An excerpt from Greg Guma’s new novel, Dons of Time, now available from Fomite Press.
Emerging from the airport baggage claim late the following afternoon he crossed to the taxi stand for a lift into town. It would be only minutes to the Hilton and a comfortable room with a commanding view of the waterfront and Lake Champlain. But then he heard his last name being called and noticed a wiry-haired kid holding a cardboard sign with the word “Wolf” on it.
“I’m Wolfe,” he said, “Tonio, or T. You here for me?”
“I guess so,” the kid shrugged, “this way.” He grabbed Tonio’s bag without asking and led him into the parking garage, boarding the elevator for the top. When they emerged and Tonio saw the vehicle, a faded blue cargo van more than two decades old, he began to suspect he’d made a mistake. Before he could do anything, the side door slid open and three more young guys with scarves over their faces invited him inside.
“I hope you’re with Harry.”
Rather than answer they handed him a scarf and asked him to blindfold himself. “Just for now,” one of them apologized. These definitely weren’t Shelley’s people; their greeting would not have been so civil. The government was also out. It didn’t use rusty vans or operatives who dressed like hippie Zapatistas. This had to be Harry. Still, why the drama? Despite his explanation over the phone it didn’t compute.
The ride took two hours, at first on paved streets and the Interstate, then on local roads, and several minutes at the end over rough gravel and dirt. When the van finally rolled to a stop and it was time to remove the blindfold, he could have been anywhere from the Canadian border to New Hampshire.
Harry was waiting at the cabin door. He had always enjoyed costumes and preferred facial hair. This day he looked like a cross between a pirate and a panda. “You have questions, I know,” he announced. “Thanks for coming.”
“It better be good.” Tonio shook his hand and followed.
The cabin was larger and more functional than it looked from the driveway, part tech center, part mountain retreat. Computer terminals covered one wall, screens running data, charts, and video streams. Three college-age hackers monitored them. The rest of the main room was taken up by a large oak table, several couches and thrift shop chairs, a hard-working woodstove, all facing several unmarked doorways and an archway that opened onto the communal kitchen.
Harry flopped down in a ratty lounge chair, and said, “It was necessary, believe me. Not on my end, in this case. We have good reasons to play it safe with you, my friend. You may already be a person of interest.”
“That’s extreme,” Tonio objected, “but I do believe Shelley had a tail on me.”
“That’s not what worries me.” He pointed up with a finger, as far as Tonio knew meaning either God or spy satellites.
“What does worry you? More to the point, what’s happened to you, man? Last I knew you were a radio personality.”
“A personality, right, I remember when I had one of those,” Harry mused. “Last time I saw you we were about to take over Seattle, right? Blocking the WTO, now that was a demo. Things looked promising in ‘99, didn’t they? Even after the coup – that’s what I call W’s first term – we totally derailed that FTAA deal in Quebec. But they were already starting the crackdown. After the attacks…well, you know that story, Patriot Act, wiretapping, secret searches, the whole deal. Plus, for the first time the CIA gets a direct role in deciding who gets rounded up or hit. It was the first stages of drone justice.”
That still didn’t explain why he was hiding in the woods, and Harry knew it.
“I was operating above ground then,” he reminisced. “But things were changing. It was an eavesdropping bonanza. The intelligence budget hit $60 billion after 9/11 and thousands of new private contractors got into the game. It was a very lucrative club in a very growing industry. And Fort Meade, that was the Gold Rush zone for masters of the data stream.
“I still had the show then. But instead of the usual stuff I started talking about the surveillance state, what the government was really up to. Big mistake as it turns out. In 2007 I tried to board a flight to DC and found out I was on a no-fly list.” After more than an hour of interrogation Harry was released. But not his laptop, cell phone, camera and USB drive.
As Harry outlined the rest of his path from radio host to underground man Tonio heard more than he wanted about Crystal City and the Wiretappers’s Ball, a secret annual gathering where experts shared their latest toys and competed to create the ultimate bugging device. Harry had managed to infiltrate it and bring out pictures. He also talked on the air about Verint Systems and Narus, major private eavesdropping operations that reached most of the planet. They made it easier to block websites considered politically or culturally threatening to those in power.
The next flashpoint for Harry came after the Democrats capitulated on amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. He explained that the changes gave the telecoms legal immunity while providing a go-ahead for the NSA to target almost anyone classified as a terrorist. Obama, who was running for President at the time, opted to support the amendments. Once he was in office, the move toward mass surveillance launched almost a decade earlier continued to escalate. Obama’s Justice Department invoked “state secrets” to stop citizens from suing the government for spying on them. In fact, it argued that the feds had immunity from litigation for any surveillance that violated the law.
“You thought I was being ridiculous about emails, right?” Harry reminded him. “There’s a reason, Sherlock, the CIA. They’ve invested heavily in Visible Technologies, which analyzes social media. It can look into half a million websites a day. But the biggest reason we’re here, instead of enjoying room service on your tab, is because in 2010 they demanded all the visitor information from Truthsquad. I mean everything, and we weren’t supposed to tell anyone about it under penalty of prosecution for impeding a federal investigation.
“The IFC – that’s the Internet Freedom Center – challenged the subpoena.” He was winding down. “But it was obvious where this was heading. They’d already jailed Bradley Manning for the Wikileaks cables and Julian was under house arrest. The handwriting was on the wall. It was only a matter of time ‘til that knock on the door and I’m a suspected cyber-terrorist. That was two years ago, shortly before we set up here. Just in time it turns out, since now I’m on the terrorist screening database. Drone bait — if they ever find me outside the country.”
“But we’re safe and secure?”
“Like a frog’s ass, baby. Acoustic dampening, the latest in encryption. We just added self-destructing e-mails and encrypted cell phone calls, anything you send digitally. By next year there will be a commercial self-destruct app on the market, but ours is better. My rule of thumb is either that the message is destroyed after it’s read, or else no more than an hour or two after sending it goes poof, like Mission Impossible. But your current security, not so great.”
Considering what he had just heard Tonio wasn’t surprised Harry felt that way.
After a break for dinner the other members of his collective left the room and the conversation resumed around the woodstove. Now it was Tonio’s turn to explain. He started simply, talking about his early thirties and what he’d learned since meeting Danny Webster, his reasons for accepting Shelley’s offer to chair TELPORT, and, with as much technical language as he could muster, the company’s goals and on-the books plans. His intention was to work up to the secret they had kept for two years. In the process he described Angel, holding back about their relationship, and casually mentioned, without much detail, some of his recovered memories and suspicions about his uncle’s death.
When he finally reached the pay off – the discovery of remote time viewing and his personal pursuit of Jack the Ripper – Harry was less shocked than worried and amused.
“It’s true,” Tonio insisted, uncomfortable being the one who sounded crazy.
“I believe you. The question is, does the Don know?”
Tonio assured him that wasn’t possible.
“Are you sure?”
Choosing frankness over defensiveness, he admitted that he wasn’t absolutely certain, in fact that it was part of his reason for being in Vermont, and that even his oldest friend Paulie might be watching him on Shelley’s orders.
“As long as it’s Paulie I think we’re safe,” Harry said, who’d met him during a ski trip. “But Wolfe Enterprises isn’t what it used to be. That’s why I ask.” Tonio’s frown said: tell me more!
“Daddy has satellites now, three so far. It’s still a young industry, and about five years ago Wolfe Enterprises bought E-Global, which builds and launches satellites and sells images to a wide variety of businesses – agro-cartels, oil companies who need to check on rigs, fishing fleets that want info on the best feeding areas, normal corporate shit. Live stream or images, whatever you want from their cameras in the sky. You just need the bucks.”
He paused briefly before continuing. “The trouble is, they also work with the feds. It’s synergy, a public-private partnership. The government’s satellite operator has a program, NextView, which shares the costs of satellite development with the private sector. From what we know it covered about half the cost of E-Global’s most recent model, GlobeWatch-3. And among its tasks is to provide surveillance for the Department of Defense.”
Harry speculated that Shelley’s takeover of TELPORT might in some way be related to other moves he was making in tech and aerospace. “Fuck man,” he added to hammer his point home. “He could be watching us now, the building at least.”
“But he’s not, right?” This was as good a time as any to make his pitch. “That’s why I need you. Look man, we know remote viewing could be exploited, any technology can be. The Pentagon invented the Internet, right? You told me that. But Danny isn’t doing this for the military or the Agency. He’s just a nerd inventor creating his dream and offering it to the public.”
“With a weakness that’s already been exploited,” Harry reminded him.
“Yes, but I run the company, the RTV end is totally insulated from the other units and anyway, no one knows what happens in Nutley except the three of us – now you. Danny runs the lab, Angel handles operations. What we need is help with strategy and tactics, plus your cyber skills. From what you said I can see that security and prevention need to be a higher priority.”
“I could do that. What’s your job?”
“Staff guinea pig.”
Harry laughed. “Right man for the right task.”
“Seriously, we need you. I need you. I need someone who has my back. Also someone I can level with, and work with to figure out what went down with Gianni. I’m almost positive it was a hit.”
“And the candidates?”
“At the moment? The CIA and Shelley.”
“Hard to say which would be worse.” Harry leaned back in his chair and took a series of deep breaths, considering the weight and shape of the information. “And what can you do for us,” he asked, “for the movement?”
“Underwrite it?” The lack of response told Tonio that wouldn’t be enough. “All right, how about this? Either we go public with RTV or no one gets it.”
“And if we use it ourselves,” he added, struggling to reflect what Harry might want to hear, “if we do, we use it to get some real truth out there, no matter whose ox is gored.”
“Right on,” replied Harry, pumping a clenched fist in mock salute. “So, where do we start?”
On the trip Tonio had come up with a list that covered the gamut. But now that he was in the cabin, near a warm wood fire, safe and relatively comfortable with a trusted old friend, he didn’t feel like discussing security firewalls at midnight. But he did want to know what Harry thought about his uncle’s death. After briefly explaining the evolution of his suspicions he asked for ideas on what to do next.
To Harry the answer seemed obvious, “Find out what the man was doing that could get him killed.” It sounded like the right place to start. Unfortunately, sleeping with his mother was the first clue that came to mind.
Greg Guma is a former editor of Toward Freedom. Kirkus Reviews calls his new novel Dons of Time “well-constructed, action-flooded sci-fi set in a realistic historical world.”