Thursday, December 10, 2009

Echelon: Chapter 4

Ch. 4

Morning traffic was notoriously frustrating in Chicago. Fortunately Payton’s apartment and CUFOS headquarters were both near Western Avenue, allowing him to avoid the crowded highways and drive his Jeep Wrangler to work without too much of a hassle. Payton took a peek in the rearview mirror. He hadn’t had time to do much more than shower and throw on his clothes. His short dark hair looked disheveled and his naturally thin and angular face made the bags under his eyes look like moon craters. He used to be more active, playing volleyball at his health club, jogging after work. Lately he’d been spending more time in his apartment, trying out pricey bottles of Irish whiskey.

It wasn’t that he was depressed, and he didn’t think he was an alcoholic. But when you’re an investigator at the Center for UFO Studies, there were few people who could help from laughing at your vocation, and in modern times, your job was who you were. That made him a kook. His niece might enjoy telling people that he chased little green men, but Jennifer’s glee was everyone else’s disdain. Parents, former friends, old professors, all of them had expressed surprise when he’d left the corporate world for CUFOS.

He’d worked in human resources after graduating from Illinois Chicago. He had a BA in Psychology with a minor in Business. To make his job prospects worse, he had also chosen to pursue a focus on ancient languages, largely due to his interest in religion. His grades had been good enough that some of Chicago’s largest companies had come calling, including Leo Burnett, where he’d ended up as a recruiting executive. That had lasted a little over a year. Somewhere between growing up in a rigid Catholic family and a near obsession with his studies of human behavior, Payton had picked up a rather impressive ability to determine when people were lying. He’d long since shed his parent’s religion, but his hatred for liars had remained. That made the business world difficult to navigate, since everyone lied, particularly during the interview process. He found he had trouble recommending anyone he interviewed for hire, since he always detected a lie at some point in their interview.

He’d left Leo Burnett before they could fire him. He had briefly tried again at Prudential, but before long he gave that job up as well. He had considered going back to school, maybe getting his advanced degree and applying for a teaching job. Then he’d gotten a call from a Professor Hiroshi Mikora asking him if he believed in UFOs. He’d said no. Then the Professor had invited him to lunch.

Mikora was the director of CUFOS, a group comprised mostly of Astronomy and Physics professors from Northwestern. He said that he was friends with one of the Psych professors at UIC and that he’d heard of that special talent he had, the one that made it impossible for him to work in a corporate environment. Mikora told him that this same trait would take him far at CUFOS. Payton had argued at first, mainly because he didn’t believe in UFOs.

“That’s good,” Mikora had told him. “Most of the reports we get are fakes. You’re going to help us figure out which ones to study and which to throw away.” He’d also mentioned that the Center had moved beyond exclusively dealing with UFO reports. Now days they investigated all types of paranormal reports.

The pay wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad either. And the work had turned out to be interesting, though perhaps more monotonous than many would expect. Most days he spent behind a desk, armed with only a computer and a telephone. There were times when he was out in the field, and the travel was fun. But the truth was he preferred the work behind the desk. That was where most of the puzzles were, and he loved solving puzzles.

In return for solving those puzzles, he had access to virtually every level of the Center. There were a few other investigators, all of them older than Payton, but none of them was given the same amount of freedom. Records, physics, forensics: he had the run of them all.

He knew that his title of Investigator sounded more impressive than it was. It had the ring of law enforcement, with none of the authority. The few times that he’d gone in the field and been confronted by local detectives or the feds, they had snickered while treating him like a mentally disabled cousin. But CUFOS had its own following. It had been mentioned on television shows. Ufologists treated the Center with a mixture of reverence and wariness. The Center was one of the institutions that gave credence to the paranormal, though the inherent skepticism that investigators like Payton brought to the job caused flying saucer chasers to shy away from their final reports. They just couldn’t understand why he didn’t believe, and couldn’t seem to make them understand that he never believed anything.

He was still on Western, halfway to work, when Jennifer’s voice began ringing in his ears. Never keep a lady waiting.


He yanked his cell phone from the charger and dialed the main number at the Center. It rang once and Carla picked up on the other end. Carla had been the Center’s secretary since its inception. Rumor had it that she was ex-CIA. Payton doubted she’d ever been a spy, but no one knew more about the inner workings of CUFOS.

“Center for UFO Studies.” She sounded bored. She always sounded bored.

“It’s Payton.”

“You better get your ass in here, Doc,” Carla said.

“What’s going on?”

“Schuda is going crazy,” she said. “No one else seems to know anything. Rumor is it’s something big, though. Did I mention Schuda is going crazy?”

Professor Michael Schuda was the head of research. He was also a notorious occultist, even by CUFOS standards. Like all the other department heads he was a professor at a local university; Columbia, in this case. Unlike the others, he taught classes in the liberal arts, specifically American History. His most popular class was called Who Killed Kennedy.

“Are you there?” Carla asked.

“I’m here.”

“What are you going to do about your new partner?”

“I wasn’t aware I needed to do anything,” he said.

“The Director wants you to pick her up and bring her in for the meeting this morning. Didn’t you get the email?”

“Uh, no.” Actually, he’d forgotten to check his laptop before leaving. It was something all investigators were supposed to do each morning, although there was rarely anything in his inbox at seven in the morning. It was just one of those bureaucratic rules that permeated all institutions, even weird ones like CUFOS. “Where does she live?”

“South Side.”

“You have to be kidding.” The Center was on Peterson. He’d been heading north on Western for the last twenty minutes. “How far south?”

“Near Midway Airport.”

“That’s forty-five minutes away. We’ll never make it on time.”

“Good thing I sent her an email asking her to meet you at your coffee place down the street.”

She was laughing, toying with him. He got coffee at the same shop every morning to supplement whatever he had managed to make for himself at home.


“She should be there in the next ten minutes.”

He sighed. “Have you met her?”

“When she interviewed.”

“How bad is she?”


Christ, he thought. “UFO nut?”

“At least this one’s pretty.”

He asked her to tell Schuda that they were on their way just as he was turning into the parking lot of the coffee shop.

Craig’s Coffee was one of those special places that only remained in big cities like Chicago. It hadn’t yet been tainted by big company politics. They served strong coffee, plain bagels, and coffee cake. The kids behind the counter tended to have dark, spiky hair, regardless of their gender, and they all seemed to know his name.

Payton placed his order with a pouting teenage girl: one black coffee and one plain bagel. He paid and took his tray to the nearest window. He’d taken a brief look around the shop upon entering, looking for anyone who might be his new partner. Carla’s description didn’t give him much to work with, particularly with what appeared to be several good-looking women in the shop. Most of them looked high school or college aged, however, so he had a seat and pulled his new partner’s file from his briefcase while he waited.

At least Chanel Falasco had an impressive history jacket. She had graduated from Western Illinois with degrees in both Criminology and Forensic Science. According to the interview notes, she’d had the opportunity to do some photo modeling work, but she came from a long line of Chicago cops, and she joined up immediately after she graduated. There she progressed through the ranks with surprising quickness, particularly for a woman. She’d gone from patrol to narcotics in less than two years and had earned her detective’s badge shortly after. Then CUFOS had come calling.

When the interviewer had asked why she wanted to leave behind a successful career in law enforcement to join the Center, Chanel had revealed that she’d had an uncle growing up that used to tell her stories about his work looking for aliens for the government. He’d been part of the SETI program, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life, something of a running joke amongst the scientific community. It was a joke amongst the rest of her family too, apparently, since her father had all but barred her uncle from the family home.

“Excuse me?” came a voice from behind.

Payton turned to see a woman in suit pants and a garish button down striped shirt. It was the kind that college graduates were wearing, with vibrant colors and a wide, thick collar. Business casual clubbing gear, as he usually referred to it. She was a bit tall, and her hair was that distracting kind of dark brown that seemed to reflect every photon of light. He recalled from her file that she had gotten some modeling offers in college and he decided that she could have made a career of it if not for a slightly largish nose. Please don’t let this be her, he thought.

“You aren’t Payton Conner by chance, are you?”

So much for wishful thinking. He stood up and offered his hand, doing his best to put a smile on his face. “Call me Doc. Everyone else does.”

“Chanel,” she smiled and took his hand. “Pronounced like the perfume.”

“We don’t have long, Ms. Falasco, so have a seat.”

She pulled up a chair, looking comfortable and at ease. Payton remembered his first day at CUFOS. He had met the then ranking investigator in this very coffee shop. And he had been nervous as hell. Either this woman, this girl with the perfume name was extremely confident in herself or she had no idea what she was getting herself into.

“Everyone I’ve talked to has told me about you,” she said. He noticed that she had a stylish mug in front of her instead of a paper cup like the one in his hand. Brown foam was nearly spilling over the top, one of those expensive drinks that were in vogue.

“How can you drink that swill?”

She smiled. “I’m looking forward to getting in the field with you.”

The field? “The Center’s brochure gives an inflated impression of our job, I can assure you. If you are expecting excitement at CUFOS you are going to be disappointed, even on the rare occasion that we are in the field,” he said.

“Rare? I thought you were the lead field operative for the organization.”

“I am, and even for me, field work is rare. We go out four or five times a year, on average.”

“What do we do the rest of the time,” she asked. She looked uneasy.

“Research more than anything else. Chances are you will spend the overwhelming majority of your career at a desk behind a computer.”

“Sounds boring.”

He sighed. “What is it exactly you think we do at CUFOS?”

“We investigate reports of unidentified flying objects, unless I have the acronym wrong.” She was pouting

“The acronym is right, just outdated. CUFOS was started years ago by a college professor, a man who was skeptical of reported UFO sightings and abductions. Obviously he managed to keep an open mind about the subject, but his roots in the sciences remained. Today, the Center studies a variety of unexplained phenomena, any that we deem worthy of investigation. That boils down to about five or six cases per investigator per year.”

“Yes, I was briefed, you know.”
“Then you know that nine out of ten reports we get are deemed not credible enough to investigate. The majority are hoaxes so fake that we dismiss them without going out into the field.”

She seemed to consider for a moment. “For a group created to study the occult, it seems like you are being very judgmental about what is legitimate and what isn’t.”

Payton sighed. He hadn’t meant to broach the subject this soon, but what the hell. “You’re a believer, I gather.”

She gave him a dazzling smile. “In UFO’s? Absolutely.”

He shook his head.

“Is that a problem?”

He paused a moment. “There are two types of Investigators at the Center. There are people like you, who believe in UFO’s and aliens and every other crazy little story they hear. The other type of investigator is like me.”

“Annoying?” she asked, this time her smile was wicked in a way he wouldn’t have thought possible.

“Competent,” Payton replied. He would not have his emotions played upon, certainly not by a rookie. “I don’t believe in anything when it comes to this job. There are things I can prove and there are things that I suspect. You say you believe in UFOs, but all it means is that you don’t have any proof. You just want it to be true. Which, of course, means your judgment is affected? That’s very dangerous in this line of work.”

“And if you don’t accept anything except what you can prove, then you have closed yourself off to any possibilities that might be un-provable.”

He leaned across the table to look her more closely in the eye. “My way works.”

She smiled, but did not reply.

He glanced at his watch and then quickly drained the rest of his coffee. “Let’s get moving. I’ll meet you in the lobby.” He almost left, but then turned back to where she sat. “And from now on, you dress like me. White button down or blouse, everything else in dark colors.”

She looked at him sharply. “What, like a man in black?”

Payton grinned. “Hey, you’re the believer. Get moving.”

Friday, December 4, 2009

Interesting Characters...

One thing that can be really difficult for me when I'm writing is properly creating either an evil, or at least unlikeable character. I just don't write them well. I try to take the same approach when creating any character: give them some kind of unique identifier that the reader will remember, have them take some kind of action early on that defines what type of character, and develop from there. The question for me is always the same: what is the unique identifier or action that will define an unlikeable character? Well, I've decided to highlight a few I might be using that I see nearly every day in my beloved city of Chicago.

1. The absolute jerk on the CTA -- I see this guy ALL THE TIME. Whether he's got his cheap headphones blaring rap music to everyone in the train car, or if he's working hard to avoid the gaze of the pregnant woman that is standing over where he's sitting so that he won't have to give up his seat, this guy is the worst. It's doubly annoying because there isn't much you can about it; he isn't going to hear you over that music or make eye contact with you. Your only hope is that somewhere along the way he completes the transit tool trifecta and decides to lean against the partition near the doors so that no one can get in or out at their stops. Then you just righteously bowl the idiot over on your way out with a nice forearm shiver to the gut. I'm giddy over what a opening description this guy makes for an unlikeable character....

2. CTA cell phone girl -- Sticking with the CTA theme for the moment, this girl is actually far more aggravating than absolute CTA jerk guy. She can't hear the volumed announcements that we should all refrain from talking loudly on our cell phones. Why, you might ask? Because she's too busy talking loudly on her cell phone. And wouldn't you know it, it's never about anything interesting, either. It wouldn't be so bad if she was like, "So anyway, he was fucking me in the ass and I told him to blow it in my face, but he kept slapping me". But instead we're treated to non-stop recantations of shopping experiences, or office drama complete with names we don't recognize, or her lame ass plans for that evening. I'm no killer, but this girl puts me close to the edge, making her a lovely example for a hated character....

3. Captain Slow-Walker -- These people aren't gender specific, but they never cease to amaze me. These are the morons that are meandering down the sidewalks ten minutes before you have to get to work. Sometimes they're texting away on their mediocre cell phones, sometimes they're actually trying to the pull off the read/walk combination, and sometimes they're just ignorantly looking up at the buildings around them. Look, here's the deal. If you can get wherever you're going on time moving at that speed, why wouldn't you just depart from wherever you're coming from later and walk normaly? Either way, this universally hated moron makes an interesting character description....

4. Unhappy Ultra Rich Shopping Bag Lady -- You see this lady EVERYWHERE when you're downtown. She's in her late 30's or 40's, she's wearing a perpetual frown, and she has more shopping bags than China has rice. This woman is a plethora of irreconcialable contradictions. How can you be that wealthy and still that pissed off? If you're that well off, why don't you have a nice computer where you can shop online? And for the love of God, why the hell are you on the Michigan Avenue bus?

Feel free to add your own in the comments....

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Echelon: Chapter 3

“Uncle Doc, are you going to hunt aliens today?”

Payton Connor was standing in the kitchen of his apartment on the northwest side of Chicago. He hadn’t yet made it into his suit and coat, instead concentrating on the perfect over-easy flip of his niece’s eggs, getting his caffeine intake from his coffee, and watching the television on the counter. Payton was just shy of thirty, an investigator at the Center for UFO Studies in Chicago. His niece, who was ten and enthusiastically told her friends that her uncle chased little green men, was waiting at the table for her breakfast.

She was staying with him for the week while his sister was away on business. He had a sneaking suspicion there was a lot less work going on than she had let on, but he liked Jennifer’s company and she seemed to enjoy her time at the small two-bedroom apartment. She was partially disabled, having had a small stroke when she was an infant. It had happened slowly, starting in her left leg before presenting in the other. Then it took the knees, the thighs, and pelvic area. The doctors never did figure out what had caused the stroke. His sister had cried in his arms when the doctors confronted her with the paralysis, but eventually she’d reverted to cold anger when she overheard one of the interns saying that all patients were puzzles to be solved. Why had they given up on her daughter’s puzzle? For whatever reason, the idea of life’s problems as a puzzle had stuck with Payton, persisting in his personal and professional life.

“Well, are you?” Jennifer asked from her wheelchair at the table. “Are you going to find flying saucers and kill the aliens?”

“You know that’s not what I do, Jenny.”

“I know. You tell people they’re crazy liars.”

Payton laughed. “Close enough.” Actually, as a senior investigator at CUFOS, his job was to respond to sightings of UFOs and other paranormal phenomena, determine the validity of the report, and catalog it. It was true that most of the time the reports were cranks and lies. Payton himself had gotten a reputation for dissecting stories like a surgeon. In fact, that was how he had earned the nickname Doc. Now everyone used it, so much so that somewhere along the line even Jennifer had picked it up.

He dropped two eggs onto her plate and pulled up a chair.

“You look tense,” Jennifer said. Despite her condition, she appeared to enjoy mothering him. This was her concerned tone. “Do you need a cigarette?”

“And what does a little girl like you know about cigarettes?”

“I know that they kill people,” she said matter-of-factly. “And I know you smoke one whenever you’re not happy.”

Such a wonderfully observant child, Payton thought. “Just finish eating so we can get you ready for sports camp. Mrs. Sloan should be here to pick you up soon.”

“Uncle,” she said severely. “I’m your niece. I have a right to know. Are you having trouble with a girl?”

Unfortunately. “Eat,” he said again, taking a seat. “You’re not going to make me late again.”

She stuck out her lip. “I hate camp. All the kids are in wheelchairs.”

Payton chuckled. “So are you.”

“I want to play with the normal kids.”

She got like this from time to time, when she would suddenly become intensely aware of her disability and want to break free from it. It was admirable, and it was sad. He was going to try and reassure her, but the reporter on the news caught his attention. Apparently there had been a crash out east. The terror alert had been issued, some kind of chemical weapons threat. The reporter breezed through the facts so fast it was hard to follow. Then the camera cut away to some FAA representative named Baez. He was explaining crash procedure, but the reporter didn’t seem interested. She kept trying to bring the conversation back to casualty numbers and the monetary value of the damage. Payton was about to give up on the report when that Baez guy mentioned something about the government napalming a beach.

“Christ,” he muttered.

“Language,” Jennifer clucked at him. “What’s the girl’s name?”

Payton thoughts returned to his niece and his coming day. “Chanel, honey.”

“Like the perfume?” Jennifer loved perfume.

“Yes, like the perfume.”

“Is she your girlfriend?”

“No, she’s my new partner,” Payton said, making an effort not to grimace at the word. He’d had partners in the past. It had never worked out. “And if you don’t eat your breakfast, I’m going to be late for her first day. That wouldn’t be too good, would it?”

“No,” she shook her head. “Never keep a lady waiting.” Then she broke out laughing.

Payton laughed with her. “Where do you learn this stuff?”

“Television, Uncle Doc.”

They ate in silence for a while. The anchorman back in the studio was onto a story about some kind of charitable donation to a scholarship group from Jonathan Dowd, a well-known businessman in the energy industry. Then there was the local sports scores. The Cubs had lost again, no surprise. He swore inwardly, watching the highlights as he cleared the table. He was just finishing when he heard a honk out front.

Jennifer pushed away from the table and started rolling towards the front door. “Bye Uncle Doc.”

“How about your jacket, sweetheart,” Payton called after her.

“I’ll be fine. It’s not even cold out.”

“Take it anyway.”

“But Uncle…”

“Don’t but Uncle me,” Payton said, trying to bury a laugh. Even the frustrating times with her made him smile. “Get your jacket, missy.”

He made sure that she retrieved her jacket from the front closet before she made her way out the door. Payton followed her onto the front stoop of the two flat. He shared the porch with two other apartments. He waved once at Jennifer as she was being lifted into the van. She lifted he hand briefly, but it was a halfhearted gesture. She had already switched personas to her social setting. Now she was cool, indifferent Jennifer. She had once told him that the other kids looked up to her, that she was a “queen on wheels”.

As he watched the van make for the end of the block, he saw a dark sedan sitting at the corner. It was parked on the other side of the road and he noticed that there were several cigarette butts outside the driver’s side door. This part of Wicker Park wasn’t the best neighborhood in the city, but most of the crime problems arose from nearby gang territory. For all of their menacing and posturing, gang-bangers didn’t roll around in black sedans. He thought about calling the police, or walking down the street and investigating himself. Before he could decide what to do, however, he heard the text message alert on his phone going off. He went inside and flipped the phone open.


“Damn,” he muttered. Something must be up. It was from the director, telling him to get to the CUFOS building in a hurry. It was still almost two hours before he would normally be due at his desk. The last abbreviations told him why. He would be leaving on an IFI later. That was an in-the-field investigation.

Somebody somewhere had called in a report.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

How do you write for a living in a digital world?

Over at one of my favorite blogs, TechDirt, Mike Masnick and the TechDirt community discuss eBooks and publishing works in the digital world somewhat regularly. One of the key mantras tends to be that those that intend to make money in the digital world need to incorporate new and smarter business models. For writers of fiction, as with musicians and movie-makers, this can be frightening. Some of us spent years or even decades studying not only our craft, but the traditional business world that surrounded that craft. So the question is: how does an author make a living in the digital world?

Rather than be dismayed, I see a great deal of opportunity for authors that can give away digital works for free. Below are some simple ideas, but I'd appreciate any feedback or response offered:

1. Signed books: This is the simple one. In my case, one of the things I'm going to be doing is to release chapters of Echelon on this blog, obviously for free. Around the middle of the book, I'm going to make the entire work available in PDF format via bittorrent (still looking for help on any torrent experts to learn how to upload and create a torrent link, ala on the Pirate Bay). The idea will be to gauge the response from readers. Hopefully the appreciation of the work reaches a sort of critical mass where its popularity begins to propgate itself. If that should happen, I've been working to prepare a signed hardcopy of the book along with a few extras that can be purchased as well (more on that below). My theory is that, while eBooks are wonderful when traveling, most people still enjoy a hardcopy of a book that they enjoy, and a signature from the author adds a collectorship feel to the product.

2. Fan Participation: One of the things I'd like to do for those that see enough worth in my work to purchase a hardcopy or make a donation for their eBook copy, is to allow them to be involved in small ways in the next book. My chief idea in this was to auction off character names in my next work. For instance, you can purchase a signed copy of Echelon for $X, but if you would like to buy the book AND join the Echelon Club for $Y, allong with updates and deeper access to myself, you will have the option to have me include your name as one of the minor characters in the sequel, Wunderwaffen. Assuming agreement could be reached on legal issues, I would also be open to certain extremely limited product placement type deals within the sequel. For instance, in Echelon one of the main characters drives a Toyota Prius. I see no reason why that car couldn't be another should an auto manufacturer wish to sponsor my work.

3. Write for hire: One of the criticims you hear from pro-copyright folks when they examine new business models is that artists shoudn't be focusing on business, they should be producing art. So what can we do to bring the business component closer to the artistic expression? Well, for an author that wishes to make a living writing, their artistic expression is (you guessed it) writing. So what could be more sensible than offering a kind of write for hire deal. If you like my work on Echelon, I am thinking of making myself available to write for you personally on a work for hire basis. Say you have a boyfriend/girlfriend into a subject similar to what I write. I could write a short story for you personally with you supplying the names and basic premise of what you would like written. Or say a business wanted a fun piece of fiction to go along with one of their products or services, say as a holiday message or something to liven up a newsletter. Well, here I am to write that for you. Perhaps you think I'm going to be famous someday and you would just like to give some kind of personalized short work as a Christmas gift, not unlike painters used to do during the renaissance period.

The key to all this, of course, is to first be HEARD. To build up a fan base. To become known. The most difficult hurdle a writer faces is obscurity. What better way to defeat obscurity than to give away digital works for free?

Echelon: Chapter 2

“United flight one-oh-two, what is your location?”

The dank, crowded control room of the Washington Dulles Air Traffic Authority building rang with the din of one-sided conversation. Four-year control officer David Barker had been tracking the movement of United Flight 102 for the last seventeen minutes, immediately after it had been handed off from the Dulles control tower. For the final ten or so, his senior advisor had been leaning over his shoulder.

The problem was the deviation from the flight plan. Barker was tracking the plane’s path via the transponder beacon that all airlines installed on their birds. He had first noticed the deviation roughly twenty minutes into the flight. Because it had taken off from Dulles, he hadn’t even had time yet to hand the flight over to the next leg’s controller. Its proximity to DC when the flight first diverted from the flight plan had nearly caused Barker to issue the terror alert, but its path never went near the capital. Instead, it flew southeast over Fredericksburg, south of Quantico, and over the Chesapeake Bay. At that point, they were effectively over the Atlantic and out of harm’s way.

Shortly before they had reached water, Barker had radioed the pilot to ask him what the hell was going on. The pilot had responded with some story about an Air Force training exercise, which didn’t make any sense at all. The nearest Air Force base that regularly ran airborne drills was in Langley, and they usually conducted them over the water to minimize collateral risk. Regardless, any military exercise would have been logged with the FAA and passed down the switchboard to all of the controllers at Dulles. Still, mistakes sometimes happened and Barker had put a call in to their Air Force liaison, who told him that no training exercises were planned for another week.

So what the hell was this pilot talking about? He hadn’t sounded hysterical, and Barker had dealt with flight crises enough that he could tell when pilots were speculating or lying. He decided to just play along, ready to hit the terror alert if the plane turned back towards Washington.

He had logged the new flight path and maintained contact with the pilot, listening for any sign that something was off. Eventually Barker grew frustrated and told the pilot that there was no training exercise and that he was going to alert the Air Force if he didn’t turn the plane around and get back on course.

“But I’m telling you, they’re the ones that gave me this heading,” the pilot said, sounding like he was getting frustrated himself. “And I’ve got two fighter jets tailing me that won’t let me deviate from this course.”

Barker immediately rechecked his radar. There were no fighters according to the screen. Only Flight 102. He frowned and began to wonder if the pilot might be having a breakdown after all.

That’s when he’d heard angry shouts about targeting locks and missiles over the radio. Barker glanced at his supervisor, who looked equally perplexed. Back on the screen, Flight 102’s readings had gone all screwy, registering severe pitches and oscillations that looked to Barker like evasive maneuvers. It wasn’t the kind of thing that commercial aircraft were built to withstand.

Then the radio crackled and went silent.

Barker looked back at the radar screen. United Flight 102 had disappeared.

And now he’d been trying for ten minutes to raise the pilot on the radio, but there was nothing but static. “What the hell,” Barker shook his head. He turned to his supervisor.

“I don’t get it,” the supervisor frowned. “Log the coordinates when the transponder went offline and issue the terror watch. I’ll call the FAA.”

* * *

John Baez had been the one on call for the FAA’s Washington-Dulles office, just down the Potomac. His office was in charge of supervising all of the commercial carriers, and he was one of the six agents assigned to United Airlines. It was an enormous job, one that far outreached the FAA’s funding, something about which his supervisor had reminded him after providing him with an agency sedan and a map to the crash location in the Chesapeake Bay. With fare hikes coming frequently and ridership plummeting due to the economy, the airline business was getting squeezed and the old whispered demands of deregulation were starting to be heard again. It was causing even the senior agents in Baez’s office to worry about their jobs and update their resumes.

He made the turn off of the highway and drove along the coast of the bay. Eventually he saw the flashing lights of ambulances and cars marked NTSB, for the National Transportation Safety Board.

He parked on the shoulder and made his way through the grass towards a rocky, dirty beach.

One of the NTSB lackeys who’d been milling about came jogging to meet him. “You from the IAD office?”

IAD was the abbreviation for Dulles International Airport. “Yes, what have you found?”

“We just confirmed that it’s Flight 102 from the serial numbers on part of the fuselage.” The young man squinted in the sun. “Truth be told, there isn’t a whole lot left.”

“Uh-huh.” Baez pulled out his blackberry and began typing notes as he asked questions. Was the flight recorder recovered? Was it intact? Had they confirmed the entry point? What was the condition of the flight deck? Were there any survivors? Were there any bodies?

The young man answered negatively or uncertainly in nearly every case, prompting Baez to lower the Blackberry and glare. “Look, you have to have found something.”

“Like I said, sir, there isn’t a whole lot left.”

“Let me talk to lead NTSB agent on site then. He ought to know more.”

“I’m the lead agent, sir.” The young man squinted again. “Look, maybe you should just take a look for yourself.”

They made their way towards the water. Baez hadn’t been able to see them before because of the high grass, but the agents had assembled three distinct piles of debris out of the reach of the water. One was tail, one was fuselage, and the other was flight deck. He could tell by material of the fragments and their shape. The piles were fairly small, with maybe fifteen pounds of scrap in each.

In the water were several inflated rafts manned by more agents. They were reaching into the water or casting out fishing nets. None of them seemed to be making for shore to drop anything off. “This is all you’ve collected?”

“Yes, sir, somewhere around fifty pounds.”

“And you’ve scanned under water?”

“Using passive sonar and magnetic response for the metal. We’ve got nothing, sir.” The agent bit his lip.

“Something to add?” Baez asked him.

“Sir, some of the men have been hearing rumors that the Air Force shot something down over the bay. Something big. And there was the rogue flight warning issued from Dulles.” His implication was obvious.

“The Air Force doesn’t shoot down civilian planes,” Baez sighed. “Tell your men to stop spreading rumors.”

“But if it really was terrorists, wouldn’t they—“

“They haven’t shot down a civilian aircraft in the entire history of flight,” Baez cut him off. “Perhaps they will have to sometime in the future, but I can guarantee you that they didn’t shoot down this plane.”

“How do you know?”

“Because they had no reason to,” Baez said, trying to maintain his patience. “They were over water and headed due east over the Pacific. What danger could they be?”

The NTSB agent seemed to consider that and then nodded. He said he was going to gather up the other senior agents and have them issue warnings to their crews about spreading false rumors.

In the meantime, Baez made his way back to the salvage piles and picked through them. He found the remains of the FDR in one of the piles. Flight Data Recorders were one of the infamous black boxes that the media constantly referred to. Reporters talked about them like they were they eyes of God on a flight, able to spit back exactly what happened on any commercial airliner. In truth, FDRs were notoriously unreliable. Single faults in one of the data drives could and often did result in faults throughout the machine. He was just about to bend down and collect the contents when he heard shouts from further up the beach.

He saw the NTSB lead agent gesticulating angrily as he argued with two men in dark suits. The men were frowning and kept shaking their heads, one of them repeatedly holding up a piece of paper. He stood and made his way over.

“John Baez, FAA,” he said to the two men, reaching out his hand.

They ignored it. The one with the paperwork held it up. “This area is being quarantined by the NSA. Everyone needs to be off of this beach in the next twenty minutes.”

“This is a crash site,” Baez said sharply. He couldn’t imagine what the NSA would be doing here. “We need time to investigate.”

“Not possible,” the NSA agent replied. “Twenty minutes from now, this beach is going to be hit by low-grade napalm. We believe that the plane that crashed was carrying a biological weapon. You’re to remove nothing from the site and vacate immediately. We need to cleanse the area to ensure it does not spread.”

Baez immediately felt unclean. He turned to the NTSB agent. “You heard them. Gather your men and let’s get the hell out of here.”

“But sir,” the agent began.

“Biological weapon,” Baez said, emphasizing the words. “You want to stay here and catch whatever they were carrying, fine. I’m going back to Dulles.”

The NTSB agent frowned again, but then went off to gather his men. It was only after he was out of earshot that Baez asked to see the NSA agents’ identification and paperwork again. It all appeared to check out.

There was little else he could do, so he began making his way back up the beach and towards the highway. The NTSB agents were already back on shore and gathering their equipment. He looked and saw the two NSA agents digging through the salvage piles. One of them reached down and pulled out a thin black laptop computer. He broke the laptop apart and retrieved some sort of data disc. He looked around quickly, not noticing Baez, and slid it into his trench coat.

Baez frowned. Something wasn’t sitting right about all this. But his supervisor’s statements about their budget and lack of pay rang in his memory. After one last look over the beach and the water beyond, he returned to his car and drove back to the office.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Attention Awesome Bloggy-Like Peoples...

I am stupid and need your help. Well, stupid when it comes to the intracacies of blogging, at least. Two things I would like to do that I need help with:

1. Making files available for direct download via this blog

2. Uploading my own original work to bittorent under a creative commons license

I don't know a whole lot about either of these (aside from the creative commons part, which I've already secured), so if there is anyone reading this that might be able to offer some insight I would truly appreciate it :)

Echelon: Chapter 1

Mathew King could feel the sweat on his fingers as he typed. This whole ordeal would soon be over, one way or another, and he could only hope it worked out his way. Everything in the airplane cabin was soaked in sunlight from the windows. He leaned in close so he could see the screen on his laptop, resting on the food tray. Next to him a woman who couldn’t have been more than twenty-five was bouncing an infant on one knee while simultaneously trying to screw the nipple onto a formula bottle. The infant batted at the bottle, unwilling to open her mouth. “Come on, darling. Just a little more and you’ll be ready for your nap. Just a little more. Here comes the choo-choo train...”

King tried to ignore them as best he could. His fingers continued to fly over the keyboard. Beside him, the infant gurgled and belched, then finally seemed to be placated. He was certain that would change the moment the engines roared for takeoff, but for the moment it was obligingly quiet.

He continued to work, trying to find out if and how they were gong to come after him. Regardless, his life was effectively over. His wife, the kids, they would all have to leave Virginia immediately. But him first, of course. Like the stewardess had said during their preflight instructions, you had to save yourself before you could help anyone else.

If they only knew.

Even now he was surprised by how at ease everyone was. It might not be as bad as before the terrorist attacks, but still, flight attendants were chatting idly with one another, and King had even seen the pilot flirting with one of the passengers before the flight had gotten underway. It all struck him as very unprofessional, and unsecure. Probably the crew did that type of thing to stay fresh. Even pilots must have to stretch their legs once in a while. But he was certain that if the crew had any idea who he was, or who was after him, they too would have sweat dripping down their skin.

With a lurch that shook his laptop, the airplane began to taxi backwards. The woman beside him was shifting around, and instinctively King turned to look at her. She had put the baby back onto her lap and was looking out the window. The baby stared up at him with that half curious, half astonished look that infants got.

“Sir, you’re going to have to close that during takeoff,” an attendant’s voice came from the aisle. He turned to see her indicating his laptop. “It interferes with the radio communications.”

That was bull, he knew. The reason that all electronic devices had to be turned off during takeoff and landing cycles was because of terrorism. Most attacks on aircraft occurred during or near takeoffs and landings. Not being forced to monitor CD players, laptop computers, and Gameboys made it easier for the attendants and the Air Marshall to watch the passengers for suspicious activity. In the 80’s there might have been an actual risk of radio disruption, but in the digital world of the new millennium, such interference just wasn’t possible.

However, in the post 9/11 world, you also didn’t argue with flight attendants, so King smiled and closed the screen on his notebook. That didn’t actually shut it down, of course. Instead, it went into its partial hibernation mode, ready to flicker back when he reopened the screen. The stewardess didn’t seem to know that, however, and she thanked him and moved down the aisle.

Beside him, the baby smiled and blew bubbles with her spit. The mother turned and saw him looking, and she favored him with a grin. “Nervous flier?”

“No more so than most people,” he answered automatically. Despite everything that had happened, his training still took over. Answer in a way that doesn’t draw attention. Be charming, but forgettable. Be funny, but not memorably so. “I guess I just prefer to be on the ground.”

The woman nodded seriously. “This is my first time flying.”

“You’re handling it very well,” King said absently. How long until the flight attendants were done with their rounds and strapped themselves in? Then he could open the laptop and finish checking the military radio bands.

“Having Jessica here helps,” the woman said, nodding towards the infant. “When she’s keeping me busy I don’t have time to imagine all the terrible things that could happen.”

“She’s a beautiful baby,” King said. The airplane shuddered to a halt, no longer reversing. With the barest of vibrations, it began to turn forwards toward the runway field. He leaned to peer over the chairs. He couldn’t see any of the crew, so he reached for the laptop and flipped it open.

“You’re not supposed to do that,” the woman beside him said sharply. King looked over to see her staring at him nervously. “The attendant said it screws up communications with the tower.”

“It’s okay,” he said, putting a soothing tone into the voice. “That’s only when they’re emitting wireless internet signals, and this one doesn’t have a wireless card.” He reached over and tickled the infant under the chin. “We’re not going to let anything get in the way of Jessica’s first flight, are we?”

“Are you sure it’s safe?”

“I work in the flight industry,” King lied to her, anything to shut her up and let him get back to work. “Believe me, I wouldn’t do anything to endanger one of my birds.”

That seemed to placate her. She continued to glance nervously at the notebook as he resumed typing, but when nothing happened and no attendants came running she went back to her infant.

The military bands were quiet, aside from a slight uptick at an Air Force base one state over. It’s probably a training exercise, he thought. Certainly there was nothing in the satellite data to indicate any serious activity.

The takeoff went smoothly. The woman was predictably nervous during the procedure. She had gone stiff and ignored the infant’s wailing once the engines geared up. During liftoff she had reached over and dug her nails into his arm. Soon they had reached cruising altitude. The woman retracted her claws and King finally began to relax.

He had participated in flight sabotages in the past. King himself had organized a rather notorious incident in Minnesota, though that plane had been a single engine Cessna carrying only a Senator and his family, nothing like this monster Boeing 747.

Still, he thought again that the easiest time to carry out an attack on a flight was right before or during takeoff. Not because the plane was more vulnerable during those times, but rather because there was so much else going on upon which to lay blame for the ensuing tragedy.

To his side, as if agreeing that they were now out of danger, the infant was sleeping on the woman’s shoulder, blissfully making sucking motions with her mouth. Things were finally becoming calm.

Abruptly the plane shuddered and began to turn towards the Potomac River. It was severe enough that King could feel his seatbelt digging into his stomach. He heard the dull thuds of the overhead luggage knocking around and the passengers began whispering to one another.

The pilot’s voice came over the intercom after a brief crackle. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you will return to your seats and please secure your seatbelts, we are going to be momentarily delayed. We have been diverted by the United States Air Force to avoid flying into one of their training exercises. We should be back on course shortly.”

King began sweating again. Something was wrong, he was sure of it. From the front of the plane, he heard heated chatter, different than the calm tone the pilot had used over the intercom. He worked at the laptop again, updating his satellite images. In the last twenty minutes, the chatter ticker had spiked at the nearby Air Force base. There was also corresponding activity from the runways. They were moving quickly and the satellite images he had access to only took a picture every twelve seconds, but it looked like two F-16 Tomcats had made liftoff. Their pilot might have been informed correctly. Maybe those two Tomcats were indeed running a training drill near Washington D.C. airspace. It wasn’t unheard of, particularly in the years since 9/11.

But King couldn’t stop sweating.

After several more minutes, the plane banked again. More shouts came from the front of the plane, this time louder. “I’m running out of land. Where are you guiding me,” he heard the pilot shout. When he looked out the window, King was startled to see the ocean, flat and blue. They appeared to be heading over the water. Why?

To minimize collateral damage, he thought. There were no houses or offices for the plane to fall on over the Atlantic.

Immediately he pulled his carryon bag from under the chair and stuffed the laptop inside. Then he stood and started up the aisle. Predictably, one of the stewardesses stepped to block his path.

“Sir, the fasten seat belt sign is-,” she began, then screamed as he shoved her to the side and continued on.

When he arrived at the cockpit door, he found the Air Marshall standing with his sidearm drawn. “Stop right there. On the ground, face down.”

King took another step forward. “Tell the pilot he has to land the plane. Get us back over land, and get us on the ground.”

“I said down!” The Air Marshall made a deliberate show of clicking off the safety.

“Idiot, you’re already dead,” King said and turned to walk back to the rear of the plane. It was rare, and he wasn’t sure if they were high enough for a jump anyway, but occasionally there were crew parachutes at the back of the coach cabin.

The Air Marshall followed him cautiously, repeating his order to get down and warning him not to harm any of the passengers in the aisles. King glanced back occasionally to make sure he wouldn’t be rushed from behind, but kept moving to the rear of the fuselage.

He had almost reached the rear of the cabin when he heard the angry howl of jet engines roaring past. Barely noticing that he was back to his original seat, he leaned and peered out the nearest window. One F-16 Tomcat was hovering forty-five degrees off of the wing, looking jagged and menacing. King quickly leaned over the seats in the other aisle. Another Tomcat was there, too. As he watched, it slowly pulled back, disappearing from sight.

He turned back to the Air Marshall. “Put your gun down. We’ve got about two minutes left, so we might as well not spend it fighting with one another.”

The Air Marshall kept his aim trained as King flopped heavily into his seat. The woman and the baby were both staring at him, the latter with a grin.

“What the hell?” the pilot shouted from the front of the plane. The Air Marshall looked conflicted, as though trying to decide whether to stay with King or return to the cockpit. The pilot continued, “They’re targeting us!”

The plane immediately went into a steep dive. Probably some kind of evasive maneuver, for all the good it would do. One of the stewardesses went tumbling down the aisle, knocking the Air Marshall to the ground and sending his sidearm rattling under the seats. Oxygen masks dropped and people hurriedly began putting them on. The woman next to him was pleading with him to help her put a mask on the infant. King looked at her and the shrieking baby, and then looked away. It was too late for them anyway. There was nothing he could do.

He was being pressed hard into his seat by the force of the dive and it continued to get worse as the pilot lost control. Passengers that had failed to attach their safety belts began rising into the air and slamming into the windows. King looked over at the woman once more and noticed that she had lost the baby and that blood was trickling from her earlobe. Alarms were going off everywhere, mixing their shrieks in with those of the passengers.

All of this for a DAT tape, he thought.

And as he heard the pilot yell something about a missile impact, he lowered his head and began to pray.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Coming Soon!

Some of you know me as Tim. Some know me as Timmay! Some of you know me as Dark Helmet, your helmeted overlord, king of conspiracy theories and that elusive something known only as "the funny".

However you might know me, thank you for taking the time to visit this measly little blog. Here, I intend to post chapters of novels I'm working on, discuss the art of writing fiction, the business and economics of publishing, and occasionaly just rants or raves on whatever (this will be exceptionally minimal).

But mostly it will be about the writing. Wherever you come from, I will value your opinion and criticism. From those who might know a thing or two about the following subjects, I encourage you to leave comments anywhere you like as I'm always looking to learn from others: writing fiction, conspiracy theories, promotion, publishing, bittorrent, filesharing for fun and profit.

My next post will be the first chapter or so of my recently completed work entitled Echelon, a conspiracy theory thriller. While it currently under consideration for publishing by Baen, I hope to also release it via bittorrent shortly, once I've cleaned up the PDF so that it at least doesn't look like one of my dogs shat it out.

In any case, happy reading!