Enjoy this deleted chapter from my first novel, Pareidolia. The premise is available here, and the table of contents can be found here.
Taking place just before the final version of the book begins, this deleted chapter finds Zeke fumbling his way towards Kenneth Holcomb’s secretive inner circle by way of a college SETI student group. (SETI is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a real thing.) The connections Zeke makes in this group eventually lead him to attend an out-of-town astrophysics conference where he befriends some members of Holcomb’s inner circle who agree to take him in as one of their own. Some of these characters are mentioned by name in the book’s current opening chapter, at the “birthday party”.
We also get a rundown of the Pareidolia mythology with respect to the “real” (as far as this book is concerned) mid-century UFO happenings in upstate New York from which the government used the Roswell fiasco to distract unwanted public attention. This mythology is brought to us by a character named Trevor, a member of the SETI student group, who comes and goes in a single chapter. The details of this 1950s Niagara Falls altercation are later referenced in Roland’s anonymous interview with a schmaltzy cable TV show about the hidden truths about UFOs “they” don’t want you to know about.
Deleted for brevity.
Finding Holcomb’s books proved more difficult than Zeke imagined. He scoured one local bookstore without luck, then two, then three. One clerk offered to look in the store computer system, but no titles were found under his name. It was in the midst of a fourth unsuccessful try at a particularly earthy local bookseller when Zeke closed his eyes and actually smacked his forehead: UPenn had like twelve libraries.
The problem was which one: certainly the biomed library was out, his regular haunt. Would history make sense? Where did one go to look for manifestos by alien-obsessed, anti-government whistleblowers from the ‘70s? A terse and ancient-looking woman at the Math / Physics / Astronomy Library (he honestly couldn’t think of where else to start) held up a knotty finger as she perused the inter-library database at the front desk computer. After a long pause she harrumphed and muttered, “Kenneth Holcomb, author. Two titles. Annenberg Library. Both checked in.”
“Which one is that?”
“Annenberg. Which school is that?”
“Communication. Walnut St.”
The library at the Annenberg School For Communication had a section dedicated to what it called media activism, a smallish hodgepodge of books, films, and music with subjects ranging from protests to animal rights to recycling. Zeke thumbed past a few titles with the word they in them, as in, things they don’t want you to know about. The worst of the theys were, as far as he could tell, corporate multinationals, the American Medical Association, and (Zeke had to look twice) music teachers.
So, OK. The atmosphere in media activism was thick with controversy. That was a good thing, right? Because he was looking for an Area 51 nut? Minutes later he found Holcomb’s books on the bottom level of a very rickety bookshelf, two thin volumes with the unbearably long titles Celestial Propaganda: Using Alien Mythology To Control Public Opinion In The Age Of Television, and World War X: How Recovered Alien Technology Is Benefiting The Wealthy And Hastening Our Demise.
He pulled the titles and checked the dates: 1972 and 1975, respectively. Both looked like reasonably short reads. He could probably knock one out just standing there in the overly-lit room. Yes, but what if they were dense? In his coursework he’d come across some “short” publications on subjects like gluconeogenesis and phospholipids that required weeks of study to comprehend. He checked out both titles, hoping to Christ that doing so wouldn’t come back to haunt him as he ascended into of graduate and post-graduate life. What, those? No! That was part of an elaborate joke. For a friend’s birthday. You understand.
He inhaled the first book that night, the one on celestial propaganda, in the common dorm area as not to bother an irritably sleepy Chen. It was dense, in spite of its short length, but not physics textbook dense. Most of it involved otherworldly scare tactics to frighten and distract the American television viewing public in the teeth of politically unpopular circumstances, with a sizeable portion dedicated to the changing power of mythology in post-WWII life, e.g. flying saucers over Washington. Zeke felt like he’d run a marathon by the time he finished, and indeed he’d read all 200 plus pages in under two hours, the whole time unable to shake the feeling he’d stumbled into an unknown room in a childhood home. He always felt certain that humanity wasn’t alone in the cosmos, but he never considered that the hunger for this knowledge, so humble and earnest, could be forged into a political weapon. And of course Holcomb didn’t just speculate or generalize—he took pains to point out specific instances to support his claims, most notably during the worst years of the Korean and Vietnam Wars. And it made for strange bedfellows, the most explosively hilarious example being Gerald Ford’s Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs and the two biggest Hollywood producers at the time, in the heady years leading up to the release of what became the most mind-bendingly popular alien abduction film of the 1970s.
Zeke read the second book, the one on recovered alien technology benefiting the rich, over breakfast the next day in the cafeteria. He became so engrossed in it he completely forgot to study for a bioinformatics quiz that afternoon, which he bombed. This second title was more of a slog, focusing on (of all things) the technical history of the transistor. He wasn’t quite as transported by this book, but he was fascinated by Holcomb’s clever way of pulling the reader into a world he thought he already knew, and then utilizing unexpected forms of deduction and persuasion to paint larger and stranger pictures than one might expect to find. Holcomb left the final conclusions up to the reader, some of which struck Zeke as a little on the fantastical side, but by the end of each book Zeke had trouble ignoring the feeling that some of the bells Holcomb rang echoed longer and louder than others.
It was the first week of December. Finals were nigh, and there was only one more SETI student group meeting left in the year. Zeke was determined to go, in spite of looming exams, papers, and a stab at what looked like an impossible but badly needed extra credit opportunity.
He returned to the health administration building on a particularly cold and snowy evening, this time making the bulk of the journey by bus. On tap was a panel discussion between the SETI and computer science student groups, on the question of using some of the CS department servers to process modest slices of the immense amounts of SETI data in the shadow of almost certain defunding by Congress.
“In the end it will come down to private funding. I just don’t see the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania supporting this,” Lucy said at the beginning of the meeting, radiant in a tight red printed T-shirt and grey jeans. Zeke was interested in the topic—truly—but again found it difficult to focus on anything other than identifying the band on Lucy’s shirt. Who was she listening to? Was the band ironically cool?
Thus the bulk of the meeting was lost on Zeke, a sea of technical details having next to nothing to do with the actual processing of SETI data and more about the politics of combining the respective powers of the two student groups, and finally settling on a small percentage of computing time that the CS department could be convinced to donate for a cause the dean reportedly regarded as a waste of precious resources. (Zeke’s favorite Lucy moment of the evening: “Doesn’t matter. We’ve heard the word ‘no’ so many times, we’ve built up an immunity.”)
Were they going to Mickey’s again? They were. There was much mingling in the hallway outside the classroom (they were again relegated to the same haunted basement lab), busier this time with the presence of CS student group representatives. Was Lucy going to join them for a few drinks? Yeah, actually—she probably was. Zeke jealously listened in on a conversation between her and another male member of the SETI group he had yet to meet. “See you guys there,” she said, as she tossed her leather jacket over her shoulder and vanished down a dark hallway.
Zeke found himself hoping for both outcomes at once: no, she wasn’t really going, allowing him to skip the whole Mickey’s experience for a second time; and yes, she was going, giving him a chance to engage her in casual conversation. Oh, God—what would he talk to her about? SETI talk was too obvious. But what else was there? The rock band on her shirt? Sure—then Zeke would just incriminate himself for staring at her perfectly shaped…
“Let’s do this!”
Jim slapped his back, just like last time. And he was wearing the fucking red hoodie again. Wait, was his name really Jim? Had Zeke forgotten already? This was going to be unendurable.
And indeed the first ten minutes at Mickey’s were painful almost beyond belief. Zeke listened, frozen, while others chatted away, easily chiding each other and themselves in the mock self-deprecation of the erudite that Zeke had both grown accustomed to and hated. Either he’d misheard her, or something had waylaid Lucy. Zeke tried not to imagine a muscle-bound ex-boyfriend ringing her cell phone for a night of no-strings sex.
They were tucked in a booth this time, Zeke all the way up against the wall, trapped. No Lucy, no token cute geek girls, not even a well-endowed female wait staff to bring them beers and wings. (But also, mercifully, no adjunct professor with perfect teeth.)
A nearly nondescript guy with white-blond hair and a Sears catalog face introduced himself from across the booth. Marcus. Another undergrad student, in psych. First time at the SETI group. How had he found it? Friend of a friend. He appeared to be having an easier time of it, laughing along with jokes and asking casual questions Zeke wished he’d thought of.
He nodded across the table at Zeke. “So what’d I miss last time?”
“Last time what?”
“At the last meeting. What did you guys talk about?”
“Oh. Uh, we had a guest speaker give a talk on Kenneth Holcomb.”
His face lit up. “Yeah? Awesome!”
“You know him?”
“Yeah, of course! He’s a legend in the field. Or, well—something between a legend and a ghost.”
Was Zeke the only space nerd who’d never heard of this guy?
“First time for me. Had to go look him up.”
The guy sitting next to Marcus chimed in. He was a jittery dude with a shaved head, a pierced nose, and a tiny white scarf. “Oh, God. You’re kidding, right?” He stared a hole in Zeke, as unbelieving as if he’d just said he’d never heard of Area 51. The jittery dude’s voice was at once effeminate and powerful: he knew how unconventional he came across, yet he didn’t care. “Well, then thank GodI’m here! I’m Trevor, by the way. Charmed.” He flashed a giant smile at the two of them, but mostly at Marcus. “Yeah, I can’t believe I missed last month’s meeting. I was stuck grading papers until three in the goddamn morning. I’m a Kenneth Holcomb freak.” The word “freak” was cartoonishly elongated and accompanied by a dramatic eye roll. “So you’ve actually never heard of him?”
Zeke stopped himself from giving into his first instinct, which was to shrivel in his seat. Instead he maintained his poise and said simply, “Nope. Never.”
“He’s a hack,” someone chortled from the far side of the booth. Others laughed, even Trevor.
“I just read a couple of his books,” Zeke offered. “I guess he was a conspiracy theorist, right? Worked for the military back in the ‘60s, believed the government was hiding recovered alien technology…”
Marcus nodded to Zeke. “Which ones did you read?”
Trevor turned around in his seat to face Marcus, now fully engaged. “You have got to read Night Wolves, his latest? Outstanding.” He held his palms level with the table and let them fly apart at the word “outstanding”, as in, that settles it. No question.
Zeke blinked. “Wait, his latest? He’s still writing?”
“Of course. He never stopped, sweetie.”
“Hmm.” Marcus waggled his eyebrows across the table at Zeke and turned back to Trevor. “So what are you studying?”
“Psych. Grad student. Nearly suicidal.” Even the way he sucked down his drink through a tiny straw was flamboyant. He finished it off and held it over his head without taking his eyes off of Marcus. He tapped the glass with a ring, making rapid little ding-ding noises like someone was about to propose a miniature toast. Within seconds it was whisked away by a waiter. “What about you?”
“Psych here too. Also a grad student. Not suicidal—yet.”
Trevor raised a sharp eyebrow. “Jesus. Good luck.” Trevor pointed an eyebrow in Zeke’s direction. “And what about you, honey?”
“Biochem. First year of grad school. Suicidal since birth.” Zeke shriveled at the joke’s lameness as it exited his mouth, but somehow it got more than a few laughs.
Marcus looked at Trevor. “What was the name of his new book, again?”
Trevor smiled and somehow held up his hand just in time for the waiter to hand him a fresh drink from behind. (Was there a mirror somewhere? Were gays magic?) The drink was candy apple red and had a slice of pineapple on the rim. He had to shout his next words over the unexpectedly loud ‘80s rock anthem that had just started blaring over the speakers.
“Ever heard of something called ‘Project Flange’?”
Marcus looked up at the ceiling. “Rings a bell.” Zeke remembered the name from one of the Holcomb books, but couldn’t remember which one, or what it meant. “Oh my God, you guys.” Trevor took a deep breath and looked down, as if he was preparing to deliver a soliloquy in a play. Some of the guys on the other side of the booth were trickling away as he did this, something about a birthday party. A beat later Trevor lifted his head and threw Zeke a dramatic stare from across the table.
“So. You already know Kenneth Holcomb worked as a physicist at this company called Pickering Slate back in the ‘60s. They were a contracting company with the U.S. military. Still are, I think. Anyway, he worked on big scary wartime aircraft and stuff. Came across something too juicy to keep to himself. Stole a buttload of documents and disappeared sometime around 1970. This you probably know. Here’s what you don’t: Flange was a super secret DOD project unofficially launched sometime around the spring of ‘68 but probably existed before that in some other form going as far back as maybe the 1950s. Pickering Slate was part of this effort.
“Well.” Trevor threw back the rest of his drink. “Some recently declassified Army documents confirm the presence of at least three on-site private contractors at Fort Walker, Texas in the spring of ‘68. Flange (I think that’s an acronym, I don’t know what it stands for) is mentioned exactly once in a declassified but heavily redacted Pentagon communiqué from around the same time, firmly establishing the long-suspected connection between Flange and a top secret Air Force project with the code name ‘M’, which in turn is mentioned in other heavily redacted military letters and reports, most of which are of little interest except for one: a report drafted in February or March of 1964.” Trevor wrinkled his nose. “‘64? Or maybe ‘65. Anyway, doesn’t matter. This report described a newly revived project, originally established in the early ‘50s at Dalton Air Force Base in California and abandoned in a few years later, also under the elusive name of ‘M’. This particular document—along with one or two of the documents mentioned before—exists, original and un-redacted, within Holcomb’s cache. And you won’t believe the moon-sized misdirection the American people have been fed, Holcomb’s been trying to say, that’s hiding in these documents.”
Marcus waggled his fingers and made a sarcastic little oo sound. Trevor rolled his eyes and soldiered on, switching his focus to Zeke across the table.
“So why is Flange a big deal. OK. So the Area 51 lore that everyone knows by heart is complete bullshit. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you two that. Turns out there probably wasn’t anything going on at that air base other than good, old-fashioned wartime research and development. The Roswell business in ‘47 was a happy accident; every administration since Truman’s (but especially Kennedy’s and Johnson’s) was happy to play along because it gave the government safe cover to invent some truly sinister fucking war machinery while the hippies and eggheads went applesauce over the panty sniff of a hint that alien life not only existed but gave two fucks about us, so this war stuff is just like temporary. The more people cared about this meant the less people cared about the shitshows in Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba, efforts that required some serious fuck-you hardware.”
More of the SETI group drifted away. Eventually it was just the three of them in the booth, Zeke and Marcus watching Trevor all but act out his monologue as he delivered it.
“The Area 51 knot was paradoxical by design; loosen a bit here, and it tightens over there. Uncover a document here, something gets reclassified over there. And if the military is good at one thing, it’s obfuscation. But at some point they just started having fun with it, right? This just makes people go even more applesauce, mostly because they think it proves their conspiracy theories true.
“It’s not a bad call, actually. It’s healthy to mistrust one’s government, and anyway, things like the Manhattan Project are the exception to prove all rules: conspiracies do happen, but so do fake ones. (Good God, such fake ones.) So what you’ve got is a perfect storm of military bureaucrats who refuse to give up a remarkably reliable tool of misdirection and a population of lunatics who refuse not to believe in little green men. It’s a Chinese finger fuck trap, what are those, those toys you stick both your index fingers in and suddenly you can’t get out. It’s the act of pulling out your fingers that allows the trap to work. What we have here is a perpetual finger fuck motion machine.
“Anyway, sorry. (I get lost in my own hype sometimes.) Back to Flange. You see, not only is the public’s belief in the Area 51 lore good for business in the military industrial fuckscape, but if something really dangerous did ever come around, if anything really alien did land in some podunk asshole farmer’s back yard outside of Gary, Indiana, the government would be able to store it and examine it and keep it out of the public eye with impunity, as long as it kept it anywhere, you know, in the world”—Trevor’s right hand went up with a flourish—“other than Area 51.”
He tried to slam what was left of an already-empty drink and pushed it aside, elbows on the table, eyebrows up. “Only it wasn’t Gary, Indiana where it happened. In 1950 a barber in Wheatfield, NY, a guy named Neil something-or-another—Shipley, Shipman? Doesn’t matter, you can look it up—this guy killed his entire family by tying them to chairs in his garage and forcing them to eat nothing but huge amounts of laundry soap over a period of several days, ostensibly to protect them from the radiation of the oncoming nuclear holocaust: he had convinced himself that they were standing on the precipice of a post-apocalyptic hellscape (not as divorced from reality as you might think in 1950), at least according to his wife’s mother and her best friend, both of whom were interviewed by the police just weeks before the murders, the interviews being due to Neil’s sudden strange behavior and utter disregard for conventional clothing and personal hygiene. The man went looney tunes, right? But why?”
Marcus and Zeke exchanged another skeptical look. Trevor noticed it, but didn’t let it slow him down.
“I’ll tell you why. Enter the devices. Investigators found them in the back of Shipman’s garage in an old-fashioned chest (like one of those treasure chests with the pirates and the gold), called in the Feds thinking they were some kind of specialized hand grenades with possible uses for domestic terrorism, and there the paper trail goes cold. The murders are public knowledge, not classified. You can read about them in the Niagara Falls Gazette on microfiche in just about any library in upstate New York, or maybe even on the World Wide Web now, too. It might seem like a stretch to connect Flange, a top-secret military operation in the middle-of-fucking-nowhere west Texas in the 1960s to a bizarre murder-suicide in upstate New York a decade earlier, but here’s why it’s not: there’s a photograph.”
Trevor’s drink was replaced again, but he didn’t notice. He reduced his voice to a breathless whisper of delicious gossip, possible now that a quiet ballad had replaced the rock anthem on the speakers. “A photojournalist covering the murders for the Gazette snapped two or three dozen pictures of the inside and outside of the Shipley house after the bodies were carted away, I mean the crime scenes, pictures which mostly went unpublished. Investigators were still combing through the property when the photographer wandered into the garage. The investigators must have assumed he was gathering evidence for the police, and not a reporter (because how stupid could they be), when snap went his camera as the chest was forced open and there they were, all three of them, the devices, looking back up at the three men, this moment frozen in history, forever changing the course of human civilization, and of course none of them knew it at the time. And eventually they did figure out the photographer wasn’t supposed to be there because his camera and film were confiscated and later released after all negatives were destroyed except for two. The Gazette got one, which it used for the article: a harmless shot of the house’s exterior from the front walk. The Feds got the other: a not-so-harmless shot of the suspected explosive devices in the old-fashioned chest in the back of the garage. That’s the naughty one, the one connecting the Shipland case with Project Flange. The connecting photo. It doesn’t exist in any book or magazine or newspaper anywhere in the world because it’s classified all to fuck, and was only printed once for internal use in the FBI, and then only once more for the military, and then never again. Guess who has a copy.”
Trevor nodded and smirked, indicating that he had reached a stopping point.
“Well… Holcomb, right? But so how do you…”
Zeke picked up where Marcus left off. “You mean you had all that shit memorized?”
Trevor swirled his freshly delivered cocktail. “It’s not the first time I’ve given that speech.”
“I guess not.”
“Shit, I could probably write a book if I put my mind to it.”
Marcus looked up from his hands. “How do you, um… how do you know all that stuff, I guess?”
Trevor’s eyes danced across the ceiling. He waited for a busboy to collect dirty dishes before leaning in for another conspiratorial whisper, but said nothing.
They parted ways outside of Mickey’s, Trevor going one way, Zeke and Marcus the other. Zeke briefly considered calling a cab for Trevor, but in the end he was able to hold his liquor much better than Zeke would have guessed. And he surprised Zeke with his height when they stood to leave, towering over the other two men by a good four inches. “Yes, I’m very statuesque,” he said, twirling around to show off his tall slender frame and (probably) the fact that he wasn’t too drunk to see himself home.
It had stopped snowing while they were inside, leaving a blanket of white powder halfway up their calves. Marcus was parked just a few blocks away and Zeke’s dorm was more or less in the same direction, so they walked off together. They didn’t bother waiting for Trevor to be out of earshot before deconstructing him. Zeke went first, although it was a lazy stab.
Marcus laughed and started to form a sentence, but a combination of catcalls and high-pitched shouting from across the street cut off him off: drunk jocks, four of them, each barely able to keep the other from toppling over. One was bent over and slapping his bare ass with a gloved hand. Zeke was able to make out the words “glory hole”, “fabulous”, and “honey” in overlapping epithets.
Marcus stopped dead in his tracks, turned to face the scene, and threw his arms wide open. “Are you fucking kidding me with this?”
Zeke pulled him back just as he was about to cross the street. The offending party didn’t engage, they just kept hooting and falling over themselves, crippled by their own gurgling laughter. With a shudder Zeke realized they were heading in Trevor’s direction, albeit very slowly. Zeke looked over his shoulder and saw that Trevor was almost completely gone, speeding away on those long legs of his.
Zeke exhaled in relief, then turned to Marcus. “Just leave it alone. C’mon. They’re just letting off some steam.” Marcus reluctantly allowed himself to be pulled away.
“Fuck. God, that shit pisses me off.”
“I know, I know. Just… fuck ‘em. Right?”
Marcus gave a heavy sigh, shaking his head as they resumed their trudge through the by now almost foot-deep snow. Then, after the hooting voices dissipated, said “I have a cousin who’s gay. Our age. Nice guy. Just came out.”
“Yeah.” Then, looking back, “Christ, you’d think it was still the ‘70s with that shit.”
Zeke was desperate for a change of conversation, and with a rush remembered that they still had to break down Trevor’s insane monologue about Kenneth Holcomb. He opened his mouth to speak, but stopped just before the first word was out. It seemed in poor taste somehow, to trash talk a man who was almost the victim of hate speech. They walked the rest of the distance to Marcus’ car in silence.
Go to Deleted Chapter: Zeke in Portland