It was three years ago today that I began to post The Alexandria Project as a serial here at the Standards Blog. An explanatory post ran a couple of days earlier. One purpose of writing the book was to highlight how vulnerable we are to cyberattack, and sad to say, we haven't made any real progress in protecting ourselves in the time that's passed since then, although the consequences of a disastrous attack continue to increase.
As you can see from the counter above, over 15,000 people read that first installment, and thousands followed it through to its conclusion. I'll post the first few chapters again over the next few weeks for those that missed it the first time, and you can find links here to buy the extensively rewritten final version in eBook and print versions at all the usual outlets.
Late in the afternoon of December 11, 2010 a large panel truck backed up to a chain link fence topped with concertina wire in a run-down section of Richmond, Virginia. The words “Lowell Wholesale Paper Goods” were spread across the sides of the truck, as well as the back of the gray coveralls worn by the truck’s driver, Jack Davis.
Jumping down from behind the wheel, Davis entered a number on the battered keypad set on a steel post rising from the cracked pavement, and a section of the fence began to clank slowly to one side. A moment later, and he had backed the truck up flush against the loading dock of the nondescript warehouse inside. By the time he was done, the fence had closed behind him.
|Davis rolled up the rear door of THe truck from the inside, and then unlocked and raised the metal loading dock door. Stepping inside, he threw a light switch, and then stamped on the brake release pedal of the hydraulic lifter parked against the wall. The few bare bulbs in the ceiling above dimly revealed a long row of loading pallets, each stacked nine feet high with large boxes of paper plates, cups and towels.
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A Tale of Treachery and Technology
Closing and locking the loading dock gate behind him, Davis pushed the lifter along the row of pallets, counting down as he moved along. When he reached zero, he turned the long forks of the lift to the right and slid them under a pallet, raised it a few inches, and then backed it up. After swinging it 180 degrees, he turned to find not another pallet, but a heavy steel door set in a wall, and beside it a biometric security pad.
When Davis pressed his thumb against it, the door opened inwards into a closet-sized room barely illuminated in red light. Stepping inside, he eased the pallet of boxes back into place behind him, lowered it, and closed the door. Only then did he open the door at the other end of the tiny room, first taking care to shield his eyes with one hand.
As usual, even with this precaution the bright lights in the enormous room beyond nearly blinded him. But soon he could clearly see the familiar row upon row of seven foot high metal racks crammed with identical black objects, each the size and shape of a medium pizza delivery box. Every one displayed a row of small, rhythmically blinking white lights, and each was connected to bundles of brightly colored wires. The room hummed softly with the sound of thousands of cooling fans, one to a box. Davis felt more than heard the pulse of the powerful air conditioners that absorbed the waste heat the fans threw off, lest the computer chips in the thousands of servers destroy themselves with their own heat.
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Walking along the perimeter of the room, Davis saw the guard he was relieving approach from the opposite direction. When they met, the guard stopped briefly to chat and slip on the coveralls he’d been carrying over one arm. Like the semi-automatic pistol the guard wore in his shoulder holster, they were identical to those that Davis also wore.
“What’s the weather like outside?”
“Sucks. Sleet and more of the same predicted till morning.”
“Figures. Tomorrow’s my day off.”
With that, the other man went on his way. In a few minutes he’d be driving off in the truck parked outside.
Well, the weather won’t be bothering me in here, Davis thought. The room was climate controlled to within a tenth of a degree, and well-insulated by the bombproof walls and roof that had been erected inside the outer shell of the warehouse. The whole bloody world could come to an end outside and he wouldn’t know about it till his shift was over.
Davis walked up a flight of steel stairs that led to a bullet proof, glass walled security booth attached to the wall overlooking the room. He stepped inside after touching another biometric pad, and then began settling in for another long, boring shift guarding the blinking servers below.
In front of davis stood a row of video displays that allowed him to see every inch of the outside of the warehouse, and racked on the wall behind him were a high powered rifle and a shotgun. It wasn’t likely he’d ever need any of the fire power at his disposal, though. One flip of the large red switch in front of him would flood the server room with enough Halon gas to not only put out a fire, but asphyxiate any intruder as well. Not for the first time, he wished that the house where he lived with his wife and their two small children could be as well protected.
But the government didn’t put as high a priority on protecting suburban bungalows as it did on safeguarding its computer network facilities. Some of the most important systems, like those serving the needs of the Pentagon and the National Security Administration, were located not far away at Fort Meade. Others, like this one, were scattered far and wide, hidden in plain sight but highly secure none the less.
If Davis had been able to electronically monitor what was happening on server A-VI/147 below, though, he might have felt less secure. True, concrete and steel walls, surveillance cameras and Halon gas were more than adequate to protect the physical wellbeing of his facility against anything short of a nuclear weapon - and Richmond wasn't a likely target for that type of attack. But the data on the facility’s servers had to rely on virtual defenses - firewalls, security routines and scanners.
And notwithstanding those defenses, someone had gotten inside.
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The next morning, a morbidly obese Corgi named Lily was sniffing a tree on 16th Street, in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. A cold, insistent drizzle was falling, but Lily didn’t care, because Lily was sniffing at her favorite tree. Indeed, the meager processing power of Lily’s brain was wholly occupied by sampling the mysterious scents wafting up from the damp earth, for this was the favorite tree of every other dog in the neighborhood as well.
Something was nagging at the edge of her senses, though.
"C’mon, Lily! Hurry up!”
Lily turned her head. The distraction was coming from the individual at the other end of Lily’s leash. She noted the sockless feet jammed into worn, black loafers. Above bare ankles, a pair of pajama-clad legs disappeared into a rumpled raincoat, out of which extended an arm holding an umbrella. Under the umbrella was a stubbly, forty-something face topped by thinning black hair pulled back in a ponytail. Lily decided that the face did not look happy.
“Ah!” she thought. “That would be Frank.” Relieved, Lily returned to the important work at hand.
"C’mon, Lily!” repeated Frank.
The fact that Frank’s face was unhappy was not remarkable. Even in pleasant weather, Frank often towed a personal raincloud over head, pointlessly dwelling on the minor miseries of his life. Not long ago, that cloud had turned jet black when his mother Doreen entered a retirement home. After helping her move in, Frank took a deep breath and prepared to leave. No use dragging things out, he thought. Transitions are difficult, and best dealt with quickly.
Still, it was sad. His mother stood there by the doorway of her new apartment, lower lip atremble and Lily held tightly in her arms. It was clear that she was decompensating rapidly. Better hurry up.
“Well, Mom,” he said, “I guess I’ll be leaving now.”
Then it happened. With a sudden lunge, Doreen thrust Lily into Frank’s arms. He stepped back with surprise into the hallway, too horrified to allow himself to grasp the obvious.
“The home doesn’t allow pets,” his mother blurted. “I never could have taken the plunge if I didn’t know Lily would be safe with you. Now don’t you worry; I’ve made you her legal guardian, so it’s all set. Now go! Get out of here, before I change my mind.”
Frank desperately wanted her to change her mind. But his mother had already slammed the door in his horrified face. Now what? Lily was only three years old, and acknowledged his existence only by barking. He heard his mother sobbing explosively on the other side of the door. He felt like crying, too.
That had been two long, loud months ago. Only recently had he progressed from the denial stage to active mourning.
“Come on!” Frank hissed.
At last, Lily turned away from her tree. She looked up at him reproachfully, and barked.
“OK, OK,” Frank said, fumbling in his pocket. He held a dog treat up for Lilly to see. “OK?”
Lily was satisfied. She began looking for just the right place to do what finally needed to be done. At last, she squatted, looking blankly ahead. Frank sighed with relief.
A blue plastic bag inverted over his free hand, Frank scooped up Lily’s grudging gift. He handed over the biscuit, jerking back with fingers barely intact.
Frank watched Lily happily crunch away on her treat. “Isn't that just the story of my life?” he thought bleakly. “Every day I give her a cookie, and every day she gives me a bag of crap.”
Making his way back home through the rain, Frank reflected that his day generally went downhill from there.
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Lily shook herself mightily inside the door of Frank’s apartment house, wetting what little of Frank was still dry. Satisfied, she planted her substantial hindquarters firmly on the floor, looked up at Frank, and barked. Frank sighed, picked up the dog, and trudged up the stairs to his second floor flat.
As he climbed to the top, his rising eyes met a pair of fuzzy pink slippers, and then a floral house dress, followed by folded arms draped with a bath towel. At last, the angry face of his across the hall neighbor appeared. Not for the first time, Frank noted the uncanny resemblance his neighbor bore to North Korean president Kim Il-Jung, only with hair curlers.
“‘Morning, Mrs. Foomjoy,” Frank offered as Lily twisted wildly in his arms. He deposited the dog at her feet.
“Shame on you!” Mrs. Foomjoy barked as she knelt to massage Lily with the bath towel.
“Poor, dear wet baby!” she crooned.
“It’s raining, Mrs. Foomjoy,” Frank observed. “Lily hasn’t learned how to use the indoor facilities yet.”
“Then why isn’t she wearing the lovely rain jacket I gave her?” she snorted. “What is wrong with you? You don’t deserve a dog like this!”
Frank couldn’t have agreed more. Lily groveled at Mrs. Foomjoy’s feet, and then leaned to one side until gravity obligingly rolled her onto her back. Whining ecstatically, the dog gazed up with adoring, goggle eyes at Mrs. Foomjoy as she rubbed the dog’s stomach.
His neighbor grabbed the leash from Frank’s hand when she stood up. “I’ll see to the welfare of this dog!” she snapped, shutting her door loudly behind her. Frank stood suddenly alone in the poorly lit hallway, a warm, blue plastic pendulum swinging slowly from side to side in his hand. Startled but relieved, he entered his own apartment, and softly shut the door.
Frank hung his dripping raincoat on a hook in the linoleum floored hallway inside. At one time, his apartment’s décor might have been described as “late Twentieth Century divorced middle aged male.” Now the most obvious theme was pervasive clutter. He poured a cup of coffee and sat at the small table in the small kitchen and looked at the large laptop screen that stared blankly back at him. With resignation, he turned it on.
Normally, the sound of a computer booting up would have struck him as cheerful; the imperceptibly soft whir of the cooling fan spinning up to speed; the blinking lights at the edge of the keyboard; the screen phosphorescing into life with a pearly glow. After all, information technology – IT - was not only his profession, but a major aspect of his existence.
Computers and email provided his preferred links to the world outside, providing a social firewall, if you will. Digital relations were safer, Frank often reflected. They brought him as close to his fellow man as he usually wished to be. Closer than that, and things were apt to become unpredictable. You never got enough chance to think.
Which brought him back to the night before. Be honest, he mused ruefully. You got what you deserved. Or didn’t get what you didn’t deserve, to be more precise.
Should he, or shouldn’t he check his email? The rational side of his brain said, yes, what’s there is there. Deal with it.
But the other side of his brain had a different opinion: “Go back to bed,” it whispered, “It’s Sunday. You don’t have to deal with anything today.”
That was true. Who knows what might happen by Monday? There could be a typhoon tonight. Or maybe giant pterodactyls would erupt from a wormhole next to the Lincoln Memorial, scattering screaming tourists towards the safety of nearby Metro stations. That side of his brain was lobbying strongly to take two aspirin, pull the covers back over his head, and let reality take care of itself for another twenty-four hours.
Frank sighed again. Might as well see sooner than later what people from his office had posted on line. A few clicks later and he was at Mary the receptionist’s Facebook page. Yes, there were pictures from the party. Lots of them. Later would do just fine after all, he decided. He snapped the laptop shut without turning it off.
The sad thing was, he had actually been looking forward to the Library of Congress IT Department Holiday party. He had brought his daughter Marla with him, a Georgetown University grad student, and he appreciated the great impression she always made on his co-workers. Unlike her Dad, Marla was self-assured and sociable. She worked the crowd like a pro, chatting and shaking hands, laughing and poised. How could he feel anything but proud? It was hard not to drink a bit more than usual as he watched from the security of the bar in the rear of the function room.
More to the point, Frank had been looking forward to making Marla feel proud of her old man as well. Everyone knew that George Marchand, the Director of IT at the LOC was going to announce his choice to head an important security initiative mandated by no less than the Cybersecurity Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology. Frank figured he had the job all sewn up. After all, he was, or at least at one time had been, a recognized cybersecurity expert – a McArthur “Genius” Award recipient, no less - for his creative work in the early days of computer networking.
So when George stood up and tapped on his glass, Frank sat up straighter. He listened as his boss welcomed the spouses, thanked his staff for their work that year, and told a joke at his own expense. At last, he began to make the announcement that Frank was waiting for.
And then it happened. One moment, Frank was looking sideways to see the reaction on his daughter’s face when the announcement was made, and the next he was hearing someone else’s name ring out instead. And not just any name, but Rick Wellesley’s name – “only out for himself” Rick, a person who had never had a creative thought in his life, someone who had briefly reported to Frank when he first came to the LOC. Rick Wellesley? How could this be happening?
But it was. There was Rick, standing and basking in the applause, glancing briefly and triumphantly in Frank’s direction. Frank was stunned, his face burning. And then he was angry. Without a word to his daughter, he stood up and marched to the bar, turning his back on the party as George finished his remarks. Knocking back another drink, Frank felt foolish as well as angry. Everyone was probably looking at him, but he was afraid to turn around to find out. He stayed at the bar until Marla came looking for him.
Sitting now in his kitchen, Frank felt his face burn again. After all, everyone had expected the job to go to him. Then, with a wrenching feeling, he had a worse thought – what if no one had expected him to get the job? Maybe he was the only one in the whole damn department who hadn’t seen it coming. Maybe everyone had been laughing up their sleeves as they watched him bask in his expected glory, just waiting for his jaw to drop when he realized that he had been skunked by Rick. Of course that had been the case, he thought wretchedly. He was sure of it.
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And why not? What had he really done in the last 20 years? Sure, he’d become a star at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – just “MIT” to anyone in the know. He’d enrolled at the age of 16 after skipping two years of middle school, not that skipping a few grades was unusual at MIT. But as an undergraduate he’d been part of Project Athena, an ambitious effort to create a distributed computing system for the whole university. Of course, the goal for the project’s corporate sponsors was to use MIT as a testbed. Later, they hoped to productize the design and hopefully make a ton of money.
Frank had intuitively locked onto the security challenges that such a system would present. He already had privileges to use MIT’s gateway to the government-funded Advanced Research Projects Agency Network – the now-famous “ARPANET” that was the precursor to the Internet. Only select institutions had access to it then, but Frank had connected the dots immediately between where Project Athena and the ARPANET together could eventually lead. It hit him between the eyes that this was the start of something big. Linking terminals together around a campus was today’s goal, but the next step would be to connect those networks together all over the world via the telecommunications networks that already existed, using ARPANET technology.
That sounded awesome, but how would you restrict access to any particular data to one person, and not let it be seen by someone else? MIT was already a hotbed of hackers. If students were already going to great lengths to break into restricted sections of university computers just for fun, what would criminals, or enemy countries, not do to break into classified computers, once someone had linked them all together?
Frank tackled that issue his senior year with gusto, if not discipline. He was a big picture guy, and what a big and exciting picture it was! The idea of wide area networks was brand new, and big ideas were needed to make sense of it all; the details could come later. When Frank graduated, he stayed on at MIT, nominally in a PhD program, but for all practical purposes he lived at a terminal in the Project Athena lab, surviving on coffee and code like so many other young computer engineering students back in the day.
Luckily for Frank, he found a mentor, too – an engineer on loan from one of the sponsoring companies. Surprisingly, the two hit it off, and the older man reined in the younger one enough to keep his ideas from flying off into too many directions at once. He also insisted that Frank get most of his best ideas recorded in some sort of coherent order. Often they talked till all hours, his mentor channeling Frank’s enthusiasm and helping him follow his insights down the most productive paths.
Frank never completed his doctorate, but he did finish his Masters thesis – and by anyone’s account it was brilliant. He anticipated just about every security challenge that would arise over the next 20 years as the Internet took off. He also suggested at a high level most of the solutions that were later refined and implemented to deal with a massively networked world. Even today, his thesis remained an obligatory foundational reference in just about every new network and Internet security paper written.
Frank’s thesis also brought him to the notice of the mysterious keepers of the MacArthur Fellows Program – the unknown judges that every year contacted the select few out of millions who they had decided, “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.”
Receiving a MacArthur Fellowship – a “Genius Award,” as everyone called it - had been the high point of Frank’s professional career. But as a practical matter, it also brought an end to it, because the payments of $25,000 every three months for five years gave Frank the freedom to do whatever he wanted to without ever having to acquire the discipline of making his way in the world. It also allowed him to get married.
Unfortunately for Frank, whatever he wanted to do seemed to change every other week. It wasn’t long before his work at Project Athena suffered. He no longer listened to his mentor, and people began to notice that his assigned tasks no longer got done. Instead, he plunged from one question that intrigued him to another, never getting very far with any of them.
Like many people whose intellectual abilities matured before their social skills, Frank had already developed an overactive ego as well as an assertive manner that helped mask his discomfort around others. That was unfortunate, because his new–found fame encouraged him to become even more obnoxious than ever. Soon, the other guys in the lab were not only annoyed with his failure to meet his commitments, but sick of hearing his latest revelations about security – or about any other topic on which he had decided he was now an expert.
Eventually, it was his mentor who took Frank aside and told him that if he didn’t shape up, his days in the lab were numbered. That conversation occurred late one afternoon over a cup of coffee in the corner of a deli in Kendall Square, and Frank didn’t take it well. What right did some middle aged, middle-management type with a degree from a state school in the Midwest have to tell a certified Genius anything about anything?
Quite a lot, Frank reflected now regretfully, gazing at his closed laptop. Like the immature idiot he was then, he had cleared his things out of the Project Athena lab the same day and never returned. Eventually, the MacArthur Fellowship money ran out, and with a wife and young daughter, Frank had to get more serious about working. Or at least he should have. For awhile, his thesis and award carried him from job to job. But when the bottom fell out of the economy, great resumes were soon a dime a dozen.
By then, of course, his resume was getting pretty long in the tooth. Frank had no “continued and enhanced creative work” to show for his five years of subsidized, random behavior. He’d never written another paper, and it was others, and not him, that turned his thesis ideas into real protocols and products. As the jobs got scarce, reference checks counted a whole lot more, and the feedback about Frank always came back the same: brilliant, arrogant, unfocused, unreliable. That was more charitable than what his soon-to-be ex-wife had to say. But he hadn’t listened to her, either.
Frank usually tried not to think much about the years that followed. The startup that had signed him up as Chief Technical Officer and the VCs that fired him; the time spent without a job at all; the rut he fell into for years after his wife moved out with their daughter, when he said the hell with everything and everybody. That time was a blur of punching the clock in whatever high school, small business or municipal IT department would take him on till he got fired again, then waiting till his unemployment ran out before finding found something else he could do in his sleep, until even that became too much trouble to bother with.
Through all that time, though, people who really knew him still sought Frank out, and he maintained a low-key consulting business on the side to make sure he could always cover his child support payment checks. Among the elite in the world of security, Frank still had the reputation of a wizard, able to come up with the kind of amazing insights that would make the most impenetrable problems suddenly transparent. An emailed plea for help describing something dense and dark that had already defied all of the usual solutions would generate a response from Frank an hour or two later, usually beginning, “It strikes me that…” and ending with, “I suggest you try…” Invariably, what Frank suggested worked. But requests for his ongoing assistance went unanswered.
It was his daughter Marla that finally set Frank back on his feet. One Friday when he was once again out of work, he picked her up for their weekend together. But something was wrong; something was clearly on her mind. His normally chatty preteen wasn’t saying a word. As they walked, she looked down at her feet. Then she looked up as if to ask him a question, only to look down again. After a while, Frank got irritated. “Marla, if there’s something you want to ask me, just ask it already!”
But Marla still paused. Finally she said, “Dad, you know I’m in a computer class now, don’t you? It’s something you have to take in eighth grade.”
“Yes,” he said, surprised. “So?”
“Well,” she said, and stopped. He waited, now curious.
“Well,” she started again, “Today we took a tour of a big high tech company, and we all had to sign in and wear these name tag things. One of the people that worked there gave us a tour, and when she saw my name, she asked if I had a father named Frank, so of course I said ‘yes.’”
“Uh huh.” said Frank, not liking where this was going.
“Well…” Marla paused again, and then the words came rushing out; “She said that she went to school with you and you were the most brilliant person she had ever known and that you’d gotten a big award for being a genius and she wanted to know what you were doing now.” Marla stopped abruptly for a long moment. “And I didn’t know what to say.”
Frank wished this could be all over, and fast.
But, Marla, of course, needed an answer. “Dad, the guide said you used to be somebody really important.”
Frank felt like he was dangling at the end of a rope, turning slowly in the breeze. He looked away, and tried to think what to say. What could he say? And then, with all of the disarming innocence of a child, Marla finished him off.
“Dad, she wasn’t telling the truth, was she?”
Frank felt as if he couldn’t breathe. His daughter thought so little of her father that she needed to hear that the guide had made a mistake? Or was it that she would be too ashamed of what he had become to be able to deal with the truth? He felt sick.
By then, they were standing in front of the door of his cheap apartment building. The traffic rushed past the garbage cans and trash piled up on the curb, and Frank took it all in. The sights, the smells, his life – they all fit together, didn’t they? Still, he couldn’t think of a word to say to the young girl beside him.
Finally, Marla put her hand on his arm. “Dad, let’s go upstairs,” she said softly.
That had been ten years ago. The next Monday he sucked it up and called his old mentor, George Marchand, and asked for a job. George was already the head of the IT department at the Library of Congress, and Frank called him out of the blue to ask if they could get together for coffee.
George had been as gracious as Frank had been uncomfortable. Frank had sent his resume along by email, for what it was worth, and George cut straight to the chase.
“You know I’ll need to bring you in at the bottom, Frank. Can you deal with that?”
Frank was prepared. “Sure, sure, George. I’ll be fine with that.”
George nodded, brows furrowed. Then he changed the topic. “How’s that cute God daughter of mine these days? I can’t even remember the last time I saw Marla.”
“She’s great,” said Frank, suddenly determined; it helped to remember why he was sitting there. “Just great. We get together every weekend. She’s in eighth grade now. She’s smart as a whip and gets straight As.”
They chatted about family for a few more minutes, and then George looked at his watch. They both stood up, and shook hands.
“I won’t let you down,” Frank said as he looked George in the eye for the first time.
“I know you won’t,” his new boss said. But Frank could tell he was only being polite.
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Sitting in his kitchen, Frank reflected that he’d been as good as his word. But not much better, he made himself admit. Yes, he’d rarely missed a day of work, and no one could say he hadn’t earned his paycheck. And yes, he’d earned every promotion he’d been given.
But the promotions had been few, and the last one had been awarded long ago. Frank still had tremendous insights into IT architecture, and he remained as interested as ever in new developments in security. His cubicle at the LOC was stacked with articles, and he read voraciously on line as well. For anyone in the office with a thorny problem, Frank was the go-to guy who could always solve it, provided he was allowed to tackle it alone. Sitting at a keyboard, Frank was still The Man – the harder the better, just bring it on. Three hours, eight hours or twenty hours later, he’d still be going at it until an elegant and creative fix was in place.
Management level work, though, was something else again. Every time George gave him a shot at a long term project with a couple of others to supervise, Frank could never pull it all together.
Half the time, he’d be up in the clouds thinking big thoughts that went beyond the task at hand, and the rest of the time he’d be down in the weeds, diving down rat holes that often had little to do with the task at hand. The folks he was supposed to be supervising never knew what they would be doing from one day to the next, or what, if anything, Frank did with the work they did submitted. Inevitably, George always had to take the project back. It didn’t take long before the big projects stopped coming, and Frank settled into the solitary niche where he stayed.
Frank wasn’t done beating himself up, though. Admit it, he demanded, you were relieved when the projects stopped coming. You’ve been marking time for years now, and that’s all you’ll ever do. What right did you have to think George would throw this project your way?
But this had been a security job, dammit. That (and the drinks he’d had) were what had led him to corner George in the cloakroom the night before.
"I’m sorry, Frank,” George had said, slowly wrapping his scarf around his neck. “I thought about letting you know ahead of time, and then didn’t. I guess I should have."
"Can the crap, George!” Frank barked. “Rick can’t find his own ass with both hands in a well-lit room. What were you thinking?"
George buttoned his overcoat, and reached for his hat. “Of course Rick can’t hold a candle to you when it comes to security, Frank. There’s nobody I’ve ever worked with who has the insight and ideas that you do. And everybody knows nobody covers his butt like Rick."
Frank let his breath out with a rush in exasperation as George settled his hat on his head. “So then why..?"
George glared at Frank as he pulled on his gloves.
"Frank, you may know security, but when it comes to understanding people and how to manage them, you haven’t got a clue. Yes, Rick is one hell of a weasel. But you can always rely on a weasel to watch out for himself. That means that if you give him a job to do and tell him his job is on the line, by hook or by crook, he’ll get it done. And I can’t say that about you."
Well, what could Frank say to that? He’d asked George for an explanation, and now he’d have to listen to what he already knew was true.
"How many chances have I given you over the years, Frank? I can’t remember, can you?” Frank looked away.
"You’re twice as smart as I am,” George continued. “You should have had my job by now! But that’s never going to happen unless you grow up and perform. And if you thought I’d stick my neck out for you with Chairman Steele grandstanding in the House and looking for the next poor bastard to eviscerate in front of the cameras during a public committee meeting, well, you’re just delusional. Good night, Frank."
There hadn’t been anything Frank could say to that, of course, so he was relieved when George turned and walked away. Furious at himself, Rick and George, in that order, he stalked back to the bar.
Frank decided that was as much of the night before as he was up to reliving; he’d leave the scene with Rick for his next exercise in psychological self abuse. It had all escalated so stereotypical anyway; Rick’s approach and his smarmy condescension, his insult in response. Ok, enough.
Frank felt the anger well up again, and with it, a sense of purpose. Screw the jerk; just because Rick got the project didn’t mean that Frank couldn’t still show him up. After all, Frank had been so sure he had the spot in the bag that he’d already started writing up a proposal with his plan of attack outlined. No way was Rick going to be able to pull this job off; George would realize that soon enough, and then there’d be no one to turn to but Frank.
Frank snapped open his laptop and punched the keys with fury, rushing through the complicated log in sequence that would take him into the heart of the LoC’s system, where his proposal was archived. Highlighting the file name, he hit the entry key, leaned back, and waited for the proposal to display.
Except it didn’t. Frank leaned forward and poked the Enter key again. Still nothing. Perhaps his laptop was frozen. But no - when he down-arrowed, his cursor moved .
Then Frank noticed that something on the screen was changing: the background color was beginning to warm up, turning reddish, orange and yellow, as if the sun was rising behind it. Now that was different! Frank watched with growing astonishment as the colors began to shimmer, and then coalesced into shapes that might be flames. Yes, flames indeed – but not like a holiday screen-saver image of a log fire – this was a real barn-burner.
Frank wondered what kind of weird virus he’d picked up, and how. After all, he was an IT security specialist, and if any laptop was protected six ways to Sunday, it was his. So much for whatever he had planned for today; he’d have to wipe his disk and rebuild his system from the ground up.
He was about to shut the laptop down when he saw that the flames had started to die away. Now what? An image seemed to be emerging from behind the flames as they subsided. Frank leaned forward; the image became a tall building, maybe some sort of lighthouse? Underneath, there was a line of text, but in characters he couldn’t read. Truly, this was like no virus he’d ever seen or heard of before. He reached for his cell phone, and took a picture of the screen just before it suddenly went blank.
Frank was impressed. Whoever had come up with this one certainly had a sense of style. A weird one, but hey, graphic art wasn’t the long suit of most hackers.
Frank got a pad of paper and a pen from his desk, and punched up the file directory again, highlighted his proposal, and pressed the Enter key again. This time, he would watch more closely and take notes.
But all that displayed was this message: “File not found."
Frank tried again – no luck. He did a word search on the document title. Nothing. His proposal was gone.
Now, he was alarmed. After all, the directory he was staring at was in the innermost sanctum of the Library of Congress computer system, and the LoC was the greatest library in the world. Within its vast holdings were books that could be found almost nowhere else on earth. Recently, the Library had even begun digitizing materials, and then destroying the physical copies. If someone had been able to delete files in the most protected part of the Library’s computer system, what else might be missing?
Frank raced through a random sampling of sensitive directories, and then let out a sigh of relief; it was hard to tell for sure, but everything seemed intact. He checked the server logs for the Library’s indices, holdings and various other resources: everything seemed undisturbed, with no meaningful changes in the amount of data stored.
Frank drummed his fingers on the table in the cramped dinette. How to go about figuring this one out? Then he remembered his cell phone, and sent the picture of the screenshot to his laptop. The picture wasn’t great, but once he enlarged it he could tell that the characters were Greek. He cropped the image until just the text remained, then ran it through a multiscript OCR program. Finally, he pasted the new version of the same text into a translator window. No luck – all he got was a “cannot translate” message.
Frank’s fingers started drumming again. He reopened the drop down menu in the translator screen and noticed that another option was “Ancient Greek.” He highlighted that choice and hit Enter. This time, the screen blinked.
Frank looked, and then he blinked, too. But the translation still read the same:
|THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONTRIBUTION
TO THE ALEXANDRIA PROJECT
Read the Next Chapter
Check out the sequel to The Alexandria Project here