What follows is the the first draft of my first cybersecurity thriller, The Alexandria Project. You can buy the final, and much revised eBook and printed versions, here and at all of the other usual on-line outlets.
“Marla, if the FBI has spotted him, we’ve got to get him someplace safe – maybe somewhere in West Virginia if he’s already back east. Where is he now?”
“I don’t know for sure. I just know he’s headed into town.”
“Into Washington? Is he out of his mind?”
“He figures D.C. is the last place the FBI will look for him - they won’t believe he could get past them.”
Washington! If Frank carried that line of reasoning far enough, he’d probably head for his own apartment!
“Listen, Marla – tell him this. There’s a service entrance off 2nd Street behind the Library of Congress. Just inside there’s an unmarked door that leads to a bunkroom, kitchen and workroom the CIA uses for classified test bed work on the LoC system. Our people put in weeklong shifts there a couple times a year so LoC staff don’t see them coming and going without a good explanation. I could meet Frank there and let him in without anyone noticing. He’d have the place to himself, and all the secret technical facilities, too, using my password. What more could he want?”
“Well, the FBI knows what we both look like, so any time we’re anywhere in public someone could spot us and turn us in. We can’t rent a motel room without showing ID. Stands to reason they’ll be watching out for Marla as well, so we can’t ask her to book something for us. So that means we can’t hole up anywhere without risk.
“And we can’t head back to the boonies, either, because my Rover sticks out like a beach ball at a bowling alley. You can bet they’ll have an alert out to the rental car companies, so no dice on a new set of rental wheels. Stealing a car isn’t my style, and anyway we could still get caught that way. And it goes without saying they’re not going to let you pull off that bus station trick a second time. Way I see it, we don’t have a whole lot of choice.”
“I guess that’s it then. I’ll let Marla know we’ll meet George tomorrow morning.”
“Tell her 7:30 – we’ll be less noticeable in rush hour than we would be at the crack of dawn.”
Frank Sr. stepped out from under the bridge to watch the moon as it rose while his son contacted Marla. Out of habit, he started to orient himself. A full moon rose directly opposite where the sun had set. At this time of year, that would be about south southwest, so he was looking north northeast. If he was better at this, he could likely determine his course more easily by the moon than he could with a compass, since he wouldn’t have to compensate for…
He turned and walked back under the bridge. “I think I’ve got it. Or at least the point about the numbers changing. You see, if you’re relying on compass readings instead of, say, star sights or a GPS to establish position, you have to compensate for the fact that magnetic north isn’t in the same place as true north. Unless the magnetic north pole happens to be exactly between you and true north, you’ve always got to add or subtract something to what your compass says to find true north.”
“So? I can see why that would matter if you were moving, because the amount you’d have to compensate would change, but locations don’t move. Why would you have to change the numbers of the coordinates themselves?”
“You wouldn’t, at least not necessarily. But there’s another thing that changes that I haven’t mentioned yet, and that’s the location of the magnetic north pole itself – it’s wandering around all the time, maybe because there are currents that move around in the molten core of the earth. So if you were navigating by gyrocompass, you’d always need to know exactly where magnetic north was every instant in time or you couldn’t adjust for it.”
“So a database of coordinates you carried on board would grow more and more imprecise over time?”
“Right. And since you can’t predict the movement of the magnetic north pole very reliably into the future, you can’t build an adjustment into the database software, either. The next day, magnetic north might just decide to head off in a whole different direction, and instead of adjusting for error, you’d be compounding it.”
“But that still doesn’t make sense,” Frank objected. “You wouldn’t need a very powerful computer to change all of the coordinates on its own. All it would need would be the new location of magnetic north, and then it could take it from there. I could write that routine in fifteen minutes.”
And indeed that seemed like a dead end once more.
“Hmmm. Good point,” his father said. “Oh well, time to get moving anyway.”
They got back in the Land Rover and soon were driving, lights out, across the broad, moonlit meadows.
Frank Sr. turned the radio on, and browsed around the channels.
“Doesn’t your generation listen to any music that isn’t crap?”
“Uh, my generation doesn’t listen to this crap either. Why don’t you try NPR?”
Frank Sr. explored the left hand of the dial, and found the right channel. But instead of the usual Saturday night fare - music or A Prairie Home Companion - two of the All Things Considered anchors, Michelle Norris and Robert Siegel, were speaking about foreign affairs.
For those of you that may have just tuned in, what we were listening to just now was White House Press Secretary Tom Falconer reading a brief statement about the rapidly escalating Korean crisis. Falconer is now leaving the West Wing Press Room, so it looks like there won’t be an opportunity to ask questions.
Thanks, Michelle. As we just heard, Acting President Henry Chaseman has placed U.S. troops in South Korea on the highest state of alert, following the statement by North Korea’s General Chan Bok-choy that any effort by the West to interfere with the North’s current military buildup will be met with a nuclear response.
The Press Secretary also announced that the U.S. is keeping all of its options open - including a nuclear response if the North attacks the U.S. Michelle, what do we know at this point about the two missiles we’ve been talking about all week?
Well, Robert, CNN reported an hour ago that it has obtained satellite photos that seem to indicate that North Korea has begun fueling them.
Thanks, Michelle. Let’s go now to retired Air Force General Brent Kingston. Can you hear me, General?
Yes, Robert. Good to be back on the show.
Thank you, it’s always great to have you here. Now can you tell us, General, about how long it would take the North to make these missiles operational once fueling has commenced?
Well, we know that the new Taepodong 3 missile is a combination solid fuel/liquid fuel launch vehicle, and we have a pretty accurate idea of its dimensions. While we can’t be sure of the exact fuel mixture they’re using, which affects the ratio of liquid oxygen to liquid propellant to some degree, we can make a pretty good guess – say 10 to twelve hours.
So General - that would mean that these missiles could be launch-ready as early as tomorrow morning sometime?
That’s right, Robert.
Frank Sr. clicked off the radio.
“I wish to hell we’d whipped them for good when I was over there during the war. I’ve never liked this guy Chaseman, but I agree we’ve got to draw a line in the sand with them before it’s too late. The question, of course, is how.”
“Do you figure the North Koreans could really hit Washington?”
“I don’t know. It would be a great circle route over the arctic, which makes it harder for me to visualize the distance. Why don’t you check your database and find out?"
Why not indeed? Frank opened the database he’d downloaded, and then the administrative page with the search function. He typed “Pyongyang” into the “report” function and saw a pair of coordinates display. Then he opened the drop down menu and selected “Distance from Washington.” The display read:
“So what did you find out?”
“That I must have done something wrong.” He repeated the sequence, and got the same result.
“I don’t get it. I’m getting a distance that can’t be right.”
“Well, what do the coordinates say?”
Frank went back a step and read them out:
38.902431N - 77.016553W
“The longitude anyway has got to be wrong. Try punching that into my GPS and see what you get.”
Frank reached across and typed the numbers into the GPS unit, and then hit the enter button.
Slowly the Land Rover drifted to a halt as father and son gazed at the map on the small screen of the GPS unit, and in particular at the location of the cursor that blinked on and off, on and off, on and off - dead center on the dome of the Capitol Building.
Acting President Chaseman looked at his intercom, and then up at Ken Sanford, his Chief of Staff.
“What the hell does he want?”
“I expect he’s come to escort you to the War Room, Sir. I understand it’s going to take close to half an hour before we arrive and get settled in, and things may start happening very quickly not long after that.”
“Why not the Secret Service?”
“In time of war, Sir, the military assumes equal responsibility for your safety.”
Chaseman was beginning to sweat profusely. Things were not going at all as planned.
“OK, show him in.”
Brigadier General Fletcher Hayes wasted no time. He began speaking respectfully but forcefully from the doorway to the Oval Office.
“Good morning, Sir. I’ve come to escort you to the War Room. Would you please follow me?”
Chaseman and Sanford followed silently down the hall of the West Wing, and then down the stairs that led to the White House kitchen.
The Acting President tried a joke to mask his anxiety. “I suppose you’ll be taking us next through a secret door in the back of the meat freezer?”
Hayes didn’t laugh. “Hardly necessary, Sir. Placing the entrance in the kitchen was a matter of necessity. The White House doesn’t always lend itself well to modern modifications. Would you please press your thumb on this pad please, Sir?” Chaseman did as requested.
Hayes swung the steel door open, and then led them down several more flights of stairs. At the bottom they found a golf cart with an enlisted man sitting stiffly in the driver’s seat. Hayes joined the driver up front while Chaseman and Sanford climbed in behind. Ahead, a cramped tunnel barely six feet high and periodically lit by single, bare light bulbs extended off into the distance as far as they could see.
“Sorry for the musty smell, Sir. This tunnel was opened in 1950, not long after the first Soviet nuclear test. Except for occasional maintenance inspections, it’s been closed up since the Cold War ended.”
My God, Chaseman thought as the cart accelerated into the void ahead. What have I done?
General Chan Bok-choy and President Kim Lang-dong spoke quietly in the back of the blacked-out limousine. On the other side of the thick glass divider, the driver wore night-vision goggles, and threaded his way slowly along the narrow mountain road.
“What do you think this Acting President Chaseman will actually do? Will he in fact bomb Pyongyang?”
“I believe he will try to bomb Pyongyang – but he will fail.”
“How can you be so sure that we will succeed with our missiles and they will fail with theirs? This has troubled me greatly for some time.”
“Do not underestimate the military, my friend. You must leave this in my charge and trust that it will be as I have promised. As soon as the missiles are ready, they will be fired. Approximately 20 minutes later, Washington and another city that will surprise you will be destroyed. There will be utter chaos in the enemy’s ranks, and in that chaos, I will give the order for our troops to cross across the border. Seoul will be ours before nightfall.”
The driver turned off the road and stopped before what appeared to be a shepherd’s stone cottage perched on the steep side of the mountain. The driver opened their door, and then rapped on the door of the cottage. A red light shone on them briefly as a peep slot in the door opened and closed, and then the door itself swung open. They stepped first into a darkened room, and then were shown by a guard through a second door. In the well lit room beyond, they found the Dear Leader and all of his sons sitting around a table. Behind them, a half dozen heavily armed men stood at attention. These were members not of the military, but of the intensely loyal corps of Kim Jong-Il’s personal bodyguards. Each had been born and raised in the same humble village where the Dear Leader himself, and his father before him had grown up. General Bok-choy always felt uneasy around them. He wasn’t used to men that couldn’t be bought or blackmailed.
“Is all in readiness, General?”
“Indeed it is, Dear Leader. The fueling process will be complete in twenty minutes, and then the flight readiness tests will commence. When complete, the ten minute countdown will begin.”
“Thank you General.” Jong-Il looked uncertain, as if waiting for someone to tell him what should happen next.
The general cleared his throat. “Perhaps you should give the launch order now, Dear Leader, to fire as soon as the missiles are ready. That way you can make your way down into the bunker without further delay or later interruption. Despite all our precautions, we can never know for sure that the enemy has not discovered your location. It would be best if you were safely underground well before the missiles are launched.”
“Yes,” Jong-Il said. “Yes, that would be wise.”
“If I may, Sir?” Jong-Il nodded, and General Bok-choy stepped up to the table. He picked up the telephone in front of the Dear Leader, pressed a button, and spoke a few words.
“Lieutenant Grid-lee, I will hand the phone now to the Dear Leader, who will give you the final order.”
Bok-choy handed the phone to Kim Jong-Il. In a surprisingly strong voice, he spoke into the phone: “You may fire when ready, Grid-lee.”
“That was very memorable, Sir.”
General Bok-choy looked out of the corner of his eye at Jong-Il’s eldest son as he replaced the phone in its cradle. “You really should be going now, Dear Leader. We will remain in constant communication with you as the launch and the offensive unfold.”
Jong-Il rose unsteadily to his feet, and General Bok-choy and President Lang-dong turned to go. And then the Dear Leader’s eldest son spoke.
“Father, the General and the President have performed their roles so well, it seems not right to leave them vulnerable to attack. Who knows what will happen even moments from now, and the communications from the bunker are excellent. Why not invite them to share it with us?”
The two men froze, each afraid to look at the other.
“Yes, you are quite right. If they are with us, I can stay in closer contact with what is happening in the field. My leadership will be essential, of course, to the success of this enterprise.”
“Gentlemen, I must ask you to accept my personal hospitality. Follow us now into the bunker.”
The General and the President turned slowly to see the wicked smile on the face of Kim Jong-Il’s eldest son. As the Dear Leader stepped through the steel door of the elevator beyond, his hulking body guards walked behind the President and the General, blocking the door through which they had entered.
“After you,” their nemesis said, gesturing towards the open elevator.
As if in a dream, they walked slowly forward. There was no escape.
Frank Sr. wore a grim expression as he drove south through Rock Creek Park, still driving overland. It was impossible to do otherwise, because the park lane he paralleled, like every other road in Washington, was choked with cars trying to evacuate the city. People stared at them, wondering whether he and his son were crazy, or knew something they didn’t and wished they did.
“You’ve got to get through to someone, damn it!” Frank yelled into his phone.
“Believe me, I’ve tried. And I’ll keep trying,” George Marchand replied. “At this point, you might as well keep heading for the Library – we’re moving the most precious items down into the bomb shelter now. There’s room for the full staff down there, if we need to duck and cover.”
Frank dialed Marla next.
“Where are you?”
“We’re already outside the Library. We arrived early, in case you did. Things didn’t start going crazy until we were already here.”
“Call George – tell him to let you in now! We should be there soon.”
The scene became increasingly bizarre as they reached the Potomac. Along the river, everything was deserted and peaceful. But on the roads above, horns sounded constantly as people maneuvered for position in their efforts to escape.
Frank turned on the radio. The Civil Defense broadcaster was periodically breaking in on all channels, but it was clear that the authorities had little of use to say. The announcer simply repeated the same messages each time.
This is not a test. Repeat: this is not a test.
While there is no immediate danger, the city has been placed on high alert, and the possibility of a nuclear attack cannot be discounted. In the event that the danger threat escalates, an announcement will be made immediately. In the event that an actual attack is launched, alarms will sound across the city. Repeat: alarms will sound across the city.
All residents are advised to remain calm. If you have a vehicle and decide to leave Washington, be sure you have a full tank of gas and take sufficient food and water with you to last several days. If you have a home emergency kit, be sure to take that along as well.
Please be advised that traffic leaving the city is extremely heavy and that traffic may come to a halt. Inbound lanes on many major arteries have been converted for use by outbound traffic. Please use extreme caution and do not enter any normally inbound lane unless there is an officer directing traffic into that lane.
In the event that you are informed that an attack is imminent, if you are driving, stop immediately and try to get under your car. If you are at home, go to your basement immediately. If you do not have a basement…
Frank switched off the radio. “How long?”
“Till we get to the Library or till we’re fried?”
“Not long” his father said, as they sped up the grass of the Mall, thumping over the curbs of the deserted cross streets. “But then what?”
General Hayes escorted Acting President Chaseman to the head of the table in the War Room. Some of the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council were already seated; others were standing in twos and threes, speaking quietly but energetically.
Around the periphery, technicians wearing headsets sat at terminals controlling the enormous LED displays that encircled the room and periodically flashed from one informational display to the next.
As Chaseman entered the room, those standing moved to their seats, and the room grew quiet. By the time he sat down, a circle of stares, not all of them supportive, confronted him.
What was the script for a scene like this he wondered? Gratefully, he saw the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs rise from his seat.
“Sir, permit me to update you on the situation. It appears that North Korea’s ground forces are now fully deployed, reaching their final positions by nightfall last night, local time. We’ve seen no further advances since then, but activity on the ground is intense and may indicate final preparations for an attack at any moment across the DMZ. South Korea’s deployment is not as far advanced, with approximately 25% of its forces still moving into position. This is hampering our own final preparations. Approximately 20% of our ground forces are still in motion.
“General, what do you estimate the final proportions on both sides will be?”
“Sir, only about 415,000 out of South Korea’s 522,000 man army are combat troops. Of those, approximately 400,000 are combat ready and either in, or approaching, position. Of our 28,500 troops, approximately 19,000 are war fighters, but only 12,000 have been deployed to the DMZ. The rest are needed to protect U.S. bases and other facilities in the event of open hostilities. That means that our combined forces will be approximately 412,000 once all are in position.
“And for the North?”
“Almost 3 million, Sir, but as you know only a third are regular army. And the Red Guards are equipped primarily with light weapons.”
Still, Chaseman thought, their numbers were overwhelming. And while much of their mechanized forces were not state of the art, many of South Korea’s tanks and artillery were locally manufactured as well; some were even surplus Soviet tanks purchased after the collapse of the Union.
“What do we have in the air?”
“Better than on the ground, but not as much as we’d like; things moved too quickly for us to get an additional carrier group into the Pacific. Only one of our three B-52 Stratofortress wings is in range for turn-around missions. With 3 million targets on the other side of the DMZ, we could use all three, but one is all we’ll have to work with, so that means 22 aircraft. We’ve divided them into three rotating task forces. The first is already airborne.
“We’re better positioned with our B-1s, but we’ve only got 66 operational, not all of which are based and can be maintained within practical range. Count on 42 being available. Again, we can bring more in using extra crew and multiple in-air refuelings, but it’s difficult to sustain a long campaign on that basis. We’ve divided the ready wings into three task forces once again, with one plane in each carrying nuclear weapons in addition to conventional ordinance.
“Finally, we have the B-2’s, but we don’t see them being a significant factor here, given the magnitude of the challenge. The Navy’s Tomahawk missiles, on the other hand, will provide crucial support.
The general paused. “For your nuclear contingency plan, we would recommend our U.S. based ICBMs. The North will have no defenses against them, and we rate their delivery reliability in excess of 99%.”
“What is the status of their missiles?”
“The North Koreans completed fueling their two long range missiles approximately thirty minutes ago. We should conservatively estimate operational readiness in five minutes, but twenty-five minutes is a more likely figure.”
“What probability do you assign to their ability to reach their targets.”
The general paused again. “Sir, we have almost no way to estimate that accurately. The North has never successfully completed a test firing of the Taepodong 2. But they did achieve successful first and second stage ignition in their most recent test – only the third and final stage failed. As a result, we cannot safely assume that neither missile will reach the lower 48 states, even if it does not reach its final designated target. In the latter event, the warhead could still be set to automatically detonate at an altitude that would guarantee substantial casualties if it does so over a populated area.”
“And how do you rate the possibility of our intercepting one or both missiles?”
“As you know, Sir, our only defenses nominally capable of intercepting an ICBM are eleven Ground-Based Midcourse Defense missiles. Fortunately, they are all deployed in Alaska. We also assume that the North Korean missiles will have only the most primitive deception capabilities, if any at all. That said, our interception and kill capabilities remain marginal at best. If the North has no ability to camouflage its attack, we assign less than a 25% possibility that we will be able to intercept either missile. If they are capable of deploying even basic deception, our assigned probability of interception drops to 14%.”
The general looked up at a large digital monitor on the wall.
“Sir, it is now less than one minute to earliest potential attack capability.”
“There’s George – in that doorway over there. You can pull in between this construction dumpster and the building.”
Frank Sr. crossed the curb and squeezed the Land Rover out of sight. They ran for the open door, Frank clutching his laptop under his arm. Moments later, Marla was hugging her father, oblivious to all around.
When she disengaged she turned to the old man that had followed them into the work room of the hidden CIA suite of rooms.
“And you must be, uh, my grandfather.”
Frank cut her off. “Sorry, but save that for later – if there is a ‘later.’ We’ve got to figure out how to stop our government from incinerating us.”
“What do you mean, incinerate us?”
For the first time, Frank noticed Carl Cummings. “’Incinerate us,’ as in detonate a nuclear weapon overhead, maybe within the hour.”
Carl stared. “Yes,” Frank continued. “I feel like an idiot. I spent the last two weeks trying to make the answer ten times more complicated than it was. I’d been assuming that the database the North was hacking was being uploaded in its entirety for some important military use. It wasn’t until we discovered by accident that they’d swapped the coordinates for Pyongyang with those for Washington, D.C. that it hit me – the database must hold the coordinates that our nuclear forces draw on for targeting, so unless we can get through to the War Room, our government may be about to nuke itself, and us along with it.”
“We can’t do that,” George interjected. “I’ve tried everything. All communications are in locked down mode. I don’t have clearance to reach anyone who has clearance to reach anyone in there.”
There was silence. Then Marla spoke.
“Dad, maybe whatever we plan to launch at North Korea hasn’t been programmed yet. Couldn’t you just fix the coordinates that the North has changed?”
“That’s a good idea. Unfortunately, I already thought of it, and there’s a problem. Yes, I could restore the coordinates for Pyongyang. But I can’t know what any other coordinates might have been changed – and there are millions of them.”
George broke in. “But you could do a search to find every coordinate with a latitude and longitude that fell within the United States.”
“I thought of that, too, and guess what? I didn’t find another one. But what if they changed the coordinates to cities like Moscow? Needless to say, there are hundreds of thousands of Russian coordinates in the database already, and since the location names are highly encrypted, I can’t just search for North Korean locations with coordinates outside the national boundaries. Think about it - what could be better for North Korea than setting off a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia? “
Frank sat down and looked at them despairingly. “I’ve been wracking my brains ever since the database answer hit me. I just can’t figure out a way to stop them.”
“Then figure out a way to make them stop themselves you must,” his father said quietly.
The unsettling robotic voice came from speakers mounted around the War Room.
“Sir, have you made your targeting decision?”
Who should he choose to destroy, Chaseman thought desperately. Another city of starving, innocent North Koreans? Of course not. But what of Pyongyang and its three and a quarter million inhabitants? He had already committed to obliterate them. Could he let the North Koreans – and the Chinese, damn it - know that he was only bluffing?
Steady yourself, he thought. The missiles hadn’t been launched yet. They couldn’t really be that… But his thoughts were interrupted by the voice from the speakers.
“Missile one is away.”
From the end of the table, Hayes thought that he saw Chaseman visibly flinch. Everyone else in the War Room seemed to freeze; those around the table looked intently at Chaseman, while those at the terminals strained to hear what he might say.
“Missile two is away.”
“Sir, we must have your targeting decision immediately.”
Chaseman had made up his mind. “Missile response target two will be your first priority military target.”
“Missile two is military one,” an officer standing behind the general repeated into his headset.
“Target one, Sir?”
Chaseman replied, and then realized that no one had heard him. He took a deep breath, and tried again.
“Second stage separation successfully completed for both missiles.”
Hayes watched the ashen-faced Acting President as he turned away from the table to look at the display screens, locking on the one with the two flashing cursors that had already separated from the outline of North Korea.
Hayes noticed that a cluster of technicians had gathered around one of the terminals surrounding the room; something must be happening, but what? One of the technicians broke away and summoned the officer who had relayed the targeting command.
Chaseman was oblivious, however. His eyes were pinned to the trajectory map. The missiles had traveled far enough now that their trajectories to target were now being projected with thin, glowing lines: Washington and New York.
“Probable targets are east coast,” the voice from the speakers confirmed. “Time to targets sixteen minutes.”
“Sound the Civil Defense alerts,” the General barked, looking for the officer who had been at his side.
“Sound the alerts, dammit!” he yelled when he spotted him across the room.
It would be bedlam, Hayes thought. There hadn’t been a civil defense drill in decades; how many cities even had air raid alarms anymore? What could anyone do, anyway?
“One minute to missile defense launch,” the voice intoned.
Chaseman was standing now, hunched forward with his hands on the back of his chair as he stared at the tracking screen. The resolution on the screen had now increased a hundred fold, and the two missiles, their trajectories now more widely separated, were tracking over the outlines of what must the Aleutian Islands.
“Third stage separation successfully completed for both missiles.”
Suddenly, the image of first one missile, and then the second, began to shimmer.
“What’s that?” Chaseman called over his shoulder.
“Camouflage, Sir. When they blew the bolts for third stage separation, they must have expelled additional material to confuse our interceptors.”
“Time to targets ten minutes”
A new blip appeared now, this one at the opposite edge of the screen. And then another, higher up. Soon two lines of blips were visible, each tracking along the projected lines of the North Korean missiles, and closing rapidly.
But as Chaseman watched, several of the blips began to waiver out of line, and the trajectory projections changed from sharp lines to expanding cones, matching the diameter of the shimmering clouds around the oncoming ICBMs. Soon, one blip after another passed by the North Korean missiles. Why should he be surprised, he told himself bitterly. We always knew they wouldn’t work.
This was it. He had no choice but to follow through on his threats. He had to give the order to fire right now, whether the North Korean missiles found their targets or not. It was time to face up to the horrible role in history he had assigned to himself.
Chaseman turned with surprise to look at the head of the Joint Chiefs. He realized the general had already been speaking earnestly to him.
“Sir, we are unable to enter the targeting information for missile one; the coordinates have disappeared from the targeting database.”
Distraught as he was, Chaseman couldn’t believe his ears. “Well then enter the coordinates manually, dammit! Don’t we keep an atlas in the War Room?”
“We’ve tried, Sir. But for security reasons, we can’t program the missiles directly. All we can do is transmit an encrypted target code to the missile. The missile then calls on the database to obtain the precise coordinates.
“Well then enter the coordinates into the database!” Chaseman roared.
“We can’t, Sir. It’s been hacked. We can’t get through to the administrative functions of the database to enter the coordinates.”
“Time to targets six minutes”
Now Chaseman’s fears had reversed – how could he allow two American cities to be destroyed without responding?
“I want to see what you’re looking at!” Chaseman demanded. “Put it up on a screen!”
A harried technician bent over his keyboard and one of the huge LED screens switched to a new image. It seemed as if they were looking at flames, Chaseman thought, but even as he watched, they began to die away. As they did, an image began to emerge. As Chaseman watched in growing confusion and consternation, 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.
And then he realized he could. Turning around, he translated for the benefit of everyone in the room.
“Thank you for your contribution to the Alexandria Project.”
The Acting President felt as if he were in a dream. What now? Had he been spared from committing genocide? Or was he about to allow millions of Americans to die without raising a finger in response?
“Missile two is no longer tracked”
Chaseman whirled around. One of the two trajectories on the screen came to an end over Manitoba.
“Missile one is no longer tracked”
As he watched, the last cursor blinked out over Lake Superior.
Chaseman reached out to find the arm of his chair, and slowly sat down, still gazing at the brightly gleaming map on the wall. He had never seen anything so beautiful in his life.
President Rawlings looked up from his breakfast of indigestible hospital food and broke into a smile. Standing in the doorway of his room was the old friend he had appointed as his Director of National Intelligence.
“Ad! Great to see you! Come in and sit down. Better yet, wrap some of this crap up in your handkerchief and smuggle it out so I can pretend I ate it.”
Adlai Stevenson Harrison walked in and pulled a seat up to the President’s bed side.
“Wonderful to see you looking like your old self again, Sir. I hope you know you gave us all quite a scare there for a while.”
“Oh really, and for how long was that?”
“From the moment you passed out until,” Harrison looked down at his watch, “exactly eighteen minutes ago. That’s when your Presidential powers were restored.”
Rawlings chuckled. “Yes, I understand that Henry made the most of his little adventure in the Oval Office.”
“You have no idea. We survived the experience, but it turns out it was much closer than we expected at the time.”
“Indeed. But first, tell me – what’s the latest on the North Koreans?”
“It’s the damnedest thing. After the two missiles fell short everyone in the War Room suddenly remembered the situation on the ground. We expected to find that the North had already sent a million men over the line – but none of them had moved.
“It was eerie – and it’s stayed eerie. Nobody budged all day that day, or the next, either. Last night, the Red Guards started to just melt away, and today regular army units have started leaving their positions in what seems like a totally random fashion. It’s as if suddenly there’s nobody in charge. As you might expect, there are all kinds of wild rumors flying around in the intelligence community.”
“Do we know anything more about the missiles they launched?”
“We’ve located the wreckage of one of them. There was no payload at all – not even a conventional warhead! We’ve had planes with sensors criss-crossing Canadian airspace ever since they disappeared from radar, and haven’t found a trace of radiation anywhere. They must have been avoiding having to lift any extra weight - putting all their money on just trying to reach their targets in order to be sure we’d launch our own missiles back. ”
“Well I’ll be damned. So it was nothing but a ruse the whole time. But if they never crossed the DMZ, what was the ruse for?”
“We still think it was a ruse to keep us from supporting South Korea when they invaded, but something must have gone wrong. Obviously, we’re just guessing, but our current hypothesis is that there was some sort of last minute shakeup at the top. Maybe when we didn’t blow up Washington and Moscow they lost their nerve. Or maybe some new power group used the failure of the missile ploy as an excuse to finally toss Jong-Il and his son over the side while they had the opportunity. We may never know for sure.
“Whatever is up, we think the infighting must still be continuing. Bok-choy hasn’t been seen in days, and no one new has spoken yet for the regime. But there has been one interesting development.”
“We received a feeler from the Chinese through our embassy in Beijing. It seems that they were as unnerved by this whole escapade as we were. They want to broker some sort of final settlement between the North, the South, and the U.S. They’re signaling that they’ll even support us on taking away the North’s nukes.”
“Excuse me, Mr. President.”
A Secret Service agent was at the door. “Mr. Chaseman to see you Sir. Should I ask him to wait?”
Harrison looked to see how his friend would react. To his surprise, Rawlings simply looked down at his hands, brow furrowed and a wry smile on his face.
“I should be leaving anyway, Sir. And I expect that you’ll have a lot to say to Henry.”
“Perhaps not as much as you’d think, Ad. Would things have turned out any better if I’d been sitting in the Oval Office that day? Maybe yes and maybe not. Given how well things ended up, perhaps nobody should be sorry I didn’t have to find out. I know I’m not! There but for the grace of God, Ad, there but for the grace of God.
Rawlings turned to the agent. “Please send Henry in.”
Harrison stepped aside as the agent ushered a worried looking Vice President into Rawlings hospital room. He could only try to imagine the feeling of relief that Chaseman must be feeling as the President gave him a warm welcome.
CIA Director John Foster Baldwin smiled smugly as he read the report on his desk. It told how the CIA, acting through his direct report, George Marchand, had provided safe haven to Frank Adversego, Jr., thus preventing the FBI, acting on the direct orders of Francis X. McInnerney, from capturing him in the Nation’s hour of greatest need for his unfettered assistance. Had the CIA not thwarted the FBI’s incompetent plans, the report concluded, “the results would have been too horrifying to imagine.” He would be sure that a copy was hand-delivered to Congressman Steele.
Baldwin’s intercom buzzed.
“A letter I think you should see, Mr. Baldwin. May I bring it in?”
“Fine, fine,” he said, leaning back in his chair and savoring the closing lines of the report one more time.
His administrative assistant came through the door with a strange look on her face, and handed him a letter. “This arrived this morning, addressed to you in your personal, rather than your official, capacity, Mr. Baldwin. It’s from an attorney in Las Vegas.”
Las Vegas? When had he last been in Las Vegas?
He began to read:
Dear Mr. Baldwin,
I represent Mr. Earl Jukes, until recently the owner of an EarthRoamer four wheel drive camper. It is my understanding that Mr. Jukes' camper was destroyed by a Predator-launched Hellfire missile, in direct violation of multiple Federal laws relating to the use of such ordinance on U.S. soil other than on government-owned training and test ranges.
It is also my understanding that Mr. Jukes' property was destroyed on your personal orders, in clear violation of restrictions imposed by Congress on the powers of the CIA.
Finally, it is my understanding that Mr. Juke’s had invested more than $400,000 in the camper. This amount comprises the original purchase price and the extensive modifications made to the vehicle by my client. Due to it’s one of a kind nature, the value of Mr. Jukes' unique vehicle was of course higher. Far, far higher, in Mr. Jukes’ opinion.
Please be informed that Mr. Jukes intends to bring suit in Federal Court in Las Vegas against you personally for full restitution. He also intends to contact his Congressman, Titus Steele, to request a full investigation into your conduct. However, should you wish to make immediate and full restitution, my client would be willing to settle this matter privately.
I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience….
Chad Derwent put down his newspaper and turned to Vinod. “You know, it’s just like the old days – the two of us sharing an office.”
Vinod broke into a grin. “Yes, except it’s a 400 square foot penthouse office with a view of Silicon Valley instead of shoebox in a basement.”
Life was good indeed. iBalls.com’s partnership with The Pangloss Company was flourishing. They’d done so well that they’d put together a modest investment fund with Archie and his silent partner, Frank Adversego. No ridiculous VC-type flyers on nonsense business plans, though. They only put their money into pragmatic concepts with proven market appeal and immediate revenue potential.
Investing was fun, too, especially when you could get someone to do all the grunt work for you. They’d hired a real venture capitalist to do that part – someone who’d been forced out by his own partners after he’d made a laughing stock of their fund.
“So Vinod, ready to look at business plans?”
“Sure – why not – as long as it’s my turn to say, ‘You just don’t get it, do you? I mean, you really, REALLY don’t get investing at all!”
They had a good laugh over that one. And then Vinod called Josh Peabody in.
Frank Sr. wheeled the old Land Rover off the Beltway and began to head west. It would be good to get back to the desert, he thought. But of course it had been wonderful to reconnect with his son, too. He wondered whether Frank would indeed join him during his vacation next year. The west seemed to have gotten under his skin, and he was talking about getting an EarthRoamer of his own.
After much hesitation, Frank Sr. had even dropped in on Doreen. She was getting kind of foggy now, but that had made it easier. She only remembered their good times now, such as they had been – all of the hard edges on her old feelings seemed to have melted away with time and the onset of old age. He doubted he’d visit again, but the sense of closure was welcome after so many years.
And that granddaughter of his was a pistol. He wished he’d had a chance to get to know her as she was growing up, but better late than never. He was looking forward to that.
Carl felt light-headed. The evening had gone far better than he had dared hope. The restaurant was perfect, and Marla looked ravishing. He’d been on his best behavior all evening, and wasn’t aware that he’d stuck his foot in his mouth even once. Across the candlelit table, he thought he caught a gleam of real interest in her eyes. Perhaps…
Marla herself was surprised. Carl was being gracious, funny, and sometimes even self-deprecating. She was surprised to find that she could actually find his company enjoyable, now that all of the tensions and events of the last months were behind them. And she had to admit that he was much more handsome now than he had been as a grad student – and even then he had caught her eye. Don’t lose your head, girl, she told herself.
But the before dinner drinks and a bottle of champagne were taking their toll. That, the candlelight, and their shared adventures combined to make it an increasingly magic evening. When at last it was time to go, Carl, ever the perfect gentleman, held her chair and then her coat. In no time, it seemed, they were standing at the door of her apartment.
Carl looked down into her eyes with an urgent look in his own, and she sensed that he was about to say something. She put a single finger to his lips and uttered a barely audible “Shhhh…”
“No, don’t say anything,” Marla said softly. She turned and unlocked her door. Then, she turned back, and stepped forward until their bodies barely touched. Slowly, she tilted her head back in the soft moonlight while her eyes drifted shut. “There’s something I’ve wanted to give you for so long now,” she whispered.
Carl’s heart leapt into his throat. So it was true!
And then he was leaping backwards, his hand rising involuntarily to the cheek that Marla had slapped with all her might.
“What was that for!” he said in astonishment.
“The C you gave me on my final exam, you bastard!”
Frank turned the light on in the limousine and unfolded the letter in his pocket. The gold seal on the Presidential stationary glinted as he held it up to read it once again – a personal letter, signed by the President himself, expressing his gratitude for the role that Frank had performed in cracking the secrets of the real parties behind The Alexandria Project. And inviting him to become a charter member of a new Presidential Cybersecurity Advisory Committee as well.
He could never have imagined such an ending as this while the strange kaleidoscope of events that had taken over his life had sped by. Learning (or so he thought) that he was under suspicion; his melodramatic, but successful, escape in the department store; the long bus trip and even longer sojourn in the Solar Avenger, perched high above the deserted valley floor in Nevada; the unexpected reunion with his father; the long return and increasing frustration at his inability to penetrate the mystery whose resolution seemed always to be just beyond his grasp. Already, these scenes were beginning to seem unreal and vaporous, like something that might disappear from his memory before the next rising of the sun.
The car slowed, and once again he was looking at his down at heels apartment building, in his run down neighborhood. The rain that had begun as he was leaving the White House had grown stronger and stronger as they had driven across the District, and now the very heavens above seemed to have opened. He folded the letter and put it safely away in the breast pocket of his only suit.
But here was the driver now, opening his door and holding an enormous umbrella over his head. Self-consciously, he allowed the driver to walk him to the front door of the building, and stepped inside without catching a drop. How his life had changed! Would it ever be the same again?
And then he was standing before his own front door once again. He put his key in the lock, turned it, and then silently, thankfully, swung open the door and turned on the light.
Instantly, an ear-splitting din of barking erupted. There was Lilly, paws planted firmly on the ground, her leash in a heap in front of her. Of course. Mrs. Foomjoy had disappeared the day before the final crisis with North Korea had erupted, and Marla had rescued a very hungry dog from her apartment just that morning.
Frank tried to step past the dog to get an umbrella, but Lilly would have none of it. Outside the thunder crashed, as Frank sighed and attached the leash. Yes, he still had a plastic bag in his raincoat.
As he stepped out of the apartment and into the rain, he smiled a small, ironic smile to himself. He might have a letter of thanks from a President in his pocket, but he still had to pick up after Lilly, one bag at a time.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed The Alexandria Project. If so, please tell your friends.
P.S.:Frank says to be careful out there. After all, Mrs. Foomjoy's still on the loose.