A Tale of Artificial Intelligence and Malovelence




The soles of Jake Barr’s feet were telling him something was wrong. Eighteen years on the night shift had made him sensitive to the mood of the generators, and they were growing restless.

He pressed his hand against one of them. The vibrations should be smooth. But they weren’t, not quite; they were more like the ride of a car with a wheel out of balance.

Everything in the dimly lit, cavernous facility looked all right. Was it his imagination? If something was wrong, the sensors in the machines would be sending alerts to the control room.

He looked up to where the engineers worked behind the glass on the second floor. One was looking at a computer terminal. The other two were talking.

But something was wrong. He could feel it. And now he thought he could hear it, too. The generators were speeding up. The hum of the drive shafts was strained. Louder, too. But still, none of the engineers looked concerned.

Was that a thin haze in the air? The familiar smell of engine oil and hot metal had acquired an acrid edge. Something was getting out of control.

He strode over to the panel of old-fashioned analog dials monitoring RPMs, temperature and vibration. All the needles were rising. Some of them were already in the red zone.

He stepped back. How could everything in the control room still look normal? There should be flashing lights and alarms. He felt like the murderer in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-tale Heart, deafened by the beating of a heart only he could hear.

Now the bearings in one of the generators were shrieking. There! The guys in the control room were finally waking up. Two were staring out onto the floor. The third was darting back and forth along the wall of instruments and switches.

But the machines only ran faster. They were jolting, too. The whole building trembled each time they did. He backed up against the wall and watched, wide-eyed.

Black smoke was rising now from the generators, making it hard to breathe. The drive shaft bearings must be running dry. But how could that happen, especially to all of them at once? Boom! Incredibly, all the generators were rocking in unison now. He turned and ran up the stairs, into the control room, and yelled at the engineers. But they ignored him.

“I said what’s happening?” he yelled again.

“How the hell should I know?” one said without turning around. “None of the controls are working. We can’t even shut the damn things down!”

The tortured scream of the wildly spinning machines was deafening now. Smoke was seeping into the control room. The engineer at the computer screen looked up and pointed. “Holy hell – look at that!”

The number one generator rocked back and forth on its broken floor mounts. The lights in the control room started to flicker. “Let’s get out of here,” Jake yelled.

Down the stairs they ran, out of the building and into the parking lot. Huffing from the exertion, they listened to the muffled sounds of the generators tearing themselves apart. It was like a scene from hell, with the cries of the damned mixing with the black wraiths of coal smoke spiraling up, lit from below by the angry red glow streaming from the windows of the generator room. And all they could do was watch.

*  *  *


You Dirty Rat


Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machineis docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.  – Alan Turing colleague I. J. Good, 1965

The question is not whether intelligent machines can have any emotions, but whether machines can be intelligent without any emotions.- Marvin Minsky, 1988

Frank ambled around his living room, a puzzled expression on his face. How could he not find his sunglasses? They were probably lying around in plain sight. The angry voice echoing around the room wasn’t helping his concentration either. Where the heck could he have put those glasses?

The room was suddenly silent, and he stopped in his tracks. What was the last thing he’d heard?

He grabbed the 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 the phone all along.

“I said how did you catch my husband?”

It had been easy. He knew from Ms. Cornwall that her husband liked to spend an hour or two each morning working at a local coffee shop. No, she didn’t think he had a portable cellular connection for his laptop. Yes, she could email Frank a picture of him.

The next day Frank settled in at the same coffee shop with his own laptop. Predictably, the mom-and-pop business had a wide-open router. Before his hapless prey finished his latte, Frank had recorded enough compromising 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 Cindy Dymples were exchanging.”

The mention of her husband’s administrative assistant set Ms. Cornwall to ranting once again. When she finally ran down, Frank told her he was sorry that he’d confirmed 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 and out onto the sidewalk. The cool air hitting his face as he broke into a trot was a relief after the tirade he’d just endured. Maybe he’d do an extra mile today to flush his mental systems clean.

But by the time he was completing his wide, half-moon sweep behind the Washington Monument, he was feeling worse instead of better. How many more ho-hum assignments like this could he tolerate? They paid the bills but provided no challenge. And nobody was ever happy when he was done.

But what right did he have to complain? He had the reputation  – but not the resources – to attract clients with interesting problems. Big companies wanted a rapid-response team of engineers, lawyers, and PR spin doctors to contain and fix all the damage when they were hacked. He had neither the skill nor the stomach to hire and manage a posse like that.

As he plodded back up the stairs after his run, he wondered when, or for that matter whether, he’d get another project from the CIA. When had he finished his last one? Seven months ago? Eight?

He hung a towel around his neck, picked up his computer tablet, and slid open the door to his tiny balcony. The landlord hadn’t invested much in converting the seedy old apartment building into condos. But he had sprung a few bucks to add a token amount of outdoor space to each unit. Frank was surprised how much he appreciated the postage stamp of a balcony, especially for cooling off after his morning run.

He settled in and started skimming the news. What had the world been up to overnight? Things had settled down politically after the party conventions; but that wouldn’t last. The Middle East was a mess, as usual.

Then he stopped and held the tablet closer. This looked interesting. Three power plants had suffered severe damage after their engineers lost control of the generators. That sounded familiar. The CIA had famously succeeded in causing just such an event by hacking into the computers of a power plant back in 2007. A real black hat must have pulled off a similar exploit now!

He put the tablet down and tapped his fingers on his knee. The power plants were domestic, so they weren’t on the CIA’s turf. But given the prior staged attack, the CIA would certainly be consulted. Maybe his old boss George Marchand could help him get his foot in the door.

He shot off an email and spent the rest of the day fretting. Marchand replied eventually, promising to see what he could do.

* * *

A day later, Frank’s early morning email included one from George. Could he be at the headquarters of the National Security Agency at 10:00 AM? Yes, he could. Assuming his seldom-used, last-millennium heap of a car rose to the challenge.

At 9:00 AM he uttered a silent prayer before turning the key in the ignition. The starter motor cranked the engine through three agonizingly slow rotations. The fourth time around, the engine caught. He set a course for Fort Meade, twenty-five miles distant from downtown Washington.

The traffic gods were kind, and with fifteen minutes to spare, he presented himself at the reception desk inside OPS2A, the big, boxy, black-glass building where most of the NSA’s Operations Directorate work.

“Frank Adversego, here to see Major Tong. I’ve got a ten o’clock appointment.”

The guard held Frank’s security clearance card up to confirm Frank’s face matched the one on the card. Then he typed Frank’s name into his computer and studied the screen before handing back the card.

“Thank you, Mr. Adversego. Please look into the camera.”

Frank did, and the guard handed him a clip-on tag with a grainy, unflattering picture printed above his name. “Please take a seat. Someone will come to escort you.”

Frank perched on the edge of a couch and reached for his phone before remembering not to bother. The one-way glass walls of the building were sheathed with a thin, transparent, copper-based film to prevent radio signals from getting in or out. He put his phone back in his pocket and waited, both feet tapping, until he saw a young man striding his way across the reception area.

“Mr. Adversego?”


“Pleased to meet you. I’ll escort you to Major Tong’s office.”

Frank was surprised to find himself in an elevator going down several floors rather than up. Then they walked for what must have been five minutes. Clearly, the underground office space went far beyond the footprint of the building aboveground. Finally, his guide knocked on one of the countless doors lining a last, long corridor.

“Frank Adversego to see you, Major.”

A professional-looking young woman with jet-black hair rose to greet him. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Adversego. Please sit down and make yourself comfortable.”

Making himself comfortable around strangers was not a skill Frank had been born with, or ever acquired thereafter. He did his best not to fidget as the major paged slowly through the contents of the open file folder that was the only item on her large desk. “You have an impressive record, Mr. Adversego,” she said, looking up at last. “I see that you’ve done some very interesting work, both with government agencies as well as, shall I say, in spite of them? What sort of projects are you working on right now?”

An honest answer would have been “playing net nanny for naughty adults,” but that wouldn’t do. He settled for “I’m doing work in the private sector these days.”

“With a cybersecurity company?”

“No, on my own. I guess you could say I’m the cyber-equivalent of a private detective.”

“I see. I understand that an item in the news led you to contact Mr. Marchand, at the CIA.”

“Yes – the cyberattacks on the power plants. It sounds like the kind of exploit we’ve been expecting for years, and now it’s finally happened.”

“What do you know about the incidents?”

The question surprised Frank. Then it occurred to him there might be more to this interview than an exploration of his professional credentials. For all the major knew, he was a foreign agent, security clearance and prior service as a CIA contractor notwithstanding.

“Nothing more than I’ve read online.”

“That’s it? Then why did you reach out, based on no more than that?”

“I suppose I like challenges, especially new and difficult ones. Most of the work that comes my way in the private sector is pretty repetitive.”

The major tapped her desk with the middle finger of her right hand. Then she flipped through the file until she found what she was looking for.

“According to your file, you can’t always be trusted to do exactly what you’re told to do. Would you agree with that statement?”

“I guess I’d phrase it a little differently.”


“Well, if I find that sticking to the strict letter of my directions would stop me from accomplishing the task I’ve been assigned, I’ll opt for accomplishing the task.”

She frowned slightly while maintaining eye contact. Her finger started tapping again.

“It also says you’re not much of a team player and work best when you’re on your own. How about that assessment?”

“I guess I couldn’t disagree with that.”

More tapping and staring. “And a loner?”

“I’ve always been something of an introvert,” he said, shifting in his chair. How much more of this would there be? Would Major Tong ask him to confirm his complete lack of fashion sense next?

After another pause, the major smiled. “Then you should fit right in here. Are you free for the rest of the morning?”

“Yes – for the rest of the day, actually.”

“Good.” She stood up. “The first briefing of the power station attack response team is about to start. Please follow me.”

More hallways and doors. Then into a room filled with chairs facing a podium and a screen. Frank watched as the room filled; a few people were in uniform. Someone entered and began fiddling with the projector control on the podium. When he was satisfied, he addressed the room.

“Okay, folks. Let’s get started. For anyone who’s new, my name’s Jim Barker, and I’ll be the manager of this response team. I’d like to kick things off by reviewing what we know. Don, can you dim the lights? Great – thanks.”

The screen lit up with a long view of what looked like a typical power plant.

“This is the Sea Breeze power station. It’s big – over 200 megawatts. And it’s not very old, which is too bad, because there are lots of old, inefficient plants about to be retired. The evidence so far suggests each attack was generally similar, so I’ll use this one as a stand-in for the rest.”

He switched to an interior view. “Here’s the generator room. Seems pretty normal from this distance, but let’s take a closer look.”

Now they were looking at the partially disassembled end of one of the machines, and Barker was wielding a laser pointer. “This is one of the generators undergoing scheduled maintenance a few weeks ago.”

He gave the controller another click, and the screen split into two images. “Here’s that shot again on the left, and on the right, you see the same generator as it looks now.” The red laser dot zigzagged back and forth across the screen like an irate Tinker Bell. “The electromagnet wire wrappings on the left are clean and bright. Over on the right, they get darker and blacker as you move in towards the armature – that’s the axle of the generator, if you will. And when you look at this main bearing with its housing removed on the left – let’s zoom in – you can see the bearings are shiny and greasy. But over on the right now, they’re charred and black.”

The display switched to a schematic diagram of the same generator. Barker used his pointer to highlight half a dozen dots. “These represent sensors. Some monitor vibration, some temperature, some alignment, and so on. They’re state-of-the-art, wireless units that can talk to each other and report their status to the control room. Except in this case, they didn’t.

“So, what happened? It appears there were four separate interventions. First, the attacker cut contact between the generator sensors and the monitoring software in the control room. Second, he stopped the flow of lubricating oil to the armature bearings. Third, he opened the drains in the bearing cases, allowing the oil already there to seep away. And fourth, he seized control of the valves that regulate the amount of steam entering the turbines that spin the generators.

“From what we’ve pieced together, here’s the sequence in which those actions occurred. At 2:40 AM local time, the attacker blocked the sensor system, and at 2:41 AM he shut down the lubricating system and opened the drains to the oil sumps. Then, at 2:56 AM, the attacker began gradually increasing the flow of steam into the turbines, a process that ended at 3:06 AM when the maximum possible flow had been achieved.

“The turbines were now spinning the generators at a speed far greater than they were designed to handle. With the oil now drained away, the bearings began to overheat. When they got hot enough, they burned off what little oil was left.

“Now comes the really interesting part. Once the generators were red-lining, the attacker started flipping the generator emergency brakes on and off. Kind of like what happens when the automatic skid control system in your car kicks in after you hit an ice patch. Except a spinning generator has a heck of a lot more momentum, so the effect was violent. If you time the on-off switching just right – and the attacker obviously did – it can set up a back-and-forth rocking force that amplifies the effect every cycle. That’s what caused the rocking motion the engineers observed. Eventually, some of the generators broke completely free from their floor mounts.

“That takes us to the damage report, which is also impressive. Let’s look at the list on the screen. Armature bearings destroyed on every generator. One or more floor mounts damaged on every generator. Two generators pulled free completely before their bearings seized up. Armature windings on every generator will require replacement. Varying degrees of damage to the turbines. Generator building presumed to be structurally unsafe until a full evaluation of vibration damage can be performed. Plus, damage to various related equipment, feeds, and structures.

“The bottom line: no power will be generated at this plant for at least eighteen months. Early word from Japan and India is that damage there is comparable. And the CIA has picked up indications the attackers hit more than one power station in China and at least one in Russia as well.”

Frank sat up straighter at that. He’d assumed the most likely attacker was Russia, given the sour state of Russo-U.S. relations and how much cyber mischief it had already caused. But what did the U.S., Russia, China, India, and Japan have in common that could provoke a coordinated attack? And who might have a grudge against those specific countries?

“Any questions so far?

Several hands went up.

“Okay – Bill?”

“Any readout on how the attacker got to the control systems?”

“Not yet. So far, we’ve found nothing that looks like a successful phishing attack. Our friends in Japan say the same thing.”

That was significant. Frank would have expected that the hacker gained access when a careless employee opened a file attached to an email that appeared to come from a co-worker. Except that it really came from the attacker, and the attachment that looked like a Word document was really a packet of malware that installed itself as soon as it was opened. A “phishing attack” like that was the easiest way to get inside a target’s firewall.

Barker pointed to someone on the other side of the room. “Okay, over there; sorry – I don’t know your name.”

“Was there anything in common among all the targets? Same operating software, or something like that?”

“Good question. What’s remarkable is how different each of the targets is. The Japanese plant uses different control software than the U.S. facilities. The plant in India was old and used software custom-developed just for it. And it’s safe to assume the plants in Russia and China were each running different systems as well.”

Now, Frank was really impressed. That meant whoever was behind the attacks had to find and exploit a different vulnerability at each plant, and then figure out how to take control of that system once it was inside. That suggested a large team, and therefore a state actor.

“Okay. We’ve got time for one more question. Susan?”

“Any guesses yet who might be behind the attacks?”

“Not a clue. The selection of countries is too diverse, and none of the attacks fits the profile of anything we’ve seen before.”

“Impressive piece of hacking,” Frank said to the major as she led him up to the podium at the end of the meeting.

“Very. Let me introduce you to Jim Barker.”

“Jim, this is Frank Adversego. Frank seems to have recruited himself on to your team.”

Frank’s ears burned as Barker gave him an enthusiastic hand shake. “Happy to have you on board! I know of your role in the North Korean crisis, of course – even read your book – but I wasn’t aware of your other escapades until I reviewed your file. You’ve never worked with the NSA before, is that right?”

“Not directly, no.”

“Why don’t you come back to my office, and I’ll put you in our operational picture. Major, does that work for you?”

“He’s all yours till 11:30. Then I’ve got to let personnel do their thing.”

“Excellent. Frank, come with me.”

Twenty minutes later, Barker finished briefing Frank. “So, that’s the big picture. Any questions?”

“Thanks – just one, for now. How do you see me fitting into the team?”

“According to your file, you’re a bit of a Lone Ranger. Is that right?”

“Uh – yes. I guess that’s not a bad way of putting it. In the past, I’ve kind of been a fly on the wall of the project team rather than having specific duties.”

“That approach paid off before, so let’s do the same. What did that mean as far as logistics were concerned?”

“Each time I had access to all reports and data. In my last project, I sat in on weekly team meetings. I also had access to Agency domain experts who weren’t on the team. Oh, and they assigned someone on the project team to work with me directly. The only inefficient part was traveling to CIA headquarters in Langley to read anything that was classified. Which was just about everything useful.”

“Where do you live?”

“In the District.”

“In that case I can help you out. We’ve got a SCI facility downtown with direct access to everything we have here. You can go there any time you want. As for a principal contact, let me give a little thought to who I should pair you with. In the meantime, I’ll have someone grant you access to all the investigation materials and to the downtown facility. That way you can start getting up to speed immediately.”

Barker looked at his watch. “And I guess that’s about all we have time for. I’ll ask my admin to show you the way to personnel so they can put you on the payroll.” He stood up and extended his hand again. “Looking forward to working with you.”

* * *


The How and the Why of It


Frank climbed the Metro escalator and followed the street numbers up the avenue to the northwest. He found his destination two blocks away, sandwiched between a dress store and a restaurant. He smiled at the listing when he found it between two staid business names: the Helena Blavatsky Theosophy Reading Room. Who had come up with that one? He pressed the intercom button and waited to be buzzed into the foyer.

Stepping off the elevator, he saw a single glass door. Inside was a room filled with floor-to-ceiling bookcases, mission-style chairs with port-wine leather upholstery, and a long table with green library lamps. An elderly man in a tweed jacket and bow tie sat in one of the chairs. Frank wondered whether he was alive or just another prop.

He opened the door and approached the reception desk. Above it was a large portrait of a dourly dressed middle-aged woman with a broad face and large, somber eyes. Obviously, that was Madame Blavatsky. Beneath the portrait was another middle-aged woman with a pair of glasses hanging from a beaded chain around her neck. She looked much more pleasant. He said hello and handed her a card provided by the NSA personnel department.

“Welcome, Mr. Cerf,” she said, standing up to shake his hand. “I’m always pleased to meet a new member.” The elderly gentleman turned their way and peered at Frank over the top of his glasses; he was real after all. “Perhaps you’d like to see the rare book collection?” the librarian continued.

“I’d like that very much, thank you.”

Frank followed her to a door where she inserted his card into a reader set in the wall. Inside were several lockers, an elevator door, and a desk with what looked like a Bureau of Motor Vehicles eye exam camera mounted above it.

“The lockers are for anything electronic or photographic you have with you.”

“Just my phone,” Frank said, placing it inside. “Just curious – does anyone ever buzz you to ask who Helena Blavatsky was?”

“Not often. None of the other businesses on the building registry exist. Once someone who knew about theosophy insisted on coming upstairs. He even asked how to become a member.”

“What did you say?”

“That he needed to be recommended by a member and that the membership list is private.”

“Well, that was an honest answer. Who’s the old gent out front then?”

“Probably a retired NSA agent who likes to get out of the house. Or whose wife wants him to. He adds a nice touch of credibility, don’t you think?”

“Quite.” Frank sat down and rested his chin on the little saddle in front of the camera. When the device confirmed that the retina it had just scanned belonged to Frank Adversego, the elevator door slid open.

Frank wondered at all the cloak-and-dagger precautions as the elevator door closed. Covert meetings must also be held here. Or maybe all the folderol was just to impress visiting members of Congress. Two floors down, he stepped out.

Frank was familiar with Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities – SCIFs in the acronym-obsessed world of the government. He was pleased to see this one was more than usually comfortable. The main room was filled with work spaces with oversize computer screens. Behind glass walls he could see a small kitchen, two meeting rooms, and a security guard watching multiple video screens. Cameras linked to those screens would allow the guard to monitor Frank’s activities anywhere he went inside the facility. Other than the guard, Frank was the only person there. He gave a small, self-conscious wave, and the guard gave him a bored nod back.

Frank sat down and booted up one of the computer terminals that would allow him to connect directly to the main NSA computer system. That network was “air-gapped,” meaning it had no connections to the Internet and the Web. That made it difficult for an enemy to hack directly into the network from outside. The SCIF Frank was sitting in was similarly shielded and separated from the Internet. The only thing he would be able to connect to was the NSA network, via a dedicated fiber optic cable running between the two locations.

He settled in with satisfaction; what more could he want? No distractions, free coffee, and a direct line to infinite banks of information served by some of the most powerful super computers on earth. And he could start delving into whatever nefarious game was afoot.

* * *

Stepping out of the SCIF late that afternoon, Frank was better informed but no wiser. All the data suggested the attacker had exploited “zero-day” flaws to gain access to the power plant control systems. In other words, vulnerabilities not known to exist prior to the attack.

If that was true, a lot of other power stations might also have been penetrated and compromised, since many used the same software as one or another of the targeted plants. Frank wondered how many that might be. Tens? Hundreds? Maybe even thousands, vulnerable to destruction at any time at the whim of the attacker.

He was particularly intrigued by one piece of information: not one of the attacks had caused a blackout. Each one had been launched in the middle of the night, giving power grid managers time to reallocate reserve capacity from elsewhere before demand spiked in the morning. And there had been no injuries, probably because only night watchmen and reduced control room staff were on duty.

That was very odd. Why would anyone stage such difficult and sophisticated attacks if the goal wasn’t to wreak maximum havoc? It didn’t fit any known attack profile. Could the attacks have been some kind of trial run? But that didn’t make sense either, because now the attacker had tipped his hand. Security experts were working overtime at power plants around the world to fix the types of flaws the attacker had exploited. If the same enemy wanted to strike power plants again, it would need to find new vulnerabilities to exploit.

It just didn’t add up.

* * *

The next day, Frank was back at the SCIF engrossed in the details of the India power plant incidents. The destruction there had been particularly great and the attacks unusually clever.


He looked up, startled. Of course – he was supposed to meet his NSA contact today. He stood up and accepted the outstretched hand.

“Yes – you must be Shannon Doyle.”

“That’s right. Pleased to meet you.”

“You too. And thanks for meeting me here. I appreciate that.”

“Not at all. I live in town, too. And I’m thrilled to meet you – I read your book right after it came out.” She looked around the room. “Nice little place you’ve got here. And all to yourself, except for your minder back there.”

“I can’t complain. Would you like a cup of coffee or something?”

“Sure – thanks. I’ll set up in that conference room.” She watched him walk away. He was in good shape but needed someone to shop for him. Maybe pick and lay out his clothes, too.

Frank put a miniature coffee canister in the machine in the kitchen and looked across to the conference room. Shannon was slim and tall – probably as tall as he was – with tied-back red hair. Probably a half dozen years younger than he was. He picked up the cup and joined her.

“Here you go. I forgot to ask how you take it. Can I get you any cream or sugar?”

“Black is just right, thanks. Oh – before I forget …” She reached down to pull something out of her bag and, with a big smile, slid it across the table. “Would it be rude of me to ask you to autograph your book?”

Frank looked down at the familiar, flashy cover with a rocket soaring upward, silhouetting a running figure. Why had he let the publisher pick the cover design?

“Oh, sure.” He signed his name, thinking as always it would be more honest to suggest she get his co-author’s autograph instead.

“How’d you learn to write so well?” Shannon asked. “Engineers like us aren’t exactly known for that.”

“Uh, to tell the truth, my ‘co-author’ wrote the whole thing.”

“Oh, well,” she said, “the important thing is what you did, not who wrote about it.”

“Well, he embellished it a bit here and there, too. Anyway,” he added quickly, “thanks again for meeting with me. What’s your role on the project team?”

“I’m a systems analyst,” she said. “I’ve been tracking global power grid sabotage to see what types of attacks are gaining momentum.”

“Is there much to track?”

“A lot, of all different types. Thousands of incidents a year, in fact. Most are just vandalism. But every now and then, there’s a big one you need to take more seriously. 2014, for some reason, was particularly busy. Someone in California took out a power substation without ever getting near it. He just spent ten minutes shooting a rifle through the chain link fence and hitting the transformers in just the right places. If someone used the same approach at enough substations, they could take the grid down across the entire country. And in Belgium, someone sabotaged a turbine in a nuclear power station. The operators had to shut it down for repairs that took months to complete. Those are just samples.”

“How about cyberattacks?” Frank said.

“Nowhere near so many of those. Maybe because there’s so much undefended infrastructure out in the open you can blow up, burn, or bang away at. But I track those, too. So, what can I tell you about the project?”

“Here are a few of the things I’m curious about,” Frank said. “Why do we think the hacker hit the specific targets he did? Why in these particular countries? Why not others, or more, or fewer? And why only one wave of attacks?”

“All good questions,” Shannon said. “But if there are any answers yet, I don’t know them. Our project team focuses on the how, not the why.”

“Really? Why’s that?”

“It’s just the way we’re organized. We hand our findings and data off to another team of specialists. Their job is to integrate it with data from other sources and then look for patterns and clues. Whatever they find, they share with the appropriate agencies, like Homeland Security.”


“You look disappointed,” Shannon said.

“I guess I am. The how is interesting but not nearly as much as the why and the who. If we knew what the goal behind the attacks was, it would be easier to guess who was behind them and where he might strike next.”

“But we still need to figure out the how so we can stop them from doing it again,” Shannon said.

“Fair enough. I guess I just like to work on the whole puzzle, not just a piece of it.”

“From what I understand, you’ve got the freedom to go wherever you want on this project,” Shannon said. “Mind if I join you?”

*  *  *

The late afternoon sun broke through the clouds, flooding the parking lot in bright light. Clay Chambers readjusted his camera settings for the third time. It was bad enough crisscrossing the state every day to film boring local events. They could at least start on time now and then. He checked his watch. The sun would set in half an hour, and he hadn’t brought any lights.

He picked up his handheld video camera and re-checked his angle and field of view. The TV station would catch hell if viewers could tell no one was listening to the governor except the mayor and a few oil company executives and newspaper photographers. Okay! They were finally getting started. He hefted the camera to his shoulder and started recording.

A SandPro Oil vice president stepped up to a podium positioned so the huge new refinery would provide an effective backdrop. Chambers had to admit it was a good one. Glittering lights dotted exhaust stacks rising above a maze of vertical and horizontal pipes, and the setting sun was giving a warm, orange glow to the steam venting from the stacks. It looked like the perfect marriage of progress, technology, and the future. Okay, the guy was about to start speaking. Microphone on, and now … here we go.

“It’s a great pleasure to welcome everyone here on this exciting occasion. As you know, we’ve been looking forward to this day for a very long time. Fifteen years ago this last Monday, in fact. That’s when we finalized the route for the pipeline that’s about to deliver tar sands oil for the first time to the new, state-of-the-art refinery you see behind me. It took most of that time to buy the land and get the permits, and then, of course, we had to build the pipeline itself – all twelve hundred and forty-three miles of it – from Canada to where we’re standing today.

“But those weren’t the only challenges. Coming up with the technology to process tar sand oil was also a major achievement. And then, of course, there were the environmentalists. They tried to stop us every step of the way. But we persevered. That’s why, today, I can invite Governor Buddy Sandow to step forward and turn the valve that will allow oil to travel the last hundred yards to our brand-new refinery. When he does, you’ll see it spin up into action, and we’ll be off to the races.

“Governor, it’s a great honor. If there are some thoughts you’d like to share first, we’d be honored to hear them.”

Sandow strode into camera view, beaming broadly and waving to the crowds who weren’t there. He had less hair and more girth than during his college days. But he still looked enough like the state university football star he’d once been to appeal to voters.

“Thanks very much, Glenn. And sure, just a few words. I know you guys are champing at the bit to get that oil flowing. So, I’ll just say that we’re mighty pleased you chose our great state as the destination for your new pipeline and the site for this terrific refinery. And I must add I’m as proud as I can be I played a major part in bringing over six hundred and fifty great, high-paying jobs to this hardworking community. Six hundred and fifty jobs! These are good people here, and they deserve those jobs. This is the kind of decisive action I promised the voters, and by golly, that’s what my administration and I are delivering right here today. So, what do you say, let’s go put those people to work!”

“You bet!” the vice president said. “Let’s do it!” He escorted the governor to a large control wheel; a burly pipeline worker was standing next to it, ready to help Sandow. Chambers panned his camera out to get more of the refinery into the picture as the governor placed his hands on the wheel and struck a pose.

“Everybody ready now?” the vice president asked. “Okay, Governor! Take it away!” With a flourish, Sandow followed along as the pipeline worker spun the wheel.

The lights on the refinery went dark. The venting steam diminished, too. Within a few seconds, it disappeared entirely.

Sandow was still smiling, wondering why the newspaper photographers weren’t taking his picture. Then he realized from their expressions that something was wrong. Turning around, he saw that far from spinning up, the refinery had gone dark. Everything turned dull and dead as the sun dropped below the horizon.

Chambers grinned, video camera still recording. This had turned out to be a shoot worth waiting for.

*  *  *

“So, what do you think?” Frank asked Shannon as they left the latest incident briefing. “Impressed?”

“For sure,” she replied. “Eighteen major refinery complexes taken down. And if the U.S. ones are typical of those abroad, the attacker hit the biggest ones in the world. How long do you expect it will take to get them up and running again?”

“When? How about if?”

“If? How could it be if?”

“Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not much. From what we just learned, they didn’t just shut the refineries down – they erased all their software and their data, too. And by all their software and data, I mean ALL their software and data. On-site, in the cloud, backup copies – the works. The refinery process control systems, the security software, the operating history and performance records – everything. A lot of those programs, particularly for the older refineries, were custom software or heavily adapted for the location. And without the historical operating data to work from, it’s going to be trial and error getting some parts of an operation up and running again.

“That’s a pretty impressive hack,” he mused. “Whoever is behind these attacks is world class.” Then he frowned. “And I still don’t have a clue who it could be.”

* * *


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