this same point in time that forever twined the Knights Templar and modern Freemasonry. The Templar's did the excavation with the approval of the local Judeo-Christian government and with the aid of the Egyptian stonemasons that built the structure. That in itself was not unexpected. After all, they knew the plans, the materials, and the building style. Who better than the group that built the temple to help search it out? But what was significant was that once the Templars removed whatever they found and returned to Europe so ridiculously wealthy, the Masons went with them. Back to England and back to France. Theoretically, with their origins amongst the Neolithic peoples of Scotland, they were truly going back home. These early Masons and the Knights Templar co-mingled once they settled. The Templars invented banking, and the Masons built the banks. The Templars believed in poverty, so they gave back to the communities in which they resided, and the Masons 266 Echelon bestowed the Templar gifts upon the people. The Templars were fiercely spiritual, the Masons built their cathedrals. But that wasn't all. Sometime during the trek home, or maybe even while they were still in Israel excavating, the ancient Egyptian religious practices of the Middle Eastern Masons and the Christian principles of the Templars began to mix. And where there was some natural overlap between the two, they melted together. There were more of those latter overlaps than most modern parishioners realized. For instance, the holy Sabbath is held on Sundays. This might seem incidental to most parishioners today, but it was actually a concession made by the Church roughly around the fourth century. Sunday was originally the holy day of an astrologically based religion that flourished from southern Europe to southern Egypt. That religion worshiped the stars, more specifically the planet Venus and the Sun, hence Sunday. And that wasn't the only concession the early Church made. Modern day believers celebrated the birth of their savior on December 25th, even though the Church had long ago acknowledged that they had no idea when Christ was born. Instead, they chose to celebrate on a date that the so-called pagans dedicated to the end of winter, shortly after the solstice on December twenty-second. They also included the ritualistic legend of the Shekinah in the story of the new testament. The Shekinah was what the early Jews called the rare occurrence when Mars and Venus rose in the sky in conjunction just before dawn. This resulted in what looked like an incredibly bright star in the early morning sky. The ancient Hebrews believed that the Shekinah signaled the coming of an important event or person. For instance, perhaps 267 Echelon coincidentally, the Neolithic people in Scotland did not begin to establish the trade routes that disseminated their culture throughout the known world until immediately after the appearance of the bright star. In certainly less happenstance fashion, the appearance of the Shekinah also coincided with the emergence of Moses and the exodus of the Jews from Pharaoh's Egypt. The star appeared again around 7BC, which is generally accepted to be the approximate time of Christ's birth. "And this all appears in the Bible?" Chanel asked. "The Bible, the Qur'an, and the Torah," Payton nodded. "Well that doesn't count as a reliable source," she snorted. "I thought you were a Catholic." "I am. That doesn't mean I'm stupid. I'm aware of the inherent fallacy of men writing down the word of God. That some of the work is tainted by man doesn't mean the word of the Big Guy upstairs isn't still embedded in the text." "Upstairs?" Payton laughed. "That thinly veiled reference to the sun? You only prove my point." He took a breath. "And no, the religious texts aren't the only source of information regarding the Shekinah and the events that surround its appearance. The best astronomical software in both America and Europe also plot the coming of the great star around the same time as those events. It's a regular occurrence, as predictable as the rising sun, albeit not nearly so frequent." "So has it occurred since the birth of Christ?" "Once." "Anything Earth shattering occur?" 268 Echelon "You consider Christopher Columbus an important historical figure?" She frowned in thought for a moment and then turned to stare at him. "You're kidding." He shook his head. "No joke. The appearance of the Shekinah coincides perfectly with the European discovery of the Americas. It is said to appear every fourteen-hundred and forty-four years." "And the Templars and Masons believed in this Astrology," Chanel nodded comprehending. "And that's why the Church labeled them as heretics. That's why they killed them." "Partly, yes. But not entirely." If ever a major influential group on Earth could be called misogynistic, it was the Catholic Church. Its practice of keeping women in the background, refusing them priesthood and condemning them for witchcraft was well known. As far back as Adam and Eve, the Church had been pinning all that was evil on women. They so despised the female in the early going that they had taken sexual intercourse and turned it from something that was once considered sacred into the most shameful of acts. Conversely, the heretical groups may have held sacred the stars, but they flat out worshiped the feminine. In fact, in ancient times all the way up to the time of Christ, it was believed that potential Messiah could only be anointed through the power of ritualistic sex. Pagan goddesses were prevalent during those times, ranging in geography from Palestine to India. There were even links in Israel to the Tantric beliefs practiced in southern Asia. 269 Echelon The most prominent of the pagan goddesses was Isis, the consort of Osiris. Isis was represented by the planet Venus and Osiris by the sun. They were considered lovers and it was only after Venus finished its yearly crescent shaped dance around the sun that spring arrived to bring life once again in the form of crops and rain. In fact, that crescent shape has generally been regarded as the inspiration behind Satan's horns, made so once the Church had decided to prosecute star worshipers as heretics. Hateful though their attitude towards these pagans might be, nothing compared to vitriol they displayed towards that most controversial of women, Mary Magdalene. Labeled a repentant prostitute, the Church didn't just marginalize her through her supposed sin, they took ownership of her story by way of her supposed redemption. The obvious question that arose from how the Church regarded Mary Magdalene was why all the effort? Why go to such lengths to discredit this apparently harmless woman, whose only significant mentions in the New Testament occurred with the washing of Christ's feet and the discovery of his empty tomb and risen body? There were no cut and dry answers, of course, but there was also no shortage of theories. They ranged from pure misogyny to jealousy amongst the Disciples for Christ's attention. Peter in particular is said in many of the omitted Gnostic gospels to have competed with the Magdalene for Jesus' affection. “How do you know all this?” Chanel asked. “I was brought up Catholic,” he shrugged. “When I got older, I studied the religion to try and better understand it. Let‟s just say after my studying I wasn‟t so Catholic anymore.” 270 Echelon "So was that it?" She asked. "The Church has a tradition of demeaning women because Jesus spent time with Mary Magdalene?" "Spending time would be an understatement," Payton snorted. "The basis for her being a prostitute stems from two written verses, one in the Bible and one in the Gnostic texts. The first, at her introduction before she washes Christ's feet with anointing oils, referred to her as Mary Magdalene, a sinner. The translation to English makes things seem more simplistic than they actually are, since the more accurate translation was probably something closer to Mary Magdalene, a non-Jew. But the Church has taken that one vague statement, along with a description of her wearing her hair loose, and turned this woman into a prostitute." "She wasn't Jewish?" Chanel frowned. "I thought everyone in the area was Jewish." "No they weren't, and you know they weren't," he replied. "Pontius Pilate certainly wasn't Jewish of faith, nor of ethnic origin. Neither, for that matter, were most of the authority figures at the time. They were all Roman." "So there were also Romans." "Yes, but not just them." Payton peered at his watch again. He didn‟t want to wait much longer. "Who else, then?" "Well, the Egyptians traveled there regularly. Also there were a variety of sects outside the Jewish faith that practiced on the outskirts of the region. Also there were occasional traders from Southern Asia. The point is there were plenty of available spiritual influences other than pure Judaism." 271 Echelon She looked at him. "I take it there's one in particular I should be concerned with?" "One from southern Asia, actually," he nodded. "But we'll get back to that. First, consider the second mention that the Church occasionally points to as evidence of the Magdalene being a prostitute. It is in the Book of Philip, one of the gospels rejected for inclusion at the council of Nicaea. There is a verse in which Peter questions Christ about his relationship with Mary, going so far as complaining that he spends too much time with her, and is always kissing her on the mouth." "Kissing her on the mouth," Chanel repeated. Payton nodded. "Rather unbecoming of the figure Pauline Christianity painted. So very un-Jewish." "So Christ...was not a Jew?" "It's certainly a possibility," Payton agreed. "And it's not like it hasn't been explored before. Biblical scholars have considered it for years. It has even appeared in popular culture, in The Last Temptation Of Christ and The Da Vinci Code, for instance. But most of those that have considered Christ's possible fornication with the Magdalene have completely missed the point." "The point?" "Sure. Because there's a very obvious question that no one seems to be asking. What if Christ wasn't a sinning Jew? What if he was a practicing Pagan?" "Excuse me?" "Controversial, I know. But consider all of the groups that worship the feminine in general and the Magdalene in particular. These cult groups have several things in 272 Echelon common: the worship of the female form, the practice of ritualistic sexual rites, and a profound disdain for Pauline Christianity. You find them all over southern Europe, particularly in the Languedoc region of France. Associated with these regions are Templar strongholds and enigmatic Black Madonna statues. They were also sites frequently visited by the Nazis during World War II." "The Templars worshiped Mary Magdalene?" Chanel asked, looking incredulous. Payton nodded. "Of course. After all, she was the holy consort of Christ. They treated her like the royalty she was, venerating her and the children she bore from Jesus Christ. And the Catholic Church hunted them down for it." "They killed all of the knights?" "No. They hunted them. They murdered most of the leadership, perhaps all of it. But the members dispersed to other cult groups, the Rosicrucians, Luciferians, Freemasons, and so on. And those groups have been battling each other for power ever since." They were silent. He stared over the hedge at the buildings. We're almost there. Whatever happens, this is all going to be over soon. "Doc?" Chanel asked from beside him. Payton thought he heard a hint of tremble in her voice. "What is it, partner?" "What does this have to do with the Echelon network?" “Whether Illuminati is simply a new name for these escaped Nazis, or if they are truly a group of wealthy globalists pulling the strings, we know they are connected. It‟s also commonly known that the Vatican did much to aid the flight of Germans to South 273 Echelon America by providing them passports and safe refuge. The Church itself can be considered globalist in nature, advocating a unity of the world under the rule of God, conveniently administered by the Pope.” “You think they‟re all linked by Echelon?” He nodded. "I do." "But why?" "Power," Payton answered. "It's always about power." 274 Echelon Chapter 21: Fifteen minutes later they were still waiting. Payton was beginning to wonder if he‟d been wrong assuming they would know when Chuck had done whatever it was he was going to do. Maybe he was doing such a good job of leading any authorities away from them that there would be no warning it was taking place at all. Then came the sirens. They went screaming past on Route 83, cherry red with blue and white flashers spinning. The ladders on the fire trucks were topped by coated men with the wind whipping their clothing around them. In their wake came several squad cars and a pair of ambulances. There were more sirens in the distance. "Is that our diversion?" 275 Echelon She had hardly finished her sentence when, as they were still half crouched, every street and building light in the immediate vicinity blinked out. They both froze, mid- crouch next to the brush. They looked around, seeing little in the darkness. Payton briefly thought that maybe they were too late, maybe the countdown had already ended and this was the start of the doomsday program at work. Then he looked in the distance and saw that there were still lights glowing in the distance. It was just their immediate surroundings that had gone dark. "You think?" Chanel asked. "Yeah," Payton murmured. "I'd say Chuck came through." They started towards the banks and the Peron building. In the barest of dawn- light, and with no artificial glow to light the way, they could scarcely see each other as they filed along. "What do you think he did?" Chanel asked. "No idea," he hissed in answer. They had made their way across the lawn of the nearest building. He led them along the dark walls amongst the bushes. "Probably something with the power grid. Does it really matter?" "I guess not. He gave us our shot. That's enough." He silently agreed. The bushes were far enough away from the building that they could walk easily while remaining more or less hidden. They followed the track the length of the building to the rear. There it emptied into a sort of miniature valley. At the bottom of the pit was a small man-made pond, complete with a spouting fountain in the center. 276 Echelon And beyond the pond was one plain, short building, sitting innocently between its larger cousins. The Peron building. There were no visible guards. No electronic surveillance equipment either. In fact, from what Payton remembered, the Peron building looked an awful lot like the exterior of the pumping station in New Mexico. And for the very same reason, probably. If you wanted to remain incognito, the last thing you did was post uniformed guards with whirring motion detectors outside of your supposedly meager government building. He didn‟t really believe that they could be so lax. Chanel must have been thinking the same thing. "You'd think they'd at least have one camera," she whispered with a shake of her head. "They're either very arrogant or very stupid." "They're not stupid. They just believe they've kept their secret." He looked around. The flood lights that would normally have bathed the area in light were dark, although there were still a few lights on within the building. Apparently whatever Chuck had done to the electrical grid hadn‟t permeated the Peron building. He pointed out the path they would take: past that tree, around that light pole, through that bush, and right on to the front door. "Any questions?" "Nope. Let's do it." "Remember what I said before. You get any hint that it's going to go bad, you run. Got it?" "Sure." "Damn it, I don‟t want to have to worry about you. If I tell you to go, you go." 277 Echelon She glared at him. "I said I got it." He held her gaze a moment longer and then strode out from behind the bushes. Despite all their assurances, their faked deaths, Chuck's distraction, he was still somewhat surprised that he wasn't shot dead the moment he left cover. Instead, he took a brief look around, a briefer breath, and started towards the building. That sense of foreboding never left him as he led his partner through their predetermined route. It seemed to take a full day to the make it to the tree, a month to weave around the light pole, years to make it through those decorative bushes. In a mere lifetime, they arrived at the entrance. Unlike New Mexico, there was a lock on the revolving doors. Fortunately Chanel had apparently picked up some lock picking ability during her time as a cop. As she worked, Payton pulled the SIG from his waist band and looked up at the building. Grey stucco with tinted windows, it looked close to how he'd imagined it from the top-down satellite imagery. Uniform in normalcy and utterly devoid of mentionable features. Would you let us in willingly if you knew why we were here, Payton thought to himself as his partners lock pick clinked and thunked. Would you want us to purge you of your inhabitants, or do you instead enjoy the importance they have bestowed upon your otherwise complacent exterior? "Got it," Chanel broke up his thoughts. He turned to where she was crouched and saw that the revolving doors were now spinning slowly. "Under a minute," he said approvingly. "You'd have made a better thief than a cop." "Yeah, yeah," she smiled. "Just make sure you're covering my ass." 278 Echelon There was nothing particularly exemplary about the lobby. There was a large greeting desk, vacant. It was a combination of that dark-grained mahogany that indicated expense and a marble finished top that exuded a modern aesthetic. The walls were dark gray marble as well, and the floors were the type of tile that looked as though they would be reflective if only there were light with which to reflect. Behind the desk on either side of an isthmus were two banks of elevators. At the far wall of each bank was a large American flag. There were respective signs for each denoting the floors to which they traveled. The set on the left went to floors BB-5, and the other 2-8. They stopped in front of the desk, peering behind it at a cache of surveillance monitors. Thankfully, none of them showed the building‟s exterior, nor did any of the images show any habitation or activity. They silently watched the flickering images some five minutes, hoping to catch a glimpse of something they might recognize as a mainframe terminal. For all of their preparation, for all of Chuck‟s insight, they still had no idea what form such a terminal might take. It might look as simple as a desktop computer, with a keyboard and a screen. It could also resemble the contraption that portrayed the avatar they had encountered in Maryland. Maybe it was a combination of the two, or something completely foreign and new. “What do you think?” Chanel asked, moving to the front of the desk to examine the two elevator banks. “The old man said these guys always hide the best stuff underground. Is that the direction we ought to head?” Payton nodded. “That would be the logical choice.” “You think anyone else is in the building?” 279 Echelon He looked at his watch. “I hope not.” “So we go to BB?” “Yes.” They waited for the elevator in the darkness. When it arrived, the chime it sounded was enough to make them both jump, and when the doors opened and the light from the elevator spilled out onto them, Payton winced. Everything seemed to make noise in this type of silence and every light looked like the almighty himself in such darkness. Or is it herself, Payton wondered. They boarded the elevator, which was playing the kind of soft music one normally heard while sitting in a dentist‟s chair. Chanel made a face, apparently sharing his opinion, then pressed the button marked BB. Payton had thought his heart was already racing, but now it beat so hard that he could feel the vibrations on his teeth. What would be awaiting them when the doors opened in the next moments? He had to wait a bit longer than he expected. The elevator felt like it was progressing at a normal speed, but they must have been descending for over a minute and there was no indication that they were coming to a halt. The lobby button and the BB button were directly next to one another, and Payton was forced to conclude that they were physically in sequence as well. It indicated that there was a fair amount of distance between the lobby and the basement floor. He began to get a sinking feeling in his stomach. And then the doors opened. He stared at the wall opposite, upon which an enormous mural was spanning at least six feet by eight feet in illustration. It was darkly colored, all except the central 280 Echelon figure, a muscled human body with a goat‟s head, and curling, ram-like horns. It was striding across the canvass of the mural, stepping over crushed human skulls and sweeping aside groveling men and women with a scepter crowned by a swastika. It was the most disturbing thing Payton had ever seen. "Jesus," Chanel whispered, staring. "Com silence," he hissed at her. The wall opened up to the left in a dark hallway. It was difficult to see much in the corridor because there was very little in the way of light. There were a few decrepit doorways, constructed of simple wood and giving the impression of rot and foul smell, but what lay beyond them remained a mystery. There also wasn't much to see on the walls. All in all, it looked like the corridor of some medieval dungeon. But that took a backseat to the glowing doorway at the end of the chamber. Not a doorway, Payton thought. It looks like some kind of- "Look at that thing," Chanel interjected with more whispers. "It looks like the mouth of a cave." He turned to her. "What'd I say?" "Oh relax. No one's around." She started down the corridor, headed for the cave opening. "Hey," he hissed. "What?" "Where do you think you're going?" She nodded down the corridor. "Foreboding thresholds have a certain appeal." 281 Echelon "It really does look like a cave," he said fairly, and he was pleased when she smiled. "That also means that the mainframe terminal is very unlikely to be through that portal." He pointed to the doors lining the hallway. "These offices are more likely candidates." She started to argue, but a muffled shout came from the cavernous doorway. They both crouched low, startled. The noise repeated, and this time it was a chorus of voices. They softened, then rose to a crescendo. It reminded Payton of a movie, something he'd seen as a kid but couldn't quite place. He turned to Chanel, only then realizing they were still in their startled crouches. It might have been funny if he weren't so terrified. Hearing those voices, knowing that at least some of the perpetrators and maybe Jennifer were through that door was like getting a corner piece to the puzzle he was trying to solve. He knew that he should be searching for the mainframe access terminal so that he would have a bargaining chip for his niece. But he had to see what was beyond that portal. He had to see who those voices belonged to. "Let's go," he said. "I changed my mind. Let's just check the other doors and get the hell out of here," Chanel hushed. "Too late," Payton said. "Now I'm interested." He started forward. "And stay quiet." They crept forward, down the dark hallway. The light from the portal that had seemed so muted got significantly sharper as they moved forward. With the darkness surrounding them, it got so bad after they'd made it halfway that he had to squint to see. 282 Echelon When they reached the doorway, they got down on their bellies and continued forward. What he saw made him shiver involuntarily. The floor dropped sharply beyond the portal along a winding metal staircase. What the chamber below was made of, he couldn't be sure. The entire cavern seemed to be constructed of some kind of ashy iron-like material, black and silver and brown all at once. The ground was simple stone and dirt but it was impressive, with seemingly random designs etched into it throughout. Somewhere in the back of his mind the movie memory clicked. It looked like the Temple of Doom. It was hard to tell but Payton could swear that the chamber could hold a football field in either direction. The floor was roughly square, as were the walls around it, and there were what appeared to be torch lamps every thirty feet or so. They threw orange light in every direction. But dominating the scene were twelve men standing in the chamber. They were all dressed in brown hooded robes and their faces were hidden, as they stood with their hands behind their backs and their heads bowed. It looked like prayer to Payton, an impression that was helped along by the low incantation they were humming. Ten of them stood like that, all facing away from Payton and Chanel, pointed towards a dais upon which the remaining two figures were located. One was standing, and his robes were identical to the others, but upon his head was a mask. It looked like the head of a goat, with curved horns and two slits for eyes. In fact, it was an almost perfect representation of the beast in the mural. He was leading the other men's chants, the give to their take. 283 Echelon And at his feet, kneeling and in the same robe, only with the hood pulled back, was a very recognizable man. Agent DeMarco. DeMarco knelt, facing their direction, his eyes closed. The incantations continued. The masked man stood behind DeMarco, his hand resting upon the other's head. The incantations were much crisper now that they were closer and they came quickly. "For too long we have remained in the shadows," the man in the goat mask shouted. "For too long we have operated in secrecy, assuming the roles of common men and serving when we should be served." The men in robes answered back. “Aspicio, nos adveho." Behold, for we come. They were speaking in Latin. Luckily, Payton had taken ancient languages in college. "As is this man, our third degree initiate." The masked man lifted DeMarco to his feet and turned him so that his back was to the others. "We who seek illumination and enlightenment, both spiritual and intellectual, have a destiny that we must seek out. That destiny is to unite the world, to wipe out famine and war, to rebuke those that would disturb our unity, and to bring man into an age of purpose and control." "Per lux lucis nos plumbum." Through light we lead. "And when the enemies of our world kingdom come calling, we shall have such weapons as they have never seen, and they shall be vanquished. Our council of twelve, 284 Echelon we majestic men, must always be in control, in the open or otherwise. We are an order of twelve, so when we lose one of our number, we initiate another." The robed men moved forward slowly, approaching DeMarco from behind as he continued to stare at the masked man. Payton glanced over at Chanel, whose mouth was slightly agape as she watched intently. Meanwhile the nine robed men had reached the dais. They surrounded DeMarco in a semicircle. One of them got down on all fours behind his knees, like a grade school kid pulling a prank. The masked man reached behind his back and retrieved a wicked looking foot long dagger. "We are born for one purpose, but now we live for another. Before we can be worthy to take on our goal, the person we are must experience death." The masked man raised the dagger high. Payton nearly cried out but the man brought his arm down slowly in symbolic action. DeMarco took weak blows on each wrist, then on both of his feet. He stood a moment longer as he was gently struck again, this time in the left of his rib cage. Only then did he slowly topple backwards over the robed figure behind him. The rest of the congregation caught him as he fell, gently lowering him to the ground. “Rise, rise, rise,” the congregation chanted. "Our kind has been in danger of remaining entombed forever because of the treachery of others," the masked man continued. "But we give thanks for the actions of the first Illuminatus Major, the most holy of Saints, Paul, who taught the masses how to recreate the Christ in this world, not so that he could be glorified, but so that order might 285 Echelon return to the people, so that they might have guidance from those that remained most capable." The robed men lifted DeMarco back to his feet, and they surrounded him again, this time completing the circle with the masked eleventh man. The entire group, including DeMarco, intoned loudly, "Nos es miles Senatus de Paul." We are the Council of Paul. The group let out a cheer, and they broke ranks. After removing their hoods they took turns shaking DeMarco's hand. And then they turned towards the stairway, intent upon on leaving. Instead they spotted Chanel and Payton staring. Everyone was still for several heartbeats. Then the masked man pointed at them and snarled, “Get them!” They didn't make it far. In fact, Payton was surprised that they had gotten all the way into the elevator before they were both grabbed roughly from behind and thrown bodily back through its doors. Their captors‟ hoods were back up over their heads as they piled around them. The masked man whispered to several of the others. He turned to Payton, gave him a barely visible smile, and brought the butt of the dagger crashing down on top of his head. And then everything went black. 286 Echelon Chapter 22: "Wake up." Payton's face went white hot as he was struck across the face. He shook the pain away, tasting blood in the back of his mouth. Upon opening his eyes he saw he was in large office, tied to a chair. The room was obnoxiously beige from floor to ceiling, with absolutely no decoration whatsoever. It took a moment to recall what had happened and then put together a pretty good idea of how he had come to be there. They had tried to run from the group of hooded men, three of which were now standing in front of him in the room. He had been hit over the head by the masked leader, which was presumably how he had come to be tied to a chair there. So now what am I going to do, he thought. His head was still throbbing and he could feel a tight knot beginning to form on his brow. Where is Jennifer? Where is Chanel? 287 Echelon The other men in the room were milling about and occasionally whispering to one another. It seemed to Payton that they were waiting for something. "Where's my partner?" he asked, a hoarse catch in his voice. They turned to look at him. The man nearest stepped forward. "Be quiet," He said with a thick German accent, and then dealt a vicious blow across Payton‟s face. Payton shook his head as it throbbed. He coughed, noticing a mist of blood eject. "What are you going to do with me?" he managed. "That's up to you," the man responded. Though closer than the others, mere feet away, his face was still hidden. "Answer our questions and he'll probably kill you quickly." "If I don't?" Even though he couldn't actually see it, Payton got the impression that the man smiled. "Do you have any idea how difficult it is to learn the art of torture? It takes years to get good, decades to master." The robed man knelt in front of Payton. "Our methods go back all the way to the times of King Edward. Edward was the one of the first members of the Crown to help the Church hunt down the Templars. His failure to capture them all was punished. Do you know the story of how His Majesty was killed?" Payton swallowed. "No." "His testicles were carefully removed and then destroyed in front of him," the hooded man said. "Then a hot fireplace poker was inserted rectally. You see the irony?" Payton shook his head. 288 Echelon "He was accused of being a homosexual," the other laughed. "Because he was an agent of those Venus worshiping heretics." He lifted Payton's chin with a single finger. "Like you, perhaps?" "I'm a government agent," Payton muttered, hoping the lie would be enough to warrant his immediate release. "Are you? You don't have government ID." The robed man held up his wallet. The fake ID the old man had given him was visible in the plastic fold. "I'm undercover." He slapped Payton across the face. "That's enough," a second voice rang out sharply. Payton's vision was still in the process of returning, but he could hear the only door in the room close. "You'll knock him unconscious if you're not careful." Payton shook his head yet again. The man in the goat mask was standing in front of him, peering down. "Who are you?" Payton asked. The man reached up and removed the mask, uncovering a wrinkled, familiar face. He had gray hair. Distinguished lines appeared on either side of his smile. It was a handsome face, one that Payton had seen on the cover of Time and People. He‟d even seen him on television a couple days ago. There were only a handful of Americans who weren't familiar with this man's story. Jonathan Dowd had always been simply elite, from his high school days at Tamfield Prep near the Hamptons, to his triumphant ascension to Chairman of the Board for several international corporations. His might have been just another typical American success story but for the fact that he had so accomplished a life while battling a pervasive 289 Echelon genetic illness that rendered him legally blind. His was the life teachers used as an example for what one could accomplish with hard work and persistence. Not long after the turn of the century he was named Time Magazine's most inspiring person of the year. Forbes clocked him in as the third wealthiest man in the world in 2003. After the terrorist attacks on September 11th, he personally made a donation to New York City in the form of a cashier's check. The Wall Street Journal reported that it was rumored to be an amount over ten million dollars. The public regarded him as a benefactor, a modern day saint, even. "Christ," Payton muttered. "Oh, yes, Mr. Connor," Dowd nodded with a smile. "You are in a great deal of trouble." "Yeah, I kind of gathered." "No doubt, someone as smart as yourself." The smile vanished. "But I have good news." "Oh?" Payton grimaced. "Good for whom?" "For you. I thought you understood." Dowd squatted down to look at him. "The only reason you, your niece, and your partner are all alive is because I want to offer you a job." "Job?" "The best job you've ever had, I can ensure you." Dowd smiled. "You wouldn't believe the benefits package." Payton snorted. "I imagine there's no need for a life insurance policy." 290 Echelon Dowd looked momentarily confused, but then nodded. "Ah, yes, that unpleasantness in Boston." He dropped the smile. "Those who cannot keep our secrets do not last long in our group. We do not enjoy harming anyone, least of all our brothers." "You hurt everyone," Payton spat. He could feel the sneer on his face. Dowd stood and sighed. "I see I'll have to let you sit a while longer. You don't understand at all. You see us as the enemy. But our sole purpose is to keep people safe, to maintain order. We've killed, certainly. We eliminate the people that choose to threaten the stability we create. Do you have any idea how many lives our actions save every single day?" He began to walk away. "I've seen what you do," Payton snarled. "You spy on people's lives. Invade their privacy." Dowd spun around. "In the new America, people won‟t have privacy,” he said. “After tonight, the countdown to our emergence will end, and we will reveal ourselves to the world. We will take control of this country and begin to establish the new order of things. And despite the problems caused by people like you, the world will be better for it.” Seeing the anger on Dowd‟s face, Payton laughed. "You're insane." Dowd seemed to gather himself. "Perhaps your opinion will change if I show you something." He motioned to the other men to untie him from the chair. "If I allow you to take a walk with me, will you give me your word that you won't try anything stupid?" "Like strangling you the moment I have the opportunity?" Payton smiled. "Precisely," Dowd nodded. He revealed a wicked looking snub-nosed pistol from under his robes. "I would hate to have to use this, Mr. Connor, I really would. We have 291 Echelon so much we could accomplish together. More importantly, I'm fairly certain that you would rather I not shoot your pretty young niece, or your partner." "You bastard,” Payton snarled as they untied his bonds. Dowd jerked the pistol, indicating he get up. They walked out the door, Dowd following behind him. Payton noticed that they‟d been in one of the offices that lined the corridor they‟d been in earlier. Dowd had tucked the pistol back inside his robes, but Payton was certain it was still pointed at him. They made their way down the hallway, away from what Payton had come to think of as the ceremonial chamber, and towards the elevator. He studied each of the doors on either side of the hallway. None of them had windows and all were shut tightly. He wondered if Chanel or Jennifer were behind any of them. They reached the elevator, and Dowd pushed the button. "Where are we going?" Payton asked, turning his head slightly. Dowd was just out of view at his back. "What is it you‟re going to show me?" "Something about which you think you know a lot," Dowd replied. "Though in fact, you know very little." The elevator cab chimed open. "Get in." Dowd ordered him to stand with his back against the side of the elevator. Instead of pressing one of the floor buttons, he flipped open the emergency panel and pressed the emergency stop and several floor buttons in a complicated pattern. The elevator lurched suddenly. Then, to Payton's surprise, the cab began descending. Dowd smiled. "We always hide the best stuff underground." "Someone told me once that the best secret is the one you never know exists," Payton nodded. The elevator was moving swiftly, and like the trip from the lobby to the 292 Echelon basement, it was taking some time. "I must say I'm impressed by your organization. You weren‟t an easy puzzle to solve." "We've had a great deal of practice at operating behind the scenes," Dowd agreed. “We.” Payton turned to him. "The Illuminati, you mean." "An old name," Dowd dismissed with a wave. “Yes, we have been called that in the past. Although we‟ve just as often been referred to by many other names.” He sighed deeply. Payton thought he almost heard a hint of regret in his voice. “Most of the time they get it wrong, those who care enough to try and investigate us. They think we‟re Satanists, or Luciferians, or Nazis. Hell, some folks even think we have a link to Freemasonry.” “I got that my impression myself.” “Yes, yes,” Dowd chuckled. “We know all about your friend, Charles Mikuzis. So much information and yet he has not the mind to process it correctly. That DAT disc you stole had so many more secrets on it, if only you knew how to access them.” The elevator doors opened. Dowd motioned beneath his robes. “Get moving.” Payton stepped out into another shadowy room. It was large and circular, with an upper level on the outside, and steps leading to the lower parapet in the center. There, in the center of a slightly raised section of the floor, was a massive computer console. It looked like something out of science fiction. Several large screens sat in front of a sleek black chair, looking for the entire world like a multi-display for an overblown personal computer. Upon further examination, Payton saw a tangle of wiring and tubes snaking from the back of the screens. From a distance he couldn‟t be sure, but he had the 293 Echelon impression that some of the tubes and wires were black, some red, and some blue. All of them were rather fatter than normal cabling. The entire set up rested upon the base of the console, which was clearly some kind of huge machine. There was a keyboard and an enormous set of speakers sat on either side of the console. Again he was reminded of a desktop computer, albeit an oversized one. He could see a few winking lights on the base of the machine, along with what looked like an optical drive, a standard ZIP drive, a three and a half inch disk drive, and several other female cable ports. It was the mainframe terminal. It had to be. Technically he couldn‟t be sure, of course, but for whatever reason he knew he‟d found it. The massive amount of wiring indicated hefty power requirements. The tubing seemed to be the right size for fiber optics. And even though he had no idea where the pack containing Chuck‟s tablet was being kept, he was sure that one of the connectors would fit into one of those ports on the console. Feign ignorance, he instructed himself. He turned to where Dowd stood near the threshold. “New DVD player?” “Hardly. This is the gateway to more information than you ever imagined was possible.” Dowd stepped forward and turned in a circle. “It is also a control center. For as long as men have required governance, they have built castles and thrones for their kings. In past times, these thrones were made of gold and the knaves bowed at the waist in front of their rulers. Today we have republics and democracies, which are aesthetically different, yes,” Dowd added, probably seeing the face Payton knew he was making. “Democracy is more than aesthetics,” he argued. 294 Echelon “Is it? Tell me.” Payton took a breath. “Today we choose our leaders. The people we have to choose from might not always be ideal, but the people are still the ones that vote our leadership into office.” Dowd, who had been walking towards the center of the room, turned to peer at him. “After everything you‟ve done in your career, after everything you‟re supposed to have seen this past week, you don‟t actually believe that, do you?” Payton walked towards him. “I know what you‟re group does. But you don‟t control the American people, or our government.” “My dear boy, haven‟t you been paying attention?” Dowd chuckled. “We are the government. You have no idea how easy it is to control a senator, bribe a mayor, and blackmail a president. All you need is information. And this,” he said, spreading his arms wide again, indicating the console that was now before them. “This is how we do it. How I do it. Aquinas spoke of the mythical city upon the hill. America is that city, and in the next few weeks, I will be crowned its king. Priests complain that government has become the religion of the people. Today, I will give them their God.” “Really,” Payton snorted. He walked around the machine, trying to manufacture a look of mild interest while examining the port connections, looking for one that might be an exact fit for his Ethernet cable. “So this thing is going to make you a God? You‟d think people in the government would try to stop you.” “Some of them will, certainly,” Dowd smiled. “But most of those who matter are firmly under our control.” “How?” 295 Echelon “I‟ll show you an example.” Dowd turned to the console and sat in the chair. “On,” he commanded. The screen display flickered a moment, then winked onto a blue screen. Payton walked over to stand over his Dowd‟s shoulder. There were hundreds of icons on the screen. He saw one marked VidSurv, another was PhnTps, another EmlScn. The rest were more obscure. “How does it work?” He asked. “Voice activated,” Dowd said. “Configured to accept vocal patterns of authorized users using the accepted commands.” Payton thought of the avatar. This system was clearly more flexible. “And my demonstration?” Dowd nodded. “Let‟s start with a mid-level target. How about Senator Patrick Joseph, Chairman of the Senate Arms Committee.” He turned to the screen. “Patrick Joseph, Senator, phone tap records.” The screen flickered as several operating windows swirled open, each showing graphical icons and drop down menus. Dowd turned over his shoulder. “Intuitive GUI makes manipulating data simple. They system will actually guess what you‟re looking for and tailor its presentation to the user. Necessary, given that access is available to several people and the sheer amount of data the system contains.” “GUI?” “Graphical User Interface. An acronym for the operating system.” “It looks like Microsoft Windows.” 296 Echelon “Similar, yes.” “What‟d you do, steal a key to the United States Patents office?” “Actually, yes, that‟s exactly what we did,” Dowd said. He turned back to the display. “List all cell phone calls originating from the Senator‟s phone to Donald Sage.” Another window flicked open on one of the screens and a mass of records appeared, ordered by date. There was something like two hundred calls listed. “January seventh,” Dowd commanded. Most of the calls listed disappeared from the list, leaving four records. “Two thirty-six AM.” The record opened up in a separate window. In it was a detailed transcript of a cell phone call from the Senator to some guy named Don Sage. There was nothing to indicate who Sage was, or what position he might have in the government. What was evident, however, was that the Senator was carrying on an affair with Sage. Reading the words on the screen was embarrassing enough, particularly the references to the club drugs they were both apparently abusing. But moments later, the speakers buzzed and clicked on, and a recording of the call played in its entirety. The words that were embarrassing on the screen were nearly unbearable to hear on the recording. Payton felt his face redden. “I take it you used this to blackmail the Senator?” “This helped,” Dowd confirmed. “But believe me, this isn‟t the worst we have on Senator Joseph. Would you believe that he was taking money in exchange for awarding defense contracts in the great state of Nebraska? Such corruption. And then there‟s the little matter of the CIA torture documents.” “Excuse me?” 297 Echelon “Remember the Justice Department press release a couple of months back about terror prison camp interrogation records being destroyed?” Dowd said. “That was him. Mostly, anyway.” “So you blackmail him to keep quiet about your group‟s existence?” “No, no, no,” Dowd shook his head. “Senator‟s like this aren‟t high up enough for us to expose the group to him. No, he simply thinks I‟m a businessman with an energy company that requires certain legislation to pass through Congress. He doesn‟t know what purpose that legislation is actually serving.” “What legislation?” “Well,” Dowd smiled. “I haven‟t received your answer on my offer, so I don‟t think I ought to be revealing all of my cards quiet yet.” “How about a taste,” Payton suggested. “Are you familiar with fluoridation?” “That chemical they put in drinking water to protect people‟s teeth?” Payton asked, surprised. “That‟s what they tell you,” Dowd smiled. “Do you know who pushed fluoridation into law? Oscar Ewing, a Wall Street attorney that was appointed by Truman to head the U.S. Public Health Service and the Office of Education. Truman later suggested that he only did so at the hand of lobbyists for aluminum manufacturers, which included the Rockefeller family.” Payton must have looked as puzzled as he felt because Dowd explained further. “The chemical used in fluoridation is sodium fluoride, which is a byproduct of the process for creating aluminum. Sodium fluoride is a toxin, 298 Echelon but they had to put it somewhere, so why not sell it to the government under the pretense that it‟s good for your teeth?” “That can‟t be true,” Payton said. It came out sounding hopeful rather than convincing. Dowd studied him. “Do you know where one of the first documented applications of fluoridation occurred? Nazi concentration camps. It‟s true. They gave it to Jewish prisoners because studies showed the sodium fluoride inhibited the synapses in the part of the brain that create social dissonance.” “So who in the government does know about you people?” “Very few people, as you‟d expect. We don‟t go outside of our group very often. A couple of Senators, one or two cabinet members, depending on the administration.” “The President?” “Depends on the administration,” Dowd repeated. “And of course there are some aides and lobbyists that know something is going on. Most just aren‟t smart enough to figure it all out.” “So, like, twenty people outside the group?” “Nineteen,” Dowd agreed. “You and your partner will make twenty-one amongst those that have a firm understanding of the true purpose of our group, not including the volunteer MJ12 troops.” “And what exactly is this job you‟re offering us?” “Pretty much the same thing you do currently, for your little Center of flying saucers. We have a need for individuals with the skills of an investigator, particularly those with interrogation experience. I understand both you and your partner have that 299 Echelon experience, and that you in particular have the reputation as someone who can tell when people are being duplicitous.” “You want to hire us as investigators for the Illuminati,” Payton said slowly. “I want you to be a misinformation agent with Majestic Twelve,” he responded. He shrugged. “Or I can kill you, your partner, and your niece right now. The choice is yours.” “I take it this isn‟t how you normally recruit?” “Thankfully, no,” Dowd smiled. “But you know too much to let you go, and you‟re too useful to pass up the opportunity to recruit you. So you see the predicament we‟re in.” Payton stared at the mainframe terminal. How could he get out of this? What was his next move? He couldn‟t, wouldn’t let Dowd harm Jennifer of Chanel. “This countdown you‟re referring to,” he said. “It ends tonight?” Dowd nodded. “One way or another, at nine-twenty this morning, in just under two hours, we are going to take control of the United States through this very terminal. The only question is whether you‟re going to be alive to witness it.” Payton‟s mind worked furiously through several scenarios for escape, but he kept coming back to the same conclusion. Escape wasn‟t good enough. He had to upload the virus to this terminal and make sure that Jennifer and Chanel made it out of here alive. Only then, if there was still the possibility, would he concern himself with his own retreat. He turned back to Dowd. “I guess I don‟t really have a choice,” he said with a shake of his head. “Before I agree to this, I‟ll need to see my niece to make sure she‟s still alive. I‟ll also need some time to discuss this with my partner.” 300 Echelon “What‟s to discuss? Join or die,” Dowd said sternly. “I can convince her that joining is the only option,” Payton pressed. “But if I don‟t talk to her first, she‟ll likely do something stupid and get herself killed. I don‟t want that.” “Loyalty to your partner is all well and good,” Dowd sneered. “But your loyalty must ultimately lie with the group. Otherwise, things will end badly for you, as you saw in Boston.” “That‟s another thing,” Payton said. “Before we agree to this, I want confirmation that the warrants for us and the investigation into CUFOS are rescinded.” Dowd sighed. “As of this afternoon, your agency and every police department throughout America will have been officially disbanded. There would be no point in fulfilling your request.” “I want it done anyway,” Payton insisted. “I don‟t want there to ever have been a paper trail implicating that we or the Center did anything wrong.” Dowd studied him a moment. “You‟re asking an awful lot for someone without a whole lot of leverage.” “I know,” Payton conceded. “But I‟m offering you a lifetime of service. I think it‟s a pretty good deal, even for a shrewd businessman such as you.” Dowd seemed to think about it. Then he smiled. “Shrewd. I like that word.” He stuck out his hand. “We‟ll have to do the official ceremonies later, but you have a deal, Mr. Connor.” “You can retract the warrants from this console?” “I can do it right now, if you wish.” 301 Echelon “No,” Payton said, trying not to sound too eager. “It‟ll be better if you do it with my partner here. To help convince her.” Dowd nodded and reached out once more. Payton looked at his outstretched hand. He hated this, but he hated the image of Jennifer or Chanel lying dead more. If this was the only way to keep them alive, then he would just have to pinch his nose and go along with this. Chanel wouldn‟t be happy about it either, but she‟d have to go along. He just hoped they all survived this. He reached out and shook Dowd‟s hand. 302 Echelon Chapter 23: They had locked him back in the office. He had expected them to have guards inside the room with him, but to his surprise the two hooded men assigned to watch him were stationed outside the door. He paced the room for a couple of minutes and then spent some time searching through what little furniture and equipment was in the room for something to use as a weapon. They must have anticipated this, though, as there was nothing useful to be found. He went back to pacing and his thoughts drifted to Jennifer. She must have been out of her mind with fear. Unable to run with no idea what was happening, Payton‟s heart leapt in his chest crying out for her. Don’t worry, sweetheart, he thought. I’m keeping you safe. I won’t let anyone hurt you. 303 Echelon He glanced at his watch. It was nearly eight o‟clock. In an hour and a half the America he knew and loved was going to cease to exist, and he‟d signed up for the opposition. Jesus. The office door opened and a hooded figure threw Chanel to the ground. Payton went to her side as the door closed once more. “You okay?” he asked. She looked up at him. Blood was trickling from her nose and there was an ugly purple bruise underneath her left eye, but she appeared to be alright. He didn‟t see any fear or pain in her eyes, much to his surprise. All that was there was cold anger. She shrugged him off. “I‟m fine,” she said. She stood up and regarded him with that same cold expression. “I had a nice long talk with Jonathan Dowd and two of his hooded cronies. They said you agreed to work for them. They said you traded our service for our lives.” “There‟s no other choice,” he said, hoping she was really hearing him. “Either we join up or they kill us.” “How can you do this?” she shouted at him. Her fists were clenched and she was up on her toes. “These people are the enemy, for Christ‟s sake.” “And they hold all the cards,” he bellowed back at her. “You don‟t play poker without a hand. All you can do is fold.” And then he mouthed a single word to her: bluff. She took a step back, looking puzzled for a moment. Then it clicked. He could see that she stifled a smile, instead giving a quick curt nod. 304 Echelon The door opened again and another robed figure pushed Jennifer in on her wheelchair. Payton moved towards her but the robed figure struck out him and he backed off. When the door was closed once more, he looked his niece over. She had begun crying when she saw him. There were tear tracks crisscrossing down her face. Her hair looked dirty and disheveled, and her clothes looked wrinkled as though they‟d been worn for too long. She didn‟t appear to have been harmed, however, and Payton went to her once more. “I‟m so sorry, honey,” he said. He struggled to keep tears from coming to his own eyes. She needed him to be strong. “I‟m so sorry you got involved in this.” “They said they were going to kill me if I tried to get away,” Jennifer sobbed. She reached as far as she could in her wheelchair to wrap her arms around his neck. “I kept telling them I couldn‟t go anywhere because of my chair, but they wouldn‟t listen to me. Why is this happening, Uncle Doc? They said they were going to kill you if I made any noise.” Rage boiled inside him. He forced a smile. “No one is going to be killed, sweetheart. These men aren‟t going to hurt us anymore.” She looked up at him again and nodded, choking off her sobs. Then her eyes flicked to Chanel. “Who are you?” she asked, and her eyes narrowed suspiciously. Chanel smiled and walked over. She stuck out her hand. “My name is Chanel. I‟m your Uncle‟s partner.” In a gesture that made her look far older than she was, Jennifer reached out and shook her hand. She continued to stare at Chanel for a moment, then pointed at her face. “Did they do that?” 305 Echelon “Don‟t worry about that, darling,” Chanel smiled. “They won‟t hurt us anymore.” Jennifer turned to Payton. “Your partner is pretty,” she whispered. “You should ask her on a date.” Tears came to Payton‟s eyes again, but he smiled through them. The office door opened yet again, and this time Dowd walked through it. He was out of his robes. He had an escort with him. Payton‟s eyes widened as he looked upon a man in a suit. The man was bald. In fact, it looked as if his body was entirely hairless, including his eyebrows. There was a bulge on one side of his open jacket, and Payton caught a flash of a gun. Other than a slight tint to his skin, the only distinguishing mark on him was a nasty gash on the back of his head. “You,” Chanel said softly. “Ah, yes,” Dowd smiled after looking between them. “You‟ve met Jean-Pierre, haven‟t you? If I remember correctly it was you two that gave him that tap to the back of the head.” “Him,” the man growled, pointing at Payton. He hadn‟t noticed it before, but there was something odd in the timber or tone of his voice. He turned to Dowd. “Is he…human?” Payton managed. Jean-Pierre gave him a cold stare. Dowd laughed. “I suppose that would depend on your definition of human.” He looked at Jennifer, who was hiding slightly. “But now I‟m afraid he‟s going to have to take this little one to another room while the grownups get to work.” 306 Echelon Jean-Pierre stepped forward, causing Jennifer to whimper and roll her chair further backwards. Payton put up a hand to stop him. Jean-Pierre‟s fingers closed around the gun holstered at his side. “Easy,” Payton said. “Let me talk to her.” Dowd nodded. Payton knelt in front of Jennifer. “I need you to go with them for now,” he said. She started to cry again and a lump jumped in his throat. “Don‟t worry, honey. I‟ll be done working soon. Then we can go home.” Tears continued to stream from her eyes, but she nodded. Jean-Pierre stepped forward again. Payton caught him by the arm and whispered in his ear. “If anything happens to her, I will kill you. Do you understand me?” He smiled evilly and shrugged him off. He wheeled Jennifer out of the room and they were alone with Dowd, who had his pistol out again. It wasn‟t pointed directly at them, but the way he held it would make jumping him impossible. Obviously, agreement or no, he didn‟t trust them just yet. “Come with me,” Dowd said. “Wait,” Chanel piped up. “I‟m going to need my pack.” “Not a chance,” Dowd said. Chanel shrugged. “Suit yourself. If you‟ve been keeping tabs on us the way I think you have, you know we‟ve got a tablet computer in that bag and that it came from a friend.” Dowd frowned. “So?” 307 Echelon “If we‟re going to go along with this, I figure you‟ll want the information we got from the DAT tape,” she said. “It‟s encrypted on the tablet.” “We have very good people that can decrypt the files,” Dowd smiled. “Wouldn‟t you rather have it done now?” she continued. “I would. Especially with what you‟ve got planned. Why leave any loose ends?” Dowd studied her. “And you‟ll do this right now?” he asked suspiciously. “No,” she shook her head. “You promised to clear our names. Bring the tablet to wherever that happens. Once it‟s done, I‟ll give you your files back.” Dowd paused, then nodded. “Fine. We‟ll pick up your pack on the way.” He gave them a dark look. “Along with Jean-Pierre. If you try anything, I‟m afraid he‟ll have to show you his unpleasant side.” “We‟ll play ball,” Payton told him. “We‟re not stupid. This is all just a little overwhelming.” Dowd‟s expression softened and, for a moment, Payton thought he looked almost gentle. “I understand. It‟s overwhelming for all of us at first. Relax. You‟re part of something important now. In ninety minutes, you‟ll be one of twenty-five people or so who will be employed by the United States Government.” Ten minutes later they were back in the terminal chamber. Dowd ordered them to stand to the side where they were under the constant gaze of Jean Pierre. Meanwhile, Dowd took a seat in the terminal chair and began uttering commands. “Is that it?” Chanel whispered, looking at the mainframe terminal. “Yeah,” Payton whispered back. 308 Echelon “Quiet,” Jean-Pierre barked. They stood silently for several minutes while Dowd worked at the console. His hands flew over the keyboard. Payton thought it was odd to see a man of his age working so efficiently on such a novel piece of technology. The tablet computer was closed and resting on the mainframe console. Payton couldn‟t help but glance at it occasionally. Chanel had displayed some serious guile in getting Chuck‟s computer in the same room as the mainframe access terminal. From the look of concentration that was occasionally passing over her face, she was now working on how to hook it up to the terminal and upload the virus. Those looks had been coming and going for several minutes now, indicating that she wasn‟t making much progress. It was up to him. Dowd called over Jean-Pierre and began showing him something on several of the screens. He appeared to give him whispered instructions. Payton couldn‟t hear all of what was said, but he caught enough of it. Shortly before nine-twenty, Jean-Pierre would gather the rest of the group in the ceremony chamber to await Dowd‟s return. Once Dowd had initiated the shutdown of the government and the national communications systems, he would be sending some kind of communiqué that would release waiting Majestic Twelve military forces to secure government facilities and utilities throughout the country. After an hour or so, Dowd would flip the switch back on, the Illuminati controlled government would restore basic services, instill a nationwide curfew for all non-military personnel, and lock down the borders. The representative government members not in on the conspiracy would be given the chance to go quietly. If they refused, they were to be shot. There was also to be fifty-thousand heavily armed troops 309 Echelon from the Army and Marines that were immediately available to put down any resistance that might be mounted. The Federal Emergency Management Agency would declare martial law and suspend the constitution. Once the internet and phone systems had been restored, the Echelon network would begin searching for resisters of the new government. Any offenders would be placed in FEMA operated concentration camps in Nevada, California, Illinois, New York, Texas, and Florida. The United Nations would be disbanded, as would NORAD and NATO. Full control of all defense systems would be routed through Echelon and handled through automation, ultimately controlled by Dowd. “Jesus,” Payton whispered to Chanel, who was straining to listen as well. “We can‟t let them go through with it.” “If you have any ideas on how to stop them, I‟m all ears,” Chanel whispered back. Payton looked over the console again. The tablet was right there. All that he needed to do was get the Ethernet cables plugged in and initiate the virus upload. But Dowd wasn‟t stupid. He wasn‟t going to let them hook the tablet up to the console. He didn‟t see any hope of overtaking the two men by force, either. Dowd might be old and nearly blind, but Jean-Pierre had the look of a professional soldier. Plus they were both armed. “Did I hear Dowd say that he was going to send what‟s his name away?” Chanel whispered. Apparently she was thinking along the same lines. “Once he‟s gone, we could probably jump the old man.” Payton didn‟t like it but he had to agree. It seemed like it was their only chance. It would be dangerous. They would have to keep Dowd from making enough noise to 310 Echelon bring any nearby troops down on them. Also they would be cutting the timing dangerously close to the end of the countdown. But there didn‟t seem to be any alternatives. At least with Jean-Pierre and his gun out of the room, they would have a fighting chance. Dowd might still had his weapon, but the lighting in the room wasn‟t all that great and Payton would bet that the old man‟s blind eyes wouldn‟t be able to hit much if they moved fast. “You two, come here,” Dowd ordered. Jean-Pierre watched them carefully as they came to stand beside the console. His hand never lifted off the pistol‟s grip. They looked up at the displays, which showed too much information in a variety of windows to comprehend at once. Payton did notice that Dowd was logged into several government web consoles. A hovering face that looked very much like the avatar was also displayed on one of the monitors. In the center display was a copy of the police report the old man had showed them in Boston. “Watch carefully,” Dowd said. He began whispering commands again and typing on the keyboard. As they watched, he closed the murder case against them, citing a confession by a prisoner already in federal custody. He then logged into the records site for the BOP, or Bureau of Prisons, and applied a trial judgment for the murder to the unnamed inmate, identified only by his prisoner ID number. Next he opened the NSA and FBI intranet portals, erased all of the case files under their names, and lifted the government sanctions and investigations into CUFOS. He was moving so fast that Payton missed some of what was being done, but in an amazingly short period of time, Dowd was completely cleaning up everything that had been done to them over the last 311 Echelon seventy-two hours. “And I‟m done,” he sighed. “It‟s amazing what you can do with a machine these days. When I was younger, we had a hell of a time creating paper trails. Now,” he waved a hand at the machine. “The console fills in the blanks automatically.” “Impressive,” Payton said. “And now I think Ms. Falasco has her end of a promise to keep.” Chanel stepped forward and opened the tablet. The screen was tilted slightly away from the console so that she was the only one that could really see what she was doing. Payton silently hoped she didn‟t do anything stupid. She was doing an awful lot of typing and he wondered if she was just pretending to work, since the files on the computer weren‟t actually encrypted. Finally, she looked back at Dowd. “You want me to put this on a disk?” “No,” he said. “You can move it from your tablet to the console hard drive over an Ethernet cable.” Payton‟s heart began to pound and he forced his head not to snap alert. He couldn‟t be that stupid, could he? He wouldn‟t actually allow them to link up. Would he? Was he really that careless? No, he thought. He isn’t stupid and he isn’t careless. He’s just so confident in his system that he doesn’t believe there is anything we can do to threaten it. As if reading his thoughts, Dowd handed Jean-Pierre a set of cables. “Jean-Pierre will transfer the files,” he said, and Jean-Pierre moved to stand behind her. He had drawn his pistol. “If you try anything, he will shoot the both of you.” Payton manage to swallow a grimace. There went any chance of Chanel being able to initiate the virus upload. Jean-Pierre motioned Chanel to return to where she‟d 312 Echelon been standing and began to manipulate the touchpad on the tablet with one hand, keeping the pistol trained in their direction with the other. Moments later he was done. “Excellent,” Dowd said. The files appeared on one of the displays. Dowd began scanning through them, occasionally stopping to read a notation that Chuck had made. “Your friend is very, very good. If we thought we could control him, we might even have offered him work. As it is, he‟ll probably have to spend some time in one of the FEMA camps until he learns some restraint.” “Are the camps really necessary?” Payton asked. “Why can‟t you just operate within the local police districts to maintain order?” Dowd looked at him. “Questions like that are outside of your pay grade,” he said. “You said you would join. That means you completely join. You don‟t get to pick and choose which parts of the organization you agree with.” Payton shrugged. “I was just curious.” “Curiosity kills, my dear boy,” Dowd said sternly. His expression eased a bit. “Although I suppose you‟ve made a leap in joining us, so it isn‟t unreasonable to expect answers to some questions.” He took a deep breath. “The FEMA camps are not only places to house resisters. They will also be used to continue some research projects that we‟ve been working on for some time. We need to gather genetic information and material so that we can institute breeding guidelines in the new America.” Payton‟s jaw dropped. “You‟re talking about eugenics.” “Call it whatever you want,” Dowd shrugged. “It is very important that we control the genetics of the American people after we take control.” 313 Echelon “I can‟t believe this,” Chanel said. “We knew you were importing Nazi scientists, but how can you people be so intelligent and racist at the same time?” Dowd turned to her. “Young lady, this isn‟t about race. Nazi eugenics wasn‟t supposed to be about race. We gave Hitler a job to do and then funded him to do it, but don‟t pin his going rogue on us. We don‟t have any prejudice against Jews, blacks, or anyone else. In fact, most minorities are fairly well represented within our group. Our eugenics program is about inoculating our entire species against some very real threats.” “Inoculating?” Payton repeated. “You‟re talking about disease.” Dowd gave him a haunting look. “There are things out there that would make your hair curl.” “Things like…” Payton trailed off. Dowd‟s look turned ghostly for a moment and Payton got the impression that he wasn‟t actually seeing them. It only lasted a moment, however, and his eyes refocused. “That‟s for another time, I‟m afraid,” he said. “The FEMA camps are necessary. But if he behaves, we‟ll try to keep Mr. Mikuzis from being locked any longer than he makes necessary.” Payton nodded. “Thank you.” “What now?” Chanel asked. “I‟ve given you what you asked for, and you‟ve kept your end of the bargain,” Dowd said. Then he pointed towards the door. “Now you‟re going with him while the takeover is completed.” They turned towards the door. There, out of his robes and back in his suit, was the man who had been after them from the very beginning. 314 Echelon Agent DeMarco. 315 Echelon Chapter 24: Payton hadn‟t noticed it at first, but there was another room jutting off of the terminal chamber. The chamber was big enough that he‟d tried to think of something witty to say while DeMarco escorted them into the room. He hadn‟t come up with anything. Through the door was what might have been a prison cell, but there was no lock on the door and no bars. Payton guessed it was something like twenty feet by twenty feet. There were several uncomfortable looking chairs lined up against the far wall, otherwise the room was nearly bare. “Sit,” DeMarco said, pointing at the chairs. They obeyed. 316 Echelon Payton looked DeMarco over. He was back in a suit, and it looked like it could be the same one he‟d been wearing in the parking lot of at the visitor‟s center. He was wearing a leather shoulder holster and when he moved just right, Payton caught a glimpse of a pistol tucked snuggly away. There were bags under his eyes and his face was taut with tension. It was hard to get much more of a read on him, however, as he was pressing his ear against the door, apparently trying to hear what Dowd and Jean-Pierre were doing in the other room. “Don‟t they tell you what‟s going on?” Payton asked him. “Quiet,” DeMarco hissed, turning to glare at him. “I need to hear.” “I thought you were in their elite class now,” Payton laughed. “You don‟t look too majestic with your face against the door.” DeMarco‟s face flushed red and he stepped away from the door scowling. “You just couldn‟t stay out of this, could you? All you had to do was leave well enough alone and you would have been out there and away from all this.” He began pacing around the room, rubbing his hands together nervously. Something was going on. Payton glanced at Chanel, who was frowning. “What are you talking about?” she asked warily. “Your boss has asked us to join the group. How would we be better off out there?” DeMarco spun back on them, pistol out and pointing at each of them in turn. Payton did his best not to jump, noticing that Chanel managed quite nicely. DeMarco was sweating, still aiming his pistol at each of them, and he looked as though any sudden movement might cause him to pull the trigger. His eyes were shifting continuously. “I 317 Echelon want both of you tell me the truth. If you lie, I‟ll shoot the both of you and say you tried to escape.” Payton nodded. “I guess that would wrap up the unfinished work you left at the visitor‟s center. I mean, a car bomb? You could have just shot us and been done with it.” “You don‟t know what you‟re talking about,” DeMarco snapped, hissing like a pressure hose. He took a step closer and leveled the pistol against Payton‟s forehead. “Are you joining the group? Really?” Payton stared at him. Was this a test? Some kind of bizarre loyalty exam? If so, it wasn‟t a particularly effective one. After all, how else was he going to respond but “yes” with a gun pointed at his head? “What are you talking about?” he asked instead. “I‟m asking you where your loyalties lie. I want to know if the two of you are truly going to work for the Illuminati, or if you‟re faking it to buy time so you can pull some kind of stunt.” DeMarco paused. “And think carefully, because your answer to that question is extremely important.” He cocked the hammer on the pistol. It made that clicking noise, sounding like a dog‟s claws on tile. There was something in his face that Payton couldn‟t quite place. It was part desperation, part fear, and part determination. This wasn‟t how he‟d been expecting DeMarco to act. Ultimately, he decided, it didn‟t make the slightest bit of difference. From the moment DeMarco had led them to this room and closed the door, Payton knew he was going to have to kill him. If they were to have any hope of getting out of this room, uploading the virus, and getting everyone out of the building, they were going to have to take him out. He‟d been running through scenarios in his mind, trying to think of a way 318 Echelon to set DeMarco up to be taken down, but he‟d come up empty. With his pistol, the problem of getting close enough to him before getting shot kept popping up. Now, with the pistol placed firmly against his forehead, that problem was solved. “I don‟t know what you expect me to say, but I will tell you that I can‟t speak for my partner,” he said with a nod towards Chanel. On what must have been pure instinct, DeMarco‟s eyes flitted to follow his nod. For the briefest of moments, his eyes were off of Payton. In that same moment, he struck. In one motion his one hand slapped the pistol away while he jammed the other as hard as he could into DeMarco‟s gut. The gun went spinning across the room and slid up against the wall. DeMarco shuffled backwards for a moment, gasping for breath. Payton‟s well placed punch had struck him in the breadbasket, just below the sternum. He wouldn‟t be able to shout for a few moments, which was all Chanel needed to cross the room, retrieve the pistol, and bring it back to press against DeMarco‟s chest as he lay on his back. Payton got on top of him and covered his mouth. He was still heaving, but he‟d get his wind back quickly and they didn‟t need any guards to deal with. He gave DeMarco another gut shot and he curled up as much as Payton let him. “Don‟t you dare make a sound,” Payton instructed him. “One shout and my partner shoots you straight through the heart.” “You…don‟t understand,” Demarco managed to get out, still gasping. “Oh, we understand,” Chanel whispered angrily. “You were tailing us at the restaurant in Chicago, you were following us on the highway in Pennsylvania, and then 319 Echelon you tried to blow us into little bitty pieces with a car bomb. I think we have an excellent understanding of what you are.” DeMarco tried to respond, but couldn‟t catch enough of his breath, and settled for violently shaking his head. “Now, we have to go back into that chamber and do what we came here to do,” Payton said softly. “Unfortunately, both of those men have guns.” Payton smiled. “So we‟re going to use you as a body shield.” “Get up,” Chanel instructed. DeMarco got to his feet, still shaking his head and trying to get them to listen. “What, you want to beg for your life?” Payton asked. “I don‟t remember getting that chance when you rigged a bomb to our car.” DeMarco breathed deeply and seemed to gather himself. “Saved…your life,” he managed. Payton stopped dead. “What did you say?” He finally seemed to catch his wind. “I…made sure the bomb went off when there was no one around to get hurt,” DeMarco huffed. “They ordered me to kill you. If I…didn‟t make it look good, they would have found another way.” Payton stared at him. “That‟s ridiculous. You‟ve been after us from day one. We have no reason to believe a word you say.” “I‟m going to reach towards my shirt,” DeMarco said. He slowly unfastened the top two buttons of his shirt after loosening his tie. He pulled open the collar. Underneath there were several black wires taped to his chest. “You see?” Chanel peered at the wires. “Who are you?” 320 Echelon “Agent Anthony DeMarco.” “We already knew that,” Chanel said, looking up at him. “Of the United States Justice Department,” DeMarco finished. What the hell? The Justice Department? “But…you‟re in the NSA,” Payton said slowly. “I‟m a plant,” DeMarco said. “The USJD has been quietly investigating the NSA regarding misappropriation of funds and collusion with wealthy industrialists. They‟ve had me undercover in the NSA for the past six years.” “And, what, Dowd just happened to pick you to be inducted into the Illuminati?” Payton frowned. “Nothing so happenstance. The DeMarco family has considerable influence in Italy. My grandfather was a close friend of Benito Mussolini.” He took a breath. “My last name is something I‟ve had to fight against my entire life. When Dowd had one of his NSA cronies offer to introduce us, the USJD jumped at the chance and I agreed to help.” Payton looked at Chanel. She shrugged. He released DeMarco. They both got up. Chanel still had the gun up and aimed. Payton thought back to her file and their talk at the coffee shop a week before. She was prone to gullibility. She considered herself open minded, but Payton knew that the desire to believe was very dangerous, particularly in this case. She might be willing to accept DeMarco‟s word at face value, but Payton didn‟t believe in anything, as he liked to tell people. He needed proof. 321 Echelon “If there‟s someone listening in on your wires, get them in here right now,” he told DeMarco. “Call in the cavalry, shut this whole thing down, and get us the hell out of here.” “Can‟t,” DeMarco shook his head. “This building is protected against wireless communications. I lost contact with my team the moment I set foot in here.” “How convenient,” Payton said. Chanel gave him a look, but he ignored her. “You say you have a team. We didn‟t see anyone on our way in.” “They‟re in the Royal Scotland Bank building.” “How many men?” “Twenty,” DeMarco said. “I think you‟re lying,” Payton said. “These men are not the type to leave anything to chance. They have people on every council, on every committee, in every agency. We turn your gun on you and all of the sudden you‟re from the Justice Department? If that were true, the Illuminati would have known all about you, thanks to that Echelon program you tried so hard to get back from us in Chicago. You probably would have been killed long ago.” “You‟re right. These people are very, very good,” DeMarco said. “But they‟re not invincible, and they‟re not omniscient. Believe it or not, there are still some good guys in our government, and we can still work outside the normal communication channels.” “Tell us the name of these government officials,” Payton demanded. “No way,” he shook his head. “I‟m not putting anyone else in danger. Besides, this ends tonight.” 322 Echelon “Meaning?” Payton asked. “We anticipated our transmissions getting cut off. The USJD troops outside have strict orders to storm the building if I have not checked in for six hours.” DeMarco glanced at his watch. “Two hours from now, they‟ll be coming in.” Payton had been watching him closely. He normally trusted his ability to know when people were lying to him, but now he hesitated. As far as he could tell, DeMarco was telling the truth, but for some reason, he wasn‟t ready for Chanel to lower her weapon yet. “Look, I can see in your eyes you don‟t trust me, and I can‟t really blame you,” DeMarco said reasonably. “I have a backup piece in my ankle holster. I could have gone for it when I was on the ground. I could have gone for it this entire time we‟ve been talking. I‟m going to reach for it now. I will grip it by the end of the barrel, my finger will be nowhere near the trigger.” He reached slowly and did as he‟d said. He brought up a short revolver, the kind policemen carried. He had it pinched between two fingers, and he held it out to Payton. “What are you doing?” Payton asked. “Giving you my gun,” he answered. “Take it.” Payton kept his eye on him as he reached out and took it. He opened the chamber on the revolver. It was fully loaded. He looked back at DeMarco and saw a very hopeful and determined expression on his face. He sighed and motioned for Chanel to lower her gun. “I believe you.” “Thank God,” DeMarco sighed. “All we have to do is wait here and my men will get us out.” 323 Echelon “I‟m afraid not,” Payton said. “Have they told you anything about a countdown?” “Yeah, I know about it,” DeMarco said. “What the hell do you think we‟re trying to prevent here? We gave up the misappropriation charges a long time ago.” “They tell you when the countdown was scheduled to end?” “Nobody gets to know that until their inducted,” DeMarco frowned. “I was supposed to find out tonight.” Payton sighed. “We‟ve got an hour and a half.” DeMarco‟s head snapped up. “No,” he said. Then he must have seen the serious look on Payton‟s face, because his expression turned to fear. “Jesus Christ. There‟s nothing we can do to stop it. Even if we kill everyone in this room, that trigger shuts everything down. Actually, that‟d be worse. If we take everyone down there would be no one around to turn everything back on.” “Actually,” Payton said. “We might have a way.” They filled him in on the tablet and Chuck‟s virus. If it was still sitting on the mainframe terminal console, all they had to do was get to it and enter in the phrase and they‟d be done. The problem was that there were at least two armed men on the other side of the door, possibly more. He, Chanel, and DeMarco had two firearms between them, but that didn‟t guarantee that everyone would all live through a frontal attack. “I have an idea,” DeMarco said. He turned to Chanel. “Give me my gun back.” She handed the gun over. Payton fought back a wince. “Now,” DeMarco continued, examining the pistol before looking at Payton. “We‟re going to go out there, so keep your gun out of site. You go through the door first, 324 Echelon I‟ll follow with my gun in your back. I‟ll say that you hid additional files from him on your tablet, and that you‟re going to show him where they are.” “Then what?” Payton asked. “Assuming they buy it, we start shooting as soon as we‟re close enough.” “What if there are more than Dowd and Jean-Pierre out there?” Payton asked. “Then we do as well as we can,” DeMarco said. “We don‟t have time to come up with anything else, do we?” “I guess not,” Payton agreed. Chanel cleared her throat. “Ahem. Putting aside that I can just about guarantee that I‟ve spent more time on the firearm qualifying range than either of you, what exactly am I going to be doing while you boys are off playing with your guns?” “As soon as the shooting stops, you get out there and initiate the virus upload,” DeMarco answered. “Then we get the hell out of here.” “After we get my niece,” Payton added. “Right. You ready?” Payton‟s heart was pounding. He wasn‟t sure this was such a good idea, but they were running out of time. “I‟m ready,” he said. Chanel moved in front of him. “Are you sure about this, Doc?” He shrugged. “What other choice is there?” She nodded. Then she reached out and hugged him close, wrapping her arms around his neck. “Be careful,” she whispered. She hugged him tighter. “I don‟t want a new partner.” Payton pulled away from her. Her embrace had felt good, but he had work to do. 325 Echelon “This one has been hiding some files from us,” DeMarco announced as they went through the door. Payton took stock of the terminal chamber. Everything looked nearly as it had before. The tablet was still resting on the console. Jean-Pierre looked every bit as bald and foreboding as before, but Dowd was nowhere to be found. Instead he‟d been replaced by two faceless robed figures. They were all huddled around the console, though none of them were seated in the chair. Payton got the impression that they didn‟t have the authority to sit in it. The cold metal of the revolver tucked against the small of his back was oddly comforting. “You were told to keep them in the holding room,” Jean-Pierre said sternly. “Take them back there now.” “He has more of our files,” DeMarco repeated. “Dowd would want them.” They continued to cross the chamber towards the console. “Dowd isn‟t here,” Jean-Pierre said. Payton noticed again the odd timber in his voice. “He said he‟d be back. And he left me in charge.” They were getting close to them now, something like a hundred feet away. “Good,” DeMarco said. “When he gets back, we‟ll have Mr. Connor copy over the files.” Fifty feet. They were close enough now that Payton could see Jean-Pierre‟s eyes narrow. “Take him back to the holding room. I will inform Dowd upon his return.” “And let you take the credit? I don‟t think so,” DeMarco shook his head. 326 Echelon Twenty-five feet. Payton was beginning to wonder how close Dowd intended to get. “Stop and return to the room DeMarco!” Jean-Pierre shouted. He made to reach into his jacket. Payton was shoved sideways by DeMarco, who then shifted his aim. Payton vaguely saw Jean-Pierre‟s snarling face disappear behind the two robed men. Shots rang out, four or five, he couldn‟t be sure. When he looked back towards the console, the two robed men had crumpled to the floor. Jean-Pierre had ducked behind the terminal and DeMarco was moving quickly towards him, keeping low. Payton dug the revolver out of the back of his pants and followed. DeMarco caught his eye and motioned for him to go around one end of the console while he went the other direction. He circled around the console slowly, half expecting to see a gun pointed back at him with every step he took. “Payton, come here,” DeMarco‟s voice came. He rushed around the console to see DeMarco leaning over Jean-Pierre, who was slumped against the machinery, his weapon just out of reach. A red splotch on his white shirt was spreading outward. From what Payton could tell, DeMarco had hit him roughly around the heart cavity. It was a fatal injury, but for the moment he was still breathing laboriously. His hiccupping gasps were painful to listen to, and he was glaring up at them. “He‟s going to die,” Payton said. He tucked the revolver into the back of his pants. “And good riddance,” DeMarco nodded. 327 Echelon “Doc?” Chanel was standing in the doorway. He waved her over. “Get to work on that thing,” he said. He couldn‟t believe it. They were going to do it. They were going to shut down the Echelon network and thwart the plans of the Illuminati. “I have to admit, you guys are pretty good,” DeMarco said. Payton shook his head. “We‟re not out of here yet.” Chanel trotted over and began to ask if they were both alright. Payton stopped her and told her again to get to work on the tablet. She walked over to it. And all three of them ducked as two shots rang out, sending sparks off of the console base. They moved quickly around the console and huddled together. “Who‟s shooting at us?” Chanel hissed. “Connor!” shouted a familiar voice from the doorway. “Get out here Connor. Or I shoot your niece in the head.” “Uncle,” Payton heard his niece‟s whimper. He looked around at Chanel and DeMarco. They were both shaking their heads no. He gritted his teeth and stepped from behind the console. Jennifer was in her chair, just inside the doorway. She was crying out for him and both of her arms were stretched out in front of her, as though she wanted him to come and pick her up. Dowd was stooped down behind her chair. He had one arm around her neck and the other was pointing a gun at her head. “It‟s over Dowd,” Payton said. He raised his arms in the air and walked towards them. “The building is surrounded by Justice Department agents.” 328 Echelon “Actually, we‟re dealing with them upstairs,” Dowd sneered. “They tried to get in the building and the guards we stationed there after you broke in are keeping them out. They won‟t make it down here. Certainly not in time, anyway.” He looked past Payton. “I know you‟re back there DeMarco. Since I‟m the only one with a hostage, I think I should be the only one with a gun. Slide yours out please, or I shoot the girl.” Payton thought immediately of the revolver against his back. Apparently Dowd wasn‟t aware of it. He wondered how much time they had left. It couldn‟t be more than twenty minutes. Maybe less. DeMarco‟s pistol went sliding past him and clanked against the wheelchair. Dowd reached down and picked it up, smiling. “Very good. Now I think we should have all three of you out and against the wall, please.” He abandoned Jennifer and the cover of the wheelchair and walked into the chamber. Both pistols were now trained on him. He got them lined up against the nearest wall. He paced back and forth, his two weapons always pointed in their general direction. Jennifer was still in the doorway, wailing for him. “You damned people,” Dowd spat at them as he paced. “Don‟t you understand what we‟re trying to do? We‟re the good guys. No more war, no more corruption, no more poverty. That‟s what we represent. We‟re going to give people jobs, a purpose for being. Why would you fight that?” “You take people‟s freedom away,” Payton said. How much time was there now? “Think about it, do people really deserve freedom?” Dowd asked. “Every day, the people in this country lie, cheat, and steal. Do you have any idea how many murders are committed on a yearly basis? How about how about the number of people the United 329 Echelon States Military kills? I‟m talking about putting an end to all of that. When we have control, we‟ll close the borders and make every person in the country a part of the solution instead of the problem.” “What about us?” DeMarco asked. “What happens to us?” Dowd ignored the question and stalked silently. Payton noticed that his eyes were constantly moving. He seemed to tilt his head to concentrate wherever he was looking, as if he were always seeing out of only one eye or the other. Payton wondered just how bad his vision really was. His own hands were at his side, but he began inching his right arm to reach behind his back. He didn‟t dare make a sudden grab for the revolver with Dowd‟s pistols continuously trained on the three of them. All he could hope for was a moment of distraction, much like in the holding room with DeMarco, so he could strike. “I offered work to all of you,” Dowd continued. He was ranting. It seemed to Payton as if he was working himself up to something. Probably to kill them. “More than just work, I offered you elite positions amongst the group. Positions that would have given you power and influence in the new America I‟m going to create.” He glanced at his watch. “It won‟t be long now. Another few minutes and this is all over.” “You‟re going to kill us,” Payton said. “But you want an audience first.” “Yes,” Dowd smiled evilly. “Pride is one of my vices.” “Well you can just kill me now,” DeMarco said. “I don‟t plan on applauding you.” “As you wish,” Dowd shrugged. “I don‟t need all three of you.” He trained both pistols on DeMarco and smiled. 330 Echelon “No!” Payton shouted and reached for the revolver. His hand gripped it as he launched himself at Dowd. He brought his aim around and squeezed the trigger. Dowd was pulling a face and trying to shift the sights on one of his guns to Payton. Several shots rang out, three from Payton, and another two or three from Dowd. It felt like everything was happening in slow motion. He saw fire spitting from both of Dowd‟s pistols as well as his own. As if from far away he felt a bullet rip into his shoulder and strike bone. The pain was immediately intense, even as he continued to slowly perceive what was going on around him. He was able to watch two shots of his own hit somewhere on Dowd‟s body, though by the time he hit the floor, he was too consumed with the pain in his shoulder to note the location of the wounds. Everything sped back up to real time again. He was rolling on the floor, his shoulder throbbing. He tried to move his arm, but cried out when he was able to feel the bullet scrape against the bone in his shoulder. Somebody else was screaming. When he looked he saw it was Jennifer, who was rolling her chair in his direction. Dowd was on the ground gasping for air. It sounded like one of his lungs had been punctured. As he made the sucking sounds he glared coldly at Payton. “Uncle Doc,” Jennifer sobbed. “Are you okay, Uncle Doc? Are you okay?” Chanel was by his side by the time his niece skidded to a halt. Tears were flowing like tributaries down Jennifer‟s face as she looked him over. He tried to tell her he was fine, but his voice caught as the bullet scraped again. “Relax,” Chanel said. She knelt beside him and tore open his shirt. “Bad?” Payton managed. 331 Echelon “It looks like the bullet went straight in,” she replied. “Missed the major arteries and the bleeding isn‟t too bad. Assuming we get you to a hospital within a couple of hours, you‟ll live.” “Time?” he croaked. She lifted his good arm and checked his watch. “Ten after nine.” “Go,” he heaved. He jerked his head toward the console. She left his side and made her way over to the console. She began typing on the tablet. He reached out and patted Jennifer on the leg. “I‟ll be okay,” he said, trying to be as soothing as he could manage. She had to be scared to death. Chanel returned to his side. “It‟s uploaded.” “Did it work?” he asked. She shook her head. “I don‟t know. I think so. The console displays got screwy and the whole thing shut down. Whether that means it made it throughout the entire network, I don‟t know.” It didn‟t matter. They had done everything they could. The rest was up to fate. His eyes began to droop. It took a supreme effort, but he managed to crook his head and peer down at his shoulder. Despite what Chanel had said, blood was trickling from the wound and had begun pooling on the floor. It felt like the energy was seeping out of him with the blood. He barely heard the door open and several men in suits pour through, instructing them to raise their hands and informing them that the entire building was now under the control of the United States Justice Department. Chanel was calling them over, pleading with them to get him to a hospital. Jennifer began crying once more. 332 Echelon Payton closed his eyes and darkness overcame him. 333 Echelon Chapter 25: It was a beautiful evening. Payton stood in the backyard outside of his apartment in the twilight, sipping a beer. Chanel was sitting with Jennifer at the patio table. They were eating the burgers he had cooked on the grill. Chanel got up and stood beside him. “So,” she said. “We dodged a bullet.” “I guess so,” he said. “Did you see the news?” He had. For the last week there had been report after report of indicted industrialists. The official word was that they were being accused of giving aid and comfort to the enemies of the war on terror. That amounted to treason. The trials were expected to be quick and the outcome certain. “I saw them,” he said. “No mention of us, of course.” 334 Echelon “Yeah, well, I‟m okay with that.” She stared up at the stars. “At least we get to go back to work tomorrow. Assuming your shoulder has healed.” He shrugged circles. The pain was mostly gone. “Feels pretty good. Yeah, I‟ll make it to work tomorrow.” She wrapped her arm around his waist. “What have you been thinking about, looking up at the sky?” “Actually, I‟ve been thinking about something Dowd said,” he answered her. “I want to know what is out there that scares him enough that he thought eugenics was necessary.” She shrugged. “He was a bad, evil guy.” “Yeah, but he wasn‟t stupid,” he said. “None of them were. Which has got me thinking: there‟s no way they‟ll get them all. Some of them will get away. Some of them probably weren‟t even in the country. And they would have had to be fools not to have a contingency plan for all of this.” “So we‟ll keep working until we get them all.” “With what Dowd said, I just wonder if we really made the country stronger.” She stepped up onto her toes and kissed him on the cheek. She‟d been doing a lot of that sort of thing lately. “We can look into it tomorrow at the Center. Tonight, let‟s just enjoy ourselves.” He nodded. “How about another burger?” “Sure,” she smiled. “You keep cooking them and we‟ll keep eating them. Right Jenny?” “I want pickles,” Jennifer shouted. 335 Echelon They laughed and sat with her at the table. Payton began squeezing some of the ground beef into a patty for grilling. “Uncle Doc,” Jennifer whispered in his ear. “She‟s really pretty.” “I know,” Payton said. “Didn‟t I say you should ask her out on a date?” Jennifer whispered. She had her concerned tone working again. “You don‟t want to be alone, do you?” Chanel apparently overheard them and laughed. 336
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