The Sixth Man, p.1Part #5 of Sean King & Michelle Maxwell series by David Baldacci
To David Young and Jamie Raab, the dynamic duo of publishing and my friends
The only thing potentially worse than not being able to see the forest for the trees is not being able to see the trees because of the forest.
“MAKE IT STOP!”
The man hunched over the cold metal table, his body curled tight, eyes screwed shut, his voice cracking. He sucked in each breath and let it out like it would be his last. Through headphones a fast blast of words filled his ear canals and then flooded his brain. An array of sensors was strapped into a heavy cloth harness that was buckled over his torso. He also wore a cap with electrodes attached that measured his brain waves. The room was brightly lit.
With each bite of audio and broadside of video his body clenched as though staggered by a shot delivered by the heavyweight champ.
He started weeping.
In an adjacent and darkened room a small group of stunned men watched this scene through a one-way mirror.
On the wall inside the room with the sobbing man the screen was eight feet wide and six feet tall. It seemed perfectly designed for watching NFL football. However, the digital images racing across its face were not huge men in uniform knocking brain cells out of each other. This was top-top-secret data to which very few people in the government would be privy.
Collectively, and to the experienced eye, they were remarkable in revealing the clandestine activities going on around the globe.
There were crystal clear pictures of suspicious troop movements in Korea along the Thirty-Eighth Parallel.
Satellite images of construction projects in Iran showing underground missile silos that looked like huge pencil holders carved in the dirt, along with boiling thermal silhouettes of a working nuclear reactor.
In Pakistan, high-altitude surveillance photos of the aftermath of a terrorist explosion at a market where vegetables and body parts held equal sections of the ground.
In Russia, there was real-time video of a caravan of military trucks on a mission that might push the world into another global war.
From India flowed data on a terrorist cell planning simultaneous hits on sensitive targets in an effort to promote regional unrest.
In New York City, incriminating photos of a major political leader with someone who was not his wife.
From Paris, reams of numbers and names representing financial intelligence on criminal enterprises. They moved so fast they seemed like a million columns of Sudoku delivered at hyperspeed.
From China, there was clandestine intelligence on a possible coup against the country’s leadership.
From thousands of federally funded intelligence fusion centers spread across the United States flowed information on suspicious activities being carried out either by Americans or by foreigners operating domestically.
From the Five Eye allies—United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—a compilation of top secret communications, all of colossal importance.
And on it poured, from all corners of the globe, delivered en masse in high definition.
If it were an Xbox or a PS3 game it would be the most exciting and difficult one ever created. But there was nothing made up about it. Here real people lived and real people died, every second of every day.
This exercise was known, in the topmost echelon of the intelligence community, as the “Wall.”
The man hunched over the metal table was small and lean. His skin was light brown, his hair short and black and plastered to his small skull. His eyes were large, and red from the tears. He was thirty-one years old but looked like he had aged ten years in the last four hours.
“Please, make it stop. I can’t take this. I can’t do this.”
At this comment the tallest man behind the mirror stirred. His name was Peter Bunting. He was forty-seven years old and this was, plain and simple, his operation, his ambition, his life. He lived and breathed it. At no time did at least part of his brain think of anything else. His hair had grayed considerably over the last six months for reasons tied directly to the Wall, or more specifically, problems with the Wall.
He wore a custom-fitted jacket, shirt, and slacks. Though he had an athlete’s body he had never played competitive sports and wasn’t particularly coordinated. What he did have was an abundance of brains and an inexhaustible desire to succeed. He’d graduated from college at age nineteen, held a postgraduate degree from Stanford, and had been a Rhodes scholar. He had the perfect blend of strategic vision and street smarts. He was wealthy and well connected, though he was unknown to the public. He had many reasons to be happy, and merely one to be frustrated, angry even. And he was staring at it right now.
Or rather at him.
Bunting looked down at the electronic tablet he was holding. He had asked the man numerous questions, the answers for which could be found in the data flow. He hadn’t gotten a single response. “Please tell me this is someone’s screwed-up idea of a joke,” he finally said. Only he knew it wasn’t. People here did not kid about anything.
An older, shorter man in a wrinkled dress shirt spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “The problem is he’s classified as an E-Five, Mr. Bunting.”
“Well, this Five ain’t cutting it, obviously,” shot back Bunting.
They turned to look through the glass once more as the man in the room ripped off the headphones and screamed, “I want out. Now. No one said it would be like this.”
Bunting dropped his tablet on a table and slumped against the wall. The man in the room was Sohan Sharma. He had been their last, best hope to fill the position of the Analyst. Analyst with a capital A. There was only one.
“Sir?” said the youngest man in the group. He was barely thirty, but his long and unruly hair and his boyish features made him appear far younger. His Adam’s apple skittered nervously up and down like an elevator stuck shuttling between floors.
Bunting rubbed his temples. “I’m listening, Avery.” He paused to crunch some Tums. “Just make it important. I’m a little stressed, as I’m sure you can tell.”
“Sharma is a true Five by every acceptable measure. It was only when he got to the Wall that he fell apart.” He glanced at the bank of computer screens that was monitoring Sharma’s vitals and brain functions. “His theta activity has spiked through the roof. Classic extreme information overload. It began one minute after we cranked the Wall’s throughput to max.”
“Yeah, that part I figured out for myself.” Bunting motioned to Sharma, who was now on the floor weeping. “But a legit Five and this is the result we get? How is that possible?”
Avery said, “The chief problem is there’s exponentially more data being thrown at the Analyst. Ten thousand hours of video. A hundred thousand reports. Four million incident registers. The daily satellite imagery collection is in the multiple terabytes, and that’s after it’s been filtered. Captured signals intelligence requiring attention are in the thousands of hours. Combat field chatter alone could fill a thousand phone books. It pours in every second of every day in ever-increasing amounts from a million different sources. Compared to the data available only twenty years ago it’s like taking a thimble of water and transforming it into a million Pacific Oceans. With the last Analyst we’d been ratcheting down the data flow considerably simply out of necessity.”
“So what exactly are you telling me, Avery?” Bunting asked.
The young man drew a rapid breath. The expression on his face was like a man in the water who’d just realized he might be drowning.
“We may have bumped up against the limits of the human mind.”
Bunting looked around at the others. None of them would meet his eye. Electrical currents seemed to pop in the damp air thrown off from the swe
“There is nothing more powerful than a fully utilized, fully deployable human brain,” said Bunting in a deliberately calm tone. “I wouldn’t last ten seconds against the Wall because I’m using maybe eleven percent of my gray cells—that’s all I can manage. But an E-Five makes Einstein’s brain look like a fetus’s. Not even a Cray Supercomputer comes close. It’s quantum computing with flesh and bone. It can operate linearly, spatially, geometrically, in every dimension we need it to. It is the perfect analytical mechanism.”
“I understand that, sir, but—”
Bunting’s voice grew more strident. “That’s been proven in every study we’ve ever done. That is the gospel upon which rests everything we do here. And more importantly, that is what our two-point-five-billion-dollar contract says we have to provide and that every last son of a bitch in the intelligence community depends on. I’ve told this to the president of the United States and every person down the power chain from him. And now you’re telling me it’s not true?”
Avery stood his ground. “The universe may be constantly expanding, but there are limits to everything else.” He gestured to the room beyond the glass where Sharma was still weeping. “And that may be what we’re looking at right now. The absolute limit.”
Bunting said grimly, “If what you’re saying is true, then we are screwed beyond belief. The whole civilized world is screwed. We’re toast. History. Done. The bad guys win. Let’s all go home and wait for Armageddon. Hail to the Taliban and al Qaeda, the bastards. Game-set-match. They win.”
“I understand your frustration, sir. But ignoring the obvious is never a good plan.”
“Then get me a Six.”
The young man looked stunned. “There’s no such thing as a Six.”
“Bullshit! That’s what we thought about Two through Five.”
“Find me a damn Six. No arguments, no excuses. Just do it, Avery.”
The Adam’s apple cratered. “Yes, sir.”
The older man said, “What about Sharma?”
Bunting turned to look at the sobbing, failed Analyst. “Do the exit process, have him sign all the usual documents, and make clear to him that if he says one word about this to anyone he will be charged with treason and he’ll spend the rest of his life in a federal prison.”
Bunting left. The cascade of images finally stopped and the room grew dark.
Sohan Sharma was walked out to a waiting van. Inside were three men. After Sharma climbed in, one of the men slid an arm around Sharma’s neck and another around his head. He jerked his thick arms in different directions and Sharma slumped over with a broken neck.
The van drove off with the body of the pure E-Five whose brain simply wasn’t good enough anymore.
NINE MONTHS LATER
THE SMALL JET BUMPED down hard on the runway in Portland, Maine. It rose up in the air and banged down again harder. Even the pilot was probably wondering if he could keep the twenty-five-ton jet on the tarmac. Because he was trying to beat a storm in, the young aviator had made his approach at a steeper trajectory and a faster speed than the airline’s manual recommended. The wind shear culled off the leading edge of the cold front had caused the jet’s wings to pendulum back and forth. The copilot had warned the passengers that the landing would be bumpy and a bit more than uncomfortable.
He’d been right.
The rear carriage wheels caught and held the second time around, and the lead aircraft-grade rubber bit down a few moments later. The rapid and steep flight path in had caused more than a few of the four dozen passengers on the single-aisle jet to white-knuckle their armrests, mouth a few prayers, and even reach for the barf bags in the seatbacks. When the wheel brakes and reverse thrusters engaged and the aircraft slowed perceptibly, most of the riders exhaled in relief.
One man, however, merely woke when the plane transitioned off the runway and onto the taxiway to the small terminal. The tall, dark-haired woman sitting next to him idly stared out the window, completely unfazed by the turbulent approach and bouncy touchdown.
After they’d arrived at the gate and the pilot shut down the twin GE turbofans, Sean King and Michelle Maxwell rose and grabbed their bags from the overhead. As they threaded out through the narrow aisle along with the other deplaning passengers, a queasy-looking woman behind them said, “Boy, that sure was a rough landing.”
Sean looked at her, yawned, and massaged his neck. “Was it?”
The woman looked surprised and eyed Michelle. “Is he kidding?”
She said, “When you’ve ridden on jump seats in the belly of a C-17 at low altitudes in the middle of a thunderstorm and doing thousand-foot vertical drops every ten seconds with four max-armored vehicles chained next to you and wondering if one was going to break loose and crash through the side of the fuselage and carry you with it, this landing was pretty uneventful.”
“Why in the world did you do that?” said the wide-eyed woman.
“I ask myself that every day,” replied Sean sardonically.
He and Michelle both had their clothes, toiletries, and other essentials in their carry-on bags. But they had to stop by baggage claim to pick up an eighteen-inch-long, hard-sided, locked case. It belonged to Michelle. She picked up the case and slid it into her carry-on.
Sean gave her an amused expression. “You’re the queen of the smallest checked bag of all time.”
“Until they let responsible people on planes with loaded guns, it’ll have to do the trick. Get the rental. I’ll be back in a minute.”
“You licensed to carry that up here?”
“Let’s hope we don’t have to find out.”
He blanched. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Maine has an open carry law. So long as it’s visible I can carry it without a permit.”
“But you’re putting it in a holster. That’s concealed. In fact, it’s concealed right now.”
She flipped open her wallet and showed him a card. “Which is why I have a valid nonresident’s concealed weapon’s permit for the great state of Maine.”
“How’d you score that? We only found out about this case a few days ago. You couldn’t have gotten a permit that fast. I checked into it. It’s a mountain of paperwork and a sixty-day response period.”
“My dad is good friends with the governor. I made a call to him. He made a call to the governor.”
She went to the ladies’ room, entered a stall, opened the locked case, and quickly loaded her pistol. She holstered her weapon and walked to the covered parking garage adjacent to the terminal where the rental car companies were clustered. There she found Sean filling out the paperwork for the wheels they needed for the next phase of their trip. Michelle showed her operator’s license as well, since she would be doing most of the driving. It wasn’t that Sean minded driving, but Michelle was too much of a control freak to let him.
“Coffee,” she said. “There’s a place back in the terminal.”
“You had that giant cup you brought on the flight.”
“That was a while ago. And where we’re going is a long drive from here. I need the caffeine pop.”
“I slept. I can drive.”
She snagged the keys from his hand. “Don’t think so.”
“Hey, I drove the Beast, okay?” he said, referring to the presidential limo.
She eyed the rental car tag. “Then the Ford Hybrid you reserved will be no challenge. It’ll probably take me a day just to get it up to sixty. I’ll spare you the pain and humiliation.”
She got an extra-large black coffee. Sean bought a donut with sprinkles and sat in the passenger seat eating it. He dusted off his hands and moved the seat back as far as possible in the compact car, and still his six-foot-two-inch frame was bent uncomfortably. He finally ended up putting his feet on the dash.
Noting this, Michelle said, “Air bag pops out of there, it’ll smash your fe
He glanced at her, a frown eclipsing his normally calm features. “Then don’t do anything to make it pop.”
“I can’t control other drivers.”
“Well, you insisted on being the wheelman—excuse me, wheelperson. So do the best you can to keep me safe and comfortable.”
“All right, master,” she snapped.
After a mile of silence Michelle said, “We sound like an old married couple.”
He looked at her again. “We’re not old and we’re not married. Unless you really slipped something by me.”
She hesitated and then just said it: “But we have slept together.”
The Sixth Man by David Baldacci / Science Fiction / Mystery & Detective have rating 5.4 out of 5 / Based on49 votes