The Standards Blog

The Alexandria Project: Prologue

Alexandria Project (a Cyber Thriller)

I've been re-working The Alexandria Project in preparation for approaching a literary agent.  One thing I'm toying with is whether the book needs to get to a quicker, edgier start than the original first chapter provides - such as what follows below.  What's your opinion?

Courtesy Guillaume Paumier, CCA3.0 UnportedLate 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, Virginai. The words “Lowell Wholesale Paper Goods” were spread across the sides of the truck, as well as across 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 once again 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. 

Closing and locking the loading dock gate behind him, Davis pushed the lifter along the row of pallets, counting down as he did so 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 weak 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 unlocked, second 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 be destroyed by their own heat.
 
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 wore as well.
 
“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 guard went on his way. In a few minutes he’d be driving off in the truck parked outside, after first performing in reverse the ritual of entry that Davis had just completed.
 
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 him were 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 site but highly secure none the less.
 
If Davis had been able to electronically monitor what was happening on server A-VI/147 below, he might not have felt so complacent. 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 as well - firewalls, security routines and scanners. 
 
And notwithstanding those defenses, someone had gotten inside.

 Read the first chapter

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Comments

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Hi Andy, just passing by and, as usual, I have a few comments:

In the rubric - 'wiith' is a new spelling?

In the first paragraph - 'Virginai' is a new State?

Fourth paragraph, second sentence - When 're' reached zero, should be 'he' perhaps, and I wonder what number he started counting down from, and unless he is an avid darts player who would doubtless count down faster than most mere mortals can count up, I wonder why he didn't count from 1, or 0 (if he is/was a UNIX or Linux user!).

Sixth paragraph, last sentence - heat the fans 'through' off, should, maybe, be 'threw'.  Are you using Dragon Naturally Speaking or the like?

Penultimate paragraph, first sentence - If Davis been, should have been pluperfect, i.e. I think you have been had, or rather a 'had' is missing.

An aside: not being a firefighter/fireman myself, I would be interested to know if their compressed air/oxygen packs and masks would enable them to enter a halon gas filled area - if so, why couldn't an intruder use a similar system?

'Nuther aside: hopefully, the faciltity has backup batteries and generators, and a sufficient air supply to keep the generators running in the event of a nuclear attack.  Also I hope Jack Davis et al have supplies (food, water, air etc.) to last should an attack occur.

A Question: How do you know (in the prologue) that these servers actually exist?  I thought that they were a secret, or at least they were to me until Chapter 27, and the opening paragraph of Chapter 28, IIRC.

I'll let you know if I think of more.

Cheers

minrich

 

 

Minrich,

 

Man, you're tough!  Actually, thanks for catching all those.  I'm away from my printer and have always been lousey at proofreading on the screen.

 

Here are responses to your non typo questions:

 

>>Fourth paragraph, second sentence - When 're' reached zero, should be 'he' perhaps, and I wonder what number he started counting down from, and unless he is an avid darts player who would doubtless count down faster than most mere mortals can count up, I wonder why he didn't count from 1, or 0 (if he is/was a UNIX or Linux user!).

 

He's starting to count down from the pallet immediately opposite the door.  I would have liked to have told you what number he started at, but then I'd have to, well, you know...

 

>>An aside: not being a firefighter/fireman myself, I would be interested to know if their compressed air/oxygen packs and masks would enable them to enter a halon gas filled area - if so, why couldn't an intruder use a similar system?

 

Yes they would.  That's where the rifle and shotgun come in as last ditch efforts, after the secrecy, iron and steel walls, massive doors, calls for reinforcements and halon haven't succeeded.  The problem, as you can appreciate, is that you don't want to be using violent means to repel attackers in the middle of thousands of servers.

 

>>'Nuther aside: hopefully, the faciltity has backup batteries and generators, and a sufficient air supply to keep the generators running in the event of a nuclear attack.  Also I hope Jack Davis et al have supplies (food, water, air etc.) to last should an attack occur.

 

Of course.

 

>>A Question: How do you know (in the prologue) that these servers actually exist?  I thought that they were a secret, or at least they were to me until Chapter 27, and the opening paragraph of Chapter 28, IIRC.

 

That's part of the introductory question you didn't answer - is this prologue a good idea or a bad one?  In any event, we find out much sooner than Chapter 27 that other targets are getting hit as well.

 

  -  Andy

Well having considered today(while tending an 8 foot high bonfire, in a 12 foot diameter fire pit of fallen boughs of macrocarpa - just doing my part in heating up the planet), your request for my opinion on the pros and cons of the prologue, I came to a decision.  Whether or not you will like it, is not part of the equation.

 

Personally, and this is based on my experience of having read each Chapter as they became available, rather than coming in late - only yesterday I came across your Cast of Characters, for the first time - I enjoyed not knowing off the bat what Frank's role would be in whatever was unfolding, as I read along.  Introducing North Koreans and Senate hearings without knowing that top secret 'GPS' databases had been hacked, only added to the intrigue, in true whodunnit style.  Hence, in my opinion, I am glad in hindsight that I didn't start out by knowing that Jack Davis's server farm had been hacked/cracked or otherwise amended by outside forces.  Thusly, even straining my estimable IMHO intellect, I stumbled happily along with Frank, as aided by Yoda, as he eliminated all the permutations, until like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, he hit upon the 'however improbable'.

 

So there you have it.  Not that I didn't enjoy reading and assimilating your prologue - but are you giving away too much.  Perhaps I am suffering from information overload, but I would not wish to enter a maze when I already knew what I would find at the center.  In my mind, you as the author, have to lead me as the reader on the 'chase' wherein lies the fascination, rather than giving me a hint (in the prologue) of what the hunt involves.

 

Since I am only one in the approximately 7 billion inhabitants of this planet, I would suggest that you take up the matter of 'to Prologue, or not to Prologue' with your literary agent.

All the best

Minrich,

 

As always, thanks for your thoughts.  I hadn't thought I'd been giving too much away in the prologue, however, in that by the end of the original first chapter we find out that the LoC servers had been hacked.  And we might assume, or at least not be surprised, that the LoC might contract for servers off site, or at least make use of a government server farm located elsewhere.

 

It's true, of course, that one might assume that LoC servers might not be this well protected.  But in point of fact, from what I have read, housing server farms in anonymous looking buildings that are well but not conspicuously protected, is not unusual for normal commercial operations.

 

I did, of course, embroider a bit with the pallet ballet, coveralls, racked armament and so on, which wouldn't be typical, one assumes, of (say) of the servers of a municipality.  But perhaps when one transitions from this new prologue over to the original chapter 1 and those that follow, one might be pleasantlyl puzzled for quite awhile what that strange prologue had to do with the linear story that follows.

 

Perhaps if I'd posted the prologue first you'd have been tittilated rather than put off - but too late to find that out now!

 

  -  Andy

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Winter,

 

A good point, and in fact I did think about it.  The problem is that the purpose of the prologue is to get off to a quick, punchy start, and if I include too much of this then it defeats the purpose.

 

Here's what I was thinking, though, by way of how to address this problem:

 

-  the fact that the building has an inner and an outer shell (with the inner one being heavily insulated) helps avoid the external heat signature.   That, of course, would accentuate the heat, however.  So what to do with the heat?

 

-  If you go down about a hundred feet in anywhere other than a geothermal hot spot, the temperature drops to a constant 54 degrees F.  So my thought would be to lace the walls with heat exchange pipes that circulate an appropriate coolant, as well as use traditional HVAC (cooled the same way) to handle the center of the room.

 

The power needs would be easier to address, by sub-surface conduits, as you note.

 

  -  Andy

 

 

Geothermal cooling might work.

 

There might be a problem, as there are geothermal heat sources, but not so much cooling sources. Often, geothermal cooling is actually seasonal heat storrage. So if you are not carefull, you might simply heat up an underground arrea until it is of no use anymore. But as supercomputer life-times are short and you plan for just a few years, that might not matter.

 

But maybe they were lucky ;-) and groundwater flows would carry off the heat fast enough. I have no clue about underground heat flows, so cannot say one way or another.

But good insulation and geothermal cooling, might just work. Especially in a story where costs are no problem.

 

Winter

Speaking as a US taxpayer, I'm sad to say that money likely would be no object in an installation like this.  Happily, though, it won't hit my real pocket book in this case.

 

  -  Andy

Wouldn't it be easier, using your poetic license, to invent a heat exchanger that captures the air-conditioned air to drive a generator, that is either recycled to drive the servers or sold back to the National Grid?

Minrich,

 

For the next book, yes.  But seriously, I'm not a thermo engineer, but I'm guessing the problem might lie in concentrating the heat to a temperature where it can provide useful energy (e.g., by turning water to steam).  I've always wondered why there aren't generators using liquids with lower gasification points, and assume it has to do with their yielding much less power in their gas state. 

 

Another problem would be that you still couldn't convert all of the heat into energy, so you'd still have to get your net heat footprint down to a non-suspicious level.

 

  -  Andy

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Hmm, I'm not sure I like the prologue. I think it foreshadows too much in much too elaborate of a fashion, for very little benefit. It just doesn't connect with the rest of the story -- its "clothes are much too elaborate for the plain-clothes story that follows. I think what worked so well was that we see Frank as an ordinary person before we discover that not only is he exceptional, but he is in an exceptional position. He's not heroic, but he is the hero. I think this is what made Star Wars work so well -- Han Solo was the heroic figure, but Luke Skywalker, while not a heroic character was the real hero -- an unwilling hero. We have to discover Frank's greatness for ourselves out of the plain surroundings. When the reader draws the conclusion rather than having it handed to them it is much more satisfying.

 

I was pretty riveted by the original, and I'm thinking I'd like to read it again from the beginning. There's a balance between informing the reader enough to keep them from being too confused and keeping them as much in the dark as the characters. Overall I think I prefer the balance toward the latter: its more realistic (although we don't really want our stories to be realistic, that would be boring!), and it creates more tension. You did a good job of this in the original.

 

 

By way of illustration, the movie "Castaway" has one of the most realistically gut-wrenching airplane crashes I've ever seen, and I think its completely because we only see what the character sees, and there are lots of unknowns -- but there is almost no doubt that this isn't going to end well. The question is not, are we going to crash, but what will the crash be like? (There are a lot of things I think that movie did exceptionally well!) The original Alexandria Project does need a bit of polishing here and there, but overall I think it measured up to almost any Tom Clancy novel I've read. The plot twists were unique, unexpected, and delicious! The chapter endings were almost all good cliffhangers, and I thought to myself how well they were done in almost every case.

 

The biggest area for polish I think is giving it a bit more flesh -- the story felt in some places a bit too skeletal, jumped too quickly from one scene to the next. I tend to give speeches & presentations that way myself, jumping to the conclusion too quickly and not drawing the audience along with me through the reasoning process. I don't know if I can help you any more specifically than that; as I said, I have trouble fleshing stories out myself! Generally, more word pictures, paint scenes, get the reader's emotions involved. (Not everywhere, just a few places needed it.)

There were two transition segments that I thought could be stronger. I'll have to reread it to nail them down, but as I recall the first "Alexandria" bust was a bit anti-climactic towards the end. It relaxes the tension too much, when in fact the tension should be increased -- whiplash might be the right term. =) There was another transition that felt a bit weak, but I'm afraid I don't recall anything specific at the moment. As I said, I'll have to reread it. (See, now I've left you with a cliffhanger!)

 

I'd love to see this in print or on downloadable PDF. I would love it if you published the way Cory Doctorow does his books. It really is a story worth re-reading. Thanks for the lunchtime entertainment -- I was sad when the ending scrolled up.   -- Alan

Alan,

 

Thank you very much for your very helpful comments, and your kind words as well.  As I go back through and revise the book I will keep your good ideas and suggestions very much in mind.

 

I agree on the prologue.  I enjoyed the concept of introducing Frank initially as something at the other end of a dog leash and working my way inward from there.  My reason for adding the new prologue was quite utilitarian, though - it's not because I want to keep it there, but as I pitch the book to literary agents, it seems like a wise feature to add, since they're not likely to read more than a few paragraphs (if they read any at all) before deciding to whether to move on or read more.

 

Of course, I may be wrong, and it may be that the first few paragraphs of the original version might be catchier than the more stereotypical prologue.  That's hard to tell, so I'll probably try it both ways.

 

Anway, thanks for sharing so much of your time and thoughts, and yes, I do plan on making it available in some sort of more accessible form (print and eBook) when I get done revising.

 

  -  Andy