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The Broken Protocol Conspiracy
A Sky Fall Event Story:
By Joseph Bendoski
I believe that history allows us to look at ideas differently. I wanted to study and understand the persuasion behind the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast but knew that if I talked about those ideas outside of history, they would be dismissed as ridiculous.
Some people have heard the scare was a newspaper hoax, and therefore not worthy of genuine study. I will point to three sources to counter that idea.
The first two are the official studies on the event. They collected thousands of surveys of people directly impacted by the scare and predicted that between 8 and 12 million people were impacted. Remember, that at this time in the United States there were over 200 million people, so the number that heard the broadcast was very small in comparison to the total population.
The third is a scare that took place in Chile in 1944, on November 12th. This is the most potent to dismiss the idea that the Orson Welles scare was a newspaper hoax because as such it wouldn’t have been repeated. A small broadcast company had translated the Orson Welles script into Spanish, then made some cultural alterations. As the radio played a similar panic swept Chile in 1944, just as it had in 1938 in America. This was the second of many. Several of them will be talked about as this series of novels goes forward.
I wrote this novella as a way to introduce people to my writing style. I love both fiction and non-fiction and wanted to write stories in a way that blended the two. I started using the tool of the chapter heading as a way to introduce scientific studies or historical events that illustrated the ideas being discussed in the book while the narrative pulled the reader forward and provided a better understanding and context to those ideas.
I hope you enjoy this story.
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The Nature of Sky Fall Events and Secrets of the Sky Fall are books to which all the chapter headings are attributed. While the chapter headings are true, both in science and history the books are not. They are part of this fiction and play a role in the Sky Fall Event novels. Because many have shown an interest in them when the series is finished, I will compile and publish The Nature of Sky Fall Events and Secrets of the Sky Fall.
At times history is shuffled or has small alterations to strengthen the narrative, for more details, there are historical notes at the back of the book. If there are no notes on the heading or incident you want to look up, then it is presented accurately in the narrative.
In 1938 the Mercury Theatre Company produced a radio program that was a retelling of H. G. Wells story The War of the Worlds. In response, there was panic in many cities across the United States.
One of the world’s leading experts on propaganda and public opinion, Hadley Cantril, was assigned to head up the study. He summarized the panic was caused by several factors. The first was the danger of the start of the Second World War. Many Americans didn’t believe Martians were attacking but rather Germans and thus panicked. Second, motion pictures had just become a popular and affordable medium of entertainment, and a common theme in these stories was alien invasion thus priming the population to believe this type of story.
Cantril predicted that both factors were key elements of 1938 and the phenomena or event would never happen again.
The Hadley Cantril study had its findings backed up by the CBS study that took place six months later.
They were both wrong.
On November 12, 1944, an almost identical incident occurred in Chile. It would be the second of many across the globe.
These Sky Fall events were never officially studied again.
What Makes a Nation Believe a Lie?
Science changed persuasion, if I were to stand in Times Square and proclaim that I am the smartest man in New York, at best I would be seen as a fool and at worst a madman. But if I put posters all over the city declaring that I am the smartest man in New York people would begin to believe. Before we broke down human persuasion in laboratories, both ideas seemed equally ridiculous, but science changed persuasion and we now know that the second works. Such understanding was only the beginning. Armed with the new science of persuasion, doctors would prescribe cigarettes as though they were medicine, and children would be raised to believe dropping nuclear bombs on cities filled with innocent civilians, not soldiers, was the right thing to do, and that was only in America.
William Stephenson, The Nature of Sky Fall Events
The stranger in Nichols’ apartment claimed to work for the CIA. It was not the first time they’d broken into the Ph.D. students apartment, and it probably wouldn’t be the last.
“I already told the recruiters I’m not interested.” Jay Nichols stood a little over six feet tall with dark hair and a t-shirt that read: ‘When you flirt with a physicist, and they don’t get it. Flirt harder. When it doesn’t work on a social scientist, you’re doing it wrong.’ The first time they broke into his apartment it startled the college student, by the third time he started worrying about the damage they were doing to the front door lock.
The stranger stood in the dark kitchen, the light off behind him. A single arm was touched by the hall light, and it illuminated the book in his hand. He glanced up briefly at the college student’s outburst then slowly marked his page and closed the book. “I’m not here to recruit you.”
“But you are from the CIA?” Nichols’ eyes darted to the open door. “And you did break into my home?”
The man nodded, and from the kitchen table he picked up a Rubik’s cube. Its colors scrambled. He dropped the arm to his side and with only the one hand began to work it, rotating the colors. “I am. And as much as I’m sorry I had to sneak in. It’s very important as few people as possible know I’m here.”
Nichols continued to eye the stranger. Since he started his Ph.D. Nichols had published several papers on mass media persuasion. A few were picked up by major news networks. Since those publications, nearly every American Government office had sent someone to recruit him, but no one sent more people than the CIA. “The others broke in just like you. Some kind of power move they teach you at the CIA?”
“As I said. I’m not a recruiter. I don’t know why they did those things. I just knew I’d be waiting a while and shouldn’t be seen.” The stranger was tanned, middle-aged. His head shaved bald. A pack of cigarettes bulged in his pocket. He must have carried it everywhere because there were wear lines around the edges like someone had removed the color to form a perfect rectangle. “I’m Jones.” He moved through the room like he was chasing shadows, drifting to each corner where the light didn’t reach. It must have been something he was trained to do.
Nichols took a step back even as the CIA officer extended his hand. “If you’re not here to recruit me then what do you want?”
Jones let his calloused leathered hand hang in the air, waiting like a cobra. “I need a favor.” He cleared his throat. “Or rather the United States government needs a favor.”
“Don’t pull that shit with me.” The request tasted like bile in Nichols’ mouth. It was pure manipulation — an attempt to leverage the years of propaganda education and indoctrination that took place in public schools. It implied that because Nichols was a United States citizen, he owed his country some kind of debt that could be collected at any time. “I’m all too familiar with the social contract and the kinds of things the government asks of its citizens with those exact words.”
“My mistake.” Jones nodded his head a few times and pulled out a cigarette. Lit it then his free hand continued working at the cube. “I know about your father — the things he was asked to do in the name of patriotism. I could apologize, but I wasn’t there. I didn’t command those men. So, it wouldn’t mean much. Terrible people are everywhere, and they do terrible things. Some of us want to stop them. That’s why I need your help.”
“You keep playing this game of cat and mouse. Just tell me what you want me to do.”
Jones shook his head. “I don’t want you to do anything. I want you not to do something.” For the first time, the CIA operative’s eyes caught the light. They were green, clouded in a haze of red. “Tell me, what makes a nation believe a lie?”
In his mind, Nichols recognized the question for what it was: a primer. The question itself was too big for the conversation. Its intent was to start Nichols thinking in a certain way. It was preparation for the manipulation. Nichols waited for a moment without answering. “I still don’t know what you want. I can’t consider your request if you never actually make one.”
In the dark of the kitchen, the red glow of the cigarette burned an orange light around Jones’ mouth. “Recently you submitted a paper for publication urging social scientists to study the Orson Welles Scare of 1938 again.”
The student nodded.
“Well. I need you not to publish it.”
Nichols started shaking his head. “Can’t do that. It’s a major part of my dissertation. I’ve been working on it for nearly a year.”
Jones left hand still dangled at his side his fingers twisting and moving the colored squares of the Rubik’s cube. “It’s more than just a favor. It’s for your own safety.”
Nichols cocked his head to the side. “Are you threatening me?”
The stranger shook his head. “I’m warning you. If you publish this paper a world you never knew existed will descend on you. You’re dabbling in Sky Fall events, and the CIA is the least of the evils dealing with such things.”
“Sky Fall events?”
The smoke climbed up Jones’ fingers and curled around his hand before disappearing into the ether. “That’s what we call it. What Orson Welles did. It’s a weapon, or at least that’s how everyone plans to use it.” He puffed long and deep for a moment. “I’ve seen entire cities emptied overnight. Think about that. How many people are killed in home invasions over a few simple belongings? This is entire cities. Imagine New York. Or Washington D.C. What would the Cubans or the Soviets do for such a weapon.”
“My paper doesn’t have anything to do with that. I just point out all the problems and that it should be studied again.”
“Exactly,” Jones said, “But if people start looking into it, they will realize your right, then they will come to you to build the weapon for them.” He glanced down at Nichols’ ankle. “You wouldn’t be the first scientist to be literally chained to a desk while his family is threatened so a world power can get its hands on a better weapon.” He offered a cigarette to the student, but it was refused. “That’s why I don’t want you to publish. There are already too many players in this game.”
The words had a somber effect on Nichols. He’d heard the stories about kidnapped scientists forced to work for the Soviet. He wasn’t sure about their validity, but the stories came from somewhere. “You mentioned others. People already studying this, who are they?”
“Mostly South American dictators and drug lords. Not the kind of people you want looking for you.”
Nichols nodded his head. “Here’s the problem. I haven’t published the paper yet, and here you are, so you must have contacts in various submission offices across the country. Who is to say these others don’t as well which means that it doesn’t matter if I publish or not? They could already know.”
“But the Russians don’t, and the Chinese don’t. The stage isn’t crowded yet. We want to keep it that way.” Jones exhaled a large cloud of black-gray smoke as he took two long strides through the room. The smoke obscured his face for the few seconds it could be seen in the light. When he stopped, he stood in front of the window gazing out at the parking lot. “I wasn’t sent here because I’m the most persuasive, kid. I’m here because I’m one of the few involved.”
“What do you mean?”
“Sky Fall. Few people even know about it. Like you said those original studies back in 1938 did all kinds of research, and most people when they look at mass hysteria they reference those and think that the science has already been done.” Jones smiled. “But we know differently don’t we. So even though they’ve been happening for nearly fifty years, very few people know about them. I know of those few. I want to keep it that way because I’ve seen the damage and I know the cost.” Jones’s hand continued to work the cube, even though he never looked at it.
Nichols pulled up a chair from the kitchen. He’d begun his study in mass persuasion because he’d experienced not just one, but two of these Sky Fall events as a kid. They were like nightmares he couldn’t wake from. Even today bits and pieces of those memories came back to him in his sleep. People in the streets running. Lines of empty cars. His mother hiding in the closet as black smoke seeped in through the windows. These memories both haunted and fascinated Nichols. Ever since he first learned about the field of psychology, he wanted to know how it was possible. What happens in the minds of men when they believe such blatant lies. Nichols glanced at the CIA agent. This stranger had said it perfectly, Nichols wanted to know ‘what makes a nation believe a lie.’ Perhaps this stranger from the CIA had new information. “What can you offer me?”
Jones jerked his head up. “Excuse me? I’m doing you a solid by warning you.”
Nichols shook his head. “You said you’ve had people studying this for a long time. How long. Since the first one in 38?”
Jones inhaled deep on his cigarette and waited for it to fill his lungs and let it all out before he answered. “I know people who have been studying it longer than there has been a CIA.”
The student nodded. “I want to know what you know. In exchange, I won’t publish.”
The stranger bit is cheek for a moment. “I can’t. Classified. But I know someone who can talk to you.”
Nichols nodded. “Good, then bring your friend, and we can talk.” He got up from his chair.
Jones gestured for the student to stop. “Can’t do that either. I can tell you his name, and that’s all. But I promise it will be worth it. In 38 he was the world leading expert on media persuasion. He was a close friend of the man who did that first study, Hadley Cantril, and he’s been studying them for fifty years now.” Jones picked up a pencil and paper from the coffee table and started to write. “But all I can give you is his name.”
Nichols looked at the pencil for a long moment. “It doesn’t feel like an even trade.”
“It’s not. I can’t even guarantee that he’ll talk to you, but it’s all I can offer.”
Outside a woman walking her dog stopped to make the animal do tricks for a few friends. Nichols had a professor talk about the brilliance of the evolution of the dog. By connecting its survival to humans, the single most successful species, they ensured their own survival. In fact, dogs no longer fought for survival, their owners waited on them hand and foot. Nichols looked at the folded note on the table and wondered who was the dog, and who was the owner in this situation? “I’ll do it.” He gathered all his research materials and an early draft into a plastic bag and gave it to the stranger.
As Jones was leaving, he stopped in the doorway. “Your right, the other organizations might already know and send people just like me. Watch for the accents.”
“Most of them are South American, so their operatives will be as well. A South American accent is hard to hide, but easy if you disguise it in an accent that’s even stronger like a Southern or Russian. Watch for it.” Jones placed the Rubik’s cube on the window seal shelf. It was solved. All the colors matching up. He’d done it without looking and while engaged in the conversation.
Nichols stepped over to the window and picked it up. He spun it to show the few colors out of place and waited for the stranger's shocked expression, but it never came. “I move the stickers because once you solve the cube the first time, then it’s easy to solve again, you just have to remember the pattern, but when I move the stickers, it becomes a new puzzle every time. No memorization. No tricks. Sometimes it can’t be solved, but that’s not the point. You have to think through it differently every time.”
Jones smiled. “I knew there was a reason they wanted you.” As he left, he called back, “Stay safe.”
Nichols stared at the door for a moment thinking of the warning he’d been given. It was almost useless here. It was a Southern University, and he already knew several students from various parts of the Soviet Union.
On the table was the folded note Jones had written. Nichols wondered what other scientist had made similar deals with the CIA over the years. What secrets did they have buried in the archives? He’d been just a kid the first time he experienced a Sky Fall event, and ever since then, he’d been trying to understand them. How and why it was possible. His rejection of the CIA wasn’t just personal. It was years of terrible conspiracy stories by his father, combined with more recent political events. He didn’t want his science and studies to be secrets, kept by one nation. He, like almost everyone in college wanted to change the world, and he couldn’t do that if everything he produced they squirreled away. He might never know what they had hidden down in their vaults, but maybe the person in the note would. He picked it up and read the name.
Psychological Warfare is nothing but a new name for an old tradition: breaking the will of your opponent. The goal is simple, by reducing their will to fight it minimizes costs in physical conflicts, and if truly effective it might eliminate the need for conflict at all. A new weapon of modern propagandists goes beyond encouraging submission of their enemies; they create envy. I think about the millions of people ever trying to get into The United States. They wait in long lines all over the world to apply for Visas or sneak across the border. If war were ever to take place between the United States and Mexico how many would turn on their own country in the hope that when the conflict ended they would become Americans? That was the power so many saw in Sky Fall, but it was only the beginning.
William Stephenson, The Nature of Sky Fall Events. 2019
Outside the restaurant, Alvero stared at the massive metal dumpsters. The black lid of one slanted open and flies swarmed in and out. They had thrown out so much food that it could no longer be contained. He glanced at the building — a common diner. He spat on the establishment. Such typical Americans, glutting themselves on the labor of the world. Peaches from Chile, apples from Ecuador haggled down to prices that maintained poverty only to be discarded as trash. Alvero had heard that most restaurants in The United States threw out more food than they served. It had to stop. The waste, the influence, all of it. The whole world knew it, but none dared provoke the titan. Some were too scared, but sadly most dreamed of the day when they would become Americans themselves.
Alvero gave the alley one more look of disgust, groomed his dark, long hair and entered the diner. When he spoke, he rolled his Rs. A habit of Spanish he could never shake. “I would like to reserve a booth. No, that’s the wrong word.” He looked at the mud on his shoes. “I’d like to get a booth by the back window. Please.”
The hostess guided him back and gave him the usual details of eating in an American restaurant. He scanned the menu for a moment, wrote down what he wanted and waited for the waitress. She was the reason he was here.
When the girl approached, Alvero kept his eyes down. It was important he didn’t see her face. They would be working the same target, and if they happened to see each other, the target might notice the brief moment of recognition. It could undo everything.
As she spoke, she popped and snapped a piece of gum in her mouth. It made her seem younger than she was. “We have specials. You wanna hear ‘um?”
Alvero smiled. He’d listened carefully as she asked other customers about the specials and she never used this exact phrase. He reached his hand across the table and tapped the note he’d written. “I’d like something special.”
The girl continued to act as described in the brief. She picked up the note. “I’ll tell the cook.” She paused for a moment. “You want anything from the menu?”
The dance of spies was over. Each had verified the other, and now they could talk.
Overhead speakers played some new American rock ‘n roll that Alvero didn’t recognize, but the music helped drown out the conversation. “Jones just visited our friend. We are approved to begin. You’ve read Nichols’ file?”
“Yes.” She pointed to something on the menu to maintain the illusion. “The mission feels rushed. I don’t know if I can manipulate him that quickly.”
“You will be amazed how compliant and obedient people are once they become hopeless and desperate. They will do almost anything.”
“What do you mean, almost?”
Alvero chuckled. The girl was worried the mission might fail, and she’d be held accountable. “Don’t worry. I’m not the kind of man to bet everything on black. If hopelessness is not enough, we will move to stage two: guilt. The combination has proven overwhelming for everyone. He will do what we need. You just make him feel unsure. Be there when things go wrong. The rest will take care of itself.”
Alvero finished his meal and set out for his last objective of the night. There was an old blood debt he wanted to collect.
He drove through the dark streets of the city to the neighborhood of a man named Roy Cohn. Over the last few weeks, Alvero had broken the street lights along Roy’s street. One night he’d thrown rocks until the bulb shattered. Another he used a BB gun. Still on another he hooked a car battery up to the metal and fried the fuses inside. If the damage had been reported it hadn’t been fixed yet. Alvero had even taken the morning to pretend to deliver packages to all the homes around Cohn’s as he did so he pulled the light bulbs from their door lamps. Now, it was dark in a way cities rarely were.
Alvero parked his car eight blocks from the man’s residence and walked. Most Americans were familiar with the terrible history of the Second Red Scare sweeping their country. Anyone accused of being or associating with communists was blacklisted. They lost their jobs, and their lives destroyed, but outside of America is where the real terror took place. Countries that wanted the good graces of the United States began their own witch hunts for communists, only they butchered and slaughtered those they found guilty. Thousands were killed year after year all over the world because people wanted American dollars and influence. Roy Cohn had helped make it all possible.
In true American fashion, Cohn used his wealth and connections to avoid any consequences for his role in the atrocities, but Alvero didn’t believe the world should work that way. A debt of blood was owed. He hid a heavy metal rod in the sleeve of his jacket. As Cohn made his way towards his car, Alvero advanced on him, weapon in hand. The blow made two distinct sounds; the crack of skull against metal, and the breaking of glass as Roy Cohn’s head collided with the car window. Alvero continued to bludgeon until the broken skull made sloppy wet sounds.
The Rich are Getting Richer
In 1958 The Bank of America distributed pre-approved loan cards to neighborhoods in California. As the technology boomed over the years, they became known as credit cards. Initially, they were accepted in a few locations and hard to use. In 1984 the FCC lifted several bans on the types of commercials that could be shown on television. A new type of commercial was born; the infomercial. It allowed people to use their credit cards to buy directly from home. Companies could now leverage the full weight of scientific research on persuasion and propaganda that had been going on for decades to sell their products. Debt exploded across the nation.
The industrial revolution change society. It began a period where people could work ordinary jobs and not live in poverty. They became known as the rising middle class. At the intersection of credit cards, television, and infomercials in 1984 the middle class began to shrink. It is a definitive moment when the rich started to get richer, and the poor started to get poorer.
Jay Nichols, Secrets of the Sky Fall
The stranger who claimed to work for the CIA had taken all of Nichols’ work with him. In exchange, the college student had only a single piece of paper with a name on it: William Stephenson. It looked like a CIA alias. Like Jones. One that could bend easily. The man could go by Bill or Will, or even Stephen. Anything to fit the need. One that could have multiple listings in just about any phone book in America.
Nichols slumped into the kitchen chair. “Shit.” The name didn’t feel real. His father had warned him a hundred times about the dangers and lies of the American government. He told stories about things he had to do while he worked for the military in Korea and Vietnam. All classified. His father spit after using that word. “They pretend it’s important to national security. Most of what they classify are terrible things they do to help rich people make more money, and the powerful gain more influence.”
The student crumpled the paper in his hand. He’d never believed all his father’s stories; they just seemed too unreal. Too wild. Why would the government care how much one or two people make? In reaction to the disbelief, his father gave him several books on the atrocities committed by the East India Company. He explained that the American government was a capitalist entity, and it was better to understand it as a corporation. The book told of the slaughter and murder far outnumbering the Jews killed in the Holocaust. The difference was the British East India Company did things only for profit.
Now, sitting in his apartment, Nichols wondered if he could believe the CIA operative. Nichols took a deep breath and let out a frustrated sigh. There was a small chance the man hadn’t lied. Nichols could test it. He’d find all the William Stephenson’s he could. Even if the man didn’t exist, at least Nichols would know, and it would put his mind at ease. The deal would be off. Nichols would publish his paper. He glanced at the clock. The library would close soon. It would have to wait until tomorrow.
He prepared for bed, and it was just as he finished brushing his teeth that he saw it — a long thin black wire following the black metal track of the drawer where he kept his toothbrush. The color of the cord was a perfect match for the paint. There was no way to know how long it had been there. In the last day or two something must have bumped it because it folded up just above the paint now, and he could see it for the first time. He reached out with a finger to trace it. With the drawer still in place, he couldn’t reach it. He removed the drawer. The wire reached around the wood to a small square device with a few holes in it. It had no writing on it, no lights, nothing. Just a square that had been glued to his toothbrush drawer. At the other end of the wire was a small circle. Nichols held it up to the mirror. It looked like a speaker, and that could only mean one thing. Someone was spying on him. His first thought was the CIA. They’d sent recruiters, and just yesterday an operative had visited him, but the man mentioned others. Nichols would need an expert’s opinion, on several things.
The next morning Nichols paused outside the door of his parents’ house. His mother was a language specialist, and his father was just paranoid, but they both could answer some questions to help him understand the events of the previous day. Nichols listened at the door for the sound of the television. His mother could be so deep in her addiction that she didn’t notice anyone entering the house. Voices chattered behind the door too vague to distinguish what they were saying, then came the laugh track. He frowned and opened the door.
At the far end of the room, his mother was perched on the edge of her seat. Her eyes transfixed on the TV. It wasn’t the show that interested her. It was the commercials. Ten years ago, his father had received a credit card. At first, it just stayed in his desk for emergencies, but then commercials started to appear on television where you could use this card to order the item directly. You didn’t even need to leave the house. It sounded like a good idea at the time. But his mother was a teacher. She had entire summers off. She would do projects around the house with the TV on in the background. Occasionally she sat to watch something that caught her interest. Then one day a new type of commercial came on, an infomercial. It presented as part show, part education, part commercial. She bought her first item off the TV that way. Within a few months, she couldn’t stop.
It was never something Nichols’ understood when he was younger. He told a girlfriend once, and her response was, “What emotional void is she trying to fill?” That question had gotten Nichols thinking. His father was a strange man who didn’t like people, and in return, they didn’t like him. Their friends were always few if any. Perhaps that’s why he stayed with her after everything that would follow. The man knew no one else would ever tolerate him.
The massive spending and debt eventually force the bank to contact Nichols’ father. At first, he was confused then just angry and a huge argument followed. But it didn’t stop her. She secretly went to banks all over town and acquired more credit cards as each reached its limit. When the collectors came calling, and the truth was out. She’d dug the family into incredible debt. Eventually, his father declared bankruptcy. It was the beginning of a cycle.
They would move. She would find a way to get more credit, build up the debt. Dad paid what he could until eventually, they declared bankruptcy again.
Nichols had always wondered why they didn’t just get rid of the TV. If she couldn’t watch, she couldn’t buy. But that was his father’s vice. The man loved to come home from work and watch TV. They were trapped together in this mess.
“Mom,” Nichols began, “I’ve got a question about linguistics for you.”
She pulled her attention away from the screen. “Oh. That’s odd. What is it?” She’d been a teacher of linguistics before her termination. At one point she took out a credit card in the university’s name. They could have called the police, but they didn’t. Instead, the debt was settled, and she was let go.
“Is there any way to know if someone is faking an accent? I know it’s a weird question, but I’m curious.”
Her eyebrows furrowed for a moment. “That’s a complicated question. You see some languages have sounds that others don’t. If children never hear a certain sound, then they lose the ability to hear or reproduce it. Take for example Chinese. The language has no sound for the letter ‘R’ so they can’t hear it. Instead, it all sounds like ‘L’ to them.”
“So, if it’s not their native language and accent there will be some sounds they can’t pronounce? I just have to get them to say those words?”
“It’s not that simple. All the romance languages come from Latin. They use the same sounds. English is a combination of Romance and Germanic languages, so it has sounds from both.”
Nichols pressed his lips together. “If their native language is a romance language it won’t work?”
“Correct.” Her body tensed, and her hand moved toward her thigh. The sit-com she was watching was over, and the commercials were running now. It was likely she had hidden a notepad under that leg to write down the phone numbers of the products she wanted.
The only method his father found that did work was to take out as many credit cards as he could. He used to lock them up, but she would pick it with bobby pins, and paper clips. So now they sat frozen in the freezer packed beneath layers of ice. Not individual blocks that she could pull out and break, but the entire freezer turned into a giant block of ice with the cards buried deep at the back. She’d tried chipping away at the ice or even leaving the freezer open all day, but it didn’t work. The ice held longer than her compulsive need to buy, and she eventually gave up.
“Isn’t there another way?” Nichols asked.
Her eyes flashed to the screen. A commercial for Tide laundry detergent ran. It wouldn’t have a call now section at the end. She glanced back to her son. “If people experience an intense emotional state they can slip up.” She was only halfway through the sentence when her eyes refocused on the TV.
He’d lost her until the next show started. “Thanks, mom. I’ll swing by on Sunday for dinner.”
She didn’t answer.
Nichols headed towards the back door. He turned and looked at her once more. When he was younger, she was something incredible. Brilliant, strong and independent. Now, she sat here battling her addiction. A battle she never won, and his father continued to find ways to keep from drowning them in debt. It destroyed the powerful woman she had been, and now this was what was left. She didn’t read interesting books anymore. Didn’t teach great lectures and inspire students. She just sat here watching TV day after day. This too had spurred his interest in the social sciences. Before World War Two the field was known as the study of propaganda, but after the word had a corrupted connotation entangled in the ideals of the Nazis and Soviet Union, so they started calling it the study of persuasion. If they could see what persuasive advertisers had done to his mother, they would call it propaganda again.
Across the yard, Nichols entered the garage to find his father tinkering on a circuit board. “Hey, dad, I got a question for you.”
The older man sat at a desk cluttered with bits of electronic equipment. Thick glasses hung low on his nose. Rings of rubber wristbands clung to his arms. Strands of long gray eyebrow hairs shot off in different directions on his face. It made him look unkempt, and a little un-sane. The father grunted his usual greeting. “When I finish.” He fused several parts together then ran a current through to illuminate a light bulb. Gave the project a nod and turned his eyes towards his son. “What brings you here on a day like this? Don’t you have class?”
Nichols nodded. “Usually but I wanted you to look at something.” He pulled the long, wired device from his pocket and placed it on the desk.
“What is it?” The man pressed his glasses tight against his face to examine the square closely, then lifted his glasses and examined it again.
“That’s my question. A friend of mine found it in a pawn shop, and we wanted to know what it does.” Nichols lied. He was fairly certain about the device, but he wanted to know more. If he was right and told his father where he found it, then it would lead to an argument, and very possibly Nichols’ father would spend the next few weeks camped outside of his son’s apartment with an assault rifle.
Adjusting his glasses once more the man popped the device open with a screwdriver, stripped the rubberized coating on the cord and removed the windscreen on the microphone. Nichols’ father hummed to himself looking at it. “Where did you say you got it again?”
“A pawnshop. It’s a bug, right?”
The father shook his head. “It’s not what it is that’s important, but how it’s made.” He pointed at several tiny parts. “You see there are several ways that any electronic components can be put together. None more efficient than the others, but they are the basics of how things are built.” He paused, eyes searching as his mind tried to compute the idea. “Think about it like the alphabet. You know it as A, B, C… but the actual order isn’t important. You can rearrange them in any order, and it still works, but you grew up learning A, B, C… it’s how you think it should be. But imagine you grew up learning F, Q, Z… You wouldn’t even think about it, that’s just how the alphabet would be to you. That’s how parts of circuitry work. In America, we learn A, B, C… in the Soviet they learn F, Q, Z…”
“You’re saying it’s a Soviet bug?”
The engineer shrugged. “I’m saying whoever made it learned F, Q, Z, or they wanted it to be found and for the discoverer to think Soviet.”
“It’s never simple with you is it?”
The father frowned. “The world is not simple.” He pointed at the device. “Particularly this world. There are only three reasons someone would ever find a device like this. First, is that it was supposed to be found. Second, they were sloppy. And third, whoever was looking for it was trained and knew what they were doing.”
Nichols thought back on the fold in the cord and the glue at the back. It would have only taken a few moments to glue down the entire cord so that the repeated opening and closing wouldn’t cause the wire to pull away from the metal. But it was also possible they were in a hurry. He looked at the pieces carefully laid out on the desk. He was tempted to ask for them back, but he didn’t need them.
The father continued. “The real question here is: how did they end up in a pawn shop?”
“I’ll leave you to figure that one out. Thanks though.” Nichols turned to leave.
“Don’t you want the pieces back?”
“That’s okay. I was just curious.”
“You skipped class today just for some ideal curiosity over something you found in a pawn shop?”
Nichols bit the inside of his cheek. His father had a touch of paranoia to him, saw deception in almost everything. As the man once said, ‘I see conspiracy everywhere because I’ve been part of them. I know some are real.’ Nichols swallowed. “I didn’t skip. It was canceled, besides I also needed to ask mom a few things.”
“Oh, really. What?”
When Nichols spoke his tone communicated a sentiment he’d shared with his father many times. It made it clear he wouldn’t be buying into or feeding the man’s paranoia and conspiracy theories, “Bye dad.” He picked up the device and left.
Nichols headed back towards the library. The CIA’s warning felt more real now. There were Soviets, or at least someone wanted him to think that. The first was in direct contradiction to the warning, but the second fit perfectly. If Jones was right, and the Soviets were not involved why pretend to be them? Or worse, they were involved, and the CIA didn’t know it yet.
At the front desk of the library, Guarding the current semester's textbooks was a girl Nichols had never seen before. She was stunning with long dark hair that matched the color of her eyes, and a full body that was rare on American girls since the popularization of heroin chic. It also struck him since most campus jobs didn’t change during the school season. He paused for a moment watching her. She flowed as she moved. His eyes glanced back at the rows of books. He’d never used the research assistant option available to students before, but it would give him an excuse to talk to her. In the window, he gave his reflection a quick review to make sure he looked decent and ambled over to the desk. “Hi.” He smiled. “I wondered if I could get a research assistant for an hour?”
She looked up from her textbook and gazed at him for a moment, and Nichols was sure she scanned him from head to foot before smiling back.
The girl stood and spoke with a thick Southern accent, “Ya’ll wait here. Just let me tell one of the other librarians, so someone will be at the desk.” She disappeared into the back room for a moment then returned. She almost seemed to be skipping. “So, what are we researching? I’m Britany by the way.”
Nichols passed the note to her. “A man named William Stephenson.”
“Shucks, that’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. I can see why you need an assistant.”
Nichols nodded. “This one was alive in 1938 and is still today. I know he was friends with a prominent social scientist named Hadley Cantril. Maybe even a scientist himself.”
“Okay.” She placed her hand on his shoulder. “I’ll check…” She hummed to herself for a moment. “The Journal of Public Opinion for any publications by him.”
“Just bring them all. We can work through them. Start in 38 and bring everything close to it.”
They hunted down books, scanned indexes tracing the name through history. Every time she returned with new information or a book she put a hand on Nichols to get his attention. As the hour neared, its end she touched his shoulder, “How many times do I have to touch you before you get the hint and ask me out?”
He chuckled. “Well if you put it…” Nichols' eyes drifted to a strawberry blonde headed girl who drifted into the aisle. She locked eyes with him. First, they widened in shock then narrowed in menace. Ekaterina wasn’t his girlfriend, but they spent a lot of time together, and her interest was clear. There was no doubt how she might react.
Ekaterina accelerated down the aisle. When she stopped, her body was almost leaning against Nichols, a proclamation of her territory. Her voice was stern when she spoke, “Hi. I’m Ekaterina what’s your name?” The phrase sounded more like a police officer interrogating a suspect than a friendly greeting.
“This is my research assistant, Britany.”
The librarian made a deliberate show of removing her hand from Nichols’ shoulder and offering it. “Oh, are you his girlfriend?”
Ekaterina never took her eyes away from Britany. Never blinked. Never shook the hand. Never took the edge out of her voice, “No.”
“Well, my times almost up anyway. I’m sure you can help him find what he needs, but…” Britany looked at Nichols. “If you require further assistance, just ask for me at the front desk.” She walked past the rows and rows of books.
Ekaterina stood completely still, watching. After a few moments, she raised a finger with a long crimson fingernail, like a bloody claw, and pointed at the librarian. When she spoke, it was with a heavy Russian accent, “I don’t like her.”
“You don’t like most people,” Nichols gave her a puzzled look, as though she was stating the obvious. “It’s so rare you don’t need to point out the ones you don’t like, just the ones you do.”
The Russian scowled. “That’s different. I don’t trust people, and it comes off as not liking. But her I don’t like.”
Nichols chuckled and gave a half smile. “Did you need something?”
“I saw you scurrying about collecting books and thought you might want help.” The rage faded from her face. She smiled awkwardly, ducking her head down and looking away. It happened anytime she made a request, or offer — any question that could result in some kind of rejection. And her pale skin burned red as she blushed.
“I’m looking for someone.”
Ekaterina frowned with confusion in her eyes. “That’s unusual. Mostly it’s ideas, articles, science.”
Nichols nodded. “He was a scientist, but the ideas I want aren’t written down.” He thought about the vaults and archives deep below the CIA. “At least not where I can get to them. But supposedly he’s still alive. The answers I want are in his head. I just have to find him.”
“What do you know so far?”
Nichols consulted his notes. “He was a social scientist in the 1920s and 30s. He specialized in the impact of radio propaganda. In 1936 he predicted the Second World War and told the only person of influence he knew, Winston Churchill. But his warnings were not taken seriously. In 1939 all records of him disappear. I assume he was a spy for the British.”
Ekaterina signaled her agreement. “Then what?”
Nichols' eyes wandered to the ceiling as he thought. “Then he never really comes back. A few references to major business deals. A court battle over television technology. The history reads like he simply became a businessman, but…” He looked at Ekaterina. She was from the Soviet Union and had grown up with the KGB spying on her family. She never revealed details, but every once in a while, she would be bothered by something or refused to do, or say something. The only explanation she ever offered was ‘KGB.’ Nichols worried what would happen if he mentioned the CIA. Would she see a difference, was there much of one? “The guy who pointed him out to me said he was the expert on Sky Fall events. Apparently, he’s been studying them for fifty years. If he doesn’t have the answers, no one does.”
She furrowed her brow. “Sky Fall?”
“The things I study.”
She nodded. “I’ll see what I can find.” She paused just before leaving the desk. “What exactly are we looking for?”
“How to contact him: an address, telephone number, place of work, relative, anything.”
“This is really important to you, isn’t it? Why?”
“I just have a lot of questions for him.”
Ekaterina remained silent, waiting for more.
“When I was a kid, I was in two Sky Fall Events. It was crazy — the first one… I don’t remember a lot. I didn’t understand what the news was talking about, but I remember my mother being afraid. She gathered as much food and water as she could fit in the closet then locked us both in. We waited there all night. Sometime in the early morning my father came and told us it had all been a hoax. I didn’t even know what that meant. He took me to the window and showed me the endless rows of cars, empty of people. I had nightmares for years after that.”
She reached her hand toward him almost like she was trying to comfort him, but never touched him. She caught his eye and lowered her arm to the chair. “What about the second time?”
“I was at school. They took us down to the old bomb shelters. I remember black smoke in the sky as they led us through the courtyard. It turned out in the panic there had been a car accident. People had abandoned their vehicles. The flames just spread, carried by the wind from one car to the next. In the moment it seemed part of everything. Made it seem more real. More possible. We stayed there hours. The thick walls prevented any contact even radio waves from reaching us. The teachers were crying. They thought their loved ones were still outside dying. Some of us fell asleep. I woke when a group of parents pounded on the doors of the shelter.”
“So, what is it you hope to get from this Stephenson?”
“I wanted to know, how something like this is possible, why we all believed so easily. I want there to be a reason for the nightmares, and the fear, and the memories.” He looked away from her. Sometimes he still had nightmares, they were muddled and exaggerated, but those two days had been terrifying. He thought he was going to die. He’d never felt fear like that. The emotion lingered in his memory playing over and over in his sleep. If he could understand it, maybe he wouldn’t feel it anymore.
“And this Stephenson has the answers?”
“As I said if he doesn’t no one does.”
Ekaterina had a somber look on her face and gave a solemn nod. “I’ll find him.”
Silence descended as they began to search through the books. Brought back stacks, scanned their indexes and returned them to the shelves. Hours went by with only the quiet sounds of the library around them. A pen scribbling notes, the occasional cough or dropped book. Doors opening and closing. In the quiet Nichols considered the oddity of the day. Less than twenty-four hours ago he’d been warned about people with thick accents — something that could hide where people were really from. Today he’d spoken and worked with women who had the specific accents he’d been warned about, Southern and Russian. In his mind, he rolled the issue back and forth. He’d known Ekaterina for several months now, but they met after he submitted the paper for publication. Was it possible that Jones didn’t work for the CIA but someone else? Anyone that Nichols was sure worked for the CIA had tried to recruit him, but Jones didn’t. Was he different, with a different mission or did he work for someone else? Nichols thought about the listening device he found in his toothbrush drawer. If there was one, there would be more, unless it wasn’t there to listen in but to be found. He shook his head. His thoughts were starting to sound like the conspiracy theories his dad told. But the bug was real, and so was the stranger.
Ekaterina dropped a magazine on the book Nichols was reading. “Here.”
He rubbed his face. “What is this?”
She declared in a triumphant voice, “I found him.” Ekaterina leaned over and pointed to an article. “This guy is writing a book about the British Spy Master from World War Two, a man named William Stephenson.”
Nichols read through the article. There were no contact details, but at the back of the magazine was the number and address of the publisher. He copied down the information and stuffed his belongings into his backpack. “I need to get home and make some phone calls.” In his excitement, he kissed Ekaterina on the cheek. “Thank you. Thank you!”
Her face shifted from slight embarrassment to total shock when his lips touched her skin. Pulling away he saw the expression and realized it might have meant something different to her than it did to him. He scurried away from the desk. “I’ll call you later when I know more.”
She was still frozen in the same position that he kissed her. Her expression unchanged.
As Nichols exited the library, he stopped at the front desk and asked if he could get Britany’s number. A boy stood, reading from a history textbook and looked up with confusion. “Who?”
“Britany. She was my research assistant earlier.”
The boy shook his head. “No one by that name is on the schedule today. I don’t think a Britany even works here.”
Nichols scanned the small office behind the front desk. His jaw loosened, and his lips parted. “No. She was here. She helped me.”
The boy shrugged. “Maybe she didn’t like you and gave a fake name.” He pulled a list from a cubby below the desk. “That’s odd. I don’t even see any girls listed as working today.” He returned the list and went back to his book.
Nichols eyed the boy for a moment. It was odd. Both that she didn’t work there and that the librarian had so little reaction to the strangeness of the event. Nichols had been warned, but he wasn’t a spy. He didn’t know what to look for. The new information took some of the excitement out of him, and he walked toward his apartment at a slow pace. His mind trying to understand what it meant.
When Nichols entered his apartment, the entire place had been dismantled. Cushions were torn apart, and the stuffing piled in a corner. Every drawer and cabinet was disassembled and piled in a stack of wood. Even the walls had been removed, and the insulation sifted through. Someone was looking for something and left nothing unsearched. Nichols walked into the living room. His legs felt numb. He touched one of the supporting planks of the wall. It was unbelievable and yet it was real. He dropped his backpack to the floor and sat down next to it. Whoever had done this wanted something, and either had it now or couldn’t find it. His eyes shifted to various piles of cushion and wood. He didn’t see any listening devices. Maybe that’s what they had come for. He’d removed the one this morning. They knew that he knew and got rid of the rest. Whatever they were after was more important than keeping themselves secret.
After long moments feeling confused, lost and terrified on the floor he headed to his room. It too had been torn apart. They had even removed the seams from his clothes in search of secret pockets. The freed springs of the mattress strained in different directions. In the bathroom, his shampoo had been emptied, and the soap shredded into tiny shavings. His father told him stories of microfilm so small that spies smuggled information in the fillings of their teeth. It would explain why they had searched so diligently.
How had they known he would be gone all day? When he’d come back? He thought back to his conversation with Jones. It had been the stranger that claimed to be from the CIA who had given Nichols the name. It ensured he would be at the library all day. Maybe the boy at the front desk had been the lookout, telling the people in the apartment when Nichols left. Or maybe it had been Britany. He glanced at his backpack. Maybe William Stephenson didn’t know anything about Sky Fall events.
Nichols walked through the apartment looking for anything he could salvage. Out the window to his room, he could see one of the campus parks. Students sprawled out on the lawn studying. A girl that looked like Britany sat on a bench facing him. If she weren’t wearing sunglasses, they would have made eye contact. A moment later she packed up her things and left. From the distance and sunglasses Nichols couldn’t be sure it was her, but maybe... He kept looking out the window for a long time. He couldn’t stay here but didn’t know what to do next. What did these people want? Why hadn’t they approached him first and asked? That’s how it was supposed to work, right? First, they tried to bribe the scientists, and if that didn’t work, they moved onto different tactics.
A loud and frantic pounding came from the front door. Nichols startled. A rush of fear moved through him. He considered trying to climb out the window, but after a moment he realized that if these people had come back, they wouldn’t have knocked. He grabbed a knife from the kitchen and slid it in his back pocket before answering the door.
Ekaterina was outside, tears streaming down her face. She rushed into the apartment blubbering. Most of what she said was either in Russian or drown out by tears, but Nichols could make out one thing. She was repeating, “KGB.”
In the middle of the room, she stopped. Stopped talking. Stopped crying and looked around. “They came here too.”
Nichols nodded. “I don’t think it was the KGB.” He wanted to sit her down somewhere and explain everything, but there was no couch or kitchen chairs left. “We shouldn’t stay here, but I don’t know where to go.”
She swallowed and wiped the tears from her eyes then took his hand and led him out of the apartment. She never spoke, just walked faster and faster. Her grip tightened. She tugged at him each time she increased her pace. By the time they reached the law library, they were almost running. He tried to ask her a few questions at the doors, but she hushed him and continued the flight. Only on the top floor in the back corner away from the stairs did she stop. Even then she urged him not to speak until she had removed enough books from the shelves so she could watch all directions. “We can talk now. What do you mean it’s not the KGB?”
Nichols explained everything from the multiple recruiting efforts of the CIA to the warning he was given, to the device he found in his drawer. He paused at the end of the story. “Why are we here?”
“Because neither of us are law students.” She paced the room like a predatory cat, checking out the window and down the aisles. “It could still be the KGB, your CIA might not know they are involved yet, but the device worries me. It would be a really stupid Soviet to use such a device, but…” She tapped a crimson fingernail on a book “But Russia is full of people who are given jobs because of their relatives so there are a lot of stupid people with jobs they shouldn’t have.”
“And if it’s not?”
She tightened her lips. “I don’t know much about warlords and dictators.”
He walked to the window, and she shoved him back. “Don’t walk where anyone can see you. They might be looking for us.”
Nichols sat at a small desk in the corner. “What do we do now?”
Ekaterina leaned against a bookshelf her forehead resting on her hand. “I was so young when we fled. I don’t remember everything my parents did or why. What happens if we call your American police?”
“We could do that. They’d come and take a report then leave… but it won’t solve our problem. They’re still out there. I don’t know what they want.”
“Or even if it’s all the same group. The one that searched our apartments might not be the same ones that left the device.” She locked eyes with him. “Do you still have it?”
Nichols reached into his bag and felt around until he found it and handed it to her.
“Good we’ll need it to convince the CIA.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’ll drive there.” She held up the small microphone. “Show them this and demand their help. You said they tried to recruit you, so they’ll want to help right? Make you feel indebted?”
It didn’t sound like a great plan, but it was the only one. “I should stop by my parents. Tell my dad. He might know some people—”
Ekaterina shook her head. “Can’t. They’ll be watching your family. Probably have these all over the house as well.”
The blood drained from Nichols' face and his mouth went dry. “Then I need to warn them.”
“We’ll use a pay phone. Try to code it so whoever is listening won’t know what you're saying.” She gripped his wrist in a firm hold. “But it can’t come across as gibberish either. It should sound like a normal conversation.”
“How do you know all this?”
“In Russia, the KGB is always listening. Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you have to be careful what you say.” She presented the listening device in her hands. “We don’t know who is listening or why. It’s best to keep secrets.”
They avoided the windows as they made their way out of the library and towards Ekaterina’s apartment. She made it clear they couldn’t go back to either, but her car was in the lot, and they would need it to get to Washington D. C.
They dashed across campus, fearing someone might see them and follow. Just a few blocks beyond the last university building they could see her apartment. Nichols could almost feel his skin crawl every time they sprinted under a street lamp, or a student stared at them too long. Whoever they were, however long they had been tracking Nichols, they no longer cared if he knew. It would change everything. He couldn’t guess how.
As they darted across the street a loud explosion vibrated everything around them. The concussive wave blasted out the windows of cars and apartments. The sound, the energy, or the impact knocked Nichols and Ekaterina to the ground.
Nichols touched his cheek. He could still feel the heat of the explosion. “What the hell happened?”
“I don’t…” She looked around confused for a moment then pointed at her car. The hood was blown completely off, and the seats inside were still burning. She reached into her pocket and pulled out the bug. “Is it still active?”
Nichols raised his hand to his mouth. “Oh, my God.”
She dropped it to the ground and smashed it repeatedly with her heel. She headed to the closest car that hadn’t had its windows shattered by the blast. She smashed her backpack through the back window and unlocked the doors, then spoke in a commanding voice, “Get in.”
Inside she stripped the key mechanism and hotwired the car to life.
“Were stealing this car?”
“Look around. They will want to investigate the explosion and won’t even know it’s missing for days.” She must have seen the doubt in his face. “I don’t want to stay here. Do you?”
Nichols shook his head, and she accelerated out of the parking lot.
The Morality of War
On April 6, 1917 the United States joined the First World War in support of Britain and France. Most people see it as the turning point. But that doesn’t answer the question as to why the United States chose the British side instead of the German.
From the onset of the war both Germany and Britain bombarded America with propaganda declaring atrocities both real and imagined perpetrated by the opposition. Each seeking to prove that they were the moral superior in the conflict and thus joining their side was the good, moral and right thing to do. On August 15, 1914, the British Royal Navy cut the underwater cable that connected Germany and the United States cutting off communication and ending Germany’s attempts at propaganda in The United States. Over the next two years, English politicians and advertisers produced posters, radio broadcasts, circulated news stories, and rumors to gather support for their cause. Soon the American people were boiling over with rage at the atrocities being committed by the Germans, and all they needed was an excuse to declare war. When the state department heard a rumor that Germany was trying to convince Mexico to declare war on the United States, so they would stay out of Europe, America had its reason.
Even the iconic statement about the First World War was something British propagandists created to gather American support: “The war to end all wars.” And it was whispered all over The United States that if this was the war to end all wars, then they needed to be part of it.
William Stephenson, The Nature of Sky Fall Events
They drove long into the night. At some point, they started driving through a forest. Ekaterina found a dirt road. She killed the lights and followed it as far as she could while still seeing the cars on the highway cruise past. She waited for ten to drive past before pulling back out and starting the journey again.
Nichols asked about when he could warn his parents, and she described what she was looking for. A gas station with little traffic and a straight road on either side so they could see vehicles coming and going. After a couple of hours, they found one that met her demands and pulled over. She pumped gas while he went to find the phone.
The clerk’s eyes had a wide, bloodshot look like he was high on something as Nichols exchanged a few bills for coins. Behind the counter was a large poster from during the Second World War. It hung as a piece of art in the shabby station, but Nichols recognized it. It was propaganda from another time. Its persuasive message still as clear now as it was then, only now it was admired for its beauty. A woman in a blue-collar factory suit flexed her arm with words ‘We can do it,’ above her. The scientific part of his brain pondered at it. During the First and Second Great Wars, the most brilliant artists and writers came together to help create propaganda to spread the messages their governments wanted. Even now they hung for their beauty. Some were even printed on t-shirts. It was incredible.
When Nichols stood in front of the phone, he stared at the sleek dirty plastic for a long time. In the movies whenever there was a wiretap, the characters and audience could hear it. Sometimes it was a click or heavy static in the background. He wondered how much of that was just Hollywood storytelling, or if it was real. It had only been a few years ago that he picked up the phone and was about to call a friend when in the distance he could faintly hear another conversation going on. He told his mom and dad about it. At the time it felt like a mistake. For the next few weeks, no one in the house was allowed to make any phone calls. His father sat in his favorite chair all day listening to the phone. At the end of three weeks he announced that they were moving.
At the time Nichols thought it was just his father’s paranoia and conspiracy theories, but the man knew about listening devices, had taken part in American conspiracies overseas. Nichols owed his father an apology, less for the things he’d done and more for all the things he’d thought, and the number of times he’d rolled his eyes.
Outside the gas station in the dim light of a single streetlamp, Nichols picked up the receiver and called his parents.
The gruff and groggy voice of his father answered. “Who is this? Do you know what time it is?”
“Hi, dad.” Nichols paused and tried to remember the wording, and code he’d created. He needed to say things he would never say to his father to get his attention. The man was paranoid, but also ever vigilant of codes and secrets. “I just wanted to call so you wouldn’t worry. I’m headed back up to the lake with some friends this weekend.”
There was silence on the line. His father was either confused or trying to figure it out.
“Can you hear me? Do you understand?” Nichols asked.
“I think I do. I’m really tired. Can you repeat it?”
Nichols gave the statement again then added. “Oh, and that thing I showed you. I didn’t find it in a pawn shop. It was in my apartment the other night. Just thought you should know.”
There was a long silence, and for a moment Nichols thought his father hung up, then his voice came on. “Thank you. That’s. That’s very important.” The older man’s voice was shaky now and hesitant. “I should get back to sleep.”
Before the receiver clicked off, Nichols could hear the confused voice of his mother being woken. His father might not know exactly what was being said, but he knew they were in danger. He was acting the way he’d been trained. After tonight he wouldn’t be able to find his parents. He would have to wait until his father came out of hiding, but they would be safe.
Nichols wandered back into the gas station and picked up some snacks before heading to the car. He stopped and examined the vehicle. “Once it’s morning, we should stop in the next city and get a rental. You might be right. It could be days before anyone starts looking, or they could link its disappearance to the bombing, and they might be looking for it now.”
Ekaterina agreed, and they sluggishly climbed back into the car.
The trees rolled past once again, and Nichols thought more about his father. The man trusted no one and was suspicious of everything. The stranger gave the warning that Nichols should watch for accents, and his mother had told him how to identify the real from the fake. The device in his apartment had been Russian.
He watched Ekaterina for a few moments. She said they were driving to D.C. to the CIA but not once had she ever looked at a map. She just drove. He needed to test her. Provoke her. It wouldn't be hard. He already knew the issues that got her fired up. Talk about any government anything, and she would be shouting in minutes. She hated the American government almost as much as she hated the Soviet. The first time it came up he asked her why she even came to America. She corrected him “I don’t hate America. I hate the American government. The people, the culture they are not the same as the bastards that lead it. I love America, not the government.”
Nichols tried to remember the sound of her voice when she went on one of her rants. Maybe his memory was flawed; the Russian seemed to get thicker, not thinner. In his memory, there were even moments when he couldn’t understand what she was saying. She’d switched into Russian a few times.
It had only taken a few minutes on the right topic before she slammed her fist on the horn. “America dropped the bomb. The worst thing in all human history and they did it twice. Not on military bases, on cities filled with people who had nothing to do with the war.”
“Yeah, but they say it saved a lot of lives by ending—”
“That’s bullshit.” She waved a dismissive hand. “Do the Japanese tell the same story?” She cocked an eyebrow. “Or is that just your American propaganda, to make yourself feel better about this terrible thing you did? In Russia, we don’t believe it. The Japanese were already beaten. Truman dropped the bomb so that when the peace treaties were signed, everyone would have to bow down to the great America. The one and only wielder of the weapon.”
Her words hit home. She called it ‘The Weapon,’ but since then many countries had stolen or developed the power to create nuclear bombs. It was no longer the one and only. But that phrase ‘The Weapon.’ It was exactly how Jones referred to Sky Fall Events. It was starting to make sense. The CIA was in a race again to develop a weapon, something to hold over all other nations, and somehow Nichols had gotten himself dragged into it.
Ekaterina must have taken his silence as encouragement because she continued. “And what about your starving? In the Soviet Union, people starve because there is no food. Here they starve because your government won’t feed them. America, the wealthiest nation in the world, and it won’t even share with its own people.” She switched into Russian now, but Nichols was certain she was just cursing. Her cheeks flushed with anger and her eyes wide. Her knuckles turned white as she gripped the stirring wheel. The passion seemed genuine. If she was spying on him, it was for the Soviets, and Jones wasn’t worried about them.
Then she said something, one of the few words Nichols knew in Russian, but it sounded off like it was missing something. He wasn’t fluent, but his mother had wanted him to learn all the sounds of all the languages when he was younger so he wouldn’t lose them like most people. It was a simple word. Nichols’ mother taught him to count to ten in Russian. The word she used now was number five — one of the most difficult words for Americans to pronounce in the Russian language.
She continued to switch back and forth getting louder. It was possible that she’d said the word with a dialect specific to her hometown, or she’d simply gotten tongue twisted in her rant. It was just as possible he remembered the word wrong. Or… He swallowed. Or she couldn’t make the sound because she wasn’t Russian. She knew so much about what was going on. How to handle it. The car, the device, everything. Nichols wondered if this was how schizophrenia felt, ever unsure about what is real and what is not. Her anger continued to build.
The test was done. He touched her shoulder lightly. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to agitate you so much.”
Ekaterina leaned into the touch. “No. It’s okay. Helps me stay awake.” Her eyes darted to the mirror and back to the road. “We should pull off soon though. I haven’t seen a car in a while, and if we sleep for a few hours, it could shake anyone following us.”
They pulled off and found a flat patch of ground, empty of trees and bushes. They parked the car, pressed their seats back as far as they could and waited for sleep. Around them, the woods chirped and moved with the subtle sounds of nightlife.
Nichols glanced over at her. Her body still except for a very slow and rare breath. He wondered if she was asleep yet, or just close. “Thank you.”
She stirred as though the words might wake her, but then she was still again.
Out the window, the stars filled the sky. He had no way to show her how grateful he was. He didn’t know what to do when he found his apartment torn to pieces, but she did. And with every step as things got worse, she was there. If he survived this, it would be because of her.
In high school, Nichols had fallen hard for an exchange student from Brazil. Over the summer he’d ordered cassette tapes to help him learn Portuguese. They dated for over a year before she returned home. She was his first love and it changed what Nichols found attractive in women. He was attracted to that curvy dark Latin look, but Ekaterina was not that at all. Pale, thin with sharp edges in her face. Beautiful by objective standards, but not something that appealed to Nichols. As he saw her in the moonlight. Maybe the gratitude he felt for her, the dependence on her over the past few days did something, but she looked beautiful to him now. Not in the scientific way that he often thought about the world. She felt beautiful for the first time.
In the morning they got out of the car to stretch. That’s when it happened. The report of the rifle echoed around them. The left front tire of the car exploded as the bullet tore through it.
Some Liars Plan to Get Caught
Some lies are told without concern for if the truth will ever be discovered, for the purpose is not invested in hiding the truth, but manipulating human behavior at the moment. In 1974 Stanley Milgram published his famous experiment on obedience to authority, where participants where lied to about electric shocks being delivered to an individual designated as The Learner. It was always the plan to reveal the truth to the participants. The purpose of lying to them was simply to reshape and alter their behavior during the experiment, for a short time in a specific situation, after that the lie was irrelevant, the behavior had already been altered.
William Stephenson, The Nature of Sky Fall Events. 2019
A second bullet slammed into the rim of the same wheel followed by a third round. It shredded the metal of the rear door, dangerously close to the rear wheel.
Ekaterina tackled Nichols to the ground and lifted her head to examine the car. “They aren’t shooting at us. Just the car. Get in.”
Nichols scrambled away towards the tree line. “Are you crazy? That’s where they are shooting.”
Ekaterina pulled open the driver side door. “I know. Just like the explosion. They’re not targeting us, but the vehicle.” She gestured around her. The silence. No more shots, just the empty silence of every living thing holding as still as possible. “See. They want you alive. They know where we are going. And they don’t want us to get there.”
He leaned out from behind a tree. His eyes shifted from her to the car.
“We were nowhere near here when the shots started.” She waved him towards her. “Hurry before they find a better location and can shoot out the other tires. We only have one spare. And they know it.”
Nichols sprinted to the door and huddled down inside. She accelerated, and the car pulled hard to the left and made odd sounds as the flat rolled strangely beneath them. Just before they pulled out of the clearing. They heard one final shot. Whatever it hit, it wasn’t the car.
“What now?” He asked.
Ekaterina shook her head. Her blondish red hair clumped together in patches where she slept. “We need to find a safe place to repair the flat soon, or the axle will break.”
The car felt uneven as it accelerated down the road. Nichols unfolded from hiding low in his seat. “I don’t see anyone behind us.”
“If it was me,” she pulled a long strand of hair and placed it in her mouth, “I’d have scouted it out the night before. Maybe placed people at the next two most likely stops in case the first sniper failed. That way they wouldn’t need to follow. We’d feel safe and pull off. One good shot and we are down two tires. Dead in the water. And driving to the third stop would probably be too much for the axle.”
Nichols took in her words. She knew too much. Thought too little to reach the conclusions. There was training there. But who and why? He reached his hand over and placed it over hers on the steering wheel. “Then we stop now. Change it right now. If you’re right, and I think you are, it’s our best option.”
She agreed, and they pulled over.
“I’ll watch for cars.” She picked up a large rock from the ground. “Change it fast.”
Nichols was sweating before he even got the jack out. Even his hands were slick as they set to loosening the lug nuts. “You’re sure they won’t follow us, but just be waiting ahead?”
“I’m not sure about anything.” She tried to run her fingers through her hair, but they caught on a tangle. “It may not look like it, but I’m making this up as I go. Just like you.”
Long before the vehicle came into view, they could hear the tires spinning over the poorly maintained road. The loose pavement giving way under the weight. The hum of the engine. It was loud, like something old and poorly maintained. Maybe Nichols had seen too many movies, read too many books but in his mind assassins didn’t drive rust buckets. “Drop your rock and wave them down.”
“What?” Ekaterina’s face tensed with her usual expression of distrust. “What if it’s them?”
“In that old truck? What are the odds?”
She tossed the rock twice in the air as though weighing the decision. “No.” She braced herself as though preparing to hurl the rock at the oncoming truck.
Nichols dashed towards her pulling the rock free then waving his hands for the truck to stop. A moment later it pulled over to the side of the road.
Ekaterina whispered in his ear, “What have you done?”
A Hispanic looking man exited the truck. He had long dark hair. He was tall, slender with a muscular build but hunched over, almost submissive. Sweat glistened on his forehead. His hands were filthy like they’d been stained with oil. He raised one to cover his eyes as he examined the two. Then he shook his head. “No hablo Ingles.” He pointed to his truck and got back in — the engine hummed quietly.
“What does that mean?” She asked.
“I guess we should get in the truck.” Nichols checked his pockets for anything he might have left in the car and walked away from Ekaterina.
“If he kills me. It’s your fault. Remember they want you alive. That doesn’t keep me safe.”
Nichols took her hand. “They didn’t shoot when it was only you in the car. They want us both alive.”
She agreed, and they got in.
As they shifted into gear and headed down the highway, the driver turned to the passengers as though about to say something but didn’t.
The truck didn’t have air conditioning, or the man didn’t turn it on. Even with the windows down, the heat of three human bodies quickly set them all to sweating. A few drops of sweat built up around the stirring wheel and dripped onto the driver’s pants. They were black like they carried the oil from his hands. Nichols looked at it for a long time. It didn’t fit. If the truck was hot before it would have pulled the dirt off, or found a way to roll over it by now. Almost as though it was a quickly created disguise. The paranoia was coming again. All the years his father had tried to teach him to look at the fine details and find the deception in them. There never was anything to find in Nichols early childhood so by the time he was a teenager he decided his father was just a little off. But the lessons, the doubt, they felt important now.
Two days ago, in his toothpaste drawer, Nichols found a listening device of Russian design, and he’d been warned by the CIA to be wary of people from South America. Now he sat between a Russian and a dark-skinned man who only spoke Spanish. It felt like he’d walked into someone’s trap. Would the driver pull over at the nearest gas station? Would he let them out of the truck? Nichols scanned the tiny cab. A crucifix of polished metal dangled from the rearview mirror. Smudges of finger and hand prints dotted the dashboard. Paper from fast-food hamburgers littered the floor. If anyone asked what the cab of a poor farmer looked like, this would be it. That’s what bothered him. It was exactly how he imagined it, and he knew his own imagining was based on stereotypes, movies, and television.
Nichols had heard that Spanish and Portuguese were very close, so much so that often tourist fluent in one would use it to speak to another, and the two could communicate. He’d try it. He wasn’t sure if he should make his accent as thick as possible or as American as possible, but if one failed he could try the other. Nichols spoke Portuguese almost like a native, “Where you headed?”
The driver shook his head. “No hablo.”
The sweat began to build under Nichols' arms. He reached out and placed it on Ekaterina’s knee. To the driver, it would appear an act of affection, but he gripped his fingers tight where they couldn’t be seen. He wanted to warn her. She jerked her head at him in discomfort and confusion, but Nichols just gave a nod.
He tried speaking again. This time he thicked the Portuguese with a heavy American accent, “Where you headed?”
The driver shifted his body away from the two and gave the same answer. “No hablo.”
Nichols skin chilled. If they wanted to kidnap him, this was it. He leaned into Ekaterina and placed a gentle kiss on her ear and whispered, “We need to get out of here. He speaks English and probably fired the shots.”
Her body went ridged.
Nichols slid his hand higher up her leg so it would look like a reaction to his hand and not what he said. “Try to relax. Don’t spook him.”
If life were ordinary Nichols would have expected a reaction out of the driver, but this man kept his eyes firmly on the road. His expression unchanged. It was the only thing that didn’t fit in perfectly with the stereotypes. It was training and focus.
When a gas station finally appeared every muscle in Nichols’ body flexed. Would the driver stop? Would they be allowed out or was this the moment he turned on them?
The truck pulled off the road and stopped in front of the only pump at the station. The driver gestured for them to get out.
Ekaterina descended with her usual grace and held Nichols hand as he got out. She pulled him close. “See nothing happened. We’re fine.”
Nichols scanned the inside of the truck one more time. He ran his finger along one of the black smudges and the tip up to his nose. It smelled of oil and gunpowder. Something was wrong. The pieces were there, but they weren’t lining up. It was like when Jones tried to solve the Rubik’s cube. He didn’t know the stickers had been moved, so he didn’t know how to solve it. That’s how this felt. The listening device, the explosion, and gunshots. All the pieces were there, and they should line up, but they didn’t. He was missing something — the fundamental pieces of the puzzle.
Ekaterina let go of his hand. “I’m going to call a tow or cab.” She headed towards the small shack with a rusted sign that read: open.
If Jones had seen the cube after he’d finished, imperfect, he would have thought he’d made a mistake, but once he learned Nichols had moved the stickers, it changed how he thought about the problem. That’s what was happening now. Nichols wasn’t sure if he made a mistake or if he’d missed something. The driver should have kept going, pulled a gun on them, bound them or…
Ekaterina stepped back out of the building. “They say the phones are dead, but the owner’s cabin is only a few miles up this dirt road. We can walk and make the call from there.”
Nichols met her eyes and stared for a long moment. This could be the missing piece. Instead of kidnapping them kicking and screaming they would walk themselves to the holding prison, but other pieces didn’t make sense. He needed to stop letting the puzzle come together the way they wanted. He shook his head. “No. We’ll say we're headed up to the cabin. Start that direction, but we’ll follow the road, back to the car and change the tire.”
“Why?” She touched his arm.
“Because going there sounds like the perfect way to kidnap us and getting back in the truck doesn’t seem like a good idea either.”
The great promise of capitalism is that the best products, services, and values rise to the top. Great human invention would be embraced by demand. But the science of propaganda and persuasion changed that.
Nike is a world-famous athletic shoe company that dominates the market. Their shoe designs also tend to be narrow which leads to the development of sesamoiditis among athletes. Even aware of the issue they continue to sell narrow shoes simply because they sell better. They learned early on that as children grow out of their shoes and buy new ones the tighter fit of the narrow shoe feels familiar even if it’s not good for the health of the foot. Despite the injuries, they have the best marketing persuasion. It allows them not only to dominate the market but for all their shortcomings they sell their shoes at the highest prices.
Science changed persuasion and persuasion broke the promise of capitalism. Now, many of the world’s best ideas die because their creators have too much integrity to manipulate the masses.
William Stephenson, The Nature of Sky Fall Events. 2019
The trek back through the woods to the car took over an hour, but was uneventful. Even while repairing the tire no one drove by and before long, they entered the city. Wiped down the stolen vehicle and abandoned it in an alley then found a car rental and were on their way to D. C. The closer they got, the quieter and easier the journey was the more Nichols wondered what he was missing. Whoever it was that was after them had seemed to have a clear intention, not let them reach Washington D. C. and the CIA. But the driver of the truck had been lying, and he had helped them on their way. Nichols thought about this a lot as they took turns driving. It was possible they only wanted to delay his arrival until…what? If that was their plan, they had succeeded. But why?
As they reached Langley, they were sent to a small office complex away from the two large CIA buildings. Waiting inside to see a case officer was a unique experience. Apparently, people coming to see the CIA is a common thing, and oddballs from all across America came. Some were secretive about why they were there, but most gushed to tell anyone. They didn’t care if people wanted to hear their stories or not. If you had ears and were too close, they would start.
A man that looked to be in his thirties with thick glasses and an unshaven beard rambled on about how the Soviets put a chip in his brain, and he needed the CIA to take it out. He claimed that he hit his head while working construction and it damaged the chip, now it buzzed all the time. He couldn’t sleep at night because it just kept buzzing. He slapped the side of his head a few times, probably an attempt to stop whatever he was hearing.
Nichols leaned close to Ekaterina. “Don’t say anything they can hear. I worry what they might do if they hear your accent.”
She gave a slight nod and found a corner far away from the others. Whenever someone wandered near, they leaned closer to each other. It didn’t deter everyone, but most.
A man in a dark suit called the people back one by one. Most were angry when they left his office and shouted their theories at him and the building. As the day went on, he became more disheveled as though he were picking up pieces of their madness with each meeting.
Now, he stood outside the interview room — a clipboard in his hands. He scanned the waiting area and looked at his watch. “That’s it for today.” He let out a deep frustrated sigh. “The rest of you will have to come back tomorrow.”
Ekaterina rushed forward and whispered, “We can’t leave. People are trying to kill us.”
The man in the suit spoke with thick sarcasm, “I’m sure they are. They may try again tomorrow. If you survive, we can talk then.”
Enraged Ekaterina started yelling, “They blew up my car.” The room went still, but she didn’t notice as everyone’s eyes focused on her. “Check your news.” Her Soviet accent grew thicker as she became angrier. She gesticulated wildly. “I’m not making this up.”
Ekaterina’s attention focused on the CIA officer. She didn’t see the faces of the crowd. They twisted with hate, rage, and fear. So many of their delusions, and hallucination centered on Soviet spies and now, here in their midst was an iconic member of that despised group. A young beautiful Russian woman with reddish hair. In a rallying war cry, one of them shouted, “Soviet Spy!” Moments ago, they had been inching their way timidly towards her; now they surged forward arms outstretched.
Beneath the balding head, and wrinkled suit and the tired eyes the CIA representative had been trained at some point, and the instincts remained. He jerked the door to the interview room open and thrust Ekaterina in. Then slammed it shut. His entire body went rigid as he extended his hand in the universal sign for stop. When he spoke, he commanded the room like Moses must have done to the Red Sea, “Stop. She is in CIA custody. And we will deal with her appropriately.”
The feral crowd eased as though they had momentarily forgotten where they were. That if there ever was a place to run into a Soviet spy, then it was in the custody of the CIA.
The Representative stayed vigilant until the mob returned to muttering about their individual madnesses.
Nichols approached and was about to speak when the representative indicated for the college student to enter through the door.
Inside the interrogation room, Ekaterina was standing in a corner shaking. She looked up. “I thought that they were going to kill me.”
Tears welled up in the corner of her eyes. Nichols thought they were going to kill her too, but he couldn’t say that. He decided not to say anything. He just wrapped his arms around her and let her cry it out. Everything else that happened only seemed to make her angry, but this scared her. It was different.
The door opened, and the Representative entered. “You’ll need to stay here until we clear them out.”
Nichols pulled away from Ekaterina. “I need to speak to operative Jones about Sky Fall events.”
“Jones, about Sky Fall events.” Nichols stared at the other door in the room. The one that led into the CIA offices. He gathered as much command in his voice as he could. “Go tell him Nichols is here.”
The Representative raised an accusatory finger. “I don’t take orders from you.”
Nichols hung his head. “Sorry. I’m a little emotional. It would mean a lot if you could help us. I know Jones, and I need to talk to him, but I don’t know how to reach him. He works on Sky Fall events.”
“Okay. Stay here.” The Representative left.
In the long wait, Ekaterina composed herself and tried to wipe away her tears. There were still streaks of irritated skin on her cheeks, and her eyes were red.
When someone finally did come from the CIA offices, it was not Jones. The man was tall with thick dark hair and a well-fitted suit. He extended his hand and offered only his first name, “Trevor.”
Nichols took it. “We wanted to see Jones.”
The well-dressed man was brisk in his manner and spoke quickly, “Not available. What do you need?”
Nichols looked back at Ekaterina. It was not the welcome he’d expected. After all the recruitment officers they had sent. All the lunches and dinners they bought for him he thought the CIA might be glad to see him begging for their help, but then again maybe this man knew none of that. He seemed hurried like he just wanted to be rid of them. Nichols felt like a child now, out of place at his parent’s work. “He warned me that people might come and they have. They tore my apartment to pieces.” He pointed at Ekaterina. “They blew up her car and fired shots at us.” He took a deep breath and straightened his back. “We need protection.”
Trevor shook his head. “We are on American soil. The only people we protect here are our own operatives. Call the FBI or police.” He turned and left the room. The door quietly closed behind him.
For a long time, Nichols just looked at the door. It’s manila color with darker streaks through it where the dye soaked in deeper. The handle was a brass color. Clean, almost sterile. The door they came through was identical. There were two chairs, and Nichols sat down in one. His hands in his lap. He looked up, not at anyone or anything, just up. “What now?”
Ekaterina came up behind him. Slid her arms around his neck and rested her head on his. Her tears dripped onto his skin and rolled down his face.
In the Wrong Hands
I remember when I first met Stephenson. The warning he gave as we walk through the empty city. That if anyone wielded Sky Fall, then they could do whatever they wanted and no one could stop them. They could kill anyone, and no one would ask questions. They could call the armies of the strongest nations to fight their wars for them, and the nations would come willingly. I doubted him. I do not doubt now.
On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The smaller nation had no chance in a long-term conflict. An organization named Citizens for a Free Kuwait started gathering poll data and conducting focus groups to determine what types of propaganda would most arouse American outrage. The group was almost entirely funded by the Kuwait government and royal family. From their research, they began a massive propaganda campaign across the U.S. with stories of atrocities and injustices perpetrated by the Iraqis. They conducted bi-weekly polls to ensure that the United States was gradually becoming more interested in joining the war on the Kuwait side. That’s when Nayirah shared her story of Iraqi soldiers taking babies from their incubators and leaving them to die on the floor. When the final vote came to decide whether or not America would enter the conflict seven senators referenced the story as their reason for supporting the war. The motion passed by a margin of five votes. Only after the war, the story was found to be nothing but a piece of well-crafted propaganda just as was done in the First World War.
Jay Nichols, Secrets of the Sky Fall. 2019
The next few days were an endless stream of filling out police and FBI reports and sitting in interrogation rooms. They were asked the same questions over and over. The officers and agents snickered every time Nichols mentioned the CIA. It also changed the direction of the interrogation for a few hours as they grilled him about his Soviet girlfriend.
Nichols started letting his mind wander during the sessions. The tenth time they asked a question he felt no rush to answer it. He looked down at the table. On his side, the metal was streaked with scratch marks. He imagined all the men sitting here grating their handcuffs over the table. Ekaterina made the joke when he first met her that just because she was from the Soviet Union didn’t mean she was a spy, but now he was beginning to see how many people really thought that. Multiple times they suggested that she’d bombed her own car. That’s when Nichols tuned out. These people were ridiculous. They didn’t believe the important information he gave them and kept searching for something to support their own theories. The truth was irrelevant. If they could prove Ekaterina was a spy, it would be a huge boost to their careers. Each and everyone seemed to think it, and for two days all they did was pressure Nichols to give them evidence to support that theory.
In a final attempt, they brought in a new interrogator. He sat casually in the chair across from Nichols. “I’ve been watching everything that’s happening. I investigated the car and both apartments. Would you like to know what I found?”
Nichols examined the man’s face. It was neutral, no arrogance, no I-know-something-you-don’t, just a patient man waiting. Nichols was about to speak but nodded instead.
“First off I’ll tell you it’s complicated. The explosive used was of Soviet design and style, but as we examined the particulates, we discovered mineral clusters that would put its place of origin in Ecuador.” The agent frowned. “That make any sense to you? I’ve thought about it a lot. Why Ecuador? Why would the Soviets make a bomb in Ecuador to blow up the car of a college student in the United States? A lot of countries closer. Cuba for one. Doesn’t add up unless you know something I don’t.”
Nichols jerked his head up. “What?” It wasn’t a question, more an expression of his excitement, for the first time there was real proof to what he’d believed, to what he’d been warned about. “That’s what the CIA said. That people from South America might come after me and my research.
The agent stroked his chin and nodded. “You know I recognize you, from TV. Saw you a few times talking about all kinds of new developments and understanding in the fields of propaganda and persuasion. They even referred to you a few times as an expert.” He sucked the saliva out from between his teeth. “You know that is the bread and butter of the Soviet government, they steal research, kidnap scientists and create propaganda.” He pointed at Nichols. “And then you show up here with a car that’s been detonated by a Soviet device, an apartment that has been professionally searched and bugged.” The agent cocked an eyebrow at the student as he waited for the surprise reaction. “And in tow is a stunning Russian girl. You know they train them right? Call them Sparrows. In movies the seduction is quick. A day or two to lure men into bed, but the Sparrows job is not sex, it’s love, and that moves at a slower pace. They are trained to create an emotional dependency.” He leaned forward in his chair. “Tell me, over the past few days that all these things have happened to you how has your relationship with her changed?”
The skin on Nichols arms and back went cold. Until a few days ago they were friends, and now, he felt lost without her, he needed her. He met the man’s eyes. “Just because that’s what happened doesn’t mean you’re right.”
The agent nodded. “I’ve seen it a hundred times. You keep dismissing us every time we mention she might be a spy, but you forget we are familiar with the Soviet tactics and methods. This is textbook. I’ll bet Brittany was part of it as well, a distraction to pull any suspicion away from Ekaterina.”
Nichols voice turned feral, “What if you're wrong?”
The agent pressed his lips into a thin line. “I’m not, but I’ll keep looking until I can prove it to you.”
“And what about her?” Nichols thrust his finger at a wall as though she might be on the other side of it. “You’ll just keep her here until then?”
Again, the agent nodded. “She’s not an American citizen. We can keep her as long as we want.” He stood. “I know you're angry today, but when the truth comes out, you’ll thank me.
“The hell I will.” Nichols stood. “I want out of here.”
“Not a problem.” He held up his hand. “However we will put a protective detail on you. We don’t want to give the Soviets another chance to kidnap one of our scientists.”
Nichols' mouth hung open in shock. They would be watching him. They could call it whatever they wanted. They were going to be spying on him. His father was right. Men who work for the government couldn’t be trusted. They all had their agendas, but maybe Nichols could make them work for him instead of against him.
“For your own good.” The agent said over his shoulder as he left.
If Ekaterina was going to be free Nichols needed to do something.
After waiting for several hours in the CIA lobby, Nichols was called back to the room where some of the craziest conspiracy theories were recited. He sat down and pulled out a slip of paper. He placed it on the desk. “I need to talk to case officer Jones, who works on Sky Fall events.” He slid the paper across the desk. “About this. It goes to him an no one else.”
The Representative reached across the table for the paper and Nichols slapped the hand down. “Jones, and no one else.”
The man narrowed his eyes, the contempt building in his face, but when he spoke his voice was controlled. “I have to make sure it’s valid.”
“Give him my name. Him and no one else.”
The Representative shifted his weight in the seat as though weighing his options. His eyes darted between the paper and Nichols several times. “I’ll see what he has to say.” He left the room and Nichols repeated his warning once more.
After nearly an hour the Representative returned. “He’s not available.” He pointed at the paper. I have to read the message if I’m going to leave it for him.
Nichols pursed his lips. It was unlikely that anyone other than Jones could decipher what was on the paper. Too much was based on their previous conversation, but this was the CIA, home of the greatest code crackers in history. What he didn’t want was his message to somehow end up with Trevor. Nichols needed help and Trevor had made it clear he wasn’t interested. The student glanced up and nodded his approval to the request.
The Representative’s face twisted in confusion to what was written on the paper. Nichols had made sure to remove any context from the information. It read almost like gibberish. A few numbers and words, followed by more numbers. It was Williams Stephenson’s current address in Bermuda. The country and city had been removed, but the postal codes were still there. Jones would recognize it.
Nichols gave the name of the motel he was staying at and left. He wasn’t sure how long it would take Jones to contact him, or even if he would. Nichols needed another plan.
Silas Cooper sat in the prison waiting room. His thick black hair slicked back with a thick gel that made him look a little like an eel. His briefcase and visitor card identified him as a representative from the Soviet Embassy. A few guards asked why he sounded American to which Silas told them he was American but worked for the Soviets in negotiating U.S. law. They sneered their distaste at him but asked no more questions.
When Ekaterina was brought into the room, she wore a bright orange jumpsuit and was still handcuffed at the wrists and ankles. The guard was about to unlock her, but Silas waved his hand to indicate it wasn’t necessary.
Her eyes flicked about the room like a wild animal, jerking at every clink of metal, and thud of boot. Her breath was rapid and every muscle in body tense as she leaned forward on the bench. When they were finally alone, she spoke rapidly. “What am I doing here? How come you haven’t gotten me out? Why are they holding me?”
Silas held up his hands for both silence and gesturing her to calm down. “Easy now. Before I can do anything for you, I need some information about your time with Jay Nichols. Tell me—”
“I did what you asked. You said if I helped you then I would not be sent back to Soviet. You didn’t say I would be staying in prison!”
“It was not an unforeseen complication. Rest assured if Mr. Nichols complies with our goals then we will hold up our end of the agreement.”
“That is shit.” She narrowed her eyes and stood up. “You knew this would happen? And what you mean he hasn’t complied. I did what you asked. You blew up my car. You shot at me. I got him there. I did what you asked.” Her hand twisted in awkward gestures in the cuffs. “You get me out.”
“Yes honey, you did get him there.” He ran his fingers gently over his heavily gelled hair to ensure not a single strand was out of place. “But the how is important. The psychology of it all. If you simply told him the whole truth, that the CIA was threatening to deport you back to the Soviet Union with proof you have divulged Soviet secrets unless you helped, he might have been willing to follow along just to help his friend. It would also mean that he would have no intention of joining the CIA. Do you get that in that tiny skull of yours? I need to know what you told him. I need to know why he doesn’t work for us yet.”
Her hands trembled. She placed them on the table and lowered her self back down to sitting. “I did what you said. I told him nothing about our arrangement.”
Silas laughed. “Did you? I told you to make him fall in love with you. Did you do that?”
Ekaterina was still for a long time then she shrugged.
“My point exactly. He may need further motivation.” He pulled several documents from his briefcase along with a pen. “We need to put pressure on him. Give him a deadline to provoke more irrational decision making. These are statements by you confessing to leaking information about Soviet economics and farming technology to the United States.”
She shook her head violently. “But I didn’t. I don’t even know these things.”
“Just listen.” Silas pressed the pen towards her. “It will establish you as a Soviet agent. We will get the newspapers to run a few articles that we plan to trade you back to Russia. That will force his hand.”
“No.” Her head continued to shake. “No. We don’t need these you can just plant the story, but if the wrong people saw these, they would come for me.”
Silas cocked his head to the side. “Oh honey, what do you think I’m going to do to you if you don’t?” He reached across the table and gripped her chin tight, so she couldn’t shake her head anymore. When she stopped fighting and held still, he caressed her cheek with his thumb. “Killing you won’t solve my problems but you can be assured that a lot of people in here would be willing to cut up that pretty face for the right price. Sign or the Soviets will be the least of your problems.”
Her eyes were wide, and nostrils flared, and she stared at him, but she edged her hands across the table and took the pen then signed the papers.
“Good girl.” Silas closed the documents in her briefcase. “I’ve made sure he can’t come and visit you, and it’s best you don’t try to write letters to anyone. I wouldn’t know what was in them. It would make me uneasy.”
Ekaterina’s face was pale with fear, and she gave a slight nod.
Silas exited the room as the guard entered from the other side to lead her away. On the administrator side, Silas distributed the signed papers to the FBI agents working her case. “She’s confessed to just about everything. It’s amazing how compliant they can be when threatened with execution. Make arrangements to send her back as quickly as possible. The CIA spent the last few months filling her head with nonsense. The sooner the Soviets can get their hands on her the more likely they are to believe the lies we’ve put in her head.”
Two Minds Theory
In 1958 an experiment was run involving secretaries. They were brought in and asked to fill out all the correct letters on typewriters that were left entirely blank. These women were among the best in their fields. Chosen for their ability to take dictation, type quickly, and produce very few errors, both in spelling, and grammar.
When asked to fill in the correct letters, the brightest and best among them only got 57% correct. That’s failing. However, when asked to correctly type out dictation, even without the visible letters they all had over 97% accuracy. It was as though they had two different minds, one that knew where the correct keys were, and one that didn’t. One they could access and think about and draw on from memory, and one that only impacted their behavior.
Propaganda is designed to target that second mind, that one you cannot access, the one that you cannot explain how it does what it does — the one that only impacts human behavior.
William Stephenson, The Nature of Sky Fall Events. 2019
Nichols went out to dinner and walked home to clear his head. Maybe see something that would spark his imagination on what to do next. When the bomb went off, when the sniper hunted them Nichols had no skills to deal with those situations, but he needed them. He would find teachers and next time be prepared. The street outside the restaurant was fairly busy. Couples walked side by side. A few people walked their dogs or smoked quietly on their doorsteps. It was still light outside, but the timers on the street lamps triggered, and a yellow glow washed over everything in competition with the red from the sunset.
As he walked past another smoker, a familiar voice called out to him. “All that trouble to track me down and you don’t even bother to say hello.” Just like when they first met, Jones spoke from the shadows, the bench carefully chosen far away from the street lights and under the shade of a tree, but the voice was the same.
Nichols turned to see Jones spew a long stream of black smoke into the air. The ash on the tip of his cigarette smoldered an orange color. Nichols stared for a long time.
Jones spoke with a slight drawl to his voice, just like the first time. It wasn’t heavy like an actor in a movie who wanted to make sure the audience could hear it, more like it faded as he experienced the world. “Well, you brought me here kid. What is it you want?”
“I…” Nichols paused trying to gather his thoughts. “I need your help.”
“Figured as much. Be specific.”
Nichols relayed the events of the previous week all the way to the moment when the FBI refused to release Ekaterina. The operative nodded along.
“He was right you know.” Jones inhaled a deep breath of smoke. It leaked out his nose and mouth as he spoke. “We can’t do anything if you don’t work for us. But if you did, you could claim she was your asset, and the FBI would have to let her go.”
“You could do that?”
Jones shook his head. “I barely know you, and I’ve never met her. I’m not claiming anything.”
“So that’s it. That’s my only option. If I want her out, I have to join the CIA?”
The case officer furrowed his brow and hummed to himself. “To a hammer, everything is a nail.” He held up a hand for silence once he saw the confusion on Nichols' face. “I work for the CIA; I solve problems the way the CIA taught me. It’s how I think. That doesn’t mean there are not other ways, but I’m a hammer. I hit nails. You want different advice ask a screwdriver.”
Nichols' eyes returned to the street and the people walking by. “How long till I could claim her as an asset?”
Jones tapped the ash off the end of the cigarette. “A month or two in background checks. Another six training at the farm. Then…” He shrugged.
“Eight months. She would be left in there to rot for almost a year.” Nichols shook his head. “There has to be a better way.”
Jones shrugged again. “I don’t want to rush you, but I spoke to a friend of mine at the FBI. They’ve coaxed her into signing a few confessions — the plan is to trade her back to the Soviet Union for an American.
Nichols knitted his eyebrows in a moment of confusion. “So, she was a spy?”
“Maybe,” Jones said. “Most confessions are the product of coercion, not guilt. But I think you’re asking the wrong question. If she deceived you, that’s about who she is, and the kind of person she has chosen to be. If you choose to leave her there not knowing the truth that’s about who you are and who you want to be.”
“That doesn’t make it any easier to decide.”
“It’s not supposed to. But it makes the choice more honest, more true.”
Nichols dragged her into this, and she’d help protect him when he was lost. He wondered what life would be like at the CIA, could he still do the things he dreamed about? He looked up at Jones. “Would I get to study Sky Fall events?”
“I don’t get to decide that. I work in the field. But given your studies and a few recommendations, it seems likely.”
Nichols sat on the bench next to the operative for a long time in silence.
Eventually, Jones got up to leave. He placed his package of cigarettes on the bench and nodded to the student.
Nichols looked up and for the first time got a really good look at Jones' face. “You said it was important that no one look into the Hadley Cantril study because it’s wrong. Why didn’t anyone look into it back then? I’m familiar with a lot of Cantril’s work. He was brilliant. How did he get it wrong?”
Jones frowned. “There was a conspiracy back in 1938, wealthy and powerful men of influence, some of them Nazis. Everyone wanted to keep it secret, but there were too many, and they were at odds with each other, the truth of Cantril’s work was lost, or destroyed depending on which version you want to believe.”
“Why did he publish then?”
“Longer story. Ask Stephenson when you meet him. He can tell you everything. What happened and how it was lost.” Jones turned and left.
The sun sank behind the building, and the world was dark except for a few traces of lamp light coming through the leaves. Nichols pulled out a cigarette and placed it between his lips. Fifty years ago something happened, and some of the world’s most important scientific research was lost. Nichols now had a terrible choice to make. He watched the people go back and forth. Their freedom was so fragile, and they didn’t even know it. All it took was a suspicion that they were connected to espionage activity and the FBI could take it away. The pieces didn’t add up either. At home and on the road, whoever was after him had been unyielding, but once they reach D.C., they seemed to vanish as though this was their goal all along. If Nichols’ father were to look at it, he would claim everyone worked for the CIA and their plan was to force recruitment. Sadly, that was the theory that made the most sense, but if it was wrong and Nichols walked away, Ekaterina would spend her life in prison. If not the U.S. then in the Soviet Union.
An old couple stopped in front of Nichols, and the man held out his hand with something in it. “You need a light buddy?”
Nichols answer was muffled by the cigarette in his mouth, “What?”
The older man pointed to the unlit tip.
“Oh, yeah.” Nichols held out the cigarette until the flame caused it to smolder.
The couple departed, and the student continued to hold it, not smoking just, holding it in his hand. His father would never forgive him if he joined the CIA. Nichols could never forgive himself for letting Ekaterina spend the rest of her life in prison. Five years. If he only spent eight hours a day at work, then it was like a third so more like a year and a half, and he’d have weekends off, so it was just a year, really. The rest of the time was his. Besides, maybe deep in their archives, they had secrets about Sky Fall events, things he didn’t know, things that he couldn’t get anywhere else, things to change his understanding.
In the longtime Nichols spent thinking the cigarette burned down to the tip and singed his fingers. “Shit.” He dropped it to the ground and stomped it out. Across the way and through the trees stood the CIA headquarters. They had tried to recruit him multiple times for the things he could do for them, but all they ever promised was money and a chance to see the world. Now, they had him because of the one they never promised. In the morning he would get drunk and contact the last recruiter who visited, and in a year Ekaterina would be free.
Anchor and Adjustment
When attempting to guess at something people will generally have a starting point, and make adjustments as they gather more information or decided their current answer feels inadequate. Researchers wanted to know if this method of understanding the world could be manipulated. They asked test subjects to guess at what temperature water boiled on Mt. Everest, but first, they asked them another question. Group A was asked, “Is the boiling point above or below 50 degrees?” Group B was asked, “Is the boiling point above or below 500 degrees?” Both groups ended getting the answer to the initial question wrong. Those asked about 50 degrees underestimated the boiling point, and those asked about 500 degrees overestimated the boiling point. Simply asking the question changed what people thought about the boiling point. It changed what the subjects thought they knew about physics. It was a simple change, not overly manipulative, but it only took one sentence to change that. A few simple seconds. What can be done with hours of people's attention, endlessly leveraging these small manipulations?
William Stephenson, The Nature of Sky Fall Events. 2019
Silas Cooper sat in a corner booth of the bar. At his request, the owner had loosened the light bulb nearest the table for the evening to ensure it was extra dark. He brought with him two packages filled with cash.
Britany entered the bar. Her long dark hair pulled into a pony tail and tucked under a baseball cap. She ordered a drink then wandered back to where Silas sat. He slid one of the packages of money across the table and thanked her for her service. She smiled. “This much for just a few hours of work. You can call me anytime.” She picked up the manila container and counted the bills inside as she wandered back to the bar for her drink.
Alvero watched the exchange from another table and only when the girl was gone did he join Silas. “That wasn’t the waitress.”
Cooper shook his head. “I find best to have contingencies. There was no way to know which girl Nichols would end up with, so I planted several.”
“Several?” Alvero cocked a suspicious eyebrow.
“A lot more people than you think believe in fate to one degree or another. If everyone around starts pushing a certain direction, it can feel like fate, but in truth, it’s just good planning.”
Alvero nodded. “Now that you have your prodigy, this Nichols, are we ready to begin?”
“Not yet.” Silas sipped at his whiskey. “We’ll need to wait until he finishes his training before we can move forward with any major efforts, but if you need time to pick a location and lay the groundwork, I do know this. He’s fluent in Portuguese.”
“I told you that.”
Silas paused a moment his rhythm broken. “That’s right. But it presents a small problem. Not many countries have Portuguese as their official language. It also limits our ability to match infrastructure, and socioeconomic status. I don’t like it, but it’s what we have.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Alvero said.
Silas nodded. “Make sure they have enough so we can communicate our message to most or at least half the country. I don’t want a turn out like Buffalo in 67. I want a whole nation enveloped in madness.”
Alvero gave a solemn nod and collected his cash. “Don’t forget what we are working towards.”
A cross hung from Silas’ neck. He touched it lightly. “I won’t.”
In the parking lot, Jones sat on the hood of Silas’ car. The ash tumbled off the end of his cigarette and onto the paint.
Silas crinkled his nose. “What do you want?” The director pulled his keys from his pocket.
Jones made no motion to move even as Silas entered the car. “I know what you did. It seemed odd that kid coming to visit me. Twice even. I guess I can understand it. You tried to recruit him. He refused. You tried again and again. He refused. You disguised it as the FBI, NSA and even State Department as recruiting him, and every time he turned you down.”
Silas stood with the door open and one leg in. “So, what is this? You're congratulating me on a brilliant manipulation?” He snorted his displeasure.
“No.” Jones shook his head. “My real issue is that you made me part of it. I wanted to warn the kid.”
Silas cut Jones off by shouting, “Bullshit. Stephenson wanted to warn the kid. You’re his lap dog, and I know it. But if you’re going to play both sides, then you’d be an idiot not to think I’d use that to my advantage.”
Jones took a long pull on the cigarette. “What happens when he finishes his training and Ekaterina is no longer in custody? He’s a smart kid. Maybe at first, he’ll think it was some South American warlord, but eventually, he’ll dig deep enough and learn the truth, what then?”
“What makes you think I’ll give him a chance? I’ll pile the workload so heavy he’ll never get out unless he brings me all the secrets of the Sky Fall. So, I won’t give a shit if he turns on me.” Silas pointed. “Now get off my car.”
“Don’t poke the bear.” Jones descended from the hood at an easy, carefree speed. “We don’t know enough about him to know what will happen if you provoke him. That makes this whole thing reckless.”
Silas entered in the car. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve been studying these things longer than you’ve been alive. You have no idea how little I care if I piss off some twenty-year-old kid. Ain’t no God damn bear.”
Jones held out his hand, and the ash tumbled onto the car. “I mean me. If this comes back on me. I’m the one you’ll need to watch for.”
The red from Silas face dulled, and he swallowed then put the car in reverse and pulled out of the parking lot. Jones had always been difficult, but this was a threat, and now Silas would have to deal with him as well.
The End of the Beginning.
To continue reading the next book in the series just turn two pages for chapter one of
When the Sky Falls. It will continue Nichols journey and Study of Sky Fall Events.
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Turn the page to start on Chapter 1 of When the Sky Falls where you will meet William Stephenson for the first time. If you love audiobooks When the Sky Falls is also in audio on Audible.com
The Day the Sky Fell
“What makes you believe a lie? I’m not asking how you know someone is lying. What makes you believe? Because if you don’t understand how that works, then you won’t know when you’re being manipulated.”
William Stephenson, The Nature of Sky Fall Events. 2019
Porto, Portugal. October 30, 1988. 8:13 p.m.
The lights flickered and went dark, that’s when it started. Luis reached up and adjusted the bulb with his fingers. The hot glass burned his skin. He gritted his teeth as the sensation grew stronger. He doubted the bulb was the problem. The TV, fan and even the street light outside the apartment all died in the same moment. “Is this normal for an earthquake?”
Car headlights flashed through the windows reflecting off Renata’s long, dark hair. “It’s not an earthquake. They already said that.”
Luis let go of the bulb. Only a moment ago, the emergency broadcast system had come on the air. It’s strobing red light, and high pitched siren blared through every apartment. It was followed by men in lab coats being interviewed. They warned everyone that something was coming, and before they could finish the power cut out, the one thing they had said was, “it’s not an earthquake.”
The street outside the window was still lightless, and Luis went to check the fuse box. It wouldn’t do much good. If the entire neighborhood lost power, it clearly wasn’t a fuse, but at least it was something to do.
Renata took his hand. Her fingers trembled. “It’s not the fuses; it’s not our lights. Let it go.” Behind her, the old cement walls were spidered with cracks. They had been like that when they moved in.
“I don’t know what else to do.” He pressed his lips together and looked out the window. Outside, a family loaded into a car; the trunk overflowed as the father kicked at it until the latch held. They piled in, each with a pack on their lap. The mother sat in the passenger seat. In her hands, she held a pistol. Her husband got in, and the car roared to life. A few people emerged onto the street carrying packs, or bags. They all headed east, away from the coast. That’s where the scientist said it would start, on the coast.
“The phone lines,” Renata’s voice wavered, “They use a different power source than the electrical grid, right?” She wiped at beads of sweat forming on her forehead. “For emergencies, right?” She swallowed hard. “I’ll try and call my mom,” She picked up the receiver and held it to her ear. The lines in her face deepened the longer she held the phone. She frowned and jabbed at the disconnect lever several times. “The phones are dead.” Her skin paled. “The phones,” she licked her dry lips, “are dead.”
Luis was still for a long time. Strange muscles deep in his stomach twisted. Something terrible was happening, and he couldn’t do anything to stop it. He didn’t even know what it was. There was a worry in her soft brown eyes; he wanted to protect her, keep her from feeling this way. He walked over and put his hand on Renata’s cheek then kissed her. “We’re leaving.”
She nodded towards the bags they’d started to prepare midway through the broadcast. “Do you think this will be enough?” She rested her head on his chest.
The electricity surged back, lights blazing to life. The TV flashed it’s red warning again. After a moment, it changed to a camera feed from inside a helicopter. A reporter bobbed in and out of the frame. “We’re flying over the city of Vila de Conde, only a few kilometers from Porto.” He pointed to something off camera. “While it seems a much weaker force is headed this way, it will strike here first. That should give us some idea of what to prepare for.” The wind whipped his hair wildly and drowned his voice out. The camera focused in over the ocean. White edges of curling waves shifted as they crashed against the shore. City lights reflected on the water; then the whole city blinked out. “What the hell?” The camera jerked up over the blackened city. A loud guttural cry screeched through the TV speakers, and the reporter's voice shouted, “What in God’s nam—” The image on the TV shook and rotated like someone dropped the camera, then the screen cut to static.
Every beat of Luis’ heart pounded in his chest, teeth, and fingers. He waited for the static to end, for someone to come back, to tell them what happened.
Renata grabbed his hand; her pulse was rapid; throbbing in the vein on her neck. When she spoke, the words sounded strange like her mouth was dry after hanging open for too long. “What’s happening?”
Through the window, they saw a car slam into the small market across the street. Glass shards toppled down and shattered on the hood. Two men got out and kicked at the remaining jagged edges. With sacks in their hands, they hustled inside and filled the bags with food and supplies. They tossed them into the backseat and doubled back for more. A box of spaghetti fell out of the passenger side and burst open. Noodles splayed out on the pavement, breaking under the boots of the men as they hurried back and forth.
“I need to get something.” Luis rushed to the bedroom and pulled a pistol from under the bed. He loaded it and placed several ammo boxes in a bag before returning to his pack in the living room.
The static on the screen finally ended. A news anchor sat at a desk; sweat dripped down his face. He wiped at his brow. “It’s clear now, from this footage.” A small image on the side of the screen grew larger. It was a distant shot of the city of Vila de Conde. The entire coastal edge was gone. The hotels, resorts, beach houses. All gone. Some bits of rubble smoldered in the darkness. “This has been some sort of attack.” He stopped, and his face became stern. He sprayed saliva as he shouted at someone, “I can’t … God damn it … I can’t say that on TV. No one will believe it!” He shoved the desk over and stood; then turned and walked a few steps towards the back of the set.
A husky male voice came from off screen. “Do you believe it?” There was a pause, but the anchor kept walking. The husky voice spoke again, pleading this time, “Someone has to tell them. They have to know.” He yelled with urgency in his voice, “We saw them!”
The newscaster stopped and looked over his shoulder at the camera. “Tell them to run.” He disappeared off camera, and the screen went to static.
The lights flickered a second time, then went dark. Luis held his hand over his mouth. He stopped breathing for a moment and counted his heartbeats. He waited, but the lights didn’t come back.
With heavy packs strapped to their backs, Luis and Renata staggered into the street towards their car. A traffic jam built up behind the vehicle that had crashed into the market. People dashed inside, stealing food. The narrow European street swelled with a growing mob as they disembarked their cars to investigate the problem.
A man got into the obstructing car and attempted to reverse out. The center of the frame teetered on the curb, and the wheels spun over the slick cobblestones.
A massive man with a thick beard exited his truck. “What’s wrong with you?” He thrust crude gestures with his hands, then stopped and summoned the other stalled drivers to the stranded car. He pantomimed his intention.
Seven men gathered around the small European car and tipped it onto its side, but the vehicle still blocked the road. They shoved and kicked, but the road wouldn’t clear. Thick-beard threw up his hands, gathered his gear from his car and started walking.
Luis’s eyes widened. “I don’t understand it.”
“Do you need to?” Renata gripped his shoulder, the tips of her nails bit into his skin. “They told us to run.”
Abandoning their car, Luis and Renata joined the panicked herd. They ran, shoved and bumped into each other as they maneuvered around the empty cars. The weight of the pack made Luis unstable as people jostled against him. As each person collided into him or reached out to stabilize themselves, his balance wavered. The straps dug deep into his shoulders. The heavy load labored his run. People were constantly pressing past. He made Renata go first so he could keep an eye on her.
A tall man with wide shoulders shoved Luis into the side of a car. He stumbled and grabbed the mirror to keep from falling. Renata screamed. He turned as she plummeted to the ground a few feet away, disappearing into the mad swarm of human bodies.
Luis surged forward ramming people until he found her. He tried to help her stand, but the mob kept pressing forward, and Luis fell on top of her. A foot crunched down on his hand; then a knee jabbed into his ribs. Droves of people crashed against his body. His hair got caught on something, and it ripped a patch from his skull. A trickle of blood dripped from his scalp onto Renata’s face.
Luis pressed his lips to her ear. “The gun is in my pack. Fire the gun.” He didn’t feel her searching the bag, too many hands, knees, and elbows jabbed and thrust into him, but he heard the gunshot, next to his ear. It thundered, and his whole body tensed. The thundering didn’t end. His ear rang, and it felt like someone was trying to hammer a nail into his brain. He saw Renata’s face, she was shouting, but he couldn’t hear her anymore, couldn’t hear the crowd, the waves of pounding feet on stone, just a high-pitched pierce in his ears.
The crowd stopped pressing down on him. They’d backed away. He got to his feet. Renata still lay on the ground. Luis dragged her into the bed of a truck. She cried and kept trying to say something, but he couldn’t hear it. Her face flexed in pain. He scanned her body and saw the ankle. Human bodies, human feet don’t bend like that. The tibia seemed to be jabbing down through the foot, forming a large bulb at the bottom, and the ankle swelled thicker than her leg.
The crowd swarmed back. Luis slumped down beside her. His eyes lingered on her face, her eyes. She couldn’t walk, not on her own. Whatever was coming would catch them. How will you take care of her? Luis took the gun from her hands. He studied the pistol for a long time, its dark oily finish, the weight of it in his hand, a weapon. If he couldn’t run, then he would fight. He crawled out of the truck bed to the car just behind. He rested the pistol on the hood and stared out into the darkness. Luis saw the white curling waves. Whatever it was, came from the ocean, he knew that. He waited a moment, watching the water, trying to see it. Nothing, just darkness. He pulled the trigger then looked at Renata. Broken. Helpless. His eyes welled up with tears. Fight. Even if you can’t see it. Fight. He fired again, fired until the gun was empty.
Pedro stood on a grassy hill overlooking the city of Porto. His eyes were bloodshot and puffy. Flashlights bobbed in the dark like swiveling dots, spreading away from the coast and into the countryside. He wiped the back of his hand across his forehead. It came away with a mixture of dirt, sweat, and mud. He’d marched his family through the dust cloud of the exodus. He and his wife, Beatriz, had fought with sticks to protect their young children as they ran through the streets. The blood streaks on Pedro's knuckles were only partly his. He reached for the canteen around his neck and poured out a small handful of water to wash his hands.
Beatriz slipped her fingers through Pedro’s gray-streaked hair. “Can I have a drink?” In her arms their two-year-old slumbered, dirt crusted snot clung to his nose. One arm hung loosely away from his body.
Pedro lifted the canteen to his wife. “Anything new on radio?”
She finished her drink. “Still just static.” She kissed her son on his forehead, and her wet lips came away powdered with dust. “I turned it off an hour ago. We should check again.”
“Yeah.” Pedro nodded and headed towards the tents and campfire. His two older children were sprawled out next to the flames. On a tree stump sat a battery powered radio, its antenna tilted toward the city. He could make out the larger buildings by moonlight, but nothing electrical brightened the horizon. He flipped the radio on. Static buzzed through the speakers.
“You have to help it.” Beatriz approached and placed her hand on the antenna. The static cleared, and a voice filled the camp.
Pedro’s entire body stiffened at the familiar voice. The reporter who had refused to say what he had seen, the news anchor that had walked off the camera. The man who told everyone to run. His voice was heavy with emotion. He admitted he was an actor, and the entire scare had been a hoax. He took a deep breath and repeated the message.
“Holy mother of God.” Pedro dropped his head into his hands. “It wasn’t real. None of it was real.” His voice trembled. “We left everything.”
Beatriz stumbled and then lowered herself to the ground. Her eyes welled up. “We’re safe.” She kissed her son repeatedly. “We’re safe.”
Pedro jerked up. “Safe?” He raised his voice, the tone sharp, “Safe?” He thrust his arm towards the city and pointed. “They lied to us.” He picked up a rock and lunged to his feet, running towards the distant city. He hurled the stone into the open plain below. “Why!”
After a long moment, Beatriz pulled him close. “The power is still out. That was real. Something happened.”
Pedro stared down at the city. The flashlight dots had changed direction, but the city remained dark. His body numb, he slumped down, never taking his eyes from the city. The message on the radio continued to repeat. It had been a hoax, a lie. The radio cut to static and a single light sparked in the city. It grew into a massive flame taller than any building. The fire burned brighter throughout the night but never spread. Something had happened, not the lie they told, but something.
The Old CIA Building, Langley Virginia. 10:09p.m.
Silas Cooper sat behind his desk reviewing surveillance reports. His black hair slicked with a heavy gel that reflected the light. He ran his hand through it and some collected along the edge of his finger. He rubbed it aggressively into his skin until only a sheen remained. Someone knocked at the door but opened it before Silas could respond.
Costly, in a vested suit, entered holding a stack of Portuguese Escudo bills bound with a rubber band. He swaggered over to Cooper’s desk and tossed the money down. “Guess what?”
“I don’t have time for your bullshit. What do you want?” Silas’ lips curled downward, and his chin tightened.
Costly flashed a crooked, toothy grin. “There’s been a Sky Fall Event in Portugal.”
The room went still and Silas chuckled. “Finally.” He let out a contented sigh. “How big?”
“Half the coast. Multiple cities.”
“Jesus.” Silas’ smile faded. “Where’s Stephenson?”
“Shit, you’re not going to like it.” Costly hung his head. “As far as we know he’s in London —“
Silas cocked his head to one side, then back to the other. He pointed at his colleague with the file in his hand. “Now, I know you're full of shit. I ought to break your teeth for this.”
Costly held up his hand apologetically. “No jokes. It happened, and he is that close, but,” he directed Silas to wait with an index finger. “He doesn’t have his plane with him. He’ll have to take the trains, and that should buy you some time.”
“Not enough.” Silas pocketed the money. “Get me Stephenson’s list. Cross out anyone not fluent in Portuguese or Spanish.”
“Already done.” Costly pulled a file from his briefcase. There were two columns of names; all but one were crossed out.
“Jay Nichols,” Silas read. “What’s his experience?”
“Two weeks here in Langley.”
“Are you God damn kidding me? You want to feed a puppy to the lion?”
If any detail of history or science is not mentioned in the historical notes, then it is accurately represented in the book. These notes detail when I have made changes to when a historical event took place or fictionalized for it drama purposes.
Chapter 1: Historical Notes
The chapter heading is a variation on an idea presented by Bertrand Russell. In his version, he didn’t claim to be the smartest man in New York, but the humblest. It was intended to create a sense of irony, but I chose to change it as few people still see being humble as a virtue these days.
Jay Nichols is a fictional character, his studies, and papers, and the national news coverage they drew was a fiction created for this story.
One of my beta readers asked about this heading “Why is print more persuasive than speech.” He hoped that it would be addressed in another chapter heading. But that’s not why this particular technique works. It’s not a print vs. speech persuasion issue, but the production and distribution of posters illustrates what is known as one of the five fundamental flaws of truth; financial investment. The more financial investment a statement appears to have the more likely people are to believe it is true because of the assumed high cost if it is discovered to be a lie.
The Nature of Sky Fall Events is not a real book but part of this fiction series. Early on in the project I realized there was too much science and history to fully convey the idea without bogging down the story. I started writing them as little proverbs at the beginning of each chapter and attributed them to one of the characters. A lot of people have shown great interest in these chapter headings and when the series is finished in 2019 I will write and release The Nature of Sky Fall Events.
Chapter 2: Historical Notes
Roy Cohn was a strong supporter of Joe McCarthy and is credited with having made the Second Red Scare possible through his influence and ability to add credibility to McCarthy’s claims. This book takes place in 1987. However Cohn died in 1984.
Chapter 3: Historical Notes
William Stephenson is an actual historical character; however, his role in this series is entirely fiction. I chose him because he was one of the worlds leading experts on media persuasion in the 1930s and the rest of his life was fascinating. He fit the story perfectly, so I grafted him in.
The detail of the shift of the rich getting richer in 1984 is based on the U.S. data and may not apply to the rest of the world. I got this from Michael Lewis in his book the Rising Storm. So, it does come from a secondary source.
The connection between the credit card, infomercials, and the economic shift is speculation at best on my part as there are too many contributing factors and the scientific evidence that can be produced is correlation, not causation.
While two Sky Fall Events did take place in parts of New York, their representation here is based on events that happened during the 1949 Sky Fall Event in Ecuador.