Chapter 6 — Johann Winter
Here’s a link to the Adventus Table of Contents
Cameron had just finished listening to another presentation from the Krager security team in his temp office on the 99th floor. This one described their entry procedures for the conference, K-CON, that was now two weeks away. Security androids would scan handhelds and biometrics at the four entry gates to the conference center. The human team would be watching the cameras.
He rubbed his temples and closed his eyes. “How many times do I have to say this? As good as your androids are at identity, they know nothing about deception. So what if someone has a pass and is who they say they are? Your androids can’t look in someone’s eyes and see that’s something’s off. They can’t read intent.”
“But our camera and sensor system is the best in the world. We are tracking the movements and faces of every person at the same time,” said the young staffer who made the presentation.
“Seeing everyone at the same time?” Cameron slammed his hands on the table. “And seeing nothing! Your best chance at assessing threats is at your entry points. Every person funneled down to those four locations. It’s your ONLY opportunity to have proximity without raising suspicion. And you want to be behind a damn computer screen?” He stood up. “Thank you for the presentation, but I’ve seen enough for today. That will be all.”
The group of four staffers left Cameron’s office without another word. Every presentation was the same thing. “We have the best tech in the world. Best AI. Most data. Krager has spared no expense.” But they were blind. Sure, they would catch someone trying to sneak their way into the event or sniff out a rogue reporter. Some stupid podcaster or vlogger who thought they could beat the system. But the real threats understand the technology. Hell, they probably invented it! An enemy Krager made along the way would be the one they would have to worry about. Or a well-funded political activist. By the time these idiots realized there was a threat, it would be too late.
Cameron checked his handheld. His schedule was clear the rest of the day. He needed to be mapping out requirements for the site teams that would be stationed around the property, but he couldn’t get past this gaping hole in his plan. Cameron knew his own abilities as a threat assessor. His “SA” or situational awareness was off the charts even in the most stressful and chaotic environments. But he was one person and he would normally have a hand-picked team of 100 deputies just for this task for a crowd this size. He had assumed, wrongly, that Krager would have an abundance of former special ops or high-end corporate types for him to choose from. Instead, the security organization was completely filled with inexperienced young geeks and AI of questionable reliability. He wanted to pick up his handheld and call ten of his best friends in the business. They all would have ten others they would be more than happy to bring to the party. It would be simple, especially given what Krager could pay. But he had signed a non-disclosure agreement and was told explicitly that he could not bring in outside help.
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the stack of notes and cards sitting on the edge of his desk. He remembered the card Krager had given him on his first day. What was the guy’s name? He thumbed through the items and found the plain white card. He grabbed his handheld and dialed the number. It picked up without ringing.
“Yeah, this is Cameron Long. I’m running security for K-CON…”
“I know who you are, Mr. Long.” He had a thick German accent. Maybe Austrian? “How can I help you?”
“Krager said to call you if I needed anything. I’ll get to the point. Your security people are inexperienced and rely too much on their tech. I’ve been doing this a long time and if you don’t have trained operatives that are in the crowd, looking for…”
“You need boots on floor.”
“What do you Americans call it? Boots on the floor?”
“Boots on the ground? Yeah, exactly.”
Winter paused. Finally he said in a clipped tone, “I will come see you. Please stay in your office. I will be there in one hour.”
Precisely one hour later, the door to Cameron’s office opened and a tall man with short, balding grey hair and rimless glasses entered.
“Mr. Long. I am Johann Winter.” He reached his long arm over the desk as Cameron stood and grasped his firm handshake. “We cannot talk here. Please follow me.”
Cameron followed and they walked to the elevators. “Mr. Long, please disable your handheld.”
“Yeah, I know the drill.” Cameron reached down and powered it down.
They entered the elevator on the far left of the bank and it quickly descended. After about 20 seconds, Cameron guessed they already passed the first level and were traveling into the subterranean portion of the building. He had heard a rumor that the building was as deep as it was tall, but no one knew for sure. In two weeks, he had barely left his office. If he was out, he was assessing the grounds around the conference center or spending a precious few hours at home asleep. There was no time to explore the massive skyscraper.
The elevator slowed and the doors opened to another small lobby, similar to Krager’s office. The walls were completely blank except for a Krager corporate logo on the opposite wall from the elevators. Winter put his hand up toward a place in the wall and a doorway opened just like Krager had done in his lobby. They entered another completely white room that looked like a very sterile locker room. “Please remove your shoes and place them with all your loose belongings in a locker. Inside the locker you’ll find a jumpsuit and slip-on shoes. Please join me back here when you are done.” Cameron returned a few minutes later and Winter was wearing the same white jumpsuit and shoes that he was now wearing.
“This is a cleanroom environment, so we must follow the protocols,” Winter said. Cameron nodded. He had a million questions, but Winter did not appear to be the question-and-answer kind of guy.
Another magic door appeared in the wall and they walked through an airlock into a sanitation chamber. They donned goggles and were sprayed down with a combination of air jets and sanitizing mist. After the chamber evacuated the soiled air, the doors opened revealing a large laboratory, about 100 meters in length. Rows of machines and computer workstations filled up half the room. The other half was about fifty of what looked like hospital patient rooms partitioned by glass walls and a ceiling. In each room there was a human patient lying down on a bed with IVs and a variety of other wires hooked up to their bodies. Were they sleeping, unconscious, or in some kind of coma? Was this the same place where Krager had “cured” Naomi, the girl in his office? Who were all these people? Volunteers? Criminals? He even saw a few children.
On cue, Winter said, “This is the research facility for Project Areté. We have now successfully transformed 142 people across a diverse spectrum of ages and ethnicities. The people in this room are our first paying customers, although they were hand-selected by Krager himself for the opportunity. In two weeks, we begin taking applications for the next fifty.”
“How long do these people have left in the process?”
“One week. They will be woken up, medically cleared, tested, and then quarantined for another month. But we will choose a few of them to be introduced at K-CON.”
“What are their special gifts? I guess that’s what you would call them.”
“Each client’s Areté profile is strictly confidential. I can say that they go far beyond simple physical or cognitive enhancements. Clients have requested Areté that relate to music, athletics, business, or adventure. But they have also brought members of their staff here. Business associates, family members, children, lovers. Also, security assets.”
Cameron turned to study Winter. “Security assets? You mean people paid to have their security teams fixed along with them?”
Winter shot him a glance. “Yes. But we prefer not to use the word ‘fixed’, Mr. Long.” He returned his gaze to the lab floor and straightened his back. “Project Areté is a revolution in human character and potential. These people will have extraordinary abilities, far beyond what you or I are capable of with our natural limitations. When we have a speck of doubt if we can accomplish a thing, they will have already done it, with excellence.” He again turned to face Cameron. “You see, Mr. Long, the goal here is not simply to rehabilitate faults. The technology we have developed will craft an ideal human experience for these individuals. There will be nothing they cannot do, if it is their intention to do it.”
“So what exactly will these security assets be able to do once they are…enhanced?”
“That is precisely the question I brought you here to answer. Come, there is some testing in progress I want you to see.”
After returning their suits to the locker room, Winter led Cameron back through the lobby through another seamless door, this time into a starkly white corridor with no discernible doors. There were only small screens at eye level every few meters with a room number and occasionally a description. He stopped in front of a screen that read “0304 Echelon Assessment” and waved his hand to enter the room. Inside was a dark corridor with what looked like one-way windows facing two brightly-lit gymnasium-sized rooms.
Winter led Cameron up to the first set of windows which overlooked a dojo. There were about ten men standing on one side of the room stretching and sparring. All of them were variations on the same theme; muscular, athletic, and not people you would want to meet in a dark alley. On the other side of the room was a diverse group of men, women, and even a few teens. They all looked somewhat disengaged by the proceedings. Some were sitting and talking, others playing with their handhelds, and one teen looked asleep. The instructor, an slight Asian man in a black gi, pointed to an incredibly large, shirtless hispanic man with a shaved head and tattoo sleeves. Then, the instructor pointed to one of the talking teens, a girl approximately 16 years old. He brought them together in the center of the dojo.
Cameron heard the instructor over speakers from the viewing area. “You know the rules. I will not stop the match unless someone taps or is in mortal danger. Timer is set for three minutes. Go!”
The man approached the girl in a traditional MMA fighter’s stance. The girl nonchalantly adopted a basic athletic stance, almost as if she was holding a tennis racket waiting for a lazy serve from her grandmother. The man was tentative and circled for a few seconds not sure what to do. It seemed like he was afraid to commit to a move to avoid hurting the girl. The instructor, reading the man’s reluctance to fight, screamed, “Engage!” The man gave a little shrug and stepped forward launching a right jab towards the girl’s face. The girl dogged the blow and circled the man on his right to avoid a combination. He responded by attempting a front kick to her sternum. But before he could lift his leg more than a foot off the ground, the girl had already read his mind. She had immediately moved forward and swept the man’s left leg. He lost balance and fell to the floor. Immediately, the girl planted the palm of her hand with full force on the man’s nose. Cameron could hear the cartilage and bone crunch even over the speaker system. The man was now laying flat, twitching. The girl stood over him assessing the damage and prepared to strike again. Then he went limp.
“Medic!” The instructor yelled to the air. Seconds later six men in white jumpsuits appeared with a stretcher. Cameron could see they were giving him oxygen and not wasting any time getting him out of the room. The young girl bowed to her victim, the other men, and the instructor. Then she went back and sat down with the other teens who gave her fist-bumps.
“Holy shit,” Cameron whispered under his breath.
The next room was an obstacle course of sorts. “This is an urban parkour course to assess physicality and creativity. The candidates are not told what to do or even if they have to do anything. They are just observed in the space. We are looking for intrepid self-direction.”
“You said candidates,” Cameron said. “What for? Did these people volunteer?”
They watched as a 20-something with dreads jumped from a 10 meter ledge to a much smaller ledge about 3 meters away and 2 meters down. He landed, wobbled a bit on his heels, and caught himself. Without pausing, he jumped to a similar ledge another 2 meters away, then to a third, and a fourth, before doing a front-flip and landing perfectly on a 5 cm wide balance beam at ground level.
“These are volunteer candidates for my Echelon program. I believe you have already met Ms. Naomi Locke? She is my prized pupil. These others have similar stories and backgrounds. Military discharges, juvenile delinquents, addicts, athletes with career-ending injuries. I am hand-picking 19 of them to join Ms. Locke as the foundation of Echelon.”
Cameron cut to the chase. “Listen Winter. This is amazing, uh, technology. But why did you bring me here?”
“You said you needed boots on the ground. I thought it would be easier to show you than tell you. These are your boots.” He stretched his hands out to the window.
“Huh,” Cameron muttered. “With all due respect, these are kids. All-star kids. Hell, they are borderline supernatural.”
As Cameron spoke, a blonde with six-pack abs was doing double standing backflips, one after another, a few feet from the window.
“But still kids. The boots I need can handle themselves in a hand fight. They are creative and fearless. But if a threat walks into the room, they need to know it immediately. That only comes with experience. How do you replicate that with a virus?”
“Again, Mr. Long, it is easier to show you than tell you. Please follow me.”
They walked to the end of the corridor and entered a small lobby. There were about twenty people sitting in a waiting room to one side and a door — a real door with a frame and handle — was on the opposite wall from where they entered.
“Take a seat over there. I’ll be right with you,” said Winter and then entered the door.
Cameron sat down next to a younger black man wearing jeans and a flannel shirt. There were a variety of people in the lobby. Some obvious Krager employees, but also random individuals. He leaned over and asked, “So why are you waiting here?”
“I have no idea man. I work up at the Starbucks on Level 0 and they gave me the afternoon off with pay. They brought me down here and told me to wait. No clue.”
The door opened and Winter said, “Mr. Long, if you will join me.”
They entered another hallway with four small enclosed offices. They walked to the last office and Winter opened the door. Inside was a table with three “candidates” seated in a row on one side. In the corner was a woman with a tablet. She stood as they entered the room.
“Hello, my name is Dr. Regina Scott. If you would, please take a seat at the table.” Cameron sat down and heard the door close as Winter left the room. The three candidates were no older than 25 and were all staring at him with intense, unflinching focus. “Please if you will, for the record, give us your name and address?”
Cameron cleared his throat. “Cameron Long. 1045 Piedmont Ave NE, Unit 1201, Atlanta, Georgia.”
“Thank you. Please just sit normally.”
The three candidates continued to study Cameron. What was this about? What were they doing? Was this some kind of psychological test?
“Jewel.” The female candidate at the end of the table seemed to speak to the air.
Dr. Scott asked, “Does that mean anything to you, Mr. Long?”
“That’s my daughter’s name.”
“And Liam,” the candidate at the other end spoke up.
“My son,” said Cameron.
“Your wife’s name is Jules. But,” the candidate in the center paused. “But, you aren’t married anymore, are you? She’s…she’s in California. With someone named Amy?”
“Yes, we’re divorced. And Amy is our nanny android.” He looked at Dr. Scott. “What’s the point of this? This is all in my HR file and I’ve disclosed all this before signing my contract.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” the female spoke again. This time she looked directly at Cameron. “That night in Karachi. The operation you led when Ramirez got shot.”
“What? How do you…” The hair on the back of Cameron’s neck stood up. He had never talked about his days in the Special Forces, especially that day. Not even to his wife.
“I see him. He was trying to be a hero. You wanted everyone to stand down. He disobeyed orders. It wasn’t your fault.”
Ramirez was his best man. They had completed the mission, but one of the other men had been injured in the fire-fight. Ramirez ran back into the building to grab the injured man before it could be properly cleared and was shot by a rebel hiding in the kitchen. Cameron had in fact told all his men to stand down. But he should have been the one to go in for the injured man, not Ramirez. The decision still haunted him.
Cameron snapped back into the present moment. He shot a glance to Dr. Scott. “What’s going on here? How do they know about this? I’ve never talked about that night to anyone except my team and my superiors.”
“Mr. Long, can you confirm that is what happened?” Dr. Scott asked, ignoring his questions.
“Yes it happened.” Now he was getting angry. “Are you going to answer my question or not?”
The door opened and Winter walked back in. “That will be all Mr. Long. Thank you for your time.” The candidates sat back in their chairs, not making eye contact with Cameron any longer. Cameron pushed back from the table and followed Winter out the door. Once they were alone in the corridor, he seethed, “What the hell was that? It’s easy enough to figure out names and places. But how I feel about that night in Karachi is in my head. No one know about that.”
Winter said nothing and walked through the two doors back into the dark corridor with the windows. Once the door was closed he turned to Cameron. “As I mentioned before, the capabilities of Project Areté are endless. Our researchers have identified a gene which appears to influence human clairvoyance. They still do not understand its function, but once activated in our candidates, they have displayed remarkable abilities to read memories and gather information. We have been working with random test subjects who are all under strict non-disclosure. We have also placed some of our advanced candidates in field situations to refine their abilities in the real world. They should have no problem, how did you put it, recognizing threats?”
Cameron walked to the windows overlooking the parkour course. “When were you going to tell me about this? K-CON is two weeks away.”
“We hired you for a reason Mr. Long. Your reputation and abilities are indispensable to ensure K-CON is a success. We were prepared to install Echelon operatives at K-CON without your knowledge. As they are diverse and atypical in appearance, I doubt you would have known they were present. Regardless, now that you have asked, I thought it best to give you the whole story. In a few days Ms. Locke will meet with you to review details. In the meantime, I think you have other preparations to attend to.”