Well, no peace for the wicked, as they say. After all, the third cybersecurity thriller in my Frank Adversego series has been out for ten days, so I’d better get busy, right? And as a matter of fact, in the last week I’ve come up with a plot that I’m pretty pumped about. Lots of surprises and plot twists, a solid and (God help us) timely political subplot, and another focus on cutting edge technologies with plenty of potential for making rue the day the patents were filed. This time around it will be the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence that will threaten to do us in. For a sample, read on.
The working title for the moment is The Machiavelli Program, but that’s just a place holder. I still have to come up with something to fill in the blanks for the usual “a Tale of ___ and ___’ subtitle, which is trickier than you might think. But that will come. Timing wise, it was over three years between book one and book two, and more than two years between book two and book three. This time around, I’m going to set myself a more ambitious goal, and shoot for releasing book four only eight months after book three. Here’s hoping I can keep to that schedule.
Meantime, here’s a little taste to whet your appetite.
The first thing Jake Brendan noticed was a subtle change in the vibration of the generator room floor. Eighteen years on the night shift had made him sensitive to the mood the enormous machines were in. What he felt through the soles of his feet told him they were growing restless.
He placed the palm of his hand against one of the steel girders supporting the roof high above. The constant thrumming was wrong. Not regular and fine, like the edge of a crosscut saw. Rough and jagged, like the teeth of a ripsaw.
The line of identical generators marching down the dimly lit floor of the cavernous facility looked alright. Was it his imagination? The fancy new sensors he’d help install inside each generator should be sending alerts if something was going wrong.
He looked up to see what the fancy engineers were doing behind the windows of the control room, up on the second floor. One was looking at a computer terminal. The other two were talking to each other. No drama there.
But something was wrong. He could feel it. And now he could hear it, too. The generators were speeding up. And the smooth hum of the drive shafts and rotors was growing rough, louder, too. He looked again to the control room, but the engineers looked as they had before. When he turned back he noticed a thin haze in the air. And the familiar smell of engine oil and not metal was becoming acrid. Things were clearly getting out of control.
He strode over to the panel of old-fashioned analog dials and meters on the wall and saw that all the needles were rising: RPMs – temperature – vibration. Some of them were already in the red zone.
He stepped back and looked up again, but everything behind the glass was the same. How could that be? There should be flashing lights and alarms by now. He felt like the murderer in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Telltale Heart, deafened by the imagined beating of the heart of his victim that somehow his visitors could not hear.
One of the generators was shrieking now. There! The men up in the control room were finally taking notice. Two were staring out onto the floor, while the third was darting back and forth along the wall of instruments and switches that were supposed to control the generators. But the generators only spun faster.
The building itself was shaking now. He spread his feet wide and leaned back against the wall as he tried to figure out what was happening. White and black smoke was coming from all the generators now and it was getting hard to breath. The bearings on the enormous drive shafts of the generators must have run dry. But how could that happen, especially to all of them at once? Sometime soon one of the massive generators might start coming apart. He yanked open the door to the stairs that led upstairs and ran into the control room, addressing all the engineers at once. “What the hell’s going on?” But they ignored him.
“I said what’s happening?”
Without turning around, one said, “How the hell should I know? None of our controls are working. We can’t even shut the damn things down!” The tortured howl of the generators was deafening now, and Smoke was entering the control room. The engineer at the computer screen pointed at one of the generators. “Holy hell – look at that! Number one is starting to rock on its floor mounts.” The lights in the control room began to flicker. “We better get out of here.”
Five minutes later, they were standing in the parking lot listening to the muffled sounds of the generators tearing themselves apart. It seemed like a scene from hell, with black shadows of coal smoke from the steam building wreathing the moon, and a red glow rising behind the windows high in the generator room walls. And all they could do was watch.
* * *
You Dirty Rat
Frank ambled around his living room with a puzzled expression. How could he not find his sun glasses? They were probably lying out in plain sight, but he couldn’t find them. The angry voice echoing around the room wasn’t helping his concentration. It had been blaring for quite a while now. Where the heck could he have put those glasses?
The room fell suddenly silent, and he stopped in his tracks. What was the last thing he’d heard?
He grabbed his phone and took it off speaker mode. “I’m sorry, Ms. Cornwall. I didn’t quite catch that last question?” Son of a gun – his sunglasses had been right next to his phone all along.
“I said, how did you catch my miserable husband?”
The truth was it had been no trouble at all. In his initial call with Ms. Cornwall he’d learned that her husband, a successful author, liked to spend an hour each morning working at a local coffee shop. No, she didn’t think he had had a cellular connection for his laptop. Yes, she could email him a picture of him.
Yesterday he’d settled in at the same coffee shop with his own laptop. Predictably, the mom and pop business had a wide-open router. By the time his hapless prey had finished his second cup of coffee Frank had intercepted and recorded enough chat and video to make Anthony Weiner blush.
“I was able to intercept your husband’s email at the coffee shop he visits. What I sent you last night is a sampling of what he and this Cindy Dimpler person were exchanging.”
The mention of the name of her husband’s agent and mistress set Ms. Cornwall off again. When she finally ran down, he told her he was sorry that he’d been able to confirm her suspicions. Yes, he’d send her his bill by the end of the week.
He pulled on a sweatshirt and clattered down the stairs to the front door of his building and the sidewalk outside. The cold air hitting his face as he broke into a trot was a relief after the torrid rant he’d just endured. Maybe he’d do an extra mile today to flush his system clean.
But by the time he was finishing his wide half-moon sweep behind the Washington monument he was feeling worse rather than better. How many more shaggy dog assignments like this could he tolerate? Sure, they paid the bills, but there was no challenge. And nobody was ever happy when he was done.
Well, that was his fault, wasn’t it? He had the reputation, but not the resources to attract big customers with interesting problems. It wasn’t enough to find out how someone had been hacked – that was just a detail. What they wanted was a rapid-response team made up of engineers, lawyers and PR spin doctors to contain the damage. Frank had no stomach for hiring and managing a posse like that. And he’d vowed never to work for someone else full time again. So, there you go. That left just the little stuff.
As he plodded back up the stairs to his condo he wondered when, or for that matter whether, he’d get another project from the CIA. When had he finished his last one? Three months ago? Four?
He hung a towel around his neck, picked up his tablet and slid open the door to his tiny balcony. The landlord hadn’t invested much in converting the seedy old apartment into condos, but he had sprung a few bucks to add some outdoor space. Frank was surprised how much he appreciated having the postage stamp of a porch, especially after his morning run. He put the tablet down on the tiny table next to the single chair and went back for his coffee.
He settled in and started swiping through the headlines on his table. So, what had the world been up to overnight? Things had settled down a bit since the election, but that was just a holding pattern. Who knew what would happen once the president was sworn in.
Then he stopped in mid-swipe and held the tablet closer. This looked interesting. A power plant in Nevada had destroyed itself, presumably after being hacked. The CIA had famously staged such an exploit back in 2007, and the video had gone viral. But when security experts looked into the details, it didn’t look as credible as it had to the public. Now a real black-hat had actually pulled it off! Not a lot of details, but apparently the hacker had been able to over-ride the controls and block all the sensor-data, too. That was an impressive piece of work.
He put the tablet down and tapped his fingers on his knee. The power plant was domestic, so this wasn’t on the CIA’s turf. But given the old staged attack, they’d certainly be consulted. Maybe his old boss, George Marchand, could help Frank get his foot in the door. He shot off an email and spent the rest of the day fretting until Marchand replied, promising to see what he could do.
* * *
So there you go. Meanwhile, if you haven’t picked up your copy of Frank’s last book, what are you waiting for? It’s available at Amazon here.