The Alexandria Project, Chapter 23: Sarin? You Thought I Said Sarin?

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General Chan Bok-choy, ranking general of the Peoples Army of North Korea, was walking across a broad plaza at the side of the President of the Supreme People’s Assembly. They had just left a meeting with the Dear Leader, and had only a few minutes to converse without being overheard by their aides, or by those in the listening rooms that monitored the microphones that were everywhere. 
General Bok-choy knew that they were not completely safe from surveillance even here. Doubtless, some member of the Secret Police was filming them from a hidden location using a telescopic lens, so that another agent could later try to read their lips. For that reason, the General walked with his hands clasped behind his back and his head bowed. Being at the top of the chain of command in the paranoid, otherworld of North Korea meant you were always being spied on by everyone else in the inner circle. And, of course, you were spying on them as well.
President Kim Lang-dong spoke first. 
“Are you sure that you can destroy both Washington and New York, General?”
“There can be no doubt.”

How could he be so sure? The President would have liked to have questioned him more closely, but there was so little time.  And in any event, the most important part of the plan was not to destroy these cities, but to depose the clan of Kim Jong-Il for good.

“And the rest of the plan – that is in place as well?”
“Most of that will take care of itself. Once the missiles have been fired, Jong-Il and his three sons will take their places in the usual bunker. He doesn’t trust them any more than he does anyone else, and especially the oldest one, Kim Jong-nam, now that everyone knows the youngest son has been anointed as his father’s successor.”
“Excellent. But how do you know you can trust the oldest one?”
“You needn’t worry, as I am quite convinced he cannot wait to perform his appointed function. He has always secretly loathed his father, and he doesn’t trust Kim Jong-un, his heir apparent half-brother for even a moment.   And why should he? It’s so much more likely that some unfortunate accident will befall him when there are two more sons available to be propped up in his place. The only question is which brother will get rid of which brothers as soon as Kim Jong-Il is in his grave – so why wait?”
The President nodded. The logic was as sound to him as it must be to the three sons.
“And what will be the means of the final step?”
“The oldest son will be wearing a wrist watch with a vial of Sarin hidden inside. When Jong-Il and the sons are sealed in the bunker and receive news that the attack has been launched, he will push one of the buttons on the watch, and the liquid will vaporize. There will be more than enough gas to kill everyone in the room within minutes.”
The President stared at him. “But General? Why would he do such a thing if he, too, would die?”
“Because we have given him a second present as well. That one is a gelatin capsule that he will slip discretely into his mouth before releasing the Sarin. He will rely on the capsule containing atropine and pralixidome, the two antidotes for Sarin contamination to protect him while he watches his brothers and fathers writhe and die.”
The President was confused. “But General, what then?”
The General smiled. “Mr. President, just because he relies on the capsule to contain the antidotes does not mean it will in fact contain them. But he will be convinced that he is safe, and that is the important part.”
The President’s mouth opened with a silent Ah! of appreciation as they continued their slow walk toward their waiting limousines.
“It was easy enough for us to arrange a little demonstration to convince Kim Jong-Il’s son of the efficacy of the antidote, although it was not so enjoyable for one of the mice involved. We prepared a sealed chamber with two compartments, each with a mouse and a feeding bowl, but only the food in one bowl had been treated with the antidotes.
“After allowing the mice to feed for a few minutes, we allowed Jong-nam to press the button that admitted the Sarin to the chamber, generating a convincing hiss as the gas entered. Within seconds, the untreated mouse was writhing, while the other simply sat and groomed itself. You should read a description some time about the ways in which the body reacts to the administration of even minute amounts of Sarin. It really is a most unpleasant and graphic way to die. But it does provide a most convincing display.”
“And he was comforted?”
“Oh yes, quite – he seemed to enjoy the demonstration greatly.  I’m afraid the dear boy really must not be very fond of his family at all. Of course, as his father has come to realize, the number one son is hardly the brightest star in the sky when it comes to intellect.”
The President smiled. He admired the simple elegance of the plan. He also appreciated the fact that the General had laid it out in such detail while the President had himself been able to limit his own participation to asking leading questions. He fingered the recorder in his pocket, and was reassured by the warmth generated by its battery. If anything went wrong now, he could easily betray the General, using the recording as proof of his treason and of the President’s own loyalty.
The General interrupted his thoughts. “And what will you do to make sure that the plan is successful?”
The President instantly became more guarded. “Ah yes.  Well, on the signal,…”
“What signal?”
“The signal I receive from you…”
“Please be precise.  We must be sure that there is no confusion.”
The President realized he would have to be more specific, or he would arouse the General’s suspicion. But it hardly mattered. He could edit the recording later.
“The call from you stating that the Dear Leader and his sons have gone to their bunker.”
“And what will you understand that to mean?”
“I will understand that to mean…that the Dear Leader and his sons have in fact, ah, that they have in fact gone to their final rest.”
“Then what?”
“I will call the emergency meeting of the Executive Committee and reveal to them that the Dear Leader and his sons have been killed in a vicious and unprovoked attack by the United States.  Then I will read to them the proclamation that I will say the Dear Leader had prepared against such a terrible eventuality, appointing you and me as the new leadership, with full powers to direct all civil and military functions. 
"What else?"
“I will also inform the Committee that immediately outside are heavily armed members of your personal guard, who will stay at their sides around the clock for the indefinite future for their "personal protection against possible enemies of the State." After I inform them of that fact, I will be pleased to accept their personal pledges of support, and their incriminating signatures on the proclamation testifying to their total allegiance to the new regime. 
"You will join me shortly thereafter, and we will jointly release the proclamation on state television, as well as the fact that our troops are pouring across the Demilitarized Zone on their way to an assured victory reuniting the Motherland.”
“Exactly. I am glad that you are very clear on your part.”
With that, they reached the limousines.
“Our conversation will have been well noted,” the General said, shaking the President’s hand. “We must not speak again until after the proclamation has been read.”
With that, the General motioned to the two corporals standing at attention beside his car to approach him. With a smile to the President, the General removed a slim object from his breast pocket about the same size as the recorder the President had been secretly holding. The General handed it to one of the corporals.
“Take good care of this until I ask for it,” he said. The corporal threw a sharp salute, and retreated to the other side of the limousine.  

At a nod from the General, the second corporal approached, carrying a valise in one hand, and a strange device in the other.  It looked like a gun, but where the barrel would have been there was instead what seemed to be a small radio antenna dish.  It was connected to the valise by a wire. The corporal patted down the President, and then aimed the strange device at the pocket that held the digital recorder.
The President felt a creeping sense of horror possess him as he stood by the car. “What was that all about?”

The General swung himself into his car and rolled down the window. “Microwaves. Who knows, some enemy of the State might have planted a recording device on you – of course without your knowledge – and recorded our conversation.  Later, the scoundrel would doubtless fabricate a situation where he would bump into you, and remove the device without your realizing his sleight of hand.  But no matter – the microwave gun would have already destroyed the memory chip in any such device.”
The President stood frozen in place. If the general wished to betray him now – as he so easily could, using the evidence of his own recorder – the President would be doomed to die an extremely slow and agonizing death on the order of the Dear Leader. Doubtless through the administration of Sarin gas….
“Farewell, my friend.” The General said with a pleasant smile. “You really have no idea what a relief it is to have someone to rely on so completely. After this conversation I believe I can trust you with my life.” The General tapped the brim of his hat with the tip of his swagger stick, and then the limousine was gone, leaving the President of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea standing forlornly by the side of the road.


– 0000 – 0001 – 0010 – 0011 – 0100 – 0011 – 0010 – 0001 – 0000 –

Frank was sitting alone by a dying campfire, the first he had lit in his clearing in the wilderness.  He and his father, now gone, had sat next to it through hours of conversation, and Frank was still absorbing all that he had heard. He wasn’t yet sure what he should and shouldn’t be entitled to still feel after all of the years of harboring so much animosity. But of course, that would take time. This wasn’t something he would get his arms around in a day – or a year.
Even so, Frank had to admit that much of the pain he had so willingly converted into hate against his father had apparently not been his father’s fault at all.  Assuming, that is, that he could believe everything he had just heard – how his Dad’s lieutenant in the Army had joined the FBI on his return to the States, and later recruited Frank’s father for undercover work. How an FBI sting operation had gone terribly wrong, forcing his father to flee New York City and enter a protection program far away. And how he had not been allowed to communicate with Frank or his mother for a year thereafter, for their own protection.
Frank could believe that his mother might have refused to take his father back after that. She was a strong willed woman, and Frank had been aware, even as a child, that there was no warmth between his parents. He could even believe, as his father had said, that she had insisted that his Dad agree to never contact his son again. Frank knew from personal experience that Doreen Adversego had never played for anything but keeps, and no one crossed her twice and got away with it.
Watching the embers die, Frank wondered what it must have been like for his father, suddenly whisked away to a nowhere location in the Southwest. The FBI had assigned him during his year out of sight to learn all about computers, codes and security while the mess was cleaned up back East. Like Frank, he found that he liked, and had a knack for computers. He had fallen in love with the Southwest during his summer trip with Frank, and with nothing to return home to, he simply stayed, with a new name, a new identity, and a new career as a full-time FBI security specialist.
Frank was grappling with mixed feelings of another type over a few parts of the tale he had just heard.  His full scholarship from an “anonymous donor,” for example, was no longer anonymous, and therefore no longer much to be proud of, either. 
But that should have been no surprise, really. Yes, he had ranked first in his class in the math and science courses that captured his interest. But he’d barely passed any of the others.   He had been lucky to squeak into MIT at all, he forced himself to admit, much less get a free ride through college besides. His father may have promised not to contact Frank, but that hadn’t kept him from keeping a watchful eye over his son from afar through all the intervening years.
And then there had been that one last surprise, at the end of the evening, as his father was about to drive away into the dark. Frank was self-conscious and embarrassed, recalling the harsh words he’d said about his father early in the evening.  On top of that, he knew that reconnecting with his father would take time.  He might as well be upfront about that as they said shook hands and said goodnight.
"I hope you’ll understand if I never get to a place where I can call you ‘Dad’ without feeling self conscious.”
“That’s OK, Frank.  Fact is, I’m kind of out of practice calling anyone ‘son’ as well.”
Then his father smiled and put a hand on Frank’s shoulder.  “If it comes easier to you, why don’t you just call me ‘Yoda.’”


– 0000 – 0001 – 0010 – 0011 – 0100 – 0011 – 0010 – 0001 – 0000 –


Marla and Carl were meeting once again at an isolated table in the coffee house in Alexandria.  Across the street, the antiquarian bookstore was dark. A sign in the window said "Closed Until Further Notice." 

“Unfortunately," Carl was saying, "their story checks out. Our preliminary review of everything we’ve found – hard drives, email, server logs, you name it – indicates that our antiquarian friends were never responsible for hacking anything other than the Library of Congress. That’s why they were almost relieved when we came bursting in – they realized this escapade they’d started was way out of control, and they didn’t know what to do about it.”
“Well, so what?” Marla replied. “Can’t you just arrest whoever was working with them? They must have been responsible for all the other attacks, right?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. I expect your father would have a better idea about that than I would. Maybe it’s time you allowed us to speak with him directly?”  Carl purposefully stirred his coffee without looking up.
Marla shifted uncomfortably in her seat, and fired back. “Maybe. Maybe not. Anyway, I can’t believe that you guys can’t figure that out on your own. After all, it’s clear those elderly librarian types didn’t do the high tech part of this on their own. Who do they say did it for them?”
“They don’t really know, believe it or not. They say that they never met the guy face to face, or even talked to him on the phone. Everything was always handled by email.”
“So how did they hire him?”
Carl gave a short bark of laughter. “On Craig’s List! That guy who picked the code name Zenodotus said, ‘Isn’t that where you find everything these days?’”
“That’s ridiculous.”
“Is it?  Have you been to Craig’s List lately?
"Anyway, the old guys probably thought they were being very clever and secretive, using only email and their silly Library of Alexandria librarian names. But we don’t really know who they connected with – not yet, anyway. Maybe they did enough fumbling around on the Internet on their own that they attracted attention from the real bad guys, who then pointed them to a fake ad so it would look more innocent. 
“Or maybe the guy they hired sold them off to a real bad guy, once he realized that he could make a bigger buck passing them on to someone who wanted to get inside a government agency really badly.
“The problem is, one of the Alexandria Project guys is on the Advisory Board of the LoC, and he had enough access to be dangerous. He provided his ID and password to the mystery man they hired.  Turns out Advisors have deeper access than he realized. That got the mystery hacker off to an easy start, because now he could find the systems weaknesses from the inside.”
“But that doesn’t explain how they broke into so many other agencies so easily. How did they pull that off?”
Carl paused. Then he looked around and lowered his voice.   “Look, Marla, I’ve already told you a lot more than I’m probably supposed to. But I expect that it may be important for your Dad to know this, so I’m going to share something with you that’s really secret. You’ve got to understand that this goes to no one, ever, other than Frank.”
Marla nodded and waited.
“The LoC isn’t just a sleepy department of a government agency. It’s also used as what they call a “testbed” – a place where the IT guys and security guys can roll out new technology.  That way, they can test the hell out of it before they deploy it across highly sensitive areas of the government, like the Pentagon and White House. 
"The idea has always been that no one would be likely to be trying too hard to hack the computers of the LoC, so it would be a safe place to work the bugs out. At the same time, the LoC is still a big, complex enterprise that interfaces with Congress and other agencies, so its IT policies, architecture and interfaces have to be the same as those of every other agency in a lot of respects. So once the security wizards get things just right at the LoC, they figure they’re good to go for everywhere else.
“Unfortunately, that’s exactly what they did with the newest security architecture, right before this mess blew up. Everybody at the LoC – like your father – was supposed to think that they were still working on a new security upgrade, but in fact the good stuff had already been pushed out across the agencies.”
“So you mean that once the bad guys figured out how to crack the LoC they could crack the Pentagon?”
“Bingo. Because the Pentagon was now running the same security protocols, over the same architecture, as the LoC.”
“But what about all the private companies and universities they broke into as well? They weren’t all using exactly the same security systems, were they?”
“Well, no, that’s right. But nobody goes out and invents a whole new way of creating security, and that was true for the LoC as well. Everyone uses pretty much the same concepts, building blocks and strategies, and then refines them from there in ways that they hope will keep them one step ahead of the hackers. So while some parts of the LoC’s upgraded security infrastructure were different from what was there before, they weren’t necessarily that different than what outside security experts were designing and selling to their customers. 
“We figure the bad guys just used robots to hammer away at the millions of eligible targets out there, and then made use of the ones that they could get into the same way they were able to hack the LoC.”
“So we’re back to where we started?”
“Yes, that’s pretty much it.”
Marla avoided his gaze, and looked instead at the darkened book store across the street.
“So how about it, Marla? Isn’t there anything else your father could give us to help us out? We’ve hit a brick wall here.”
Marla didn’t like the position she was finding herself in at all. In fact, she already knew that her father had made one more big discovery.  He had indicated that he didn’t want to share it yet, though, or even at all, if he didn’t have to. But after the raid on the bookstore, it really did seem to her that they should be able to trust the CIA now. Clearly, the agents couldn’t have learned anything to tie the antiquarians to Frank  So there shouldn’t be anything left to fear from the CIA, right?
Marla made her decision, and excused herself from the table, leaving Carl with a puzzled look on his face.
Once inside the rest room, Marla pulled her phone out of her purse, and pushed a speed dial button. She wrote the numbers that displayed on a piece of paper. Then she hit a second button, and copied those numbers below the first. Finally, she subtracted the second set from the first, and then dialed the resulting number. She immediately pushed the exit button before the call could ring at the other end.  Then she threw away the paper with the number on it, and returned to the table.
Without saying a word to Carl, Marla highlighted the number she had just entered, and then hit the “send” button.


– 0000 – 0001 – 0010 – 0011 – 0100 – 0011 – 0010 – 0001 – 0000 –

Frank was sleeping like a baby, more warm and secure than he had felt since he was a child. But there was something bothering him; an almost familiar sound that he couldn’t quite place. Why wouldn’t it go away?
Suddenly his eyes shot open: it was the ring of the satellite phone he had bought in case of emergencies.  And the only person who had the number was Marla. Frank jumped out of bed and began throwing dirty laundry in the air as he searched for the phone.
Finally, he found it. “Marla! Hello! What’s wrong?”
Marla caught her breath at the sound of her father’s voice; she should have realized he’d assume the worst when he heard his emergency phone ring.
“Nothing Dad – nothing! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to alarm you. I just needed to tell you what we’ve found out and ask for your help.”
“Thank God you’re OK! Go ahead.” Frank slumped into a chair, shaking from head to foot. 
“We caught the guys at the location you sent us to – but they turned out to be just a bunch of antique book dealers. Yeah – that’s right – book dealers!  Tweed jackets and everything. But it turns out they’re only behind the LoC attacks and none of the others. They hired somebody else to do the hacking, but they don’t know who he is; they only communicated by email. And it looks like none of the other attacks came through their computers, so we’re stuck and we need your help.”
Marla had a sudden thought. “Was this the only location you ever found? Could there have been another one you located somewhere else somewhere along the way?”
Frank was still feeling weak and rattled. Of course there had been a second intruder – he’d known that now for a long time. And yes, he’d found a second location through the iBall crowd sourcing gambit. But could he afford to tell anyone where it was until he could check it out for himself?
Carl watched as Marla’s eyebrows shot up. “Dad, that’s impossible! How could that be? Yes, of course I believe you – we’ll check it out. And yes, we can get off the phone now.”
Carl looked at her anxiously.  “Well? Where is it? What’s so strange about where it is?” 


– 0000 – 0001 – 0010 – 0011 – 0100 – 0011 – 0010 – 0001 – 0000 –

A mile away, an FBI agent took off his earphones. He punched a few buttons on the console in front of him and waited for the readout. Perfect – he’d been able to get an exact fix. He picked up his phone and called his supervisor.
“All good things come to those that wait, Boss. We’ve got Adversego.”


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Comments (2)

  1. Second section (after North Korea) –> Third paragraph starting "Frank could believe that his mother …" –> Third sentence reads:

    He could even believe, as his father had said, that had insisted that his Dad agree to never contact his son again.

    Thinking a missing "she" after first "that" I am.

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