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
The sun was once again shining the next morning as Frank drove west on Route 50. The harsh glare made it as hard to see as he was finding it difficult to think. Just the day before, he had been sitting in his clearing swearing at his laptop, and now he was off on what could prove to be two wild goose chases – the first, to find someone a government agency that didn’t exist was convinced was hacking into the pollsters’ computer systems, and the second to chauffeur a young French woman to a countercultural festival for reasons he was trying hard to pretend he did not understand.
He yawned once, and then yawned again. It had been a long and sleepless night. While Josette had taken a hot shower, he had gotten into bed as quickly as possible and turned off the light. He had been divorced for sixteen years now, and with all too rare exceptions, those had been sixteen very dry years. Gazing appreciatively at an attractive young woman when she wasn’t looking was one thing, but more than that was unthinkable – certainly to her, he had to believe, despite her flirtatious ways. After all, he was old enough to be her father. Still, he’d had a few beers at dinner, and feared he might manage to make a fool of himself somehow given half a chance, and he was determined not to give himself that chance.
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It had seemed forever until he heard the click of the light switch in the tiny bathroom, and then the quiet opening and shutting of a door. He all but held his breath until he heard the small sounds of bedding pulling back in the bunk across from him. With a silent sigh that was equal parts relief and longing, he tried to empty his mind and get some sleep.
And then suddenly Josette was in his bed. His eyes snapped open, and his body went rigid. “Shhh,” she said soothingly, lying quietly by his side. She settled her head on his shoulder, and began gently rubbing his arm.
“So tense – you should relax.”
It took several minutes, but at last the tension in his body began to seep away. And finally, his heart leapt as a wave of confidence began to rise within him. Elated, he rolled towards Josette.
But sadly, the same path can lead to ecstasy or despair, and that path can change destinations in a heartbeat. That is what they did for Frank, because just then Josette whispered three short words in his ear…the three most deflating words a man can hear at such a moment of all the many, dreaded put-downs of the boudoir.
“Just hold me.”
In the cold light of day, Frank decided that those words sounded even worse in a French accent. He’d been afraid to move for the rest of the night for fear of waking his gently breathing companion. Stiff and sleepless, he had finally eased out of the bed at dawn and began driving, while Josette slept on blissfully and unaware. He told himself that it was only because he had no other destination, anyway, that the direction he chose to drive was towards Burning Man.
It was almost 9:00 AM when Josette joined him in the cab of the camper, belting herself in and tucking her long legs beneath her. He was mildly shocked to see that she was wearing one of his T shirts, and not much else (“I hope you do not mind! Everything I have, you see, is so wet!”).
“Here,” she said, “I have made us coffee.” She handed him a cup, and he took a sip.
“What is it?”
“It is French coffee. So much better than you have in America. My friends warned me.”
Frank sipped the brew appreciatively while Josette commented on the scenery rolling by. It had been so long since a woman had made him a cup of coffee, or passed the time of day with him as they traveled. For the second time in twenty-four hours, he began to relax, but this time more guardedly.
“Tell me Frank,” Josette said, “this book of yours, what is it about?”
He was sorry for the change of topic. “Security – I mean, cyber security. Do you know what that means?”
She frowned and nodded no.
“It means trying to keep people from getting access to your computer and stealing information, or damaging it.”
“Ah, yes, I do know what you mean. ‘Cyber security’ is what you say in English?”
He nodded. “Yes, and it’s a very big problem. There are criminals that steal your credit card information, spies that steal government information, terrorists that try to penetrate national defenses, and much more.”
“Of course, of course. It is the same problem everywhere. But what exactly is it that you will write?”
Frank wondered how to make what he had in mind sound more heroic and less dorky than he was sure that it would. Then he had a thought.
“You recall the Maginot Line?”
“But of course. It was a great folly – and a great failure. We French spent millions and millions of francs building hundreds of miles of defenses after the First World War. But the Germans built hundreds of tanks and simply drove around it.”
“Yes, exactly. Well, that is something like what is going on today on the Internet. We fool ourselves into thinking that we are doing what we need to do to protect ourselves from our enemies, but in fact we are just building another Maginot Line, only this time in cyber space. And already criminals and terrorists and spies are getting around it as if we had no defenses at all.”
Josette gave him a coquettish smile. “I am told that our French companies, they have not found it so very hard to get to your companies’ information.”
Frank laughed and looked at her with curiosity. “And indeed you’ve heard that correctly. But there’s much worse going on. Why, just the other day the Pentagon had to admit that the controls of its Predator drones have been hacked. Presumably, the Taliban are the bad guys that did it, but we don’t really know. And shame on the Pentagon, because it wasn’t so long ago that someone hacked their way into the video that the same drones were transmitting back to their targeting bases.”
“Ah yes. But what is it that your book will say about this?”
The fact was, he didn’t know what it would say, assuming he ever actually got around to writing it. He hadn’t really taken the concept much beyond his general sense of outrage at the inability of most people to appreciate the dire straits that he was personally convinced the world was in.
“Well, I’ll…give lots of examples of bad things that have already happened, and then examples of even worse things that are bound to happen if nothing is done. Then I’ll describe what we need to do to prevent those things from happening.”
To his relief, Josette looked at the clock on the dashboard and said, “It is ten o’clock. May we listen to the news?”
“Of course.” He turned on his satellite radio, and tuned it to a public radio station. The announcer had just started in on the lead story.
“. . .announced his campaign yesterday at a press conference.”
“Oh no,” Frank groaned. “Now who?”
To his surprise, Josette leaned forward and listened intently.
The Texas governor’s decision was immediately acclaimed by the host of supporters that had been urging him for weeks to throw his hat into the ring. With this announcement, the Republican field has now expanded to ten.
Frank was too annoyed to hear anything more. He snapped off the radio and launched into one of his trademark rants.
“I cannot believe the stupidity of the American people! How anyone could consider Julian Johnson for dog catcher, much less president of the United States is completely beyond me. How does Texas keep coming up with these jugheads? It’s like they they’ve got a closet full of them down in Central Casting!”
Josette laughed. “This Mr. Johnson – he is not so good?”
“Not so good! He’s appalling! He panders to every single bias and no-nothing creed in the ultra-conservative book of beliefs. He’s signed the no-taxes pledge; believes the earth was created in 4004 BC and that global warming is a hoax; says he’ll wipe out the Federal deficit without raising taxes a nickel – you name it. You tell him what he needs to say to get the Republican nomination, and he’ll be saying it before all the words are out of your mouth.”
“So you think he does not believe in what he says?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care. I can’t decide which would be worse – that he would be stupid enough to believe what he says, or corrupt enough to say what he doesn’t believe. Either way, he better not get elected.”
Josette frowned. “If he is so bad, how can you worry that he could be elected?”
Frank turned to her in surprise. “Do you remember the last guy we elected from Texas?
“Ah yes.” Josette murmured. “It did not turn out so well. But surely there are other candidates who are better?”
“Don’t be so sure. Every flavor of loony tune ever hatched seems to be represented in the race this year. There’s the Libertarian who thinks that we should just shut Washington down and hand the keys to the Capitol to Wall Street. Then there’s the former Dairy Queen from Wisconsin who wants the mothers of America to unite and throw every man out of government. And that just scratches the surface.”
“Why is it that no one who is both conservative and capable runs for president?”
“Good question. Whatever the reason, there’s only one guy in the Republican race who seems to be sane, and intelligent besides – Hollis Davenport. But he doesn’t stand a chance.”
“Well, first off, he’s a Unitarian Universalist. Most evangelicals have never met one, so they’re immediately suspicious. Plus, most Unitarians don’t believe in the Holy Trinity. 99.99% of evangelical Christians don’t have the foggiest notion what the Holy Ghost is, but they know that they’re supposed to believe there is one, so that’s that, and anyone that doesn’t is a pagan, or worse. Unitarians generally don’t believe in Hell and damnation, either, so it’s clear to lots of conservatives that they must be some kind of cult.”
“Then there’s the fact that when he was governor, he led the charge that resulted in his state being the first in the nation to pass a universal health care bill. The conservatives have never forgiven him for that.”
“But why? We have universal healthcare everywhere in Europe. It seems to make so much sense?”
“Of course it seems to, because it does make sense. Up until the last presidential election, both parties in the U.S. agreed that universal healthcare should be adopted nationwide.”
“Then what happened?”
“A Democrat was elected instead of a Republican, so anything he wanted to accomplish immediately became both heresy and treason to the Republicans in the House and the Senate. If the new president had tried to make Mother’s Day a Federal holiday, his opponents would have called that Socialism. It took almost all of the president’s political capital to push through a watered down version of what everyone had been in favor of before he was elected. The Republicans have vowed to overturn the policy ever since, so Davenport has had a lot of explaining to do.”
“I do not think I will ever understand your politics.”
“Well, that’s no surprise, because I don’t, either.”
Josette stared out the window for awhile. Then she spoke again, choosing her words carefully.
“You know, Frank, you Americans really should choose your president more carefully.”
“No kidding. I couldn’t agree with you more. Some people really shouldn’t be allowed to vote.”
“But seriously, Frank. Your president wields so much power. What he wishes to do, he can do, whether other countries want him to or not. Look at Iraq. Look at Viet Nam. Look at so many other invasions – in Panama, in Grenada, in Nicaragua. The Bay of Pigs. Santo Domingo. The list goes on and on. You Americans really should be more careful who you put in charge, because while the rest of the world has no say in the matter, we must suffer the consequences.”
Frank looked at her in surprise. This was a very different Josette than he had encountered before.
“I suppose…I mean, of course, you’re right. The president does have a lot of power.”
Josette was clearly annoyed now. “And he uses it everywhere! Yes – you Americans always like to call your president the ‘Leader of the Free World.’ But only Americans can vote for him. If your voters want to elect a leader of the free world, then they should be more careful! And look who is running now! Roxanne Rollins! Raúl Poll! Landa Goshen! And now your Mr. Johnson! What is the rest of the world supposed to do if you allow one of these incompetents to become president?”
Josette stopped abruptly. Frank drove on in silence, wondering how to respond, because, of course, she had a point.
– 0000 – 0001 – 0010 – 0011 – 0100 – 0011 – 0010 – 0001 – 0000 –
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