Ready Watcher One
A Dark New World Story
Henry Gene Foster
Copyright © 2016 by JJ Holden / Henry Gene Foster
All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, organizations, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
NOTE: This is a story within the Dark New World universe and offers a glimpse into the background of an “off-camera” character, Watcher One. If you are new to this series, be sure to check out BOOK ONE.
– Part 1 –
STUART TRUDEN GROWLED as the traffic on the 14th Street Bridge crawled westward toward Virginia. He glanced at his Rolex and growled again. Only eleven hours and thirty-four minutes remained. The watch’s ticking hands crawled inexorably onward, and another minute died—if he didn’t get through this traffic, his family would soon follow.
Yet, this was the fastest route home despite the predictable delays. The bridge had become his nemesis over the years. In fact, it had almost caused him to be late to the most important appointment of his life, the day of his wedding.
Just beyond the Jefferson Davis Highway off-ramp, he saw his opportunity. Two black SUVs forced their way right, into the middle lane, and a slot opened up in the fast lane. A white Range Rover looked like it would try to get in there, but there was no way Stuart would let that happen. He romped on the gas, the mighty Dodge Challenger engine roared, and he slid into the suddenly available spot. The driver of the Rover honked and flipped him off, but so what. The left lane was at least moving and now Stuart was, too.
The Pentagon slid away behind him on his right. Fools. Morons. Soon after that looming twelve-hour deadline passed, they’d probably be mostly in the same boat as everyone sitting in the cars all around Stuart. Everyone, that is, but he and his family and few others whom the General had carefully handpicked. In a few short days, that safety would put Stuart ahead of even the President, if the intel was right. God, let the intel be wrong… And thank God Stuart’s fifteen years with Defense Intelligence was about to pay unforeseen dividends.
* * *
Stuart turned off the Little River Turnpike and onto Medford Drive, then down the road a bit, and pulled into his cul-de-sac. Frantically, he dialed a number on his phone and once it was answered, he hung up. Having beat the deadline to check in from his house by a mere ten minutes, he then slammed the brakes and screeched into his driveway. He threw open the Challenger’s door, heedless of the force he’d used, and then rushed up the perfect stone steps, along the river stone walkway, past his perfect lawn, and to the door of his house with it’s new brick facade. God, how April had been so happy when they finally budgeted for that facade… Now pointless.
He nearly crashed into his front door before he could fling it open, then burst inside. He slammed the door shut behind him without slowing down at all. Into the kitchen, but she wasn’t there. He shouted out her name and heard her call down from upstairs. He raced to the stairwell and sprinted up the steps without even touching two fingers to the “wall art” his son had made when he was five, which they had framed rather than paint over. Stuart hadn’t been able to bear the thought of painting over something his son had drawn just for him. It was the first time in five years that he hadn’t touched it going up the stairs…
As he reached the top he abruptly slowed down, straightened his tie, and ran his hand through his hair. He took a deep breath and stepped into the master bedroom.
April, hair still wet from a shower, took one look at him and froze. “My word, Stuart, you look pale as a ghost. And why are you home now? It’s not even three o’clock.” She took off the towel she’d had on and tossed it onto the bed next to a disheveled set of workout clothes and a nice sundress that she’d lain out with more care.
He didn’t waste time gawking at her still-amazing figure. “Pack up some clothes. Now! We have to get out of here. They’re sending a helicopter to pick us and Roland up at the elementary school field. You’ll need—”
“What are you talking about,” April demanded and held her hand up, palm toward Stuart. “Who’s picking us up in a helicopter? And why? I can’t go anywhere now, you know that. I have the PTA meeting tomorrow, and—”
“Stop,” Stuart shouted, and April looked both surprised and hurt. He never yelled… Her hurt look cut him deeply. He took a deep breath and then said, “The Defense Intelligence Agency. They’re taking us to Colorado. They need some special knowledge I have, and I demanded they take my family or I wouldn’t go—”
“Special knowledge? I don’t understand. You’re a financial analyst. What could you possibly know that the DIA would need? Why Colorado?”
“We have a twelve hour hard deadline, and the closer we get to that the less likely the pickup will be possible. It’s first come, first served. Please, just get packed. I swear I’ll explain everything.”
April furrowed her brow and stuck out her bottom lip, and fifteen years of marriage told him plainly that this meant she was going to refuse. No one could tell his stormy April to do anything, which was usually a trait he admired, but right now it was getting in the way and endangering them all.
“Don’t look at me like that. You know I hate that. Listen, I’m only going to tell you this so you’ll gosh darn move your behind and pack, and you cannot tell anyone I told you this. It’s classified. I’m not the financial analyst you think I am. I work for the DIA, ever since they recruited me while I was in college. I couldn’t tell you the truth, as much as desperately wanted to, because it would have got both of us into hot water. Now sit down and listen, and I’ll tell you why we have to go now. We won’t be able to go later. It all started a few months ago…”
He began his story and watched as her expression morphed from stubbornness to irritation, and then to shock. He only hoped she wouldn’t interrupt too much and derail his explanation. Time was short.
* * *
Stuart opened the DIA’s in-house version of the TOR browser and connected to a daisy chain of VPNs that ended with his connection appearing to originate in Germany. Anyone trying to source him would have a heck of a time. Then he logged into The Game. That was their internal lingo for a series of supposedly unrelated coding and hacking problems that they’d strewn across the global Web like little Easter eggs.
They’d made it look like The Game was on zombied servers that hosted Dark Web content, just for added “realism.” They appeared to reside on this server or that, from this country or that, but they really were all sandboxed within a German server farm ostensibly used by a non-profit. It was, of course, really just a shell company the DIA had set up for the purpose, in case anyone figured out where the content really all originated.
The usual message board chatter was full of smart (but wrong) guesses by amateur hackers. Nothing today that drew his attention. He checked the logs and gathered up IP addresses and timestamps, and fed the data into a nasty little bloodhound program he’d written. It would backtrace every one of those IPs and collate the data. Most of those wannabe hackers used the TOR browser, but at Stuart’s level of cloak-and-dagger, it really didn’t provide much protection for them even if they also used one of the TOR-friendly anonymizing VPNs. The CIA had embedded sniffer software in every one of those VPNs they could find with a fleet of hackers, and the DIA had real-time access to that data.
Too clever by half, perhaps, but what were the odds anyone would piece it together? This was all information not possessed by even that patriot-traitor hacker who’d fled to Russia (wisely, since he’d be assassinated the moment the CIA figured out where he was). He felt safe enough, despite it all being terribly illegal in almost every country on Earth and a political firestorm if discovered.
The bloodhound program flashed red, bright and angry, with an alert. What the heck? Stuart clicked through different compiles, searching the data results. There it was… One person had “touched” every single one of the Easter eggs, the final one just that morning. He ran software that located that hacker and then tore through their iron defenses like it was made of paper—and the information he was looking at showed some seriously impressive defenses. Foreign agent, maybe? Whoever he was, he was in Pennsylvania.
Oh damn. Or dang, as he corrected himself. Whoever the hacker was, he’d not only found those Easter eggs, he’d deciphered their purpose and compiled them together. This created a very impressive hacking tool, well worth any serious hacker’s attention. But more than that, the guy had then customized the code! He’d torn out the tracking bits, hidden though they were, and added new subroutines that even improved the already amazing program. Without that tracking code, there was no way to know what the hacker had been doing with his new little pet monster code.
This went beyond Stuart’s wildest dreams. A star in the making—maybe even better than he himself, if that was even possible. Stuart immediately began the DIA’s standard procedure for anyone who found all the eggs. Probably within an hour, he’d have every detail on the hacker right on down to their 3rd grade teacher’s notes on his report card. By tomorrow the shrinks would have a complete psych profile on him along with every weakness, from mental to financial, with which the DIA could turn the screws on him. Recruitment was never optional for these dangerous threats once the Intel community got their collective teeth into the hacker.
* * *
Stuart looked at his wife appraisingly, touched as always by her beauty. To him, she was the sexiest woman in the world. At the moment, however, April had her hand over her mouth and her eyes were wide, hopefully out of shock rather than fear. “You okay? Understand so far?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I guess.”
“I figured you’d hate everything about this.”
“I do, but I don’t think you’d ever do something like that without a good reason. You’re a good man, and it’s why I married you. But you’ve basically been lying to me for years.”
“It was only because I had to. You know I’d never lie unless I didn’t have a choice.”
“Yeah, but do I even know you? This is serious double-life stuff, Stuart.” She tucked one perfect, beautiful ringlet of hair behind her ear.
“I swear to you, April. I only lied because it’s national security.”
“So what does all this have to do with us being airlifted out of here?”
“Well, what happened next is what started this whole chain reaction.”
* * *
Stuart was busy tagging all the new pings on their Easter eggs when the shrinks and other data gatherers posted the report on this new hacker he’d found. He inserted his smart card and typed in the password, then removed the card. Authorization verified, he opened the file and skimmed it.
The hacker was named Ethan Mitchel, twenty-eight years old. Just had a birthday. Graduated from Stanford, so not Ivy League, but he’d then started a Wall Street brokerage that, using programs he wrote, made a stunning fortune for their clients. Plus a couple hundred million for Ethan. He’d sold off the company, taking his software with him. Or so he’d thought—the CIA apparently had “borrowed” that software and had used it to help destabilize hostile governments over the past few years. Well, that was nothing new for those spooks, but it wasn’t important for Stuart’s purposes.
The guy had then bought an isolated house in Chesterbrook, Pennsylvania, and put some sort of a bunker underground near it. A satellite had just taken a snapshot of the property and was able to see the layout in vague detail, despite being fairly deep underground. It wasn’t yet possible to mask big volumes of disturbed soil from some of their satellites, after all.
Over the past year, this Ethan had become a renown white-hat hacker called Dark Ryder, and after peeking into files and servers where he shouldn’t have been digging around, he’d become a conspiracy theorist. There’d been a bunch of new work on his bunker and the shrinks declared that it had been just a whim before, but that now Ethan was actively becoming one of those “prepper” wing-nuts. Then, increasingly mistrustful of the government, he’d managed to squirrel away most of his fortune overseas and had bought land in several countries that contained what could only be described as compounds.
Oh, there was something more interesting—Ethan was a fanatical player of online multiplayer games. He’d been spending roughly twelve hours per day in those games and had excelled in building characters up in five different games. Clearly, he’d hacked the game servers and helped himself. Stuart chuckled as he read through the file.
All right. The guy was smart, educated, rich. Paranoid about conspiracies and prepared for the upcoming zombie apocalypse, or whatever. Still a cutting edge hacker, obviously. And although he knew enough truth to mistrust his government, the profilers had decided that Ethan was a diehard patriot in his own mind.
Recruiting Ethan would be fairly easy, and cheap. Excellent. Pose as a new game design company seeking brilliant coders to do something no one had ever done before in the game industry, throw in enough hints about the company’s government involvement to make him see conspiracies, and he wouldn’t be able to sign up fast enough. Then let him work on bits of coding the DIA had received—Stuart didn’t know from where yet, but it had been made a top priority by someone who mattered—and see if Ethan could crack what the DIA had so far been unable to.
Stuart put together the proper requests and requisitions, worded just ambiguously enough to avoid too many questions from the bureaucrats who liked nothing more than to derail a good program, and submitted them. Yep, this was a feather in his cap. Maybe even a promotion, if this Ethan worked out well enough. This hacker was that big of a deal, if he could be recruited.
* * *
“So, I got the authorization to recruit him, and over the next several weeks I contacted him as the director of development for this fake gaming company. Dropped a couple tiny hints, and that was all it took for Ethan to do some research and draw his own conclusions on the breadcrumbs we’d left that hinted at the company being a front for CIA black ops.”
April frowned. “So that’s where our tax money goes? Fake gaming companies?”
Stuart smiled and put one hand on her arm gently, reassuringly. “Every government has secret intel programs. And you have to fight fire with fire, especially when you’re the country everyone wants something from, either to steal or to harm.”
“I get that, Stuart. But do we have the right to allow this in our country? I mean, if we stoop to those levels, are we any better than they are?”
“Yes, because everyone has a right to protect themselves. Besides, we can’t do anything about that, even if I wanted to. No one knows everything there is to know, so no one can take it down. But I wouldn’t want to. I see what goes on out there in the big wide world, and it’s a nasty place. We forget that here, because we’re sheltered. But we are only sheltered because of programs like these. Anyway, let me finish the story.”
April nodded, though he could still feel with his hand that she was tense. She was just wired that way, the perfect counterbalance to his usual too-relaxed personality.
“Okay, so while I was going through reports, a weird thing happened. A chat terminal opened up on my workstation.” Stuart paused to stroke his chin, considering his words. “It wasn’t something I’d installed, and it wasn’t something I knew about, and in my line of work I’m always very careful to know what’s on any computer I work on. It must have been installed remotely.”
* * *
The terminal that popped up was simplistic and functional. No colors, just monochrome, and ASCII—the frame around the window was made of tildes at top and bottom, and slashes along the sides. The cursor blinked for a second, and then a chat posted to it.
OMEGA: Hello, Stuart Truden. You have been busy lately.
Stuart froze. A shiver ran down his spine. How did this Omega person know his name? He didn’t reply for what seemed a long time, but nothing further came through in the terminal. The cursor simply blinked annoyingly.
Rec1: Who is this? How do you know my name?
Rec1? That was interesting. Obviously an assigned name. Recruit? Reclamation?
OMEGA: You are aware that we have enemies around the world. There is a lot of chatter going on right now. It’s encoded. This is a concern. However, we have selected you to join our elite team. A team within a team. Thoughts?
Rec1: Lots of thoughts. You didn’t answer who you are, for one. You use the imperial “we” and I wonder if that’s a veiled threat. Team within a team implies certain things.
OMEGA: I know you are thinking about running trace routines. Don’t bother. You won’t find anything we don’t want you to. “WE” are a group of concerned individuals within the intel community. WE operate under due authority. This is the Defense Intelligence Agency, after all.
Rec1: And what is it that “we” want from me? Under what authority?
OMEGA: There is code that is of national security concern. We lack the level of skill needed in a specific area that is required to break these codes. It has come to our attention that you have these skills, as does this Ethan person AKA Dark Ryder, whom you’ve recruited.
Rec1: I say again – what do you want, and under what authority?
OMEGA: Under authority of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. More than this is need-to-know. We wish you to coordinate with your hacker recruit and resolve the problem.
Rec1: And if I refuse? Or call over my department head, who’s two cubicles away right now?
OMEGA: We both know she’s not two cubicles away. She is at Langley. If you get up, or try to alert anyone via computer, we will see it. This conversation will terminate, and you will have chosen to support our enemies by doing nothing. I do not believe you are one who wishes to give aid and comfort to our enemies.
Stuart’s pulse sped up. Aid and comfort? That was specific language. It meant a trial, at best. The odds that this group would come out of the shadows for a trial was minimal. That left only a few alternatives, none of which ended happily. Could they do it? Ah, stupid question. Of course they could. They hacked into the DIA. That took government-level support.
Although it could be just an insider. It didn’t have to be at the government level. But he knew of no one at DIA besides himself who could hack DIA without detection from the inside. So it had to be an outsider, and that meant government. Someone’s government… Stuart wasn’t sure if that would end up being a good or bad thing. The only thing he was sure of was that he had to play ball with them, whether he intended to comply or burn them down. Time would tell which one it would be.
Rec1: Very well. How do I receive the codes and data, and to whom shall I report?
OMEGA: You will be contacted by a man with a package. He will know nothing, of course. He will use the phrase “the 20s” in conversation. That is how you will know it is from us. We will contact you, when you have made progress on the project. We will know.
The terminal abruptly closed. Stuart then loaded programs that would look for clues, any clues, about how they’d hacked his box or who they were. As he had feared, nothing came up. No trace, as though it never happened. And no evidence.
* * *
“What the heck have you gotten yourself into, Stuart?” April asked with eyes again wide. He hated putting her though that.
Stuart noted her pupils were wrong for the lighting, an adrenaline response. Good—she knew the significance of what he’d said and had the good sense to be frightened, as much as he hated doing that to his better half. “Clearly some cloak and dagger. I’ve been through that wringer before, but that’s not relevant to this story.”
“So, obviously a lot happened between then and now. You wouldn’t be ordering us to abandon our home to go with people I don’t even know, if it ended there.”
Boy, was she right. “Well, you’ll recall I had a new nifty little toy to play with.”
– Part 2 –
STUART STARED DUMBLY at his monitor and tried to convince himself the event really had happened. Not his sometimes wild imagination. It was frustrating that there were no traces on his computer of the conversation or its source. But he’d installed his own packet sniffer software, despite the prohibition on unauthorized software. Stuart loaded it in its own sandbox—so as not to leave traces of his own on the computer—and dug into the logs.
It didn’t take long to find what he needed: date/time stamps, IP addresses, and other data. Apparently they’d been able to cycle through IP addresses, obviously using masking software. Ordinarily it would have been nearly impossible to track that down in any reasonable amount of time, but Stuart had the edge. He had Dark Ryder’s compiled software to play with.
After configuring the software and loading the available data, he set it to work and watched as it sliced through networks and defenses like a hot knife through butter. One after the other. It was easy to see that whoever hacked him to chat had bounced their signal off multiple VPNs and several satellites, but Dark Ryder’s customized software found all the trails and almost effortlessly pieced together the clues based on timestamps. The visual showed dozens of trails into his computer, but as they were backtracked, they merged one after the other into fewer and fewer connections. A half hour later, it had finally tracked it all back to one location—NORAD.
* * *
April turned a slightly paler shade of white. “You hacked NORAD? Are you crazy? They’ll bury you in the darkest dungeons of Guantanamo if they find out!”
Well, she was probably right about that. “I hadn’t yet hacked them. First I ran programs that would connect me in much the same way they’d hacked me, and with my software and Dark Ryder’s, they would likely never even know they’d been hacked. Only then did I actually go in. Let me tell you, it was a gosh darn rush to hack that gem. A hacker’s dream come true. But I didn’t have time to wander around their network. I had a specific target, the terminal that was used to chat with me.”
“Skip the geek-talk,” she said. It was usually a term of endearment, but her fear and irritation put a sense of real urgency on it this time. “I don’t care how you did it. Just tell me what you found out that led to us being in this situation.” Again with sticking out her lip—her “I’ve had enough” face.
Fair enough. Stuart let out a long breath as he decided what best to say. “Fine. The computer was in the offices of a certain general, of whom I’d never heard. I looked him up and everything I could find practically screams thats it had been sanitized. So, he’s got to be Intel. DIA. He had his own subnet on the NORAD intranet, and I eventually got into it by… never mind. So, I got into it and went snooping into the recent files. Mostly memos and the like, but I found two encrypted files. They used an old Blowfish algorithm, so I didn’t have a hard time getting in. Stupid choice, but considering where the files were located, it was impossible to truly secure, so it was more of a ‘keep out’ sign.”
April still looked stunned, but was listening intently so Stuart continued. “The short version is that I found a huge file with contingency plans for if the U.S. ever lost its power grid due to solar flares, EMPs, and so on. I downloaded that, of course. The other file contained a bunch of small files that were encrypted with something new. I couldn’t hack it there, so I just downloaded the files. And guess what?”
April narrowed her eyes. “Same files the courier delivered?”
“Intuitive as always, my love,” Stuart said with a smile. “Yes, they were the same. Although the package the courier delivered contained about twice as many such files, most with timestamps that showed they came in after I’d hacked NORAD. The courier also said I was one of about a dozen agents in something called the Watcher Program, part of something called The 20s Initiative, and I was assigned the name Watcher One.”
“And this is why we have to leave our home and run? Someone thinks there’s going to be a solar flare?”
“Not exactly. A README file in the package said that if I managed to recruit this Dark Ryder into The 20s Initiative, then and only then would my family and I be taken into the Cheyenne Mountain Complex. It had to be done fast, though, because they feared that an EMP attack was coming within the year.”
“Wait,” April interrupted, “we have to hang out inside a mountain for a year just on the chance that there’s going to be an EMP attack against us someday? That’s crazy.”
“That would be crazy, yeah. But unfortunately that’s not the situation. I ended up cracking the encryption, with Dark Ryder’s unknowing help. He thought he was working on the coding for a new game. What I found was…” Stuart’s voice trailed off as he braced himself to share the horror he’d learned. “There will be multiple EMPs over the U.S. and North America within the next forty-eight to seventy-two hours.”
“What the hell?” April shouted. “You have to tell someone. Screw classified info!”
Stuart let slide the uncharacteristic profanity from his wife. “The DIA, CIA, Homeland Security, the House, the President—all were informed, and none have taken it seriously. Or rather, they just assume they’ll catch anyone who tries, before they get here and definitely before they set off the devices. The 20s analysis shows, however, that the EMPs aren’t coming in via people power. You know those weird little stealth submarines the drug runners use? Well, something like that is going to be used to launch one short-range missile each. We don’t know how many, but more than one. And no one is listening to us.”
* * *
1300 HOURS – ZERO DAY -2
Twenty minutes later, Stuart and his wife pulled into their son, Roland’s school. Two men in dark suits stood outside a sleek helicopter, and Roland stood with them. The boy looked frightened, and of course April rushed to him to wrap her arms around their son.
One of the men stepped forward to shake Stuart’s hand. “Mr. Truden, there’s not enough room on this ride to take everyone at once. It’s the only helicopter available at this moment, in this difficult time. Another is en route. I’m sure you understand. We have orders to bring your family to safety first, as the general believes you wouldn’t leave your family behind. I am to wait with you for the next ride, coming shortly. I’m sorry, but I was told to say this to you: you know what is coming, and this is the only way to keep you and your family safe. This is the only way we can make that happen.”
Stuart nodded. It figured. He spent the next several minutes arguing with April, but eventually convinced her to get on the helicopter without him.
Stuart knelt down and hugged Roland. “See you soon, bud. Keep Mom company.”
“I will,” Roland said, his voice squeaky.
Stuart squeezed his son harder. “Love you.”
“Love you too, Dad.”
Once both April and Roland were on that ’copter, Stuart stood with the man in the suit. He did all he could to keep his composure while he watched his family shrink into the distance, heading west toward Colorado, until they disappeared from view entirely. He prayed fervently that this would not be the last time he saw his wife and son, the only things that gave his life real meaning.
“So. Agent. When’s the next chopper coming?”
* * *
1700 HOURS – ZERO DAY -2
It felt like the clock was ticking now, even faster than the miles of terrain rolling by a hundred feet below his ride, another sleek black helicopter. There was a shift; they banked left, coming south. Warily, Stuart asked, “Are we bypassing something? Why’d we change course?”
The other man shrugged. “New orders are to make a detour. Another pickup, maybe. I don’t know. We’ll get additional instructions when we arrive.”
Stuart sat in silence for a while, watching the terrain some more. Some time later, the flight path skirted a small city—that had to be Charlottesville—and then banked southwest. Soon, they were flying over increasingly mountainous terrain covered in dense forest. That would be a spur of the Washington and Jefferson National Forest. The Appalachian foothills…
When the helicopter began to slow, Stuart had calculated that, based on what he knew and had seen, he must be about ten or fifteen miles east of Lexington. The only thing he could see in every direction was heavily wooded, low mountains. Middle of nowhere. A small clearing slid into view and they banked toward it, descending to land.
Stuart stared at the dark-suited man next to him. “This is not a pickup. Why are we here, and what are your orders concerning me?”
“You’re in no position to demand anything, sir. With all due respect, you’re an intelligence agent and a member of the 20s. We just received new orders. There’s a hidden bunker here under a simple cabin. The bunker is hardened against EMPs, but only when secured. You and I will enter the bunker, make it fully secure, and there await additional orders. All the computer hardware you’ll need to be effective for this mission is in the bunker but needs to be set up. I guess they never finished the place, or staffed it.”
“What?” Stuart shouted. Calming himself, he said, “And when shall I be retrieved to the Mountain? My family is there.”
“Yes, sir. Your family will arrive there shortly. They’ll be safe and cared for, because they are the wife and child of an important 20s operative on a vital intelligence mission.”
Damn. So that was their game. If Stuart refused then he could be almost certain his family would be dropped off somewhere to await the EMPs. That was the best case. At worst, they would never leave the Mountain again, at least not alive. His rage grew, but he was powerless to do anything about it.
“Very well. And do your orders say how long we’ll be holed up in his hillbilly hell?”
“No. Get out, sir. Your country will thank you for your service, someday. For now, though, your family will thank you to get going. Your duty waits for us down there, sir.”
Bastards. And he’d be holed up with this uptight agent. Great. Stuart climbed out and, without another word, he strode toward the cabin. The agent followed close behind.
* * *
0600 HOURS – ZERO DAY -1
Rubbing bleary eyes, Stuart gulped at another cup of coffee. At least they’d had the foresight to include boatloads of coffee, sugar, and creamer. Of course, there was food as well; at least a two year supply, he guessed. And dozens of radios, rifles, HAM radios, random bits of electronics that might come in handy… and three computer terminals.
After beginning his first pot of coffee, he spent the rest of the night getting the computers set up and installing the software he needed, scanning their system, removing all the little spyware widgets he could find, and so on while the agent slept. Unfortunately, the entire setup relied on satellite uplinks, of which there were two available in case one failed. He’d need to set up a HAMnet connection that the 20s knew nothing about, somehow, to get off the provided network connections and get that monkey off his back.
Once set up and online, he logged in, went through the routine of installing his pet software—hidden, of course—from his USB drives, and checked in with the 20s. Or rather, they checked in with him; not five minutes after logging on, that ASCII terminal popped up again.
OMEGA: Welcome back, Watcher One. Standby for orders.
W1: First, SITREP on my dependents.
OMEGA: Comfortable in a private room, and sleeping.
W1: I need to speak to them.
OMEGA: Negative. Incoming live feed from their room camera. You may confirm they are secure, but for security reasons communications are not permitted at this time.
Stuart sat by for a minute, fuming, when another window popped up. It was an image of the room, all in green from the infrared camera, and showed April and his son, Roland, sound asleep.
W1: Confirmed. Standing by for orders.
* * *
0900 HOURS – ZERO DAY -1
Stuart smiled as he peered at his monitor. He would have jumped for joy, but thought that he might be under camera surveillance just as his wife and son were, or awaken the agent. But he’d contacted Dark Ryder directly! Stuart was going under the guise of a hacker with the handle, “PinkToes,” both on the HAM radio and now via the internet.
PinkToes was a conspiracy nut living in remote West Virginia, as far as Dark Ryder knew, and had been feeding the brilliant, rich hacker nuggets of information. Not the whole story, of course, but enough that he’d convinced Ethan it was time to bug out to his bunker in Pennsylvania. It had not been difficult.
The agent stirred. “Good morning, sir.”
“Morning. There’s coffee made. What should I call you? I’m getting tired of calling you ‘agent’, you know.”
The other man smiled. “I prefer no names, but if you must call me something, how about ‘Agent Smith’ for now?”
Yeah right. “Okay, Smith. I guess a fake name is better than nothing.”
Smith turned and headed toward the coffee pot in the next room. Stuart then opened a folder from his USB drives, one with intel on every significant prepper community, militia group, and anti-government cabal in the country. At least, all the ones the FBI had tabs on, which would be almost all of them. He focused especially on the ones in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Indiana, all for different reasons: one was where Ethan would be, another where Stuart was, and Indiana… Well, that one was for future use, based on some of the intel he’d seen during his hack of the computer inside NORAD. To these groups he fed enough information to get them hopping mad—and scared.
He’d already set them up with their own secure connections, teaching them how to contact Dark Ryder via both regular internet and HAMnet. Stuart couldn’t continue to contact them all and coordinate, not without alerting his masters or his watchdog that he was up to something. But once the weirdos connected with Dark Ryder—Ethan—then Stuart could just burst-send information to the hacker and let him do the work.
Not only did this give Stuart a wildcard up his sleeve, it also gave him tools to use if the EMP attacks really did come soon. They were equipped and prepared, and could be effective resources in re-establishing order once the grid went down. Dealing with them afterward would be another matter, but that was the military’s job, not his. No, Stuart’s job was to do everything he could to make sure the U.S. did manage to recover after the EMPs. (If they came, of course.) Even if the 20s didn’t know what he was up to…
* * *
1015 HOURS – ZERO DAY -1
The terminal popped up again, and Stuart leaned forward to read it.
OMEGA: Please confirm your location has been secured and hardened.
W1: Affirmative. Procedure complete.
OMEGA: Well done. A helicopter will be bringing your replacement within the hour, and will transport you to your dependents for the duration of the crisis.
Stuart was typing in a response when his TOR-based browser popped up a chat window. It was Dark Ryder, sending a file hash to confirm he’d received a file without corruption. Stuart’s eyes went wide, a shot of fear pulsing through him. Dammit… Could the 20s see that? Maybe. He closed Ryder’s window as fast as he could. He glanced at Smith, but the agent hadn’t seemed to notice. He looked pensively at the 20s chat window. There was a long delay of a couple minutes, but it felt even longer. Finally another message came through, telling Stuart to stand by for additional information. He cringed, and prayed.
A loud Clang! noise echoed through the bunker and Stuart dang near fell out of his chair, startled. Smith leaped to his feet shouting, “What the hell is that?”
Two more loud noises, the same as the first. What the heck was going on? Then his computer chirped. New message.
OMEGA: There has been a change in our orders. Replacement was not located. Facility must be manned. Your orders are to remain in place until relieved. Additional instructions forthcoming.
W1: Copy that. Any idea what’s coming, or am I standing by to stand by? Also there may be a malfunction here. Loud mechanical noises.
OMEGA: Unk. Be advised that your dependents remain safe at this time. We detect no malfunction. You may have been hearing the blast doors being secured remotely.
W1: … Blast doors?
OMEGA: Affirmative. To ensure operational security and continued facility operations, the blast doors have been closed and locked. They will be opened remotely when your replacement has arrived.
They had to have seen Dark Ryder’s popup window. There was no other explanation. Mentioning his family was a veiled threat, and locking down the bunker only served to imprison him—a warning against future security lapses. There was no way they’d be coming to get him before the EMPs, and unless he was very lucky indeed, they might well leave him to rot down there. Enraged, Stuart screamed, leaving a very confused-looking Smith to wonder why.
* * *
1200 HOURS – ZERO DAY -1
Stuart had been busy for the last two hours. He and Smith had spent a half hour trying to find a way out of the bunker just in case, but found none. The only way he’d be able to get out on his own would be to hack that system, yet he had no idea how to do that. Not yet. It wasn’t connected to his mini-intranet setup, so he had no idea how they’d accessed the doors system. Agent Smith had of course been no help at all. The man seemed to lack any curiosity once he’d confirmed for himself that there was no way out.
Stuart would keep probing, but it was a long shot at the moment. Once the EMPs hit, however, it would minimize the number of possibilities and narrow his search—the 20s would have made sure that it was a system that could survive an EMP, this being a hardened bunker and all. Once the grid fell, there would be a lot fewer live systems and connections to search through.
After searching the inside of the bunker for a way out and setting up his computer to scan for possibilities, he’d given himself ten minutes to further vent his anger. Anger never helped one to think clearly, after all. As much as he would have loved to spend the day smashing up the place, he knew that would help neither him nor his family. Smith thankfully had left him alone as he vented his frustration.
Then he buried the rage and hopelessness, and cleared his mind. He ticked off the things he needed to accomplish. First, he had to increase the number of ways in which he could contact Dark Ryder, and through him the preppers, militias, and others he’d set in motion. Internet for now, but that would be briefly interrupted after the EMPs until he could map out what servers and routers had survived. HAMnet would likely be the primary way, then, and HAM radio.
Smith, apparently bored and with nothing to do, began humming tunelessly to himself, and Stuart became ever more irritated. Soon he couldn’t seem to think straight with that humming in the background, and he snapped at Smith. “Dang it, man! Stop it. I can’t think straight with that racket.”
Smith didn’t seem fazed by the outburst. He did quit humming but then began a long-winded monologue about politics, dirty hippies, past escort jobs… Anything and everything. Stuart’s face grew red with irritation, and he tried desperately to tune it out.
Next, Stuart developed a couple cyphers, one that was ridiculously simple but well-suited to HAMnet, and another that was more complex. The second one would use a book Dark Ryder mentioned once. Stuart downloaded a scan of the book, as it was vital they had access to the same printing and edition if they were going to use it in the more complex cipher. He passed that information on to Ethan after carefully masking his network path once again. They’d have a secure way to communicate after the EMPs, whether via HAM or internet.
And finally, he’d chatted securely with Ethan and revealed the existence of the 20s. He made it sound like the 20s were a group of experts and retired military or intel types who worked a lot like a well-known hacker group, but focused on what was best for the U.S. and tracking “active conspiracies.” That immediately got Ethan’s attention, though it took all of Stuart’s skills as an agent Handler to get him to “join” the 20s as an associate.
Smith’s voice rang out from directly behind Stuart, startling him. “What the heck do you want, Smith?”
“Sir, who are you chatting with?” There was steel in the man’s voice.
“Part of my duties include handling an asset, and that’s what I’m doing. Dear Lord, Smith! Go away, you’re distracting me.”
Signing Ethan up gave Stuart a vital resource that he could use either to help himself or put pressure on his enemies, should the Mountain betray him. Not that he revealed anything too true about the 20s, especially with Smith lurking in the background. That’d probably get Stuart shot if caught, so he dared not push it that far.
Then he sat at his small desk, chin resting in his hands, and brainstormed about other things he could do to prepare, to be productive. He turned his attentions to his personal problems—he had to eventually get out of the bunker while ensuring the safety of his family and then figure out how to reunite with them, if the 20s didn’t come through on their promises. Not much came to him.
– Part 3 –
2200 HOURS – ZERO DAY -1
STUART WAS GOING over schematics of the bunker, which was part of the vast infodump he’d downloaded from NORAD and the 20s over the past several hours, when the irritating ASCII chat box opened up again. After a brief exchange to confirm Stuart’s identity, whoever was on the other end of that chat connection got down to business.
OMEGA: Very well. We have three tasks for you to complete. These must be done within the next 8 hours (by 0600 hours local) to ensure completion before the earliest expected time of EMP attack by unknown enemy.
W1: My family?
OMEGA: Safe and healthy. Space is limited, so our ability to continue to shelter your family is contingent upon successful completion of mission objectives.
Well. A good thing Stuart hadn’t yet figured out how to escape. But he still had to get to the Mountain to be with his family, and barring an overland trek across half the country, the 20s would have to provide transportation. He’d have to be a good little doggie—for now.
W1: Understood. Will require exfiltration from bunker to the Mountain upon completion.
OMEGA: Affirmative. Once these tasks are completed, Watcher Two will relieve you of the post, but he lacks the skills required to achieve mission success. Estimate that, if objectives are achieved within mission window of 8 hours, you will be able to exfiltrate with enough time to relocate with your dependents prior to soonest possible estimated EMP attack.
W1: Understood. Standing by for mission orders…
Once the orders were transmitted securely, Stuart sat at his terminal rubbing his eyes. They itched from fatigue, or from the dry, filtered bunker air.
The first objective was simple enough. He hacked into the vice president’s scheduling CMS, or Content Management System, to ensure that the V.P. got out of Washington, D.C. before the EMPs could hit. Stuart input some data that would direct the vice president to a bunker in Maryland, along with most of the House senior representatives. This was probably just to ensure continuity of government if anything happened to the president.
To ensure success without raising any warning flags, he implanted the same data into the Secret Service’s information portal for the V.P. at the same time it overrode the CMS data. Thus, the timestamps matched and the source IP appeared to be one that both systems recognized. Usually this required biometrics from the vice president—his retina scan—but the DIA had that pattern on file. A complex program matched the randomized data points demanded by the system with the retinal pattern the DIA had scrounged up somehow, in real-time.
“Come on, you beautiful, deadly software. I wrote you, so do what I tell you…”
Access: granted. Yippee. In less than half an hour the entire process was completed. The system pushed the new data to the V.P. and to the people who effectively controlled his schedule and movements.
“What’s up?” asked Smith, who appeared more bored than interested, and Stuart shut him up with a barrage of techno-babble. The agent’s eyes glazed over and then he wandered off to the kitchen while Stuart was mid-sentence.
“Done, and done,” Stuart muttered, pleased to be rid of the man. Over seven hours remained to complete the second and third tasks. Stuart got a cup of coffee while pointedly ignoring Smith and returned to the station to mull over the second mission objective. This one was harder, but not impossible with the skills and software he had available.
With an automated program that used data provided by previously implanted packet sniffers, Stuart hijacked two satellites that were ostensibly weather monitors, but the open secret in the Intel community was that they were actually high-res reconnaissance satellites. They were capable of both regular imagery and a host of others, including magnetic resonance, radiation mapping, and auto-tracking several thousand programmable targets.
Interesting choice of satellites. More interesting that he had to put one in each hemisphere. Trying to ignore his agent companion, who hovered over his shoulder looking bored, Stuart input new coordinates and watched his display as the satellites crept into their new geosynchronous orbits. Once he was satisfied with their new positions, he uploaded data to shift their tracking features onto new targets.
“Oh, sweet,” Smith said. “Who are we tracking? I didn’t even know we could do that.”
“I don’t know what or who the targets are, but ultimately the target swap is as simple as uploading new coded files. The 20s provided the data, but it’s encrypted.”
The hacker wiped sweat from his forehead. He’d been so focused on the complexities of his last hack that he’d been hunched over the keyboard, feeling his adrenaline. He stretched and thought over each step he’d taken. “Let’s be sure I covered all the bases.”
“All your base are belong to us,” Smith said with an amused smile. Stuart ignored him.
The only real difficulties had been the initial hack to take over the satellites and managing to get root access to their onboard computer systems so he could force them to accept the new target lists despite lacking the correct encryption tool. Once he had gained Administrator control of the system, it became moot; he overrode the alert and lockout routines, and then the target lists were accepted despite that.
He then changed all the passwords on the birds to secure them from any attempt by the real operators to regain control of them—ideally they’d never notice, but it was a long shot. That done, he methodically dismantled the sequentially connected network of VPNs, removing any log file traces of his passage from the networks he’d bounced though.
* * *
0030 HOURS – ZERO DAY
The connection closed, and Stuart leaned back to stretch out his neck and shoulders again. It had taken a couple hours, but the satellites were relocated and the software revised, as he’d been instructed. Only one task now lay between him and reunion with his family in the safety of the Mountain, near Colorado Springs. It would be the toughest of the three tasks. In effect, Stuart had to issue authenticated orders to dozens of units across the country, and even overseas.
“Okay, let’s figure out the sub-tasks and make sure I’m not missing anything,” Stuart mumbled at Agent Smith, and then listed out the subgoals he’d need to accomplish first in order to finish the task as a whole. Then he began attacking the problems one at a time.
First, he’d have to issue alerts to every base, ordering them to call back all off-base personnel including reservists and National Guard. “Yeah, but doing that without someone going up the chain of command is unlikely,” he said aloud. “I’m going to have to divert at least the official comms through the Mountain. Let them deal with it,” he said and laughed, making the necessary hacks.
“Because that’s going to encourage them to bring you to your family,” Smith said as he rubbed tired eyes.
“It has to be done. They’re going to get a lot of questions about these movement orders I’m issuing, so those questions have to be answered by the Mountain if we want the units to obey the orders. We’re not in their chain of command, so we have to look like we are.”
“Oh. Yeah, that makes sense. Got any video games on one of those computers?”
“No,” snapped Stuart. As irritating as Smith had been at the beginning, with his Captain America, A-1 Soldier routine, his shift into a more casual mode was even more irritating. It smacked of disrespect, though Stuart thought it possible it was just how he was when he wasn’t “on duty” at the moment. Either way, it felt unprofessional.
Then came many dozens of individual unit orders. As he reviewed the list, he furrowed his eyebrows. “That’s odd. Most of these units are at the Platoon level. Normally such orders would be for a company, at minimum. Usually larger.” Their coordinates were not coded so well, and Stuart had no problem deciphering their objectives. “Hm. New York, Orlando, Charlotte, Boston—primary east coast cities, mostly. And the rest are getting scattered deep in remote interior areas of the country, such as state parks and wildlife preserves, for ‘maneuvers.’ Yeah, right.”
“Yes, but can you make it happen? If the 20s want you moving units, it must be important.”
Stuart didn’t reply. Of course he could make it happen. Issuing the base orders and rerouting comms through the 20s within the Mountain turned out to be fairly simple. It took maybe half an hour.
After he sent out the last message, he glanced at his watch and saw that it was about 0100 hours. He had five hours left to complete the tasks and notify the 20s.
“Why do you keep looking at your watch?” Smith asked. “We have plenty of time.”
“I aim to have it done as soon as possible. I need to be en route to the Mountain well before any possible EMP attack. Analysts are often wrong—I should know.”
The relocation’s second stage was to order a couple of submarines out of their OpArea to coded coordinates.
“Why the heck do they want to move submarines? It seems like a big risk to the 20s. Too big a change. I hope the comms hack to the Mountain will hold inquiries off for long enough.”
Stuart didn’t know where he would be sending them, as he wasn’t able to decipher the coordinates in the time available. “Good Lord, the unit designations… Those are nuclear-armed boomers!” That was ominous. “Screw it. I care more about getting back to my family. If nukes fly from those subs, it’s a problem for someone else, somewhere else.”
The agent chuckled. “How very pragmatic of you, sir.”
Lastly, he had to send new orders to the selected submarines. And that would first require hacking into a few other places for codes and data, including the Defense Department and the Dep’t of the Navy. Those hacks ate almost an entire precious hour, but once he’d done that, issuing the new orders was relatively simple. The hard part had been getting into those hardened systems, after all. The end of this objective had finally arrived, after what seemed an eternity of difficult, intense work… Having set up the revisions, he grinned and hit Enter.
“Done. Freakin’ finally.”
“Outstanding, sir. At this rate we’ll get picked up before the attack. You’re the man!”
God, Smith was annoying. “That’s the plan,” he replied flatly.
* * *
0200 HOURS – ZERO DAY
Two A.M… Stuart looked at the schematics and maps files, open on his monitors. Projections, analysis, a host of data he’d taken from the 20s, unbeknownst to them. The worst-case scenario seemed unlikely, but it was remotely possible, given the current geopolitical situation. But time enough to worry about that later.
Stuart cracked his knuckles, rolled his head to stretch tense muscles, and then attacked the final mission objective. He opened a terminal. “Six hours to go, four if I want to get out with a safety margin. And all I have to do is… the impossible.”
“If anyone can do it, you can, sir. Stop talking so you can work harder.”
Stuart clenched his fists and fought the urge to take a swing. Having interruptions while hacking wasn’t easy.
Another terminal opened, with a familiar ASCII border. The 20s. What did they want now? Stuart fought the urge to swear. This was not good timing.
OMEGA: We thought you might like to know that your family is safe and well taken care of.
W1: I assume you aren’t disturbing me in the middle of my mission just to tell me that.
OMEGA: We have received new intel, deciphered with the techniques you developed. Your third mission objective has had a priority shift. Another task is now of critical importance.
W1: Good. I had no idea how to move so many U.S. naval assets out of the Atlantic.
OMEGA: Shift in situation renders that objective obsolete. They would not be able to exit their OpArea in time.
“What the hell? How the… The darn timetable has moved up. Oh, Lord…”
W1: Understood. What is the new mission window and objective?
OMEGA: We have moved up the window. Analysis has increased likelihood that they will attack with EMPs within hours of soonest possible timing. Estimates have risen from 7% to 23%. We must proceed under assumption that the analysis is correct.
W1: Very well. So, you need me to arrange for the safety of POTUS.
OMEGA: Negative. That has already been arranged. But we have learned of a contingency plan initiated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense in ’84, when the danger of EMP attack was first seriously considered. It still stands as part of the Nuclear Football usage flowchart.
W1: We’re burning time. Relay mission objective.
OMEGA: The plan was drawn up when it was assumed the Soviet Union was the likely source of such an attack. It has not been updated. If EMP attack occurs against U.S. a retaliatory general nuclear response will be initiated against former Soviet states and others. Russia will of course respond. This scenario must be prevented.
W1: There’s no way to reprogram our assets in that time, or alter the retaliation flowchart.
OMEGA: Probably not. We only just learned of this factor, unfortunately. We all must hope that our best agent can resolve the issue. It is what it is.
One hundred minutes until his self-imposed deadline, which now seemed less and less self imposed. Stuart banged his head on the desk and let out a stream of obscenities, the likes of which he hadn’t uttered in many years.
* * *
0215 HOURS – ZERO DAY
“Would you please shut the hell up, Smith? I can’t concentrate with you running a monologue the entire time.”
“So what’s the problem? Just hack them and change the orders,” replied Smith.
Stuart let out a long breath. “Because I can’t do that. I don’t have time. I don’t even know which warheads will be tasked with the nuclear response.”
“Well that’s stupid, sir.”
Stuart clenched his jaw. “What’s stupid is trying to find an unknown number of missiles that are a part of this unknown counter-strike protocol, and then hack them one at a time.”
“You trying to get us all nuked?”
“Agent, please stop talking. I’m the hacker here, not you. I just need to figure out how to do this, that’s all.”
“Sounds impossible. Why don’t you just keep ’em from receiving the launch command?”
“Disable the U.S. nuclear response capability?”
“Just the missiles. We still have the Navy and all their warheads, but they weren’t nuke capable when this response was developed so you don’t need to worry about them in the EMP response protocol. Damn, you hackers are all kind of the same, you know that? Just because you have a hammer doesn’t mean everything’s a nail, sir.”
And the worst part of the conversation was that the idiot agent was right. Stuart didn’t reply, instead diving into his work.
* * *
0315 HOURS – ZERO DAY
Stuart smiled at his masterpiece, which was nearly complete. He’d arranged for a continual signal to be sent from an unhardened source to the few satellites that handled launch orders (among other things); if the satellites stopped receiving the signal, then they would cease all broadcasting for 48 hours—long enough to avoid the president’s launch orders. He needn’t worry about phoneline distribution because none of that system was hardened.
“What’s that red flashing thing?” asked Agent Smith, pointing annoyingly with one finger at the monitor.
Darn it. Backtrace alert. Someone was on to his hack, or at least investigating, and when they opened files and ran hash checks it had triggered Stuart’s alarms. Maybe he’d messed up a timestamp somewhere—their systems were that sensitive—and now a live hacker was hunting for him, and for the changes he’d made. Double darn.
Stuart hadn’t seen the backtrace until it was actually rummaging through one of the launch code satellite’s systems. He could terminate their signal, of course, but then they’d know something was wrong and begin hunting in earnest. But this was probably some DoD sysadmin going through a check list. Glorified customer support, that’s all. But dangerous right now.
“Someone’s noticed the hack,” Stuart said. “We’re being hunted. Shut up a minute.”
He went into the satellite’s system and immediately reduced the bandwidth allocated to the investigator’s connection to 150 bytes per minute. That would slow the hunter down to almost nothing, but wouldn’t stop him, and it probably only bought him a few minutes—the hunter would soon enough figure out what had happened.
Stuart used the time as best he could, by creating dozens of copies of every file he could, with timestamps that matched the original. If the hunter reallocated satellite bandwidth, he’d still have to spend a lot of time sifting through the red herrings. To the hunter, it would hopefully all seem like a system malfunction, at least long enough for Stuart to figure something else out. But this, too, would not stop the hunt for long.
Smith made an annoying slurping noise as he sipped at his coffee. “Why don’t you just shut the satellite down?”
Idiot. “Because, they’ll only turn it back on, and then all my hacks will be undone as they upload the save file. It might even be faster than what they’re doing now, going through log files and system files.”
“Can’t you just change the access codes, or whatever? Lock them out completely?”
“Yes, but then they’ll go in through their backdoor—there’s always a backdoor—and I don’t have time to find it and close it beforehand. And they’ll know for sure that the bird’s been hacked.”
Smith got an expression, a far-away look, and Stuart was happy to let him get his thoughts together. Stuart spent the time writing notes on ideas. Then Smith snapped out of his haze with a shake of his head.
“You know, I once worked an op where we had to infiltrate a heavily occupied area, in the Gulf war,” Smith said. “The L.T. wanted to try to emplace a bunch of signal jammers all over the place so if we were spotted, they couldn’t spread the word. Instead, Intel figured out that they had a single, well-defended location that was a nexus for all their Comms. We only had to jam that one location, after that. Maybe you could do something like that.”
“What, jam a satellite at the source? Not a bad idea, but it isn’t really possible.”
“You could blow it up, right? Self-destruct sequence, and all that?”
Stuart laughed, a genuine warm laugh. “Sorry, I’m not laughing at you, it’s just a funny idea. But I could destroy the satellite, but they’d have the signal protocol swapped to another bird in hours, I would think. Plus, we will want that bird up there when all this is over, as a deterrent to anyone with land-grab ideas.”
Agent Smith looked crestfallen. “Touché, sir. Touché.”
Then an idea struck him. “You know, I could just mirror the satellite’s small operating system in a sandbox here on these computers. Then our hunter would be trapped inside a virtual copy without ever knowing it and leave me free to work out the rest on the real satellite.”
“Yeah, there was an episode of Star Trash where they did that to the super evil genius, Moriarty. You know, like from Sherlock Holmes.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Smith. But I think it’ll work. Then we can get the heck out of this underground box.”
“Outstanding, sir. Don’t let me distract you, by all means.”
* * *
0345 HOURS – ZERO DAY
Stuart allowed himself to relax, stretching out one tense muscle at a time. On his monitor, the final upload with revised system commands and contingencies was uploading. He’d had to change about two dozen files of varying sizes, but the changes to each were relatively small. The upload was going a lot slower than he’d have liked.
“Amazing, sir. You did it! I didn’t think you could. I was going to regret having to report the failure, and what they probably would have ordered me to do.”
Stuart knew exactly what the order would have been. There was no way the 20s would have allowed him to run around freely after they shoved his family out the door. He was simply too dangerous to let live, unless he was their ally. While he waited for the upload to finish, he looked again at the monitor that showed his family’s room in the Mountain. At this time of night they were asleep, but he could see them clearly due to the camera’s infrared capacity. His wife, beautiful as she was, had sprawled out on her bed in a rather unladylike fashion and had her mouth wide open, drooling. Stuart smiled, his heart warmed by the sight.
“Well, I’m pretty darn glad we don’t have to worry about—”
The lights went out. So did the computers. Two seconds later, the faint hum of a generator reached their ears, and the lighting came back on.
“Oh, damn!” Stuart kept repeating the word as he frantically brought his computers back up and went through the unexpected shutdown routine.
Smith’s lips were pursed, jaw clenched. Then he said, “Just a power glitch? This is way earlier than the forecast thought possible. Sir, do you think you succeeded? Most of those files were just covering your tracks, right? Maybe the revised orders got through…”
Stuart looked Smith in the eyes, his gaze direct and solid, but his stomach churned despite the show of confidence. “Might not be EMP damage… But yes, I’m almost positive the most important file got uploaded.”
“I guess we’ll know for sure if we launch our nuclear arsenal.”
Stuart ignored Smith and focused on the task at hand. No internet connection. He entered the router’s IP into the computer’s address bar, and the router management system came up. He took three deep breaths and then remotely reset the router from his computer. And waited.
Connection! He had a solid, albeit slow, connection to the router. A second later, the router itself restored contact with its satellite uplink. He sent out internet pings to every server he could think of off the top of his head. A few high-tech giants, his home network, the library back home. All dead, with no pingback.
Then, the ASCII terminal popped back up. Stuart froze, afraid to see what they might say. Afraid for his family, and afraid he was about to get a bullet in the head.
OMEGA: Please confirm your status, W1.
W1: Alive. Connected via satellite. What do we know? What about my family?
OMEGA: Data still coming in. At least the Eastern Seaboard is dark. We won’t know the status of your family until the 30-minute window for a nuclear retaliation has passed.
Stuart heard the mechanical clamor of a pistol being racked to load a round into the chamber. That would be Agent Smith, somewhere behind him. Stuart couldn’t make himself turn to look and instead set about mapping any surviving U.S. networks, the results showing up on a map as bright green spots—and there were damn few of them. The Mountain, of course. A couple points of light in the dark zones, which would be hardened positions, but he couldn’t tell if they were government or prepper, yet. The only area still glowing brightly green was San Diego and Camp Pendleton, at least in the continental U.S.
“Sir, I want you to know that I really do hope we don’t have to terminate you. It’s a small comfort, I know, but I just wanted you to know that while we wait. I’m rooting for you and your family. And through them, the fate of the U.S.”
“I hope so too,” Stuart replied, his voice flat and monotone, and waited as the minutes ticked by. If he wasn’t murdered in the next thirty minutes, it meant life for his family. For the world, really, as it would mean the U.S. hadn’t launched a nuclear response against phantom enemies, and no retaliation would be coming.
It was the longest half-hour of his life.
# # #
** Thank you for reading Ready Watcher One. Readers like you make these stories possible, and we truly appreciate your support. – JJ Holden and Henry Gene Foster **
About the authors:
JJ Holden lives in a small cabin in the middle of nowhere. He spends his days studying the past, enjoying the present, and pondering the future.
Henry Gene Foster resides far away from the general population, waiting for the day his prepper skills will prove invaluable. In the meantime, he focuses on helping others discover that history does indeed repeat itself and that it’s never too soon to prepare for the worst.