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The Peace Proxy: Part 1

 

 

 

The Peace Proxy

 

Part 1

 

 

 

Cyril Adams

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Peace Proxy © 2014

Cover Art © 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Jessica, Garrett, and Brandon

 

 

 

 

Thanks to Brian, Danielle, Dave, John, Debbie, Beverly, Leo, Dennis, Andy, Tanner, Andrew, and Mom. I could not have done it without your encouragement.

 

 

 

1

 

Garrett Richards brimmed with excitement over the impending confrontation as he waited in the plush lobby. Julie, the receptionist, offered him a warm smile. She held up her index finger to indicate she needed a moment as she returned to her conversation with the computer embedded in her large desk. Garrett briefly studied her. She appeared young, not even thirty by his guess, but who could tell these days? She had dark red hair with a touch of brown, and dark blue eyes. He wondered if they were her natural color before shifting his attention to the whole of the room. The floor was polished stone, marble or perhaps some ornate granite. The walls, lined with raised panels of light-colored wood, extended thirty feet to a domed ceiling. The dome was decorated with an intricate mural of some long forgotten hero with sword raised, ready to lead his legions to victory or death. Large vertical windows ushered in light from the weak southern sun as it reluctantly forced its way above the horizon. The entire room gave Garrett the open feeling of being outdoors.

Garrett’s attention waned, and his thoughts soon drifted to the upcoming encounter with Governor Frank Weller. Garrett’s career as an investigative reporter began thirteen years earlier. He had acquired a respectable measure of success in the interim, but Governor Weller was the highest-ranking government official he had investigated. Garrett smiled thinly, considering how, despite the unity of the world governments, human nature remained unchanged. That the occasionally corrupt public official believed ill-gotten wealth could be successfully hidden away for later use baffled Garrett. It was all too compelling for a disgruntled conspirator, even years after the crime, to find the hypocrisy of a prim and proper public image more than they could tolerate. So, out of spite, the nefarious behavior was exposed.

Charlie Cogburn, Garrett’s editor, was thrilled by the prospect of an exclusive covering the corruption of a high-level official. As for Garrett, he hoped this would finally put that ugly fiasco involving Senator Rimes behind him. Two years earlier, an errant tip sent him on an irretrievably misguided pursuit concerning a purported overly favorable real estate investment. Although he had published many notable investigative articles before and since, he was quite sure his professional ego was still bruised from the ordeal. He was reminded he would not have met Katherine if the events had unfolded differently but the consolation of that truth had become less effective as he came to realize his reputation may never be restored to the level of respect he had earned before the incident.

He broke from his reflections as Julie turned her attention from the computer. Garrett again offered a smile and made his introduction, “Garrett Richards with the Herald.”

Julie returned the smile. “Of course, Mr. Richards. Governor Weller will see you in a few minutes. Would you like some coffee?”

Garrett declined.

“You are welcome to use the holograph while you wait,” Julie added, indicating a set of controls in the arm of the chairs that lined the lobby.

Garrett considered the ostentatious chairs designed to make the Governor’s guests comfortable while they waited for an audience. He decided on one directly across from Julie that allowed him to observe the entrance to the Governor’s office and the entrance to the building with equal ease. He walked across the room to his chosen vantage point. Upon further inspection, he noted all the chairs were similarly equipped with a holographic device. Impressive and expensive, Garrett acknowledged. After today, the Governor would likely want to see Garrett in a different kind of chair, one equipped with a high voltage feed.

The chair actively conformed to support Garrett in exquisite comfort as he manipulated the controls to activate the holograph. He scanned the morning news programs, stopping briefly to sample the United Federation Senate debates over lifting the ban on the use of antimatter drive ships in the Earth’s atmosphere.

A woman who appeared to be in her late thirties was addressing the delegation. Clad in a dark pants suit, with preternatural black hair, and light skin, she was the image of competence and efficiency. Clearly the advocate, she stood in the center of the Senate floor behind a podium. Around her, the other senators resided in tiered alcoves embedded in the walls. The speaker resembled a refined gladiator in a honeycombed coliseum.

She highlighted both the technical and economic success of the three antimatter reactors that provided the world with electrical power, her Nordic accent framing each point nicely. Might as well say, all of Earth’s power, Garrett reflected. Every vehicle and structure on the planet was powered by electricity, save for the spaceships which, in the atmosphere, could only contain a conventional drive. She continued, stating how allowing antimatter ships to operate directly from Earth would eliminate the need for intermediate stops, significantly reducing the space travel infrastructure.

To travel beyond Earth, one had to leave the planet on a hydrogen drive-powered ship, and then dock with an orbital station, officially named Pericles Station, but commonly referred to as the “Wheel.” Once the conventional ship docked and deposited its occupants, they were free to board an antimatter-powered ship to continue to their intra-solar destination. For most that meant the moon’s only colony, Tycho City.

The woman continued advancing her position, stating the current infrastructure was constricting travel by twenty-seven percent. In five years, that number could be as high as seventy percent. Allowing antimatter ships in the atmosphere would immediately relieve the congestion.

“I find it difficult to believe travel to Pericles Station has already reached capacity,” a Senator challenged.

“It’s the water required to propel the antimatter ships that is limiting travel beyond the Wheel, Senator,” the speaker clarified.

“Water?” came the puzzled reply.

The woman advocating the change in policy visibly restrained her annoyance. Her counterpart’s lack of understanding of basic infrastructure she could forgive, the man’s lack of preparation she could not.

“Sir, if you or any of your staff had read the report on space travel that was prepared for this audience, the answer to your question would be obvious,” she admonished, before continuing the explanation. “An antimatter reaction makes one thing, heat, and lots of it. To propel an object, mass still has to be accelerated. Antimatter drives flash heat water to plasma, which expands rapidly and provides the accelerated mass required to produce force. Most of the cargo that we send to the Wheel is water for the antimatter drives. If antimatter ships were allowed in the atmosphere, the hundreds of tons of water we ship to the Wheel every day would no longer be necessary.”

Slim chance, Garrett reasoned. Two years ago there were four antimatter collectors operating in orbit when Vedas Two had a containment breach. The ensuing explosion gave Australia a false day for a few brilliant seconds. It had created quite a phobia against antimatter among the general populace. The only thing that kept the antimatter reactors on Earth from being shut down was the prospect of having to pay tremendous prices for electricity. Public phobia stopped just short of the public pocketbook. The reactors’ remote locations such as northern Canada, Siberia, and Antarctica allayed concerns of a containment failure for all but the few who legitimately understood the extent of the devastation such an event would generate.

As if reading Garrett’s thoughts, a voice from one of the alcoves challenged the speaker. “What about the Vedas Two breach?”

Garrett switched to the next program where a thin, graying man was addressing four other persons in what appeared to be an open discussion on the former third-world countries. The man had an annoying habit of rubbing his hands together as he spoke. The group was discussing the view that these countries were being exploited by what was still referred to as the developed nations. Garrett quickly changed the channel. The constant debate surrounding the “underdeveloped countries” did not sit well with him. With almost free energy, the countries had quickly developed what, by all arguments, was an equal standard of living. The practical elimination of petroleum use had a profound effect on the world economic structure, with the consumer nations surprisingly experiencing the largest downturn. Although many speculated the shift from petroleum dependency over the past two decades would signal the end of the Middle East energy influence, those prognosticators were not tracking the source of funding for this recently viable renewable energy. The Arabian Gulf states held a controlling interest in the three remaining antimatter collectors and were entirely funding the replacement for Vedas Two.

The next channel was broadcasting a news report of an alleged alien craft observed by a Mars survey team. Garrett listened intently. Sightings of unidentified ships had increased dramatically in the past year as companies began to catalog Martian resources. The screen displayed a fuzzy image of a wedge-shaped vessel. The photo was taken at a considerable distance, and Garrett could not glean much from it. The image was replaced by a young anchorwoman. She reported an emergency session of the United Federation Senate erupted into chaos yesterday when the Chinese delegate threatened to end the thirty-one-year ban on all standing militia. The screen shifted to the emergency session of the United Federation Senate. The Senate floor appeared the same as in the previous broadcast, except the woman promoting antimatter had been replaced by the United Federation Chairman. His stature emanated the confidence of a predetermined outcome as the Chinese Senator addressed the delegation.

“This poses an immediate threat. China is calling for legislation supporting the creation of a standing army, for defense of course.”

“And dissolve the military ban that has been in effect for thirty-one years? Outrageous!” The Australian Senator countered, incredulously. A rumbling thunder of discord made its way through the chamber as dissenting murmurs filled the open space.

The Chairman addressed the forum, “All right, maintain order, my fellow statesmen. The Alien Research Center will make a statement concerning the sighting within the hour. No one here is suggesting we require anything more than the police forces we currently maintain.”

“On the contrary,” the Chinese Senator countered. “China is suggesting we need more, and if the Senate doesn’t act, China will.”

The murmurs quickly grew into shouting as mayhem erupted throughout the assembly.

“Order! ORDER!” The Chairman demanded as he tried to regain control of the session.

With the bulk of the Senate drama concluded, the anchorwoman reappeared to announce the Alien Research Center had issued a statement explaining the sighting as a survey ship observed through the distortion of the Martian atmosphere. The center maintains the alien fleet will not reach our solar system for at least sixty-seven years. It continues to coordinate humanity’s research efforts, ensuring we are prepared to meet the impending threat.

Garrett was so intent on the news report, Julie had to tell him twice that the Governor would see him. Garrett thanked her as he moved toward the large double doors that led to the Governor’s office. As he reached out to open the door on the right, both doors opened inward, automatically. The Governor had a proclivity for the extravagant.

 

 

 

2

 

The Governor’s office was decorated similarly to the lobby, except for the wall behind his desk, which was entirely glass. Rumors of the Governor’s private garden, the most extravagant and criticized aspect of the recent Jersey State House renovation, had reached Garrett. The Governor had the complex gutted through the center to make room for his private oasis. Despite being locked in winter’s grip, the view of the manicured, snow-covered topiaries, merging seamlessly into a series of heated water features, was serenely captivating.

Governor Weller stood as Garrett approached the desk. He offered his hand and a forced smile. Seeing the smile, Garrett knew instantly Weller feared the reason for the visit, but he was playing along cordially, in the hope that Garrett’s target might be someone else. Garrett also assumed Weller knew Garrett’s specific professional niche, either by reputation or through a background check, which he was certain preceded any visit.

“Welcome, Mr. Richards. Please sit down,” he offered in a friendly manner. Garrett assessed him rather quickly. He was dressed in a suit of dark green. His collar was unbuttoned, and a tie lay on the desk. His mannerisms tended toward the naturally friendly. Knowing this short interview would bring Weller’s world crashing down evoked the briefest feeling of doubt. Here is a guy who just got in over his head, poor fellow. He noticed Weller’s skin and his suit hung loosely on his body, indicating recent liposuction. Weller’s physique trended toward the plump side. He must be unable to take metabolism stabilizers, Garrett thought. For the unfortunate Mr. Weller, this meant his metabolism could not be brought into equilibrium; he actually had to use activity and monitor his diet to maintain his physique. There was a small percentage of the populace that could not dip into the well that truly provided a better life through chemistry, but, in recent years, the ability to match an individual was almost taken for granted. Recognition of the Governor’s condition struck a deep chord of pity in some part of Garrett that he rarely found a use for, and the excitement of the impending conversation withered away. Under normal circumstances, Garrett lived for these moments, when the predator knows the prey has allowed the distance between them to irretrievably shrink, leading to only one possible outcome, and this aberrant feeling was ruining it for him. It was not that Garrett was an especially hard man, but years of investigative journalism had left him somewhat indifferent when it came to the human condition. Was he going soft? Garrett dismissed the notion. Focus, he chided. You are here for a story, not to dissect Mr. Weller’s trials and tribulations.

“Governor Weller, thank you for seeing me, particularly on a Saturday,” Garrett started.

The Governor nodded his head, but the smile left his face as he did. “Well you can’t stop the press, right?”

“Right,” Garrett agreed as he sat in the offered chair facing Weller’s desk.

“You said you wanted to speak to me concerning the State’s construction contract.”

“That is correct,” Garrett began. “It seems the state averted a strike by a matter of hours.” That’s the spirit. Now that the interview was underway, the old instincts were emerging through this haze of self-examination. “I’ve been following the contract renegotiations for the State’s infrastructure sustainment.” Garrett continued, “No one expected the impasse would be overcome so quickly.”

The Governor nodded his head in agreement. “Thank you. It is quite an accomplishment for the State of New Jersey.”

“Of course, your negotiating team must be second to none.”

“The best,” the Governor agreed.

“There is speculation that paying a penalty for the work that was erroneously authorized would have saved the state more money than renegotiating a contract that would expire in a year.”

The Governor shifted slightly in his chair before replying. “It depends on how you run the numbers. On the surface, it appears the settlement put the state at a disadvantage, but the out-of-scope work was extensive. Due to a misunderstanding of the contract structure, much of the work had been completed. The Union made it clear anything short of a renegotiation would be countered with legal action. It is important for the residents of New Jersey to understand the cost of litigation would have been considerably more than negotiation. At least this way the residents of New Jersey are getting services for the expense.”

“Yes,” Garrett paused briefly, feigning contemplation over his next statement. “There are some rumors concerning the nature of the compensation.”

The Governor again shifted his bulk as if the subject had somehow rendered the conforming chair decidedly uncomfortable. “The terms of the agreement are public record,” he countered.

Garrett continued, “I am referring to rumors of personal compensation.”

“I assure you my staff’s ethics are impeccable,” the Governor replied coolly.

Garrett responded with a half-smile, knowing the interview was about to take an ugly turn. “No doubt. The rumors concern your involvement.”

The Governor straightened, scattering items across his desk. The reaction could not have been more dramatic if he had been struck by a stray bolt of lightning from the clear blue sky visible through the room’s decadent picture window.

“Mr. Richards, that accusation borders on slander,” he belted out with all the anger he could muster. “If you’ve come here to accuse me, you’re gravely mistaken.” His eyes narrowed as he continued with a sinister tone, “Do you think I don’t know how you ended up with that two-bit rag you write for now? How hard do you think it will be to discredit you?”

Garrett assessed Governor Weller for a moment before calmly replying, “Given my history, how sure do you think I would have to be to accuse you?”

The Governor’s face blanched as he considered the question. He swallowed before replying in a raspy voice, “We’re done here.”

Garrett allowed a brief pause before using the adage, “Is that your official statement?”

The Governor stood rapidly, nearly knocking his chair over in the process. He postured to seem as imposing as his small frame allowed. Garrett had worked him into quite a frenzy. This was more like it, now for the crescendo.

“Get the hell out of my office!” the Governor bellowed. “My lawyers will have an injunction against the Herald in place before you can get back to New York.”

Garrett relaxed in his chair, as if the Governor had just repeated Julie’s offer for coffee.

“One last item before I leave,” Garrett began calmly. “Could I get your comments on this conversation?” As he finished, Garrett placed a small oblong device on the Governor’s desk and depressed a recessed button on its side. The device obligingly played a voice recording. The Governor recognized the speaker. It was he.

If the contract goes for open bid we’re going to lose it,” the Governor’s voice emanated from the recording device, filling the otherwise quiet room. The Governor also recognized the second voice as Karl Sigler, the owner of U.S. Granite, the company that currently held and, through the recent negotiations, retained the state’s infrastructure contract.

Karl’s retort was direct, “You’d better figure out a way to keep that from happening, Frank.

Irritated, the Governor replied, “I told you never to use my name, jackass.

Whatever, Frank,” Karl countered. “If this deal goes sour don’t think you’re going back to being an honest citizen. You’ve made a lot of money off me. It wouldn’t be in your best interest to become useless.

The Governor abruptly collapsed into his chair. As the recording played on, he appeared to shrink into the cushions as if he was some morsel being slowly digested by the overstuffed upholstery. The conversation continued, although, it was clear from the Governor’s appearance he wished it would stop.

On the recording, the Governor was chastising Karl. “Don’t threaten me, you little rodent. I’ve already told you, if you want to keep the contract, give me a reason to renegotiate it.

What do you mean?” Karl queried.

Get the union involved concerning out-of-scope work,” the Governor’s recorded voice instructed.

It’ll cost,” Karl insisted.

It’ll cost a lot more if you don’t,” the Governor countered. “Make it happen. And Karl…

Yeah?

You ever call me again on this line, Granite will have an unexpected change in leadership, capisce?

The recording ended. Garrett retrieved the device and, giving his best effort not to look too smug, stared expectantly at the Governor. The chair slowly exuded the Governor back into the room. As he brought his hand out from under the desk, Garrett saw it held a small needle gun. The tiny device was as deadly as it was concealable. Now it was Garrett’s turn to shift uncomfortably in his chair.

Garrett tried to sound calm, but as he spoke, the words roared in his ears. “I didn’t take you for a murderer.”

The Governor’s eyes widened giving him a crazed appearance as he replied, “I’m not going to kill you, Mr. Richards, unless you insist. My associates have people for that, but I will take that recording.”

“Sure,” Garrett replied. He casually placed the device on the desk. “Can I go now?”

“No. I have no illusions that this is the only copy, it just can’t be found with your body. I’m going to call my associates. Then you can go.”

Governor Weller retrieved a satellite phone from the top draw and placed the credit card size device on top of the desk.

“Sigler,” he commanded, and the phone obediently established a connection. After several rings, a voice answered through the desk speakers.

“What now?” The voice demanded. Garrett recognized Karl’s voice from the recording.

“It’s Weller.”

“I know who it is. What do you want?”

“We have a problem,” the Governor explained. As he spoke, the Governor reached across the desk to retrieve the recording device. His motion shifted the direction he was pointing the needle gun away from Garrett’s immediate vicinity. Recognizing this window of opportunity would close in moments, Garrett reacted quickly. He grabbed the Governor’s wrist and pulled him into the desk hard enough to squeeze the remaining air out of his lungs with a surprised squeak. Before the disadvantaged Governor could regain his seating, Garrett dove over the desk. The Governor, Garrett, and the chair hit the floor in a tangled mess, leaving the Governor gasping for air. With the Governor’s attention focused on his next breath, the gun no longer held the same importance it had a few moments earlier, and the impact liberated it from his weakened grasp.

Karl was still on the line. “Hey, you there?” He queried, concern evident in his voice. Garrett tried to restrain the Governor, who was recovering from the initial shock of the indignities inflicted through Garrett’s desperation. With a surge of strength that surprised Garrett, Weller broke free of Garrett’s grasp as the two rolled across the floor. Weller dove for the gun and achieved his objective. He stood as Garrett rebounded into him. The gun discharged, removing a large section of material from one of the ornate doors.

“What’s going on over there?” Karl asked alarmed.

Garrett’s entire concentration was on the hand that held the weapon, leaving Weller’s other hand free to land blows on various parts of Garrett’s body. Eventually, one found its mark and Weller broke free as two armed guards rushed into the room. The older of the two already had his weapon drawn. The younger struggled to remove his from its holster to match his weathered counterpart’s state of readiness. Despite their differences in reaction times, they both shared the distinction of appearing scared witless. That probably makes four of us, Garrett mused. The younger guard succeeded in freeing his weapon and, along with his partner, brought it to bear on the Governor.

In contrast to his demeanor, the older guard spoke with a calm assurance. “Put the gun down Governor,” he instructed.

Weller, still grasping at a means to control the rapidly changing situation, lifted the gun toward Garrett. Both guards tensed and pointed their weapons with conviction.

“Whoa, Governor, put the gun down,” the older guard repeated with emphasis.

“Just ease the gun down,” the younger guard encouraged.

Like a slowly lifting fog, the confusion left Weller’s face. “It’s his. He tried to kill me. Arrest him!” He declared as he dropped the gun to his side.

Both guards visibly relaxed as the elder took on a less aggressive tone. “That’s fine Governor, but we still need you to put down the gun.”

Garrett slowly raised his open hands, indicating he was willing to cooperate. “I surrender,” he offered to further defuse the situation.

“Yeah, we have the video,” the younger guard informed the Governor. “He’ll be arrested.”

The fog that had lifted from Weller’s perception quickly resettled. “The video?” He uttered weakly.

The younger guard felt obligated to explain. “It’s Saturday. No one turned off the after-hours surveillance.” The older guard correctly interpreted the Governor’s confused response and instantly recognized the situation for what it was. He gave the young guard a small nod meant to stop the other’s babbling. The younger man mistook the signal as encouragement and continued, “It’ll show everything. Lucky, huh?”

The Governor did not appear to find the news as appealing as the young guard intended. In fact, his pasty appearance indicated he was about to get a second look at his breakfast. His eyes darted around the room as if it was unfamiliar and he could not remember if it contained a hidden exit. Discarding the possibility of escape, his gaze fell on Garrett. Weller’s expression shifted from panic to resolve. He slowly raised the gun. Garrett dropped his hands and moved into a slight crouch. The arc scribed by the gun did not come to rest on Garrett but under the Governor’s chin.

“Governor, don’t,” the elder guard yelled.

The Governor continued to stare at Garrett.

“This is going to be hard on my boys,” he stated flatly.

“No!” Garrett protested as he sprang toward the Governor, arriving in time to catch the lifeless body.

 

 

 

3

 

After the circumstances surrounding Governor Weller’s death were confirmed, the interview at the police station was brief. A gangly officer who appeared to be a little older than Garrett took his statement and a copy of the conversation between the former Governor Weller and Karl Sigler.

“Well, Mr. Richards, you sure are lucky,” the officer concluded.

“How so?”

“Those needle guns are designed to circumvent security,” the officer explained. “They’re illegal of course; practically undetectable. If the gun hadn’t discharged, those guards wouldn’t have responded.”

“I guess I am,” Garrett reflected.

“What?” The officer questioned, not following Garrett’s introspective reasoning.

“Lucky,” Garrett replied.

The officer returned a concerned stare. Satisfied Garrett’s mental faculties were in order, he decided the interview was complete.

“I think we have all we need. I’ll just check with the lieutenant.”

The officer walked to a glass-enclosed office, which by design afforded an unobstructed view of the rows of desks used by the patrol officers. Garrett watched as the officer spoke with a stern looking woman whose mannerisms indicated she was more concerned with her computer interface. After a few moments, she looked at the officer who pointed in Garrett’s direction. She gave a curt nod, and the officer returned to Garrett. He informed Garrett the interview was complete and offered a ride to the train station, which Garrett gladly accepted.

Garrett followed the officer to the motor garage and moved to get in the passenger’s side of the police aircar, but the officer shook his head in disapproval. “Sorry but you’ll have to ride in the back,” he instructed Garrett, seemingly embarrassed. “Department policy.” With a shrug, he pointed to a camera tucked into the ceiling.

Garrett nodded with a shrug of his own. “No problem. I’m just thankful for the ride.” Garrett’s understanding produced a smile from the officer as he entered the vehicle.

A beleaguered Garrett slid into the back seat. Checking the time, he numbly deduced he could still make it back to New York in time for this evening’s Christmas ball. Recalling tonight’s celebration, Garrett realized there were only four days until Christmas, and he had not decided on a gift for Katherine. A radio broadcast of the Governor’s death brought his thoughts back to recent events. The report stated, for reasons unknown, the Governor had committed suicide after an interview with a reporter from the New York Herald. It ended with a promise from the Attorney General that his office would look into the facts surrounding the incident. Garrett asked the officer to turn off the broadcast, and he obliged.

Garrett had diligently forwarded the story to Charlie from his communications band a few minutes before the police arrived. Commonly referred to as a “comband,” the device was essentially a touch screen bracelet about an inch wide. It enabled the user to access the information superhighway with all of life’s essentials. Like most consumers, Garrett wore a nearly invisible paired earpiece for private voice communication. By now, his news agency was running a written exclusive on the net edition.

The day’s events had drained Garrett both mentally and physically. The last thing he remembered was how fatigued he felt as he slipped into comforting darkness.

 

Garrett was enjoying a respite from the day’s events at Arthur’s cabin by the lake. He had always favored this special place where, as a boy, he had discovered the mysteries of the great outdoors. He wrapped the wool blanket around his shoulders as he watched the fire dance along the stone hearth. He felt a hand on his shoulder, which was vaguely disconcerting since he was alone. Arthur must have driven up to surprise him, but the repeated use of “Mr. Richards” seemed out of character. It was getting colder despite the adequate blaze contained in the fireplace. Was the door open? Garrett opened his eyes, and the warm cabin was instantly replaced by the cool night air entering through the open police car door.

“Mr. Richards?” the officer questioned. “Mr. Richards, sorry to wake you but we’ve arrived.”

Garrett struggled to comprehend the officer’s meaning. “What?”

“We’re here, sir,” the officer replied.

Garrett sat up. The surroundings were not what he had expected. The aircar sat on a landing pad atop a tall building, not the train station as Garrett had expected. Garrett exited the vehicle, the cobwebs clearing from his head, as he did. He recognized the skyline.

“Are we…,” he began.

“At your apartment building,” the officer finished. “You fell asleep before we got out of the parking garage. I was going off shift, so I called in and asked if I could just take you all the way. It seemed like you’d already had a rough day.”

Garrett rubbed his eyes with one hand. “How long was I out?” he asked as he stretched to ward off the last remnants of sleep.

“About fifteen minutes.”

“Well, thank you, officer…” Garrett started, extending his hand.

Anxious to be on his way, the officer quickly shook the offered hand.

“Crandal. Troy Crandal,” Troy informed Garrett.

“Thank you, Troy.”

“No problem,” he replied as he climbed back into the vehicle.

The aircar drive energized with a distinct hum as Garrett began the cold walk to the alcove that housed the elevators.

“Garrett!” Katherine exclaimed as he came through the door of their apartment. “Are you all right?”

“I could use a drink,” Garrett replied as she put her arms around his neck and kissed him.

“I’ll get it. Relax; I’m sure you’re still shaken up.” She moved to the next room and retrieved a bottle of scotch from the bar.

Garrett walked into the living area and collapsed on the sofa. He watched Katherine pour the scotch into a glass. Oddly, she was only wearing a black bra and panties. Seeing her move around the room brought a small smile to Garrett’s lips. She handed him the scotch and went into the bedroom. He took a long drink and closed his eyes. Governor Weller’s suicide was unexpected, and Garrett knew he was going to face an avalanche of criticism. Memories of the last time his career was in jeopardy pushed their way out of the recesses where he tried to keep them buried. His thoughts drifted back to when he met Katherine.

 

After the debacle in which Garrett’s investigation of Senator Rimes’ involvement in questionable real estate transactions was front-page news, the Secretary of State wanted to meet with Garrett. As chance would have it, the Senator and the Secretary were old friends, and the Secretary felt obligated to relay his opinion of Garrett’s reckless journalism to Garrett personally. Garrett had not noticed Katherine before the meeting. Afterward, he was too caught up in self-examination to fully appreciate his surroundings and had therefore overlooked the attractive special assistant to the Secretary of State. A myriad of unanswered questions competed for his attention and even now, two years later, he was still no closer to finding resolution. Who forged the bank records? Where had the witnesses come from and how could they have disappeared without a trace? He was certain it had been a setup to besmirch someone’s character, but Garrett was not sure if he or Senator Rimes was the target. Either way, by the time it was over, both of their reputations suffered considerable damage.

The Secretary’s special assistant was not as caught up in introspection and noticed the endearing reporter who could barely find his way out of the office after meeting with her supervisor. Garrett heard a woman’s voice asking someone if they would like to join her for lunch. After a pause that was too long to be considered good manners, Garrett realized he was the intended recipient of the question. He looked up to see a beautiful young woman addressing him. She stood half a head shorter than he and had a smile that captivated him in a way he still found difficult to describe.

“Pardon me?” Garrett responded, still emerging from his contemplations.

“You look like you’ve had a rough day. Why don’t you join me for lunch?” she replied. Garrett stared back at her, seemingly incapable of responding as he mulled probable career paths based on the day’s events.

“Come on, I’ll buy,” she offered energetically, as she grabbed his arm and began walking toward the door.

“Yeah, sure,” Garrett mumbled, as he consented to being led out of the building.

Over lunch, he found her to have a wry wit that he thoroughly enjoyed, and after he had recovered enough to start using sentences that were longer than two syllables, she found his company equally agreeable. She was particularly attracted to the quiet strength his personality carried so nonchalantly, almost as if he were not aware of it.

She had grown up on a farm in rural Ohio. The youngest of four, she developed adept negotiating skills at an early age, to steer daily childhood squabbles to her benefit. This had turned her into an extrovert by necessity, and she had the intellect to match her outgoing demeanor. On the high school debate team, she was known for her ability to turn any controversy to her advantage. Her nature was one of competition, both intellectually and physically, but her upbringing had also taught her the necessity of empathy, and she was gracious in both victory and defeat. She attended college on a track scholarship, and it was there she first gained notoriety in politics. At a student rally of the Economic Reformation Party, the president of the local chapter was leading the group in support of a politician running for the United Senate. Katherine was walking by on the way to an academic lecture when she heard the assertions of the young man leading the rally concerning global monetary restructuring. It was this type of idealistic, illogical, and entirely unachievable proposal so readily claimed by the politically uninitiated that she found particularly irksome. It had become obvious to her that the momentum of global economies was such that any claim of rapid positive change was pure fantasy. She stopped and turned toward the rally, refuting the orator’s claim on how his candidate planned to accomplish this Herculean feat. An impromptu debate ensued in which the local president’s assertions on the efficacy of his candidate’s platform were quickly countered and the rally fizzled. It was over in a few minutes, and Katherine was not even late for class.

When her class adjourned, someone was waiting for her. Robert Stroh, the opponent of the candidate the rally was held for, had been in the audience. He had witnessed the exchange and was impressed. As Katherine left the mathematics building, Robert made introductions and asked if she had a serious interest in politics. He was handsome, slightly graying at the temples, which added a distinguished air to his youthful face. Initially, Katherine was certain he was using the politics angle to ask her out, but as they walked he explained the trouble he was having with his burgeoning campaign and made a point to mention he was married. After determining his interest was legitimate, she seriously considered his request to join his campaign. In the end, she decided it sounded interesting enough to give it a chance. Katherine started working for the campaign within the week and upon her graduation two months later, became the campaign manager. And so, a promising future in physics was traded for a brilliant career in politics. Her political savvy was uncanny and under her leadership, the campaign unseated the incumbent. Robert proved to be a capable man of action in the Senate. When he was appointed to the position of Secretary of State, he took his prized assistant with him.

Garrett’s childhood was the antithesis of Katherine’s. Orphaned when he was four, with no surviving family, he was raised by a close family friend, Arthur Craig. A refined, gentle man, Arthur saw to Garrett’s needs, but could not substitute for a father. He put Garrett through the one of most prestigious boarding schools in the country. It was a lonely upbringing, but it instilled in Garrett a sense of self-reliance that formed the core of his confidence. As a college freshman, he took an interest in football, a game he had never played. He tried out as a walk-on and, to the surprise of many, earned a position as a wide receiver. By his junior year, he held two school records, and there was already talk of a professional career, but a tackle in the first game of that season left him with a compound fracture of the left femur. The injury became infected and at one point, it was uncertain Garrett would keep his leg. Fortunately, he did recover, but he had lost a year of school. He tried to return to football, but he never regained the speed he could so easily generate before the injury. Suddenly the journalism degree he had been neglecting held extreme significance for his uncertain future. He doubled his course load and graduated six months later than he would have, had his injury not kept him from class for a year.

 

Despite their disparate backgrounds, or perhaps due to the same, Katherine and Garrett connected with each other in a way neither had previously experienced. After dating for several months, she moved in with him in New York. She retained her position as the special assistant to the Secretary of State, commuting between New York and Washington D.C. on the Airless Magnetic Levitation Train. Generally called the “A-Lev,” the system housed a Maglev train in an airless tube, eliminating friction and pressure drag.

Garrett was grateful for the timing of their meeting. The effect of having his reporting success curtailed so abruptly would have been much harder to bear without Katherine, but lately, a distance had grown between them. It was small, but Garrett could feel the emptiness and sensed the divide was expanding. Katherine had subtly indicated she was ready for their relationship to transition to the next level, which meant marriage. Garrett was still trying to recover from the damage he perceived his reputation had suffered after his dismissal from the Tribune. He was not ready to be responsible for someone else’s happiness. He knew the issue would soon reach a level that neither could continue to ignore, and they would have to move forward or move on.

 

“Charlie called and said he understood if we didn’t make the party tonight,” Katherine voiced from the bedroom.

“The party, right.” That explained Katherine’s unusual apparel at this hour. Garrett considered whether he wanted to face a ballroom filled with a majority of his New York counterparts after what had happened. He decided the events had been largely beyond his control and hiding would not change the parts he could have affected. Moreover, Katherine was looking forward to this evening. “I feel up to it, how about you?”

“I’m not the one who had a rough day at the office,” she teased as she emerged wearing an ankle length, slinky black dress with a slit up one thigh.

Garrett smiled approvingly. “Well, if you’re going to look that good, I might as well show you off,” he remarked as he got up and walked to the bathroom. “Give me thirty minutes.”

 

Garrett stared out the window of the cab as he and Katherine sped off toward their destination. Recounting the day’s events, he found the barely audible hum of the electric motor did little to soothe the growing feeling of chagrin over Governor Weller’s suicide. If the corruption case had been prosecuted, Garrett’s investigative prowess would have been sensationalized through the trial. With the suicide, some would view the Governor as the victim. Garrett’s behavior would now be the focus of his fellow journalists. There might even be an investigation concerning the ethics of confronting a subject with evidence of a crime before sharing that information with the authorities. This was not going to repair his damaged reputation as he had envisioned. Despite his self-pity, he was reminded the outcome was much worse for the Weller family. Tonight, a widow was trying to ease her children’s heartbreak, and Garrett reluctantly acknowledged he had a role in the events that led to that outcome. The notion sent his spirits to new lows.

Katherine took his hand and asked, “So, what happened?”

Garrett was silent for a moment before answering, “I played the recording for him, and he shot himself.”

“It could have been you too, Garrett. Not smart; confronting him like that,” she replied. Although Katherine could be a real sweetheart, she did not let it get in the way of the facts.

“You think?” Garrett said, with more than a hint of sarcasm, as he continued to stare out the window.

“Don’t get feisty with me,” she responded playfully. “You know I love you, but…” she trailed off, realizing what she had said. Garrett turned from the window and faced Katherine, the aircar he was watching outside forgotten.

“Well, actually,” he responded, allowing his broad smile to relay his approval of the use of that term of endearment.

She returned his smile as she nuzzled against him. “I shouldn’t have said that,” she joked, “you’ll be running for the hills now.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Garrett replied as he hugged her closer. They were both quiet for a while. Garrett could sense her need to hear the same from him, but he could not bring forth the words. What troubled him most was he could not understand why. Some part of him would not allow total immersion into what he knew to be true. He did love Katherine, and the idea scared him a little. Growing up in boarding schools had ingrained in him an independence he struggled to surrender. He had subconsciously created a life plan that included becoming a successful professional before starting a family. His psyche was struggling with the possible rearrangement of that sequence of events. The irony of their relationship was without the calamity that derailed his career they would not have met, but if he had met Katherine when his star was on the rise he probably would have already proposed. His inner debate continued until the silence between them became awkward. Anything he said now would sound disingenuous. He was disappointed at letting the moment pass them by and so, not knowing what to say, they finished the ride in silence.

 

Promising a night all in attendance would remember, the World Press Alliance had reserved the ballroom at the Millennium Plaza for the annual Christmas party. It occupied the space that would have been the 90th through the 100th floors and was renowned for its extravagance. Neither Garrett nor Katherine had seen it, and each was looking forward to the experience. The doorman directed them to the two elevators used exclusively for the ballroom. The lobby was crowded with people busily going about their preholiday errands, but Garrett saw no one he recognized from the press corps. They were an hour late; everyone else was probably in the ballroom. They made their way to the elevator and pressed one of the two buttons. The doors closed. The acceleration was immediate and considerable. To let Garrett know there was no lingering anxiety from their earlier conversation, Katherine kissed him as they reached the top floor.

The doors opened into a short hallway that led to the ballroom foyer. Even from this distance, one could sense the open space beyond the arched entrance. A door marked with a caricature of a man caught Garrett’s attention and he excused himself from Katherine to use the restroom.

 

As Garrett opened the door to leave the restroom, it stopped in mid-swing. A tall figure pushed Garrett back into the room with a smooth, but stern force.

“What are you doing?” Garrett asked.

The figure did not reply. He looked over his shoulder, giving the hallway a quick glance before returning his attention to the restroom. He looked at Garrett briefly as he allowed the door to shut. He then checked the room to ensure it was empty.

Garrett sized up the stranger as he moved further into the restroom. He was tall, about ten years older than Garrett, with broad shoulders framing a physique that was likely muscular twenty years ago, but had run soft with age. It only took a cursory glance to see the man had not shaved for several days, and by the appearance of his attire had not changed clothes during the same period. He was remarkably underdressed for the occasion.

“All right, you have my attention,” Garrett acknowledged. “What’s going on?”

The man motioned for Garrett to be quiet while he checked the last stall. Satisfied the room was vacant, the man locked the door.

“Garrett Richards,” the man began, “you know me as Mercury.”

Garrett was briefly surprised by the admission, but almost instantly that emotion gave way to rage. Mercury was the code name used by Garrett’s best informant. They had worked together for five years but had never met. On many occasions, Mercury had provided information for the groundbreaking articles that had boosted Garrett’s career. That was until two years ago when Mercury put Garrett on a collision course with Senator Rimes. The construct was elaborate, involving multiple offshore accounts, but simple in its premise. The Senator would purchase undeveloped commercial properties, and the companies wishing to procure his influence would buy them at three or four times the amount paid. In some of the most egregious cases, the company buying the land was the original owner who had sold it to the Senator well below market value at the scheme’s inception. The transactions were always executed through several degrees of separation for both parties. The story broke at the most crucial time in Senator Rimes’ reelection campaign. The campaign did not survive the scandal and, after the truth was revealed, Garrett’s career followed suit. During his investigation, Garrett met with and received depositions from multiple witnesses corroborating the fraud. After the article was published, they disappeared, along with their carefully tailored backgrounds. According to official records, they had never existed. Mercury had provided all the contacts.

The man offered his hand in that time-honored gesture meant to demonstrate affability for the newly acquainted. Garrett’s emotions were taking his body in another direction. His clenched fist lashed out, contacting the other man’s jaw with a loud crack. When Garrett later recalled the events of this meeting, it seemed that the appendage acted of its own volition, while the rest of him watched with the apathy of a detached bystander. The punch had its intended effect and the man Garrett knew as Mercury fell flat on his back with a resounding thud.

Garrett stood over the fallen figure. “You set me up,” he accused between ragged breaths.

The man moaned as he rolled over. Using one hand against the floor, he recovered to his knees while his other hand stemmed the flow of blood from his broken lip.

With his back still to Garrett, he swore loudly. “Damn it. I didn’t set you up.” He stood as he spoke and slowly turned to face Garrett. He met Garrett’s incensed stare as he massaged his jaw with his right hand and added, “We both got burned on that investigation.”

Garrett sensed the truth of the man’s assertion, but the frustration of struggling for years to reestablish his credibility left his anger unabated. “I didn’t read anything in the paper about you losing your job.”

“Well, that’s the downside of being the front man. You get the glory, but you also bear the burden if things go bad.”

“Interesting philosophy. How do I know you are who you say?” Garrett questioned.

“I’ve been working with you for seven years.”

“Wrong,” Garrett interrupted, “I worked with Mercury for five years.”

“We’re still working together,” the man countered. “Do you think recordings of Governors engaged in embezzlement and their off-shore bank account records are delivered by the information fairy?”

“I haven’t disclosed the bank records yet,” Garrett admitted. Knowing the accusation against Governor Weller would generate considerable intrigue, Charlie had elected to release the financial details in a follow-up article to garner additional attention for the Herald. “So you’re the anonymous source?”

“Yeah, I gave you Weller,” he shot Garrett a sidelong glance. “Actually, you kind of screwed that up.”

“Everybody’s a critic,” Garrett responded dryly. “Is that what this is about?”

“Nah, what do I care if you killed him instead of wrote a story.”

“I didn’t…,” Garrett protested, but the man stopped him with a wave of his hand as he laughed.

“I’m just playing with you,” the man replied. He had a rare, childlike enthusiasm that gave him leave to joke when he was clearly in dire straits. That trait probably contributed to his success as someone who could acquire seemingly impossible to obtain information. “Mike’s the name. The real name,” he smiled as he said it. Mike emanated a gentle, easygoing persona and Garrett begrudgingly acknowledged he liked his mannerisms.

Garrett was intrigued and, this time, shook the offered hand. “Why are you making contact now?”

“I’ve got something big this time. Too big, I think. Right now, you knowing who I am may be the only thing that can save my life.” Mike continued as he moved closer, “A couple of days ago someone in my network approached me about a friend who had found something unimaginable about the ARC. He said he had information about some kind of fraud.”

“In the ARC?” Garrett asked, finding such a proposition difficult to believe. The Alien Research Center, commonly referred to as the “ARC,” was solely responsible for all the military preparations for the impending war. Thirty-one years ago, when the existence of the alien fleet was announced to a stunned world, the United Federation of Nations founded the Alien Research Center as the coordinating agency for advanced technology development. It coordinated research and manufacturing efforts to ensure all the resources at humanity’s disposal were used in the most efficient manner possible to create a viable defense system before the alien force arrived. The future of humanity depended on its success or failure. There had never been a scandal surrounding the ARC and, outside of official press releases, very little independent information existed on the organization. The idea being that to succeed in the upcoming conflict, secrecy would be as important as technology.

“Yeah, the ARC,” Mike continued. “From what my source told me, planning efforts are being undermined.”

“Undermined? How?” Garrett asked.

“I don’t know exactly,” Mike admitted. “Resources are being diverted.”

“Into what?”

“Something alien,” Mike responded, deadly serious.

“Come on Mike, that can’t be right. Look at all the advancements the ARC has brought about in the last thirty-one years.”

“I didn’t say there wasn’t research. Look at everything the ARC has produced: terraforming, robotics, antimatter, genetics. No direct battle applications,” Mike responded.

“Well, they would want to keep that kind of thing hidden. No reason to tip our hand to an alien race that has been watching us for a few hundred years,” Garrett reasoned.

“I thought the same thing, but my source was adamant that he had proof. Even then, I only played along to keep him calm, but when he was killed two days ago, I took notice. His name was Rubin Talbot. Check it out.” Although the name seemed familiar, Garrett could not place it. Mike continued, “Anyway, I should have the evidence tomorrow. You got a light?” Mike asked as he opened a pack of cigarettes.

“I don’t smoke,” Garrett informed Mike.

“Didn’t ask if you did, but I know you carry your father’s lighter for luck.”

Garrett grinned and gave a small nod of approval as he retrieved the lighter. Mike recognized the acknowledgment for what it was, respect.

“Come on, you didn’t think I would have picked you to be my front man without doing some research, do you?” Mike questioned as he opened a new pack of cigarettes.

“Couldn’t someone come in here at any moment?” Garrett asked, giving the entrance a nervous glance.

“Nah, I hung an ‘OUT OF ORDER’ sign on the door.”

Garrett actually chuckled at the clever deception.

“So why did you?” Garrett queried.

“What?” Mike asked as he took a drag off the cigarette. He coughed profusely. “Wrong pipe,” he added between coughs.

Garrett allowed Mike to recover before continuing. “Pick me. Why did you?”

“Oh that,” Mike began. He reached across the distance separating the two men, opened Garrett’s coat and placed the lighter in the inside pocket as he spoke. “I picked you because I was looking for a young, ambitious reporter who was uncompromising in his search for the truth. Seven years ago when you served two months in jail to protect your source, I knew I had found what I was looking for, and you’ve made me right ever since.”

Mike patted the coat where the lighter rested between layers of wool.

“But I didn’t come here to tell you how noble you are. I’ll meet you Monday outside Penn Station, southwest corner, seven a.m. Bring my usual fee on a chip.” As Mike placed the pack of cigarettes in his pocket, several fell to the floor.

Garrett stooped and retrieved the scattered cigarettes. “Why can’t you give me the information now?” he asked as he stood, but Mike was gone. “And what’s your last name?” he asked the empty room.

 

 

 

4

 

Katherine was waiting in the ballroom antechamber next to the coatroom.

“Everything all right?” she asked, mildly concerned.

Garrett’s reply was chipper, “Never better.”

He could feel the trail of a new story expanding before him and his mind was alive with the possibilities. He removed his coat and helped Katherine with the same, handing both to the clerk. He offered Katherine his arm, which she accepted. Arm in arm, they walked through the ballroom entrance.

Garrett and Katherine stepped past the entryway into a room initially defined by its volume. Garrett took in the room with nothing short of awe. Three of the walls consisted of huge oval windows overlooking the city. The bottom of the arc for each started at the floor and ended where the ceiling began to curve into a transparent dome. At ten stories high, just the manufacturing of the transparent polymer that formed the single-panel windows was a marvel of modern technology. In the far right corner, a waterfall cascaded four stories from a natural stone outcropping into a pool that meandered to the center of the room where it was crowned with an elegant fountain. A Christmas tree, complemented with multicolored lights, stood next to the falls. At random intervals, a miniature holographic image of a sleigh pulled by tiny reindeer transported Santa Clause in a spiraling ascent to the top of the tree. A full-service bar extended along one side of the pool and several others emerged at regular intervals along the walls, each surrounded by patrons busily taking in various proffered elixirs. The room was dimly lit by recessed lights in the walls and ceiling, but most of the light emanated from the water. From the waterfall to the fountains, the illuminated water bathed the room in a cool, blue hue. Bubbles emerged from the top of the back wall and slowly drifted down onto the guests, catching the light as they fell. The entire room held a magical air. Garrett turned to Katherine to observe her reaction, only to find she was watching him with a smile so dazzling that it made his heart flutter.

“Impressive!” she exclaimed.

“Shall we?” he beckoned. She gave his arm a squeeze, and they walked toward the bar adjacent to the center pool of water. Along the way, several people extended their greetings, a few even whooping at Garrett about today’s events. He smiled his half smile and nodded or responded when appropriate. About halfway to the bar, Garrett spotted Charlie and several of his colleagues in a group not far from the fountain and steered the two of them in that direction.

Good ol’ Charlie. Even from here, Garrett could see Charlie was smoking a cigar, in what was undoubtedly a nonsmoking area. Charlie did not care much for the rules and due to his attitude, most people did not care to remind him when he was breaking one. It was that attitude that had kept Garrett and him together all these years. Through two different papers, they had become a package deal. Their complementary strengths had forged the two into an inseparable team. Charlie, an old-fashioned grindstone editor, was not afraid to back one of his reporters if they went out on a limb, and Garrett had a gift for coercing people into telling him things they would tell no one else. Where one was brusque, the other was charming.

Although they were now thick as thieves, things had not always been so cordial between the two. After Garrett graduated from college, he quickly found a position as a sports writer for the Tribune. The job came entirely too easily, and Garrett suspected Arthur had used some of his considerable political power to influence the hiring process. The attitude of his coworkers and particularly his editor, Charlie, confirmed his suspicions, but Garrett was never as concerned with how he arrived in a situation as much as what he did once he was there. Although he found the subject matter entirely mundane, he executed his assignment as a junior sports writer well, with keen insight into subtle strategies. Charlie mostly ignored him until he exposed an insider-gambling ring involving professional athletes and coaches. The news was front-page, and Charlie began reconsidering Garrett’s work on its merits. Garrett requested a transfer to investigations and Charlie agreed. Together they were infallible when it came to top-notch investigative reporting, until the Senator Rimes incident. Garrett had followed normal protocol concerning independent source verification, but when the story was published, the evidence was immediately called into question. After an intense investigation, it was determined the evidence had been fabricated, and the perpetrators had long since disappeared. The Tribune gave Garrett the option to resign, but made it clear he would not be retained, so Garrett left. Charlie joined him as a protest over the Tribune not standing behind a reporter caught in an elaborate fraud. The New York Herald was looking for an editor and took on Charlie and Garrett as a team. Once again, Garrett was sure he owed his employment to someone else’s influence.

Garrett was grateful to be working in the news reporting industry, but the entire incident still chafed him. There was hardly a day that went by that he did not recount some part of the events that led to his dismissal from the Tribune. It was not as much the injustice of his departure, but the colossal step backward he felt his career had suffered. The Tribune was a nationally recognized leader in investigative reporting. Nationally…that was the crux of the issue. The Herald circulation was limited to the east coast region, and it tailored its content for that target audience. It was owned by the Cresler family. Three generations of conservative management had established a status-quo they embraced. The fact that Charlie had walked away from a national publication still baffled Garrett. He could not discern whether Charlie had just been ready for a change, or if he was too stubborn to back down once he had delivered an ultimatum. Probably both.

 

“Well, I’ll be! I thought you might call it a day and stay home,” Charlie exclaimed, as Garrett and Katherine strolled up to the group. The encounter with Mike had shifted Garrett’s focus, and he had already put the Governor Weller incident behind him. There was a new puzzle to be solved. He looked extremely self-satisfied, one might even say a little smug. He carried a slight smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eye as he noted that Charlie’s suit would have passed for fashionable about the time Garrett was learning to drive.

“I couldn’t leave you here unchaperoned,” Garrett replied as they shook hands and Charlie slapped him on the back.

“Garrett, you made quite a splash today.” Charlie continued, “Of course I would be happier if the exclusive we ran had stayed exclusive. You gave everyone in this room a story, but at least you kept your head through the ordeal, literally.”

Garrett took Charlie’s enthusiasm as an indication the situation at the paper must be worse than he expected. Still, he returned the smile. “I am rather fond of this head.”

“Me, too,” Katherine chimed in as she kissed his cheek.

Mark Haslam, Garrett’s rival at the paper, was not as cheerful. “Nice work, champ. Fortunately, there was no real estate involved with this one,” he sneered dismissively. Mark’s signature snide tone often rankled Garrett. Both were good reporters, and their rivalry went back to before Garrett’s exodus from the Tribune. Mark could not allow Garrett to enjoy a success without reminding him of his very public fall from grace. He stood about two inches taller than Garrett and a little heavier. The way he carried himself could only be described as pompous. Garrett had to fight the occasional urge to punch him, just to see the change in that self-indulgent smirk, but not tonight. Mark’s jealousy was inconsequential.

Garrett raised his glass slightly. “Right, Mark, and your last piece? Oh yeah, defective car locks, I believe.”

“Whatever,” Mark muttered as he turned back to the young blonde he was attempting to charm before Garrett and Katherine arrived. Garrett recognized her as one of the interns working at the paper. Typical Mark, he was likely regaling her with a myriad of promises to advance her career, none of which he would fulfill.

“What happened to professional courtesy?” Charlie joked. “Come on let’s get another drink.” He ushered them both toward the bar.

Cocktails in hand, Charlie decided it was time to dance, and Katherine obliged. Garrett’s attention was split between watching the two of them spin around the dance floor and Mark trying to bed the blonde. Garrett thought her name was Angie and hoped she was smart enough to see through Mark’s pretense. As his attention turned back to Katherine and Charlie, a man slid next to him taking the adjacent seat at the bar.

“Charming girl,” the gentleman remarked. “Someone should marry her.”

Garrett recognized the voice.

“Arthur,” he smiled as he turned toward the older man. “I am surprised.”

Garrett gave Arthur a hug. As he released him, he could not help noticing how frail Arthur seemed. The realization that Arthur probably would not see many more years unsettled Garrett. He understood a chapter in his life would soon be ending, and he was powerless to slow down the march of time that would see Arthur vanish from this world. He felt a slightly uncomfortable sensation around his heart as if his chest had suddenly decided on its own accord to constrict that vessel in retaliation for Arthur’s mortality. Garrett fought to put the notion aside, knowing Arthur would be uncomfortable with his concerns.

Arthur returned Garrett’s smile. “Well, this old dog still has a few tricks,” he replied in response to Garrett’s greeting. Garrett had asked Arthur to join them for the evening, but Arthur had declined, due to a previous engagement. Although Arthur had retired from political consulting over a decade ago, the shift in the rhythm of Arthur’s life that Garrett had expected never occurred. After several years Garrett concluded men like Arthur never retire, they just become more discriminating in their endeavors.

It was through these political circles that Arthur had met Garrett’s father and, subsequently, Garrett. Garrett was not sure when or where his father, Marshall Richards, and Arthur Craig became acquainted, but he knew that by the time he was born they were close friends. Arthur rarely spoke of Garrett’s early years, but Garrett could sense a tangible, deep sorrow Arthur felt for the loss of Marshall and even more so for what Arthur considered the loss of Garrett’s childhood. Arthur became Garrett’s guardian after Marshall’s death. Although Garrett found his early education a bit parochial, he felt no loss for what some might consider an unorthodox upbringing, but Arthur had deep regrets concerning Garrett’s adolescence.

“I thought you had another engagement,” Garrett remarked.

“One of the great things about retirement is you get to do anything you want,” Arthur replied.

“You don’t seem to be slowing down. Still dabbling in politics?”

Arthur shrugged. “It’s in the blood. I think I’ll have a drink,” he announced with a smile.

Garrett signaled the bartender and allowed Arthur to order.

Always a true gentleman, Arthur carried his age with remarkable dignity, but as Garrett handed him the glass furnished by the bartender, he could not help notice the liquid it contained rippled from the motion of Arthur’s trembling hand. Again, Garrett recognized that Arthur’s robust mien was giving way, and in an instant, Garrett had come to think of him as feeble. Arthur was the one constant throughout Garrett’s tumultuous life, and this visible change in his health struck Garrett like a physical blow. He was disoriented for a moment while his mind redefined Arthur as no longer an enduring presence. His priorities shifted subtly to focus on spending more time together.

Garrett turned back to Arthur. “We don’t see enough of each other.”

“No we don’t,” Arthur replied, sadness evident in his voice. “We never did, and I’m sorry about that, Garrett.”

Garrett put a reassuring arm around Arthur. “I’ve told you before; there is no reason to apologize. Those were tough times for both of us, and you did everything you could for me.”

Arthur became vexed, “Living in boarding schools. That’s no way for a boy to grow up.”

“It was fine, Arthur. You made sure I had everything I needed.”

The sadness returned to Arthur’s voice, “Everything but a parent.”

“At least I had a place where I was welcome during the holidays. Half the kids at school who had parents couldn’t say that,” Garrett responded, giving Arthur a hug with the arm he had placed around his shoulders. “I don’t regret my childhood and neither should you.”

Arthur patted Garrett on the shoulder as he wiped his eyes. “Okay, okay, my boy. I seem to be getting more sentimental in my old age. Life reflections and all that,” he leaned away from Garrett’s embrace and took a drink. “Tell me how the reporting business is treating you.”

Now it was Garrett’s turn to take a long drink. He looked away from Arthur as he replied, “Well, I saw today playing out differently.”

Arthur grinned. “How is it your subjects seem to want to kill themselves?”

Garrett flashed his winning smile. “Must be my charm,” he quipped.

“I’ll have to reconsider giving you an interview,” Arthur joked.

Katherine and Charlie were returning from their dance. Garrett watched the two as they weaved through the crowd of merrymakers. Katherine’s ease of grace was something to behold, and he was not the only one beholding it. Several men gave pause as she moved past, flowing by each with an ethereal beauty. His feelings for her triggered a response that spread through him with a gentle warmth. Conflict welled up in him, quenching the delicate embers. The recently introduced inner turmoil resurfaced. The origin of his restraint; his inability to give himself completely to Katherine was evident to Garrett, but that made it no less difficult to subdue. This conflict, coupled with his concern for Arthur, was almost enough to overshadow the excitement generated from the burgeoning investigation Mike had introduced.

“Arthur, great to see you,” Katherine greeted when she and Charlie had almost reached the bar.

“Katherine, you are a mesmerizing vision,” Arthur replied as she gave him a kiss on the cheek.

“Arthur,” Charlie greeted.

“Good to see you, Charlie,” Arthur replied.

The four shared small talk of the year’s events. Eventually, the conversation ebbed as The Emperor Waltz began to play.

“Katherine, would you share a dance with an old man before the evening wears on too long?” Arthur asked.

“I’d be delighted,” Katherine replied. She took Arthur’s hand and led him to the dance floor.

 

As the two danced the delicate movements of the Waltz, Katherine asked, “How are you?”

“Oh, I’m doing fine, young lady. And you?”

“Things are going well,” she replied.

“And Garrett?”

“Garrett is,” she considered for a moment, “Garrett is Garrett.”

“That’s a good way of describing him. Still very focused, I take it?”

Katherine appreciated the euphemism. “Driven is the word I would use.”

Arthur looked deeply into Katherine’s eyes. “He loves you, dear. I just don’t think he’s ready to admit it, even to himself.”

Katherine stopped dancing and stared at Arthur. Sometimes you hear the right words even though they may come from a place you would never expect. “Why are you telling me this?”

Arthur gave a weak smile. “Garrett has had a tough go of it the past few years. After today, I’m afraid it may get worse. I can see he is happy when you’re together, and I don’t want you to give up on him.”

Misty-eyed, Katherine cupped Arthur’s face with one hand. “You’re a good man, Arthur.”

 

Still lounging at the bar, Garrett turned to Charlie. “How do you think Arthur looks?”

“Why? Are you afraid he is going to steal Katherine away from you? I’ll do that before I give him a chance.”

Garrett laughed at the appreciated jest. “No, I am just a little worried about him. He looks like he’s lost weight.”

Charlie placed a reassuring hand on Garrett’s shoulder. “He is getting old, kid. That is what happens if you live long enough, but don’t worry yourself needlessly, Arthur still has a lot of gas left in the tank.”

“Yeah,” Garrett replied without conviction as he watched Katherine and Arthur dance. Knowing he could not influence that outcome, he shifted his attention to something he could affect, and in doing so compartmentalized his concerns for Arthur. After a brief interval in which he cataloged his thoughts and ensured each unresolved situation had at least a notional solution, he was prepared to move on to a more invigorating topic when Charlie changed the subject for him.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were going to interview Weller?” Charlie solemnly asked. Garrett had weathered several of Charlie’s tirades concerning journalistic misconduct over the years. His effort to broach the subject delicately was a measure of how dire the situation had become.

“Because you would have stopped me,” Garrett replied.

Charlie’s voice took on the edge Garrett expected, “You’re damn right I would have stopped you.”

“I had to know, Charlie. I had to know he was guilty,” Garrett explained.

Charlie let out a deep sigh and took on a softer tone, “I understand, champ, but this is probably going to get complicated.”

“Forget Weller,” Garrett countered dismissively.

“Forget Weller?” Charlie asked, bewildered. “Have you gone mad as well as rogue? I spent an hour this afternoon trying to convince Cresler Senior your merits as a reporter outweigh the liability risk to the paper.”

“Cresler, huh?”

Charlie felt the need to elaborate. “He hasn’t spoken a dozen words to me since we were hired, but today he had plenty to say.”

“Do I still have a job?” Garrett asked.

“For now.”

“Then forget Weller. I have something bigger. Have you ever heard anything strange about the ARC?”

Charlie’s bewilderment deepened, “The Alien Research Center?”

“Yeah,” Garrett confirmed.

“I don’t know,” Charlie began. “Rumors now and then. The usual stuff you get with any government organization. I did hear the ARC was behind the movement to put workers back in offices but after the energy crisis was resolved and the travel restrictions were lifted, there was really no reason people could not physically drive into work.” Charlie fleetingly considered that prospect. “I like working with people face to face,” he added. “Why do you ask?”

Garrett hesitated a moment. “I just met Mercury.”

Charlie knew the reference well. “Did you tell him hello for me?” he asked pointedly.

Garrett chuckled. Never one to get excited, you could always count on Charlie for an understated, direct response. “I did,” Garrett replied as he rubbed the knuckles of his right hand. They were already starting to bruise and swell.

“Atta boy,” Charlie exclaimed in approval.

“He claimed he had information concerning some sort of fraud in the ARC.”

“In the ARC?” Charlie questioned again as he considered the next logical outcome. “If he is right, he’ll need some serious protection.”

“That’s why he met me tonight. He said…” Garrett trailed off when he saw Katherine and Arthur returning from the dance floor. “His real name is Mike if that helps, and his source’s name is Rubin Talbot. Check it out,” he prompted Charlie, as Katherine and Arthur arrived.

“Garrett, you had better go dance with this enchanting young lady before I sweep her off her feet,” Arthur advised with a wink.

Garrett obliged. He and Katherine danced the night away. Despite Garrett’s concerns, Arthur’s surprise arrival had given the evening a comfortable air. Garrett held the burning excitement of his developing story deep in his core. With a new path to redemption at hand, the night took on an extraordinary rightness. He was certain exposing a conspiracy of the nature Mike suggested would right his listing career. Katherine felt Garrett’s excitement as well. Surrounded by their closest friends; it felt as if the universe had created this gathering for just the two of them. Everything fit into its place.

As often happens with those few times when the world is so ordered there doesn’t seem to be a care in it, the moment passed before either could grasp it and fully appreciate the complete freedom it afforded. The aircar ride back to their apartment returned Garrett’s thoughts to Katherine’s earlier admission and his inability to give her what she needed; what they both needed. The magical aura lifted, leaving him somber.

“I had a wonderful time tonight,” Katherine commented, looking into Garrett’s eyes.

“So did I,” Garrett responded with a smile.

Katherine turned to watch the city pass by before continuing. “Garrett, where do you think we are headed?”

“Back to the apartment,” Garrett joked with a fleeting hope he could keep the conversation light. He recognized how insidiously this discussion could grow into a turning point in their relationship.

“You know what I mean,” her reply was tinged with sadness.

“I’m not sure I do,” Garrett answered honestly.

“Do you think we are stagnating?”

“Is this about what you told me earlier?” Garrett tried to keep his voice neutral. He felt his agitation grow at having to discuss their future openly before he was able to internally resolve the issue. He fought the urge to respond hastily, knowing he would likely regret anything but complete capitulation on his part. Despite his best efforts, his body tensed.

Katherine leaned against him as the cityscape passed outside the window. The reassuring contact disarmed Garrett in a way he could not articulate. Katherine always understood what would calm the storm of conflict inside him. She truly understands me, he admitted.

“No. Well, a little. Most people our age are starting a family,” she began. “Starting? No, most people our age have established a family. Are we moving forward?”

“I think we are.” Garrett chose his word carefully, “We both agreed when we started seeing each other we weren’t going to let our relationship interfere with our careers.”

“I thought we weren’t going to use each other to advance our careers.”

“That’s what I meant,” Garrett replied tersely.

A forlorn Katherine continued, “I’m beginning to wonder. Do you see a time when we come first?”

Garrett stiffened, and his posture shifted slightly, pulling away from Katherine. The conversation was steering itself in the exact direction he did not want to go. Although he knew Katherine had not meant for the question to insinuate he was less committed to her than she to him, he could not help but think that the unspoken message was, “I’m willing to put you first. Why won’t you do the same for me?” He understood their relationship was at an inflection point, and the slightest misinterpretation of his intent could end badly. He was certain the only way to approach the situation was through complete honesty, but he was equally certain that when someone made themselves vulnerable, even someone as strong as Katherine, honesty had to be tempered with tact or feelings could be irreparably damaged.

Katherine recognized his reaction for the defense mechanism it was. “Don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not questioning your commitment. I just want reassurance that as our relationship has grown, we see it the same way.”

Garrett leaned back into Katherine and put his arms around her. “Fair enough. I think we’re great together, but I’m still a cautionary tale. I have to get my life back in order before I can handle any more complications.”

“So I’m a complication?” Katherine questioned, but her tone did not betray even a hint of annoyance.

“The best kind of complication, and you know

I didn’t mean it that way.”

“Yes, I do know,” she replied as she turned and kissed him.

 

 

 

5

 

Garrett woke to the sound of Katherine in the shower. A few minutes later, she walked back into the bedroom, moving quickly toward the wardrobe, dressing in the sharp business attire she routinely wore to work.

Garrett sat up. “What’s going on?”

“There’s been a security breach. I have to go to the office.”

“On Sunday? Why?” he replied.

“Well, when the Secretary of State calls and tells his special assistant she has to come into the office, she does.” She walked over to the bed as she spoke. Leaning over Garrett, she gave him a quick kiss.

Garrett put on a boyish grin. “Did he say what it was about?”

“Stop being a reporter,” she joked. “It’s probably minor. I’ll try to be back for lunch. Oh, I almost forgot. Charlie called while I was on the phone,” she said as she left the bedroom. The sound of the front door marked her exit.

Garrett put on his robe and moved into the kitchen. He poured a cup of coffee and called Charlie from the study.

Charlie’s face appeared on the screen.

“Hi Charlie, are you at work?” Garrett asked.

“Yeah, I’m at work,” Charlie’s voice seemed haggard. He was visibly tired and probably hung over. “I’ve been checking out the ARC. You mind coming in so we can look at a few things?”

“I’ll be there in an hour,” Garrett replied as he terminated the connection.

 

As Garrett drank his coffee, he retrieved recent news coverage of the murder Mike had mentioned.

“Jacob,” he called to the house computer, “retrieve murders, New York, yesterday.”

Jacob replied, “Only one subject found; twenty-one articles covering the death of Rubin Talbot.”

He requested the Tribune article out of habit. He still did not trust the Herald to have reported the details correctly; despite the reality that each was probably just retransmitting the information provided by an affiliate.

The holograph displayed the image of a body in a dark alley. The headline stated “MUGGING RESULTS IN RARE MURDER.” The photo was taken at a sufficient distance to provide an adequate view of the crime scene while revealing almost no detail. Piles of garbage lined the walls of the dilapidated buildings enclosing the alley. It resembled an abandoned industrial complex. Even with crime at a historic low, only a fool or someone looking for trouble would venture into an area like that by choice.

Murders, being the only crime for which an alpha scan could be used on a suspect, were uncommon. The term alpha scan was a slight misnomer in that the scanner not only mapped alpha waves but inhibited the ability of the subject to deceive. Through a series of questions, the machine identified the waveforms an individual created when they formed ideas that they knew to be untrue. This was enough to determine if the person was trying to mislead investigators, but, if after being exposed, the suspect declined to cooperate, the scanner was placed into an active mode. The machine then created a counter wave, targeting the area of the brain used to manufacture deception. The suspects found themselves compelled to answer any questions truthfully. This forced nobility did not come without a price, and, in rare cases, the subjects experienced some loss of motor function. Although the scan could only be applied after a Grand Jury indictment, few criminals were willing to risk such a quick removal of reasonable doubt. It had an interesting side effect on the way criminals viewed murder as well. Information obtained during a scan that was not related to the crime for which the suspect was accused could not be used for prosecution, but most believed it usually resulted in evidence generated through parallel construction. This policy practically eliminated murder as a useful tool in organized crime.

As he showered, Garrett reviewed what he knew about the ARC. Due to the enormous responsibility of being burdened with the survival of the human race, it had a vast sphere of influence. This was an aspect of the ARC that Garrett had not considered. Now that he did, the implications of how much control it wielded over the world’s populace were staggering. In effect, it controlled emerging technologies, parceling out new discoveries to maintain a balance between progress and secrecy. “It,” Garrett considered that word for a few moments. “It” was part of the puzzle. Garrett realized the organization existed in almost complete obscurity other than periodic announcements that were usually aimed at keeping the public aware the ARC was still there, working hard for the future. More style than substance. Its existence, just like the aliens, was simply an aspect of life. He vaguely remembered an anti-ARC protest at the United Federation of Nations headquarters a few years ago. The protesters alleged the ARC controlled the Federation and was destroying free enterprise; just another radical group looking for a cause, or so he thought at the time. Garrett continued his review of alien history as he dressed and caught a cab to the office.

 

The United States recovered an alien ship in 1947, but the efforts aimed at exploiting the advanced technology behind the craft were stove-piped due to paranoia over the growing Russian threat. The secrecy was for not, as the Russians had obtained their own alien vessel from the Tunguska event of 1908. After several missile bases were visited in the 1970s, the United States created an alien task force. One project that emerged from this research was the Star Wars system. Designed primarily as an outward planetary point defense system, the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile defense benefit was a secondary consideration at the project’s inception. A series of very public acquisition failures, like the Bradley Fighting Vehicle program, provided cover for the funds that were diverted for the research. Only one United States President became aware of the project, and he promoted it with vigor. Unfortunately, after his health declined, all alien materials were safeguarded or destroyed for fear of a security breach. Hence, for a time, the United States became the hotbed of alien research, but most of the efforts were fruitless and abandoned after the 1980s. Government involvement subsided until, after discovering hundreds of extra-solar planets, the alien origin was revealed. The discovery should not have taken as long as it did, but efforts had been focused on a different category of systems: the type that could sustain life and this was the crux of the problem. The alien’s sun was old…too old. There was much debate over how a carbon-based life form could survive on the barren rock that was emitting radio waves. The terrifying answer came back several months later when an astronomer discovered a third planet that seemed too far away from the star to be held by its gravitational influence. It was too far out, and it was not a planet. An armada with a mass equivalent to Earth’s moon was leaving the alien solar system. Based on the rate of acceleration, it would be on Earth’s doorstep in ninety-eight years. Once the threat was verified, the world governments united, but it was not to last.

The controversy surrounding the creation of the United Federation of Nations brought back memories of the Unification Wars. Following the alien announcement, the government of every nation signed the One Earth Pact, through which all agreed to cooperate fully on creating a global defense system to meet the threat. Sadly, a few months later several countries changed course. They demanded the independence to negotiate “terms of cohabitation” with the aliens when they arrived. The group planned to put their efforts into building an emissary ship. The stakes were too high, and the world could not afford to be divided. The ensuing war was quick and brutal. Three months after the uprising began, humanity was united, and so it remained. In a world of seemingly endless unintended consequences, the human race finally achieving solidarity had to be the most ironic, Garrett concluded as the cab stopped at his destination.

As Garrett stepped onto the sidewalk, he was overcome by the feeling he was being watched. On this cool, crisp morning, everything stood out in relief. He paused, looking down the street in each direction. Several aircars passed overhead. One of them flew so low that Garrett’s jacket was buffeted by the downdraft generated by the electrically driven turbines. Technically, it was illegal to fly an aircar so low outside of a landing zone, but few pedestrians were moving about as the city slowly emerged from its Sunday morning slumber.

He usually trusted his instincts, but in this case, he had to laugh at his reaction. If someone was observing his actions, they could do it unobtrusively in a hundred different ways. He shook his head, dismissing this light touch of paranoia as he continued into the building.

 

 

 

6

 

Charlie was sitting behind his large desk, with several holographs floating above the surface. Some only presented a two-dimensional image and were clearly older archives.

“Charlie, don’t you ever sleep?” Garrett greeted.

“Not all of us had a beautiful woman to take us home last night,” Charlie countered.

“Right. What do you have here?”

“I’ve pulled up what I could find on the ARC. There’s not much about the ARC itself. Millions of references for ARC-related research, but it is always conducted and released by a third party, under ARC supervision.”

“Show me what you’ve come up with,” Garrett requested.

“Nothing Earth-shattering. I started over there,” Charlie made a gesture toward a flat screen image hovering to his left, “with the initial announcement from United Nations concerning the alien disclosure. The ARC was formed a few days later by the United Federation of Nations, giving it global authority. Over here are official ARC releases, one hundred seventy-two in the past thirty-one years. The rest,” he continued as his hand swept thru the remaining holographs, “cover protest, conspiracy theories, and general crackpot stuff. No mention of employees or budget.”

Garrett nodded as he pulled the chair in front of Charlie’s desk closer. “You mind?” he asked Charlie as he placed his hand on the holograph touch screen.

“Not at all,” Charlie replied as he leaned back in his chair.

Garrett rotated the holographs around the table, stopping on the original United Nations announcement concerning the alien discovery.

 

The Secretary-General of the United Nations stepped to the podium. In his mid-fifties, he appeared fit, and one would guess ten years younger than his age. His tone conveyed a hint of barely restrained emotion. “Fellow peoples of the world. Today I must address what is unmistakably the greatest threat to our survival humanity has ever faced. Using deep-space telescopes, astronomers have discovered the location of an extraterrestrial, intelligent species. Something most of you believed only existed as science fiction. This discovery was not made by chance. Several governments have been involved in this search for more than fifty years. We have determined these aliens pose a direct threat to the existence of the human race. These beings possess technology far more advanced than our highest level of theoretical research, and scientific observations indicate they are…” The Secretary paused briefly, looking down at the podium. He raised his head and took in the audience of dignitaries and reporters. His stone-like façade cracked and his face twisted with emotion at the enormity of what this announcement would mean to the world.

Garrett wondered what he must have thought at that moment. In the face of this new threat, many of the issues the Secretary had addressed in the past must now seem frivolous. He was telling billions they were no longer the center of the universe. Did he understand there would be riots?

The moment passed, and when he spoke, his voice carried the conviction of his younger self. “They are preparing to invade Earth. I tell you this not to instill fear or panic, but purpose, the purpose that will be required to defeat this threat. For almost a decade, nations have been preparing for this contingency. A plan is in place to offer us, the human race, the best possible chance of survival. We are a tough, intelligent, tenacious species, and we will not forfeit our future generations without a fight. The success of this plan depends on you. When I say you, I am addressing each individual watching this broadcast. We must put aside our petty differences and unite in one cause. We must unite to ensure our civilization does not perish. All the countries represented here today have unanimously agreed to work together in every way necessary to build a defense capable of withstanding this tremendous foe.

“We do know their planet was similar to ours, and they are likely a carbon-based life form. We have also determined their sun has become unstable. Our last observations detected a large fleet of spacecraft departing their solar system. We believe this armada contains their entire civilization and is bound for Earth. Scientists have determined it will take ninety-eight years until the invaders reach our solar system.

“No questions today. There will be another press conference in three days to disclose the details of our plan for Earth’s defense.” The Secretary gave the camera a reassuring nod as he left the podium.

Garrett rotated the holograph to bring the next article into view. It was a two-dimensional news story. A newscaster began speaking as the holograph stabilized. “Today, eleven countries seceded from the recently formed United Federation of Nations. The renegade countries have created a new alliance. They plan to negotiate ‘terms of cohabitation’ with the aliens…”

“What’s this?” Garrett asked. As he turned his head from the holograph, the computer automatically halted the playback.

“The Unification Wars,” Charlie replied with a wry smile, knowing his response did not answer Garrett’s question.

“Oh, really,” Garrett replied coyly, “and why are you watching it?”

“It was the last time the Federation was publicly challenged. The war polarized the issue of a unified Earth. After it was over, the Federation had gained legitimacy, and, more importantly, military power which translated to control.”

“I’ve heard some officials facilitated the war to bolster the newly formed coalition.” Garrett filled in, understanding where Charlie was headed with this line of reasoning. Charlie could tell by Garrett’s response he did not subscribe to the conspiracy theory.

“Okay, I think the conspiracy theory is crap, but the ARC was founded in conjunction with the Federation. Its autonomy rests with the Federation’s power base,” Charlie conceded.

“So you’re looking into the development of the Federation to determine how the ARC operates?”

“Something like that. I’m going to make a few inquiries about your source.” Charlie finished, as he left the room.

Garrett nodded as he turned back to the holograph. As he faced the image, the newscaster began speaking again, returning to the beginning of the last sentence. “They plan to negotiate ‘terms of cohabitation’ with the aliens.” The view shifted from the newscaster to a small screen above her right shoulder. The display enlarged as she continued to speak. “The countries have seized all foreign military assets residing within their borders.” The holograph showed a file video of an old petroleum-fueled, jet-propelled aircraft taking off from a military base. Garrett marveled at the crude vehicle as it began its takeoff run. Its four disproportionately large engines, attached to long, thin wings, almost scraped the ground as the aircraft moved down the runway. He wondered what it must have been like to fly in such a precarious machine.

The newscaster continued her commentary. “The President is en route to Geneva, where an emergency session of the United Federation of Nations is convening. The Federation faces its first crisis.”

Garrett leaned back, reflecting on how he felt about those uncertain times as he watched the events that led to the Unification Wars. He was too young to remember any detail. His only recollection of the time was a feeling of anxiety followed by confusion. The war swept past him quickly, taking his father with it. His memories of his father were similar in their lack of detail; just a warm, safe feeling accompanied by a single image of his father’s face. From the angle of the image, his father must have been holding him above his head or perhaps throwing him into the air. He was looking up at Garrett, his laughing countenance frozen in the still image. The sun illuminated his face and Garrett could see light sparkling through beads of dew in the grass visible over his father’s shoulder.

A tone in Garrett’s earpiece, indicating an incoming communication, brought him back to the present. The image on the comband screen confirmed the call was from Katherine. Garrett extended his fingers to flatten his hand. His comband projected a video of Katherine’s face across his open palm.

“Hi, how’s the security breach?”

Katherine’s response was terse, “Fine.” Garrett could tell immediately that something was wrong. “Let’s meet for lunch,” she continued. “How’s Victoria’s at noon?”

“Sure,” Garrett replied reflexively. Checking the time, he was surprised to see it was already eleven.

“Okay, I’ll see you there.” She closed the connection before Garrett could reply. The strained exchange unsettled Garret. No matter what the crisis, Katherine was always poised, but now her distress was obvious. She either could not hide it or did not care to. He vaguely considered the possibility the information Mike intended to provide and the security breach that required Katherine’s attention were connected but dismissed the notion as far too outlandish.

As Garrett turned his attention back to the holograph, Charlie came back into the room and announced, “I have some information on Talbot.”

“Go on,” Garrett encouraged.

“He worked as a programmer for Global Information Corporation, standard computer science degree, nothing spectacular really. The possibility of him coming up with this type of information doesn’t look too solid to me.”

Garrett was silent for a moment as he tried to sort out the link between Talbot and Mike’s professed conspiracy. He could not.

“Well, Mike seemed sure this was legit. He was concerned enough to reveal his identity to me. If you had seen him, you would agree.”

“I’m not trying to rain on your parade here, Garrett. This story looks pretty thin, that’s all.” Charlie reluctantly continued, “Garrett, remember this guy set us up two years ago.”

“I saw it on his face. It wasn’t him.”

“I’m just saying we have to watch ourselves on this one. We’re running out of prospective employers in this town.”

Garrett flashed his winning smile. “Come on Charlie, how bad could it be?” he replied as he checked the time. “Damn, I’m supposed to meet Katherine in D.C. I have to go. I’ll come back after lunch.”

“Right, I’ll keep looking into Talbot.”

Garrett took the subway. If he could catch the 11:30 A-Lev, he would not be late. He made it, but an air leak in the tube delayed its departure. He called Katherine to let her know.

 

 

 

 

7

 

A local favorite, Victoria’s restaurant was always Katherine’s first choice when dining out. They usually sat on the glass-enclosed veranda, but as Garrett approached, he did not see her at a table abutting the rail where she preferred to dine. He signaled the maître d’, who recognizing Garrett from previous visits, heartily welcomed him back. Garrett asked if Katherine was waiting for a table. The man informed Garrett she had already been seated and directed him to the second floor. Garrett found her sitting at a table in the back of the establishment, far distant from the open seating he knew she preferred. Last month, she had the two of them wait hours for a table with a view. He grimly accepted this was not a social lunch. As he approached, she gave him a nervous smile. He smiled in kind, trying to act nonchalant, despite the uneasy feeling that had found purchase deep in his psyche since he boarded the train.

“I ordered for us,” she informed Garrett as he sat.

“What’s going on?” he tentatively inquired.

She hesitated for a moment, eyes looking around the room, judging if anyone was within earshot before saying, “Oh Garrett, they gave us an alpha scan.” The words quiet, but rushed, were accompanied by a grimace that betrayed the terror the experience had evoked.

“What?” Garrett asked in disbelief, certain he had misunderstood her statement. The penalties for an illegal alpha scan, regardless of the organization, were severe. He had never heard of the procedure being conducted outside the judicial system. His initial shock subsided rapidly, and he reached across the table, taking her hand in his. She was trembling. Her gaze remained on the tablecloth as she fought to hold back the tears that threatened to burst forth. This was new territory in their relationship, and Garrett did not know how to react. He did the only reasonable thing he could manage. He overcame his fear-driven desire to know what had occurred and held her hand while she quietly fought to regain her composure. Eventually, she collected herself.

She looked at Garrett. “I’m all right,” she assured Garrett, with a weak smile, answering the unspoken concern that was etched across his face.

“Katherine, who gave you the scan?” Garrett questioned in a soothing tone.

Katherine straightened in her seat, appearing more focused. “I don’t know. When I got to the office this morning…” she trailed off as the waiter arrived with their order. Garrett eased back into his chair as the waiter deftly placed two bowls of lobster bisque on the table. Garrett had not realized he had come out of his seat in an effort to comfort Katherine.

“Is there anything else I can get for you?” the waiter inquired.

“No, thank you,” Garrett replied. Katherine continued to stare at the newly delivered first course. The waiter stayed a moment longer than Garrett would have considered good manners before deciding Katherine was not going to respond. Garrett gave him a hard look, and he rapidly retreated. Garrett turned his attention back to Katherine.

“Tell me everything,” he encouraged, again taking her hand across the table, but managing to stay seated in the process.

Katherine started again, “When I got to the office, two men were guarding the entrance. They were casually dressed, but they were creepy, coolly detached. I guessed they were CIA or NSA, one of those freak show outfits. They let me in without a word. Greg and Rachel were in the reception area. Rachel was crying, and Greg was staring at the wall with a blank expression,” she looked at Garrett. Now Katherine was crying with no attempt to stop the tears. She continued vehemently, “They injured Greg’s brain, those bastards.” She stopped for a moment before proceeding, “When Rachel saw me she started to get up, but stopped after glancing at the corner of the room. She was frightened. I followed her gaze to a man standing silently next to Robert’s office. He stepped forward as he told me they had been waiting for me. The way he looked at me was…well, it scared me. He was so arrogant; absolutely no concern for invading the office of the Secretary as if it was no more than a menial clerk’s position; beneath him.”

Garrett had not thought the word scared was part of Katherine’s lexicon. It disturbed him that the mere presence of a man could illicit such a response.

Katherine continued, “That look, it was chilling, but I wasn’t going to let this thug push me around. I demanded to see the Secretary. He motioned to the Secretary’s office as he stepped closer. I took the lead, determined to show these guys who was really in charge. Robert was sitting at his desk. I’ve never seen him look so defeated.” She looked past Garrett for a moment, reliving those moments. “I asked him what was going on. He said he was sorry, but I was going to have to submit to some questions. I asked him for clarification, thinking of invoking some legal precedence. He just looked back to his desk and told me as soon as I was finished they would allow Greg to get medical attention. I didn’t even realize Greg was hurt.” She stopped, again trying to hold back the recently restrained tears. Garrett waited patiently.

“It’s all right. Take your time,” he encouraged.

She continued, “The man from the reception area told me to come with him. They had a scanner set up in my office. When I protested he calmly reminded me Greg’s life probably depended on my cooperation, so what could I do? I let them hook me up and answered their questions. The feeling of having that machine scan my thoughts…” She shivered as she recalled the experience.

“What did they ask?” Garrett cautiously inquired.

“Most of the questions concerned my computer security.”

“What do you mean?”

“He wanted to know if I had ever allowed someone access to my account or tried to access areas not essential to my office. Was I loyal to the current administration? That kind of stuff. Some questions about our relationship.” She paused for a moment, appearing more composed for having talked through the ordeal. “They repeatedly asked about accessing ARC protocols.”

Garrett became tense as the world swam around him, leaving a mild sense of vertigo. How was this possible? It was hard to believe the information Mike had for him was tied to Katherine’s office. Not that he held the government in particularly high esteem, but because he still could not reconcile such a chance occurrence. The uneasy feeling that had been nestled deep in the recesses of his mind began to force its way forward, and his stomach tightened in acknowledgment. His mind reeled as he struggled to bring the situation into a framework he could understand.

“Garrett, are you listening to me?”

“Sorry, what were you saying?”

“I said Greg is at First Memorial. After lunch, I’m going to go see how he’s doing. Will you go with me?”

A low tone from Garrett’s earpiece indicated he had an incoming call. Garrett checked the image on his comband. It was Charlie.

“It’s Charlie. Katherine, let me get this.”

Katherine did not attempt to mask her irritation at the interruption.

“It’ll just take a second,” Garrett explained.

“Fine,” she turned to her bisque, spooning the liquid defiantly.

Content with the image on the comband, Garrett did not bother to expand the video. “What is it, Charlie,” he inquired, not pleased with the conflict.

“Can you come back to the office after lunch? I have something for you.” Charlie’s reply was chipper, excited. Garrett knew it meant the skeptic had been silenced. Charlie must have found the connection between Talbot and the information Mike was pedaling.

“I’ll have to get back to you. I’m in the middle of something.”

“Don’t dally. It’s important.”

“Okay,” Garrett replied. He looked up to find Katherine staring at him. He had never realized how cold those alluring eyes could seem with the proper motivation. Despite her apparent anger, she looked quite pretty actually, with her face generating a rosy flush that was increasing by the moment. He could tell from her calculating expression that the conversation was going to take a turn. Katherine did not do scared well, but angry, she could set a dragon into a whimper. He wondered briefly if the tablecloth was fireproof.

“Charlie, huh?”

“Yes,” Garrett replied flatly. The edge in her voice confirmed the time for comfort was over.

“You went into the office this morning, didn’t you?” She had taken on a vicious tone. Displacing fear with anger was always an agreeable exchange. Anger put the wielder in control, which was generally preferred, but anger demands an object on which to focus, or it cools. Garrett was fairly certain he was about to become that object.

“On Sunday?” Katherine’s wrath was about to be unleashed. “You went to work on a Sunday?”

“Yes, I have a job as well,” Garrett answered, trying to keep the irritation out of his voice. He knew any hint of confrontation would just encourage conflict.

“You only go in on Sunday if you’re working on a story. Were you investigating the security breach at my office?”

“No, stop being irrational,” Garrett chided. He winced knowing his criticism would only hone her attack.

“We agreed when we started dating neither of us would use the other’s professional position as an advantage. Didn’t we, Garrett?” The barrage was almost a physical affront. “You can’t stop being a reporter for a second, can you?”

“Come on Katherine, you know me better than that,” Garrett pleaded.

“I thought I did.” She stood to leave. Garrett considered trying to reason with her, but logic intervened, recognizing futility when it presented itself in a fashion so inherently obvious to the casual observer.

“Well, that’s it then?” She asked rhetorically as she walked away. Garrett sat silently for a few moments, considering what “Well, that’s it then?” was supposed to mean. Although he had previously considered their relationship was coming to a crossroads where some serious decisions about their future would have to be made, he did not think this was that time. Katherine had been too emotional to stubbornly stand behind a breakup at this point. He would talk to her when she was more willing to listen. He looked at his bisque. On any other day, he could not resist the delectable concoction, but his appetite had left him. He called Charlie and told him he would be back in an hour.

 

When Garrett returned, Charlie was in his office, still surrounded by holographs. “What have you got?” Garrett inquired as he entered. Charlie registered Garrett’s lack of enthusiasm.

“Tough lunch?”

Garrett told him about Katherine’s morning. Charlie was as surprised by the ordeal as Garrett.

“And the Secretary was there?” Charlie asked, making sure he had the facts straight.

“Katherine said she spoke with him. So what did you find?”

“Your source may be legitimate after all. I spoke to one of Talbot’s coworkers. A Joshua Yaden.”

Despite his foul mood, Garrett could not help smiling. Good ol’ Charlie, as resourceful as ever.

“So, what’s the story? He actually works as a researcher in the gravity propulsion division. A child genius, he’s been in the division since he was thirteen.” Garrett joked.

“I already told you he works for Global Information Corporation,” Charlie replied, dismissing Garrett’s attempt at humor. “Global is an information technology contract company.”

“Information technology?” Garrett queried, not registering the significance.

“Yeah, information technology,” Charlie responded. Garrett shrugged. Charlie continued, exasperated, “information technology, I T, the group of fifteen-year-olds who fix your computer when you can’t.”

“Then why didn’t you just say IT? So what’s the big hoohaa?”

“Where he works,” Charlie was grinning from ear to ear.

Garrett put his hands up, “I give up. Where does he work?”

“He does IT support at the State building,” Charlie revealed, raising his eyebrows to accompany his Cheshire-cat grin.

Garrett sat up. “The Department of State building where Katherine works?” he rapidly questioned.

Charlie, exceedingly pleased with the outcome, sat back in his chair. “The very one.”

Garrett responded slowly. “Whoa.”

“Right,” Charlie added enthusiastically. “On Tuesday, Rubin’s computer received an errant message. This Yaden works in the cubicle next to Rubin. He said Rubin’s computer locked up momentarily,” Charlie paused at Garrett’s lack of attention. “You know computer failure while the operator is jacked in can be painful?”

Garrett nodded absently.

Satisfied Garrett was keeping up, Charlie continued, “When it happened, Rubin started cursing the computer, so Yaden peered around the cubical wall to see what was wrong. Rubin had logged out and was leaving. Yaden said he asked if there was a problem, but Rubin just brushed by him. About an hour later some “goons,” as he put it, arrived and shut down the office. So, my boy, it looks as though Mike may be on to something. Of course, if it could damage the government or Federation, we won’t be able to do anything with it due to the Alien Defense Act.”

With the revelation complete, a very satisfied Charlie placed his hands behind his head and leaned farther back in his chair. Garrett continued to stare at the floor, sorting through the implications this could have for Katherine.

After several quiet moments, Charlie’s jubilant air dissolved into concern. He leaned forward, placing his hands on his desk. “Garrett, did you get all that? This could be the big one.”

Garrett responded slowly, “Yeah, I got it.” He looked at Charlie, “but the Department of State building? That message may have been intended for someone in Katherine’s office, like Greg. Maybe that’s why the alpha scan injured him. He could have been trying to hide something.”

Charlie had expected a different reaction. “So?”

“If I pursue this, it could put Katherine in danger.”

“What are you talking about?” Charlie began, flabbergasted. “She already passed whatever test those knuckleheads gave her. They don’t think she’s involved, or they would never have let her leave.”

Garrett stood and walked to the large window, watching several aircars as they maneuvered through the city. The possibilities roared through his head like a freight train. He was disturbed by an unshakable impression that his choice would have ramifications that eluded his full comprehension. The issue that oppressively loomed before him was what did pursuing the story reveal about his priorities? He recalled Katherine’s words “Do you see a time when we come first?” Part of him screamed in protest at the idea of staying a course that could involve Katherine, but he already knew his nature would not allow him to put it aside. Beyond his personal reputation, there was Mike to consider. If Garrett could not bring this to the surface, whomever Mike was afraid of probably would not stop until all the loose ends were tied up. That did not bode well for Mike and, by extension, Garrett.

“Garrett, this is big news. Sometimes the tough ones can seem daunting before all the facts are in,” Charlie coached.

Garrett turned back to Charlie, his face grim. “Don’t take on the sage-editor-guiding-the-neophyte role with me. I’m not wet behind the ears,” he seethed.

“I know, Garrett. I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just…” Charlie trailed off.

Garrett turned back to the city skyline. “Just what?” he shot back, feeling the turmoil of his decision rise to the surface.

“Come on, Garrett. This could be the story of a lifetime,” Charlie encouraged. Garrett did not respond, so Charlie continued his attempt at coercion. “Well hell, a few years ago you’d have been champing at the bit to break something like this. If you’re lucky, you may get an opportunity to cover a story like this once in your entire career. This could put the Rimes debacle behind you for good,” Charlie counseled.

“Right, get the story,” Garrett muttered. The words were detached as if spoken by someone across the room. He sensed he was being led down a path he did not want to take but was powerless to alter his course.

Charlie jumped out of his chair and slapped Garrett on the back. “That’s my boy. I thought you were fading on me there for a second. I understand your concern. Garrett, we’ve been through a lot together. I wouldn’t let anything happen to you or Katherine, but if you’re not fully committed, this thing could get away from us.”

Garrett turned back to the office, his lips drawn into a thin line. Bubbling with energy, Charlie sat down again, ready to return to business. Garrett slowly returned to his chair.

“When are you meeting Mike?” Charlie asked.

“Tomorrow morning, outside Penn Station,” Garrett responded unenthusiastically.

Charlie’s eyes narrowed as he studied Garrett. “Hey, are you all right?” he asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine. I just don’t know if I like where this is going,” Garrett admitted.

“Garrett, stay focused here. This doesn’t have a bow on it. It looks like it may hold water, but I need a tiger out there to bring this in. Of course, if it actually bears fruit we could be talking Pulitzer.”

“I’ll get the story, Charlie,” Garrett responded with resigned acceptance. “I always do,” he concluded.

“That’s right. You always do. I’m going to call it a day. Are you finished here?” Charlie asked indicating the remaining holographs.

“Yes.”

Charlie shut down the computer. “You sure you want to go it alone tomorrow?”

“Yeah, Mike is going to be nervous, and I don’t want him to change his mind if he sees me there with someone else.”

“Be careful, and this is for Mike,” Charlie threw Garrett a credit chip.

“If this pans out, Mike is going to need some running money as well.”

“I threw in some extra,” Charlie chuckled.

“What’s so funny?”

“It came out of your expense account,” Charlie joked as he walked out.

Garrett slowly followed him out of the office, his emotions still at odds with his decision to pursue the story. He felt as though he had left behind part of what some would call his soul, and he was not sure he was satisfied with the sum of what had emerged.

Garrett checked the time. It was Five o’clock. There was a reasonable chance Katherine’s mood had cooled to a light simmer. He had his comband request a cab as he made his way to the aerial port on the ninetieth floor. The aircar was waiting when he arrived. Once inside, he began parsing through his inner turmoil. A cloud was blotting the normally inviting vista of his mental landscape. The origin of the shadow was simple guilt, but due to Garrett’s rare exposure to the emotion, its source was elusive. One of the advantages of carefully pruning relationships was the ease with which one could act. Why should he feel guilt over Katherine’s tangential involvement with his case? He could not be held accountable over an inconceivable coincidence. He had not violated their pact. Of course, he had not told Katherine about the meeting with Mike at the party, but that did not constitute a breach of trust. They rarely spoke of work. Perhaps Katherine wanted him to open up more about his day-to-day regime. That was not an unreasonable method of drawing them closer. By the time he arrived at the apartment, the issue was resolved, and he felt right as rain.

 

He entered the apartment to find it empty. Jacob, the house computer, indicated there was a message from Katherine. Garrett had a sinking feeling he was not going to have an opportunity to present the reconciliation speech he had rehearsed on the ride home. He poured a scotch and retired to the comfort of the sofa. He took a long drink before having Jacob play the message.

“Garrett. I’m at the hospital with Greg. I need some time away to think about our situation. I’ll probably stay at Sharon’s.”

It was hard to discern whether the source of the burning sensation spreading through his body was the scotch or Katherine’s message. Well, that went as planned, Garrett bitterly concluded. They were both career people. It seemed something like this would happen eventually, he conceded, but a not-so-small part of him rejected that assessment as decidedly one-sided. As he considered their interaction of late, it seemed that only one of them was talking about careers. He elected not to follow that line of reasoning and turned on the holograph, scanning various programs and pausing at the few that showed promise. He settled on coverage of a recent fad called morphing. Garrett had seen a little of it in some of the gangs he had reported on, combining various animal and human attributes: fangs, hair, horns, among other oddities. Lion manes were particularly popular. Garrett could not understand the interest, but according to the program, reversal was turning out to be more difficult and painful than originally advertised. Garrett switched to the local news channel as he settled deeper into the sofa.

 

As per its programming, Jacob woke him at nine. He had drifted off to sleep watching the monotonous drivel. Resigned that none of his endeavors could be advanced until the sun rose again, he turned in for the night.

 

A barely perceptible movement in the room interrupted his slumber. Startled, he woke instantly, straining to determine the source of the compelling impression that he was not alone. Someone was stealthily sliding into bed with him. To his relief and surprise, it was Katherine.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“Me, too. I wasn’t working on your security breach,” Garrett responded, pulling together the tendrils of the dialogue he had rehearsed earlier.

Katherine put a finger over his mouth. “We’ll talk about it later,” she insisted as she climbed on top of him with a long kiss. Later, Garrett acknowledged her approach to reconciliation was decidedly superior to his.

 

 

 

8

 

The cold morning air whipped at the loose folds of Garrett’s coat as he stood next to a bench on the southwest corner of Penn Station. He checked his comband; ten minutes until seven. His breath escaped in large white plumes. Despite the wind’s intentions, only his exposed face was subject to the chilling temperatures. His clothes automatically compensated for environmental conditions to keep their occupant wrapped in relative comfort. A figure slept on the bench closest to him. For the homeless, enviro-clothing made the New York winter almost survivable. There were more than enough free shelters in the city to feed and clothe the dwindling number of people living on the streets, but the recipient had to submit to a drug test before receiving aid. Not all were willing. Garrett sat on a bench across from the slumbering individual, counting each minute as it passed. The tone in his earpiece startled him. He stood up reflexively and answered the incoming call. His comband projected an expanded image of Mike across his palm.

“Mike, what’s going on?” Garrett asked quickly. He was anxious.

“Easy, Garrett. Are you alone?” The light from Mike’s screen illuminated his face. It made his head appear as if it were floating, disembodied. Garrett considered his dark clothing and imagined his face probably looked similar.

“Yeah, I’m alone. Well, someone is sleeping on the bench across from me, but other than that, I’m alone.”

“You sure he’s asleep?” Mike asked skeptically.

“Yes. Come on, let’s get this over with.”

“Okay. Okay. I’m just a little jumpy. This may be bigger than I thought when I talked to you before. There may be aliens among us already. The information is on the chip. It’s encrypted so you’ll have to…” Mike trailed off, turning from the screen to address some unseen activity.

“Mike, what chip?” Garrett questioned emphatically.

Mike’s attention was still focused off screen; something Garrett found increasingly disturbing. He was struck with a primal urge to flee but steadied his resolve. He still needed information only Mike could provide.

“Mike!” Garrett was yelling. “What chip?”

Mike turned back to the screen. “You have the chip. I put it in your…”

A flash from a stunner cut Mike off in mid-sentence, an explosion immediately followed. Garrett stood motionless, mentally cobbling together what he had just seen: the flash from the stunner too bright, the noise from the explosion too loud. His faculties desperately tried to fit together pieces of a puzzle that did not support Garrett’s perception of reality. Understanding snapped into place with brute force. The flash had not just been transmitted through his comband screen. It had briefly illuminated Madison Square Garden. The noise had awakened the figure sleeping on the bench across from Garrett. Mike had been on the northwest corner of the building. He had used the call to ensure Garrett was secure.

An aircar was rising from the location of the explosion. The sound stirred Garrett from the surreal moment. He ran along the south side of the building, keeping it between him and the rising vehicle. As he arrived at the corner of Penn Station, he heard the vehicle land in the direction of the bench he had just vacated. That homeless person was in for a surprise.

The sidewalks were already beginning to fill with people starting their week. It was easy to blend in. He slowed to a brisk walk, just one of the masses trudging to work. Not willing to risk the time it would take to hail a cab, he made his way through the throng of commuters plodding toward the Penn Station entrance. Aircars were moving overhead. Normal traffic, but he flinched involuntarily each time one passed. Several police vehicles were already responding to the incident with lights blazing, and their sirens screaming angrily.

 

Garrett settled into a subway seat that could only be considered comfortable by someone endowed with an excessively rigid spine. The seats were originally designed to conform to the passengers’ physique, but the days when they were still capable of performing that service had long since passed. Still, increasing the distance from Penn Station allowed him to relax. He considered what Mike’s reference to him having the chip meant. He had not received any packages at home. It was possible the item was still in transit. He reexamined the scuttled meeting with Mike. He could not set aside the disconcerting impression the timing of Mike’s apprehension was significant. He examined that prospect, probing it from various angles, considering who would have benefitted from the failed exchange, certainly not Mike. The realization struck him like a lightning bolt. He sat up rigidly and instantly the seat fit like it was custom-made for his current posture. They could have taken Mike at any time, but they wanted his conspirator. If they had Garrett’s identity, they would know where he lived. He frantically directed his comband to call Katherine and waited nervously for her to complete the connection. She did not. He selected the apartment.

“Please answer. Please answer,” he repeated in the manner of unrecognized prayer. To his relief she did.

“Garrett?” The surprise in her voice was evident even through the small earpiece.

“Katherine, are you all right?” Garrett was talking fast. He knew he sounded frantic, but every second counted.

“Of course. What’s wrong?” She responded, mildly amused by the suggestion she would be otherwise.

“You didn’t answer your comband,” he accused.

“It was on the counter. I just missed your call,” she explained.

Garrett could not get the words out fast enough. “I think someone killed Mike, the guy I was meeting. Are you still in the apartment?”

Katherine took on a serious tone, “I’m leaving now. Do you want me to meet you?” Garrett had a car that he and Katherine kept for trips through the countryside. They never used it in the city and he could probably walk back to the apartment before she could cover half the distance trying to negotiate traffic.

Garrett responded without giving the offer any consideration. “No, go to work. It’ll be safer.”

“Do you think they would come here?” Her quick response gave way to concern. “Do they know who you are?”

“I don’t know,” Garrett admitted, “but I don’t want you to be the one who discovers they do.”

“Go to the police,” Katherine advised.

“I will,” Garrett responded, knowing that course of action ranked about eighth on his list of ideas.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to meet you?”

“I’m sure. Just get out of the apartment,” Garrett responded emphatically. Every fiber of his being screamed this conversation should have ended one “get out of the apartment” ago.

“Call me after you talk to the police,” Katherine directed.

“You call me when you get to the office,” Garrett countered.

“I will,” she responded.

Garrett closed the connection, concerned the conversation would unnecessarily drag on.

 

When Garrett arrived at his apartment, the sun had pushed its way above the horizon and was feebly trying to loosen winter’s grip on the city. He knew upon entering that something was amiss. Jacob did not offer its usual greeting. Garrett cautiously stepped through the entryway, straining to listen. His pounding heart made it difficult, but he perceived noises were drifting to his overworked ears from the living area and the bedroom. Conflicted between leaving the apartment or having Jacob call security, he froze. The man walking into the entry hallway from the living area made the decision for him. Each stared at the other through an eon as time slowed its pace. Garrett perceived the man was younger than he, early thirties, dressed in a dark overcoat, looking the part of an agent of some clandestine organization. The stereotype would have been comical if not for the circumstances. The intruder was nondescript, but for the eyes. Those were the eyes of a predator and they had just found their prey. The man took a step toward Garrett and the moment was shattered. Garrett turned and ran, slamming the door on the way out as he yelled for Jacob to lock the apartment. He was not sure if Jacob was still functioning, but it was worth a try. Raised voices followed him down the hallway, closely accompanied by echoing footfalls. As he approached the elevator, he realized the requisite delay required would offer no means of escape. His pursuers were too close for him to wait on the luxury of that mechanical conveyance. As he passed the elevator alcove, a chime sounded, indicating the fickle contraption was stopping at this floor but his momentum had already carried him irretrievably beyond the point where using it was an option.

He redoubled his efforts, eyes on the fire escape tubes at the end of the hallway. Of the latest safety code, he could simply step into the tube and say “fire” to initiate his escape. The disc, which initially supported him in the tube, would release, allowing the occupant to freefall until a combination of magnetic impedance and increasing air pressure slowed the disc to facilitate a survivable deceleration. In direct violation of the previously referenced safety code, the two tubes adjacent to the one he had chosen were marked “out of order,” leaving the only other operational tube on the far side of the building. Garrett could not express how thankful he was that the superintendent had summarily ignored his complaints concerning the unusable tubes. He stepped into the tube and risked a glance at his pursuers before setting his escape into motion. They were stopped at the elevator, four men, including the man emerging from the elevator bay. Another man joined the one exiting the elevator. The two, appearing to be in their early twenties, were identical in every way, down to their shoes. Those attributes, although interesting, were unremarkable when compared to how they moved. They had a grace and speed beyond anything Garett had ever seen. Initially, Garrett could find no meaning behind the constant, but purposeful way the twins shifted in relation to the men from Garrett’s apartment. Soon he recognized they changed their position in concert with any movement of the other men, ensuring each twin could attack any two if the need arose. In the few seconds Garrett had observed them, the primitive recesses of his mind were strongly advising flight at the earliest opportunity, but, like a quidnunc entertaining the latest gossip, Garrett could not turn away. He had to know what force could stop his pursuers in their tracks, as well as the outcome of the developing confrontation. The intruder Garrett had encountered in his living room was staring at the twins. His shocked expression mirrored Garrett’s.

“You, but why?” The man asked, addressing the closest twin.

Neither twin gave any indication of registering the question or the man. The first scanned the hall toward Garrett’s apartment before shifting his attention to the fire escape tubes. His eyes narrowed as they found Garrett. The other’s gaze turned toward the opposite end of the hall. There was no indication the senses could discern, but somehow Garrett sensed the two were calculating possibilities. He could feel it and the recognition sent a chill through his being. With no visible signal, the twins reacted with synchronized motion. In that instant, the closest twin leapt at Garrett with a burst of inhuman speed. The second ran toward the fire escape tubes at the opposite end of the hall with bounding strides that were no less impressive than his counterpart’s. For the second time in as many minutes, adrenalin coursed through Garrett’s veins. His pulse pounded through his temples as his heart pumped with might and fury. Garrett heard someone say “fire” and realized it had come from his own lips; the young man was almost on top of him as he began his descent. Temporal distortion stretched the seconds it took for gravity to perform its work on his unsupported body. He registered every motion. The incredible speed with which the twins sprinted played out in slow motion; one rapidly decreasing the distance to Garrett, the other increasing the same, the three men slowly turning back toward the apartment, all highlighted in a relief that etched the image into his memory. It was through this clarity that just as he was about to slip safely below the floor, he saw a fourth man exit his apartment dragging a reluctant Katherine.

“Katherine!” Garrett screamed in vain, as he fell into darkness.

 

 

table=. =. |=.
p<>{color:#000;}. I hope you have enjoyed this introduction to Garrett Richards and his universe. If you were entertained and would like to find out how Garrett navigates the troubles ahead, the entire novel is available on www.amazon.com.

 

Thank you for your patronage,

Cyril |

 

 


The Peace Proxy: Part 1

The first installment in The Peace Proxy series. In the not too distant future, humanity prepares for an alien invasion that is still decades away. The threat of complete subjugation has resulted in an era of unprecedented global cooperation and technological advancement. When Garrett Richards, an investigative reporter with a troubled past, receives information indicating mankind’s preparations are being compromised, he discovers the threat may be closer than anyone imagines. Events spiral beyond his control as he becomes the target of a clandestine organization determined to conceal the truth. It will take all of his courage and ingenuity to save those he loves…and the planet.

  • Author: Cyril Adams
  • Published: 2016-05-08 03:35:11
  • Words: 22249
The Peace Proxy: Part 1 The Peace Proxy: Part 1