Welcome to the sequel to The Alexandria Project, a cybersecurity thriller. If you'd like to read the book this series is based on, you can read the first three chapters for free here.
A wide, Nevada valley stretched before Frank Adversego - stretched as far as he could see. Something about this particular vista, though, pricked at his memory. Something about the way the mountains converged in the hazy perspective of the distance.
Ah - that was it. This was the road he’d traveled in ghostly moonlight a year ago, wrestling with various demons, both past and present. Happily, they had now all been laid to rest. And who knew what might lie ahead?
Which was fine with him. It wasn’t the first time that his future stretched uncertainly before him. But it was the first time that his indifference to that fact arose from positive, rather than self-destructive forces. He was determined to hang on to this new, “whither the road takes me will be an adventure” attitude for as long as he could.
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At the moment, the road was taking him in the direction of Eureka, as close to a land-locked island of isolated souls as you could find in the lower forty-eight states. Once he got there, the next town would be more than seventy miles away in any direction. And it wouldn’t amount to much when you got there. Not that Eureka did, either, with a population of just 610, assuming everyone was home. But with the Ruby Hill gold mine reopened, Eureka wasn’t just another sorry, boom-bust mining hamlet one short step away from becoming a ghost town. He figured it would be a good place for him to spend a few days and figure out where to head next.
Or maybe he’d settle in for awhile. When he had passed this way before, his thinly constructed cover had been that he wanted solitude to write a book. Now he actually did want to write a book, one that would showcase how vulnerable the country was to cyber attack. It might even become a best seller, he hoped, given what he knew, and the recent brush with fame he’d enjoyed after narrowly thwarting an attack intended to cause a nuclear disaster.
That was the plan, anyway. But he didn’t know whether he could pull it off. He’d never tried writing before, and feared he lacked the self discipline, much less the writing skills, to write an entire book. His publisher was more than willing to pair him with a co-writer, or even a ghost-writer, but Frank couldn’t imagine working that closely with someone, or having less than full control over the story he wanted to tell. If he could just get some momentum going in Eureka, he’d likely stay awhile rather than risk breaking his stride. If not, well, he could just move on. Maybe the muses would smile on him further up the road. But what if the muses remained elusive week after week?
He turned on his satellite radio to distract himself, but soon turned it off. The same inane primary candidates were yammering on, each more ridiculous than the last. Ever since the Tea Party had launched its anti-tax, anti-spending offensive following the last presidential election, it had seemed that the doors of some conservative political bedlam had been thrown open, loosing a mob of raving lunatics onto the primary trail. Incredibly, one after another of them had been rising in the polls, too. Had the entire electorate gone mad?
He realized he was once again driving over ninety miles an hour and took his foot off the gas. Endless roads like this were made for day dreaming. It was straight as an arrow and well graded, but still, like most Nevada roads, it was only gravel. If he didn’t pay attention, he’d find himself skittering half sideways towards the shoulder, out of control.
As he braked, he noticed that someone was standing beside the road up ahead. Drawing closer, he saw that it was a hitchhiker standing next to something indistinguishable on the ground.
Shit. City boy that he was, Frank was conditioned to regard all hitchhikers as presumptive murderers, hell bent on luring hapless good Samaritans to their doom. But the guy must have seen him slowing down by now, and it might be hours before another car ventured down this empty stretch of road. Frank grit his teeth and kept his foot on the brake until his camper came to a stop just beyond the young man.
Frank looked warily into his side view mirror. The hitchhiker had his back to Frank and was picking up a bike with a front wheel that looked like a mobius strip having a bad hair day: bent spokes stuck out at every angle. He was slim, wearing a sleeveless T shirt, cut off jeans and sneakers, and at best 5’ 6” tall. Well, he didn’t look too threatening, and it was clear why he was thumbing a ride. That left Frank physically comforted, but still annoyed. Now he’d have to engage in small talk for at least a couple hours. Conversationally challenged under the best of circumstances, he must have twenty-five years on this kid. What the hell could they have in common?
Frank got out of the cab to help his passenger add his bike to the rack on the back of the camper. “Here, let me show you how that works,” Frank said.
The hitchhiker turned around. “Thank you for stopping. It is my lucky day. I have been standing here only one half hour.”
To his surprise, Frank saw that he had not stopped to give a ride not to a short-haired, sun tanned, slim young man, but a short-haired, sun tanned, slim – and very attractive - young woman. And with a French accent to boot. Now he felt truly awkward.
Frank finished tying her bike down next to his own while she climbed into the cab, bicycle pannier bags slung over one shoulder. He followed, and eased the camper back into gear. “Where you headed?”
“It is north of Reno. And you?”
“Ah! So perfect! I can fix much on my bike on my own, but not straighten a wheel rim. And I have no spare spokes. But I can have a new wheel delivered to me there.”
She looked out the window and said nothing more.
They drove in silence, but Frank’s pleasant day dreaming was now impossible. He was painfully conscious of his young passenger’s proximity, and more distracted by the features that had surprised him when she had turned around – dark, long-lashed, glittering eyes; short, wind-blown black hair; warm, sun-tanned skin; and cheekbones like the vaults of a gothic cathedral. Long divorced and solitary, it had been ages since Frank had found himself in close proximity to such an exotic creature. He wondered what her story could be, traveling alone in such an empty part of the country. Eventually, his curiosity got the better of his awkwardness.
“What’s in Gerlach?”
“The Burning Man festival. Perhaps you have heard of it?”
“Yes I have.”
Which was true. But he didn’t know much about it. His impression was that every year tens of thousands of latter day hippies and other counter cultural types descended on a sun-blasted salt flat in Nevada to build an outrageous, temporary city. A week later, an enormous, vaguely humanoid statue would be burned as the climax of the event. Frank felt even more uncomfortable around flamboyant people than he did around mainstream types, and was about as likely to attend a Burning Man festival as he was a Ku Klux Klan meeting.
Silence again. It bothered him to find this young woman on a deserted road so far from anywhere. He had a daughter back east about the same age. He’d be furious to find her hitchhiking anywhere, let alone in the middle of an almost uninhabited desert. To the extent that anyone lived here, Frank was disposed to assume the worst. How strange would you have to be to live in a place like this, anyhow?
It was clearly none of his business, but finally he asked, “Don’t you think it’s dangerous for a young woman to be hitchhiking in a nowhere place like this?”
“Oh no,” she said, without looking away from the window.
No? Clearly, this young Frenchwoman didn’t understand America and Americans. “Well, you’re wrong, let me assure you!” he said emphatically.
“But it is you that is wrong,” she replied absently, still watching the monotonous landscape roll by.
Surprised, he stumbled over how to explain what he thought was obvious to an attractive young woman he did not know who was not a native English speaker. “Well, what would you do if someone picked you up and tried to, tried to, well, force his attentions on you?”
She laughed. “Kill him!”
Startled, Frank turned to look at her. Arms crossed, she had a smile on her face, and a small gun in her hand. The gun was pointed at his head. Playfully, she bobbed its barrel up and down and silently mouthed the word “Boom!” He jerked his head back towards the road, eyes wide as saucers.
Silence again. But then she giggled. “But no, I tell a lie. Probably I would not have to kill him. But one has to be prepared to, no?” She slipped the gun back into her pocket and returned to her window.
Frank decided that he had exhausted both his conversational skills as well as his need to know anything more about his unusual passenger. He wondered how many more miles it was to Eureka and how long it would take.
But a half hour later, his passenger abruptly turned from the window and became suddenly talkative. “My name is Josette,” she said. “And what is yours?”
“Frank,” he said cautiously.
“You are on vacation, yes?”
“Not really. I’m writing a book.” Frank tried to sound nonchalant, the way he imagined a famous author might.
“A book! But that is very impressive.” She looked around the inside of the cab.
“This is a very fancy vehicle. If I may ask, what are all those controls?”
Well, this was a topic he could handle. “Electronics mostly, all satellite based and with service available anywhere: telephone, GPS, Internet, seven bands of radio, video, you name it.”
“I see. And with so many instruments, I suppose you must have a generator, too?”
Frank shook his head, feeling a bit smug. “No. The top of the camper is covered with solar panels. I could run everything day and night, and never run the batteries all the way down.”
“Ah! Very smart.” She pulled an Apple Air out of her pack. “So I could perhaps use my computer to check my email, yes?”
“Yes, with a password. Would you like it?”
“Would you mind?”
“Not at all.”
He gave her the log in information, and once again they drove in silence, broken only by his passenger’s musical laughter as she read whatever it was that she was reading between staccato episodes of typing. For his part, Frank brooded unhappily over the fact that he was an out of shape, socially inept, middle-aged man sitting next to an attractive young woman who was as unmindful of his presence as he was acutely aware of hers.
With the sun going down, the road finally began climbing up the side of a mountain. Topping a ridge near the top, a town appeared a few hundred feet below.
“There’s Eureka,” he said.
His passenger looked up. “Ah! That is very good. You will please let me off here?”
Frank was surprised once again. But he obediently slowed the camper down, scanning the road side, wondering what it was that his passenger had spotted by way of a destination. They both got out.
“Thank you for the ride,” she said as he unfastened her bike.
“Don’t you want a lift into town? There’s a motel there.”
“No, please. I have got everything I need.” She patted the heavy pannier bags as she replaced them on the bike. Then, half wheeling and half carrying the bike, she disappeared into the juniper and pinyon pine forest that lined the road.
Bemused, Frank drove slowly down hill. The day had certainly turned strange. But then again, that morning he had left Rachel, Nevada, located at the edge of the officially nonexistent Area 51. And you couldn’t get much stranger than that. Oh well.
Still, he felt hollow and at loose ends as he motored up Eureka’s main street in second gear, passing a gas station, a fire station, a motel, a few shops and cross streets, and finally Raines Market. Luckily, it was still open. He pulled in, finally found his shopping list in the glove box, and walked in.
It was dark by the time everything he would need for the next few weeks was stored away in the camper. Time to find a place outside of town to park for the night. He looked at the dashboard. The temperature had dropped dramatically once the sun had set, and clouds had moved in, blocking the moon. Gusts of wind rocked the camper as he drove slowly along the desolate road, looking for a jeep track to turn off on.
He wondered how Josette was faring, alone in the blustery darkness.
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Frank was frustrated. He had spent the last two days at his laptop and had nothing to show for it except false starts, make-work outlines and deletions – lots of deletions. How do you go about writing a book, anyway?
Clearly not the way he’d been going at it. He looked at his latest vain attempt at an opening:
Never in the history of this great nation have we faced such a host of implacable,
insidious, vicious and downright evil enemies. Each is more dangerous than the last, and all care as little for your welfare as does Vladimir Putin - Adolph Hitler, even.
He wished he had brought a printer so he could crumple that up and toss it in the garbage.
After his first day’s eight straight hours of failure, he’d left town and driven to the mountain pass where he had spent three months of difficult but exhilarating work the year before. He parked just where he had then, even set up his folding chair in the same place, where he could ignore the fantastic scenery that spread out before him as he focused on the challenge at hand.
But no luck. After another day’s clumsy effort he still hadn’t written anything worth
saving. One sentence – couldn’t he even write one sentence any better than a seventh grader?
He snapped his laptop shut and stomped from his chair to the camper. After exchanging his laptop for a beer, he stomped his way back.
Now what? He’d had quit his job, had a MountainTamer expedition vehicle built just for him - the same kind of rig he had rented the year before, but this time customized to his own requirements. It had cost a fortune. He’d had this idyllic notion that he could just head back west and pick up where he had left off, substituting writing a book for solving the mystery that had taken over his life the last time around. Then he’d live off the royalties for awhile and figure out what to do next.
But there was no urgency to drive him this time. No CIA and FBI scouring the country for him, and no evil genius to ferret out and foil. Just this stupid book idea that seemed to be going up in smoke. What had he been thinking? He threw the still-full can of beer at a Ponderosa pine not twenty feet away and missed it by five.
Shit! He started pacing back and forth, mentally pulling up the usual list of past failures he always kept at the ready for purposes of self-flagellation. Kicking pinecones out of his way, he luxuriated in the warm bath of self-loathing that best suited him in his blackest moods.
Usually, Frank would have indulged himself with a good hour of deeply immersive pacing at a time like this. But much sooner than that he became dimly aware that a sound had been increasing for some time at the edge of his consciousness, and was now too loud to ignore. More unconsciously than otherwise, he stopped and turned in the direction of the disturbance, out over the valley floor lying thousands of feet below. To his shock, he saw that a helicopter was heading straight at him. It was only a few hundreds yards away, and closing fast.
He instinctively backed up as the roaring aircraft reached, hovered over, and then descended at the edge of his clearing, kicking up a cloud of dust and pine needles that almost blinded him.
Eyes watering, he waited to see what new strangeness was afoot. First one man, and then another jumped out of the helicopter and walked, crouching, towards him under the still-spinning blades. To his relief, he recognized one of them.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he yelled over the descending whine of the helicopter, reaching out to shake hands with his former boss. Publicly, George Marchand was the Chief Technology Officer of the Library of Congress. But Frank knew that was the cover for one of the CIA’s top cyber security men.
“I want to introduce you to someone,” he yelled, gesturing to his companion. “This is Len Butcher.”
Frank shook hands as he took his visitor in. What he was a bit unsettling. Butcher’s pale skin was stretched so tightly over his gaunt features that Frank half expected to find a knot of extra skin tied behind his head. His forehead sloped in a straight line from the tip of his pointed nose up to a graying buzz cut, and below thin lips, his chin tilted back towards his neck at an equivalent angle. The overall effect was more weaselish than hawklike.
Butcher’s expression was self-satisfied and smug and his hand shake limp. Frank decided the guy was probably some variety of creep, exact type yet to be determined.
A sudden thought occurred to Frank. Turning to George he asked, “How did you know where to find me?”
“It’s our business to know where people like you are,” Butcher interjected in an adenoidal voice that fit well into the negative first impression that he had already made on Frank.
Frank bristled. “Oh, really? And who might ‘we’ be, not to mention, ‘people like me?’”
George cut in hastily. “How about we go inside?”
Frank shrugged and led the way. Behind them, the helicopter pilot strolled around the clearing, checking out the view and looking with curiosity at charred wreckage strewn across the meadow that extended downhill. It was only beginning to return to flowers and grass.
Once they were seated inside, Frank leaned back and crossed his arms. “So what gives?”
“Frank, Len works with another government agency. They’re well aware of the essential role that you played in cracking the Alexandria Project, and they’re hoping that they can enlist you to help them penetrate a new group that’s proving tough to find.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, but that’s not exactly what I’m up to these days.”
“I’ve told Len that, but this is pretty important, so here I am. That, and the fact that the Director of the CIA promised the head of the other agency that we would do whatever we could to help persuade you.”
“So what’s the other agency?”
“That’s not important, Frank. As a matter of fact, you wouldn’t recognize the name of the agency if I told you, which I’m not at liberty to do. Things have changed a lot since 9/11. Suffice it to say that there are now more than a hundred U.S. intelligence units, both within existing agencies as well as stand alone outfits. None of the new stand-alone units have been publicly disclosed, and this is one of them.”
“So what does it say on your identification?” Frank asked Butcher.
“At the moment, it says I’m a field rep for a computerized voting machine service company,” Butcher said, handing Frank a laminated plastic card out of his wallet and handed it to Frank.
“Anyway, Frank, that’s why I’m along for this ride, to credential Len for you. Now how about we tell you what this is all about?”
“Okay, sure. I can at least listen.”
Butcher leaned forward, elbows on the dinette table.
“So tell me, Frank. Been paying any attention to the upcoming presidential election?”
“Not really. The President’s certainly going to run again, so no drama there. And the Republicans are so clueless they keep standing up one whack job after another. I can’t believe any of them stands a chance of taking a primary, let alone the Oval Office.” Frank hoped Butcher was a staunch member of the GOP. If so, he looked forward to expanding on this theme.
“It is an interesting cast of characters, isn’t it?” Butcher responded without emotion, not giving Frank any clues. “Have you heard any of the poll results, though? What people are saying about them?”
“No. Why bother? The primaries aren’t due to start until January.”
“Because those ‘whack jobs,’ as you call them, are out-pointing the credible candidates by double digits.”
“So what? That’s not uncommon this early in the race. It’s mostly just name recognition at this point.”
“Yes. Usually, that’s true. So then how do you explain Merrill Dreeper or Roxanne Rollins being way out in front of Senator Knox and Governor Johnson?”
“Precisely. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”
“Maybe they’re just badly conducted polls. Or maybe they were taken in those candidates’ back yards.”
“Actually, no. Those polls were conducted in major cities across the country by the top professionals.”
“Then their data’s flawed.”
“That’s what we think, too. So what does that make you think of?”
“Somebody's tampering with the poll numbers.”
Butcher turned to Marchand with a smirk. “Your boy’s just as bright as you said he was, George.”
George gave him a dirty look and jumped in. “At this point, we don’t have a clue who’s behind this, but we do know that the tampering is being done on the servers and not in the field. As you may or may not know, the next election will be the first one where just about everyone will be voting on electronic rather than mechanical balloting equipment. In a lot of states, they’ll even be able to vote remotely – from their laptops and smartphones. So the fact that someone’s tampering with the poll data is pretty alarming.”
“I’ll buy that. But if you’ve got a hundred intelligence agencies plus the FBI and the CIA to work with, what do you need me for?”
“Here’s the thing. We haven’t made any progress finding out who is penetrating the polling services’ software yet, because we haven’t even been able to determine that they’ve been penetrated.”
“So maybe it’s an employee with security privileges.”
“It’s not that, either. We’ve isolated the systems, had one of our own people input new data, and then read the results. They don’t match.”
“So? That just means they placed their malware before you isolated the systems. It’s already programmed to change the results.”
“Nope. We used a brand new system, straight from the factory.”
“OK, so they’ve paid off a guy that works in the factory to change the polling support software.”
“No again. We’ve scanned the code against an earlier version – which does work fine - and they seem to match identically except for legitimate bug fixes.”
“So the malware feature was just lying dormant, waiting to be triggered by something. Doesn’t this agency, whatever it is, have anybody good working on this?”
“Sure they do, Frank – and so do we at the CIA, and so does the FBI. But so far, no luck. There’s over a million lines of code in the software, and a lot of bug fixes.”
Sure, Frank thought. And there were also computer chips and firmware that could have been replaced in the servers. Not to mention externally programmable elements, and an Internet connection to allow calls on external databases for information not found in system memory. Any of those could be the source of the problem. You’d have to check all of those meticulously, one by one. He began to think what tests he’d run in what order to find where the rat was hiding in the maze. It was an interesting problem.
“So what do you say, Frank?” Butcher said evenly. “Want to show us how much smarter you are than our boys?”
Marchand watched the interplay between the two men. Butcher might not be a charmer, but he’d figured out pretty quickly which of Frank’s buttons to push to get him to sign on. Or maybe he’d been prepped. Yes – that would be it.
Frank frowned. He had to admit that he was intrigued by what he’d heard. This sounded like a pretty good hack, and it would be interesting to devise a plan to get to the bottom of it, and then see whether it worked.
That hadn’t been how he’d been planning to spend the next few months, though. He’d been looking forward to getting away; some sort of clean break and a fresh start from his old job, which he had left with mixed feelings. After all the brouhaha that had followed the revelation of his role in averting the crisis with North Korea, everyone had expected him to be revealed as some sort of wonder coder. Problem was, there weren’t a lot of wonder-coding jobs to be done at the LoC. Just a lot of ho-hum daily tasks. It hadn’t taken long before he felt bored and ignored.
Then he had the idea about the book. Given his notoriety, it had been easy to get an agent, and then a publisher. So one day he just handed in his resignation, put in his order for the MountainTamer, and headed out to Nevada to spend some time with his Dad, and wait for delivery of his expedition vehicle.
Problem was, becoming a best selling author wasn’t looking so easy now. And he’d already spent most of the publisher’s advance on the MountainTamer and equipment. Maybe he should be taking this new cybersecurity opportunity seriously. But only if he could do it on his own terms, and that might take some negotiating.
“Let’s say I did. What happens next? I just paid a pile of money for this rig and was looking forward to doing some extended touring. And I’ve got this book I’m working on. I don’t want to set that aside.”
“No worries.” Butcher said. “We know you’ve got this camper set up to let you do whatever you want wherever you want to do it. In fact, we’d prefer that it look like you’ve kept to your original plans, so as not to attract attention. But we’ll give you up to the minute, unrestricted access to whatever information and resources you need. We’ll even give you a nice business card, just like mine.”
Butcher slid another laminated card across the table. At the top was the service company’s name and logo, and below it were Frank’s name, a hologram, and an ID number.
“Big deal. What am I going to do with that?”
“That’s up to you. It may come in handy doing whatever you decide to do to get to the bottom of things.”
Butcher flipped the card over, and then pressed the back of his own card against it. Immediately, a new logo and ID number appeared on each.
“And if you get in a jam, you may be glad to have it.”
“Very 007. But what good will that do me if no one knows your agency exists?”
“Let’s just say that you’ll never know who does and who doesn’t. If I were you, I’d hang on to that card.”
Frank left the card lying on the table and stood up. He took a beer out of the refrigerator and set it in front of Butcher.
“Have one on me. George, feel like taking the Grand Tour of my clearing?”
The two men stepped out and walked a dozen paces from the camper. Across the valley, angry thunderclouds were building above the purple silhouette of the mountains to the west.
“I don’t know, George. I have to say that my last collaboration with the intelligence establishment wasn’t all camaraderie and cooperation. And that time I was dealing with public agencies. What would I be getting myself into here?”
“I think everything would work out fine this time, Frank. You’d have complete independence, not be part of a team. Last time around showed that’s how you work best. If you’re successful, that’s great. If you’re not, that’s the government’s problem. And any time you felt like it, you could simply walk away. I don’t know whether you’re still making a killing in the on-line game space, but if not, the money wouldn’t be bad, either. Consultants to non-existent agencies aren’t tied to government pay grades, and that service company has a real office – even a receptionist. Not much else, but I can guarantee you their checks would clear.”
As a matter of fact, Frank’s latest game ideas had all been flops. With his book prospects in doubt, his economic future was looking murky at best.
“Would I have to report to this guy Butcher? He wouldn’t be my pick for a detailer.”
“No worries. He’s a desk jockey, not a field manager. I can do a little interfering and be sure that you end up with someone you like. And of course you can contact me any time.”
George waited while Frank brooded over what to do, arms crossed and staring out across the valley. Lightning illuminated the thunderheads across the valley as the silhouettes of bats etched erratic paths across the sunset. Wasn’t chilling out in a place like this what he had been looking forward to?
Well, yes and no. He knew he’d need something to focus on besides the scenery or he’d be climbing the camper’s walls in two days. And it didn’t look like that was going to be writing a book. In what way did this unexpected project not seem tailor-made to fill this inconvenient void in his plans?
“Okay. I’ll do it.”
“That’s great, Frank. I’ll go in and tell Len. Judging by those thunderheads, I’d say it’s time we beat it back to home base.”
Five minutes later, the whine of the helicopter’s engine was receding in the distance. As he watched its blinking navigation lights fade, Frank felt his spirits lift. Might as well accept who you are, he thought. And it would be great to be back in the game.
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