Whispher, USA 3: The Return of Smuyler Marrano

With care Professor Snorri Erickson places his briefcase on the oak table and settles in his seat as Senator Lieber introduces him: “Doctor Erickson has received the highest accolades for his Paleo-American studies. He is recipient of a National Geographic award and author of three books and dozens of articles on the ‘Vinland’ and ‘Green Scepter’ documents and their relation to flag-emblemata…He has been the primary grant recipient from the Garden of Light Foundation for some twelve years. Before we ask for his views on the Garden of Light Foundation and its grant system, we will now invite him to make an opening statement.”

Erickson locks his fingers and disdainfully regards the fake Doric columns that buttress the Senate subcommittee chamber’s walls. “For the past thirty years I have managed to collect eleven maps from the years 1000 to 1450—as the dominant calendar reckons—which show that a civilization, in the true sense of the word, existed on these shores that preceded European exploration. Now, you’ve called me here to discuss my writings and their relation to foundation funding. But I will not discuss it. Why? Because over the past ten years I have uncovered irrefutable evidence of the origin of this previous civilization.”

IN THE TREASURY Department building, Secret Service division, a mapping program set to identify the faces of every person present within Congressional hearings hiccups a match and sends a signal to the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building three blocks away. There, Special Agent Colin Latheran races for a television monitor and dials his boss. “Burke, turn on C-SPAN Two right now,” he brays. “This thing’s been scanning all TV broadcasts for the past six months…What? No, definitely. Bureau’s already caught sixteen fugitives with it. It’s gotta be him. The son of a bitch’s in the Capitol grounds right now. The Hart building. Turn on your television!”

 

“DURING THE MIDDLE Ages,” Erickson is saying, “Europe was under the sway of a legend concerning a certain Christian priest-king who lived in an Eastern paradise. This man was supposedly a descendent of the Magi order and lorded over a utopian civilization that possessed advanced technology. They dubbed him ‘Prester John’ or ‘Holy John the Priest’. On two occasions, the Crusaders beseeched him through letters to help them fight against the Saracens in the Holy Lands. The Church, in desperation, sent their envois to Russia, to Cathay, to the Hindus, and to Ethiopia, but it was all for naught…So why did the papal letters never reach his throne? Conventional scholarly opinion says that it is because he simply didn’t exist.

“The true answer is that the searchers and letter-carriers did not travel East enough. They could not. For what happens when one pushes ever towards sunrise, over the Eurasian landmass and then across the seas, east of the so-called East?” He pauses for effect, then, “You reach these shores, gentlemen…Yes, Prester John existed, and his kingdom had been established here on the North American continent. He and his retinue of thousands had migrated here during the 55th millennium before Christ, at the time of one of our periodic glacial recessions.He is a high member of a tribe whose brain mutations caused them diverge from Homo sapiens 170,000 years ago and remain segregated until this day from the beasts that became humanity. Within 30,000 years of this change, this gentle people had such advanced technology they achieved space flight. They built cities all around this planet, beneath its surface and beneath its seas and even upon the Moon. Approximately 75,000 years ago the Priest chose to become ambassador of sorts to both study the rest of Homo sapiens and assist them at times…They settled in three places: the area we now call northernmost California, near Mount Shasta, in the San Luis Valley of Southern Colorado, and Northern Arizona. All the subsequent people upon the Western half of this continent were thus related to these original immigrants. He lived there for the following five hundred fifty-seven centuries. Priest-King John is immortal.”

The subcommittee audience is chuckling and snorting. Erickson continues: “Now, you might ask why an Asian king is named ‘John.’ Well, John is a medieval interpretation of his name, grafted from legends surrounding John the Presbyter of Syria being author of the Johannine epistles. Prester John’s true name is unknown. Those I’ve seen on these treaties cannot be spoken aloud for they are sigils in a script I have cracked but have no phonetic key. The language is in all likelihood tens of thousands of years old and bears marked resemblance to the Enochian angelic language scryed by Doctor John Dee and Edward Kelley in Elizabethan times. This would be in keeping with the King’s intercourse with his kin in the Otherworld to which he and his people retreated…

“Last year I found documents that clinched his empire here and his retreat as historical fact. Prior to the Crusades, the legend of his ancient migration had been confined to folktales in the Himalayas and the Altai and Tian Shan mountains of Western Mongolia where he was born and ruled fifty seven thousand years ago. Apparently, several tenth-century Chinese scholars, some medieval counterparts of mine, whoever the hell they were, discovered written accounts of the oral tradition of John’s immigration tale and the existence of the Horizontal Paradise we now know as America…In addition to discovering these accounts, I have come into possession of three codices that discuss treaties made by Priest-King John with the Xia Chinese emperor Li Liangzuo in the 12th Century and the sachem of the Cherokee and the Sioux and a half-dozen of his extended families who populated the Eastern seaboard of this continent. Indeed he made dozens of treaties with dozens of peoples across the globe. In ancient times he made them with the Phoenicians, the Hebrews, the Anglos, the Egyptians, the Tuareg, the Hmong. And the trade between these peoples and his kingdom here flourished. The history of seafaring is the most myopic of disciplines. Heyerdahl proved it and now I am here to put flesh on the bare thesis: this continent was for millennia filled with cities and cultures of which historians have no shred of knowledge. The true history shall be known—and sooner than you can imagine…In making these contracts during the medieval period, it is apparent that Priest-King John was expecting trouble from the mass migration of Europeans; he was anticipating ‘discovery’ of these shores to come within the approaching centuries, the avaricious stance and evil technologies the Europeans possessed, and—”

Senator Lieber interrupts. “What is the import of all this, Doctor?”

Indignation twists Erickson’s smooth face. His blue eyes burn as leans into the microphone and blows a loud, thick raspberry. He jerks back and claps his hands. “Splendid, then, I shall cut to the chase.” He rolls the documents in his hand and points it at the Senate panel. “The short of it is that Colomb and Hudson and Raleigh and de Gama and that illustrious roster discovered jack, if you happen to be a proponent of history that houses Jerusalem at its center…This land was a true utopia,” he shouts, vigorously batting the tabletop, “leased by Priest-King John to his descendants in those medieval treaties for a twelve-hundred year dispensation. Thus the British, the Spanish, the French, the Dutch, and the Portuguese were all latecomers and trespassers on a primordial contract whose continuing violation you are the latest criminals to inherit.”

 

THE TWO FBI Agents sit aghast in their respective locations watching the old criminal pontificate. Agent Colin Latheran has alerted the Capitol police that his interdiction squad would soon arrive to arrest the man giving testimony in chamber 2A of Hart building but now holsters his Glock. “Burke, we have no time,” he yells into the phone. “I’m going down there right now. Forget the special team. I’ll shoot him myself if I have to.”

He hangs up and sprints from the room.

 

TWO MILES SOUTHWEST of the FBI building, two Defense Intelligence Agency officials listen intently over two bugs as FBI Agent Colin Latheran ends his conversation with Burke Duster. “It’s about time,” General Richard Whisk complains. “I reckoned that flatfoot son of a bitch’d never get off his ass.”

“Your tax dollars at work,” Major Biff “Beer” Batter replies, picking up a crimson-hued phone. “Make no mistake: mistakes will be made.”

“Should we activate the team to stop the jerk?”

“No. Let Latheran go after him. I don’t think he’ll catch him. And he won’t kill him. It isn’t in him. We’ll interdict later.”

 

“SO WHAT ARE we to do?” Senator Lieber croaks. “Give up the United States to its rightful owners?”

Laughter fills the chamber as another volley of high-intensity capacitor light flashes punishes Dr. Snorri Erickson’s face. Unphotographed for the entire 35 years of his academic career, he did not expect this photonic assault. He sniffs at the cameras, waving the documents like a truncheon. “That would be a start. You have always been squatters and here only at Priest-King John’s indulgence. This accursed dumbshow called the United States of America needs to atone for its sins.”

Senator Garner gazes in bemusement at his fellows, flexes his eyebrows, ashes an imaginary cigar and Groucho Marxses, “We’ll, uh, have to consoilt da books for da transfoyr procedure.”

The devolution to theater is complete. Erickson continues his harangue and the audience reacts in embarrassed silence, laughter, and catcalls; a sort of instant consensus has sprung into existence that the Garden of Light Foundation’s $3 million in grants has been wasted on a charlatan. Lieber bellows, “My American history may be spotty, but Lewis and Clark and every Western explorer since has never mentioned this King’s civilization. I take it you are the sole possessor of this evidence?”

Erickson rises from the seat, eyeing carefully the briefcase before him. He shuffles around the table to address his audience directly. “The native peoples here, his children, honored their part of the treaty, which was to keep it a secret. They had absolute honor, ladies and gentlemen—silence in the face of European perfidy.”

Garner, trying to recapture some seriousness, says, “So what happened to the, uh, infrastructure this king laid out? The highways? The markets? Why didn’t the early pioneers see any ruins?”

Erickson, still facing the Senate audience, waves the scrolls like a wand and steps back from the table. “Have you ever heard of the Hopi Pueblo? Or the Adena or Hopewell cultures? Probably only in passing—and without curiosity, no doubt. Anyway, his civilization long preceded them, and they had no need for permanent buildings such as we know it, with bastard metronomic time-clocks ruling their work. The materials for most of their settlements came raw from the earth and returned to the earth in brief cycles of two dozen years, for each new generation, that kept a balance with the land’s energy-forces…A type of surfing of the creative and destructive forces with which nature eternally functions. A more pure example of rationality in practice cannot be found, you cretins.”

“Mr. Erickson, that is enough,” Garner shouts.

He raises the roll and swings at the air. “Any sane and fully conscious human can see that our poor excuse for civilization exists upon infinite attempts to cheat entropy and in the process is racking up cosmic debits for its continued existence at an astronomically accelerating pace. The King and his inner subjects saw this approaching hell and migrated from this place to elsewhere, despite the fact that he could have dispatched the encroachers like batting a fly…And, I’m afraid, it looks likely that your perverted institutions of physical science will soon discover where and how he has, ahem, sequestered himself in the intervening centuries…In any case, the Priest-King’s earthly regent, and his holy Queen, have emerged recently on our side, at last, and soon the bill will come for rents due.”

Erickson has noticed a stern figure in a black suit muscling his way into the photographers’ pen, who stares at him with malice and muttering with a Bluetooth in his ear—the unmistakable bearing of a Federal Agent.

 

LATHERAN WHISPERS, “You see me, Burke?”

“I do,” Duster replies in his ear. “Now for God’s sake, don’t let him get away. Stay right with him.”

 

SENATOR GARNER CHUCKLES. “Hmm…Rent on the United States to its landlord? Oh—that’s rich.”

Even Lieber snickers. “How’s the interest scheduled? Is it compound?”

“Gentlemen,” Erickson booms, “it is not money Priest-King John is interested in. It is to reclaim the human souls of those stolen by the Ahrimanic forces that have ascended on your watch, as bastard stewards to this wonderful land. To avenge the hundreds of thousands of his children murdered. To this end, his cunning weapons were sent into your midst, destructive devices of a timely nature.”

The chattering of camera shutters dwindles as all mirth leaves the room. Lieber leans forward to the microphone and takes the gravest tone he can muster. “Doctor, to say something like that in our current national climate, is, uh, irresponsible, at best.”

The stern law enforcement presence continues to edge past the photographers and reaches into his jacket. He extracts in a flash a heavy black object that is certainly a gun. Erickson maintains his cool, shrugs and steps backwards, reaching into his tweed pockets where his fingers meet three golfball-like objects. “It’s mere fact,” he shouts. “Not that you could ever, even with all your precious billions spent on pre-emptive security, detect or interdict the Priest-King’s kind of weapons. The weapons have become the warp and woof of your very lives by this point—in the way you have chosen to live in this lunatic asylum called America!

Erickson drifts across the room towards the chamber’s marbled walls and speeds his delivery, words rehearsed for this moment, his voice pitching higher. “Occasionally Priest-King John has sent his agents out into the world to violate the boundaries of his invisible kingdom and intervene here, using ghostly vessels that bear his messengers. And also sent what seem men dressed in black who are estranged from time, and who possess the power to poison or hypnotize we humans merely by their voices. It is impossible for his agents to fail on their missions, because they are not of your fallen world, you see. His agents have appeared throughout history—even to this day, when they take the form of unnatural species of mafiosi at times…”

He lets these words sink in. And they have the intended effect: Lieber and Garner pass a troubled glance between them: They have heard the stories about the other congressmen and generals who have had recent strange encounters here in Washington. “The crimes perpetrated by your forbears are well-documented. There was fraud between representatives of the royal crown, and then the colonies, and then US Federal government, against the families of Caretakers who lived on these lands for millennia. Their blood was your forebears’ and is your own amnesiac…These documents that I have discovered will forever end the dispensation of 1776, when the two crowns tricked the colonists into thinking they were free in the first place. You have failed the test, gentlemen. You have been given more than ample time to redeem yourselves, and you have failed.”

Erickson squints sideways at the stern Federal presence, whose features now resolve into familiarity. The Professor edges back towards the old elevator’s doors. The man is pacing him like a hunter through the crowd, and makes a quick sweeping motion with his hand.

Three Capitol police officers are advancing, in a pincer movement through the crowd.

Erickson fingers find the nubs on the globular capsules in his pocket and presses them down.

Lieber barks, “Mr. Erickson, sit down. I think we have heard enough of this nonsense—”

The Professor reaches the maple bar, the video cameras dutifully pivoting after him. “You are all no more than Pavlovian dogs and easy sport for forces beyond your reckoning. You are all pawns, owned outright.”

Erickson feels the round objects grow warm just as he fully recognizes the stalker. Time has done wonders to the man’s face:

It is indeed FBI Special Agent Colin Latheran.

The elevator doors spring open behind him and he tosses the capsules. “Agent Latheran, old boy,” he shouts, leaping backwards, “my God, you’ve aged terribly!”

The FBI officer fires blindly—bullets sparking into the elevator walls, one after the other, a full clip unloaded. Screams pierce the Senate chamber. The doors shut as the gas capsules detonate—followed by the other twenty in the briefcase upon the tabletop, the cheap leather case that blows apart like a Fourth of July belt of penny packs, the force causing two bolo-slings of grenades to whip up into the chamber heights and explode.

As adrenaline surges in the spectators’ bloodstreams, the capsules’ aerosol within seconds sends every one of them into the deepest sleep they have ever experienced.

The scholar descends into the underground parking lot, where he and his cohort dive into a waiting limousine.

—————

TWELVE MILES AWAY, in Potomac, Maryland, a billionaire listens by remote transmitter to DIA agents Richard Whisk and Biff Batter in the Pentagon shouting about the chaos that has erupted live on C-SPAN 2. The billionaire chuckles bitterly and pours himself another snifter of Gran Marnier. Then he shuts off the monitor and gazes once again the letter on the desk before him. He had received it two days ago, here at his mansion. It was typed upon a rough paper, on an old-school typewriter. He reads:

Dear sirs/madams,

Please accept the accompanying box of Wheaties and my receipt for purchase. The retching lasted six hours and was accompanied by cramps I wouldn’t have wished on Osama bin Laden (if he’d ever existed).

Tell me, what is monochloride disulphate? And the purpose of the warning on the box: “May contain peanuts and/or peanut products?” Friends, this product should bear the warning, “MAY CONTAIN YOUR OWN PRIVATE FUKUSHIMA.” That is what you are pushing on the public—a chemical broth of only nominal connection to the universe of nutritional existents.

Ten years ago, your uber-cartel General Foods purchased the agribusiness conglomerate AG-Werkesfunkenschiesse-AK, who also happen to own Kaminer Wood Processing and the plastic bag manufacturer MegaDethe, both packaging “products” within which you deliver this deadly Wheaties slop. Nice vertical integration! The maleficent preservative monochloride disulphate was found by AG’s research study #34-90-7183 to cause neurological damage in exposures administered thrice weekly for seven months as little as 12 parts per million. The food dye KLHG091289#712B, developed by your biotech subsidiary Lemniscutt, also contains hazardous levels of this substance.

It’s all well and good, isn’t it, to reduce Wheaties’ production costs by cutting its nutritional value by a whopping 60%! And cause brain damage to boot! Well done, sirs!

Your fine company General Foods also recently purchased Alp-Glace, INC., who bottle “White Water”—only the “purest Alpine glacier” product, right? Then imagine my surprise when on taking my first sip of White Water a burning sensation—slight, but of a noticeably alarming tangent from the flavorless quenching fresh water would have provided—ripped through my palate. This caused me to expel the virgin mouthful of purported H20 onto a fellow malcontent. With ten seconds I determined that it was less the water per se that gave offense than the surrounding 1 oz. of blown polyethylene terephthalate in which the water sat and whose maleficent molecules had leached into it.

Imagine doubly my shock when I examined the bottle label not to find a wholly expected “Made in China” or Malaysia but MADE IN THE USA in proud capital letters beside a tiny representation of Old Glory. I recovered from a brief spasm of patriotic fervor to see below it, Made in Chortle, Nebraska, to be precise.

Now, one thing you must know about me is that I am personally acquainted with “folks” of every profession and station in life that you could imagine. I thus gave the offending bottle to a toxicologist friend of mine to analyze the “water” and the composition of the entirely false container. For good measure we bought five more bottles of this pernicious swill to test. Science, you know.

So—monochloride disulphate again? The toxicologist told me that it’s a metal akin to aluminum and lithium. It leaches into the ‘pure glorious White Water’ at high levels, in storage conditions from 35 degrees Fahrenheit upward. Indeed, most of the lifetime of a bottle of this raw sewage will be spent at temperatures exceeding this limit, of course. At aforementioned levels in the human bloodstream (a mere four bottles a week) monochloride disulphate is a hormone disrupter, which induces any body consuming it produce 4x the amount of estrogen that would normally flow through human veins.

If I drink enough of this stuff I should expect to end up with the sperm count of a eunuch, cancer, and neurological problems, and probably, if I’m lucky, wearing a 34C cup. Good job!

I also happened to look into the bottling operations of the other three major “water manufacturers” on this planet.

They all, conveniently enough, use the MegaDethe chemical company to bottle their H2O as well.

So…this is the best Mr. White can do in his coordinated efforts with CEOs Mssrs. Duncan, Feinberg, and Schilling to decrease the birth rate in the industrialized world? I would expect more creativity from such twisted minds. I guess the steady maintenance of dual careers in public philanthropy and private murderous psychopathology can wear anyone down. Oh, this wacky modern world.

So General Foods’ public relations wing and FDA liaisons had great success squelching the US government’s past four attempts at testing this Love Canal of packaging you’ve concocted. In fact, your former employees Mr. Haynes and Ms. Hepworth are now high-level officials at the FDA! Bravo! And the independent studies that were done by Schachtman Bio have been successfully embargoed by “legal” until 2023! Huzzah! Long enough, I’m sure, for White Water to double South American imports and maintain its top-seller status in the US of A.

Get this, bigshot: I know that you and AG’s premiere criminal, Mr. Deutsch, recently enjoyed fabulous company at his Swiss villa, viz, the heads of White Water and Silver Showers and Vonver Breads. I wonder what malignant time-bomb of love was hatched at that meeting? Monochloride disulphate in all of AG’s plastic packaging, perhaps? Radon-exposed paper cartons? (incidentally, I am convinced that giants in the corporate world such as yourself long ago sat down with your beloved scions and gently admonished them to avoid consuming any of the products from which the family fortune sprang, and seriously doubt any of their—or your own—grandchildren’s orifices come within ten miles of your own products. Am I right?)

Well…

I happen to know EXACTLY what occurred at your Swiss villa conclave: Generals William Howe and John Parker of the American Defense Advance Research Project Agency were present. Also General Richard Whisk of DIA. They are proprietary owners, through Pentagon subcontract, of WaveForm, the company that cornered the North and South American, European, African, and Australasian markets on cellphone tower installation a decade and a half ago.

This silent monopoly allowed them to install DARPA’s special “free energy” units on every single cellular tower they erected.

You and your little gang were discussing the possibilities of a lethal “Tesla moire” interaction with the dreaded monochloride disulphate which has accumulated in the human bloodstream of millions of American citizens. Ho-ho! Bravo on their completion of the science experiment!

And after crossing the NATO skies for 22 years with their aberrant contrails, under cover of super-secret “weather geoengineering” experiment, they’ve finally been able to conduct the infernal Tesla beams the length and breadth of the country’s ether—and built up enough aluminum and barium and monochloride disulphate in human bloodstreams to make the conduction and interference patterns to disrupt the healthiest of nervous systems a viable possibility.

“Well done,” I’d normally say—but “well-done” is the level of cookedness you wish upon what you perceive as the great unwashed masses who are using up vital resources, necessitating their wholesale slaughter in the name of America and the world’s future security.

I know all about you goddamned bastards and your plans.

Please tell Generals Howe, Parker and Whisk and your whole infernal gang hello for me. Your efforts have not gone unnoticed, for I am the King’s regent; I have always been the King’s regent, and this is not the last you will hear from me. Far from it. This is only the beginning. His shades have already walked up from the dusk to confront a few of you bastards. I’m sure you know what I am talking about.

Your time molesting the human race and his beloved children is up. His army are going to (as a walking corpse such as yourself might say) “fuck you up bigtime.”

Mortem ad luna cultores!

Ego mos interfíciat omnes spineta lacertos!

Sincerely mine,

The Green Man

The billionaire blinks profusely at the letter and mops his brow with a broadcloth sleeve. We were the only ones present. Sound-proof chamber. The chateau’d been bug-swept a dozen times. How could this unknown person, this freak, this maniac possibly have known?

He picks up the phone and calls General Howe’s satellite line. “You hear about what just happened at the Capitol?”

“No,” the general replies.

The billionaire explained. “This Erickson guy used the same language as in the letter. Talking about a priest-king named John. The letter you received says ‘John Priester’, right?”

Howe grunts in affirmation.

“This isn’t a coincidence.”

“What did Whisk and Batter do?”

“They went ape. It’s more confirmation of the legend, and now they’re probably gonna buy it. They’ll use their moles in his organization now. They know they’re onto the heart of the matter and know a lot more than they bargained for.”

“Deutsch’s villa must have been live with wires.”

The billionaire’s stomach went ice. “I’m not sure. What if we’re dealing with something beyond that.”

Howe chuckles. “Don’t tell me you’re even giving an inch in that direction, Bill.”

“Anything’s possible now in this crazy goddamn world.”

SIXTEEN HOURS LATER, Special Agent in Charge August Storm isn’t going to let the Counter-Terror Division get anywhere near the Erickson case. His squad has done all the work; his team was there in the aftermath at the Capitol as the bulletins went out for Erickson’s town car and the DHS fusion center cameras spotted it speeding north on 295 over 100 miles per hour. DC police had given chase, only to lose two cruisers in a pileup: One officer dead, one in critical condition. Whoever was driving Erickson’s speeding Lincoln had severely damaged the car’s axles in admittedly brilliant shoulder and median work; Prince Georges County police resumed the chase on Route 50, but the cruisers had their tires blown out with spike strips in Seat Pleasant.

Storm’s assistant Agent Eric Druthers yawns and watches his boss pace and mop his brow. “That elevator in the Senate room hadn’t been used in a decade,” he barks at Druthers for the third time, “but it was still working.”

“Mm,” Druthers sighs.

“Accomps were waiting in the basement parking lot. They’d disarmed the cameras and sedated six Capitol cops. How the fuck do you do something like that? They disarmed the tire shredders and opened two gates! Two guards on Constitution got the alert and knew that Lincoln wasn’t gonna stop and one of them put three rounds into it and Erickson got out of there lickety-split. Blew through three red lights and got on 395, then hit 295. They’re still in the area somewhere…I’ll go out there myself and get them. This is horseshit.”

Druthers tries to tune out Storm’s rehashing the thing over and over. “Oh, I agree,” he murmurs.

Storm sits down and phones the Charlottesville field office, then Louisville, then Cleveland. He slams down the phone and gazes with sudden contempt at Druthers’s thickened frame. “How’d you do on your last physical, D?”

“I did fine.”

“Putting on some poundage there, Druthers. Could be a borderline case. If we get in the clinch out there,” he says, jabbing a finger, “I don’t want you huffing and puffing behind me, is all.”

“Duly noted. And Storm? Go fuck yourself.”

Storm sneers. “Mahogany Row’s holding back stuff. You get that feeling? We’re not being told the whole story about this Erickson prick? Or that Agent who shot up the elevator?”

“Yeah, I get the feeling.”

When suddenly two men appear at the door. One of them is far too old to be an Agent. The elder man gazes at the room with scorn. “You there—are you Storm?”

“Yes?”

The old man smirks at Druthers. “This your illustrious crew? This guy?”

The younger Agent, thick, in his early 50s, steps forward and holds up his FBI face and said, “This is Burke Duster. Division SM.”

Storm frowns. “SM?”

The older man brutally closes the door behind him as Storm examines the credentials. Burke Duster is listed as the retired Director of the Smuyler Marrano Task Force. “This Erickson event is a Restricted Handling matter,” Duster says in a sandpaper voice. “You guys may think you know what you’re dealing with, but we assure you, you don’t. How many agents on your squad?”

“Druthers here,” Storm indignantly snaps, “sixteen others. I’m SAIC.”

Duster waves. “Get rid of them. We want the two of you only. And you must not mention this case to anyone, ever again. The media’s about to get a cover story, straight from the top, from Director Tyler. As of now, your mandate tracking ‘Snorri Erickson’ has been superseded.”

Storm’s face goes chalk. “On whose orders?”

Duster waves a document at him and hands it over. “What did I just say? On order of Director Tyler, bucko. You only think you’re tracking a man named Snorri Erickson.”

Storm squints at the fiftyish Agent’s face-card. “Colin Latheran? You’re the guy who—”

“Yes, yes—that was me at the Capitol, genius. I’ve never drawn my gun in the field in my life. I was knocked out for twelve hours by whatever the hell was in those grenades. I got outta the hospital just two hours ago. Forensics said it is some kind of sedative that amplifies in the presence of adrenaline…I’ve been tracking your ‘Snorri Erickson’ for fifteen years, champ. Burke here, for forty years. So shut the hell up and listen to us.”

Storm is confused. He points at the plasma screen. “Erickson’s Lincoln met up with a caravan of vehicles at a junkyard in Tuxedo—”

Latheran snarls, “Think we don’t know that, bucko?”

Their hostility amazes Druthers but he’s enjoying the abuse his boss is taking. Storm sets his jaw and says, “Listen. They’ve got eight vehicles, including an old aluminum RV. It’s a huge vehicle, unmistakable. But we’ve gotten no further reports anyone’s seen it. So they must still be in the area. We’re getting clearance to put two UAVs in the air, if we can—.”

Latheran laughs at his older partner. “That’s very good police work, Agent. Drones, Burke—drones!”

The old man’s snort becomes a laugh that becomes a hacking cough. Latheran scowls. “And the recreational vehicle, who is it registered to?”

“Man named Samuel Marino, in New York City.”

They exchange glances. “His name’s actually Smuyler Marrano. We’re talking about the most dangerous man in America, hands down. He’s actually your ‘Snorri Erickson.’”

“Is this a joke?” Storm yells.

“I assure you, we are not joking.”

“‘Most dangerous man’? Give us a break.” Druthers chuckles. “Why haven’t we heard of him?”

“How old are you?”

Druthers replies warily, “Twenty-nine.”

“There you go,” Latheran says cheerily. “Different generation.”

Storm pops his gum and snaps his fingers in irritation. “Answers. Now.”

Duster slowly taps awake the laptop with enfeebled fingers. “The Restricted Handling is for your own good. We don’t want you cubs tripping over Marrano in the dark and hurting yourselves on him.”

Storm sneers. “Like you did the other day? That was quite a collar at the Capitol, Agent. Eleven missed shots? And whose own good?”

Latheran grimaces at this insult. Duster closes his eyes and growls, “The rest of the Bureau’s own good. Our name. Our face. You’ll learn why.”

The old Agent gently touches Storm’s arm and eases him back from Colin Latheran’s immediate orbit. “Burke here’s on special extension,” Latheran growls. “He won’t give up the chase. He’s sixty-seven years old and started the Marrano unit forty years ago. Been getting his pension for the past eight. But most of all he wants to see Marrano and his people stopped, dead or alive.”

The old agent says, “So do a lot of other people up on Mahogany Row.”

Colin Latheran pulls a fat folder of reports from his attache. He goes pensive. “We hear about ‘wiseguys’ or ‘Islamists’ and our knees jerk. Marrano’s a criminal of a different sort. He’s an anarchist and he’s crafty. Patience and genius together. Swhy we haven’t caught him—yet.”

Duster slams the folder onto the table. Together Druthers and Storm open the file and read:

Smuyler Marrano, Also Known As

S.D. Butler / Jack Flora / Indrid Cold / Jacques Fournier / Carl Allen / Carlos Allende / Paul Buttadeus / Gerald de Selby / The Grand Chingon / Dr. 43 / Charles L. Dalrymple / Ricardo M. Nickson / Mr. Kalki Kalapa / Barna Szamit a Tulcsordulo Arnyekszek (the Brown Count of the Overflowing Toilet), / Tatal Timp (Father Time) / Brother Chouchani, / Dr. Croatoan / Dr. Crackpot / el Crackpotto / the Postmaster / the Garbagehead / the Golden Surfer / the Archangel / the Green Man / the White Brother / Blackhead / Old Smoky / the Mayor of Agarttha / AA 801 / Samuel Marino /

“And now confirmed, Dr. Snorri Erickson,” Latheran declares. “Each of those aliases is a different identity, and under each Marrano has headed a separate criminal enterprise. We thought ‘Erickson’ might have been Marrano, based on the pseudohistory crap this ‘Erickson’ crackpot was writing about. Matched Marrano’s views pretty closely.”

“We fed every old picture of Marrano we had into a face recognition program six months ago just for the hell of it and got a hit out of the blue on C-SPAN. We had no idea ‘Erickson’ was giving Congressional testimony, for fuck’s sake. Guy’s got balls the size of Saturn to just show up in public like that after forty-five years.” Duster sighs noisily. “And like all psychos, a part of him wants to get caught.”

Storm and Druthers gape at the list of associated criminals. It is three hundred sixty-four entries long and stretches back into the late 1960s.

Duster wearily pushes himself up from the table. “You’re going to have to come with us, the two of you. We want to show you something.”

THE DISTRICT SUMMER air outside has gone soupy. The SM Task Force Agents have beautifully double-parked on 10th Street and garnered a ticket which Latheran balls and tosses to the curb. They get in the car and Duster takes out the Christmas light and affixes it to the roof and Latheran kicks on the siren. Cars drift out of their path and they accelerate north. For a while Storm and Druthers remain silent. Then Duster says, “Ladies, the most pressing business. Somewhere out there in the West, Marrano has buried at least ten billion dollars in legit gold.”

Storm’s eyes go wide. “How do you—?”

Latheran shouts, “Both the Russian and Italian syndicates have been trying to find this stash for the past seven years. About a decade ago, Marrano had his cut-outs convert his entire fortune into gold certificates, then redeemed the shiny stuff itself and buried it somewhere here. But there was a traitor in his crew, and then two more, who blabbed about it to some connected guys in Vegas. The wiseguys kidnapped a couple of Marrano’s lower gofers and tried to get the location out of them. One of them escaped and made a report to Vegas police and then disappeared. The other ended up breathing dirt about thirty miles from Sin City.” Latheran concentrates on swerving past the left-turning fools ahead on 14th Street. “The gold’s buried somewhere in the Southwest, probably on Indian lands, some reservation. Like Erickson hinted, the San Luis Valley is a probable location. Marrano wants to give it to the tribes but’s been waiting for the right moment, when precious metals have gone through the roof. They have, and since he’s surfaced he or a part of his gang is going to go and dig it up and turn it over to the tribes as reparation.

“Hence our unit all these years. And hence your presence. Marrano has surfaced. We must get him dead or alive before he reaches the gold and the West Coast. Then he could easily lam it on the sea from there into international waters….Not that that means anything anymore.”

Storm balls his fists. “Don’t think he’ll just fly out there?”

Duster replies, “Marrano doesn’t believe humans are meant to fly. Never been on an airplane in his life. He’ll be on the highways.”

Storm is rubbing a hole into his pant knees with his fists. He sees things, career-making possibilities here. He licks his thin lips. “You got the serials and certificate numbers for the gold? Anything like that?”

Duster leans over the crisp leather seat and almost whispers. “Actually, there’s a possibility it will be even more. We also have some fin-int on another seventeen billion Euros that was made on a derivatives market…Someone at a law firm in Switzerland set up derivatives on the short derivatives which were originally set up betting on their own failure…Don’t ask. In other words, seventeen billion which offset the derivatives short-losses and which theoretically could have saved itself, but instead was converted into gold and silver, which went through the roof.”

“Fucking world economy,” Latheran huffs. “Heh. Could be Marrano’s doing, we’re not sure. The guy hates money. Hates it because it’s so easy for him to steal it. They say he once burned a million in Ben Franklins, just to see how it smelled.”

Burke Duster shakes his head, chuckling. “That’s hearsay, Colin, and you know it…Anyway, the gold certificates from the derivatives contracts are held by a law firm called Jabulsa & Jabulqa in Switzerland. Even with Swiss cooperation, we can’t touch the goddamn records or any of the certificates. We’ll get to Marrano’s connection to J & J later.”

They pull onto the tree-shaded lanes of Beach Drive. Latheran silences the siren and they wind into the woods of Rock Creek Park, where they take an abrupt turn up a gated driveway and park beside a house. Entering, Storm and Druthers are impressed: the place is a fusion center with the works: a twenty-foot plasma screen with a dozen browser windows open, a dozen Bluetoothed agents at consoles. Already the junior agents can see that the SM Unit had mapped out the possible routes for ‘Erickson’s’ crew on the screens. Latheran sweeps his arm. “We have to keep them under surveillance—when we find their asses—but Marrano will assume anyway we’re tracking him and take counter-measures. At no time must they be certain of our surveillance. Thus, helicopters and marked highway vehicles are out of the question. Come with us for a briefing.”

Druthers asks, “How long’s this place been here?”

“A decade,” Duster snaps. “Bureau bought the property and converted it. The staff rotates sleeping on-premises.”

Latheran looks disdainfully at his underlings and says, “I called ’em that night but they made it to the Capitol just as Marrano set off those fucking sleeper grenades.”

They lead the two flummoxed Agents to a room with a plasma screen flanked by standards bearing the American flag and the FBI seal. Latheran gestures them to sit and taps on a laptop on the desk. “Let us show you the Big Board.”

The plasma screen lights up. A flowchart of immense complexity comes into view. It is a timeline descending from the 1960s to the present, with adjoining clauses and sub-clauses of crimes.

“Let’s start at the beginning. Smuyler Marrano was a bigtime surfer around Malibu and Hawaii in the early 1960s. Big womanizer, too. Guy had six children between the ages of 16 and 23, when he started roping others into his criminal activities. We’ve managed to find and interview five of these kids, and none of them have seen him since the early 1970s. Or so they say…A real deadbeat. Now supposedly while surfing one day on the Pacific coast in 1965 the tide takes him out and puts him right up to the coastal cliffs, where he discovers a cave. Inside he finds a jar with some scrolls in it. This find leads him to Taos, New Mexico, then Utah, then the San Luis Valley to another cache of parchments. After this he becomes obsessed with the Middle Ages and the malarkey about this Prester John character he was blabbing on about to the Senate panel. Associates told us he’d found an actual relic of this Prester John and vowed he would return it to him someday.”

Druthers says, “So he really believes some king from the Middle Ages is still alive?”

“Maybe not physically, but the king’s descendant or spiritual inheritor.” Latheran scrolls the chart to focus on its upper portion. “Those scroll-writings must have done something mental to him. Now, the first detectable crime he commits is altering deposit slips. His bank accounts fill up quick then he empties them into cash. Then he starts passing forged checks. He gets a pilots license and buys a boat. He poses as a lawyer, then a doctor, a geologist, a pharmacist—”

“A physicist,” Duster continues, “a minister, an oilman…He did these as practice, just to keep himself psychologically sharp for his ‘mission’. In 1967 he and his crew move to rotating sites in Vegas, made millions from the casinos by counting cards and using disguises. Marrano pushed them hard, but then slightly came to his senses and packed in. Through this Swiss firm J & J he put millions into the blue chips and gold and just let it sit for the past four and a half decades. That portfolio, before he cashed it out and we found out was worth two billion on its own by this point.”

Latheran says, “But we at the Bureau first learned of him in ’67. The Coast Guard picked up a boat bringing in a half-ton of weed into LA. The crew clammed up mostly. A few claimed Marrano was head of a ring dealing LSD and pot with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Hells Angels. They supposedly moved tons of dope and coke across the border. So late in ’68 the heat gets too much for him and he leaves the country for Europe, taking about half his gang with him, which was several dozen people. Around ‘68 they hit the Mediterranean casinos and make fortunes all over again. He again banks this money through J & J, and has been using them ever since. In 1968-69, he moves to Ibiza and starts hanging around a bunch of art counterfeiters. He forms a forgery ring that soon expands into currency and gold counterfeiting. Something to do with what he called the ‘ontology of simulation’ he thinks the world’s trapped in…He thinks everything in the world is now fake, or a substitute, and it’s thus everything is fair game to forge. See, we got a copy of a short manifesto he wrote about it…His ring forged hundreds of paintings by modern artists, Picassos and the Impressionists, then moved on to the abstract expressionists, who were even easier to copy—Rothko and Pollock and de Kooning, those guys. They forged Japanese and Chinese works as well. Sold these things discreetly over the next two decades to collectors all over the US. Made millions. They also distributed them across the US and Europe over the Seventies and Eighties.”

Duster is regretfully shaking his head. “Some of them for certain have worked their ways into major museums. Public was never told, and we still can’t have this near the media. Our experts said it could collapse the world art markets.”

“Jay-zus,” Storm growls.

“To him it was all for sport. By 1971 when he returned we found links between his crew and the John Birch Society and the Black Panthers, the KKK and the Red Brigade, the Weathermen and American Nazi Party—just about every radical group active back then.”

Storm looks confused. “The hell are his politics?”

Duster chuckles at this. “Know your enemies and keep them close, right?”

“Yeah, but which side’s his enemy?”

“All of them!” Duster cries. “He’s an anarchist, idiot. You’ve got to get that through your skull.”

Latheran waves a conciliatory hand at his old partner. “From 1971 on, his camp splits into several areas of activity. By ‘72 we begin to have several ‘Smuyler Marranos’ popping up here in the States and in Britain and the Soviet satellite countries, so he must have counterfeited his ID and had his crew use them. They boosted jewels and in one case, even a Faberge egg. He made contact with the Roma in France and Hungary and Romania, and lived with them a year.”

Duster leans forward. “Back here in the States, ’round about 1973, he started his masterpiece: a chain-letter scam. We heard rumors about it for decades but found real evidence for it five years ago. Some early participant in the scheme had died and her daughter found copies of all the letters and gave them to a field office and they got turned over to us. This dead woman had been involved with it from the beginning. Marrano wanted to create his own sympathetic army of sorts, a Fifth Column, so back in ‘73 he started sending out letters with certificates redeemable for twelve thousand dollars in gold that promised even more in exchange for cooperation. If you cashed it out and forwarded the letters to two more people along with five thousand in cash apiece, you were promised ten to twenty thousand in return.”

Storm balks.

“His crew apparently surveilled the second level of recipients closely and made certain that the first recipients who complied soon after discovered upwards of twenty-thousand more dollars, accidentally,” he hooks some sloppy air-quotes, “in paper bags on the street. Then they watched the third level, paying off the second with further found cash, et cetera.”

Duster continues: “The subsequent letters began to talk of being in ‘the Lady’s favor’. This was a reference to Prester Jean’s long-lost Queen, who they worship, their savior, from the Native American civilization he was talking about…Marrano had the first four layers of participants hooked completely, like he was a prophet, like he knew their futures. The letters stressed not telling anyone about their windfall or reporting it as income to IRS on penalty of a promise that the money would stop. People being perennial suckers, they believed him, and ninety percent of them did his bidding.”

“Suckers?” Druthers said. “Who wouldn’t do it for that kind of scratch? Did anyone not forward the letters?”

“Of course, bucko. And nothing further happened to them. Not following the directive was its own punishment, you see, genius—to get one of those letters was like winning a lottery, but if you trusted these anonymous givers by following the order you won a bigger prize, and doing the subsequent chore in the third letter, yet still bigger. Three times, bam-bam-bam, and they were hooked. So the ones who never complied never knew, and would never know, that they’d skipped over an easy fifty thousand dollars—as long as you did what you were asked in the subsequent letters, and kept your mouth shut about it…Anyway, over the next five years Marrano dumped about seventy million into this scheme, paying off these people and expanding the pyramid. Hundreds of people complied and got the dessert. He sent the letters out four times a year. Round about 1977, after four years, the letters stopped demanding further chaining. It had gone exponential by then. I suppose it had finally reached its peak, about four thousand people in all of the lower 48. They’d all been roped in to the tune of one hundred-eight million spent, all told.”

Storm is leaning forward, his head down, his hands locked and tightening, knuckles white. His jaw appears to be trying to crush a small animal.

“Marrano’s people also planted their fake paintings around these ‘chosen people.’ You know those stories where you hear of some bank-worthy painting turning up in someone’s attic or a garage sale? If that painting is by a well-known modern painter, it’s most likely one of Smuyler’s Ibiza people who painted it back in ’68.”

“But it’s not really a pyramid scheme, is it?” Druthers asks. “Guy was just giving away money, right?”

Duster’s watery eyes gaze skeptically. “He’s been paying them salaries, essentially. He asks them to do favors for his crew. A sort of underground railroad to harbor and help them. An average of twelve thousand a year per person, just to keep open the lines for safe passage. It offers total plausible deniability by these people, that they are a part of a criminal enterprise—beyond not declaring it as income. We have no idea how he keeps track of their, uh, fidelity. We’re talking thousands of people. Seems impossible, right? Last year we discovered he had some of these suckers plant fake infrastructure. They dug and capped wells, they built fake hollow light poles and fake electrical junction boxes. Even fake mailboxes. Hundreds of them across the country. Only Marrano knows the location of them all. Kind of an early form of geocaching…His crew then stocked them with C-4 and weaponry to be used someday. We’ve only found three of them over the past five years, but there are many more. We discovered a mailbox on a road in Montana that was packed with C-4. So, whaddya think of that?”

Storm’s jaw is still grinding away and he does not answer. Druthers pouts, overwhelmed.

Latheran brightens. “Oh, yes, and his crew likes to deface US currency, put curses on all the dead white guys, especially singling out Andrew Jackson on the 20 and Hamilton on the 50. They fill in the portrait oval with black ink.”

Storm’s head snaps up. “The blacked-out bills?” he howls, full of indignity. “They’re the people behind that too?”

Druthers seconds his recognition. “Treasury thought it was just underground anarchists…”

“Well, it is. Marrano’s crew will deface any large American bills they come across but especially Hamilton and Jackson. They also use big denom bills as toilet paper, then recirculate them at banks, with the—”

Druthers cringes. Storm groans, “Please.”

Duster closes his eyes and steels himself. “That’s right, hotshot. They wipe their asses with the big denomination bills. We’ve tested them for E coli and bacteria. We’ve found thousands in Ben Franklins and even McKinleys and Clevelands from the Sixties defaced this way. They call it the ‘brown blessing.’”

The two Agents are too stunned to reply.

The old man continues. “Back in the early Eighties, we got together with Treasury and put out special serials in the lower 48, to see where they’d get marked up so we could find out which states his crew might be operating in. That was one of the only times we solicited the public’s help.”

Latheran says, “Every batch got marked up within five weeks.”

“My God,” Storm murmurs. “He must have people everywhere.”

“You’ve never enlisted the public to help out,” Storm suddenly complains. “Hell is up with that?”

The Task Forcers pass a grave look between them. “Agent Storm, if Marrano knew we were actively pursuing him, in a dragnet operation on the TMW, the consequences would be dire. He’s got a legend going that when he finally surfaces it means his Queen has returned and it’ll be time for the ‘Cosmic Boomerang’ as he calls it. Payback time for what he sees as America’s crimes. We think he’s planning big terror ops. It’s almost as if he’s spent forty years wiring up America for a controlled demolition.”

Duster flicks his toothpick onto the table. “He hinted as much in that little Senate performance. But he could have called for the Boomerang at any time if he knew the apparatus was on his heels.”

Druthers asks, “This guy ever kill anyone?”

Duster and Latheran again regard each other as if deciding who’s to speak. Duster rubs his eyes. “Marrano, well, he’s got his beliefs. Believes ‘no-one should die by an earthly hand.’ That’s a direct quote, a slogan of his. He’s a pacifist, as far as we can tell. We think his crew is entirely non-violent.”

Storm smiles in contentment. Something twitches inside him. “So if we were to corner this guy and his crew…”

Duster folds his arms. “I know what you’re thinking, Agent, but we want him and the crew alive. Agent Latheran’s thankfully botched effort notwithstanding.”

“I’m not going to exactly say I was wrong to take those shots, but there was the danger of killing him with a pingback. I was, for the record, and you can read the report on this or watch the video again, Agent Storm, aiming for his lower legs.” Latheran puts his feet up on the desk. “In any case, they’ve never killed anyone, even during a few bank robberies we think he’s connected to, in the early 70s. As far as we know.”

“We don’t know how many of his suckers are out there. We believe it’s in the tens of thousands, still. But the game is long past the point of monetary gain. He could have people helping him from every walk of life—from street people to housewives to CEOs. Even in the government. Even here at the Bureau, maybe.”

“I don’t believe any of this,” Storm says. “I’d like to make that clear.”

“I am having a hard time with it myself,” Druthers concurs.

Latheran ignores their complaints. “About six years ago, chief, the chain letters began again. This time he used homing pigeons. They talked of a coming collapse of America, and that these chain-mailers would be the chosen ones if they adopted his new currency system. They would be ‘ahead of the curve,’ you know, and ahead of the collapse…His apocalyptic talk has accelerated over the past year—as has the amount of payroll money he’s putting out, which kicked in again. Hell, after the collapse in ‘08, we thought he might have somehow been behind the whole thing, with his being involved in the derivatives market, you know.”

Storm says, “So he’s only using these people to spread information about the new currency?”

“Yes. That will replace the dollar when it all falls down. He enjoined these people from ever discussing it and they’ve remained silent about it…”

“What’s the currency?”

“They claim Marrano’s perfected a way of creating gold from scratch. A kind of new white gold…Which is also an energy source.”

“We’ll get to that later.”

Druthers asks, “How has your unit accumulated so much paper on him, if he’s been underground for so long?”

Duster holds up a hand to silence Latheran’s imminent reply. The old man coughs and growls, “Oh, we’ve rolled up dozens of members of his crew over the years, minor people, hangers-on…One of them was shot in a bank robbery in ’71. Spilled about the casinos and forgery scams. They get arrested sometimes…S’how we found out about the currency defacings…This one guy got arrested in Tulsa, had seven thousand on him in blacked-out Franklins and Jacksons. But as to his inner circle, we’ve never nailed any of them. He compartmentalizes his operations well. The wannabes spill because they haven’t been initiated. The ordination takes years.”

“Ordination?” Storm grunts.

“Well, that might be the strangest part of this,” Latheran says. “He’s a cult leader. Some of these wannabes said this ‘King John’ is his epithet for Satan or Lucifer. We’ve also heard he worships a three-headed deity, or a brazen head with three parts, called the ‘Black Earth.’ Others told us—get this—that he knows bird languages, that he can communicate with tweeters…Still others said he’s just an atheist or a nihilist. That he believes nothing at all but his own munificence, or some crap.”

Druthers asks, “What of his upbringing?”

“We know scratch,” Duster replies. “DOB and social security number. He grew up in Whittier, California. Parents disappeared. And that’s it.”

“Guy’s still kicking strong. You saw Erickson, and you’d think he was fifty, max? He’s seventy-seven. It’s spooky. Marrano’s always been in excellent shape. We always suspected he’s never had work done on his face, and now it’s confirmed. Our face-mapping program identified him at the Capitol. This was an unbelievable stroke of luck for us.”

Latheran cracks his knuckles when the intercom buzzes, then a frantic voice. “Mr. Latheran something’s going on out here.”

They rise from the table and enter the situation room to find a dozen Army soldiers in fatigues arguing and yelling and unplugging devices.

“What in hell is this?” Latheran thunders.

Two men in suits turn to him. “You’re Colin Latheran?” He holds up an identification wallet. “I’m General Richard Whisk. This Marrano unit of yours has been superceded by the Defense Intelligence Agency. Here’s the order we just sent to Director Tyler. We’re moving our people in here.”

“There m-must be some mistake,” Latheran tries. “This unit has b-been in operation since 1973.”

A huge smile. “Until today, sir—this moment. You’ll have to take it up with the wind.” Then General Whisk’s manner seemed to lighten just a bit. “Look, you might think you know what you’re dealing with here with Marrano, but we assure you, you don’t.”

Druthers sniggers.

Duster’s harsh voice spits, “Care to enlighten us then?”

“It’s TS-CI/L4 classified. As will be the existence of your former task force. ”

“You lie!” Duster cries.

“What a clusterfuck,” Storm murmurs to Druthers.

Whisk says, “Now you can all gather your personal belongings. You’re done. We want you out within the hour.”

“But we’re close!” Latheran yells hysterically. “The guy just surfaced after forty goddamn years! Do you know what this means?”

Whisk cleans his spectacles evenly, replaces them. “Orders from on high.”

Colin Latheran’s eyes are tearing. Duster wears a numb expression, his lower lip trembling, then explodes. After some shouting General Whisk directly dials FBI Director Tyler in his Hoover Building office, connecting by video conferencing, then calls the Deputy Directors of the CIA, then DIA at the Pentagon.

It is as if each official has anticipated Duster and Latheran’s resistance and is waiting to authorize the termination.

With the string of confirmations the Smuyler Marrano Unit is legally over. Another team of soldiers with drawn pistols and even Mac 9/11s are taking up a cordon within the fusion center’s room.

“Bummer,” Druthers says.

“Well, folks,” Latheran gasps, teary-eyed, rising onto a well-padded chair to address his stunned agents, “It looks like this is it. We’ve had a good ride, and—”

But Storm isn’t so sure. Hadn’t he and Druthers just absorbed two hours of information on an apparent criminal genius? People could be impersonated, video feeds faked. And the SM task force is just taking this intercession, with no web of corroboration on who these interlopers are. Storm pulls out his wallet.

“Excuse me,” he says, tapping Whisk’s shoulder. “Break a hundred for me?”

“What?” the General snaps.

“I’m gonna take a cab back downtown. Can you break a Ben Franklin?”

His slate grey eyes are expressionless and his voice drops. “No, we will be shuttling you back to the Hoover building.”

“Okay, then, I’ll just ask you this. May I please examine any of the bills in your wallet?”

“Why?”

Storm looks over at Latheran and Duster, who seem to catch on. Latheran comes down from his chair and his hand hovers over his shoulder holster. “Yes, uh, that’s right. We will fully cooperate with you if you do one simple thing. Just produce a few bills from your wallets.”

Whisk smiles placidly. “Okay. Sure. If it’ll get your asses out of here quicker. Sure.”

Wallets are produced, currency extracted.

There is not a single blacked-out portrait amongst the assorted bills.

“Uh,” Latheran says, disappointed. “Okay.”

Whisk gestures at a group of men opening attaches cases on a desktop. “Of course our legal team here will be handling your releases and all non-disclosure documentation which you will sign on the way out.”

Latheran has climbed back up on the chair. “Look, Agents, my friends…” But is pulled down by Major Batter. The staff are pulling Blueteeth from their ears, gathering personal effects, moping out towards the desk on which the lawyers have quickly set up a station for triplicate form signing. Batter takes a step towards Latheran and says, “We want to tell you we admire that crack job you did apprehending your quarry the other day at the Capitol.”

“Go to hell, you son of a bitch.” There are glints of liquid in his eyes.

Druthers finds a hand clamping his arm from behind. It is Whisk. “Except you, sir. Eric Alan Druthers, right? You and August Storm. You’re staying.”

“Why, why do they get to stay?” Latheran, outraged.

“It’s classified.”

Whisk jerks a thumb at Duster and Latheran and near-whispers, “We’ve been keeping close tabs on these two FBI clowns and their Marrano unit since the beginning, back in ‘73. We figured why waste our own efforts trying to catch Smuyler Marrano if the FBI can do all the work for us?”

Storm, bewildered, hoarsely, “You know something they don’t?”

“Indeed. It’s much bigger than any of these jokers think. Come with us.”

 

Outside, five SUVs have boxed in the house. The SM task force staff one by one is being led into the SUVs. Whisk leads Storm and Druthers into a white stepvan made to look like any of the hundreds that trawl the region, company stenciling, ladders on top. The driver is tanned and looks surly in his wife-beater and white cap.

They swerve through Rock Creek Park onto Military Road, then Nebraska Avenue, then north up Connecticut for the Beltway. Whisk and Batter ask them what the two FBI agents revealed. Whisk says, “So they believe the gold certificates are buried somewhere out West. Hm. Well, as far as we know that is true. In fact, we know that it’s in California and the figure is close to one hundred billion dollars.” He turns a spectacled eye upon Druthers. “Do you believe in time travel, Mr. Druthers? Or clairvoyance? Or remote viewing?”

Druthers, taken aback, frowns. “I believe in none of those things.”

“You, Agent Storm?”

“Phshit,” he waves dismissively. “Please…”

Major Batter runs a thick hand through his flat-top. “We tried a team of remote viewers to find Marrano back in ’99. Don’t laugh. CIA’s results with psychics had just been made public a few years earlier? Either of you two Agents remember that program being made public?”

“Yes, I remember,” Druthers concurs. “Psychic spying on the Russians.”

Batter says, “We thought what the hell. Wasn’t like we were getting anywhere sitting on our asses studying the SM task force’s files.” He goes silent, smirking, and jams a toothpick in his mouth. The van rocks and rattles on the shattered DC streets. “The viewers saw a lot, but nothing useful. They put Marrano in the general location of New York City. Given his medieval philosophy and disdain for the modern world, we thought that unlikely. Then again, it might offer anonymity and opportunities to recruit people. We should have heeded what they saw. They were right, as you know—that silver RV those witnesses saw in Tuxedo and Landover?”

Major Batter folds his arms. “We had one remote viewer in particular who was very talented. She saw a building in southern Manhattan. Located him in its basement, or boiler room or some sub-room off a boiler room. And a rooftop complex with shacks, with an apartment below it. She drew the skyline around this building. Somewhere down on the Lower East Side, probably. That was all. We learned all this from one woman. She’d done work with the CIA viewing the Russians. After that particular session, she disappeared.”

Whisk says, “See, it apparently isn’t a one-way street, this remote viewing. Marrano was onto the, uh, eavesdropping she was doing.”

Storm snorts disingenuously. “Bunk.”

Druthers throws up his hands. “There are a dozen alternative explanations.”

Batter and Whisk exchange skeptical looks. Whisk picks up a sheaf of transcripts and rattles through them. “She also saw what she took to be a silver boat. She called it a big silverfish. Described it in detail.” He consults a page and reads. “Listen to this: ‘It is not yet time for its rebirth…But when that time comes, America will begin its fade and the silverfish will be the vessel of redemption…’ And she gave us the figure, ‘twelve years hence.’ We never knew what the hell she was talking about, until now.”

“How do you like them apples?” Batter says. “A ‘silverfish.’ Pretty well matches your reports of the vehicle that was seen in Virginia. Then you fellows discover that it’s a registered historic automobile owned by Samuel Marino. Heh.”

Storm pouts. “Someone saw the RV in Virginia too?”

“Yes, these Marrano task forcers have really been on the ball. Didn’t even know they were on the move.”

Whisk hands over some yellowed papers to Storm. “These are just my notes from back then. All those files were destroyed. When Rumsfeld found out that we’d hired a team of psychics, he went nuclear.”

“I would too,” Storm retorts, giving them a glance. He impatiently hands them back. “Look, why is the Army involved in this?”

“We at DIA have had two people inside Marrano’s group for years. Decades.”

“From 1946 to 1958 the Pentagon and US Geological Survey collaborated on creating an underground Lamson tube system. Pneumatic messaging, from one coast to the other. In the event of an all-out nuke exchange the electromagnetic pulses would knock out most phone communication, so they needed a…backup system. The brass hoped that at least some of a Lamson system would work in the event of a Soviet fish-fry. In ’53 the AEC and — invented a nuclear-powered drill about the size of a –and used it to construct 6,000 miles of underground tubes. It was a network. Each node is about fifteen miles from the next. They filled them with the tubing, then reinforced concrete.

“This project was so secret that all the accounting and log records including the locations of the main hubs were centralized into only twenty-two filing cabinets, all in a guarded room at the Pentagon…Guess who stole every one of the files back in the early 1970s?”

“Our new old frienemy,” Druthers says.

“Marrano knows the locations of every continuity of government site in the country. All the underground bases we’ve developed over the past sixty years. He also…Knows what’s been going on in the newer ones.”

“And what would that be?”

“We’ve, uh, disturbed something down there. Something…well, unexpected. Something that might give your Snorri Erickson’s rantings a second thought. But we can get to that later.”

Storm says, “Can he put pressure on the President to call out the National Guard, if we need them? You know, get cordons and roadblocks going?”

“It is not as easy as that,” Whisk replies in a rebuking tone. “That would be a waste of resources, Mr. Storm. I wouldn’t mention such a thing again.”

“Seems to me we need an old-fashioned dragnet. Put out all-points bulletins and roll em up. That silver boat should make it easy.”

Whisk snorted. “By now they’ve ditched them for certain and stolen or bought others.”

“So we’ve got the Motor Vehicle Database, then.”

“Be my guest. Try it. I think you’ll be wasting your time. Look, we have an idea. We’re going to try the remote viewers again. Give us everything you’ve got.”

“There are seven vehicles in the caravan. An old vintage Challenger. Then there’s the black van, and an old bus. A pickup truck, two station wagons from the 1970s. And the, uh, the silverfish.”

“I’d suggest getting photographs of similar vehicles. The viewer works off visual images. She’ll use such images in conjunction with names.”

“You’re serious about this?” Storm says.

“Yes, we are. You will not mention it to anyone. Capisce?”

“We’ve already contacted two views and we begin working with them tomorrow. One of them’s the best around. Worked with other parts of the Bureau on kidnappings and a bank robbery.”

Druthers has a massive headache and his eyes hurt. He feels like the Technicolor Dorothy, the newly red-pilled Thomas Anderson. He might vomit. He’s most amazed that such a person could ever have been kept under wraps by the Bureau, at the center of so many schemes yet redacted from the official stories…And that the public have never heard of the man’s near-superhuman exploits. A folk-hero, at least, to some subculture types…Perhaps he was known to certain segments of society, as myth, as symbol, a graffiti tag, all of the knowing prelates keeping silent and a nodding smile is all you get over mention of their Pope…But he also feels like one of the elect, investigating for once something real, and which will make a difference.

——————–

LATER THAT DAY, five miles to the west of Rock Creek Park, the Asia Division Chief Dave Galloway passes his eyes across the scanner and steers his lanky frame down the corridor leading to CIA Director Philip Vinnistraro’s office. He presses the red-striped folder close to his hip and dabs his forehead with a handkerchief. The Director welcomes him into the room and dismisses his two aides. Galloway hands over the folder and takes a seat. The Director’s flat Tuscan face smirks. “Should we call the Fortean Times people yet?”

“It’s way past that point, Phil.”

Vinnistraro flips the red-stripe’s cover and reads the cables. “So the drone went down?”

Galloway throws his hands open. “It disappeared. Ulan Bator sent a retrieval team, but the helicopter couldn’t get close. Their gyroscopes were shot to hell. The radios jammed.”

“Eyewitnesses?”

“A few locals saw the thing, yes.”

On the desk before Vinnistraro are reports from the National Reconnaissance Office describing the object that had been captured on satellite photos:

Vinnistraro engages his electronic cigarette and pulls on his mug of coffee. Galloway continues. “There was no seismic activity. That would suggest an atmospheric disturbance, or a hologram. But to project a hologram that size you’d need amplifiers. The atmosphere would play havoc with a holographic image that big. The tallest of the structures the witnesses saw were a half-mile in height and there was no distortion.”

Vinnistraro rises and studies the e-cigarette in his hand. “The ground team are on site right now. They should be sending us reports this afternoon…And the Siberian flash?”

“The Russians have nothing. The Tunguska area’s always been sparsely inhabited, ever since the first, uh, event, back in 1908. This new flash was seen four hundred miles in all directions. They heard the concussion in Moscow and in Pyon Yang and even in Barrow. Physics thinks it was plasma—a plasma column.”

“Not methane-related.”

“Definitely not.”

“Like a reversal of the 1908 event?”

Galloway shrugs. “Ulan Bator reported seeing silent flashes in the sky a few weeks before the appearance, in the Taklamakan and near the Altai mountain range.”

Vinnistraro looks out his windows at the skies over the Potomac. “Russians can’t blame this on some missile test, can they.”

“But they’ll try.”

 

WITHIN HOURS PHILIP Vinnistraro and the NASA Director have briefed the Secretary of Defense William Marpleson and call a meeting with President Robert Hogan in the Situation Room. The primary photo interpreter from the National Reconnaissance Office and his CIA counterpart take the floor as four NASA scientists pour over the incoming photographs and documents.

“The outer edge of the ‘hexagonal city,’ we’ll call it, has ninety-six structures encircling it and this number reduces in concentric figures towards the center of the complex. There is self-similarity or what’s called fractal symmetry between the large-scale layout and the buildings’ designs.”

Vinnistraro stands and announces, “We have a team encamped at the edge of the area with full rad-decon facility. They’re completing their examination as we speak.”

The NASA official shouts, “It’s as if the object was physically present and yet not there at the same time. There’s a simultaneity about it…”

“Yes?” Vinnistraro replies, annoyed.

“I mean, as if it was a part of a different earth—occupying the same space, but in two different universes.”

President Robert Hogan sneers. “That the best you’ve got? Parallel universes?”

The physicist shrugs. “Sir, the idea can’t be dismissed out of hand. The latest experiments in quantum fields favor an interpretation that sub-atomic entities are dependent upon their vibration in multiple dimensions, or universes, rather. Dark matter, as you might have heard about. Another way to put it is that they require far more energy than our universe is capable of generating—that there’s interchange between our cosmos and many, many others, er, exchanging power…The point is we may have just caught a glimpse through a temporary portal into an alternative cosmos, another version of our planet.”

SecDef Marpleson gulps a glass of water and wipes the sweat from his forehead. All afternoon he has been having difficulty speaking, his hands trembling, his voice halting. “Wouldn’t such a thing…have then caused s-some kind of, I don’t know, sonic boom when it appeared?”

“Maybe it did,” the physicist replies. “The flashes and plasma discharge.”

“But—”

“—they preceded the physical appearance of the portal.”

One of the physicists says, “Maybe it’s a vehicle of some kind.”

“But the thing was anchored to the desert.”

“I’m saying it entered from an alternative version of the planet.”

Parallel earths, Mark?”

Vinnistraro says, “Siberia and the regions between the Taklamakan desert and Altai range have a history of events like this, in their folklore. That’s what Galloway told me. The Tunguska blast is the least of it…It’s as if the area has a history of portals.”

President Hogan runs his fingers through his coiffed mane. “So what should we do, consult some folklorists? Or how about a psychic?”

Vinnistraro smirks. “Folklorists wouldn’t be a bad idea. This sort of thing has been talked about in their local mythologies.”

“Well, that’s comforting.”

The CIA Director says, “Russia Today’s done stories on the plasma flashes and you can be assured the Chinese and RAS both have this object on their own satellite pictures. They’re sending teams in the past hours, but we’ve gotten there first. They’ll be just as confounded as we are, but they might go public with it. Their astronauts could have seen it from Mir.” He rises and begins to pace. “We have to tell Olander over at DARPA next.”

Hogan sighs. “We’ll have to get Putin and Jinmao and all the others together on this. It could be a signal, Phil—from an extraterrestrial civilization.”

Vinnistraro’s eyes widen. “That’s the last angle we should take, sir.” His pager beeps. “Dave Galloway’s here with the reports from the ground team.”

Within a minute the Asia Division chief and an assistant unpack a large suitcase. The scientists huddle around the two laptops, reading aloud passages from the raw reports on soil and sand samples and begin to play the video recordings the CIA team made.

“Two square miles of dunes have been baked into a very thin sheet of green-colored glass, a green crystal. Similar to tritium, the product of the Trinity test before Hiroshima. They’re collecting the stuff now, and assistance from the Mongolian Army is occurring. They observed visual distortions similar to heat mirage and reported a sweet smell in the area. Smelled like, well—they say lilies would be the closest comparison…They, uh, also observed shoots growing in a few places.”

“Shoots?”

“Plants,” Galloway clarifies. “They talked to the park official who saw the structures. And a camper, a Belgian. The guy was upset and hardly made any sense, but he saw it at night…So far we have twelve eyewitnesses. This area’s practically uninhabited so I doubt more of them will turn up.”

One of the NASA physicists shouts, “All electronic devices fried within seven miles of the event, so there was an EMP. It was accompanied by plasma discharges four miles up.”

 

A DIRECT CONFERENCE line is set up with the Mongolian President. Documents related to the affair are to have the highest classification level. A press blackout on the phenomena is ordered at NASA, the National Reconnaissance Office and every armed forces agency with satellite photo capability. Key contact officers to deal with any international reports are chosen for each agency, and a task force is inaugurated to develop the disinformation campaign.

As they file out, Defense Secretary Marpleson lingers before the door, catching Vinnistraro’s arm. “Phil, could I ask you to stay a moment? I need to talk to you and Bob about something.”

“You’ll have to make it short,” Vinnistraro complains. “I’ve got fourteen meetings today.”

Vinnistraro crosses the room to tell the President. They wait until the scientists depart. Marpleson closes the door with unusual effort. He wets his lips several times and blinks rapidly and breathes with labor.

“Ah, forgive me,” he pauses.

Robert Hogan leans forward. The man has gone pale and sweating and seems to be suffering an anxiety attack. “Is it Mary? How is she?”

“She’s fine, sir, thank you. Thanks for asking,” he replies, bringing out a damp handkerchief. “There hasn’t been a recurrence.”

“Would you like a glass of water? Phil, would you—”

“No, I’m okay,” Marpleson declares. He leans on one of the high-backed chairs surrounding the table, his fists contracting on the vinyl. He hangs his head and speaks in a low tone. “The other day—last week, Thursday, the sixth, it was…I was outside my house in McCarren Park, at dusk, doing yard work. These three men,” he seems to gag on the words, “came up out of the woods…My god.” The recollection seems to damage him further. “They were dressed in suits. Sunglasses, they wore. Just appeared there, coming up my hill. I’m looking at them, watching them walk up the hill, all stiff, like they kept their arms straight against their sides…but walking smooth, like the hill was too easy for them…Like robots or something like that. Gliding, almost. Their suits were old. Double-breasted. Dark. I had my alarm in my pocket. Tried for it and I felt something in the back of my head, like a coldness…I couldn’t move…Totally paralyzed…They came up within ten feet of me and I’m readying the panic button. Then they stopped at the same time. Stood there, staring at me. Felt like forever. Felt like hell. Then the guy in the middle, he pulls out a-a knife. Spins it in, in his hand, fast. Then, then he, he put the tip up against his n-neck, right up on his carotid, and pulled, like this—” he pantomimes. “I felt sick but I couldn’t move. Blood all down his suit. Pumping out, one beat after another. Guy staggered a step, like he was dizzy. He was losing a lot of blood, you know? Then he pulls this object out from his pocket and runs it across the wound. He’s fast with it, fast.” Again Marpleson mimics the gesture. “He passed it across the wound and the bleeding just stopped. Like that. He swallows a few times…All the time this happened the other two were just standing there like dummies…The cut guy’s swallowing and touching the wound to make sure it was okay. Saw his hand. Long fingers. Too long. Got blood on them from touching his neck. He was, was trying to breathe regularly. He still had the knife in his other hand. Big bloodstain on it. Then, then they all took a step closer to me. Comes up close. He whispers, ‘Battlefields.’ Guy could have killed me right there, on the spot, with that knife. Blood’s still dripping on his neck. This coldness has got me. I’m standing there and I don’t believe this is happening. I think I’ve lost it. I’m t-terrified. Wondering where the hell’s my detail. I didn’t want it to be real. It shouldn’t be. Things like that shouldn’t h-happen, right? I wanted to call my detail. My hand was frozen like a claw. Then they turned together sorta pivoted and walked back down the hill and I couldn’t hear any footsteps they were fading down the hill and I’m still feeling this coldness in my head. I can’t even move but I’m shaking like a leaf. I come out of it and I can’t talk. I just fell. I collapsed. Then I hit the panic button. The detail came over to me. I picked up the leaves and twigs. Got the guy’s blood on them. Something happened here.”

Phillip Vinnistraro shakes his head in amazement and says, “And he only said, ‘Battlefields’? That was all?”

Marpleson nods. “That thing in his hand closed up that wound in a split-second. Perfectly.” The Defense Secretary begins pacing before the two men. “He, he, it, whatever the hell he was, slit his carotid artery lengthwise, about three inches. It opened up wide…There was blood everywhere on his neck, but it sealed up the cut. Like it wasn’t there. It was just a line on his neck. And the line went away in seconds, as I was looking at it. Entirely reversed the wound. It wasn’t some illusion. The object he used looked like a small egg. It was dark green. Had gold lines on it. I, I think that’s what he meant when he said it, that’s what the whole thing was about. To show it to me. To demonstrate it. That it was some kind of technology they have.”

Hogan says, “’They’?”

Marpleson looks up at the ceiling. “They were from that thing, I’m sure of it. In Mongolia. I think we’re up against…I don’t even want to think about it.”

The CIA director adopts a paternal tone. “I think it’s too early to say we’re ‘up against’ anyone, Bill.”

Marpleson looks into Vinnistraro’s eyes. “Y-you don’t know what it’s like. To meet them. I’m sure, sure what I saw, men, men in suits—that wasn’t how they look. It was a mirage. A projection. This was a message to me—to us—because of what we do. What we, what we a-are.”

Hogan and Vinnistraro pass a worried glance. “You didn’t tell your detail, did you?”

“No, I couldn’t Bob,” he near-whispers. “Told them I had a fainting spell…Couldn’t fucking talk. I couldn’t talk for about a half-hour. They helped get me into the house. I told them not to tell anyone I’d fainted.” Marpleson seems to recover and ceases pacing.

“Surveillance video?”

He smiles weakly. “We got ’em all over the grounds and in the house, yeah. I, I asked Deakins about it. I told him I wanted to see myself fall down. Asked him if I could look at it by myself. We went into the security room. He said, the cameras all over the house had gone down…At first, it was as if their influence was still working on me, in that I couldn’t tell anyone about it. But I’m resigned that it’s okay…I went back outside a few hours later, out where it happened. On the ground, staring at the leaves. There were leaves, with his blood on them. Picked them up. I still have the leaves and twigs. Maybe you think I should have them tested.”

Vinnistraro practically shouts, “Of course you should get them tested. ASAP. Where are they?”

“T-they’re at home, in my safe.”

“Bill, send them to one of our labs, for chrissake. You should—”

Hogan places a hand on the CIA Director’s shoulder and eases his impatience. “No-one else saw these men?”

Marpleson’s anxiety seems to be easing. “Mary was asleep. Long and Kennedy and Schott were in the den and Deakins was in the carport. They didn’t see the men.”

Vinnistraro looks at his watch. “I have to get going, sir. We have that Arctic fleet briefing.”

“Of course.”

Marpleson mopes out the door. The CIA director asks, “What do you think?”

Hogan shrugs.

“You believe it happened?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Don’t you think he needs help?”

“No. Not at all.”

Vinnistraro tries to maintain an even note. “Certain things have to be ruled out. The organic.”

“He had a physical just last month. We all did.”

“I won’t believe it until mental aberrations are off the table.”

“They already are off the table.”

“Why is that?”

Hogan levels a hard gaze at his CIA director. “Because my detail head told me that Senator Quint Davis met those same three men, on last Thursday. August sixth. Quint’s been in the hospital since.”

—————–

AGENT ERIC DRUTHERS spreads the seven pictures of Smuyler Marrano before him. Four of them were blurred and the image cleanup hadn’t helped much. The last one, from the Senate hearing, only added to his doubts. Many subtle, small changes to a person’s appearance could add up to significant overall difference—it was rule number one, he knew—but were they kidding? Three of them emphatically depicted entirely different people. “Nicky Bourbon”, the photo taken at the Alexandria US Patent Office, was a slight person of mixed ethnic heritage. The obvious misidentification reminded him of the two photos of a stout, baby-faced man the Warren Commission had deemed were Lee Harvey Oswald in Mexico City, which anyone could see were not the spindly assassin.

The other three photos were ambiguous at best. The jawlines and eye-to-nose-to-mouth ratios were radically different between the bank job and passport photo and DMV portrait and movie stills from Orson Welles’s F for Fake.

The two DIA men had taken he and Storm to a secure facility in Bowie, Maryland, 20 miles from the District, an area that looked to be a semi-sprawling apparent office and industrial park of low buildings with too much gated security called Melford. The stepvan had driven into the fenced parking lot of a storage facility then through a garage door and down a spiraling ramp into a complex that Druthers suspected was a continuity-of-government site. They were led through a fusion center and carpet-glue smelling office corridors into a soundproofed chamber and given documents.

“Think Marrano knows about this place?” he asked Batter.

“Not at all,” the Major had replied. “We’ve been busy updating our spider-holes for decades now.”

Druthers squinted again at the pictures. “Nuts,” he said.

Whisk and Batter appear. “Now we have someone here to talk to us from NYPD about this. I want you to say nothing about Marrano beyond the fact that that silver RV’s registered in the name of Samuel Marino.”

Storm and Druthers both shrug in agreement as the woman enters the room. She is in her late-thirties, her black tresses pulled into a ponytail, dressed in a white blouse and black skirt and leather boots.

“This is Sergeant Valdez of NYPD,” Major Batter says. “She’s worked the vice nightclub beat the past year in Manhattan. She has quite a story to tell.”

The woman sits down at the table and inserts a memory stick into the laptop and types. With haughty asides she tells them about a new psychedelic drug that appeared in the New York nightclubs over the past months and three strange purveyors of the pills they’d arrested, each bearing clothes that had been made at a clothier based in Southern France; they had been dressed as an imam, an Orthodox Rabbi, and a Catholic priest. Storm appears moved in some less-than-wholesome way by her tough front and Bronx twang, a strong woman in uniform, and Druthers notices him studying her mouth and full figure and can see her shift uncomfortably a few times under his gaze. “The tox report on the pills showed they were some kind of honey derivative.” She shrugs. “It was just a sugar pill. But that’s not at all what people experience. We’ve managed to get six doses of the stuff, and the tox labs did some tests with a few volunteer subjects.”

Batter massages his aching back. “We understand one of your officers took some of this Haoma to test it.”

She blinks rapidly and tugs an earlobe. She shrugs. “I can’t comment on it. But I’m going to show you video of our interview with the psychologist who examined persons who’d taken it. Watch this.”

She hits play and the screen shows a disheveled and bespectacled man in a bow tie, arms folded, at a table. He says, “Based on our MRI and CAT scans we determined that the brain’s deeply affected by this drug. We just don’t know how. Nothing at all turns up toxicological samples of the blood. We would like to try a second-by-second MRI after someone ingests it but we need more samples of the stuff.”

A male voice cuts in: “We’re working on that.”

“It affects the spinal cord and then the central nervous system, in particular the parietal cortex. That’s the area that regulates the sense of physical integrity, tells us at any given time what the body is experiencing. Sort of the interface between our bodies and the external world. You’ve heard of phantom limb syndrome after amputation? It’s where such phenomena originate. Normally this is an autonomic processing center, entirely unconscious and flowing. We think this Haoma substance amps up this area of the brain to a thousand degrees and in some way makes the body and brain…Permeable, I suppose, would be a way to describe it. Receptive…It significantly amps up the level of sensory integration. Anyway, this has a profound effect on the personality as it occurs. Elation, joy, a sense of expansiveness. So-called telepathic experiences were reported. Strange thing is, they were confirmed by the techs.”

Someone says, “Hookaaay…”

“I am serious, Sergeant. It occurred many times over a ten minute period. You can watch the footage of it if you want. It’s extraordinary.”

“Yes, I’ll have to see it, Doc,” Sergeant Valdez’s voice chimes in on the video. “I don’t believe it.”

The psychologist continues. “Subjectively they undergo feelings of oneness with everything, the classic sense of the mystical and the interconnectedness of everything. There are slight visual hallucinations involving halos about objects and a synesthetic component to the experience. Also extreme suggestibility. Subjects spontaneously confessed secrets and desires. Some of it was pretty wild.”

Something in Special Agent August Storm twitches as he watches.

“…in this state, subjects believe there are no reasons to, uh, hold anything back. All three of them divulged thefts, even going back to childhood, which they’d not consciously recalled in decades. Also infidelities. Sexual indiscretions and fetishes. Also what they perceived to be moral failings or habitual character defects…Post-intoxication, they reported complete retainment of the insights and complete integration into the personalities, unlike other psychedelics.”

Valdez’s voice says, “So it’s like LSD.”

“Not really. You see, LSD and the others are so overwhelming that subjects later have only the barest memories of what they think are tremendous epiphanies during the acute intoxication phase. This one, they are preserved.”

Storm rubbed his wide jaw and says to Victoria Valdez, “Hm. Is he saying this stuff could be a truth serum?”

She stops the video. “We’re not saying anything. It’s too early to tell. We’ve had only three test subjects reporting these similar experiences. Keep watching.” She restarts it.

“The public’s all reported these effects as well,” the male voice adds.

The psychologist clasps his fingers across a kneecap. “Ideally, we should garner a random population sample, give them MRI and CAT scans to establish a baseline for their CNS and brain activities, dose them, and follow up regularly. That’s the only way we will know with certainty what we have here.”

Sergeant Valdez stops the video. “So that’s what’s been going on up in the city. Now let me tell you what I found that connects up with what General Whisk’s filled me in on.”

A truth serum. Storm feels a warmth stir deep inside his gut and he knows it is certain. He sees them all—the Arabs tied to chairs and spilling the whereabouts of whole networks, child molesters giving up every evil deed. Such a drug was almost an affront to the order of things, to God’s very laws. A monstrous thing.

It could even threaten their jobs, taken to its extreme.

Victoria Valdez tells them of her recent intel-gathering trip to the drug dealers’ clothier in the Pyrenees of Southern France. “I saw their inventory manifests and address book.” She shows them the digital photos she’d taken. “‘S. Marrano,’ see? Last week we cased the return address on the Lower East Side and when we got the warrant and went in it turned out the occupant Samuel Marino—close enough—had been evicted four days before this thing happened at the Capitol two days ago. He was described as an old guy with very long hair and Santa Claus beard. He’d been squatting illegally in the basement rooms for years. He thought he was paying rent but the super who was covering for him was pocketing it. The absentee landlord finds out, gives the old guy the boot last week. He also lived in a rooftop apartment sometimes, too, which was behind on its rent as well. At least, that’s what we were told, ya know.”

“Marino shaved it all off,” Batter says.

Druthers is amazed. “So the psychic was right about Lower Manhattan.”

“Psychic?” Valdez squints.

Even Storm is grinding his jaw in perplexity and waves away the mention. “Go on.”

Victoria Valdez sighs heavily. “The basement he lived in looked like it deserved a whole season on one of those hoarder shows, ya know? Health department’s never seen anything like it. Took them a week just to get it manageable.”

Whisk snaps, “You have a forensics team going through it?”

“For what it’s worth, we had two photographers who got as much as they could on film and two who tried to pick through the stuff. They lasted about three days. I mean, it was junk. Old socks. Clothes. Boots. Pill bottles. Receipts, plastic bags full of stuff, notebooks, paintings—”

“Notebooks!” Whisk huffs. “Where was that stuff dumped?”

“Probably Staten Island. We kept the notebooks, Major.”

“We’ll have to see those. ASAP.”

Victoria Valdez half-rolls her eyes. “But in the middle of it all, a few days ago, they found some kind of machine encased in two frickin’ tons of candlewax. They estimated it must’ve taken a decade to cover it with that much wax…Unless he had a lot of help.”

An image of people in a circle holding candles in both hands, chanting, some kind of ritual, enters Druthers’s mind.

Storm asks, “They evacuate the place?”

“Yeah, bomb squad x-rayed it,” she replies. “Not a weapon. Don’t know what it is. It’ll take three weeks to melt all the wax off it properly, cleanly.”

Batter rises and folds his arms. “Sergeant, how many officers in NYPD know about this Marino matter, total? Specifically, that that name is connected with the drug and that address and the contents of the place?”

“Nine. Guys in my unit, ’s’about it…Sanitation department, you’re talking maybe three dozen. Probably more.”

Batter curses. “I’m afraid we’re going to need their names and have them sworn. This is a national security matter.”

Valdez blinked and smirked and sighed. “So your team’s tracking Samuel Marino? Where did you find out about him?”

“You know the silver RV registered in his name,” Whisk quickly replies. “It’s been stolen. Or rather, disappeared.”

“Huh,” she says. “Where was it when it was stolen?”

“We don’t know,” Whisk says. “But it’s definitely on the roads right now.”

Storm huffs. “We need the goods on these three clowns you caught. The three clerics or whatever the hell they were dealing that drug.”

“You already have everything,” Valdez replies coldly.

“The clothes of those dealers you confiscated…” Batter says.

“They’ve disintegrated?” She shrugs. “Completely disintegrated. All that’s left is a label. We have no fucking—excuse me—no idea how it happened. Look…I hate to be a pain in the ass but I still wonder why you’re interested in this. I signed three confidentiality forms and was sworn twice. It’s not the drugs, is it. It’s not over the RV, is it.”

Whisk ignored her questions and pushes up his spectacles. “The RV is a registered historical object. We think Marino stole it back in the 1960s from its inventor, Richard Buckminster Fuller…It’s a one-of-a-kind historical object. We had a sighting of the thing in Virginia and we are currently pursuing it, and, uh, I’m sorry but that’s the end of the story. It’s a national security matter. Thanks for your time and assistance. We’ll be in contact with you for certain, miss Valdez.”

“That is Sergeant Valdez.”

“Excuse me. Sergeant.”

Abruptly the woman rises and departs the room with the slightest of goodbyes.

“Quite a Jenny from the block,” Storm says, making a sucking sound. “Gotta say. That was some hot—”

“You can shut that shit down right now, gumshoe,” Batter near-shouts.

Storm shrugs. “There are drugs on that RV.”

“Probably,” Druthers complies.

“This drug she was talking about, and probably lotsa others. There’s how many cars traveling with him?”

“Seven, in all,” Whisk says.

“I’m sure if we contacted State boys they’d be gratified to have something real to do. Pull over the lot of them and search every fucking inch of every car. They wouldn’t suspect it’s anything but a normal kind of harassment. Interstate trafficking,” Storm continues, punching Druthers lightly on the arm. “Mm. Lots of possession charges, at the least.”

“There’ll be time enough for small change like that later,” Batter says. “Unless you’ve been blackout drunk the past hours, or just neuro-deficit, you know there’re more pressing matters here than just the drugs, Agent. We’ve told you repeatedly they cannot suspect they are under any kind of surveillance…The rest of this caravan likes to stop together and set up camp. This is according to our contact. Reports have come in. Vermont State Police ticketed them for speeding last month. They stay on the move.”

Storm rises to his feet and pulls up his belt, hooks thumbs there. “So they were out there roaming the country while Marrano was just rotting away dripping wax on some contraption in New York for years?”

“Believe this guy?” Batter chuckles at Whisk, jerking a thumb at Storm. “I’ll say it again: you just don’t know what the hell you’re dealing with here.”

“Ever heard of the men in black?” Whisk asks Storm suddenly.

“Will Smith? That thing?”

Batter chuckles again. “No. Not that thing.”

“I’ve heard about it,” Druthers admits.

“So tell us what you know.”

“They threaten people. UFO witnesses. People who haven’t even reported their sightings to the Air Force or whoever. They drive old Cadillacs, dress like the 1940s with black fedoras. They always claim some government affiliation that turns out to be bogus…uh, and people say they don’t act like they’re human. Sometimes there’s telepathy or hypnotism. They look weird, weird eyes and can’t speak properly. Act weird.”

“Gold star for Agent Druthers,” Batter says, staring hard at Storm.

“Just like in the movie,” Storm barks.

“Again, not even close,” Batter sneers. “Take a seat please, Agent.”

Storm slams himself down into the chair.

Druthers explains, “I read a few books about UFOs when I was in high school. Weird stuff like that, you remember. The movie came out just before I read about them, and it got a lot of the stuff right. Except for them being aliens themselves. And those flashing memory things.”

“Do you believe they’re real?” Whisk asks Druthers.

Druthers makes a noise. “I don’t believe in UFOs. The distances are too great.”

“Well, bravo,” Storm snorts.

Batter snaps, “Who says they have to be extraterrestrial, Agent Druthers?”

Druthers frowns. “You saying they’re government?”

“Far from it. Are you versed at all in sociology or anthropology?”

“101 in school and the usual deviance courses at Quantico.”

Whisk says, “Sometimes what you learn in your regular courses at Quantico are a form of deviance—from reality, broadly speaking.”

“Cute,” Storm snorts.

Both of the DIA men laugh. General Whisk asks, “I wouldn’t expect you guys to have heard about recent encounters with just such types of men, right here in DC.”

“No.”

“I don’t suppose,” he continues, “in all the excitement of the past days you guys gave much thought to what quote-unquote Erickson meant by ‘an unnatural species of mafiosi’ in his committee speech.”

“I don’t remember him saying that,” Storm admits.

“I recall it,” Druthers says. “Damned if I know what it means.”

“Well, we were just now talking about it.”

“The men in black?” Druthers says.

“In the past months three career military officers, two Senators, four Pentagon scientists and one of Hogan’s cabinet member have been approached by men fitting the classic description. Five of these events in just the past week, at exactly the same moment, eight-fifteen PM. Men dressed in black 1940s double-breasted suits with sunglasses and black fedoras and black ties. They came in trios. Threes. Each witness reported a sort of silence bubble enveloping the environment just before the men appeared. And vertigo and headache. These visits occurred at their residences. One of them occurred in the middle of Dupont Circle, near the fountain. There was telepathic communication, and some of them saw visions of, well—we’ll call it another place.”

August Storm now has a look of perplexity on his face.

Batter adds, “In three of the cases these men just appeared to vanish into thin air before the witnesses’ eyes. In the others, the witnesses were in a state of paralysis and the men walked away in synchronization, as if it were triple-images. Or they were synchronized cyborgs, if you prefer them to be physical beings.”

“Did they,” Druthers stammers, “did they, well, what was communicated?”

“That’s gonna be classified, I’m afraid. I mean, it is classified right now. There are other things surrounding these events. And Smuyler Marrano knows all about it. It all ties together. The, uh, Mafiosi, the Lamson tube system, the buried gold, his sudden appearance and his gang going on the move.”

Druthers’s head jerks. “That’s right—he called them the ‘King’s agents.’ Didn’t he?”

Whisk slowly claps, smirking. “The agents of Presbyter Ioannis, Prester Jean, the lost King. Who, and I quote, Marrano said, ‘has sequestered himself’ since before Columbus and the rest of the Europeans landed on America in the sixteenth century.”

“‘Landed on’ is right.”

Storm’s face is now a rictus of confusion. “Ever consider this? Son of a bitch is using hypnotism or some kind of psychotronic weaponry on those generals and congressmen. I was in the Army five years. One tour. We talked about that kind of weaponry, low-frequency sonic cannon stuff that can make the enemy see all kinds of—”

Major Batter holds up both hands. “Let’s stop with the tech talk here. We’re talking black magic, Agent Storm. The occult. Ceremonial magic. There are preconceptions we’re asking you to abandon. That kind of hard materialism is one of them, if you don’t mind the advice. Call it a warning.”

Storm hangs his head, teeth grinding. “That trick the Russians pulled on the Cuban embassy staff. Is that the kind of ‘black magic’ you’re talking about?”

The DIA officers ignore Agent Storm. “How’s your guys’ Bible? Book of the Apocalypse, specifically?”

“Just the basics,” Druthers replies. “Seven trumpets calls and the four horsemen. A Lake of fire? I haven’t read the Bible in years.”

“I know it,” Storm nods. “My wife and I attend Bible study every Thursday for the past four years.”

Batter and Whisk exchange glances. “How’s your Hindu or Buddhist or Hopi-Navajo eschatology?”

Storm shakes his head.

“I got nothing,” Druthers shrugs.

“I’ll just put it this way,” Batter says. “If a scholar of eschatology had seen the list of Marrano’s aliases, they would have recognized some things there. The ‘White Brother’ and ‘Kalki Kalapa,’ for starters. The first’s Hopi, the second Hindu. The Hindu is related to the legend of Shambhala, the hidden paradise or Hindu-Buddhist conception of heaven. Kalapa is its capital city, so I suppose Marrano meant ‘Kalki from Kalapa.’ During the end times, the tenth avatar of Vishnu named Kalki will ride a white steed out of Shambhala to purify the earth of its evils…Now, the Hopi Great White Brother is the savior who will return with ‘new people’ from the east. He will unite the people with a religion that will unite the world. Much like John’s Apocalypse’s AntiChrist will be said to do…Third is ‘Tatal Timp,’ which means ‘Father time’ in Romanian. Marrano lived with the Roma in Europe in the early Seventies, and learned their myths and technologies, you might say. Scholars have only a smidgen of the true beliefs of the Roma. Everything they do is shrouded in code.”

Whisk takes out a pipe and pouch of tobacco. “Our point is that these legends about purifying forces that arrive here from elsewhere, not of this planet, not of the cosmos—they’re universal ideas. Nearly every culture’s got a form of it. We think all these aliases are meant to signal not that Marrano himself is any of these, but that they’re symbolic of the King’s return—a kind of John the Baptist function. Marrano would have us believe that with his discovery of this ‘Green Sceptre’ that he wants to return to the King signals that the end is here—for America, that is. And his followers certainly believe that. Add to that these quote agents bearing messages to our government and the existence of his, well, we’ll have to call it a Fifth Column of sympathetic citizens…We’ve got a situation here.”

Storm’s hands go pale as he tightens them on the armrests. “But what kind of situation?”

“Call it an existential crisis, with a dose of metaphysical horror.”

A gentle purr sounds in the room. Whisk puts down his pipe and pulls out a satellite phone and answers. Grunts. Murmurs. “I see…by 1800 tomorrow? Depart Y?…Yes…Thanks.”

Just as he hangs up, Batter’s satellite phone bleats. “I see…So a clean wipe? Yes…No, this line couldn’t be cleaner. So it’s done?…Yep. Yep, I got it. Done.” He stares at Whisk, then at August Storm. “Mr. Storm, could you leave us to speak with Agent Druthers here, please.”

“Why? What’s the secret?”

“No secret,” Whisk simpers. “We have something to tell him. So please. Just a moment.”

“You keep me in the loop, Eric,” Storm says, rising and patting his tie and buttoning his suit. He leaves the room.

Batter opens a briefcase and extracts a thick manila folder and opens it. He nods. “We just got word from the Bureau’s forensics lab from our liaison on Marrano’s biometric traces at the Hart building scene.”

Whisk says, “DNA results, second time ever, on Marrano. They match the first, which were obtained back in the mid-1990s…Anyway. Tell us what’s your relationship with Agent Storm’s like. Be as free as you like.”

“This is confidential?”

“Absolutely,” Whisk replies, relighting his pipe.

“Stormy,” Druthers chuckles. “In all candor, I’ve recently questioned whether it warrants complaint. He certainly hasn’t heeded any of my requests to just lay the fuck off the, ah, personal comments.”

“About what does he comment?”

“My weight, for one. I don’t like it. I don’t like both of it. That I’m a bit overweight and he keeps bringing it up.”

“Anything else?”

“He’s a cowboy, but you’ve already seen that. I’d say his ambition’s overweening. He petitioned Deputy Director Cole to let him handpick the Erickson task force members and to keep the counter-terror dep and even their liaisons away from the case for a seventy-two hour period. He thought he could bust Erickson within three days. Convinced Cole of this, somehow. But our other requests kept getting stifled by someone above Director Cole. Things like UAV surveillance and the chain of documentation on how Erickson, or rather Marrano, had been invited to talk to the Senate panel in the first place. Also that Garden of Light Foundation that funded Marrano’s work. Our requests on the Foundation’s numbers and history were blocked on NS grounds. It had no web presence.”

“It’s a front foundation set up by Marrano back in the early Nineties. Just so you know.”

Druthers sniggers. “Shit, August would just love that.”

“Why would he like it?”

“His political views. They skew, let’s say, right of center? He thinks the whole think-tank and paper mill in DC is a big scam. It’d be just another bit of ammo for him.”

“Well, maybe it is,” Batter replies. “What was your upbringing like, Agent Druthers?”

“Fine. It was fine. Is that my file?”

“Yes, it is. We’ve got some personal questions here for you. If you don’t mind?”

Druthers shrugs, apprehensive.

“Your parents divorced in 2002 and your mother, she, well, had a breakdown and was remanded into a Virginia mental health hospital.”

Druthers fold his arms and tightens them. “That’s right. She’s got out in 2008 and is doing well, a lot better. She’s been living and working in Winchester. She’s doing much better. That’s all in there, I take it.”

“Yes,” Whisk replies. “She came from a wealthy family. New England Brahmin, as they say.”

Batter studies the document before him. “Lineage traced back to the Plymouth colony. Her surname is Mather. Your great-grandfather seven generations back helped found Harvard College.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

Whisk clears his throat and knits his fingers. “And…I intend no disrespect. Would it be fair to say your father made out very well financially from the divorce?”

“Does it say we’re not on speaking terms? I guess it wouldn’t.”

“He instigated the divorce.”

“Yes.”

“Within six months he was engaged to the woman who would become your stepmother. A woman just out of grad school, ten years his junior. Just short of twice your age at the time. You were fourteen.”

Druthers grinds his teeth. “Yes. Why are you asking me about this?”

Whisk goes paternal. “We have made you privy to a lot of top-level compartmented information today, Agent Druthers. Things even the Bureau’s Marrano Division don’t—or rather didn’t—know.”

“And you did the same with Sergeant Valdez?”

“Yes, she’s been pre-cleared. She doesn’t know the entire story, of course. NYPD is for intents a wing of the Bureau and CIA at this point, as you probably painfully aware of. Anyway, we need to assess the, let’s say, psychology of the individuals with whom we are working closely. The dynamics of their personal histories. Someone like Agent Storm, well, you know you suspect you won’t get a rather brutally honest answer that contains, let’s say, a surfeit of introspection from him. Quite the opposite. You’ll get rationalizations and deflection and projection. We think you’re different.”

“That makes me feel so much better.”

“We apologize if the question has touched a sore spot. Now, you say you haven’t spoken to your father. In how many years?”

“Let’s say a decade. I was in college.”

Batter says, “Your trust fund had been set up for university and any subsequent education. You decided to study criminology. You set your sights on the FBI. You didn’t want any more money from your father.”

“That’s about the way it was.”

“Your mother and father both were 23 when you were born. And 37 when they divorced.”

Druthers nods.

“What did your grand-folks think of all this drama?”

“Mother’s parents tried suing. I’m sure that’s in there too, right? They sincerely believed Hank had been gaslighting mother. And perhaps fed her a psychedelic of some kind several times during the divorce. Nothing could be proved. Her breakdown happened fast, within weeks of his asking for the divorce. It went on for three years. Nothing.”

“And your father’s parents?”

“Only my grandmother. My grandfather on that side died before I was born. Gram didn’t like it at all either. She knew something was up with Hank.”

Whisk and Batter regard each other gravely. “Something may very well have been up with Hank. Your father was born in 1965. Did you know your grandmother well? Were you close?”

“Somewhat.”

Whisk massages his jaw and evenly places his pipe in his mouth and puffs. “Did she ever talk about him?”

A strange floating sensation drifts into Agent Druthers. A touch of vertigo. “Hardly ever. My father didn’t either, just to say that was a terrible way to go in a plane crash. Fire.”

“Your grandfather was according to your grandmother a traveling salesman. The crash occurred in Encino, California, in 1966.”

“Yeah,” Druther breathes.

“Mister Druthers, I’m going to tell you something you may not believe, but there are no records of such a crash.”

“No records.” Druthers floats.

“It didn’t happen.”

“Didn’t happen.”

Major Batter leans in and clears his throat. “Since you guys at the Bureau have made DNA banking mandatory, we’ve been able to do some research.”

A cold wave floods Druthers’s solar plexus, spreading outward, spikes and swells of adrenaline. The floating sensation evaporates in a single adamantine sword of light. “There’s just no way…If you’re saying…what…”

“Could be worse. Could be, I dunno, the Donald?”

Druthers swallows back bile. “That’s, that’s one way of looking at it…”

——————-

PRESIDENT ROBERT HOGAN’S Chief of Staff says, “Chairman Harris wants to see you ASAP. He’s scheduled a meeting with you and Phil V. and Ben Lumbergh on a Pentagon matter. DARPA’s Department Y requests that no other White House staff be present than the three of you. Harris also requests that we strike the meeting from all records.”

Hogan suspects it’s related to the Mongolian apparition. “Strike it, then. These meetings are the only thing I look forward to lately.”

Tilden lowers his voice. “It’s being held across the river. But they want you to take a Pentagon chopper from Bolling. So we’ve got the Whale waiting, and that’s what the press will be told, nothing more…But you are to get on the chopper.”

They are readying Air Force One to fly as a decoy? “What’s this? Why can’t we just do it like the Sitch Room last time?”

“It’s a special briefing and needs on-site presentation. Otherwise the meeting’s off.” Tilden notes the mild apprehension on his boss’ face. “I was told that if you were reluctant, to give you this. General Harris gave it to me.”

He brings out a small leather portfolio, which he unzips and extracts an envelope on White House stationery, its surface yellowed with age and font decades obsolete. Typed on its face:

                                                               To the President of the United States of America.

On its reverse are three dime-sized sealing wax stamps bearing the Oval Office seal. Carefully Hogan breaks them and pulls out a handwritten note.

21-1-63

Dear Mr. President,

If you have received this letter, a certain course of events has occurred involving a special research unit within the Defense Department set up a decade and a half prior to my tenure in this office.

The head of this special unit has been empowered by me to hand down this order to his successors.

That you are reading my words bodes well for the future not only of our great country, but for all of humanity.

Please accede to the wishes of the present authorities in Department Y at the Defense Department.

John F. Kennedy

The edges of the document quiver in his fingers. “You bet. I’m there.”

 

IN AN HOUR the special Pentagon helicopter sits idling on the Bolling Air Force base tarmac and Hogan boards with National Security Adviser Benjamin Lumbergh and Philip Vinnistraro. Several scientists are already on board, to whom Hogan is introduced: a NASA astrophysicist, an NSA computer physicist, and a CIA historian who specializes in Asian religions. President Hogan speaks with the CIA Director over a helmet microphone. “Does Tyler know what the hell that was at the Hart building yet?”

“Yeah. They’ve had a special unit tracking that scholar Erickson for decades. He’s had several careers in different criminal organizations. Believe that?”

“All the people who were there are okay and out of the hospital?”

“Yeah. Bureau gave us a sample of that anesthetic. It’s identical to one DIA’s unit at Detrick have developed. It’s considered the holy grail for ground action. Knocks out friendly civs and combatants alike in a theater. The thinking’s a few vaccinated platoons could clear five city blocks, you know, round up the obvious bad guys and demo their munitions, collect intel, whatever.”

“So…the vaccine rather is the juice in the grail. Same goddamn race. Someone gets the vaccine—on to the next toy race.”

Vinnistraro shrugs. “It’s TS/CI. I think the Joint Chiefs want to use it in one special circumstance. Like a bin Laden Special Forces scenario. You’d have heard of it eventually, Bob.”

“And how the hell did Erickson get a hold of so much of it?”

“Tyler’s got no answers. Their task force has shit.”

“What kind of criminal careers did he engage in?”

“Counterfeiting. Drug dealing. Bank robbery. Back in the 1970s. He disappeared in 1976 but the task force had been getting intel on him ever since, that he was some kind of puppet master.”

“And he was a recognized scholar on Pre-Columbian America?”

“Apparently he was also nut bags.”

 

AFTER A SHORT flight and entering the Pentagon they are led into a small auditorium with a plasma screen. A dozen scientists sit in the first rows. One by one each person rises and introduces themselves to the White House team. More scientists from the NSA and NASA and sub-fiefdoms of the Department of Energy, and Hogan wonders why the secrecy.

The officials are taken into a large room three stories beneath the building. Two rows of chair are set up facing a large screen. They take their seats. Two women are waiting for them. They are introduced as Drs. Kay Ghelichkhani and Ellie Pavlova of the Defense Advance Research Project Agency’s Department Y. The Bulgarian woman wears a blouse of frilly white lace and straight white skirt, while the Iranian scientist is tall and mantis-thin in a black blazer and heels, her long jet hair pulled into a bun. The thick lenses of her round glasses magnify her eyes to brown pools. She is unleashing a yoyo at regular intervals and watching its retraction. The Iranian woman regard the President and said, “As you know, in the past week three Generals, two Senators, four scientists and Secretary Marpleson were each approached by a trio of individuals at approximately the same time, 8:15 PM, on August 8th. From the descriptions they would seem to have been the same men. Everyone with whom they contacted experienced a sort of paralysis at the beginning of the encounter. No photographs were taken of them, in fact, phones and electronic equipment within their vicinity experienced disruption.”

“Marpleson told me of his encounter,” Hogan says. “It spooked him very badly.”

The Bulgarian scientist stops twirling the yoyo. “Yes, each one of the individuals has experienced significant trauma as a result of their encounters. We’ve conducted psych evaluations with each person who was contacted, except Mr. Marpleson.”

“How did you know about it, to interview them?”

The scientists glance at each other. Dr. Ghelichkhani replies, “We are here to tell you, sir, that this is not the first time this has happened. Two years ago, on August 8th, three men of identical description approached three of our scientists in Department Y at their homes.”

The CIA Director interrupts. “Excuse me, before you go on—so you say you’ve interviewed all the people contacted last week. What did the beings, what message did they communicate to the congresspeople and the generals?”

“We have transcripts of those encounters. Let’s get to this other matter first. You’ll find it interesting.”

Vinnistraro blows a low raspberry and shrugs at Robert Hogan. “Scientists.”

“The encounters two years ago took place simultaneously, at 8:15PM. Each of our people reported a knock at the door and answered. Each felt a sort of shock and paralysis at the entities’ appearance. The conversations only lasted a few minutes…Like the experiences of the past week, only one of the three entities spoke, in a halting voice with an indefinable accent. Unlike these recent, rather malevolent encounters, the being spoke to them about quantum experiments and seemed to know much about the classified projects they were working on.

“Each of the contacted individuals was given fragments of a green crystal substance, and each was given a business card covered with symbols.” The tall Iranian woman dims the lights and turns on a plasma screen. “Unfortunately, these business cards deteriorated within a week’s time. But we examined them at length in that period, and what we found is simply groundbreaking.”

The screen shows a black card with a goldish paisley fleur-de-lis in its center.

“Now we ask you to hold your questions until we’ve finished our presentation, please. Agreed?”

Shrugs, disgruntled affirmations.

Dr. Pavlova is trying a walk-the-dog with her yoyo. She says, “We examined the detailed work within this herald. It is, or was, four centimeters across. It exhibited advanced holography. We examined it first with a microscope, then an electron-scanning microscope. You will find it impossible to believe what we discovered contained within it. Next.”

The men grunt in amazement. On the screen is a three-dimensional verdant landscape with an enormous blue planet looming in the sky. A smaller grey planet hovers in orbit in front of it. A city of tall buildings, shining with green iridescence.

“Looks like we’ve seen this movie before,” Vinnistraro murmurs.

Dr. Ghelichkhani picks up the lecture. “This image could be zoomed into at any scale. It is astounding. We at first believed the screen on the card’s surface had been created with something akin to a molecular assembler, but within minutes we were disabused of this idea. Nothing remotely exists at the present time that could create and sustain such a precise type of photographic verity. For that’s what it is: a video. Next….

“This is another herald we discovered above the city. This is the main symbol—this triple circle or cloverleaf symbol. It resembles a triple Venn diagram. Each of the three parts has within it further embedded symbols rendered in three-dimensional holography. Each globe contains as its outermost ‘shell’ the geographical topology of a planet. The lowest shell is our earth, and the representation of it was so remarkably consistent with the present time that we were able to zoom in on the Japanese coast and noted the coastlines altered by the tsunami and earthquake that had occurred only a week before the contact. Cloud movement was visible. We zoomed in at ever-increasing levels of magnification, and on a lark focused upon the Pentagon, then our facility, this building which we are now inside. We could clearly see the individual cars in the lot. We brought the STEM a-raster level down to twenty-five hundred picometers and we could see personnel leaving the building. As a test, one of our scientists went outside and waved a jacket. We could see it occur live, with no apparent delayed lapse whatsoever.”

Murmurs of amazement fill the room.

“The upper two globes are very similar to the topography of the earth. It is as if the artists made two possible earths out of the planet’s lithospheric configuration. The upper left depiction has much more exposed landmasses, as if the oceans had retreated or dried up. The exposed portions roughly correspond to our mapped ocean beds…The upper right globe contains less exposed land mass, but showed a series of 96 humongous cities on its continents based upon some type of hexagonal architecture.”

Hogan and Vinnistraro look at each other.

“Now, these three geographical representations are just the outermost screen or scrim to the configuration beneath them. Within each sphere was a dictionary or encyclopedia of symbols and what appeared to be equations. The globe on the upper right contained mostly symbols related to angel iconologies and script associated with the Hindu legend of the Holy Mountain Meru and a rather obscure set of accounts of an underground kingdom which has been called Agarttha in common New Age parlance.

“This symbol for Agarttha is a hybrid and contains five distinct orders of representation, all of which are mythological references to the World Axis and the concept of Paradise. It spins depending upon the angle of the eye with reference to the light source.

“At the center is a dual-faced figure we’d normally associate with the Roman Janus, but here, the Janian key and scepter have been replaced by an icon representing what appears to be the hexagonal icon associated with the beehive. There is also a figure like a compass rose on the other side of the globe which contains a bee symbol in its center.

“The equations can be translated into ancient Sanskrit. They tell a story, a pilgrim’s tale through a series of challenges on the way to Paradise and salvation. It is 2,968,000 characters long and exhibits self-similarity at many scales as well. If the symbol could be summed up it might be said to reference a new celestial or heavenly city, a New Jerusalem or Shambhala…

“The globe on the upper left is populated with chimera or monsters. It seems to imply that the moon is an artificial satellite built by these creatures on this alternative version of earth. It implies that the moon is a mechanical device that draws energy from something within the earth.”

A NASA scientist cannot contain himself and blurts out, “Do you have any idea how was all this done?”

Dr. Pavlova is obliging. “At first we thought the material with which the card was made was running a program. But even that conjecture proved incorrect. The card itself and the herald image, or rather hologram, rendered the photonic quarks of ambient light that fell upon it into a multivariant superposition. Put plainly, it was running on and interacting with the light in the room. As Kay said, we used electron microscopy to examine these things. An ETM is tricky—its own parts interfere with what’s being examined. That didn’t happen in this case. It somehow interacted with the electrons in the microscope to produce further images, on ever smaller scales…For something so exquisitely constructed at a scale of picometers, this device which created these cards had to surmount the Heisenberg barrier, that is, its assembler would have to had been able to both fix the speed and position of each of its constituent subatomic particles at the same time, freely, from a free energy source, that is, from the so-called quantum foam, adding or congealing them into its three-dimensional form. The thing is fixed in many more dimensions.”

Dr. Ghelichkhani adds, “This led us into the conjecture that subatomic particles themselves are actually holographic in nature, and idea very much like Leibniz’s conception of monads, that each monad contains reflection of all the others.”

Dr. Pavlova’s yoyo is wildly arcing through the space before her. “Now, the matter of the crystal our witnesses were given…It is actually an element and contains enormous power. It’s a form of highly concentrated energy, congealed you might say, a form of super-condensed light. It is no exaggeration to say that one gram of this stuff if chain reacted, could destroy the entire solar system.”

Dr. Ghelichkhani seems to anticipate the audience’s alarmed reaction. “We here at Department Y are not about repeating the Cold War into a deadly farce. The element’s also the most wondrous substance you could imagine. Just as a prism refracts light into a spectrum, this element refracts dimensions. By experimenting with this, we’ve discovered evidence supporting the notion that our supposedly three-dimensional universe is simply one side of an almost infinitely-faceted geometrical figure, like a Moebius strip, which is wound together with others.”

She stops and dips her head and looks over at the yoyo-wrangling physicist and nods. “We will now take questions. Mr. President?”

“This is quite off-topic. It’s ancillary, but I’m sure in the backs of all our minds here and I’d like to clear it up. I, and the rest of us, have learned of your department’s existence just today. Earlier today I read a secret letter President John Kennedy wrote in 1963 authorizing me to come here. Could you please give us a short background on Department Y’s history?”

There are a few groans of impatience around Hogan. Dr. Pavlova replies, “Our unit has been in existence since 1947, in one form or another, since the signing of the National Security Act. Department Y was founded by Drs. Edward Teller and Vannevar Bush to explore the non-military ramifications of atomic physics. We were absorbed into ARPA in 1966. We have no written charter. We have been attached nominally to the Pentagon for almost fifty years, but this is only convenience. We were designed to be a free-standing department. Our structure is a network distributed between contract employees of DARPA, NASA, DOE, NSA.”

“What’s your annual budget?”

“I’m no accountant and even if I were I still would not be allowed to reveal it. As you said, you are the first President since Mr. Kennedy to know of Dep Y’s existence.”

“I asked you a direct question, Doctor.” Hogan says, his voice rising. “As your President, I’d like for you to give me a rough figure. How much?”

“Currently, around six billion dollars annually, give or take. But I’ve heard only rumors.”

“Rumors?” Vinnistraro cackles. “So you’ve got a fiscal magic wand. Anything you request, you get? The blackest budget of all.”

“That would be a pretty accurate assessment.”

“How much total would you estimate, from the beginning?”

Dr. Ghelichkhani sighs. “Could be a trillion and a half dollars, all told, over sixty-eight years.”

Dr. Pavlova quickly adds, “Could be more.”

Two slack jaws. “Who approved of this? How could it have evaded the oversight of both branches?”

The Bulgarian scientist is now tossing the inert yoyo between her two hands. “As I said, President Kennedy was the last to formally approve our budget under the revised NSA charter of 1947. President Eisenhower seconded Teller’s charter after being told of the need for black-budget research. Kennedy also signed off on the last and most classified charter, which specified that only a special set of circumstances would warrant disclosure to the Executive branch. Most of our money was funneled through the five black Air Force research facilities for the CBO and Pentagon IG, as well as about a hundred other revolving projects with need-to-know.”

Hogan massages his face with the palms of his hands and has his eyes closed.

“Our boss Dr. X and the Council are the ones who determine if the special set of circumstances have occurred. They obviously have.”

“Doctor X? Excuse me?” Hogan laughs, and it is infectious.

“There are things even we don’t know, sir. This department concerns matters of national security—esoteric seeming as they are—as you must certainly understand at this point.”

“Okay,” Hogan chuckles.

“I’ll get the info,” Vinnistraro whispers.

The questioning session lasts ten minutes and the two scientists are curt—brusque, even, with their answers. Dr. Pavlova says, “Now we’re going to tell you what we’ve developed the past four years out of the contact with our ‘men in black’ and the element sample they gave us. I take it you’re all familiar with the double-slit experiments wherein light exhibits both wave and particle characteristics. And you also know of CERN’s determination a few years ago that the Higgs field is a primordial-energy field by which light particles can be characterized as standing waves between multiple dimensions?”

“Uh,” Hogan starts, rubbing at his temples.

“A year ago, we began a project called Splinter. Now, the background for this technology comes out of the work of that prodigy William Stoned and his equations for the symmetry between all neutrino streams and quantum enfolding. His equations linking spin states to the informational encoding of photons and human neurology, the ones he won the Nobel for, were helpful as well…The short of it is that we succeeded in creating what’s akin to an photographic plate in using the crystal the entities gave us. We’ve breached the membrane between our quantum flux field, the so-called explicate order, and another, of scales -0 to 198,774. We managed to materialize a virtual camera lens in a single random alternate universe, out of a field of 10 to the octillion projected possible cosmoses.”

A NASA man says, “You took a picture of another universe?”

Dr. Ghelichkhani gestures emphatically. “A scene on another earth, sir. The plate was in the same approximate local position on the alternate earth. There are always variables and ‘noise’ in the calibrating process. Universes closer to ours along our path, you might say, in all possible were the first to be accessed.”

Pavlova’s arms level forward at the elbows; she trapezes and flips the yoyo into a double-or-nothing and effortlessly segues into a Matrix trick, the yoyo smoothly circling and reversing course and shooting from the right to left sides and back. “We were able to stabilize the ‘window’ for periods of up to 90 seconds local time, which allowed reproduction of the image on holographic video. After that it was easy. We were able to extend the window to five minutes, and extend out from our local ‘world-line’ to earths which had taken significantly different paths a million years ago, that is, world-lines which long ago had undergone minute physical, electromagnetic, geological, or solar perturbations that amplified themselves over time, a sort of chaos effect, into dramatic differences between our world and theirs. From these divergent worlds, one in four billion images showed something clear enough to make it out. For instance, the camera showed a blurred ocean seen from high in the stratosphere…And one came back showing faint stars, apparently from outside the atmosphere, in space, which suggests the earth had drifted away from the coordination point between our physical camera in this world-line and that in the alternate world.”

The same NASA scientist pipes up: “Doesn’t that imply a fixed grid between all the possible universes?”

“You’re right, Dr. Chick, it does.”

He grinned. “So what would that background grid be made of?”

She sighs. The yoyo continues its dance. “As you probably know, void needn’t necessarily be unstructured beyond the neutrino stream…The truth is we don’t know. Of course, the camera coordinates could have randomly leapt elsewhere due to a hiccup of some kind. The fact that the virtual lens retained form and viability in space is in itself remarkable.”

An Energy physicist asks, “How the hell does it work, to create a virtual camera?”

Ghelichkhani answers, “Essentially it works by producing a double of its form out of the quantum flux of what Bohm called the implicate order, a ghost, you might say, in the other universe. This ghost has the same physical structure, but is made of interference patterns between the two explicate fields via the implicate underfield. The crystal is bombarded with a photon stream that, in its spin states, has encoded the structure of the entire camera. The crystal refracts this image somehow, and what emerges from its other sides is more photonic streams that we decrypt. Each particle of light retains information but sub-atomically spins in different ways, producing and retaining information in both universes.”

Heads shake in disbelief.

“Here’s a real mind-blower.” She clasps her hands before her. “During the second phase of Splinter, we thought if we could produce a virtual camera lens in another cosmos, why not the form of a person, like a digital avatar? We would be projecting this rudimentary shape into this other universe, and it doesn’t require that much energy to do it. Theoretically, the neutrino stream is everywhere, and in every universe the same. We use the free zero-point energy from the other cosmos to create the form of our choosing.”

Dr. Chick says, “And I’d think the reverse could occur. What we think of as ghosts or UFOs could be cross-cosmic images?”

Ghelichkhani points at the NASA scientist. “Spot on. That is exactly our thinking. The properties of the Emerald Tablet as we call it have yet to be fully deciphered, but whoever possesses this substance and the requisite photonic equipment could if they scanned and encoded DNA and proteins, say, of primitive life forms could transport them from one cosmos to another no problem. The scaling is the real brick wall…We need lots of it. So the goal now is to physically transport a person entirely—not a representation—into this other world. Much more would be needed. Since the Tablet possesses multiple responses in light, and has orders of energy if we fashioned a transporter lens made of the material, we could in theory transport a human being.”

President Hogan rises to his feet and clears his throat. “Doctors, we have something to tell you about which has occurred in the past week, which is related to these weird beings and your research.”

Pavlova’s yoyo stops and she pockets it. “The machine that appeared in the Mongolian desert—we know about it.”

Hogan is both unsurprised and irritated. “May I ask how? Wait, let me take a stab at how—you’ve harnessed this viewing tech, like on that card?”

“No. Colleagues in the Russian Academy alerted us.”

Vinnistraro yelps. Expected gasps meet the two scientists’ ears.

“Let me continue. They also told us that your CIA and an Army contingent confiscated many tons of the material left over, which matches the Emerald’s description. Correct?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Hogan says.

“Has the desert there began greening yet?”

“What do you mean?”

“Growing. Grass. Trees.”

Chick says, “Yes, we have reports that foliage is sprouting at the site…How do you know about it?”

“The plants in the laboratory tripled their growth within days of the Tablet’s presence. We tested it on just random soil and sand and grass appeared within twenty-four hours. We—”

Vinnistraro stands, his face nearly the color of a fire truck with anger. “How long have you been in contact with the RAS?”

Dr. Pavlova starts at the outburst and begins to pace the stage. “I’m not expert in the minutiae of Y or DARPA’s history, but I think since the dissolution of the USSR. So that’d be 1993. Possibly earlier.”

“Can we forgive the perceptions for the moment, gentlemen?” Dr. Ghelichkhani pleads. “I’m sure you already know that the RAS and the CAS are with your scientists on the site right now. You happened to get there first, and I hope you now realize how fortunate we all are that you did. The reason for Department Y’s total secrecy since 1963 was for this very type of situation. I told you about the destructive potential of this material. Now imagine North Korea possessing it.”

The CIA Director shouts, “I’m—we—are worried about China and Russia, and any number of nut jobs getting a hold of this thing!”

Ghelichkhani folds her arms. “You retrieved every single bead of the material, I hope. Down to the size of, say, a mustard seed?”

Vinnistraro is silent.

“We think we did,” Hogan replies. “Seventeen Chinooks were used to transport it from the desert to Ulan Bator and it’s being loaded onto four C-130s there right now. Mongolia isn’t exactly surrounded by free airspace. We’re waiting for confirmation to fly them to Seoul.”

“How certain are you, with all truth, that you retrieved all of it?”

Vinnistraro says, “The Army Corps used seismic tomography and UV laser ablation on the surface that—”

“Laser ablation?” Ghelichkhani cries, slapping her forehead. “Do you know what exciting this material with a laser could do? It would cause a—”

Pavlova cuts in: “Kay, I think it’s fine.”

Dr. Ghelichkhani is breathing heavily, hangs her shaking head, her eyes shut.

Vinnistraro shouts, “We had no goddamn idea what this mineral was—is—and the team on site certainly didn’t. As soon as our vanguard knew how much was there we brought in everything we could from Ulan Bator. The Mongolian Army’s helping us big time. We’re gonna owe them one after this. But I can tell you we got every particle that would count. The team busted their asses getting it. We gathered everything the size of your mustard seed, within thirteen hours. That’s a guarantee. The laser was used to find anything smaller than that, doctor…And it was just about the time we were mopping up when your friends at the RAS showed up.”

“And now you say it’s sitting at an airport in transport planes. How much?”

Dr. Chick answer, “About two hundred forty tons.”

Dr. Pavlova grabs at her blouse collar. Dr. Ghelichkhani gasps. “That’s close.”

Pavlova pivots to face the screen. “No, it’s actually over by two point three.”

Hogan barks, “What are you speaking about, doctors?”

Pavlova, still facing the huge LCD screen, replies, “That figure is very close to what we’ve tabulated would take to construct the portal lens with the refractive depth to transport a person.”

Ghelichkhani adds, “This can’t be a coincidence.”

Hogan says, “You’re saying the material left behind by the event is an invitation to construct this portal device from it.”

Vinnistraro mops his forehead with a handkerchief. “That implies that they know how far your experiments have progressed.”

“It does,” Ghelichkhani chirps. “We still don’t know what we’re dealing with here. They could be watching us right now. In fact, they probably are.”

Hogan’s eyes widen. “Jesus.”

Without a beat she replies, “Yes, perhaps He was from there. Angels, certainly! This could quite literally prove their existence, sir, wouldn’t you say?”

“Sitting over our shoulders? So who’s the angel, and who’s the devil?”