Saturday, April 28, 2018


Tom Jurgen’s search for a missing UFO hunter leads to a meeting with an alien AI—one that’s controlled and killed humans.

Xan, Part One

Brent O’Connor didn’t answer his buzzer at the front door. I waited for a few minutes, trying not to look like a Jehovah’s Witness, and eventually I sneaked into the building behind a guy delivering groceries.
I knocked at apartment 3B, from the buzzer downstairs. No answer.
            A TV private eye would have picked the lock in 30 seconds. Me? I don’t know how to pick a lock. So I went down to the basement parking garage to see if O’Connor’s car was there.
            Fortunately the garage was laid out according to apartment number. I found a blue Subaru that needed a wash. It wasn’t likely to get one soon, though.
            O’Connor was in the front seat. Dead.
            I backed away, glad I hadn’t put my hands anywhere on the car. After I got my breath back and made sure I wasn’t going to throw up, I took out my phone to call my client.
            “I found Brent,” I told her.
            “What did he say?” She sounded impatient.
            “He’s, uh—dead.”
            A pause. “What the hell?”

Rikki Silvano had hired me that morning to look for her husband, Jamie.
            “He sometimes leaves for a few days, but he always calls me, and it’s never been this long.” She had stringy blond hair and a short nose. Her eyes were red with worry.
            “What does he do?”
            “He’s a tech consultant. Freelance. But what he really does is . . . hunt UFOs.”
            The X-Files theme hummed through my head. “How long has he been missing?”
            “A week. I called the police and filed a report, but they haven’t done anything.” She gulped from a bottle of water.
            “I’d need a list of friends, business contacts . . .” I assumed she’d already called them, but it was the first thing to do when looking for a missing person. You don’t look for the person, you look for someone the person called.
            “He was supposed to meet with Brent O’Connor. He works for a company called Hawke Electronics. With an ‘E’ on ‘Hawke.’ I called them, but they keep telling me he’s off. I’ve got the phone number here somewhere . . .” She scrolled through her phone. “That was a week ago. That was the last I heard from Jamie.”
            I took the number. “When you say he hunts UFOs . . .”
            “He’s obsessed with them. Ever since I met him. We’ve been married four years. But he’s not a nut!” She gulped some more water. “They’re out there, or up there, or whatever, and people know about it. He’s got the evidence.” She pointed to a laptop on a desk in the corner of the living room. “I called you because I heard you, you know, take on cases like this.”
            Yeah. I get a lot or clients that way. I keep my cases confidential, but somehow people know that I talk to vampires, zombies, and demons. I’ve even actually handled a case of alien abduction.
And been abducted myself. Once.
“All right.” I looked at the laptop. “I’ll need to look at that.”
            “Take it.” She waved a hand. “I’ll give you the password. Just find him.”
            “I’ll do my best.” It was all I could promise.
            We discussed the details, and she wrote me a check.

“I’m going to have to call the police.” I called Rikki Silvano from the garage. I was staring at O’Connor’s car. “And explain what this is all about.”
            “Right. But—have you found anything else?” Her voice shook. “From the laptop?”
            I’d looked it over. It was how I’d found O’Connor’s address. “I’m still examining it.” Actually, Rachel was—my upstairs neighbor, my girlfriend, my partner when I need tech help or psychic assistance.
            “All right.” She took a deep breath to calm herself. “Call me if—when you find out anything.”
            “I will.” Then I called the police.

The first two cops opened up the car with a metal rod, standing back as O’Connor body sagged toward the concrete. He wore a black leather jacket and a T-shirt covered with dried blood.
            A CPD detective showed up a few minutes later, along with the crime scene techs. “Hendricks. You’re Jurgen?”
            “That’s me.” I’d never met him before, despite having worked with other detectives over the years. Vampires and things like that.
            “What are you doing here?” He glanced at the techs as the garage attendant stood back, nervous.
            Sam Spade could have told Hendricks to go to hell, but I couldn’t. I told him the whole story. He called into headquarters to confirm the missing persons report on Silvano. Then he said, “We’re going to need that laptop.”
            I nodded. Good thing I’d told Rachel to pull everything off of it as soon as possible. I figured I didn’t have to mention that to Hendricks if he didn’t ask directly. “How long has he been dead?”
            Hendricks seemed friendly enough. Although that could have been a good-cop act. “Based on the dried blood—and the smell . . .” The air near the car reeked. “A couple of days, at least. Are you going on with this?”
            “Unless my client fires me. Is that a problem?”
            He handed me a card. “Not as long as you talk to us.”
            I reached into a pocket. “Here’s my—”
            Hendricks laughed. “Don’t bother. I know who you are.”
            Yeah. It’s nice to be popular, I guess.

Rachel was cooking dinner in my kitchen when I got home “A very nice police officer came by and took that laptop. He left a receipt. Okay, I flirted with him a little.”
            I kissed her cheek and pulled a Coke from the refrigerator. “Thanks. Something smells good.”
            “Ratatouille.” Rachel’s got red hair and hazelnut eyes. “Eggplant, zucchini, squash . . . It’s an old family recipe. Someone’s family, anyway.” She stirred the pot. “I got everything off that laptop this morning”
“What’d you find out?”
            She tasted. “Mmm. Lots of UFO stuff. I didn’t have time to check it all out, but it’s there on the flash drive. Big file on Hawke, with profiles on all their top execs. Tons of articles on their products. Their main thing is some kind of advanced AI. A small profile page for your guy, Brent O’Connor? He’s an IT guy, degree from U of I, down in Urbana. Didn’t you almost get killed driving down there once?”
            “Yeah.” I sank down into a chair. “Can I help?”
            “It’s almost done.” She set the spoon down on a plate. “Was it bad?”
            Rachel has been through a lot of tough scenes with me. Dead bodies, sea monsters, crazed dogs, and more. “Not the worst. But I don’t know what’s coming next.”
            She pulled out some bowls. “Eat. We’ll figure it out tomorrow.”
The next morning, I drank some coffee, ate my cereal, checked my email, and then started pulling up the data from Silvano’s laptop.
            Rachel was right. He had tons of files on UFO research. Reports and photos and videos and more. Most of the video and images were from other people, some pulled off the web, some sent to him by contacts. A few were his own.
            One was on a highway in the Arizona desert. It looked like Silvano had been following a glowing cigar shape that soared in a straight line for several miles until it abruptly reared up and then shot into the cloudless blue sky. A voice recited the location, date, and time. The video was two years old.
            Another video was taken at night. The first few seconds were blurry, as if Silvano—or whoever—was running, but the things straightened out and I saw a spinning disc hovering over a forest clearing. It held still for ten seconds, then rose up and disappeared in the dark clouds. Again, Silvano gave details: Michigan, 9:22 p.m., six months ago.
            Okay. Silvano was serious. He kept a clip file of articles about him. He’d been interviewed dozens of times, and not just on fringe media. He was quoted in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Huffington Post. And, okay, the Fortean Times website.
            Whether any of this this had anything to do with his disappearance—or the murder of Brent O’Connor—was another story. Had he been kidnapped by aliens? Why was Brent O’Connor dead? Would aliens use a handgun instead of just obliterating him with a plasma ray?
            Before diving deep into the data, though, I had to check something.
Like I said, a few years ago I’d actually been abducted by aliens myself. I don’t remember much about them. But I needed to know if these were the same aliens.
            I found the file. Melissa Ames and her daughter Lynne had both been taken, and then later I’d learned that Ames’ ex-husband, Craig Winters, had been part of a project using children—including Lynne—to communicate with the aliens.
            So I called Melissa Ames first. “Hi, it’s Tom Jurgen. Remember me?”
            “Of course!” She sounded like we were old friends. “How are you? What’s the—” Then her voice dropped. “Oh, no. What’s happening?”
            “Nothing.” I tried to sound sincere and reassuring. “I just need to talk with your ex-husband. It’s a different case, nothing to do with Lynne.” I hoped. “Is she okay, by the way?”
            “Oh, she’s great. Freshman year in high school. She’s totally boy crazy.” A sigh. “And nothing since. I don’t even know if she really remembers anything.”
            That was good. I still had the occasional dream about the aliens’ ship, their strange shape, their attempts to communicate. I hoped Lynne didn’t. “Like I said, it doesn’t involve your daughter.”
            She gave me the number. I thanked her, and then called Winters.
            He remembered me too. But not as an old friend. “What is this? I did everything you said. The project’s shut down. I only see my daughter once a month. I’ve got a new job. We lost the greatest opportunity to contact—”
            “Shut down?”
            “We lost funding. As far as I know, they went back to—wherever they came from. This could have changed history.” His voice was hoarse as he whispered into his phone. “Now it’s over. Thanks to you.”
            I wasn’t the one who used kids—and his own daughter—as experiment subjects. “Glad you’re doing well.” I hung up.
            So those aliens were gone. Maybe. How many other aliens were checking out our planet? I searched Silvano’s files and found a few vague references to Bracken Tech, the college outside Chicago where Winters had worked. Silvano apparently never got very far with them.
            I poured myself a fresh cup of coffee. Rikki Silvano had given me a list of her husband’s friends and contacts—both UFO enthusiasts themselves and professional associates through his tech work. Some of them I found in his files.
            I started pushing numbers on my phone. Lots of detective work, like being a reporter, is just talking to people and asking questions, mixed in with internet research.
            No one had heard from Silvano in more than a week. Most of them sounded concerned, although some of his UFO-hunting friends hung up when they heard Silvano’s name. Paranoia? They didn’t know me, of course. I made notes and kept going.
            Between calls, more coffee, and bathroom breaks, I checked out the file on Hawke Electronics. A seven-year-old startup, it offered “cutting-edge technology” to small businesses for marketing, customer relationship management, and PR. Its main product was an artificial intelligence platform called XN.
            Tucked inside a folder named “BR” I found a series of emails that Rachel had highlighted.
            It was unclear who’d contacted who first. The earliest email was from O’Connor, ten days ago: “Maybe. Call me in 20 mins.”
            After that was an email from Silvano: “Good talk. Let’s meet.”
            Then a similarly terse response from O’Connor. “Thursday not tomorrow. Same time.”
            The last email came from O’Connor as well: “I’ve got the XN-12. I’ll bring it.”
            That one was dated six days ago, at 7:02 a.m. Right around the time Silvano had dropped out of sight.  
            I skimmed the rest of the files. Most of them held documents and images—computer code, and photos of computer elements. The code made no sense to me, and the tech? I’ve taken a DVD player apart once, but I’m no engineer.
So I went directly to the Hawke site. It touted an AI platform called XN as its premium product, with different pricing for various iterations: XN-2, XN Plus, XN Platinum, XN Basic, and more. The fees were—more than enough to pay my cable bill from now until the heat death of the universe.
No mention of XN-12 that O’Connor had promised to show Silvano.
            Was this just industrial espionage? Silvano was a tech consultant, after all. But right now Brent O’Connor was my best lead.
            And he was dead.
            I’m not very brave. Murder scares me, whether it’s human or supernatural. If O’Connor had been killed because of the XN-12—whatever that was—I wasn’t sure I wanted to get anywhere near it.
            On the other hand, Rikki Silvano had hired me to do a job. And I’ve always been too curious for my own good.
I ran a search. Brent O’Connor still had a photo on the “About Us” page. I didn’t look at his face for very long. I still saw the blood on his chest.
            Then I downloaded a sample version of XN to my computer. It seemed relatively simple to use—plug in names, add some data, and it would make predictions about customer behavior. I couldn’t test it out without sharing the kind of sales figures that didn’t apply to my business.
So I called Rachel. She didn’t answer—probably working, she’s a graphic designer—so I left a message: “When you have time, could you come down and take a look at a new app for me? It’s called XN, and it’s from Hawke. Thanks. Uh, love you.”
            Then I called Rikki Silvano. She’d never heard of XN. She only wanted to know where her husband was.
            I couldn’t tell her much. Fortunately, she didn’t get upset. Even though the edge in her voice sound close to panic.
            I hung up. The answers I was looking for were at Hawke Electronics. I was going to have to make a visit.

Xan, Part Two

I held out my business card. “Tom Jurgen to see Arnold Hawke? I have a 4:30 appointment.”
            The young blond man looked at the printing, then picked up a phone. “Arnie? It’s Tyler. Mr. Jurgen to see you?”
            After a moment he nodded and stood up. “Back there. Corner office.”
            “Thanks.” I left my card with him. You never know when someone’s going to need a P.I.
            Cubicles lined the walls, and inside people tapped their keyboards or talked on their phones. Desks crowded the center of the workplace, with more employees talking to each other as they pointed at screens and others wore noise-canceling headphones so they could concentrate. A few looked up at me. Most ignored me.
            Hawke sat behind a wide desk. Younger than me—maybe in his mid-30s. His coppery hair was cut shown, his shirtsleeves pulled up to reveal thin, hairy arms. He didn’t stand up. He barely looked up from the screen in front of his eyes. “Jurgen.” He didn’t tell me to sit down.
            I sat down anyway. “It’s about Brent O’Connor. Your employee.”
            “I know.” He shoved the keyboard away. “Look, we’ve been talking to the cops since yesterday. Brent was a good guy. One of our best programmers. No one here would have wanted to see him dead.”
            I leaned back. “He was in contact with Jamie Silvano. A UFO researcher. Did the police ask you about that?”
            Hawke blinked. “UFOs? I’m running a business, not watching the Syfy channel all day.”
            “What about XN-12?” I straightened up, watching for his reaction.
            He scowled. “That’s confidential. I will say that Brent was involved in developing the first generation of XN, and he’s been a big part of all the upgrades. Aside from that . . .” He ran a hand over his scalp. “There’s nothing more I can tell you.”
            I stood up. “Can I talk to your IT people?”
            “No.” Hawke pushed his chair back. “Like I said, we’ve had police in here since yesterday. They have work to do. I’m only seeing you as a courtesy. You can leave now.”
            I know when I’m not wanted. But I had a hunch to follow. “One more question?”
            He leaned forward, hands gripping his chair’s armrests.
            “Where did XN come from?”
            Hawke shook his head. “We developed it. Together. What do you mean?”
            I shrugged. “Just wondering. It seems pretty sophisticated.”
            “It’s the best. In a few years we’ll be bigger than Microsoft.” He kicked his chair back to his desk. “If that’s all?”
            “Thanks for your time.” I left.

Rachel was working at my laptop when I came home. “I brought down the leftovers. You can heat them up.”
            “Great, thanks.” I tossed my jacket on the couch. “Find anything?”
            “Not much.” She stretched her arms. “I can’t get at the XN code at all, but it’s a shared app, not the whole platform. Not unless I try to hack their server. Which I can do with my mad hacking skills. Maybe.” She dropped her arms. “What are you looking at?”
            “You just . . . look nice.” I smiled and kissed her. “I’ll heat up dinner—”
            My phone buzzed. Damn it. Unknown number. “Hello, Tom Jurgen speaking.”
            “Mr. Jurgen?” The voice was a whisper. “It’s Tyler Finley. I worked at Hawke?”
            The guy at the front desk. “Yes? What can I do for you?”
            “I’ve got information. About Brent and the XN-12. Can we meet?”
            I dropped into a chair. “What do you have in mind?”
            “There’s a parking garage near the office. Ninth floor? In an hour?”
            I rolled my eyes. “What about Jamie Silvano?”
            “I can tell you about him too. But this is dangerous for me. You can’t tell anyone.”
            Right. “Look, Tyler, your co-worker got shot and killed in a garage. There is no way I’m meeting with you that’s not in a public place. So if you’ve got something to share with me, there’s a coffee shop where we can talk.” I gave him an address—a local neighborhood joint a few blocks from my apartment. “Two hours. I need to eat dinner.”
            “Okay, okay—” But I hung up.
            Rachel glared at me. “What was that?”
            “I’m not sure. Let’s eat.” I stood and headed for the kitchen. “You still have your stun gun?”
            “Fully charged.” She grinned. “We going to see some action?”
            I shuddered. “I hope not.”

Rachel sipped her latté, a small purse slung over her shoulder. “This doesn’t count as a date.”    
We sat in a corner, an espresso in front of me, watching the door. Rachel had her stun gun. I had . . . my wits? My taser was broken. Someday I’d have to get a sword cane or something.
            The door opened. Two young women, giggling. They staggered to the counter and flirted with the barista.
            The shop was half empty. “Could you move to a different table? Pretend you don’t know me? That would—I mean, you could protect me better.”
            Rachel snorted. “That’s the best idea I’ve ever heard from you.” She stood up with her latté.
            “Oh, come on, that’s not fair. I’ve had lots of good—”
            “Shush.” She sat down two tables away from me.
            The door opened again. This time it was Tyler.
            I sat up. Tyler looked around. Rachel grabbed a magazine from the nearby rack.
            Tyler sat down. “This is a bad idea. Anyone could see us.”
            “That’s the idea. No one saw Brent get shot, and I don’t want to end up like him. What can you tell me?”
            He sighed. “This guy Silvano had some crazy idea that the XN software is alien tech. He was pestering everybody in the company, so Arnie told everyone not to talk to him. If Brent was talking to him—”
            “Hawke would have killed him?” That seemed extreme.
            Tyler shook his head. “No, hell, no. But he was pretty adamant about nobody talking to Silvano. I can’t blame him—he called me, and he sounded like a total nutjob.”
            “So what makes Hawke so worried? Why are you so nervous?”
            “I just don’t want to lose my job. I’ve still got student loans and—”
            I looked over his shoulder as the door opened. A short man in a gray windbreaker stepped inside, looked around the shop, and then seemed to settle his eyes on the back of Tyler’s head.
            I tensed. I’d seen him in the Hawke offices today.
            He unzipped his jacket and reached down toward his belt. I saw a handgun, and thick fingers reaching for it. It was like a scene from The Sopranos.
            I lurched up and pointed. “Rachel! Get down!”
            Tyler immediately leaned down over the table, hands on top of his head.
            But Rachel was already on her feet, yanking her her stun gun from her purse. She lunged forward and jabbed it at the guy’s neck, pushing down on the stud.
            I grabbed my coffee and hurled it. The cup hit the guy’s chest as he dropped the handgun on the parquet. Rachel hit the stud a second time. He collapsed to his knees and then dropped to the floor twitching and flailing his arms.
            I fought the urge to throw up.
            Someone screamed. Customers scrambled to the doors. I saw the barista holding a phone to her cheek, her brown face shaking.
            Tyler rose up. “See? See? I told you! I’ve got to get out—”
            “Hang on a minute.” My voice was raspy from fear. I grabbed his arm. “He works with you. I saw him today.”
            “What?” he twisted around. “That’s—I don’t know. Maybe. Could be—”
            “And he wasn’t here for you.” My legs started to shake. “He was here to shoot me.”
            “W-what?” Tyler tried to pull free. “Come on, man—”
            “You didn’t look up, you didn’t turn around—you just put your hands over your head. You knew it was coming.” I shook him, the room spinning around me. “Did you set me up?”
            “Tom?” It was Rachel, her hand on my shoulder. “You all right?”
            “I’m fine. Just . . .” My legs gave up. Fortunately, my chair was close enough that I didn’t hit the floor. Instead I just leaned over the table and bit my lip, trying not to pass out.
            Bruce Willis I’m not.
            I managed to lift my head when two uniformed police officers charged through the door. “Okay, what’s going on?”
            “He’s got a gun.” Rachel pointed. “He tried to kill my boyfriend.”
            Tyler was gone.

It took a while to sort everything out.
            At first the cops thought it was a robbery attempt. But the barista and the few remaining patrons had seen the handgun and reported that the guy—whose name turned out to be Kurt Rowe, although he wouldn’t say anything else—hadn’t gone anywhere near the counter, which was in another part of the shop.
            They confiscated Rachel’s stun gun. She didn’t argue. Smart girl.
            I told them everything. The cops thought I was crazy, an occupational hazard in my job—especially when it comes to dealing with UFOs and aliens—but a call to Hendricks confirmed that my story was at least consistent with what I’d told him.
            So in the end they let us go home. I was banned from the coffee shop for life, but at least the cops arrested Rowe. He kept his mouth so tight I thought his lips would bleed.
            Rachel drove home. “There was something wrong with him,” she said, turning left. “I could feel it. The other guy too, but I thought that was just nerves.”
            Back in my apartment I got beers for us. I’m not supposed to drink because of my anti-anxiety medication, but I figured a beer would be better than a double dose of the medicine after the anxiety of having a handgun pulled on me.
We slouched on the sofa. I tapped my bottle to hers. “Thanks for saving me.”
            She shrugged and drank. “You always find the fun.”
            “Sorry about your stun gun.”
            “They gave me a receipt. I’ll get it back. In the meantime . . .” She yawned and stretched. “There’s always pepper spray.”
            “Yeah.” I sipped my beer cautiously. I hadn’t had one in a few weeks. I didn’t want to overdo it.
            “So what do you think?” Rachel leaned back and kicked off her shoes.
            “I think I’m no closer to finding Jamie Silvano than I was two days ago.” I’d have to call Rikki. Maybe tomorrow.
            “But Hawke is sure going over the top about something. I mean . . .” She set down her beer. “If this is his strategy? Killing one employee, sending another employee to set you up so a third employee can kill you? How is that a business plan?”
            She was right. “Maybe it’s not Hawke. Someone else in the company? Or . . .”
            Oh, no.
            I staggered to my laptop. My knees were shaky. Not because of the beer, but because of the leftover stress of almost getting killed. “Let me check something.”
            “Mind if I watch TV?” Rachel picked up the remote.
            “Knock your socks off. Except Westworld. I’m not caught up.”
            Friends it is.” She hit a button.
            I went back to Silvano’s Hawke file, and brought up the folder with documents and images. “Hey, can you take a look at this?”
            Rachel groaned. “I’m not even through the theme song! And this is the one with Joey’s Porsche.” But she got up and walked around the table. “What is that?”
            “Some kind of code?” I wasn’t a programmer.
            “No code I’ve ever seen.” She tapped down. “This doesn’t make sense. I’m just a poor starving graphic designer with an idiot boyfriend, but this looks like . . . I don’t know, English translated into ancient Etruscan and then translated back into English. Except, you know, in some kind of programming language I’ve never seen.”
            “Alien code?”
            She punched my shoulder. “What are you talking about?”
            I leaned back and reached for my beer. “Tyler said Silvano thought Xan was based on alien technology. He expected me to be killed. Like you said, it doesn’t make sense for Hawke to start killing people. So what if . . .”
            “XN is an alien?”
            I nodded. “Yeah.”