BREAKTHROUGH SERIES

MOSAIC

The world is losing hope.

Political and social infighting threaten to destroy the world.  Rancor and hatred only grow stronger, engulfing entire nations.  And each day moral and economic strife brings embroiled countries ever closer to war.  

But hope is not dead.  Everywhere, pockets of human kindness and compassion continue to persevere.  Where lives are cherished and virtue endures.  And one small, extraordinary group fights to save us all. 

A team in possession of the mother of all secrets.  The one secret – the one discovery – that could bring the world back from the brink.


Prologue

 

The late afternoon sun rested well below the thick canopy of African trees, producing a rich pink-orange hue through the cloud-covered sky.  The air was still and humid, leaving the vast expanse of mahogany and kapok trees almost motionless, save for the occasional movement of African snipes as they hopped between branches.

 A tranquil scene shattered abruptly when a deafening scream arose in the distance, followed by a barrage of unintelligible shouting and cursing.

Dulce looked up, startled, still clutching a soft pink bromeliad flower between her black fingers.  With a look of confusion, the small gorilla peered up at Dexter, a smaller capuchin monkey, who was perched nervously a few feet above her.  Both turned and looked down a long narrow footpath toward the commotion.

The looks on their faces were strikingly similar to the expression of their alien companion, Ronin––unblemished but puzzled.  His smooth, bald head gradually turning pink from exposure to the subtropical sun. 

It was not until DeeAnn Draper appeared in the distance that they each jumped.  DeeAnn was running.  As fast as she could, huffing loudly and pointing frantically in the direction behind them as she barreled down the path. 

“Run!” she yelled between breaths.  “RUN!”

Ronin suddenly stared at the two primates who both remained frozen.

“I SAID RUN!” DeeAnn screamed and pointed again.  When she was less than twenty feet away, the computerized vest strapped to her midsection blurted out the translation in a loud mechanical voice.

With a start, Dulce dropped the flower and began stumbling backward, still watching DeeAnn.  A second later, Dexter leapt from the tree onto Ronin’s back as he too stumbled and began to run ahead of her in the same direction.

Trailing at a distance behind DeeAnn, a frail figure rounded the trees, angrily chasing after her.  Shouts in Kinyarwanda spewed forth from the old man, who wielded what appeared to be a small axe above his head.  But in his eighties, the man was already beginning to slow, which only seemed to incense him more.

The dark-skinned man finally slowed to a stop near the area where Ronin and the primates had been waiting––defiantly hurling the rusted axe forward, where it struck the ground, and tumbled helplessly along the dirt path.

A hundred yards further ahead and well out of range, Ronin pressed forward, running hard and pushing branches out of their way. Dexter and Dulce scrambled forward on his heels, and ahead of DeeAnn. 

After several minutes, the trail opened into a wide, grassy area, where DeeAnn allowed her herself to slow.  Her feet finally thundered to a stop, and she gasped for breath, looking back through the trees for any sign of the old man.

She held up a hand and continued sucking in air.  “It’s…okay…I think…we’re okay!”

Ronin coasted to a stop and turned back to study DeeAnn.  He then retreated a few steps toward the narrow footpath and looked past her intently.  “Are we in danger?”

“No,” she said, shaking her head, still fighting for breath.  “No…we’re fine now.”  She glanced at Dulce and Dexter.  Both were on the far side of the grass and waited nervously to resume.  “Dulce…it’s okay now…We’re okay.  You can stop running.”

The translation sounded through DeeAnn’s vest, but Dulce’s hazel eyes remained skeptical.  Behind her, Dexter ambled forward anxiously.

You scare.

“I know.  I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to.”  She straightened and tried to slow her breathing.  DeeAnn then glanced at Ronin with an apologetic frown.  “Things didn’t go as planned.”

Ronin was still staring down the path.  “What had you planned?”

“Well…maybe not planned,” DeeAnn panted, more gently now.  “I was just hoping for a less exciting outcome.”

He peered at her, curiously.  “This was not your expected outcome?”

“You could say that.”  With a wry grin on her face, DeeAnn leaned forward and reached behind her back.  She fumbled for a moment before pulling out two thin and worn books.  She held them up in her hand triumphantly.  “But at least I got these.”

“You have retrieved your books.”

“Journals,” she corrected.  “And sure.  Let’s go ahead and use the word retrieved.”

Ronin did not get the sarcasm.  “These are what we came for, yes?”

DeeAnn made sure they were still intact before tucking the books back into her pants behind her. 

These weren’t just journals.  They were the last remaining diaries of Dian Fossey––the legendary anthropologist who had vastly changed mankind’s understanding of gorillas in the wild, before being murdered decades before in the same jungle where they were now standing.  A murder that to this day had never been solved. 

No, these texts were not just journals.  To DeeAnn, they were justice.

DeeAnn had been shocked to find that the diaries had been in possession of the old hermit.  He had managed to somehow procure them after Fossey’s death three decades ago.  But unfortunately, the old man refused to part with the books, even for a good price.  So DeeAnn returned and waited––waited for him to leave his tiny shack before sneaking inside to retrieve them.

Of course, she did not consider it stealing.  She left almost two thousand dollars on the man’s table, where he was sure to find it.  She simply could not allow the last written words of Dian Fossey to be lost again, possibly forever.

We go now?

DeeAnn glanced at Dulce and grinned.  “Yes.  We go now.” 

The small gorilla smiled and hesitantly knuckle-walked back on her hands.  When she reached her human mom, Dulce raised her small black hand, allowing DeeAnn to take it.

Finally at ease, Dulce grinned up at her with a giant smile.  You run funny.

DeeAnn laughed.  “Look who’s talking.”

 

 

1

 

 

It was almost a miracle.

Will Borger and Lee Kenwood stood back to reexamine their work.  Everything was in place and connected.  The dim interior of the small concrete building made the bright green lights of the IMIS computer system appear somewhat eerie.  They flashed several times and began blinking when the system was finally turned on.

The existing racks left behind from the older weather equipment looked mismatched and shabby next to IMIS’s sleek black servers––several of which needed to be stacked sideways on the floor to fit inside the cramped room.  But fit they did.  Barely.

Borger turned and watched Lee’s face in the soft green glow, as the young engineer’s eyes moved from server to server.  Lee was looking for error lights that would indicate a hardware failure.  Seeing none, he stepped toward an extended tray in one of the center racks and placed his hands on the compact keyboard.  Just above it, on a fixed monitor, a seemingly endless series of text and diagnostics scrolled up the screen.  He finally relaxed when the operating system began to load.

“How long does IMIS take to boot?” asked Borger.

“Fifteen to twenty minutes.”  Lee frowned.  “It has to run through a lot of parity checks for all the drives.”

Borger nodded and continued watching.  “Back in the old days, moving these many machines at once without something breaking was impossible.   These systems have come a long way.”

Lee grinned.  “Well, back then we were still grappling with electricity.”

Borger laughed, loud and bellowing from under his light shabby beard.  He slapped the younger man on the shoulder, causing Lee to laugh as well.  He was really beginning to like this kid.

Together they scanned their eyes back over the systems, perhaps this time with more relief than concern.  It was still too soon to celebrate, but so far it really was a miracle.   Just the two of them, moving so many systems so quickly and in one fell swoop, without a major failure…or at least not yet.  It left them feeling both lucky and nervous at the same time––and thoroughly exhausted.

The biggest downside was that they both stank terribly.  Working for almost two days straight to strip the system down and immediately rebuild it some fifty miles away was no small feat.  In fact, it was an effort that only a fellow computer expert could truly appreciate.  But they had done it.  And now they stood together, prideful, watching the lines of code scroll past on the monitor.

Borger reached for a chair behind him and plunked himself down.  His button-up shirt revealed dark spots under each arm and his brow was still covered in beads of sweat.  The old air conditioner hummed steadily in the background, not quite able to eliminate the mild dank smell from the concrete walls.

It would have been nice if they simply could have left the door open, but it was early morning, and even the dim lights in the room would have shone like a beacon to anyone outside.

The old maintenance building was comprised of three rooms––the server or equipment room, a small office, and an even tinier bathroom separating the two.  It was a strange setup, but the structure was more than fifty years old and had a huge upside in that it was rarely checked anymore, if at all.  It was the best they could do under the circumstances.

Hiding the IMIS system was far more difficult than it sounded.  Especially since they needed a strong connection to several low-flying military satellites.  Allowing them to literally hide the signal under one of the largest and most powerful radio dishes on the planet was a stroke of genius. 

Of course, it wasn’t foolproof.  Given enough time, someone would eventually notice the different signals.  They could then trace them back to one of the old, forgotten maintenance buildings on the edge of Puerto Rico’s Arecibo observatory grounds.  Or they would notice the power draw.  Or a number of other telltale signs.  But by then, with any luck, they would be gone.

 

Borger folded his arms over his large belly and watched Lee, still scanning the lines of scrolling text. 

“So far so good?”

Lee nodded.  “So far.”  He studied the screen for several more seconds before finally turning away.  “Now we just wait and see.”

Borger grinned.  “And hold our breath.”

“I’m sure we’ll have some small problems to fix, but assuming nothing got seriously damaged, we might be able to have it all back up and running by tomorrow.”

“Good,” Borger replied, motioning at the worn-out chair behind Lee.  “Have a seat.”

Lee complied and peered back with tired eyes.  “So, what’s next?”

“We get some sleep.  When IMIS is fully operational, we notify the rest of the team, so they can test it remotely.  Then you and I get to work.”

“With the reprogramming.”

Borger nodded.  “You’re sure IMIS is going to be able to do this?”

“Pretty sure,” Lee replied.  “Like I said, it’s not all that different from what we did for Alison and those hieroglyphs in Guyana.  At its core, IMIS is designed to find patterns––mostly in communication, but its algorithms can do more than just that.  Heuristics are used for all kinds of things these days.  Unfortunately, there’s a tradeoff in accuracy for speed.  Which is why IMIS still makes mistakes.  But once the solutions are verified…”

“We’re golden.”

“We should be.  I have to warn you though–”

“Relax kid,” Borger beamed.  “If anyone understands the fallibility of computers, I do.  But so far your IMIS system seems better than most.”

“So, what do we look for first?”

“Good question.  We’re not going to be looking for surface-level stuff but deeper relationships––historically, and over a long period of time.  Things that may have been overlooked for a really long time.  Dots that haven’t been connected yet.”

“Like what?”

Borger shrugged.  “Things like Cambodia, for example, and what was discovered a couple years ago––huge medieval cities buried beneath the jungle since something like the twelfth century.  Only found when some guy decided to scan the area with airborne lasers.  I’m betting there’s a lot of stuff out there that we either haven’t found yet, or have found but haven’t realized the significance of.  And I don’t just mean cities.  How many other things do you think mankind has found over all these years that got lost or stuffed away somewhere?”

Lee Kenwood nodded his head, thinking.  “This may not be easy.  There’s an awful lot of data out there.  Fortunately, one of the reasons it’s been so successful with the languages is because it uses unsupervised, deep-learning algorithms with multiple layers of data representation.  So it doesn’t just connect dots, it searches more deeply to determine what dots should or should not be connected.”

“And that’s exactly what we’re going to need,” Borger said, “because if a single alien race came to Earth and secretly buried millions of embryos here with their DNA, what else might be out there…from them or someone else?”

“And we still have to figure out why.”

“Precisely.”  Borger nodded again and removed his glasses to clean them with his shirt.  “Our friend Palin said Earth has more water than most other planets, which makes us a prime candidate for relocation.  So, if other forms of alien life can live here, there’s no telling what else might already be here that we don’t know about.”

Lee Kenwood raised his eyes to the room’s concrete ceiling, chipped and littered with dozens of small cracks.  “I wonder how many of them might be out there…in space.”

“Probably a lot,” Borger answered, his weariness quickly fading as he stared intently at Lee from his own chair.  “You remember me telling you about that Drake Equation?”

“The predictive thing?”

“Yes.  A brilliant but simple equation that most in the field of astronomy are familiar with.  In the late 50’s, when radio telescopes became big enough, some astronomers got to thinking and wondered if they would be sensitive enough to pick up extraterrestrial signals from other planets.  If there were any.”

“You mean like radio signals?”

“Right,” Borger said.  “All kinds of technologies work using the radio spectrum.  And if it’s true for us, it would undoubtedly be true for other races out there too.  After all, we all use the same spectrum.  So along comes a guy named Frank Drake who puts forth a question.  Actually, it was less a question than an equation, really.  The point is, everyone had already pondered or asked whether life existed elsewhere in our galaxy, but no one had really asked how much life might be out there.”

“As in?”

“As in how many.  A lot of people agreed that an alien race could be out there.  But it was Frank Drake who first attempted to estimate just how many there might realistically be.”

“And he did this with his equation?”

“Yes.”  Borger tilted his head.  “No…well, kind of.  More than anything else, he tried to quantify an answer…using his equation.”

“And you said it’s simple?”

“It’s very simple.  It’s really a set of questions that carry us to some reasonable conclusions.  It starts with the first question: how many stars are in our Milky Way galaxy?”

Lee shrugged.

“The answer is about three hundred billion.”

Lee breathed out a soft whistle.

“Yeah, it’s a big number.”  Borger nodded.  “Once you have that answer the next question is, how many of those three hundred billion stars have planets?  Then when you have that number, the next question is how many of those planets could support life?  For example, how many might have water and oxygen?  Then, how many of those might actually develop life, and then how many of those might be intelligent life, and then how many would develop technology that could transmit a radio signal, and finally, how long might that signal be transmitting for.”  He looked at Lee who was listening intently through reddened eyes.  “It might sound a little convoluted, but here’s the gist.  Let’s say you only assume one in a thousand for each question––say, one in a thousand of our galaxy’s stars actually have planets around them.  And then only one in a thousand of those planets can support life.  Then only one in a thousand is advanced life.  And so on and so on, you’re starting with such a huge number of stars that by the time you get to the end of the equation, the number of possible alien races out there is a lot bigger than you might expect.”

Lee sat, eagerly waiting.  When Borger didn’t continue, he finally blurted out, “So, how many?”

“Even when assuming a one in a thousand result, over and over, you’re left at the end with a number somewhere in the neighborhood of ten thousand civilizations.”

“Ten thousand?!”

Borger nodded.  “Yeah. As in a one with four zeros.”

Lee blinked multiple times at him.  “Are you serious?”

“I’m completely serious.  There could be as many as ten thousand alien civilizations floating around out there in our own galaxy.  Maybe more.”

At that, Lee’s eyes widened.  “More than ten thousand?!”

“Maybe.  Remember, we assumed that only one out of a thousand stars had planets.  But nowadays, with all of the searching we’ve been doing with planets outside our own solar system, called exoplanets, we’re finding nearly all stars have planets.  So, imagine what happens to our calculation when one of our answers gets changed from one in a thousand to one in ten.”

“Holy crap!”

Borger smiled at the shocked expression on Lee’s face.  “So if Drake’s equation is even close to accurate, and there really are thousands of alien civilizations out there, do you see why it might be worthwhile to find out how many more of those have also made it to Earth?”

Lee Kenwood stared at Borger through his own dark-framed glasses, pondering the question.  “Well, now I can.”

“We’re discovering all kinds of things now,” continued Borger.  “Everywhere.  Even Sanskrit, one of the oldest human languages, talks about some strange things happening.  And that’s two thousand years ago.  Imagine what else has been found since then, even accidentally.  I mean, what if the alien ship we found underwater was not even the first to arrive here? It certainly wasn’t the first strange thing to be found, that’s for sure.  And now, with a powerful enough system like IMIS, we may be able to discover things previously missed.  Not just by you and me, but all of mankind.”

Kenwood began nodding his head again slowly.  “Or…what mankind had found and tried to keep secret.”

“Bingo!  That’s the next piece.”  Borger grinned approvingly.  “Look, I’m a history buff, and one thing I know is that there have been a lot of wars on this planet that go back a very long time.  And the one thing every victor has done was to take whatever treasures their enemy had.  Whether it was Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or the Spanish Conquistadors and the Aztecs.  To the victor go the spoils.  Napoleon did it.  And the Nazis.  Even we did.  At the end of World War II, we raced the Russians to grab as much of Germany’s remaining assets as we could.  In the form of both technology and people.  It’s human nature.  To the victor go the spoils.”  Borger straightened in his chair and leaned forward toward Lee.  “So, if these treasures or assets have been taken back and forth over all these years by different empires and governments, the question is…what do they have?  And what do they know?”

“So, it’s not just about the treasures…”

“It’s about the secrets,” Borger grinned.

Lee raised his hands and pressed them in front of his face.  Even through his tired eyes, it was clear the concept had grabbed him.  “Which brings us to the NSA.”

“The N–S–A,” Borger repeated triumphantly.  “The government organization that collects information on everyone, both inside and outside of the country, in every electronic medium it can.  Email, phone calls, text messages, even every digitized form of the written word.  Books, lectures, letters, everything.  You name it.  Any medium, any country, any person, and they’ve tried to get it.”

“But how would they store all that?  You’re talking about a tremendous amount of server space.”

Borger smirked.  “I’m guessing you don’t know about their giant data center in Utah, buried under a mountain.”

“For real?”

“For real,” he nodded.  “Located nearby Bluffdale, Utah.  It’s huge.  Really, really huge.”

 “Geez.”  Lee shook his head.  “And you think we can crack some of their encrypted files?”

“The new stuff?  No.  But the old stuff…absolutely.”  Borger glanced at the computer screen to see the IMIS software still loading.  “Cryptography goes back a long way.  The first documented ciphers were used by the Egyptians, then later by the Assyrians, and pretty much every civilization since.  Of course, everyone knows about the Enigma machines used by the Nazis, but once encryption became computerized, things really got interesting.  The first computerized encryption algorithm was developed in the 70’s by IBM.  It was called Lucifer and was comprised of 64 bits, translating plain text strings to binary.  More secure forms of encryption weren’t conceived of until the 1990’s.  And just like any technology, these early versions were rife with problems and vulnerabilities for cracking them.  Believe it or not, a group of mathematics and computer-engineering students at the University of Toronto just cracked an even more advanced encryption using something called quadratic curves.”

“What the hell is that?”

“It uses numeric sentences like Fibonacci’s sequence and a bunch of others.  But it’s the hardware they used to crack it that you might find more interesting.”

“What hardware?”

“A supercomputer,” Borger replied.  “As in Watson.”

Watson?!  Are you serious?!”

“As a heart attack.  You used to work for IBM, didn’t you?”

“Yes!  I was on the team that wrote code for some of their original Deep Blue instructions.”  In the middle of his excitement, Lee Kenwood suddenly stopped, considering something.  “But that’s way beyond what IMIS can do.  She simply doesn’t have that kind of horsepower.”

“I know,” the older Borger nodded.  “We’re going to need a bigger system.”

“How much of the NSA’s data do you think is vulnerable?”

Borger’s grin was still visible when he nodded again, a little smugly this time.  “A lot.  There have been several recent leaks from within the NSA, from analysts claiming that there’s just way too much data to go through.  And there are not that many versions of encryption out there.  So for each one we crack, everything encrypted with that particular version becomes vulnerable–”

Kenwood finished the sentence.  “And readable by us.”

“That’s right.  And with all those exabytes of data, how many secrets do you think the government could be hiding?  Some that they’re not even aware of?”

READ ON

 

2

 

 

Andrew Hayes, the Director of the CIA, gazed down over the grounds.  Over five stories below, the green grass and neatly trimmed hedges extended out along each side of the building’s entrance. Through the window, the afternoon sun shone brightly against his peppered hair, while dark eyes and olive skin reflected a mixture of Latin and European ancestry.  But his physical demeanor was anything but readable as he stood with arms behind his back, listening to the man seated nearby.

John Ambrose, the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence, was sitting before Hayes’s huge mahogany desk.  The large office had been decorated with several pieces of Italian Gothic art and paintings, matching Hayes and his rather somber personality. 

Reading from several sheets of paper in his hands, the Directorate continued.  “And it’s not just Miller.  Your friend Langford appears to be part of it too.”

The term “friend” was a reflection of Ambrose’s dry sense of humor.  They both knew Admiral James Langford was anything but a friend, especially to Hayes, but the CIA Director barely batted an eye at the joke.  Instead, he merely continued listening.

“It seems there are quite a few things they haven’t shared with anyone else, including the President.  Not the least of which is the team they have quietly assembled.  Consisting of both military and civilians.  Miller and Langford are funding it from a variety of sources.  Using small amounts and generic budget descriptions to keep most people from noticing.”

Hayes did not appear the least bit surprised.  He already knew about Miller and Langford’s secret team.  “Have you been able to break into any of their satellite phones?”

“Not yet.  But there’s a lot we can still determine from the rest of the information we’ve gathered.”

“Such as?”

“Such as those plants the Chinese found in Guyana.  Or should I say what else they found.”

Hayes turned, his eyebrow rising curiously. 

“They’ve referred multiple times to something one of them calls The Ark, which we believe is code.  Possibly something of historical or archeological significance.”

“Or maybe they’re trying to throw us off.”

“Possible, but doubtful.  From what we can see, the team displays no suspicions that their communications have been compromised.  At least not yet.”

Hayes mulled it over.  His subordinate’s phrasing reminded him of the British team who eventually broke the German’s Enigma machine during World War II––the device used to send communications to Hitler’s forces.  The British team was led by a mathematician named Alan Turing.  But what was most notable to Hayes was not the cracking of the code itself, as miraculous as that was.  It was what happened after the code was broken.

The simple truth was that the broken code was only good if the enemy continued to use it.  Or more specifically, as long as the enemy did not change it, thus causing the entire effort to begin again.  No, what was most remarkable to Hayes was how well the British hid their secret.  How well they kept the Nazis confident their communications were still secure and continued using the same cipher.  Only then were the Allies able to use the Nazis’ own secrets against them.

But it came at a terrible cost.  Had the British or the Americans appeared to suddenly gain too much advantage in the war, the enemy would surely have suspected their code was compromised and switched to a new cipher.  So the Allies had to keep the Germans believing that their coded messages were secure, which meant they had to continue losing battles.  They had to continue to lose, intentionally, sacrificing both British and American lives, if only to keep the ruse alive.  Scores of their own men lost to further leverage the Nazis’ code and ever so slowly turn the tide in their favor.

It was a tactic at which the American government had become increasingly deft, especially the CIA.  Breaking the enemy, without letting them know they had been broken.

And to Director Hayes, the enemy was anyone who got in their way of doing what needed to be done.  What they had to do, for the good of the country.  Without being hounded by a politicized Congress hell-bent on knowing things they didn’t need to know.

It was the sole responsibility of Hayes, one now made extraordinarily more difficult thanks to Defense Secretary Miller and Joint Chiefs Admiral Langford.  They were the two who convinced the President to force Hayes to do the unthinkable.  Damn near destroying the very heart of the Central Intelligence Agency by recalling every top and mid-level operative out of Central Asia, their actions unleashed the worst political chaos the agency, and the country, had ever seen.

Suddenly dozens of CIA missions were exposed of which many departments in the government were never even aware.  Secret missions, secretly funded, with objectives only accountable to those inside the CIA itself.  Not only had Miller and Langford unleashed the greatest political firestorm in intelligence history, but they had also exposed the very underbelly of the world’s most important government spy agency and forced Hayes himself directly into the spotlight.

And as soon as he and his agency were thrust into the light for the world to scrutinize, the leaks began.  Internally and anonymously funneled through channels like the New York Times and WikiLeaks, many dirty secrets of the CIA had quickly become public knowledge.  Things like their missions, their political influence over other countries, even their techniques for hacking millions of smart devices on the internet, both foreign and domestic.  All without any legal oversight or authorization.  No warrant.  No probable cause.  Just sheer unadulterated snooping.  All condemned, as far as Hayes was concerned, by a public too naïve or too stupid to understand how necessary it truly was.

Yes, Andrew Hayes now had more problems than he could handle.  All due primarily to one particular individual with whom he had a deep and personal score to settle.  No matter what it took.  He would carefully gather every piece of information possible, and when he finally had what he needed, he would wait––patiently and silently, just like the British did with their Enigma secret.  No matter how long it took, or what it did to the agency, Andrew Hayes would wait…until the time was right.

Hayes finally blinked and spoke to his Directorate.  “Who exactly is on this secret team of Langford’s?”

Ambrose quickly moved to another piece of paper.  “There are several, with varying levels of involvement.  John Clay and Steve Caesare, both Navy ex-SEALs now serving under the department’s investigative arm.  They report directly to Langford, even after his move to Chairman.  Which we find odd.”

Hayes nodded slightly.  He was familiar with both Clay and Caesare. 

“There’s also Will Borger, a technical expert from the same Electronics & Signaling team and a civilian.  He was apparently hired directly by Langford several years ago when one of their systems was hacked from the outside.  Borger was part of the consulting team called in to help isolate and contain the breach.”

“He was hired by Langford himself?”

“Correct.  Which we believe may be another link to more that Langford may be hiding.”

Hayes had a glint appear briefly in his eyes, but he said nothing. 

“These three appear to be very tight and comprise the core of the team.  It also looks like they operated in concert to free the alien at NAS JAX––followed by clandestine missions in South America and China.  Including the murder of a former Brazilian intelligence officer.”

“Murder?”

“We believe so,” replied Ambrose.

A grin formed on his lips, and Hayes almost asked if Ambrose was sure, but it didn’t matter.  Tying Langford’s men to that crime would be child’s play.  “Go on.”

“The other civilians involved include marine biologists Alison Shaw and Chris Ramirez.  Both are involved in their dolphin translation project, along with a Lee Kenwood, their project’s lead computer programmer.  Another researcher by the name of DeeAnn Draper is also on the team––an expert in primate research and one with a somewhat checkered past.”

“How checkered?”

“She has traveled extensively in and out of third world countries and has been associated with several questionable organizations.  Some of these are foundations which we suspect may be covers for illegal activity.”

Hayes nodded and let the grin return briefly.  “What else?”

“There also appear to be some military officers involved from Captain Rudolph Emerson’s ship Pathfinder, including Emerson himself, who has received encrypted messages directly from Langford, outside of normal channels.”

At this, his eyes narrowed again.  “So ol’ Rudy Emerson is mixed up in this too.”

Ambrose nodded.  “It was his ship that just captured the Russian tycoon Dimo Belov after the attack near Trinidad.  A man with deep pockets and deeper ties to the Russian Defence Ministry.”

“Where is he now?”

Ambrose looked up at him.  “As far as we know…still onboard.”

Hayes shook his head.  “Where Langford and Miller can keep him quiet, no doubt.”

“You think they’re in with him?”

“God, I hope so.”

Ambrose responded by smiling.  Connecting dots was their specialty.  Even when there were no actual dots to connect.  “They may also have connections in Rwanda.  One of their passport photos just showed up in Kigali.”

“Kigali?”

“Yes,” Ambrose nodded.  “Steve Caesare.  His face got matched in one of our systems off a falsified passport.  We traced the other two traveling with him and found they matched Clay and the Draper woman.”

“What the hell were they in Rwanda for?”

“We don’t know yet.  But Langford’s man Caesare seems to have a sense of humor.”

“What do you mean?”

“The name on his fake passport was Kern L. Sanders.”

Hayes promptly turned around.  “And no one caught that?”

“Are you kidding?  Next to some of those Rwandan names?”

Hayes remained silent for a long moment before turning back to the window.  “Let him laugh it up.  Let them all enjoy it.  We’ll see how funny they find this in the end.”

“There’s also the matter of China.”

“Which part?”

“A few days ago, either Langford or Miller called in a favor to the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force and borrowed one of their choppers.”

“Borrowed it for what?”

“We’re not clear on that yet.”  Ambrose avoided bringing up the matter of having limited intelligence coverage there now, even in Japan.  “But we believe it flew into Chinese airspace before returning to Japan.”

“A pickup.”

“Probably.”

“What was it?”

“We’re not sure on that either, yet.”

Hayes grew quiet, thinking.  After a long pause, he raised another eyebrow.  “The girl?”

“Wei’s daughter?  We don’t think so.  We’re pretty sure she’s dead.  It was probably something else.  Our best guess is more of the bacterium.”

“I thought the last of that was destroyed in the Pathfinder attack?”

“So did we.  But Clay and Caesare may have found another sample.”

“Possible,” Hayes said with a nod.  “So where did they go from there?”

Ambrose frowned.  “That’s where it gets a little tricky.  They were flown out of the Yokota Air Base, compliments of the 374th Airlift Wing.  Part of the Pacific Air Forces, and the primary wing serving the Department of Defense.”

“Which would put it directly under the command of Secretary of Defense Miller.”

“Correct.  Their C-21A then refueled at Midway Island then again at Oahu, Laughlin, Texas and finally San Juan, Puerto Rico.  All U.S. military base locations except the last.”

“Then where to?”

“From there the Learjet turned around and flew back.”

“Anyone onboard?”

“On the way back?  We don’t know yet,” the Directorate replied, shaking his head.  “But the most likely scenario is that Langford’s men departed in Puerto Rico.  At a non-military airport.”

The office fell silent as both men stared at each other, thinking the same thing.  Given that Puerto Rico was a U.S. territory and not a state, its security standards were lacking, to say the least.  And considering the number of islands in the Caribbean with reputations for skirting U.S. laws and regulations, the region as a whole was unquestionably one of the least secure.

“So,” Hayes mused, “the question now is what did they bring back on that plane?”

“We’ll find out,” said Ambrose.

Director Hayes nodded.  All of his problems­ could be laid at the feet of three specific men, all the investigations into him and the agency––Jim Langford and Merl Miller, whom Hayes had despised for years and was now on a mission to publicly destroy.  The third was the man Langford had gone to such extreme lengths to keep alive, more than once.

 

 

3

 

 

John Clay remained motionless, blissfully unaware of the target slowly being drawn upon his back by the CIA.  Instead, he stared silently through a thick pane of glass alongside Commanders Neely Lawton and Steve Caesare.  On the opposite side of the large window was a hospital room with a single bed located in the middle, surrounded by several pieces of monitoring equipment.

They had needed to hide the teenage girl quickly.  After landing in San Juan, they arranged to have a boat waiting for them.  Just off the northeast coast and beyond the Cape San Juan Lighthouse, their friend and Venezuelan smuggler, Tomas Lopez, lingered patiently in the darkness.  He and his three-man crew, all veritable experts at smuggling humans to safety.

To Clay and Caesare’s relief, the transfer, even with the girl being unconscious, could not have gone smoother.

  Too many people were looking for Li Na now, no doubt including every Chinese intelligence agent on the planet.  Their country’s own Ministry of State Security almost redefined the words brutal and unrelenting in their search for the girl.  And if there was one thing all three of them knew, standing silently together, it was that the Chinese would not give up.  Ever.  Especially when it came to Li Na Wei, lying unconscious in the room before them and carrying the mother of all discoveries deep within the veins of her small body.

Steve Caesare exhaled, shaking his head.  “She looks so…delicate.  How in the world was she able to survive?”

“Sheer will, I think.”

In a rare moment of levity, Neely Lawton turned to Caesare.  “I’m guessing I won’t be hearing any female jokes out of you today.”

Caesare grinned from under his dark mustache without looking over.  “You got that right.”

Neely turned back to the window with a smile, returning her eyes to Dr. Amir Kanna, standing inside the room, not far from the girl’s bed.  He was studying a large monitor.

“So, what’s the plan now?” Caesare asked.

Clay gave a tired nod, with his eyes still fixed ahead of him.  “Yes.  A plan would be good.”

The hall they were standing in was eerily quiet––part of a new unoccupied wing of a private hospital in Trinidad called St. Augustine.  The hospital was privately owned and operated by a close group of shareholders, all in response to the dire need for a medical facility on the west side of the island.  And as luck would have it, one of the shareholders was a longtime friend of one Andrea Sue Langford…wife of Admiral James Langford.

Neely glanced at both men’s reflections in the window.  They each looked like they were about to fall over.  “I think you two need some sleep.”

“Sleep,” Caesare murmured.  “I’m trying to remember what that’s like.”  He turned to Clay.  “We have to make sure this place is secure.”

“Agreed.  We stay until we get some reinforcement.  You find a bed.  I’ll take the first shift.”

“Done.”

Neely raised her eyebrows at Caesare.  “Well, that was quick.”

Caesare grinned.  “Hey, I’m all about chivalry when it matters.  But Clay doesn’t really do it for me.”

“That’s not what you said in Honduras,” Clay quipped.

An exhausted Caesare stared back at Clay.  “Okay, that’s funny.  But I’m too tired to laugh right now.”  With that, he turned and looked to his right down the hallway.  It was freshly painted.  Both sides were lined with new, unwrapped medical equipment and carts piled high with supplies.  “Somebody wake me up in two hours.”

The two watched him march halfway down the hall before John looked at Neely.  “You look tired too.”

“I’m okay.  I got some sleep before you arrived.  Besides, I was hoping to talk to you.”

“What about?”  Clay noticed her eyes following Caesare.  “Or should I say who?”

 She glanced back after Caesare disappeared.  “Uh, so how are you both doing?”

Clay was now grinning.  “Both of us?”

“Yes.”

“We’ve been worse.  But Steve will be all right if that’s what you’re asking.”

Neely’s expression grew defensive.  “I, I wasn’t–”

Clay’s grin spread into a smile.  “You know I talk to Alison, right?”

Neely opened her mouth to speak but stopped herself and folded her arms indignantly.

“What would you like to know about him?”

Neely didn’t answer.

“Let’s see.  He grew up in Houston and went to Texas Tech where he majored in mathematics and computer science and played some football.  But these are all things you can look up in his file.  You have looked at his file,” Clay teased, still smiling.  “And he’s single.  Again,” he added as a joke.

Neely glared at him, half out of embarrassment.  “Fine.  I looked at his file.  I was just…hoping to learn a little more, I guess.”

“He lost his father when he was young.  A heart attack, I think.  He was raised by his single mother.  He’s the oldest of three, so the fatherly role fell on him.  After joining the Navy, he helped put his younger sisters through college.”

Her expression softened.  “Really?”

“Yes.  And don’t let his jovial exterior fool you.  He may joke like a chauvinist, but he’s far from it.”

Neely glanced back down the hallway.  “Maybe I shouldn’t have a made that crack about woman jokes.”

“Nah.  It’s pretty hard to offend Steve.  Just don’t piss him off.”

“Why?”

“Because he might kill you.”

“What?!”

Clay laughed.  “You almost make this too easy.”

“Very funny!”

“Look, what I can tell you about Steve is this.  He’s honest and ethical, almost to a fault.  And he’s probably the most dependable person I’ve ever known.  There is no one else I’d rather be in a bad situation with.  Which is probably more than a little ironic.”

“I’m guessing that’s happened more than once,” she replied.

“Unfortunately.”

Neely’s expression softened.  “Is he…close to his mother?”

“Very.  And very protective.  Both of her and his sisters.  In fact, have him tell you about the time one of the girls found themselves trapped in an abusive relationship.  You can imagine how that went over when he found out.”

“What happened?”

“The guy made the mistake of beating on his little sister.  Just once.  But wouldn’t you know it, the guy tripped a few days later and broke both of his arms.”

Neely suddenly smiled.

“In an odd coincidence, that guy up and decided to move across the country just a few days later.  And his sister is now happily married to a man who Steve thinks the world of.  And apparently, his new brother-in-law is acutely aware what Steve’s career in the military entailed.”

“You mean being an ex-SEAL?”

“Among other things.  But once a man becomes a SEAL, it’s with him forever.”

“Judging from the two of you, I believe it.”  She paused, considering a question.  “You said he was, um…”

“Single?”

“Right.  But what about DeeAnn Draper?”

Clay shook his head.  “There’s no romantic relationship between DeeAnn and Steve.  They’re more like brother and sister.”

“Really?”

“They care a great deal about one another, all the while never letting the other get away with anything.”

Neely fought to control the increasing interest from showing on her face.  “I didn’t know that.”

“What’s not in his file is that he loves women.  But he’s also fiercely loyal.”  Clay stopped and tilted his head.  “Then again, maybe that is in his file.”

Neely Lawton laughed and relaxed.  She unfolded her arms and took a deep breath.  “Well, thank you.  I appreciate that.”

Clay nodded.  “So, what is your plan now that Li Na is safe?”

“Actually, I was hoping to get a look at you.”

“Excuse me?”

Neely nodded.  “I’d like to get some DNA samples from you.”

“For what?”

“Alison told me all about your injuries and your recovery.  Just like the young girl whose parents brought her to the research center.  So, I’d like to get some cultures.  To study.  I already took some from Steve and the other divers aboard the oil rig, before the attack.  I’d like to see if your samples are showing similar changes.”

“What have you found so far?”

“It’s too early to draw any permanent conclusions,” she explained.  “But their cells are displaying an unusual level of resiliency.  It will take time to prove it out, but clearly there was something in the water at the research center too––and I’d like to see what other cellular peculiarities can be compared.”

Clay began to reply when he stopped, noticing the movement of Neely’s eyes.  She was examining his face.  “What are you doing?”

“The other men were showing changes in some of their physical characteristics.  Hair color, skin texture.”  Her eyes returned to his.  “How’s your eyesight?”

Clay turned his head apprehensively.  “Fine.”

“I don’t mean is it fine.  I mean, has it changed at all?”

“You mean gotten worse?”

“No,” she said.  “Has it gotten any better?”

“I don’t…” Clay stopped, reconsidering his answer.  “Maybe.”

“Whatever is in that green liquid you found appears to be in the water here too.  And in a much stronger concentration.  I’d like to find out just how much it takes to begin affecting physiology.”

Clay shrugged.  “Okay.  What do you need to look at?”

With that, Neely studied him and put her hands on her hips.  “Take off your shirt.  Let’s have a look at you.”

“What?”

 “Don’t worry,” she winked with amusement.  “Alison gave me permission.”

 

***

 

Alison Shaw was standing onboard the U.S.S. Pathfinder, both hands gripping the gray railing, trying to steady herself.  Battling both the rolling of the ship and the nausea she was feeling made it difficult just to stay on her feet. 

The pain in her joints and the rashes on each arm were reminders of just how close she had come to the more serious, and sometimes terminal, effects of decompression sickness.  And made just a little worse by the tongue-lashing she received from Neely Lawton after regaining consciousness.

But the worst was now behind her.  The rest, including a stinging headache, was more than enough to keep her grateful that things had not been worse.  She just needed to push through the discomfort for a bit longer. 

Thankfully her attention was redirected to the faint sound of a helicopter, long before she could find the black dot in the distance against the bright blue sky. 

She found it eventually, just as the pitch from the rotors changed slightly and the craft began its descent.  Minutes later, she watched eagerly as the helicopter drew near and approached the painted yellow circle on the Pathfinder’s bow.  For several seconds it hovered, before promptly dropping the last few feet down and onto the landing pad.

Alison watched as two crewmen trotted out, pausing under the spinning blades, and attached thick chains to both sides of the fuselage.  Heavy red blocks followed, positioned securely around each of the helicopter’s thick black wheels.  Less than thirty seconds later, with the blades still winding down, a short metal set of stairs were pushed into place below the chopper’s rear door.  Only then did it open to reveal the person Alison had been waiting for.

Chris Ramirez’s head poked out from the helicopter’s dark interior and emerged into the sun, pausing a moment before her friend took his first step down onto the metal stairs.  With one arm in a sling, he used the other to reach out for one of the crewman’s shoulders. 

Alison instantly pushed the nausea from her mind and hurried down her own set of stairs.  Vibrations echoed with each step before she reached the bottom and ran to meet Chris as he crossed the platform.

He wrapped his good arm around her and smiled broadly.  “I told you…you couldn’t keep me away.”

Alison’s smile was even wider.  “I am so glad you’re back!”

“Not as much as I am, believe me.”

Beneath the loud turbulence from above, she pulled a thick strand of hair back away from her face, then led Chris away with his arm still over her shoulder. 

“I hear I missed a lot of excitement.”

Alison gritted her teeth but outwardly managed to maintain her smile.  “You could say that.  Things got pretty rough, but we’re gradually getting back to normal.”

Chris did not press the issue.  He’d been told enough about the Russian attack on the Pathfinder to know he didn’t want to know all the details.  He glanced up and spotted several crewmen making repairs to the metal walls of the ship’s hull.  Indentations from bullets were being carefully patched and painted over.

Alison helped Chris to the galley where she fetched him a sandwich and a hot cup of coffee, causing Chris to grin at the lack of her usual sarcastic comments.  Instead, Alison sat down across the table from him and allowed him to savor the moment.  He’d been through so much over the last year, much of which she felt at least partially responsible for.  Maybe not directly at fault, but enough to worry whether he somehow blamed her for it.

But there was no hint of contempt on Chris’s face.  Just his warm, deep brown mouth, smiling as he sipped from his mug.

“Well?”

“Well, what?” she asked.

“How are Dirk and Sally?”

“Oh.  Right,” Alison grinned.  “They’re fine.  They came through it with no scratches.  In fact, they’re better than fine.  Sally is pregnant!”

“Shut up!”

“I’m not kidding.  She just told me a few days ago.  And Chris!” Alison exclaimed.  “You wouldn’t believe what they showed us!”

“Tell me.”

She took a deep breath.  “Okay.  Remember what we were suspecting about their pilgrimage here?”

“We originally thought it was a birthing place.”

“It is!” she said excitedly.  “It is!  And it’s not just a birthing place, it’s bigger.  It’s an enormous breeding ground.  There’s a giant depression in the coral, surrounded and protected by hundreds of males.”

Chris’s eyes widened.  “Whoa!”

“Chris, no one has seen a dolphin birth in the wild before.  And we didn’t just see it.  We were invited to probably the largest breeding environment on the planet.  It’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen.  Hundreds of males forming a wall around it, with hundreds of females and their midwives in the center birthing.”  Alison shook her head.  “I’m telling you, it’s…” she almost chuckled, “it’s almost indescribable!”

“My God, that’s incredible, Ali.  How did you get them to include you?”

Alison beamed.  “Because they trust us.”

“That’s a hell of an understatement.  No kidding.  But…why?”

Her expression faded at Chris’s question.  She bit her bottom lip softly, thinking.

“Ali?”

“Well, at first I didn’t know.  But then I realized it’s because they want something, Chris.  They showed us their birthing ground as an exchange of trust.”

“That’s huge.”

She nodded but remained quiet.  After several seconds, Chris’s eyebrows rose.  “Wait?  Who was us?”

Her expression quickly softened to sadness.  “Me and Jim Lightfoot.”

“The guy who saved John Clay from the Bowditch.”

“Yes.”

Chris read her expression easily.  “What happened?”

“He died,” Alison replied in a shaky voice.  “A few days ago.  In the attack.”

Chris dropped his head.  “Shit.”

“That’s not all.  So did Lieutenant Tay.  And Les Gorski.  The man who came to train the whole team.  And several crewmembers too.”

“Oh, God.”

She bobbed her head, lips pressed firmly together.

Chris exhaled.  He pushed the plate away from himself and raised his good hand, propping it before his mouth.  “I knew it was bad, but I didn’t…” Chris stopped, not knowing what to say.

“They’re arranging the services,” Alison said in a somber voice.  “But they haven’t found Mr. Tay’s body yet.”

Chris shook his head.  “I just can’t believe it.  Especially Mr. Tay.  God, he was so nice and so smart.”  He peered back at Alison.  “What happened?”

“It’s a long story.  But he and Lightfoot were near the alien ship when a torpedo struck.  They tried to get out of the way, but there wasn’t enough time.”

Now Chris leaned back in his chair, a hand still covering his mouth.  It was worse than he thought.  In a fleeting moment of selfishness, he considered himself lucky to have missed it.  Even in a hospital room.  Then came the guilt.

It was all exactly what he had been afraid of.  What he and Ali had talked about.  Things were getting out of control.  This discovery of the plants had a way of turning everyone into monsters.  Not to mention what they’d achieved with IMIS.  Alison said they were moving the system, but where could it possibly be safe?  And what were people going to do when they figured out the extent to which IMIS was truly capable?

Chris looked back at Alison inquisitively.  “Wait.  What did you say before?”

“About what?”

“About their breeding ground.”

“The dolphins?  I don’t–”

“You said they showed you the breeding ground for a reason.  An exchange of trust.”

“That’s right.”

Chris shifted his head.  “You said they wanted something.”

“That’s right.”

“What did they want?”

Alison took a deep breath.  “Exactly what you’d think they’d want.”

“Meaning what?”

“Think about it for a moment.”

Chris blinked, contemplating the question, but finally shook his head.  “I don’t know.”

“I’m not even sure we can do it.”

“What, Ali?!”

Alison answered with a voice that sounded both excited and nervous.  “We’ve seen their world, Chris.  Now they want to see ours.”

 

 

4

 

 

Elgin Tay was not dead.  But he wasn’t far from it.

In complete blackness, almost every part of his body screamed in pain.  His arms, both legs, his chest, his head.  He couldn’t tell whether it was due more to his being forcefully sucked through the small opening into the alien ship or the fall afterwards onto what felt like a hard metal surface.

He was barely able to move or even think.  But Tay forced himself to try to remember what had happened.  They’d drilled a hole in the alien ship.  Just before Will Borger alerted them of the incoming torpedo.  Tay remembered the sound of fighting over his headset, from aboard the Pathfinder.  Gunshots and yelling.  But he and Lightfoot were ordered to stay with the ship, not to leave the drill.

Then came Borger’s warning.  They had no time to get out of the way.  Their only hope was to remove the drill and get themselves through that hole before it started closing again.  Before the alien ship healed itself shut.

Now Tay found himself face down on his stomach, barely able to move, and he inched forward slowly until he found a large puddle of water.  Some salty combined with fresh, the mixture seemed to be condensation from the inside of the ship’s walls.  It was enough to give him some moisture, but he couldn’t drink it forever.  Eventually, the salinity would become counterproductive in his efforts to stay hydrated.

Tay tried to remember some of his naval training and how long he could drink seawater for.  A couple weeks?  This water wasn’t that salty.  A sickening thought occurred to him.  What if it wasn’t saltwater he was tasting?  What if there was blood in the water?

His fingers found an edge, and he forced himself to think of something else.  Where was Lightfoot? 

If the enormous pressure of the water had pushed Tay through before the hole closed, then it could have pushed Lightfoot inside too.  Which meant he could also be nearby.  Still unconscious perhaps, but hopefully not far away.  Unless he had tumbled over the edge of the platform Tay was on.  But if he did…how far down was it? 

Tay pulled himself closer to the edge.  When he reached it, the engineer lowered an arm, searching into nothingness.  Pushing through a wave of pain, he pulled his face to the edge of the shelf.

“Jim!” he shouted.  “JIM!  Are you there?!”

There was no response.  Only a muffled echo before the silence returned.

He rolled back onto his right side, peering out into the blackness.  He could see something––a faint, indiscernible glow.  But he couldn’t make out a shape, or the distance from where he was.  He blinked several times, trying to refocus.  Christ, he couldn’t even tell whether his eyes were working right.

He had to find Lightfoot, because if he was still unconscious, his injuries might be even worse.  But if Tay did find him, how much help could he really provide?

The thought prompted Tay to roll onto his back, reaching out until he found a wall behind him.  He clenched his fist and hit it against the cool metal, where a brief glow spread and promptly disappeared.  He repeated the motion again and studied the light.  The same effect they’d seen from the outside.  But the glow wasn’t bright enough for him to see anything else.  Dammit.

He lay still for several minutes, just breathing.  Each gasp painful.  Then, with a sudden recollection, he began searching his body with his hands.  His scuba gear was gone.  He remembered now.  They’d abandoned it in an attempt to free themselves from the wall’s magnetism.

His hands continued down his torso, to his hips and swim trunks, and then further below to his bare legs.  Where they suddenly stopped, on the rubberized handle of his dive knife.  It was still strapped securely to his right calf. 

Excitedly, he gripped it and pulled it from the hard sheath.  The blade felt strong in his hand.  Thank God.  At least he had something!  Tay reached up and scraped the tip of the knife against the wall above him.  This time, the brief glow left behind was brighter.  Enough to reflect off the sharp blade.

He did it again and again but couldn’t make the glow bright enough to help him see anything else.  Frustrated, Tay closed his eyes and tried to ignore the pain, and even more than that, the trembling.

He could not let his body go into shock.

 


 
 
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