A Tale of Fanatics and Romantics



It was, at last, time. His forces were ready, and his plans were well made.

It was proper that America’s obsession with money and technology would provide the means for its own destruction. Its vulnerability was so obvious a child could see it.

But the billionaire capitalists of the West would not see. Or perhaps they did and did not care. It made no difference—they worshiped profits above all else. The politicians they controlled with their campaign contributions knew better than to pass laws their masters would not like.

He rose and walked to the entrance of the cave. The village in the valley far below lay peaceful and starlit, embraced by the snow-clad mountains. Not a single light or other sign of life could be seen.

Just as America and Europe would soon appear to the doomed fools circling Earth in their absurd space station.




Frank Eats Dirt

The phone was not ringing. Neither was the faint ching! of an incoming email interrupting the silence of his day. Even his Facebook page was devoid of likes and visits. After three weeks of waiting, there was no way to get around it: Frank Adversego, Cyber Eye, was an abject failure.

He stared with regret at the website he’d built for his new venture. It really did look pretty cool—retro, with just the right Raymond Chandler vibe. And if forced to admit it, he thought he looked sharp in a fedora and trench coat, even if he had pixelated his face into a pink, mosaic blur.

But a pretty web page did not a business make. He’d yet to land a single paying client. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he hadn’t a clue how to advertise, and would rather subject himself to whole-body acupuncture than engage in face-to-face networking.

But that was where things stood. There seemed to be no alternative to what appealed to him least of all: calling his old boss, George Marchand, to ask for work from the CIA. He scowled as he punched the buttons on his phone.

“Hey, Frank, good to hear from you. How’s the new business coming along?”

“Great! Having the time of my life! I can’t believe I waited so long to go into business for myself.”

“Nice to hear, Frank. Couldn’t be happier for you. Of course, we’re sorry we can’t count on you anymore over here at the Agency. The challenges keep getting tougher—”

“Oh, well, there’s no need to look at it that way! I’m sure I can take on a little more work from time to time if it would help you out. You know, fill in the gaps between the really big, interesting projects. Sometimes they go cold for a little while.”

“Really? Well, that’s good to know.”

Frank waited. There was only silence at the other end of the phone. “Uh, George, you got anything right now?”

“Hmm. Maybe. But I don’t know if we have anything small enough to fit in between your really big, interesting projects.”

Silence again.

“Okay, George. Have it your way. Do you want me to beg?”

Marchand laughed. “Of course not. I just couldn’t resist jerking your chain a little. Actually, I’ve been keeping my eye out for something to send your way and just came across a project that’s right up your alley. And at the same pay grade as before, too. You want to hear what I have in mind?”

Frank uttered silent thanks to the patron saint of small businessmen. “Yes, George. I’d like that very much.”

“Great. Got time to get together tomorrow?”

“Today, tomorrow, you name it. The truth is, I’m not exactly overbooked.”

“How about 10:00 tomorrow morning then. Do you still have the security app on your phone from your last project?”

“I guess.”

“Good. You know that doughnut shop in DuPont Circle?”

“Sure, but what’s wrong with our usual coffee place?”

“That’s enough for over the phone. See you there tomorrow.”

*  *  *

Frank was finishing his second doughnut when he spied Marchand approaching. He had the same authoritative, quick step as ever, but he looked a little stiff. And why not? It must be twenty-three years since they first met. Frank wondered whether he was secretly working for the CIA even then.

His old boss spotted Frank and waved him outside.

“Good to see you, George. Doughnut?”

“No thanks. You better go easy on those, too, if you want to keep that weight off.”

“Yeah, well, you picked the meeting place. What gives?”

“Let’s talk while we walk. We’re going to a new facility we just opened up the street.”

“Here? Pretty high-priced real estate for a government agency.”

“No kidding. But data analysis is a hot skill now. We’re competing with shops like Google that coddle the kids fresh out of school like they were royalty. You need to offer frills like food courts and massage chairs to get the top talent these days. And if you don’t have a trendy location, forget it.”

“What kind of work is the Agency doing there?”

“This is our new ‘big data’ center. Every type of information we gather from all over the world will funnel through here now, so we can organize and then analyze it for trends and emerging threats.”

“You mean, you’ve got tens of thousands of servers in the middle of Washington?”

“No—they’re in a new data center outside the Beltway. But it’s all managed from downtown. Here. Clip this on your shirt pocket.”

Frank followed Marchand into the sumptuous, travertine-walled lobby of a new office building. They fell in step with the other commuters streaming past the security guard and toward the elevators beyond. Marchand led Frank past them and around a corner, where they found one more elevator. Next to it was a small nameplate that read “Cloud Data, Inc.” He slid a card into a slot on the nameplate, and the doors slid open.

“Private elevator?” Frank asked Marchand.

“Of course.”

To Frank’s surprise, they stopped on the next floor. Decanted into a narrow, windowless room, he found himself facing a wooden-faced guard sitting behind what looked to Frank like bulletproof glass. Marchand sat down in the first of a row of shallow stalls equipped with computer screens and set his phone in front of him. When prompted by an instruction on the screen, he typed in a number from his phone. Another line of text appeared on the screen, and he typed in an answer. Marchand sat still for a bit longer, and then a card popped out of a slit below the screen, as if he had just paid for his stay at an automated parking lot.

“Your turn,” George said, nodding toward the booth. “Three-factor authentication.”

Frank followed suit. Three-factor authentication meant he would need to pass three tests before being permitted to proceed further, the first involving something he had with him—clearly, the number from his own phone app. The second would be something only the person being tested would know—that would have been the response George typed in to the second line of text. The last would look for something known that was physically unique to Frank. He had expected only two-factor authentication, so he hadn’t been watching for a third procedure.

He sat down and, when prompted, typed in the new six-digit number that had just cycled into view in the security app on his phone. He responded that his best friend from high school was named Jono. Then he waited to see what would happen next. A few seconds later, a penlight-sized light began glowing in the middle of the screen before swiftly moving up and stabilizing at his eye level, and he realized the retina in one of his eyes was being scanned.

Apparently, he was who the CIA thought he was, because a moment later, his card popped out below the screen. He picked it up and noticed it had a computer chip embedded in it, presumably the same type found in the new EMV-enabled credit cards. He wondered by what means, and when, the CIA had succeeded in mapping his retina, as well as how much other information the Agency had ferreted out about his childhood without his knowledge.

He stood up and joined George in front of one door in a line of unmarked doors. “These cards are only good for sixty seconds,” Marchand said, “so step right through your door when the green light goes on.”

Marchand slid his card into a slot next to the door, and when the small light above it turned from red to green, he opened the door and stepped inside.

Frank followed suit with his own door and found himself in a phone-booth-sized enclosure. The moment he closed the door behind him, he felt himself whooshing upward. Almost as soon as he finished accelerating, the process reversed itself, bringing him to an unexpectedly early halt. The door opened automatically, and he rejoined George in another narrow room, feeling as if he had just traveled halfway across the world via Harry Potter’s Floo Network.

“Interesting commute.”

“Yeah,” George responded. “We may be downtown, but this has to be as secure as headquarters. Drop your card in that box over there.”

Frank noticed a wall rack filled with laptops and pointed to them. “Souvenirs?”

“No such luck. Guest computers. You’ll have to put any electronics you’ve brought with you in one of those lockers over there until you leave. This place is an SCIV.”


“Sorry. It’s a ‘sensitive compartmentalized information facility.’ That means that all the information here stays here. None of the computer systems on-site are connected to the Internet, so there’s no remote access. If you want to work with any of the data here, you’ll have to do so on this floor, using one of those laptops. Notice anything odd about them?”

Frank slid one out of its cubby and turned it around. “All the USB ports are plugged up.”

“That’s right. That way nobody can take home any information on a thumb drive. Not that they could, anyway. When you enter and leave through that door there, you’ll be stepping through a metal detector sensitive enough to pick up the filings in your teeth. Don’t worry about that, though. Your dental records have already been entered into the system, the same as the magnetic resonance of the loaner laptops.”

“Why am I not surprised?”

“You always were a quick study. Any other questions?”

“So can I take notes on a pad of paper?”

“Yes, but you won’t be able to take them with you. Like I said, nothing leaves here but you. We can’t vacuum out what’s in your brain, but that’s as much as you can take out with you.”

Frank wondered whether they actually could vacuum out his brain, given all the other information the Agency seemed ready, willing, and able to acquire. But it was bad news about the note taking. He hadn’t had to work anywhere on-site since he left the Library of Congress. Stating that he wasn’t a people person would be as much of an understatement as observing that Freddy Krueger would make a poor babysitter.

They stepped out into what Frank realized was an entire floor of the building, unbroken by walls from side to side and end to end. This was quite a switch from the anonymous cube farms he’d labored in for most of his career. There were no cubicles here at all; the whole space was populated by random islands of tables, couches, game tables, and exercise equipment—no, those were treadmill desks. Frank figured just the extreme sports posters on the walls would give a traditional spook apoplexy.

He fell in step behind George, zigzagging his way through the expensive furniture draped with twenty-somethings wearing T-shirts and jeans, cradling their institutional laptops. Ahead was a glassed-in conference room tucked into a corner of the floor. Inside, Frank saw two people seated at opposite ends of a conference table; one was yet another anonymous youngster power-typing away on an ultra-thin notebook computer. The other, his rimless glasses perched precariously on the end of his nose, was poking away with his index fingers on the keyboard of a thick laptop with an oversized screen. A slack tie hung around the unbuttoned collar of his rumpled shirt, and a tonsure of disheveled hair crept around the back of his head like a wispy, white caterpillar.

Marchand tapped on the door and let himself in. “Morning, Hermann. I don’t think you’ve met Frank before, have you? Frank, this is Hermann Koontz. He runs the show here.”

Frank shook hands with Hermann as Marchand jerked a thumb at the scene outside the conference room. “Getting used to the new digs?”

Koontz pushed his spectacles up on top of his head and scowled. “What do you expect? I feel like I’m running a frigging college rec center.”

Unnoticed by Frank, the young man at the other end of the table was sizing Frank up with interest, noting he was middle-aged and unassuming with thinning hair and severely challenged when it came to fashion sense. He watched Frank stand awkwardly to the side with arms crossed, his body language indicating a strong desire to fade into the background—if that could somehow be arranged—as Marchand and Koontz chatted. Not exactly what he expected the guy who had saved the world from nuclear annihilation to look like, although it did appear that he kept himself in shape.

Slattery stood up and approached him. “Hi. I’m Tim Slattery, Mr. Koontz’s assistant ethics officer.”

Marchand overheard him and turned around. “Ah, yes, I heard we were adding one of those to every team.” He turned back to Koontz. “So—shall we get started?”

Koontz picked up a remote control as they settled in around the table. Immediately the lights of the room dimmed, the glass walls turned opaque, and a hidden projector transformed one of the walls into a screen displaying multiple charts and tables.

“All right. So the information I’m going to walk you through is culled from data we gather from every public and private source you can think of, and many you shouldn’t know exist. Telephone intercepts, email, social media, satellite photos, the works. Petabytes of new data every day, and exabytes in all. Then we analyze it using the latest neural network and machine-learning tools.”

He turned to Frank. “How much do you know about big data?”

“I’m pretty current at a conceptual level. But no hands-on experience, so no harm in dumbing it down a bit.”

“Fair enough. So it wasn’t that long ago that we could pick up pretty high-level communications between terrorists from the field. We can almost never get that anymore, because the big fish know better than to use anything electronic. Now what we get is mostly low-level chatter, and when we do pick up something that sounds like it could be big, it’s tough to know how seriously to take it. For all we know, the stuff that seems most interesting was sent down the line just to throw us off. So we try to wring every bit of meaning we can out of the chatter, integrated with every other type of data we’re collecting. For that purpose, the more chatter, the better.

“So let’s talk about what we’re abstracting from what we’re picking up and how we’re getting to those conclusions.” Koontz picked up a laser pointer and highlighted a row of a dozen small charts at the base of a pyramid of similar presentations. Each time he paused on one, it dramatically increased in size before shrinking back again when he moved on.

“This set of charts shows the types of data we evaluate to build up a threat assessment. Down here at the bottom are the various original sources, each graded for credibility based on a variety of factors: historical reliability, how far up or down the chain the source individual is, and so on. We’ve already kicked out the ones we think aren’t credible. We associate the score we’ve given that source to the data we derived from him or her and move the results up to the next level. Let’s jump up a couple of tiers now.

“Up here, we start trying to extract a picture of the actual attack—where, how, when, and so on. To do that, we pull in all sorts of additional data: what types of bombs have most recently been in use and what types of situations they’ve been used in. That gives us another way to test the likelihood that each piece of data is accurate, as well as to fill in blanks with good guesses where we don’t have any data at all, based on context and the information we do have.

“For example, if we think we know which country an attack will be in but not what the specific target will be, we can contrast a profile of that place with those of others where attacks have already occurred in the same area, nation, or region—does it have a military base? A big open market? A police training academy? Let’s skip up a few more levels.

“Up here at the very top is the description of the expected attack and the credibility of each individual datum associated with that attack. We might be pretty sure of the target, for example, but not the date. Are you with me so far?”

“Yes, it’s very impressive.”

“Good. So now, here’s a dashboard with bar graphs relating to all the potential attacks we’re tracking right now on a global basis. These charts display a high-level picture of what we think all the terrorist groups around the world are up to.” He was wielding and clicking his laser pointer now as if he were Errol Flynn fencing with an evil opponent displayed on the screen. “And by changing the color—like this—we can show how close each attack is to execution—and now which terrorist groups are involved in which attacks—and now which ones involve more than one terrorist group—and now the severity of the anticipated attacks. Pretty useful stuff when you want to brief the politicos on where we stand or put out a warning bulletin to the field.”

“I’ll bet,” Frank said. “How about that column over on the right—the one that’s so much higher than the rest? What threat is that one tracking?”

“Right. That’s the one we’ll talk about today. George, have you been briefed on this one yet?”

“Barely. Assume I don’t know more than Frank, and you won’t be too far off.”

Koontz’s head bobbed in a silent humph. “Well, this won’t take long, because we don’t know much either. Let’s do a pyramid view of this one.”

The screen cleared to reveal what looked at best like the beginnings of the foundation of a triangle of charts. Only a few graphs filled the second layer with nothing in the half-dozen tiers that should have been above that.

“As I said, we don’t have a whole lot to work with yet. We haven’t even been able to populate the first level with all the types of sources we need to do much in the second tier.

“So when you ask what’s being threatened, Frank, we really have no idea. For example, what’s the target? Maybe the power grid? Communications? Finance? All of the above? So far, we don’t have a clue. Except for one point that has been locked down, all we know—or think we know, anyway—is that it’s something big and some or all of it’s going to occur on U.S. soil. That’s why George suggested we ask you to help us out. He says you’ve got a knack for thinking outside the box and might spot something our in-house guys miss.”

“Well, I don’t know about that, but thanks. How exactly do I fit in?”

“You’ll be on one of several interdisciplinary groups—we refer to them as Tiger Teams—that we’re assembling to address every type of attack we think might occur. Besides you, it will have Agency, military, and technical members, each of whom will bring a unique perspective and capability to the effort.”

“What will that involve?”

“Mostly just attending weekly meetings, reviewing the information and analyses you’re given, and speaking up if you have something to say. You won’t have any specific research or other tasks to perform, but you will be expected to stay on top of everything that comes your way, and let us know if you see anything we’ve missed or you think we aren’t paying appropriate attention to that we should. So some weeks you’ll be busy, and sometimes you might not have much to do for a few days.”

“That sounds fine. One more question before we continue?”


“You said you do have one aspect of the attack locked down. What’s that?”

“That’s where we’re headed next.” Koontz clicked his remote, and suddenly every wall lit up with a satellite view of a fractal maze of impenetrable mountains.

“This is a section of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. We believe that somewhere down there is Mullah Muhammad Foobar. That’s the guy pulling the strings on this attack.” A large red ring appeared on the center of the image covering one wall.

Ah—so that was it. They wanted his help in finally capturing the Big Guy—the terrorist leader with the most territory, the most followers, and the most atrocities to his credit. Terrorist acts that even the media hesitated to describe in full. Frank felt uneasy at the thought of directly opposing him, even though he was seated in a secret CIA conference room thousands of miles away from the terrorist.

“More specifically, we think he’s somewhere within this area—about forty miles across. How much do you know about Foobar?”

“Well, I guess you’d say I’ve got a basic newspaper level of knowledge. He’s the latest guy to claim leadership in the fight of radical Islam against the West. He came out of nowhere a couple of years back and managed to come out on top over the various factions competing to take over.”

“That’s accurate, as far as it goes. But he’s not just the ‘latest guy’ to claim leadership and try to restore Sharia law to the Middle East. He’s also trying to take the world back fourteen hundred years. A lot of his appeal comes from his success in tying his cause to the glories of the original Arab conquest in the first millennium. He reinforces that story line in every way possible. He makes each of his generals assume the name of one of the great Arab leaders that fought their way across most of the known world—westward across North Africa and up into Spain and destroying the last of the Byzantine Empire to the north. He says he won’t rest until he’s reestablished Arab dominion over the whole shebang.”

“That’s a pretty big ambition.”

“You think? So check this out.” The images on the screen gave way to a video showing a gesticulating, bearded man in a robe standing on a balcony above a dusty square thronged with an enormous crowd. “This is Foobar’s spokesman. No one from the West has ever seen Foobar himself. But we think we know where he is, so let’s take a closer look at the sandbox we think he’s playing in.”

The video stopped, and they were once again gazing down at the endless labyrinth of sinuous mountain ranges. With a wrenching change of perspective, the view zoomed into the area inside the red circle as if they were falling out of the sky. Frank instinctively clutched the arms of his chair as he plunged downward toward the snow-topped mountains at ever-increasing speed.

Koontz chuckled. “I guess I should have warned you. Kinda feels like you’re being sucked into a black hole when I do that, doesn’t it?

“Anyway, as you can see, there are no roads down there. It’s so rugged that nothing gets in or out except on foot or on the back of a donkey. This particular village is at such a high altitude that the passes into it are close to the operational limits of a helicopter, although a CV-22 Osprey could push through and land. Otherwise, it would take days for a team to reach him if he was holed up in a place like that—plenty of time for the locals to tip him off that someone unexpected is on the way so he can clear out, just like bin Laden and Omar did back in 2002. Needless to say, that’s why he’s hiding where he is.”

“But wouldn’t it be as hard for him to get out as for us to get in?” Frank asked.

“Speed-wise, yes. But he’d have plenty of ways to get out, and it would be hard for us to cover all of them. Let’s check that out from this location, as an example.” Koontz flashed his controller, and a simple web of blue lines sprang up on the screen. “These are footpaths running out from this village through valley bottoms and over mountains.”

The view zoomed out again in abrupt steps. Each time it did, the web of lines expanded and multiplied, with each blue tendril branching and re-branching. Whenever the image briefly stabilized, it looked like a map of the neural networks of a brain composed of mountains.

“Every one of these trails is not only an escape route for Foobar but also a conduit the terrorists can use to get information in to him and back out again. Any questions so far?”

“No, but I guess if you were pretty sure which proclamations came from Foobar, you could use the time it took between when you thought one was sent and where you intercepted to calculate the distance it had traveled. Put all those calculations together like GPS signal data, and you’d get an area you were pretty certain he was in, assuming he hadn’t been moving around, anyway. Is that why you think this is where he is?”

“Good observation. Yes, that’s one of the ways.”

“Interesting. What’s your confidence level with the data you’re picking up about the attack we’re talking about?”

“Not great when it comes to specifics, because we don’t have enough data to work with, and all kinds of attacks get mentioned from time to time. It’s like starting with a dozen different jigsaw puzzles, all poured on the floor, and then trying to reassemble the picture you care about without knowing what that puzzle is supposed to look like when it’s completed. So far, we’ve only got about twenty percent of the picture we want to talk to you about. But we already know enough to tell we don’t like what we see.”

Frank noticed that Koontz’s assistant ethics officer was listening with rapt attention. He wondered whether this was the first big briefing the kid had ever been in on.

“So what’s the picture, Hermann?” George asked.

“We’ve only got the edges; nothing in the center at all. All we know, like I said earlier, is that it’s going to be in the U.S. And also that it’s going to be really big.”

“How big is really big?”

Koontz clicked his remote one last time, and the glass walls of the conference room gradually became transparent again. Frank blinked a few times to readjust as the mountain wilderness they were sitting in faded back into something that looked like an open study area at a student union.

Hermann took off his spectacles and rubbed his face. “In what—for once—we believe are the exact words of the Mullah himself, ‘it will make the scene at ground zero on 9/11 look like a child’s birthday party.’”

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