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The Unbroken Line

THE UNBROKEN LINE

by Case Lane

 

Copyright 2015 Case Lane

Shakespir Edition

 

 

Quote from A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. Copyright 2003 Bill Bryson. Used by permission.

 

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this e-book. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

Discover other titles by Case Lane:

The Motion Clue

 

 

 

 

Table of Contents

Prologue

Chapter One – The Reaction

Chapter Two – The Expansion

Chapter Three – The Condemnation

Chapter Four – The Isolation

Chapter Five – The Coalition

Chapter Six – The Gratification

About Case Lane

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PROLOGUE

At ground level, the Little Penguin appeared exactly as named, little. At barely over one foot, the smallest of the species waddles around its territory, navigating through dirt and sand by the hundreds as they return, one by one, to Phillip Island each sunset. Zylen Blain pressed his body sideways into a tree, watching appreciatively as one penguin after another paraded across the beach, and passed through the brush, before settling into a burrow for the night. A park surveillance drone passed overhead. Zylen quickly glanced up to confirm that the omnipresent government eyes disappeared from his line-of-sight, then dropped down to the ground, crept forward a few feet, and settled flat onto his stomach. Gaggles of tourists stood quietly by watching in amazement as the penguins traced their path from ocean to land. With coms locked in video mode, the visitors recorded the unrestrained wonder of a natural animal act occurring far outside the commands and prompts of The Network’s control. Within the scattered underbrush, out of view of the onlookers, one Little Penguin crossed in front of Zylen to stare right through his gaze. The tiny bird appeared to be searching for an answer to hollow questions before Zylen even had a chance to formulate them. Zylen immersed himself deeper between the branches, lower into the dirt where the surveillance cameras rarely grazed beneath the surface. The bird had stopped its evening walk, contemplated Zylen’s movement, reproached him for a second, then hesitated, undecided about whether to move on. Zylen grinned. ‘I must be so fascinating,’ he thought. He could feel no more perfect and uncontrolled joy as to be here, at the near end of Australia with these birds, whose watch over him was but unforced curiosity, and not an armed hunt. Their mutual surveillance of each other was reaching, candid and unobtrusive, the exact opposite of Global Intelligence’s unfettering pursuit.

As Zylen contentedly lay flat, contemplating his assessment, he sensed, with the specific tension defining his daily routine for nearly two years, a human joining with the penguin, to survey his attachment to the ground. The possibility was not unusual, humans all over the world had been assigned to monitor Zylen’s actions. But he hated to think that here, at the now and near southern end of land on inhabited earth, they had actually sent a human to physically infiltrate his personal space. He shifted on his stomach, hoping to obtain a subtler look at the intruder. But before he had repositioned himself, the shadow descended from the periphery of his vision to drop down at his side. In disgust, he turned away.

“What do you see?” a pretty lilting voice with a clear American accent whispered as her body aligned in the dirt next to Zylen. In an instant, the voice broke his image of a repulsive Global Intelligence officer with an adversarial agenda. Zylen struggled with the urge to look at this particular human, ‘she actually sounded cute,’ he thought. But her demeanor may be a trap, and he did not want to give in to it, in bitterness he tried instead to inch away.

“Hey!” she exclaimed, boldly moving closer. “What do you see?”

He stopped. ‘Could this really be a government agent? Maybe it was a young girl. Children had no trouble rolling in the dirt, maybe he should be a little less paranoid and take a look.’ Still wary, he slowly turned over in his spot and faced the voice. As his head rolled around, and his eyes landed on her face, his heart stopped. The sun had generously moved to frame her smile in a soft light allowing Zylen to clearly see a flawless oval face, shiny green eyes, a pert nose and delicate mouth looking back at him. This was no child. He gasped, readjusted his body to move imperceptibly closer to her, blinked, and gasped again. The French would say, without judgment or hesitation, he was overtaken by un coup de foudre, a bolt of lightening.

She arched her eyebrows in a recovery of her own. “Sorry to bug you, but I was curious,” she softly explained. “You looked so intent. I was dying to find out what you were looking at.”

“You’re not bugging me,” were the first words Zylen thought to say.

“Oh good,” she happily remarked while nestling closer to him. “I was a little worried for a second there, thought you were mad at me.”

“I could never be mad at you,” Zylen stated, coating his words in those of a reassuring spouse’s unfaded attachment through a lifetime of marriage.

She broadly smiled, accepting his statement with unrestrained gratefulness, then giggled. “Well that’s even better. But never is a long time.”

“I mean it.”

“Good. Now tell me what you were looking at? What did you see?”

Zylen smiled as the sun shifted over them, reinforcing its heat. The strongest stretch of his booming heart was reflecting in the expression of his mouth, and as he saw her waiting, he turned back towards the penguins. But as he moved his head, an unmistakable aberration altered their scene. A wave of nausea crept over him, as his heart split and an uncontrolled fury began to rise. On the ground in line with Zylen’s eyes, polished black loafers at the end of crisp dark dress trousers pressed into the dirt. His eyes followed the legs up the torso of a man, then froze as his joy turned over to raging anger.

“Don’t worry about them,” she quickly said, noting in horror Zylen’s changing disposition. “They literally are only going to stand there.”

Zylen’s calm began fighting to return to the moment. Then he noted there were two men in suits, obviously carrying guns, one staring at the two lying on the ground, the other looking all around them. As Zylen turned, he saw two more.

“Seriously, don’t be bugged by them.” Her voice hinted at a rising panic, as she scrambled to reclaim him.

“I don’t like being watched,” Zylen finally appeased her.

“Well me neither, but that’s my life.”

“That’s every human’s life,” Zylen bitterly whispered.

“Yeah that’s true too. But my Network surveillance is backed up by moving humans.”

“Your surveil…” Zylen turned around to look at her more closely. “Your Network surveillance?” he asked.

“Well they’re not really The Network are they? They are actually real humans, and they have to be even more omnipresent than that multi-tentacled server system reprocessing all our data every second.”

“Why?”

“They have to keep me alive. That’s the only reason they get to keep a physical eye on me.”

Zylen squinted and studied her face again, looking for an explanation. If she had a British accent he would have guessed she was one of the Royal Princesses, they were all about her age. But she was obviously American, maybe a movie star or a high profile billionaire’s daughter, but he could not place her.

“Is it okay to ignore them and tell me what you were looking at?” she pleaded as if assuming he should know who she was, or pretending it did not matter.

Zylen was torn. If she was famous and he did not know, he might insult her. At the same time, he had to find out. His heart had returned to its rapid pounding, and he knew that any girl who looked like her, stared at him the way she did, and could lie down beside him in the dirt of his native land, was the girl he wanted to be with, forever. “Um, okay.” He slowly turned back to the penguins, realizing too late the birds had almost all disappeared. Needing to find one more to prolong the encounter, he quickly looked around. “You like penguins?” he cheerfully asked.

“Yeah, I love ‘em,” she replied, following his gaze.

“Me too.”

“Good, we have the love of nature in common.” He turned towards her, forgetting for a moment the armed agents recording his every move. “Look at us lying on the ground as if we were born to it.”

“Yeah I love the outdoors in general. Plants, animals, being with the real parts of the world.”

“Me too. They can’t put a camera in every tree.”

“No they can’t.” She smiled at him, and Zylen’s heart melted. His feelings held as he locked in a vision of her, and broke into his explanation of the Little Penguins that, for centuries, returned every sunset to Phillip Island, 90 miles south of Melbourne in Australia, and wandered, unfazed, to their land-based homes. As he spoke, she inched closer to him, eventually touching his body as he described how he tried to catch a penguin’s gaze as the bird tracked the route from the ocean, following an instinctive knowledge of the path to take home. “I could show you more,” he remarked as his account came to an end. “I know this area really well. I hang out here all the time.”

“Great.” She moved to stand up. “Let’s go.”

Zylen quickly rose and held out his hand to help her. He was stiff from having lain on the ground for so long. Brushing himself off, he noted the incessantly watching bodyguards move closer. Within a minute, a mini-drone hovered towards him. Calculating it was running a facial recognition scanner, he dreaded the file it would find.

The machine was shaped like a camera, and approached his face as if a ghost was manipulating the photography device. Human hands were not required to control it. A drone, which was the easy, popular, and common global name for unmanned aerial devices, could be operated automatically on instructions from The Network or with a human override, or be controlled by a human with a manual remote control. Because the devices could be any shape or size, they also had an endless list of functions. At industrial sites the machines were work-tools, in offices, package delivery vehicles, or during disasters, human recovery assistants. But on a clear summer day at the Nature Preserve on Phillip Island, the drone could only be conducting surveillance, using its functions to confirm identities, check for contraband, and monitor human movements to ensure visitors stayed on marked paths, and did not hurt the penguins. Civilian drones operated silently and efficiently in streets, parks, study halls, homes, offices, shopping centers and businesses. The average person did not think twice about a drone flying overhead, unless of course it was directly over one singular head. Through the corner of his eye, Zylen glanced at the drone, but did not give it the satisfaction of capturing an unobstructed read of his face. His joy began to fade again as he imagined the reaction when the scanner reported his identity to the hefty bodyguards.

But before it could work through its process, she turned on her human surveillance team. “C’mon, get that drone out of here!” she demanded.

“Sorry,” the bodyguard closest to her contritely defended the action. “But you know it’s protocol.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she exclaimed turning back to Zylen. Then angrier, she faced one of the armed men. “C’mon.”

“Five minutes,” the man replied.

She grimaced and turned back to Zylen. “I’m so sorry,” she repeated, almost in tears. “It’s so awful to have your friends obtrusively scanned.”

“Friend?” Zylen asked, focusing on her long, slim body.

“Well sure. We’ve bonded over the detailed lives of the Little Penguins. We have to be friends by now.”

“Can we be friends forever?” Zylen inquired before he could stop himself, then immediately clamped his lips together, but held her eyes.

“Of course,” she replied, returning his look with a soft smile. “That’s exactly my plan.” She took his hand. “Now show me the rest of your secret island.”

Zylen stood closer to her, and they began to walk away with the guards trailing on all sides. Through the darkening day, he felt she was already his companion of years, but still he did not know her name. He had been trying to recall where he might have seen her before, but kept coming up empty. The anxiety rising in this realization was terrifying him. Now he was the one who wanted to scan her. His com functionality included a facial recognition app, but he knew taking it out would be unbelievably rude. Unfortunately he was carrying a physical com device, and did not have the features discretely implanted in his clothes.

The com was, in general, a communication device providing the functionality for products that had once been called the telephone, radio, television, camera, notepad and computer. Coms had other names too like palm, berry, apple, cherry or orange, but those were not used as often. Like drones, coms were all sizes and shapes, made from a variety of materiel, and could be a separate stand-alone device, embedded in clothes or other products, or overlain on skin. Essentially any product wirelessly connected to The Network, with the functionality to access all data any human would need to operate in everyday life was referred to as a com. The data came from real-time operations being automatically updated into globally-connected servers, direct interaction with Internet websites, recorded movements from cameras, sensors and satellites, and any other exposed digital data stream in existence around the world. The Network aggregated, analyzed, cross-referenced, then integrated the information to provide up-to-the-second instructions for humans and machines. Every human, living, working, studying within the organized global infrastructure, which was nearly every individual on earth and in outer space, was connected to The Network. Even when humans tried diminishing its role in their lives, The Network knew the isolation they were attempting, and adjusted accordingly. Humans had access to millions of programs and apps, and every use was assessed, reviewed and updated in a continuous revolution without end.

If Zylen had first noticed his companion from afar, he probably would have run his own facial recognition application, and already known whom he was going to speak to before she had lain down beside him. But trying the practice up close, he would feel like an intrusive stalker, even if she let him do it. He considered declaring he was taking her picture, then she would not directly know the app was running, but she might be suspicious. Moving towards the drifting waves of the Bass Strait between the island and Tasmania, they reached a clearing of brush, and determined to take a chance, he uncomfortably lifted up his com and displayed it to her.

“Can I take your picture?” he politely asked. “Right here with the waves in the background.”

“You want to scan my image?” she directly replied, grinning. Zylen turned deep red, and she laughed. “I know you don’t know who I am, and I think it’s funny…and refreshing. I like it. So no, you cannot take my picture.”

His mind raced. ‘Had he insulted her?’ he wondered. “I’m sorr—” he started to say aloud.

“You,” she interrupted, turning to face him and place a finger on his chest. “You will have to use your brain. How does a boy find out a girl’s name?”

“I…umm…” Zylen’s mind was scrambled, “…I don’t know.”

She laughed harder. “Oh that’s so sad. You don’t even know. Think, a hundred years ago before face scanners, how did people find out a person’s name?”

“Ahh…” Reeling, Zylen could not believe he did not have an answer. His brain locked as he tried to remember the communications humans were known to have used. He thought of old entertainment shows, the programs from decades ago when people did not function directly on instructions from The Network. ‘How did they say it?’ he wondered. She had walked ahead of him, moving out onto the pier to follow the trail above the water. He ran to catch up to her. “I’m sorry but…” his voice rose in desperation, “…I really want to make sure we stay together…I mean connected…you know…well you know what I mean.” He stumbled over every word.

She turned to face him again. “Then how do you find out my name?”

“I guess…” he hesitated, then suddenly smiled, “…maybe I could ask your name?” The response came as quickly as he had forgotten the concept.

She giggled. “Now that’s awesome. You remembered…and?”

“And? And, um…” Zylen thought again, “…oh, okay. Hello my name is Zylen, what’s your name?”

She burst out laughing, then switched to a polite smile. “Hello Zylen, my name is Alannis,” she finally replied.

“Alannis,” Zylen repeated the name in a whisper, and then began to think again. Despite having punctually remembered how to converse, he now wanted to run her name through a Network identity search.

Catching the drift of his thoughts, she admonished him, “Stop over processing information Network boy. It will come to you eventually.”

‘Network boy!’ Zylen was stunned, embarrassed and disgusted to hear that phrase used to describe him, of all people. He hated The Network. Having dedicated his life to helping people avoid a Network-controlled life online, by building encrypted off-ramps, masked portals to locked private spaces in The Cloud that government infiltration had not been able to track or enter, he had risked his freedom in the name of individual privacy. Engaged in law-bending conflict with global governments, he had once been arrested, but the authorities were all talk, and no proof when it came to people with his technical skills. Without evidence for criminal charges, they had released him. He was officially a free man, but one under near constant surveillance from government agents who were tracking his activities. Then a thought struck him, ‘government agents.’

“I don’t believe it,” he said, his heart pounding in another rhythm of unwanted realization. “You’re Alannis Solar, the daughter of the President of the United States.”

“Damn, cover blown,” she delightfully responded. “I knew you would do it, you’re actually a quick thinking man.”

Triumphantly Zylen considered her assessment, he had run all the clues through his ever-churning brain. Using the images he could process without The Network, he had recalled news reports about the President’s daughter visiting Australia, and seen pictures of her vaunted beauty, plus her name was not common. “Alannis,” he stated again.

“Guilty.” He cautiously looked at her. “Aghh I hate that look,” she fretfully said.

“What look?” Horrified his recharged heart may have betrayed in his face a sensation he did not feel, he asked, “What’s the matter?”

“That look questioning your next move. Like you’ve discovered a delicate crystal that could shatter at any moment, the look saying, ‘better not make a sudden gesture.’”

“That was the look?”

“Yes and I hate it. Go back to the guy I saw lying on the ground talking to penguins. That’s who I want. The man who attracted me.”

“Attracted?”

“Yes attracted. You know it and I know it. It’s as obvious as time. We don’t need to run it through The Network.”

“No we do not.”

“Go back to where we were, right now.”

“Okay right now, I’m back.” He reached out and took her hand, and continued the walk down to the end of the pier.

“The end of the earth,” she exclaimed as they looked out from the tip of Australia.

“Well Tasmania is to the south.”

“The end of the most populated Australian part of continental earth.”

Zylen laughed, then looked at her seriously. “If I kiss you, will those guys shoot me?”

Alannis turned to look at her security. “I dunno. I don’t think they have a protocol for a first kiss within an hour of a first meeting. Want to test them?”

“No, but I want to kiss you,” Zylen said as he moved in and pulled her face towards his. The Secret Service agents stood a few feet away, not moving, maintaining their visual surveillance as the lips of the couple met in a lingering embrace, and held for a moment in time never felt by either before. As the last of Zylen’s penguin friends finished their signature march across the island, and settled into their deeply buried homes for the night, Zylen and Alannis created a bond that would remain unstretched and unbroken for the long distant year ahead.

After that, Alannis would be dead.

*

Not only have you been lucky enough to be attached since time immemorial to a favored evolutionary line, but you have also been extremely-make that miraculously-fortunate in your personal ancestry. Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary that could result-eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly-in you.”

– Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

CHAPTER ONETHE REACTION

The flashing com caught Roman Francon’s eye as he crossed from the hallway into the kitchen. Without an attached earpiece on his head, he was forced to pick the device up off the counter, and manually select the ‘Phone’ icon. “Hello,” he responded, dropping a sippy cup into the sink.

“Well hello Daddy day care, how are you?” Agent Slater James jokingly inquired from British Intelligence headquarters in London.

“Slater, how thrilling to hear from you,” Roman replied with deadpan sarcasm.

“Oh I get such little love from your end.” Slater feigned hurt feelings.

“Why are you contacting me?” Roman impatiently ignored his colleague’s sentiment.

“Are you changing diapers?”

“No, she’s out of diapers.”

“Out? But wait, she is not even two yet, is she?”

“That’s right.”

“Wow such task masters for parents, I cannot even imagine how tough being your child must be.”

“Actually it’s quite wonderful. She tells me all the time in three different languages.”

Slater laughed. “I am sure she does.”

“And with that happy update, I’m busy. Why are you calling me?”

“I want to relieve you from your daily Daddy duties.” Slater adjusted his tone. “We have received an interesting request,” he evenly stated.

“I don’t take requests, at least not any that would take me out of New York.”

“Only down to Washington.”

“Why?”

“The President of the United States has found disturbing data records in the simcon of his daughter Alannis.”

“Oh such a sad story. What did he find?”

“Zylen Blain.”

Roman froze. “Zylen Blain,” he slowly repeated.

“I thought his name might catch your attention,” Slater triumphantly stated.

Roman moved to sit down as he recalled the last time he had seen Zylen Blain. The rogue technologist had been a prisoner of the United Nations Security Council Special Command, the organization responsible for fighting the war in Cyberspace on behalf of its member nations. Special Command’s core task was to protect access and use of The Network, the global infrastructure of coms, computers, servers, cameras, sensors, satellites and every other device seamlessly linked to support the complete interconnection of information and data communication for the entire world. Zylen had been apprehended for creating and using undetectable drones that had prompted The Network to instigate a series of disruptive, deadly incidents, and Roman had been part of the team that had stopped him.

Despite being the son of wealthy global financiers, Roman worked professionally as an agent in the highest ranks of British Intelligence. Unofficially, he also worked with Slater outside the established government structures as part of The Alliance, an organization with a less transparent mission. The assignments Roman accepted were only those requiring his level of skill and strategic thought. After the last confrontation with Zylen, Special Command had completed the post mortem investigation by establishing new protocols to prevent another incident. Then the organization had diminished its once vigilant physical tracking of Zylen, and monitored only for his computer programming code pattern to reappear on The Network, which as far as they knew, it had not.

“He found Blain in her simcon?” Roman asked, projecting a screen from his com to look at the last known report on Zylen’s whereabouts.

“Yes, the President was having a chat with it…the simcon, and encountered the detail that she had been involved with Zylen Blain.”

“Involved? But that’s crazy, how does the daughter of the President of the United States get involved with a rogue tech? How could no one have known about their relationship?”

“Such activities are uncovered when you dig into the personal life of a dead person. You find out all of the scorched details they did not want you to know when they were alive.”

“Well, if you give up your simcon, you have to be prepared to unleash every secret you have ever had to anyone who has access to it.”

“She did not give it up,” Slater half whispered. “The President stole it. It was not her plan. The President used his authority to order a Network override, and retrieved her simcon outside the very constraints he had signed into law. He wanted the same capability most people want as soon as they learn about simcon technology, he wanted to keep her functionally alive.”

“Are you serious?” Roman incredulously responded. “He’s illegally running the simcon app from inside The White House? Soaking up all of that processing power on the taxpayers’ dime? How could he have even considered it?”

“A grieving man can act quite irrationally. And the simcon has changed the game for every human. Everyone can live forever, and the application has no established rules.”

The simcon, or simulated conscience data application, utilized the entire digital record of a human’s existence, all of the online presence that had been updated, recorded, photographed, videoed or otherwise saved in any server or digital storage facility in the world throughout the individual’s lifetime, to recreate a functioning individual as a hologram that could interact with living people. The application software simulated the deceased human’s verbal consciousness by aggregating and indexing the existing data records to generate new conversations or text responses from the once living human to the physical world. On its own, the simcon app worked like an interactive recorder. But the truly immersive experience with the deceased, came from the realistic life-size hologram, generated by utilizing online photos and videos to create a three-dimensional image of the individual incorporating all digitally stored gestures, facial expressions and movements specific to the recorded unique body. The deceased’s friends and loved ones could not only have a conversation, but also see a visual of the person continuously in their presence, as if the departed had never left. Together the hologram, with the simcon as its communication app performing as the human’s brain, answered questions, engaged in conversations, laughed, cried, acted and reacted to the living humans around it as any other human would. The app had generated extensive excitement. If an individual could afford the processing power for simcon generation, then their departed could be projected among the living, and continue on as a digital being in the physical realm. All over the world, friends and loved ones had begun creating endless new records of live memories with physically dead humans.

But the advent of the app had also created a legal dilemma for governments who scrambled to legislate governance behavior for the simcon app, and to keep The Network records of digital humans separate from biological ones. Living humans, who wanted to be re-created through the simcon app, were required to prepare a simcon retrieval instruction, and store the instructions on The Network. If authorized, a designated person inherited the deceased’s complete online data record to generate a simcon. When a death certificate appeared on The Network, the system cross-referenced for the simcon release then automatically started the program. A data aggregation process retrieved all communications, reports, texts, emails, posts, photos, videos, education records, employment reports, all camera images and sensor feeds, all travel entry records, purchases, entertainment feeds, medical records, every single digital output created by, about or for a deceased human during a lifetime. In most countries, any human could designate who received their simcon, and authorize its ongoing use.

But if an adult did not leave Network instructions for their data, then by law, no person was allowed to execute the simcon app. Simcon authorization was the last stand for individual digital confidentiality, humans may not have the luxury of online privacy in life, but they would have it in death. Unless an individual with connected authority interfered with the process. Alannis had died as an adult, but too young to have planned and organized her last wishes. Since her devastated father was the President of the United States, he took the action for her.

“While running the app…” Slater continued, “…the President discovered, as he well…roamed around in her data, that she had been seeing Zylen Blain. And then he had his name run through The Network, our Network.”

“And he got all of the details on him?”

“Yes, he’s completely up-to-date on the whole story. Now he is rightfully concerned.”

“Why?”

“He believes we now have a global security issue.”

“Because?”

“Because he told us, with guarded embarrassment, that he used to tell Alannis all sorts of details about his work, and he would not want the rogue tech community to know. He wants us to probe her simcon, run tests, to see if we can determine if she might have told Zylen a story or two that could compromise U.S. or global security.”

“You gotta be kidding me.”

“No I am afraid I am not. We have the processing power and the analysis experts. He wants it managed…internally. But we need an experienced and discreet agent to head the team. I want to suggest you.”

“You want to recall me for this project?”

“Yes, I know you have reasons why you do not want to be activated but—”

“Reasons we have already discussed with you Slater.”

“I know you have, but this is important.”

“Our kids are important.”

“I know that too, but world peace and all, Roman. You should head the team on this assignment. Can you speak to Kadie and work it out with her?”

“You want me to tell the mother of my children that I’m going to abandon them to direct a fishing expedition for the President of the United States.”

“Well since she’s also the head of Special Command, I think she will understand. It is intelligence on Zylen Blain.”

“It’s our kids’ peace of mind. We told them we would keep the family together.”

“It will not take very long.”

“Slater, you are intruding on our lives.”

“Roman, we are in the business of world peace. Your children cannot live in a world where Zylen Blain and his rogue tech friends have inside information on the plans of the President of the United States. All of our friends and not so friends in London, Brussels, Moscow, Beijing…may end up wondering how much information the rogue techs have uncovered, which is not good for the world.”

Shaking his head, Roman had to concede Slater was right. Having grown up and been educated all over the world, Roman operated on the alert side of the separation that had sent the majority of the world’s people into the omnipresent arms of governments who monitored them into complacency, while a vigilant minority engaged in a struggle to protect their personal privacy and security. His British father and Colombian mother were adamant their children contributed to humans’ functioning structure, as thinkers who helped command positive change. Learning more about the simcon technology was not an assignment he should refuse.

Sighing Roman acquiesced to Slater’s request. “Such a pain—”

“I know, but can you move on this right away? Work it out with Kadie…and the kids, and I will see you in Washington…tomorrow, okay?”

“On behalf of the entire family Slater, we hate you.”

“But you all love world peace.”

“Yeah world peace,” Roman whispered as he signed off. “As if that were ever possible.”

*

Like an escaping firefly, an alert light briefly flashed at the same moment Trina Lopez slipped down onto her chair. Glancing up, the fourth-year technician looked across several monitor screens. Alone in the brightly lit Control Room at the Federal Coast Guard Station three miles south of General Santos City on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, Lopez and an arranged number of Network cameras and sensors were monitoring the sleepy waters of the Celebes Sea for boatloads of undocumented migrants. The light had prompted a three second beeping alarm to emanate from her console. Each day, a variety of human-occupied floating transports were discovered traveling towards the island as part of a self-selected migration route transporting willing workers to the area’s busy manufacturing factory complexes. Four hundred miles to the south, cargo ships, cruise liners, subvees, and fishing boats traversed the sweeping island-dotted waterways between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, to facilitate commercial trade in the perpetually growing Southeast Asia region. But a boat diverting from this stream and pointing north to Mindanao was, more often than not, teeming with desperate people who had crept out of the stuffed corners of their unsustainable homes, to spill over the edges of a makeshift craft, in the hope of avoiding detection as they searched for a revitalized chance to improve their lives. Each migrant had a dream for starting over, and as soon as they landed on her country’s shores, Lopez’s job was to ensure the input into The Network of their personal information, photograph and likely asylum claim. After identification, the migrants would be allowed to join the general population on temporary humanitarian passes.

But in recent months, the local population had become outspokenly anxious about the ever-increasing numbers of newcomers. In response, the Filipino government had changed its policy. As of today, the military would arrest and detain arriving migrants. Anticipating a negative global reaction, the controversial decision had required support from Filipino allies in the United States’ military and government. The largest Filipino population outside the islands lived in the U.S., and vocal dissent was expected to manifest there first. Domestically, all government and official agencies had been informed of the new protocols, and were to be ready for the inevitable questions from the media about the social impact of switching from civilian to military enforcement. Lopez was nervous about the changes too. She hoped the migrants would not be hostile or afraid, and that there were no children to be confused and terrified by the sight of guns. A surveillance drone, scanning near the station, broadcast a continuous view of the open waters through The Network to Lopez’s monitors. The drone signaled when the camera identified a migrant boat, and simultaneously triggered an alert to dispatch soldiers from a nearby military base to execute the detention operation. On her monitors Lopez would be able to view the soldiers’ movements once they were on their way, and together they would amass on the beach to meet the boat as soon as it came ashore.

As the alert had come and gone, Lopez waited in anticipation, her eyes gazing at the monitors. When the migrant boat had entered the country’s twelve nautical mile sovereign zone, The Network automatically dispatched a surveillance drone to view it. Following that action, each authorized step in the detention protocol was displayed on the screens. Since the incoming boat had already been identified, the military was expected to be moving towards the beach where the migrants were pointed to land. But as Lopez looked at the monitor for evidence of this action, she nervously noted the military transports were not moving. Puzzled, she shifted closer to the screen to re-read the alert message. As expected, it started with the surveillance drone action to track the unauthorized boat, followed by simultaneous directives to the military and Coast Guard to report to the beach. But The Network was not providing transports for the humans’ actions.

Scanning the video feeds again, she suddenly stopped in stunned amazement. One view captured another drone, distinctly weaponized, hovering over the beach. Lopez blinked, then thought, ‘a weaponized drone, here?’ She puzzled over the intention. ‘A weaponized drone, waiting for migrants?’ The image did not look or feel correct. She looked down at her com, neither the drone’s signal or coordinates were displayed. Searching earlier instructions about the new detention protocol, she quickly read through the details again and confirmed her assumptions. No dispatch of a weaponized drone was included in the new detention protocol.

Only the military and law enforcement could legally operate weaponized drones to fire any lethal projectile from bullets and lasers to missiles. Drones deployed for civilian use had no defensive actions. The global community constrained this functionality with treaties, laws, regulations and protocols, then governments legislated operational rules within their respective jurisdictions. Since drones could be any size or shape, and manufactured in any facility, the ability to ensure the difference between authorized and unauthorized functionality was a law enforcement action by itself. Outside war zones, drones were not authorized for routine use against humans. Only once law enforcement humans received an initial report about potential criminal activity or civil unrest did an authorized supervisor review it, and permit manual drone use to take action. If The Network detected an enforcement issue with the migrant boat, the entire weaponized protocol should have started running. But as Lopez refreshed the screen and reviewed all of the monitors, she realized neither the process nor any other program was rolling forward.

Fearing errors with the detention operation, Lopez wondered about contacting the military, but then considered how irregular her notification would appear. She was only a border enforcement officer. ‘Why would the military want to hear from her?’ she wondered. ‘They should have their own protocol for managing the situation. Maybe the weaponized drone had even been sent by the military, or maybe they have different internal instructions for the new detention protocol.’ Assuming the soldiers could view the same images displayed on the monitors, including the weaponized drone, she reluctantly decided to wait. All of her questions, with all of the possibilities could be valid, but the idea chilled her. ‘A boat full of people was about to arrive, and they would be greeted by both human and machine force.’ She shuddered at the imagined scene.

With one monitor displaying the approaching boat, Lopez watched and wondered about the incoming influx. The camera captured the tops of the heads of small children, hungry women, and desperate men, and having once been one of them fighting to survive in her hometown, she connected to their sentiments. To avoid accepting her doomed fate, Lopez had intensely labored to complete her education requirements, and then qualify for the government service. Still she was not far removed from their suffering, and could imagine calculating the risk of leaving a poverty-stricken area, paying out all savings, and gambling a life on making a water crossing to search for an opportunity in a country that had more to offer than her own. As she considered the origins and options of the people now standing to view her country’s shores, Lopez desperately searched the monitor feeds for evidence of a reaction from the military. At least two-dozen soldiers should already be on the beach ready to greet over one hundred soon to disembark migrants. The military were expected to travel from the main base by all-terrain transports. Once the soldiers had established the control perimeter around the arrivals, The Network would prompt Lopez to complete her required actions. But as Lopez observed, the migrant boat was within feet of landing on the beach, and the soldiers were nowhere to be seen. ‘Where are they?’ she wondered. Bewildered, she desperately looked at her com again, but there was still no sign of any military movement. Trackers indicated the transports were hovering at the gate of the Base located only three miles down the road from the Coast Guard station. Her panic rising, Lopez stared at the screen, ‘what’s going on?’ On another screen, she could see the migrant boat had landed.

Lopez wondered again if she should directly contact the military. If the soldiers did not arrive soon, the migrants could make a run for their freedom. Lopez had no manual authority for registering their arrival outside the meticulously planned and programmed Network instructions. Under the new protocol, she would not be able to scan the migrants into the system and register their photos, without the military first updating The Network with confirmation of their custodial detention. The entire process had to be in its authorized sequence. Without a prior verified step, the system would not provide functionality for the next one. She glanced down again. Since her com instruction displayed, ‘Wait for Military Support,’ no transport arrived to take her towards the water.

Lopez began to tremble as questions plagued her. ‘If she did not register the arrivals, could she lose her job for allowing over one hundred unrecorded people to enter the country?’ she wondered. This paralysis had never previously occurred. She had always been able to complete her work, now the new Network protocol impeded her direct intentions.

Viewing the migrants’ surprised reactions at finding a deserted beach, Lopez’s anxiety grew. The camera drone was still recording their every move. Two men had stepped out of the split-wood of their fishing boat, and begun to pull it further on to the sand. The other people gingerly looked around, puzzled. With the surveillance drone circling above their heads, the migrants knew government officials should meet them. But as they began to scuttle out of the boat, and confusingly look up and down the beach, no one appeared.

“What are they going to do?” Lopez questioned aloud. If she were one of them, she would run. Within a few minutes, they should recognize the opportunity for the luckiest break of their lives. If they could disappear on the island, not only would they not be arrested under the new protocol, but the country would also have no record they were onshore. The new arrivals could obtain fake identifications including Network profiles that blended their life directly into the population without being officially recorded as economic refugees. As they worked and earned money, official detection among the working millions would remain a possible, but unlikely outcome of their illegal entry. Lopez continued to watch the migrants, secretly wishing they would take the chance to run. Although the camera drone would record the start of their escape, its mandated focus was only beach surveillance, capturing images of the boat in the water, and surveying the shore. Beyond those parameters there would be no more ground video of the migrants presence until they emerged into populated areas. Lopez hoped that result would also mean there would be no captured details to fault her for the migrants’ actions.

Abruptly, a voice shouting “Open the gates!” split the silence, and startled Lopez out of her musing. She spun around. ‘Was that a man’s voice?’

“Open the gates!” The shout came again.

Still alone in the empty Control Room, Lopez looked at a monitor and was amazed to finally see armed soldiers, on foot, standing at the gates to her facility. ‘Where were the transports?’ she wondered, scanning every monitor screen, ‘…and how do the gates open?’ Lopez had never heard of a manual action for opening gates. The Network controlled the operation of entryways based on the instructions emanating from an approaching human’s com or transport. For security reasons, even employees could not override The Network’s mandate to permit entry to a federal government facility. Similar to homes, a Network entry response was triggered only when a human’s authorized presence was detected. Accustomed to inanimate objects reacting to their pre-programmed requirements, humans did not perform trivial activities like unlocking a gate. Lopez had no function for responding to a request to execute an action The Network was already programmed to control automatically.

As her fear continued to rise, she swept her hands over the screen, searching for a speaker option for communicating with the soldiers at the gate. She knew a method existed, if only she could find the icon. Spotting it a few seconds later, Lopez touched ‘Speaker’ and selected the location for the front gates.

“Ahh, hello…I…I’ve been wait—” she tentatively began.

“Open the gates!” a panicking military officer demanded. “Hurry, we received an alert about a migrant boat.”

“Yes they arrived. But to open the…open—”

“Open the gates we have to hurry.”

“I’m sorry but why didn’t the gates open for you?”

“We don’t know. The controls aren’t responding. You open them!”

“The controls aren’t…but…I’m sorry, but there is no authorization to open the gates.”

“What?”

“Only The Network can open the gate based on your authorizations, it should be coming from your com.”

“But The Network has stopped responding. We received the alert, but then the transports would not move. Our coms do not have the instruction to come here so there is no authorization to open the gates for us.”

Lopez was stunned. “The Network has stopped responding?” She scanned over the dozens of camera images, flashing lights and text instructions glaring back at her. “And the transports?”

“Like I said. The transports would not move.”

“But that’s imposs—”

“Contact a supervisor, get an override! We need to capture those people!”

Lopez stood with her hands hovering over the console as if waiting to touch the one icon that could lead her forward. But there was no instruction for a deviating action. ‘How could she contact a supervisor?’ Lopez did not even know how manual communication would work from inside the facility. If a supervisor needed to be contacted, The Network did it based on a protocol. Even the names of the people who The Network would contact were buried in digital files, and not in her memory. She had no idea of the functions The Network would decide to execute in a situation like this, or the instructions the system would provide to her.

“They’re running.” She heard another voice say. Lopez looked at her monitor, and could see the migrants had finally decided to embrace fortune.

“Open the gate!” the soldier futilely requested yet again. Lopez would abhor hearing those words for the rest of her life.

“I told you, I don’t—”

“Chase them,” another soldier shouted.

“But…?” Lopez watched several soldiers move away from the gate, and start running towards the nearby forest. The facility’s entrance was at the center of a split fence that did not completely encircle the entire property, but only blocked off one area facing the road. This structure forced the formality of controlling entry, but people could walk around the barrier by entering through the once dense forest with its limited visible trees located in patches at either end of the beach. On the other side were wide-open spaces, the occasional fishing village, and after another mile, a connecting road. It would be a long run for the soldiers but they were fit, fed and healthy. The migrants were likely tired, hungry, thirsty, and probably running at a quarter their normal speed.

“Warn them with a gunshot,” a senior soldier commanded.

‘Oh no,’ Lopez silently noted. ‘They’ll be terrified now.’

Since no camera drone was following the soldiers, Lopez had no visual of the armed men who ran off after the migrants. But she could still hear those who were near the gate’s speaker, and she would be required to recall the details of their conversations for all of the investigators who would eventually descend on the facility. As soldiers ran along the fence trying to get ahead of the migrants, one fired a shot aimed at the sky above their heads. As the bullet whizzed over the beach and fell onto the sand, the weaponized drone only Lopez had initially observed, turned, and began moving towards the soldiers. Since humans typically ignored overhead drones, the enforcement along the beach did not see the approaching machine. Thousands of drones routinely circled over public areas, and few people found it necessary to look up whenever one passed by. But this drone did not appear benign. Unaware, the soldiers continued shouting instructions, until the original shooter realized the drone was moving directly towards him. “Hey!” he shouted, pointing up as the machine’s shadow crossed over his head. Several running soldiers stopped in stride to cast a concerned eye at the drone as it slowed down, then stopped and circled around them. Gliding overhead with determination, the three-foot square standard box drone was supported by wings unfolded into a two-foot span. In an instant, before any soldier could react, the drone emitted a deafening whirring sound, then shot a pulse laser beam directly at the shooter’s gun, and flipped it out of his hands. Stunned, the rest of the running soldiers all stopped and stared. But the soldiers next to the shooter, instantly opened fire at the machine. The drone rapidly fired back aiming directly at their guns.

“It shot at me,” the shooter proclaimed, pointing at the drone as he ran back towards the other group of non-shooting soldiers. “Whose drone is that? Where did it come from?”

As the drone fired in multiple directions, another soldier witnessing the battle on the beach aimed his weapon to shoot, but his action was immediately detected. The machine’s responses were much faster than the humans, and it precisely aimed a laser, knocking the gun out of the soldier’s hands. Scanning for more weapons pointed in its direction, the drone flashed beam after beam to knock the guns away. Initially shocked, the soldiers now anticipated the action, and continued to pick up their weapons to fire again. Then two additional soldiers joined in, and the drone doubled, and then doubled again, the number of beams it fired in all directions at once. In their fury, the soldiers kept shooting, and each became frighteningly aware that he had never seen a defensive weapon of this capability. As the futile battle continued, the drone began to rise higher above the soldiers’ heads, and move back towards the forest. The further away it retreated, the less accurate the soldiers’ shots became, but the drone did not miss a single weapon it aimed at, and it did not stop firing until each soldier yielded, and all of the guns lay on the ground. The astonished soldiers stood empty handed, as they acquiesced to the machine’s growing distance. Throughout the encounter, a senior soldier had frantically been texting his superiors, requesting an explanation. The drone’s existence had not appeared on their coms, only within their direct view, and with that conflict, the superiors sent no reply. As the soldiers bent to pick up their weapons for the last time, a handful kept their eyes on the sky as the drone traveled further and further from view, and others simultaneously watched the last of the migrants disappearing into the trees. The firefight had lasted exactly long enough for the aching, weary boat people to outpace the prepared Filipino military, and reward themselves with their own road to freedom.

“What was that?” a soldier exclaimed in disbelief picking up his gun, then staring into the now empty sky space.

“What did it look like?” said another. “That was a drone that shot at us.”

“Yeah okay, but who was controlling it?”

“Who knows.”

“I’ve asked for help,” the senior soldier stated. “But there’s no record of a weaponized drone around here. Did we get video?”

“No…well maybe,” another soldier said pointing to the surveillance camera drone still hovering on the beach, on the lookout for the next migrant boat.

“I think that one’s too far away.”

“We have to get into the Control Room and check the monitors to find out.”

“That was crazy. A drone attacked us. The migrants took off. How do we explain all that?”

“Let’s try and get in there, and get answers.”

Inside the Control Room, while the chase and battle were going on at the beach, Lopez had waited. As the soldiers crawled back into her visual at the gate, she could hear them fighting over how to describe the escape of the migrants. The Network was not reporting a weaponized drone at the scene or shots fired at the military. Both Lopez and the senior soldier had sent texts to find supervisors who had an override code for the gates. But it would take more than a half hour to identify an officer with the appropriate authority. When he finally did arrive by transport, the gates opened automatically on command from his com. Captain Chris Martinez was a twenty-year veteran of the Filipino Army who could make absolutely no sense out of the frenzied tales of shooting drones and running migrants. He decided only to retrace the detention protocol as it should have been executed. Berating the soldiers for not using their transports, he ignored their desperate attempts to explain that the machines would not work. The browbeating then continued, for daring to suggest a ridiculous scenario where the transports were not responding to The Network’s alert. The soldiers persisted with their stories, Martinez insisted on continuing to reprimand them. Lopez could not verify that the transports did not work, only that she had no protocol for intervening. Captain Martinez ignored her.

But with Lopez’s help, the soldiers were finally able to direct Martinez to the recorded video feed from the shoreline surveillance camera drone, which in its 180-degree sweeps of the beach had caught, on the periphery, images of the weaponized drone, and audio of the firing at soldiers. At least Martinez could not deny the story was supported by unadulterated evidence from The Network. In shock, he reluctantly acknowledged the story of the drone precisely aiming at the soldiers’ weapons, but not directly at the humans, and then flying away as soon as the migrants were out of sight. Now the question he asked was ‘who was controlling it? Which terrorist, anarchist, or anti-government organization had decided to target the Filipino Army?’

After conceded the validity of their stories, Martinez escalated the surveillance video to the next level of officials in Manila, the capital, and every department went into panic. If word circulated within the military about a new weapon threatening the country, an undetectable drone that could knock guns out of their hands, the soldiers were likely to panic. If the story appeared on The Internet that migrants could arrive in Mindanao, and make a run for freedom without being detained and registered, the country would be inundated. But as officials contemplated the incident with fear and limited hope for a reprieve, the migrant story leaked out first.

‘Free to Run,’ headlines lit up The Internet. ‘Protector drone fires on military, frees migrants’ ‘Open door in southern Philippines,’ ‘Unknown freedom fighting drone, protects migrants, shoots at military.’ Over and over the stories were posted, forwarded, and re-posted. The news caught the attention of all individuals who were in the business of paying attention to unexplainable Network activity, including Slater, who had seen undetectable weaponized drones turn on humans once before.

*

The din of sidebar conversations overwhelmed the delegates to the United Nations Security Council committee meeting in New York. Ignoring colleagues on both sides, Khadrian Laltanca leaned forward in her chair, and scrolled through reports on the monitor projected onto her share of the delegates’ table. If she had been chairing the meeting, the participants would be engaged in civilized dialogue and discussion, not the back-and-forth of whispered accusations and distrust already dominating the session for more than two hours. As head of the U.N. Security Council’s Special Command for Cyber Security, Kadie was in charge of protecting the world’s digital borders. Peacekeepers, the blue helmets, were the U.N.’s physical foot soldiers patrolling troubled earthbound areas. But in Cyberspace, the guardians were computer engineers and programmers who could virtually engage rogue technologists and anarchist hackers with code, encryptions, and firewalls. A diplomat first, Kadie was responsible for managing each nation’s fears and demands against the free trade goals of maintaining The Internet open for communication and commerce, and The Network running for surveillance, data integration and human management. Growing up in a small city before training as a lawyer, she was comfortable with many different personalities. Her character traits had helped earn her current official position. But unofficially she had been singled out by The Alliance to operate off-the-record when meetings, like this one, no longer efficiently functioned on behalf of a waiting world. A natural leader, with a relentless attention to detail and efficiency, Kadie had come to the secret organization’s attention through her work at multilateral meetings, and her media interviews in multiple languages. She was exactly the type of person they preferred to recruit to work outside every box every country had already constructed. In exchange, Kadie insisted on outlining her own strategies, being her own boss, working directly only with highly capable peers of her choosing who challenged her intellect, and her decisions.

Having already submitted a report and made a statement, she had competently dispensed with the minimal requirements of U.N. documented requests, and had little or no additional role inside the confines of the meeting. As the discussions whimpered on, Kadie contemplated her exit. Then gratefully, her com flashed, but as she glanced down, she nearly groaned aloud upon realizing the incoming contact request was from Slater. Despite her trepidation, she took advantage of the disruption, and under the guise of receiving an urgent communication, picked up her com and bag, and walked out of the meeting room and into a hallway.

“Yes Slater,” she said after touching a com connection device attached to the back of her ear.

“Hello Commander,” Slater cheerfully announced.

“How can I help you?” she guardedly inquired.

“Oh why can you not gently greet me as you used to? You are breaking my heart.”

“If you’re calling me it means you have an extra-curricular assignment you need handled, but I possibly may not want.”

“I think you will be interested in this.”

“Really?”

“Yes,” Slater gravely remarked. “Unfortunately yes. You are one of the few who understands.”

“Understands what?”

“Undetectable drones shooting at humans.”

Kadie stopped walking. “Okay, yes I understand that and…?”

“It is also your jurisdiction.”

“I know. The incident has been confirmed?”

“Yes, people are not exaggerating. The story out of The Philippines is real. An undetectable drone appeared and this one fires at soldiers’ guns.”

“That’s unbelievable.”

“I know.”

“We completed our investigation a few months ago, and reset all of The Network’s—”

“We did. But we have no idea who or what is operating this machine. It could be anarchists, terrorists, rogue techs. And it is different this time.”

“Only soldiers are getting shot at?”

“Yes.”

“And no one gets killed?”

“That too.”

“And all of the initial analysis has come up empty?”

“That is correct.”

“Then we need our team and a rapid response.”

“Yes and officially Special Command has, or will be tasked to investigate, and as usual you will have all of the official resources from government sources through the U.N. offices, and all the unofficial ones you need.”

“Right.”

“We are considering this a crisis. I will assume you want to enhance your team with…specialists. I will be sending you all of the details the world has gathered to this minute, and going forward, you can determine additional resources.”

“I imagine some of these details are not public.”

“Yes of course, I have more thorough researchers than global media. You will see I have cross-referenced the elements of this incident with possible scenarios. You will want to manage most of this offline.”

“When I see the details, I’ll decide.”

“And for the team?”

“Yes?”

“Do you want me to pull people together?”

“Who do you have in mind?”

“Those with experience?”

“Yes, go ahead and maybe even surprise me.”

“I can or you can tell me who you want around you this time.”

“No, you know who’s needed. On that I’ll trust you.”

“Okay, I will direct them all to meet you in Washington in the next 48 hours. That all right?”

“Twenty-four hours. I’ll see you there, Slater.” Kadie signed off before he could reply.

*

A circular fragment of the Amazon rainforest near Manaus in northern Brazil, ended abruptly at a logging road twisting up through an entrenched solid green wall of trees. Around the city, ancient rainforest still stood under government protection to remind the tourists that they had entered the fabled Amazon jungle. But hundreds of miles beyond the public sight lines, the foliage faded straight downwards to cleared land supporting fresh seedlings requiring decades to re-establish their bounty. The landscape was in a constant battle, the rainforest holding her ground beneath each industrial transport truck rolling through under the weight of freshly cut logs. At the site of the joint U.S.-Brazil owned company Weltern, automated saws were being attached to trees as a group of military soldiers stood nearby. Across the road were hundreds of protesters, their standing front rows locked arm-in-arm, and behind them others held up signs that read: ‘Save the trees,’ ‘No more logging,’ ‘Auto-logging is killing us faster,’ ‘No logging without jobs.’ Holding silent as they gravely witnessed the efficient auto-saw, a machine as long as the tree trunk was wide, snap into place at exactly the spot on each log where the cutting would begin. Men worked quickly and steadily, avoiding the angry shouts coming from the road. The soldiers tensely paced, eyeing only the protestors, and not the company workers. Drones from all sides flew overhead, photographing the scene for the protestors, law enforcement and the media. Few would pay attention to the news stories, environmental protests about logging unfolded every day, and the frustration was an ongoing complaint.

Weltern’s foreman Norberto Lencho anxiously looked at his com. Company operations were precisely timed and executed. His team had originally hoped to avoid protestors, but an agitator must have revealed the exact location of the logging operation. Usually the workers were in and out of a site in the early morning hours of the first half of the day. Today when they tried to leave, they would have to fight the blocked roads and furious slurs. His unhappiness escalated at the thought. But he had work to complete. As each saw was locked onto a tree, his com was updated with a standby signal, he carefully watched as one after another, the machines came online. In total, fifty auto-saws were prepared, to topple in a few minutes, trees that had stood for as long as a thousand years. Cutting them down was not an uncomplicated process, permits and controls were required, and reforestation had to be included as part of the operation. For the employees who noticed public rage, there were less precarious jobs, not as dangerous, but not as well paid either.

Lencho’s com beeped, looking down at the screen, he noted all fifty auto-saws were signaling, ‘Start.’ He waited, staring at the com. Direct human action was not required. The Network knew to activate the operation when the saws were ready, and no humans were detected within the treefall area. A warning siren deployed an invisible magnetic fence to protect from further intrusions as the sawing began. After the felling, longer, straight saws would be used to cut the trunks into manageable logs for drone cranes to move on to transport trucks destined for the processing facility. Waiting to see the familiar instructions pass by, Lencho continued to stare at his com, but the screen did not change. In the next long minutes, the protesters’ chants grew louder, and the soldiers who were also expecting to hear the sawing, began to turn their gaze anxiously from the crowd to the workers. The workers were looking at each other, then at Lencho. After affixing the saws, they had boarded roof-less transports hovering on stand-by near the road. Like Lencho, they had no further direct human action to execute.

“Is there a problem?” the closest employee leaned out of the transport to ask Lencho. “Why hasn’t the sawing started?”

Lencho looked at his com, but did not respond. All of the Weltern employees had the same information, the same static visual displaying the last command from The Network, and no more details. With limited authorization options, Lencho decided to hit reset on his com screen, after a half second, it displayed the message again, ‘Start,’ was the only visible word.

He requested an error report. But there was no error.

He requested a start override. ‘You are not authorized for this action,’ was The Network’s reply.

He double-checked if a command had changed, and he had not been informed, or maybe even missed a routine message. But The Network reconfirmed its sole authority to execute the physical sawing operation.

Humans were an artificial addition at a logging site, the company had pre-programmed the process, and The Network directed each step. But even though drones could have completed all of the manual work from beginning to end, the employment of people to affix the saws was a government employment initiative. Manual labor jobs for the uneducated were scarce, and if there was an opportunity to provide relief for the unemployed, the government insisted companies hire humans. As Lencho looked at his com, he knew the company would now have another data point for protesting the human labor decision, he was certain they would blame the workers for this delay. ‘But how could they? The Network was in charge, and it was The Network that wasn’t reacting, not the humans.’ Lencho considered returning to the tree site to determine if he could find a problem, but when he tried to summon a transport, it would not work either. The Network displayed ‘Saws at Start. No transport permitted within felling range.’ Lencho tensed as he felt the entire crew staring at him, and the rising impatience of both the protestors and the military, all were waiting.

A soldier came up beside him. “Why hasn’t the sawing started?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Lencho began explaining. “There’s no reason displayed. It’s just not starting.”

“What do you mean, it’s not starting?”

“I mean, it’s not starting.”

The soldier skeptically looked at him. “This crowd is getting noisier, restless. They’ll only back-off when the sawing starts.”

“I know, but there is no override. The Network has to turn the saws on.”

“You don’t have an override?”

“No, I am not at that level.” Lencho anxiously scrolled through The Network’s instructions, no actions were listed for humans. He hit ‘Reset’ again, the screen refreshed, but the instructions did not change. He could sense the crowd inching closer, as if the silence from the forest was their cue to take over. The protestors’ movement would be slow and deliberate, without a signal for when the trees might fall, they would not come too close. But Lencho could recognize that they were feeling emboldened.

“Contact a supervisor. Who’s in charge of this worksite?”

Lencho did not respond. The delay etched on, as the crew looked at each other. The company’s regional headquarters were in Manaus, and Lencho silently hoped a manager there would have an override code. Glancing at the soldier waiting anxiously for action, Lencho finally summoned his nerve, and hit a communication icon on his com.

“Weltern Base,” a technician answered on the other end.

“Hello,” Lencho responded with a shaking voice. He had never previously contacted the Base, and hardly knew where to begin the conversation. “Hmm, are you monitoring…monitoring our work in the field?”

“Me?” the technician replied, surprised and embarrassed by the question. Operationally his job was to monitor The Network surveillance of the company’s worksites, but he had actually been playing a football game on his com. Every monitoring station employed at least one human who could lay truth to the name of the facility, and have the building be considered to relate to its function. His real work, if he had to define it, was to exist inside the station walls for six and a half hours a day. “I mean I’ve got the monitors on.” He quickly backtracked as if to confirm he was, in fact, monitoring.

“Can you see…see the problem at our site?”

“What are you talking about?” the technician responded. The technician had also never before spoken to a worker in the field, and he was completely uncertain if he was required to be aware of their activities. In front of him, several video screens displayed camera feeds, but he did not know from where the pictures originated. He quickly touched the locate icon for the incoming communication.

“The saws aren’t working,” Lencho explained. “It’s on ‘Start,’ but the saws are not moving.”

“Umm.” The technician selected several icons in front of him, different pictures were moving to the front screen, but he could not tell the difference from one to another. “I don’t know about that.”

“Well there’s a problem. Can you override it? Do you have a code?”

“Me?”

“Yeah.”

“I…override…? Why?”

“Because it’s not working!” Hoping a brasher stance would encourage the technician, Lencho raised his voice. He realized the task was being thrown over to another person’s responsibility. But as a field worker, he expected the technician at a monitoring station to have resources, workers in the rainforest could not access.

“Umm, I dunno. I don’t have any overrides. I’m a tech and…like…I look at alerts, my instructions.”

“Well who can override when there’s a problem?”

“That’s a Network command. The Network does that.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah of course The Network knows if you need an override, and it will alert whoever is supposed to…react.”

“But The Network…The Network is not responding to us out here.”

“Well I dunno about that.”

“But there must be another process. Isn’t there a supervisor or other higher-up there?”

“Here? In Manaus? No way, man. Those types all live in Sao Paolo or Rio.” Now the technician was feeling slightly emboldened, maybe he had another level to which questions could be tossed. “Those guys wouldn’t live out here with us. They’re in the big cities.”

“Well can you contact them?”

“Why?”

“To tell them the operation stopped working!” Lencho nearly shouted.

The technician’s confidence deflated, his training had not covered a scenario envisioning an unresponsive Network. “Man, if you don’t have a way, I don’t have a way. I told you The Network finds the problem and fixes it.”

“But The Network is not picking up this problem.”

“I dunno, sorry man but that’s how I know it works.”

“But we have to take action,” Lencho desperately pleaded knowing both he and the technician had few options, and even less authority.

“I dunno man.” Lencho anticipated the answer as the technician retreated, but he had still hoped for more. Silence enveloped them both.

“Okay, obrigado,” Lencho conceded. “We’ll try to find a workaround.”

“Like how man?”

“I dunno.” Lencho signed off.

The soldier was still waiting near him. “Well?” he asked.

“They don’t have an override at the Base,” Lencho dejectedly answered.

“Try someone else, this crowd is getting louder.”

“I don’t have any…” Lencho suddenly looked directly at the soldier. “You try.”

“Me?”

“Yeah contact your supervisors and tell them we have this problem. Tell them the crowd is getting out of control, and we need them to contact my company for an override.”

The soldier looked back at the chanting crowd and then at Lencho. “They’re only standing there. Our supervisors will see them on the camera drone. I can’t make stuff up, it’s all recorded.”

“Well, tell them it feels like the crowd is going to get out of control.”

“Feels like it? You can’t feel it if The Network can already see and record it. They’ll look at the video and tell me to go back to work!”

“Do you want to get out of here? If those saws don’t start we’ll all be stuck standing here. Do you want to wait?” The soldier nervously looked at his com, towards the crowd, then back at Lencho. “We’ll end up out here forever!”

The soldier already knew the volatile mix of protestors, workers and the military had been in the forest for too long. Logging company operations usually allowed his soldiers to confirm their evening dinner plans without hesitation. But this delay had pushed back all ideas of a familiar schedule. They were operating in a state of unpredictability which none of them wanted to continue. Contacting a superior would be a bold decision with unknown consequences. “What do I tell them?” he asked, stalling for time.

Waving his hands to the waiting groups in both directions, Lencho insisted, “Tell them this. There’s a Network problem! The saws won’t start. The crowd is going to go wild. Give them a description. Tell them we need an override!”

Bristling under Lencho’s logic, the soldier reluctantly agreed there was little other action they could take. Clenching his com, he sent a text message to his superior. Within a few minutes, a reply came back. Military officials in Manaus were looking at the camera drone images, and could see no crowd unrest. ‘Explain’ was the only detail they requested. “You see,” the soldier said pointing to the com. “Now you’ve got me in trouble for reporting a problem that does not exist.”

“Of course it exists,” Lencho responded exasperated. “We are in it right now. They’re looking at the crowd, but there’s a whole scene here they have to understand. We are all stuck here unless we get an override for the saws or the transports. And if we leave the saws, the crowd might try and destroy them. We need help!”

“I tried man. You saw their response, they won’t help.”

Lencho looked around again, then settled his gaze on the soldier’s gun. “We have to give them a visual they understand.”

“A visual?” the soldier asked. Lencho pointed at the gun. The soldier followed the direction of his finger. “My gun?”

“Fire it.”

“Why? At who?”

“Not at someone. Up in the air. Get the crowd, moving, rioting.”

“Are you crazy?” The soldier nearly shook with alarm. “I can’t start firing for no reason!”

“We have to provoke the crowd, get them charging at you or throwing rocks. We need to attract attention out here.”

“But that’s dangerous.”

“It happens all the time. You must know how a riot starts.” The soldier looked at the protestors still passively locked in embraced arms, chanting slogans. Lencho continued, “Your supervisors have to see a problem. Let’s give them a problem. You don’t have to hurt people, fire over the crowd, and they’ll be scared into reacting.”

The soldier began to sweat more profusely as the idea germinated. Firing without provocation at peacefully protesting civilians would possibly be the end of his career. At the same time, Lencho was right. ‘How could they exit the area if the workers could not complete the logging operation?’ the soldier thought. ‘As long as the status on The Network looked normal, no higher level supervisor would support their requests.’ “Okay,” the soldier offered. “Let me talk to my guys.” Turning, he jogged back to the members of his team who were waiting nearby.

Lencho turned to his own workers. “Any change?” one asked.

“Hopefully the military can help us,” Lencho optimistically replied. “Any second now we should receive an override.”

“I hope so,” his colleague continued. “It’s really getting hot.” Typically, at the crest of midday, the trees would have already been felled and loaded onto the trucks, workers would not be idly standing sweltering in the Amazon’s juicy heat beneath the humid rainforest canopy.

The soldier came trotting back, an extra lightness to his gait. “Okay man,” he started to Lencho. “We have an idea, watch.”

For a second, Lencho decided to worry about the soldier’s sudden eagerness to fire his gun, the military did have a record for overzealousness. But with his need to attract official attention prevailing over his fears about military action, he stayed silent. The soldiers’ plan could be his team’s only chance for receiving outside help to depart from the work site. He glanced back towards the crowd, and could see one half dozen soldiers taunting the protestors, gesturing forward with their guns as they ordered them to move back off the road. The soldiers kept a two to three foot distance from the crowd, but swung their arms out towards them, shouting each time for people to flatten and thin out along the road. The protestors, as the soldiers knew, had little room for retreating. Already lining the edge of the road, people were avoiding newly growing young trees on the private property behind them. If they stepped back, they would be both trampling the seedlings and trespassing. Realizing this predicament, the line began pushing forward, trying to remain on the road’s paved shoulder to avoid crossing into the property. The resistance was the opening the soldiers anticipated, as the first movement forward brought the front protestors within a foot of the soldiers, gun shots rang out over their heads.

A second group of soldiers, standing out of sight of the confrontation, were firing from behind a nearby covering of trees. Tracing the trajectory of the bullets, Lencho quickly turned, then stopped on a visual approaching through the dense forest cover. The soldiers’ action had attracted the attention, not of distant supervisors in a far off city, but of a rapidly moving and whirling drone. Looming in the sky above them, the machine zoomed towards the firing soldiers. Searching for cover, Lencho waved his crew off the open transports, and pointed towards the trees. The approaching drone was clearly not for an industrial site or surveillance, civilian drones were silent with location signals displayed on The Network. Lencho looked at his com, only the camera drone coordinates were displayed on his screen, the approaching drone was not being detected. The soldiers, intent on their actions, had not noticed the machine’s movement towards them, and neither had the protestors.

The panic between the crowd and soldiers was rising. Lencho observed his workers retreating to positions away from the action, as the protesters realized the soldiers’ bullets were flying into the air above their heads. This fact redoubled the crowd’s resolve. Since the military was not shooting directly at civilians, they started to push back against the soldiers. Lencho could see the supervising soldier furiously texting. Now he could give the supervisors at their Base, a visual they could process and support. But the look of triumph on the soldier’s face quickly turned to shock as the undetected drone moved into position above the firing soldiers’ heads, and he looked up at it.

All heard the drone’s whirr become the sound of a firing mechanism, but before the soldiers could respond, the drone aimed its laser and shot at their weapons, knocking the metal from their hands. A few soldiers screamed in panic, prompting their colleagues who were directly battling with the protestors to turn towards them. The protestors surged forward, but they had also seen the drone’s action, and stopped short of confrontation as they stared at the firing drone.

“That drone,” a protestor proclaimed, pointing his com to the sky. “It’s shooting at them.”

The soldiers were all staring at the drone. Then one, who was in among the protestors and not the original firing group, recovered his role, aimed his gun at the drone, and pulled the trigger. At the same instant, the drone moved to swirl towards him, and with a precision that astonished all onlookers, avoided the soldiers and civilians surrounding the shooter, and fired back hitting only the soldier’s weapon out of his hands. Bunched together near the disarmed soldier, protesters screamed as they pushed against the crowd. But terror had simultaneously prompted most of the other protestors to join soldiers in a frantic run up the road. Waves of people clashed into one another. Alarmed, Lencho and his team backed up further into the forest as the first group of soldiers scrambled for their lost weapons. Another round of shooting began, and the drone responded, focusing its astonishing accuracy on their weapons. Scattering in all directions, the protestors and non-shooting soldiers were now a unified audience, transformed in their shared panic to stop, and watch the battle as if it had been scheduled. The show did not last long. As the sound of more transports and more drones approaching enveloped the scene, the separated groups unfroze from their tracks. The supervising soldier’s frantic texts, and sudden images of rioting scenes from the camera drone had finally prompted the military to send law enforcement support from the closest Base. Hearing reinforcements arrive, the shooting soldiers tired of retrieving their weapons. With all hostile guns lying on the rainforest floor, the undetectable drone suddenly rose into the sky, and retreated faster than any soldier could call out to track its departure. All had seen the firing drone, and noted it was not detected on their coms. Even satellite images could not find it. Dazed, the retreating protesters turned back towards the arriving scene of re-enforcements, then cooperatively cleared the area as they eyed the sky, watching for more firing drones to materialize.

Lencho and his employees emerged from their forest hideouts to convince one of the newly arrived military officers to contact their company headquarters about the unresponsive auto-saws, the riot and the firing drone. A company executive in Sao Paolo tried to run an override code to start the auto-saws, but it too failed to work. The company realized The Network was no longer processing the command to cut down trees. The baffled executive considered switching to manual operations, but the plan would require more employees than they had on site or in the region. He escalated the issue, but also had to relieve team, there was little more that could be done that day.

By cancelling the operation, the executive could use an override code for the transports, to permit the team of workers to go back to the trees to manually remove the auto-saws. The few protesters who were still nearby, assumed their stance had been successful. They cheered upon seeing the company’s capitulation, then posted notices and photos of their triumph to The Internet, along with conflicting reports of a protector drone coming to their rescue. Lencho and his men hung their heads in defeat as they swiftly worked to pack up their equipment under military supervision. But as they moved in silence, performing manual labor with only the indomitable ancient trees as witnesses, each worker was considering the same questions. ‘Why didn’t The Network respond? And what was that firing drone?’

*

“Do you really want to be on this team too?” Kadie remarked to Roman as she faced him over dinner in their New York apartment. Since the day’s meetings had extended into the evening, when she had arrived home, their children were already in bed, and Roman had been asleep, fully dressed with a projected screen displaying entertainment programming, hovering in front of his face. She had awoken him up with a kiss, but her contentment immediately faded when he told her Slater had already contacted him to confirm the undetectable drones incident in The Philippines.

“Of course,” he formally replied entwining her hand in his. “I think Special Command could use my experience and expertise.”

“And The Alliance works so much more efficiently when its best agents are on the inside.”

“That too.”

“But we made a pact for the kids.”

“And it’s still in place. Going to D.C. will be temporary. And I’ve got my mother on stand-by. She’s up for it as always, looking forward to it in fact. Her re-programmers are being warmed up.”

“You already contacted her?”

“Yeah I wanted to make sure we were all set.”

“You’ve thought this through.”

“Yes of course.”

“Except…”

“Except what?”

Kadie hesitated, then in a near whisper stated, “The last time we worked together, you went off on a trajectory that almost destroyed our relationship.”

Roman contritely grimaced. “No more unauthorized activities, Commander. I promise.”

“You realize we actually have no idea how long this assignment will last, or where in the world it will take us.”

“Of course we have no idea, that’s why we’re on it. We can work without a precise plan, without The Network. You, me and a few other people know how to handle this, we know how to execute on our own analysis.”

“The details here are on another level. These stories about the drone—”

“You mean besides the fact that it’s happening at all?”

“Well yes. Why is it happening? We worked directly on fixing The Network’s code on undetectable drones—”

“And at the time we were working with all of the data we had available. That’s the problem. That’s always the problem. Every time we make changes to Network security, hackers immediately figure it out. We can never know all of the possible permutations of the system’s behavior. We uncovered The Network creating its own code based on the recording and re-analysis of human physical actions. Humans can unintentionally manipulate code into reacting in unpredictable scenarios. I know we have spent two years trying to unravel how this happens, but the possibilities are infinite, any one can manifest at any time.”

“We will have to work through the analysis all over again.”

“That’s our job.”

“Together?”

“For as long as it takes.”

Kadie’s com buzzed, picking it up, she looked at the text. “Well now it’s longer,” she glumly stated.

“Why?” Roman leaned forward to look at her com screen.

“Another incident, another undetectable drone firing at humans.”

“No way! Where?”

“Brazil.” She shook her head. “It’s really happening again. But I tell you Roman, this time we have to move faster on the investigation. We have got to stop this before it escalates out of our control.”

*

Into a bend of black sheathing wall papering outer space, U.S. and Russian satellites launched on the same day settled next to each other, 22,000 miles above the earth’s equator. Neither government had planned for the complex titanium cylinders to be orbiting so close. But with no overlapping coordinates, the displeased countries respected international protocol and held silent. Interference arising from the rapid proliferation of geostationary satellite launches was the number one issue in the global communications infrastructure. Alongside the obvious intrusions instigated by Intelligence agencies, inadvertent interference was the subject of several treaties and countless offline and official discussions. But demand far exceeded supply for exclusive orbital slots as every country, business, media organization and thousands of wealthy individuals, and sponsored rogue techs launched and maintained their own private satellite connections. International agreements had been signed, and accords had been established, but the battle for parking space continued unabated. For each entity, more advanced technology was the weapon of choice for settling disputes. Governments did not want to shoot down satellites or engage in prolonged negotiations. Instead each country, company and individual, preferred to outmaneuver the next in the race for communications superiority. Within that fragile resolution, the newly launched satellites spun around into their respective positions, and aligned with the assigned frequencies. As the launches completed in the vacuum of space, no step looked extraordinary.

Inside the Kennedy Space Center launch site in Cape Canaveral, Florida, the completion status alert light flashed on Janna Marric’s console at precisely the predicted time. Outside, the region’s warm beach sands and flowing waves of the United States’ southeast Atlantic Ocean coast had enticed visitors for generations, and become the established focal point for the popular imagination’s vision of humans’ reach into space. Inside, the sun-lit tourists wandered through the simulated shuttle launch control room, and gaped at the pictures of early space exploration. The images on the walls, the magnetic rooms around them, and the town’s sidewalks were populated with mission specialists, engineers, scientists and astronauts lingering among the swimsuits, sandals, and sunscreen. Cape Canaveral was a blended location, the local residents did not assume that any suspicious activity arose from the people wearing suits, khakis, bikinis or no coverings at all, as they merrily interacted with one another on the sandy coast. But the resident professionals were not a new generation of star seekers. In full view of the sustained visitor traffic staring appreciatively through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of the public viewing areas, the Cape Canaveral technologists were coding and implementing advanced applications designed to provide Cyberspace security against suspected rogue tech-controlled satellites. The United States and the European Union had hidden a privately-owned, jointly-managed satellite tracking test facility inside the historic space station, and none among the t-shirt and flip-flop wearing day trippers would have suspected that part of the long and ongoing battle for control of The Network was being played out in real-time right before their eyes.

“Is it online?” a voice came up behind Janna as she read the alert report on the monitor. She turned to look at fellow engineer Dustin Chu approaching to stand next to her. The two were at the frontlines of the U.S. government’s official response to the advances of rogue technologists. Both had been heavily recruited from their science and technology university programs. Most technology professionals shifted directly to private sector employment with median starting salaries, but high eventual payoffs from owning equity in a new company. Private industry technologists also had more freedom, leeway to pursue innovative ideas, and a comfortable, pampered lifestyle in college-town fashioned campuses scattered all over the world. Educated techs who accepted government offers were usually driven by loyalty or national pride, or the opportunity to learn the secret, challenging protocols the official teams were developing at a pace that could challenge any private operator. In government service, the mandate may be restricted, but the developments were not. The educated and prepared, like Janna, who had original ideas for protecting the world’s digital infrastructure were welcome and admired in their circle. But she was also expected to conform to the government’s restricted parameters as capably as she could manage.

“Yes,” Janna confidently replied, pointing to the screen. “It’s online. We are finally taking a shot at Cyber Army satellite communications. A lot of people have waited a long time for this day.”

Chu leaned down and looked at the monitor. “Awesome, let’s contact Toulouse,” he contently replied. Sitting down next to Janna to project a com screen, he began entering a secure contact protocol code.

With monitor screens strategically shaded from the viewing public, Cape Canaveral’s team tracked the orbital space activities of the self-proclaimed Cyber Army, the group responsible for launching strategic and persistent attacks against government Network controls. The rogue tech organization had succeeded in stepping out of Network security’s view by building, and effectively using, its own untraceable digital on and off-ramps to the public Internet. Identifying the coders’ locations, and revealing their plans was as vital to private satellite owners as it was to the global military and government communication infrastructure. The Cyber Army was an unofficial, but not completely unorganized, uncountable number of educated and professional technologists who were considered to be in direct action against all governments, and many corporations. They proclaimed to be the unelected brain force working on behalf of an ignorant and complacent public that needed to understand the truth about Network control. Computer programmers, engineers, coders, application designers, gamers, hackers, and technology consultants in every corner of the world, aligned with global liberationists, civil and human rights activists, and an undefined number of implicated billionaires to reset the order on The Network. Although often associated with all rogue technologists, the Army was in reality the designation’s more organized brethren. One group illegally disrupted law enforcement, military and government servers in the name of personal liberty. Another focused on corporate and media locations managing online consumer profiles. All declared the fight was about privacy, the right to be left alone, a deceptive government’s manipulation of technological advances, the corporate profit agenda tied to endless advertising, and a deliberately under-educated populace’s inability to defend itself. The government infrastructure supporting the aggregation, collation, transformation, and redistribution of personal data existed, in some form, in every country, and was never turned off. Personal data on servers was gathered at every moment of an individual’s life, and used to direct that individual through each next breath, every second. In Europe, a disdainful and active public violently fought the intrusion and use of their online existence by government and corporate entities. In America, a less aware, economically fragile populace muted their response behind selected civil liberties’ organizations. Neither approach arrested the governments’ insistence that data collection and re-processing are a necessary and unobtrusive application of modern technology. The governments’ repeatedly broadcast an innocence of action based on the efficient management of taxpayer resources, the need to ensure national security, and the unspoken principle that the tracking of every human’s life was a welcome function of responsible government. The Cyber Army dared to condemn their presumption on behalf of an impotent world.

No democratic government had been able to win the cooperation of its courts in preventing the Cyber Army, or at least the public version of its kind, from winning the right to launch private civilian satellites, build camouflaged server farms, or transmit over the public airwaves, existing for humanity by the grace of God or chance’s formation of the earth. Their retaliation lay only in more advanced technology. If governments in facilities like the operation at Cape Canaveral could respond before rogues techs aligned their own resources, the official world could at least improve its monitoring, understanding and defenses to the Cyber Army’s actions and resources.

On the ground in Florida, Chu’s contact communication to a parallel team working at another monitoring station outside Toulouse, France transmitted within one second. “We are on,” Chu confirmed as both sides acknowledged the connection. The Control Room around the Cape Canaveral team resembled the inside of a hundred airplane cockpits. In a semi-circular formation, projected and physical video screens lined the walls from the ceiling above to sitting armrest level, and two dozen technologists twisted in office chairs facing separate monitoring sections labeled by orbital sectors.

“Excellent,” the team from France replied. “Let’s run step 2 and—”

“Wait,” Janna interrupted. “I’m sorry but…there’s a…” She pointed to a visual emanating on a monitor for one of the satellite’s onboard cameras.

“That’s the satellite,” Chu answered, surprised.

“No it’s not,” Janna replied.

“Of course it is.”

“Is there a problem?” asked a voice from Toulouse.

“That’s not the satellite we want,” Janna responded.

“Of course it is,” Chu hastily interjected. “The Network is reporting it, look.” He pointed to another monitor screen.

“No you look,” Janna, pointing to a different screen, frustratingly replied. “That’s a Russian satellite.”

“No it’s not,” Chu insisted. “I’m looking right at the report.”

“And I’m looking right at the camera feed. I can clearly see it.”

The Toulouse team interrupted again, “What are you seeing? Where is the problem?”

Janna hit the ‘Mute’ button. “Look at this,” she said to Chu pointing to the screen with one hand, and swinging his chair towards her with the other. “Look at the image.”

Chu reluctantly rotated his body and blinking once, then twice, his silence conceded she was right. The visual showed a Russian satellite, it’s name and flag could clearly be seen by the camera’s image, and more importantly its coordinate signals were aligned with global protocols. But turning back to his monitor he viewed, consistent with a rogue satellite detection, The Network was reporting the same image as an unidentified, unauthorized satellite, and preparing to run through the new scanning application the team was currently testing. “I don’t get it,” he whispered. “Why does The Network think that…” he pointed again to the visual monitor, “…is the rogue satellite?”

Janna quickly began running error checking protocols through The Network, but it did not change its report. “It’s locked on the Russian satellite,” she replied in panic. “Our new scanner will be detected by the Russians. We have to shut the program down.”

“Shut it down?” Chu responded in shock. “We don’t have the authorization.”

“We cannot let the Russians know about this scanning program.”

“But how do we shut it down?”

Janna hesitated. “I don’t know. Let’s get Toulouse back on.” They reconnected with the team in Europe.

After explaining the conflict between The Network and the video feed, the response from Europe was muted. Toulouse had the same visuals, and had already come to the same confused conclusion. “The Network must be right and the visual wrong,” the French supervisor began. “The report details on The Network say that’s the satellite we want.”

“The Network could be right…” Janna skeptically replied, “…and wrong. Why would it point the camera at a random Russian satellite instead of the rogue one it claims to have located? Either way, we have a problem and we have to shut the program down.”

“We cannot shut it down, it’s already running.”

“We have to override it.”

“We cannot do that either. We are contractors to the U.S. military, for testing only, we are not given the override codes.”

“Then we have to tell the U.S. military this incident could trigger a Russian defensive reaction, and they have to stop it.”

“But we need a complete explanation, not only a human visual. The Network is reporting the program status correctly. We cannot tell them we’re guessing it’s wrong.”

“We are not guessing. The protocol or The Network has targeted the wrong satellite. We cannot let the program run.”

“But we do not have an explanation.”

“We have to at least warn them with the information we’ve got.”

“But I do not understand. You want to tell them to stop their multi-million dollar test program on your visuals…with no Network verification?”

Janna did not hesitate. “Yes, because there’s a clear conflict on The Network.”

“Well then you will be on your own. We are not going to agree, and we are not going to stop the program protocols on our end.”

“But can’t you see where this is leading?” Janna raised her voice, pointing at the screen. “The Russians will detect—”

“We are following The Network’s instructions.”

“But—”

“Janna!” a voice shouted to her from across the room. Janna turned to see the face of a communication technician turning ashen as he gaped at her while pointing to a screen.

“What happened?” Janna replied, rising from her chair and walking towards him. She left Toulouse hanging on com.

“We..we…” The technician was trembling as he continued to point at the screen.

“What?” Janna asked again.

“We triggered…a…we triggered a Russian alert.”

“No!” Janna gestured for the technician to move, and he jumped out of the way in time for her to position into his seat. “Oh no!” She quickly entered a stand-down signal code as Chu came running up behind them. The Network did not respond. She turned back to Chu. “Get back on com and tell Toulouse to look at this, and then tell me again that I’m guessing!” she shouted as Chu hurried back to the communications console. “Tell them we need an override code right now! We have to tell the military to turn this program off!”

“How did this happen?” the terrified monitoring technician asked from above Janna’s head.

“We have no idea,” Janna uneasily replied turning to the monitor flashing both U.S. and Russian defensive reaction messages to monitoring stations around the world. “But we better pray Russian alerts run a hostility verification protocol. Because if not, a global power has just been provoked into an excuse for war.”

*

CHAPTER TWOTHE EXPANSION

Isabella Martinez patiently waited in the Oval Office foyer inside The White House in Washington, D.C. Uncomfortably adjusting her clothing by pulling her skirt down under her thighs, she contemplated the allure of shorts and barefeet. Growing up as one of eight rambunctious athletic children, Isabella was a reluctant wearer of formal clothes, but her preferred style would hardly be appropriate attire for the U.S. Ambassador to Brazil summoned to meet with U.S. President Arturo Solar. Still her unwelcome outfit threw off her sense of calm, which only increased her uneasiness. Despite being a first-time Ambassador, Isabella was in charge of one of the U.S.’s most important relationships with the hemisphere’s other major economic power. Like the President, she was Mexican-American, and represented a U.S. population that had melded into a trilateral culture founded in European, African and Latino roots. Isabella exemplified the progress as a professional geologist who took her global interests around the world, analyzing earth formations for sustainable development companies before settling into a rapidly rising Foreign Service career. A native of the Los Angeles megalopolis area extending over most of southern California, western Nevada and northern Baja California, she was most at home on a swatch of suburban concrete where hot sun and warm water drizzled over the bodies fighting to maintain a vibrant, open, existence in the face of unrelenting resource constraint. Migrants poured into the region for the weather and the opportunities, but Isabella left to take her chances in the spacious world. Now she sat waiting for the President to find out why he had suddenly recalled her to Washington.

“He’s ready to see you now,” a stiff young man stated after materializing in front of Isabella, and pointing towards the door.

“Oh, thank you,” she politely replied. Promptly standing up, she followed in his direction.

The door opened, and Isabella stepped into the inner sanctum. The President and two aides were already sitting on the forward couches, and all stood as she entered.

Her escort stepped aside. “Mr. President, Ambassador Martinez,” he announced, sweeping a hand from one to the other.

The President reached out his hand as Isabella approached. “Good afternoon, Ambassador, it’s a pleasure to see you again,” Solar graciously stated.

“Thank you Mr. President, good afternoon,” Isabella responded while shaking his hand.

“Please have a seat.” He gestured to the couch then turned to his aides. “And please leave us.” The aides walked out, and Isabella was alone with Solar.

“Good trip up?” he began.

“It was great sir, thank you for the private jet ride.”

Solar laughed. “Officially that was not my initiative. A successful supporter happened to be in Brasilia and was coming this way.”

“Well either way, it was great.”

“Good.”

“Mr. President, I apologize for my directness, but why have you recalled me?”

Solar laughed again. “I heard you like to get to the point.”

Isabella readjusted her position. “I’m sorry, is there another reason you asked to see me?”

“Sort of. Your thoroughness and efficiency are exactly the traits I’m looking for right now.”

“Oh?”

“And your discretion.”

“Yes sir, of course.”

“I obviously have an issue I need managed.”

“Yes sir.”

“And they tell me you can represent my interests.”

“Certainly, Mr. President. I’m happy to help.”

The President briefly smiled and picked up his com. He entered a code, and within ten seconds, Isabella saw a projection begin to materialize on the couch beside her. Reflexively moving back, she uneasily watched as light and pixels silently filled the air before her eyes to close off a transparent scene, and reshape the edges and contours into the shape of a full-size human, a 3-D hologram in ultra-realistic living colors. Isabella gasped and pushed herself further back down the couch as she came to realize the conjured individual beside her was Alannis Solar.

“My apologies,” the President, noting her shock, quickly said. “I should have told you before turning it on.”

“No that’s okay,” Isabella lied as she attempted to back further away from the apparition that was now gently smiling at her.

“Alannis, this is Ambassador Isabella Martinez,” the President said to the image. Isabella looked at him in disbelief.

“Good afternoon, Madame Ambassador,” Alannis’ simcon addressed her. Isabella did not respond.

“Extraordinary technology, isn’t it?” The President stared at his daughter’s projection.

“Yes it is,” Isabella reluctantly agreed while slowly adjusting to the appearance of the lifelike figure in the room. No lighting adjustments had been required for the hologram, and the app produced no gaps or blurs in the pixel configuration. Alannis’ digital image had appeared before them, content and ready to interact with living humans. Her projected movements were smooth and natural, as if she had walked through the door, not been compiled by computer processing.

“Have you ever seen a live simcon hologram?”

“Only on news reports.”

“It’s amazing. I can keep my daughter with me, like she never died.”

“Yes sir.” Isabella was stunned by the visual. Although she knew Alannis was physically dead, she had to agree it was as if the tragedy had never occurred.

The President selected a function to ‘Pause’ the simcon’s recording features, and freeze the image, then lowered his voice. “But when you interact with a person’s entire…digital…life, you can also find out details I’m guessing she never wanted me to know,” Solar continued with melancholy.

“Yes I’m sure.”

“Between you and I Ambassador, Alannis did not authorize my receipt of her simcon.”

“Oh.”

“I basically stole it.”

“I see.”

“Well I suppose I should not say it that way. I authorized a Network override and had it sent to me. My enemies would find it unethical, but…at the time…well I needed to reconnect.”

“I understand.”

“But now I’ve discovered some secrets from her life, and unfortunately I can reluctantly say I have a national security excuse for my decision.”

“National security? Why?”

The President wavered. “You know, it was worth the risk to restore access to my daughter, and to be able to speak with her every day, to share stories and tell her the latest news…and to get her feedback.”

“Yes.”

“She replies, as if she were still here. Her thoughts, ideas, advice, all of it contained in her simcon, and all capable of understanding my voice in real-time and replying spontaneously.” Isabella stayed silent. “We’ve been having a wonderful time.”

“That’s great Mr. President.”

Glancing from the hologram to Isabella, he reluctantly acknowledged, “But there’s a problem.”

“Okay.”

“I’ll be blunt and direct as you prefer. My wife had a conversation with Alannis, this Alannis.” He pointed to the hologram. “And the reply suggested that…she was involved with Zylen Blain.”

“Blain?”

“Yes the rogue tech. You’re familiar with his work?”

“Yes of course. I worked with Special Command when we were dealing with undetectable drones attacking energy and undersea industrial sites. Blain had started those incidents. He created the undetectable drone technology.”

“Yes I know. I’ve read the reports. But I had no idea that afterwards, a guy who had once been imprisoned by Special Command, had managed to meet my daughter and develop a relati…friendship with her.”

“Oh I see.”

“And now I am concerned about the information he might have received from her. I quietly asked some people to look into it. Alannis didn’t know state secrets of course, but she did have advance information about some of my plans. I needed to know if she might have told this Blain cabron about my ideas.”

“Okay.”

“I said they could only literally look into it. Analyze the code, and see if they could find out if there were any national security problems.”

“And?”

“And they didn’t find any information showing a direct link to government policy. There were endless texts about common interests like the environment. And she had blogs he had commented on. The recorded conversations I had with her had more details but…I don’t know… it was not all strictly non-public information.”

“That’s great news, sir.”

“Well it was for a day. But I think there’s another level of access going on.”

“Access?”

“I think Blain has uncovered, well maybe he has…I don’t know, obtained access to her too.” He pointed at Alannis’ hologram image again.

“Her?” Isabella asked alarmed, following his hand movement. “The simcon? Excuse me, but why would you think that?”

“Are you familiar with Special Command’s current projects?”

“Special Command? Right now, no.”

“We once again have an issue with undetectable, weaponized drones firing at humans.”

“Oh yes, okay I heard there were stories about that happening again. But I did not hear the reports were true.”

“The reports are all true. People saw drones firing directly at weapons, and over people’s heads, but no humans have been killed.”

“Yes that was reported too.”

“One attack ended up freeing a group of self-selected immigrants from the army in The Philippines, and another stopped a logging operation in Brazil.”

“Is there a connection?”

“Yes, I think it’s me.”

“You? I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

“These incidents…these are issues I have recently spoken to Alannis about…this Alannis,” he clarified, looking at the hologram. “I told her we were going to help The Philippines’ government with a new migrant control program that would involve arresting boat people. I also told her we were going to work with Brazil in supporting logging companies using those auto-saws everybody hates. She was adamantly opposed to both of those policies. Then within a few days of telling her, the incidents occurred.”

Balancing alarm with uneasiness, Isabella raised her eyebrows, “But Mr. President, it could be a coinc—”

“A coincidence. I would love to believe that, but I know a pattern when I see one. I used an override to generate a simcon, and as far as we know that command has never been executed before, at least not directly in The Network. And the very issues I discussed with her are now involved in undetectable drone incidents. Like you said, that Blain guy invented the undetectable drones, that’s his technology. There’s a connection, I know it.”

“Does Special Command know about your suspicions?”

“No and they won’t. The investigation I asked for was only for a security breach, to find out if Alannis had already told Blain information we would not want him to know. But that was a stand-alone request. This…this pattern around the undetectable drones, I need to keep it quiet. I can’t have my inadvertent mistake broadcast to the whole world. The fewer people who know, the better. But I want you to go back to Special Command to be my eyes and ears on the inside. You cannot let them know the whole story about what I’ve done. But you’ll work with them, using the information I’ve given you, and get this problem fixed.”

“But Mr. President, I’m sur—”

“I know you trust them Ambassador. But you’re an American, this is a confidential assignment on behalf of your president, and I don’t want it shared with a public international team. I’ve stopped discussing policy with Alannis. It hurts me to have to end our conversations. We used to talk about the full range of objectives I was hoping to accomplish this term, but…I’ve stopped. The problem is I do not know if any other conversations could trigger an action. Worse, I do not know if Zylen Blain knows more than my investigators were able to detect. That’s just as worrisome.”

“But how could Blain be involved?”

“Well it has got to be him, right? Not only are there few other rogue techs with the skill to launch these incidents, but there are also exactly no more who were connected to my daughter. Believe me, we’ve now checked out all of her friends. Blain is the only troublesome one. And I think he has re-launched his favorite weapon to…I don’t know, maybe avenge her ideals.”

“Wait Mr. President, you believe Zylen Blain knows about your discussions with Alannis, and is using that information to create these incidents?”

“Maybe…yes that would be the idea.”

“But how could he know about the conversations you’re having with the simcon now?”

“That I do not know. You’re going to have to find out for me. Like I said, no one is supposed to override The Network to generate a simcon, right? Which means we do not know The Network’s reaction when someone does it. And rogue techs, they find a way to use technology we cannot even describe. You know that better than I do. That’s why I need you to work with Special Command and get ahead of this.”

“Yes I see.”

“Look, I’ve got you assigned to the investigation of these new undetectable drones. You’ve got the experience so the team has no reason to suspect your appointment.”

“Okay.”

“I know it’s a terrible mess. I really thought I could benignly have my daughter with me for the rest of my life.” He was staring at the hologram. “And now…well…I do not want to lose the little contact I have. You understand?”

“Yes sir, I understand but…” Isabella hesitated, “…I’m sorry Mr. President, but I’m the Ambassador to Brazil. Have I been officially recalled?”

“No, no, you’re still the Ambassador, don’t worry about that. You’ll be on leave for a little while to work on fixing this for me…for the country. You can give whatever reason you want for being away. Once we know for sure we can erase this problem, you can go back to your post. And after Brazil, if I’m still in office, you can have any head of mission post you want. But first, I need to make sure these incidents are stopped without letting on how it all may have started in the first place.”

“Okay yes, I understand. And don’t worry sir, I’ll figure it out.”

Bueno, I knew I could count on you, gracias Ambassador. We’ll set you up with secure com, and you can keep me directly informed as the team makes progress.” He rose from his seat, and Isabella followed his lead. “I look forward to your reports.” He stretched out his hand.

Isabella shook it. “Thank you Mr. President,” she stated then exited.

Outside The White House, Isabella decided to walk back to her hotel. Thinking about her awkward assignment, she made her way through Washington’s hazy streets, but contemplation did not last long, within five minutes, her com buzzed. She looked at the screen. “Slater James,” she answered half-enthusiastically. “I should have known.”

“Hello your Excellency,” Slater confirmed. “How was your meeting?”

“What meeting?”

“Ahh very good, no one loves a secrecy protocol as much as I do.”

“Why are you calling? Or is it The Alliance making contact?”

“I will not directly answer that question.”

“Tell me Slater…” Isabella seriously probed, “…does The Alliance really exist?”

Slater never directly answered that question either. “There are always concerned people who try to work together to keep the world functioning as it should.”

“You mean to work outside of official government and civil society interests.”

“It is in the interest of all humans to keep the world moving forward in a much more efficient manner than can always be managed under established circumstances.”

“To avoid the great masses of people who don’t understand your benevolent objectives?”

“What was the question again?”

“Who asked for me on this assignment?”

“I believe you just met with him.”

“Seriously, the President? Directly?”

“Well he may have been given a hint. Welcome back to Special Command.”

“Are you Kadie’s official greeter boy?” Isabella laughed as she recalled the last time Slater had convinced her to work on an assignment for Special Command.

“Yes I am and it is a job I cherish.”

“Good.”

“The Commander is summoning you and the rest of the team. I will send you meeting details. Stay in Washington.”

“Oh but I was planning to go shopping in Virginia,” Isabella sarcastically responded.

“Seriously, we are already in a crisis. Our undetectable drones have returned.”

“Yes I heard the stories have been confirmed.”

“Good, well—”

“Ahh, Slater…”

“Yes.”

“Take this as a general question, is Roman on this team?”

“Is that a problem?”

“Is that a yes?”

“Is it a problem?”

Isabella sighed. “No, not for me, I’m a professional.”

“Right, good. And if it is any consolation, I believe you no longer have to worry about his attitude. He has apparently been humbled by a multi-lingual toddler who basically runs his life.”

Isabella laughed out loud. “Oh that’s awesome, I would love to see that.”

“Yes I would too. But even so, he’s not my favorite colleague, and I definitely do not trust him. But for Kadie…well it is her decision. For us, we have our jobs to do, we will stay out of it, all right?”

“Do you think she told him not to do anything she would not authorize him to do?”

“I am sure of it.”

“Okay then, it’s her call.”

“Listen, we have a major world problem to manage. Let us try to not reactivate all of these ancient private life conflicts.”

“Okay by me,” Isabella replied as she wondered how a team with their history could avoid overlapping their social lives, as they desperately worked to avoid another global crisis.

*

The alert signals at Cape Canaveral paralyzed Janna’s crew. Each team member waited, hands poised over a keyboard searching for a command to continue. Janna anxiously stared at her com. For a half hour, her team had been anticipating a response from Toulouse. The Russian satellite was alerting that a U.S. satellite was interfering with its transmissions, and the U.S. satellite was responding by claiming it was not detecting the Russians. The conflicting alerts, as alarming as they were, also bought both countries more time. Each side stalemated on a reaction as they re-verified The Network’s pinging of the same messages over and over again.

“I’ve never seen communications cross each other like this before,” exclaimed Michelle Tavares, Janna’s second chief engineer. “I mean how does The Network not know which is which?”

Janna looked at her, and then at the screen. “The Network is a machine,” she responded.

“But it works…it runs…all of the data, all of the commands.”

‘Yes it does,’ Janna silently noted. ‘Even its own errors.’ Then she said aloud, “We can’t sit here and wait any longer. Nobody is responding because they are all looking at The Network to validate the system is right and the visuals are wrong. They are not going to question a Network report. We have to have our own plan. Dustin…” she turned back to Chu, “…find out who we should contact.”

Chu looked at her and asked, “Contact?”

“Who do we contact if we see a conflict like this? If an incident like this happens?”

“Ahh, like you want me to—”

“Use The Network to find out if you have to, but give me a name I can contact about these alerts.”

“But Toulouse?”

“They are obviously too slow. Do you want to wait until the Russians start shooting? I need names now.”

“Okay I’ll…I’ll try and figure it out.”

Janna turned away from him, and addressed the rest of the crew. “We obviously have a problem with The Network,” she began. “I know you have never heard that statement before in your whole lives, but it is possible. The Network can make a mistake, and that’s exactly the scenario we have playing out right now. We have to determine how to fix it, or make changes that force our application to function correctly. If you have any ideas please speak up.” She anxiously looked around the room.

The crew looked at each other. None of them had their own ideas. Janna let another minute pass. She had not expected the team members to positively react, but thought at least she would try to provide them with the opportunity. “Okay back to work.” They quickly turned away from her.

Returning to her console, she anxiously watched The Network program resetting to scan the Russian satellite again. She could see the protocol was reaching the end of its analysis of the conflicting signals, but she had no idea what would happen when it stopped. ‘C’mon, someone contact us,’ she silently pleaded. But it would be an hour more of tense gazing before Chu would have a response.

“Okay there’s an executive from the company in Miami who’s going to contact us,” Chu triumphantly announced approaching Janna. “Should be right…” he looked down at his com, “…now.” The com buzzed and Chu smiled. He directed the speaker to Janna’s console, and nodded to her to answer.

Janna responded, “Hello this is Janna Marric, chief engineer at the Cape Canaveral satellite station.”

“This is Kendall Knight, I’m the VP for our operations in this hemisphere, what’s going on?” Knight demanded.

“Oh Ms. Knight, well did our communications specialist explain that the program is not running correctly?”

“Yes but I don’t understand. Why don’t you run the errors for a diagnostic and Network fix?”

“We did, but The Network is not analyzing the same images we’re seeing.”

“Seeing…images? Wait, are you saying you have more accurate eyes than The Network?”

“Well yes, in this case, we have a correct real-time visual of the satellite, and The Network report is wrong.”

“That makes no sense. The Network is giving you the visual.”

“Actually it—”

“Look I can’t do anything with your explanations,” Knight interrupted exasperated. “You’re the tech people. I can’t fix a conflict between you and The Network.”

“We understand but we need authorization to turn off the satellite scanner. We need an override code to end the test immediately.”

“End the test? The company will not authorize that.”

“Ms. Knight, the Russians have already been alerted to the scanning of their satellite.”

“All countries do that.”

“But we are not supposed to be scanning their satellite with this technology. It’s the next level of capabilities, with the ability to detect the content stream. This program was never meant to target civilian government satellites, especially not those functioning under the same cooperation treaties. The application is only supposed to be picking up rogue tech communications. But if it’s scanning the Russians, it’s basically infiltrating their civilian links. We are invading the privacy of the Russian people. And we’re doing it in a very obvious way. The Russians are going to consider this a hostile act. If we don’t voluntarily stop, they’re going to want to shoot our satellite down, and call it self-defense.”

“That’s ridiculous. Where are you getting this information?”

“We have emergency scenarios generated by The Network. It’s the official analysis of this situation…it might happen. This is very serious. This is not an ordinary program we have turned on, and it’s not supposed to be aimed at other countries’ satellites.”

“But you’re…you’re telling me…we are about to start a war with…with this program?”

“Well if we don’t stop it, we should expect a defensive reaction.”

“But this is crazy! Why can’t The Network detect that it’s a Russian satellite?”

“I don’t know.”

Knight gripped her com. From her vantage point in a South Miami Beach restaurant, she stared at the ocean waters licking the soft, white sand of the shoreline. Despite decades of flooding and erosion, the locals still rebuilt and reconstructed every year to ensure a smooth pathway along the tourist filled coast, for the bikini-clad wanderers, muscle-stocked ball players, and drifting rollerbladers who returned there every day. Knight was in a sleeveless blouse, but pondering the beach, she longed to strip down further and join the contented revelers. Another moment passed, as she reprocessed the details Janna had provided. “Okay…we are running a program on The Network that needs an override code to immediately turn it off,” she methodically repeated the scenario aloud. “This is a U.S. military protocol, and we need the authorized official to implement this action. And the questions are, who could that be, and how fast can they authorize the shutdown?”

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“And The Network will not give us a shutdown protocol because it directs override codes itself, and it has not detected the scanning program has identified the wrong satellite?”

“Yes.”

“And when you look at The Network report it says it’s targeting a rogue satellite, but when you look at the actual visual it’s clearly Russian? The Russians know they are being scanned, and have already signaled their hostility?” She paused. “Now is there any way the military could be doing this on purpose?”

“Sorry, but…but why?”

“As part of a test, maybe it’s in the contract with them?”

“If they are, it’s a very dangerous test. The Russians are not sending back cooperation signals, they are agitating for defensive action.”

“Okay, okay, I’ll skip that part and run with the rest. I’m going to have to escalate this using the images and reports you sent me. If anything changes make sure you update me right away.”

“Of course, thank you, but we are also not sure how much time we have before one side or the other runs out of patience.”

“Yes I realize that, but I can only move so fast.”

“Yes of course. Because this is not a Network report, you’ll have to contact the officials manually, and send text reports or another communication over secure lines. Then they’ll want to verify the details again, and they’ll look at The Network and see all the wrong information, and we’ll start all over again.”

“Yes I imagine. I’ll need to find an official who skips the official route and immediately understands. Someone who would not automatically go back to The Network looking for a confirmation.”

“Yes, that’s the hope.”

“Unfortunately there are only about a hundred people in the whole world who would react rationally, and none of them work for us. I’m going to be searching for a while, but let me know if the whole incident turns on us.”

“Of course.”

“Okay I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” She signed off.

‘Wow,’ Janna silently mused as the communication ended. ‘What a strange conversation.’ She turned back to her team, and announced, “Okay, this issue has been escalated now we have to wait for an override code.” They all stared back at her. “Let me know the minute there is any change in The Network status.” The team members nodded.

Chu moved closer to Janna to whisper, “That Knight lady actually sounded like she understood.”

“Yeah, she did,” Janna replied. “Problem is, she also knows how hard it will be to find another person with her instincts.”

“But that’s crazy. How could they not have an executive who can quickly respond?”

“Because they never thought they’d have to. They built all this around the idea of an always functioning Network.”

“Not a good idea.”

“Well until today, it seemed like a good idea.”

“Now we have to hope another person knew it was a bad idea, and already considered a viable response.”

“Yeah but who could that be.”

*

From a balcony view above the shoppers in Korcula Town, Maltine Krann kept one eye on a text thread from a Russian contact, and another on a thread from an American. She had been puzzling over the information for more than two hours as she searched the world for Slater James. Outside, on the island where Marco Polo was fabled to have been born, tourists trampled narrow cobblestone streets as the reconstructed walls of ancient Dalmatian residents pressed in over their heads. Inside her quiet home, projected video screens encircled Maltine, hovering at varying heights within her viewing range. The sun beamed down on the visitors, and warmed the waters of the Adriatic Sea from the Croatian coastline to her east, to the Italian coast to the west. As she felt a soft breeze slip through her open window, her com buzzed. ‘At last,’ she triumphantly thought. ‘That’s a pretty advanced mask on his com…but not advanced enough for me.’

“Hello,” Slater tentatively responded.

“Good day Mr. Fix-It,” Maltine flippantly greeted him. “How are you Slater?”

“How did you obtain this number?”

“Don’t ask stupid questions. I’ve got information for you.”

“Seriously Maltine, you must have broken ten laws to directly contact me.”

“Your laws, who cares, you government people are so damn slow. Your laws are broken before you write them, and then a whole new set of code works around them.”

“I really do not apprecia—”

“Shut up Slater, I said I’ve got information for you.”

Slater was silenced. Having Maltine Krann contact him was a rarity. She was an independent, a rogue tech with an official title, who only reacted to her own moral code. If she had valuable information for him, he was compelled to listen rather than complain about the hack into his com security. “All right tell me?”

“Huh, now to be good? You are lucky I care about the world or I would disconnect from you.”

“Yes you do care. That much I know. Go ahead tell me, why are you calling?”

“Do you know there is a communication problem between a Russian and a U.S. satellite in outer space?”

“Explain Maltine, what kind of communication problem?”

“The kind that can lead to a war.”

“What are you talking about?” Slater projected a screen and began searching reports. We do not have any infor—”

“Both sides are telling their higher-ups that the other one is being hostile. I am sure you will get the official word soon, but I thought I should help speed up the very slow motion of international communications. Both sides are going to say the other is threatening them, but really only the Russians are right. The Americans are running a new satellite-scanning program that no country has ever used before, and they have aimed it at the Russians. But The Network is reporting it’s aimed at a rogue tech satellite.”

“How do you know this?”

“I said don’t ask stupid questions.”

Slater took a deep breath and reset his position. “Okay then, I do not understand, explain this to me again. Why is The Network reporting a rogue tech satellite?”

“Because that’s the data The Network is displaying. The Network says it’s a rogue, but the humans, and the Russians, can clearly see it’s Russian. You see the conflict? The humans are seeing The Network is wrong, but of course they don’t know how to tell it that.”

Slater froze. He had heard the scenario before.

“You see the issue?” Maltine continued. “You see your big problem? Human eyes conflicting with Network eyes.”

Unfortunately Slater could clearly see the issue. “Yes I do,” he replied.

“And you’ve seen it before?”

“Not like this.”

“But you have seen a similar problem?”

“Yes.”

“I knew it. I tell you. Now you can take action and save the world.”

Slater had stopped in his tracks and leaned against a tree. A conflict between The Network’s report and humans’ eyes was the most rare possibility. “Yes I will, and as a first step, I am going to ask you to come to Washington.”

Maltine gasped. “For what?” she demanded.

“For Special Command, they could use your help.”

“Are you mad?” she distrustfully responded. “Do you know where I am? I’m looking at pristine green water and thinking about a fresh fish lunch. You want me to leave this view to go to that dreary city full of boring and ugly politicians who spend all of their time talking, arguing, and having sex?”

“Yes I know where you are, and I know how you feel about official Washington. But we have a couple of incidents Special Command is working on, and they could probably use your insight, and more information about this latest problem. It is an extraordinary piece of Intelligence, which I already see has been verified. I do not know where you find your sources Maltine, but we need you in Washington.”

“No I am comfortable where I am. If they need more detailed information, I’ll send a text.”

“Maltine, it is better in person, to work directly with the team, you know that. You can have real un-recorded conversations.”

“I’ll send a secure one-channel only text.”

“Maltine please cooperate. They could really use an agent with your skills. Your insight would be invaluable.”

“Of course it would, that’s why I stay independent.”

“You are not entirely independent. You work for the European Union.”

“Technically yes, but I’m still free…with all of my other activities.”

“And you will completely retain your freedom. This is about using your brain and helping the world. You love to help Maltine, especially when it is for a good cause. You contacted me. I know you are interested in doing more.”

“I do not want my special talents broadcast to a lot of people.”

“It will not be a lot of people. I will only tell the Commander who you really are. The rest of the team will only know you as another diplomat. By profession, you are a science and technology officer, it is not a stretch to slip you in with this team. They always need more people who can think. They need to solve this problem with bright minds who can work around The Network. You are a perfect fit.”

“The Commander already knows who I am, you should know that,” Maltine bitterly stated. “And because of her knowledge, you should understand why such an appointment will not work. There’s no way she’ll trust me. She has my job, and she knows I know it.”

Slater took a deep breath. “You and Kadie are not rivals. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but there was absolutely no possibility the world was going to give you control of Special Command. You do not have nearly the experience Kadie has. And you may have succeeded in keeping your extra-curricular activities a secret, but not to every organization in the world. There are one too many suspicious people. To be perfectly honest, you were not even close to obtaining the appointment. You were not on the final list.”

“I don’t believe you, she has no tech skills. And I had European votes.”

“Kadie had the world’s vote. And the job does not call for hard tech skills, it is about people skills. Kadie has a real diplomat’s track record. She has been dealing with global negotiations for years. You were…are…essentially a bureaucrat inside one organization. And be honest, you do not even enjoy working with other people, let alone doing it on a daily basis. Where are you right now? Hold up in one room surrounded by monitor screens?”

Maltine flinched and did not reply.

“Be realistic,” Slater continued. “Come to Washington and give us some of your time and brainpower in exchange for eternal peace over the other activities you are engaged in.”

“Are you making an offer?” Maltine cautiously queried.

“Yes as far as we are concerned, your secrets will stay secret. We protect those who cooperate with us.”

Maltine considered the proposal. “Why did I bother contacting you?”

“Because you knew it was the right move. You understand where you can best make a difference. Say yes.”

“Send me the information and I will think about it.”

“Okay that is fair, but think quickly. The Commander is bringing the team together now, and she will want to know who is available as soon as possible.”

“Don’t push me, I said I’ll think about it.”

“Thank you Maltine.”

“And the Russians?”

“I will get on it right away, thank you for the information. If this is a major issue, I cannot imagine why it has not already been escalated.”

“It takes forever for humans to realize it’s a major issue.”

“Yes I guess that is part of it, I will see if I can speed them along. Thank you again for letting me know, I am on it.”

“I knew you would be.”

“I hope to see you soon.”

“We’ll see about that.”

*

The output of Kendall Knight’s frantic texting reached Slater an hour after Maltine’s contact. Initially, Knight had escalated the details to her immediate supervisor who, as predicted, insisted on reviewing all of The Network information on his com. But at least he decided to trust his own eyes, and readily agreed the targeted satellite was clearly Russian. He also knew the override protocols were under the jurisdiction of the U.S. military, and that request would have to come from a higher executive level, his supervisor.

The next line was the head of global operations. She was less convinced The Network had incorrectly reported the visuals, and requested another analysis that took longer than the clarifications offered to the lower ranked executive. The company’s biggest fear was the loss of the government contract. If they could not prove they understood all of the requirements, then they would be ousted, and a rival company would take over. The contract-focused executive thought The Network conflict might be a resolvable error, and insisted on more tests to determine if the Russians would respond differently. Instead, when the Russians raised their alert level, she immediately backtracked on proof the situation was genuine and threatening.

Finally the incident details were repeated to the company’s CEO, and she immediately contacted the U.S. military. The higher-ranked military officers were livid the escalation process had deliberately meandered through the company’s ranks, and their own corporate liaison officers, but once the anger had subsidized, they were even more confused by the detailed and repeated reports confirming a conflict no officer had previously seen. As the defense began its re-analysis of the analysis, they sent an intervention request to U.N. Security Council Special Command, which was mirrored to The Alliance. Then Slater contacted Kadie with his update.

“I have received a communication from a U.S. General, who received a communication from a Russian General,” Slater began.

“Did this joke start in a bar?” Kadie gravely asked.

“Not unless it is in outer space. The Russian General is Zoubkov, he is in charge of communication satellites, and he said his country has gone on alert because the U.S. is blatantly scanning their communication equipment in the earth’s orbits. The U.S. general is Sidney Toews at WestCom. Officially, he is saying The Network is clearly indicating they are scanning an unidentified, unflagged satellite, and the Russians are making up stories. But offline, he admits there is a conflict being reported, although he still says the Russians are crazy, and are misrepresenting the situation. Of course he cannot reveal the U.S. is scanning satellites at all because this new program is top secret.”

“Do we know more than both sides?”

“We have the sinking feeling this is all too familiar. Reminds me of an incident we never expected to see repeated,” Slater lamented.

“Yes I have that same feeling. We have a situation where humans are seeing a visual The Network is not reporting. And we do not know why The Network is not correctly reporting it,” Kadie observed. “It could be any number of reasons.”

“It could. But we’ll avoid speculating and jumping to conclusions that could scare people. Confirming The Network is not detecting clear images humans are seeing could escalate very, very quickly into more than conflicting reports.”

“Yes it could,” Kadie recalled. Two years earlier, Kadie, Slater and a Special Command team had unraveled a Network incident that had almost led to war between the U.S. and China. Undetectable drones had menaced U.S. and Chinese undersea mining vessels. The Network cameras and sensors did not pick-up the drones, and the system had no report of the incident. But humans onboard both vessels could clearly see the machines outside their Control Room windows. Special Command was quickly involved, but the attempts to control the drones led to crew deaths, and dramatic disruptions for civilians. Afterwards, Special Command considered the mistakes that had been made in the investigation, and developed a process to ensure they did not repeat those errors. “I want our own people on this from the beginning.”

“Yes I am working on the team.”

“I mean the programmers and technicians who will be looking at the code. I want our own people, no rogues.” Slater imperceptibly hesitated, but Kadie knew him well, and caught the reaction. “I mean it, no rogue technologists,” she demanded.

“I did not ask for rogue techs.”

“You didn’t have to, I can detect your thought process. Find me a tech from the U.S. satellite team, a smart one, and assign that person to Special Command. I want to work with official technologists. I know you think rogues will be better and faster, and that can be true. But we paid a lot of political capital for the last two, and I do not want to start that process again.”

Slater weighed his information. “You may not have to. There may be another way, already paid.”

“How?”

“I am not really at libert—”

“Slater!”

“I honestly cannot…” he hesitated again, “…look Kadie there is a second issue involving…involving the President of the United States. He may need our help for a particular problem, then you will have a lot more leeway on this investigation than you think.”

“A second issue? Related to this? You are speaking to the President about another issue?”

“I cannot explain the details right now, but do not worry about paying political capital. I believe it will be covered.”

“Slater, you drive me crazy with your cloak-and-dagger Alliance espionage!” Kadie fired back exasperated.

“Kadie please do not be angry with me. The work I do is on behalf of the world, you know that.”

“No you do it on behalf of Slater James’ survival instinct. We have barely begun this investigation, and you’re already pissing me off…again. What is it this time? Who are you protecting?”

“I am not protecting anyone,” Slater lied as he considered Isabella’s position. “Calm down. The only reason you are angry is because you think I have to give you an explanation for every action I take.”

“No Slater, it’s because you have a track record of lying to me.”

“Well so does that boyfriend of yours.” Kadie fell silent, and Slater immediately regretted uttering the words. “Sorry, sorry, sorry, please forgive me for my indiscretion.” Kadie did not respond. “Please Kadie, forgive me, I take it back.”

“You both have a record of lying to me, together, about exactly the same unauthorized activity,” she replied. “Yes I’m suspicious and have every right to be. But you go ahead and fulfill your personal agenda as always.”

“Kadie, please do not be angry with me. I respect you. I love you. We are friends. I will follow your orders. A tech from the U.S. team will join you, and as soon as I can, I will tell you all the information you need to know on the other issue.”

“Yeah sure okay, but remember I know when you’re lying.” Slater sighed. “Forget it. I know who you are, I know exactly the man I’m dealing with. But let’s move on Slater, we have bigger problems to deal with right now.”

“Kadie please do not hold this against me, you and I are more than this job.”

“I said, let’s focus on the satellite issue.”

Slater sighed again and consented, “Yes Commander.”

“Don’t patronize me.”

“Kadie please—”

“Look, we’re done talking. Assemble the team in Washington so we can move forward on this crisis. I’ll see you there.” She signed off before Slater could reply.

Slater looked at his com and his heart wrenched. He knew trifling with their relationship, risked letting it fade. He and Kadie were friends, and making her angry could cost him a cherished connection. Members of the Special Command team were presumed to be on the same path, and he needed to hold Kadie’s trust. The best way to accomplish both of those goals was to do his job, not as well as always, but better than Kadie or the rest of the team would have expected.

*

General Sidney Toews paced back and forth inside the Control Room at the Western Hemisphere Defense Command military complex located, without visibility to outside passers-by, inside a mountain between Aspen and Denver, Colorado. Succumbing to the persistent warnings from Janna’s team, his military officers had reluctantly come to the conclusion they would have to override the operation of the satellite scanner program to end the threat to, and from, the Russians. Fuming at every step in the process, the General lividly considered the indefinite shuttering of a five year old project, and the empty explanations accompanying the request. Under a U.N. Security Council temporary directive, the scanning program would be halted, without recourse or knowledge as to when it could come back online.

On com screens scattered around the room, WestCom had the Cape Canaveral team waiting for General Toews’ orders. As witnesses to the plan, the headquarters of the U.S. company in charge of managing the satellites was also on com from Dallas. Roman waited patiently as the representative from Special Command, another U.S. military team was at The Pentagon, and the Europeans listened in from Toulouse and Brussels. All locations were anticipating the official word. The General let the nervous participants linger for more than twenty minutes, before he reluctantly nodded his approval to a hovering Captain.

The Captain acknowledged the directive, and turned to his com screen. “Canaveral, we are a go, here is your override code.”

Janna watched the string of data roll across the screen in front of her. As soon as her team had the entire visible protocol, she turned to the technician beside her, Blake Marciano, and gave her own signal to move forward.

Marciano began to enter the override code, an instruction to the U.S. satellite-scanning program to shut down without provocation or a documented reason. Under normal operational circumstances, if the program needed to be shutdown, The Network would detect the necessary issue, and respond with a command. The situations that triggered the action, and the corresponding shutdown protocols were already programmed into The Network, and had been tested and activated at the same time the scanning program had been turned on. Humans only used override codes in extreme circumstances, when a situation was outside planned Network control, a state that had never previously occurred with the satellite team. “The program is responding,” Marciano assured the room. Each person breathed a little easier, and began to lean back in their chairs to wait for the override to finish running.

Three minutes later, the calm ceased. Janna, who had deferred from seeping into a point of relaxation, was the first to note another, different alert signal emanating from the console. “Which signal is that?” she asked her team.

A WestCom officer responded over com, “That’s an aerial object alert.”

“An object? Where?”

“Stand-by.”

Several more minutes ticked by as the teams stared at screens. “There, I see it,” Chu abruptly said aloud, ignoring the expectation to wait for the official U.S. military response.

“See it? Where?” Janna demanded.

“It’s a drone, moving quickly.”

“A drone? There’s no reported drone signal on The Network.”

“Right, I know,” Chu said moving towards the satellite’s camera feed monitor, and pointing at an object on the screen. “The Network only picked up an object in the vicinity. It’s not detecting a drone. But if you look here…see it moving?”

Janna looked at the screen. She saw a progressing object, but was surprised she could not distinguish it as a drone. She wondered how Chu knew. The earth’s orbit was full of space debris frequently triggering collision warnings. Janna found it difficult to identify random pieces if there was not a clear picture from The Network, and a report to backup the images her brain was recording. “It’s not being detected?” she clarified.

“No, it’s not. We should definitely have a signal, but we have…well we only have the machine we can see.”

“You mean like with the satellite? Except instead of reporting the wrong information, The Network is not reporting this at all?”

“I guess so.”

“I see it too,” an officer at WestCom pronounced. “And General, it’s a weaponized drone. It’s clearly calibrating to shoot.”

“Shoot at what?” Toews exclaimed alarmed. “Our satellite? Theirs?”

The officer continued to watch. “Well based on the forward trajectory, I’m guessing theirs,” came the reply.

Staring at the screen, Janna prepared to verify the officer’s assumption. WestCom turned a satellite camera to directly follow the drone, and could now determine it was deploying a firing mechanism.

“Well we can’t watch it prepare to shoot it!” Toews exclaimed. “We have to react.”

The coms responded with silence on all ends. “Is there a link between the satellite program and defensive drones?” Roman asked, finally breaking into the tension to end the impasse. “Is there an internal trigger?”

The team in WestCom looked at each other. “Maybe a detected level of hostility?” one of the officers reluctantly answered.

“I know. But what’s the protocol to detect hostility? We need the exact data The Network would look for?”

“I don’t know,” the officer replied. “It reacts to a received instruction.”

“We must have programmed the scenarios. One of the analysts in that room has got to know the protocol driving the reaction.” The room fell silent again.

Several more minutes went by. Those who were watching their monitors noticed the Russian defensive alert system reset, but could not isolate the intended defensive reaction. Given the threat, a response was inevitable, and there was little that could be done once it started. As the tension mounted, Janna said almost to herself, “I think it’s in sync with the override. If you look at—”

“You’re right!” Roman shouted. “The code is parallel.”

“Look!” Chu said to Janna, pointing to the drone on the monitor. “It’s getting ready to fire it’s going to shoot down the Russian satellite!”

Realizing the implication of his statement, Janna commanded, “We need to shut off the override. Shut it off right now.”

“Wait, you are not authorized to shut down the override!” Toews shouted. “You can’t give that order!”

Janna moved to hover over Marciano as he stared at her, sweat beginning to drip all over his console. “It’s okay, run the shutdown protocol,” Janna whispered in his ear. “I’ll deal with the fallout.” He nodded and began frantically typing to reverse the override instructions he had carefully entered minutes before.

“Drone is three minutes out,” Chu confirmed.

“What are you doing?” Toews demanded as the override shut down sequence appeared on every screen. No WestCom team member responded to his questions. The officers and soldiers did not want to address him directly, nor stop Janna. They were all watching the action on the screens.

“It’s done, it will take a second, but it’s almost completed the wind down process,” Marciano whispered back. Relieved, Janna nodded.

“Who authorized that shutdown?” Toews shouted again as if he were alone on com, and had no monitors to view the action himself.

“Stand-by General,” Roman sternly replied. “Special Command confirms the shutdown is required to prevent a global cyberspace conflict. Both the U.S. and Russia officially requested a peaceful resolution to this issue. The shutdown is in compliance with our mandate.” He too had no intention of stopping Janna, but unlike the General he confirmed, by looking at the monitors and cross-referencing the commands, that if Janna’s plan did not work, they were out of options.

After another minute, Chu announced aloud to the team, “Drone is retracting. It’s retracting its weapon, but still moving towards the Russian satellite.”

“I know what they’re doing,” Knight interjected to the whole team. “You can see it on the monitor.” The assembled ears tuned to her elucidation, as the monitor screens flashed messages of an averted crisis. “There’s a communication security link to the defensive instruction. The program must be designed to protect itself. It must have scrambled the weaponized drone, probably because it was being forced to shutdown for no reason. That would register as a threat, right Marric?”

“Umm, well…I definitely saw that link, but I’m not sure about the instruction,” Janna honestly responded.

“I don’t think the program is designed to protect itself,” Roman said. “We need to run diagnostics, but I do not see an instruction in the protocol to activate a defensive drone.”

“Then what is going on?” Toews demanded again.

“I apologize General, and everyone, but we had to move quickly,” Janna contritely stated as she scrambled to catch up to the General’s questions. “We could see the link to the override, but not the instruction. I’m not sure why the drone targeted our override or why it responded with defensive action.”

“Then how did it happen?” Knight interjected. “Defensive drones don’t come out of nowhere.”

Roman twisted in his seat. He was not about to launch into a long description of the capabilities of undetectable weaponized drones. “It is possible for actions to take place that we did not expect,” he added. “We have to do an investigation. Let’s not speculate.”

“But can’t we figure this out right now?”

“All we know right now is the drone turned off its attack mode when the scanner program override stopped,” Roman added his support to Janna’s theory. “That’s the link, and that was the right call. The defense is reading off the override.”

“But why? Where did that instruction come from?”

“We don’t yet know,” Roman reluctantly replied. “We have to find the origin. Does the reset of the scanner look correct now?”

“Yes,” Chu answered. “It’s as if the situation did not change, except now we’ve got a weaponized drone pointed at the Russians too.”

All sides on the com groaned in disbelief. “Great, we’ve escalated it,” Toews derisively announced. “That’s unbelievable.”

“We cannot run the override for the scanning program,” Janna noted to confirm the entire team understood the full implication of her actions.

“No, as of now we cannot,” Roman answered, corroborating the need for additional validation.

“No shutdown?” Toews irately asked. “Are you serious?”

“Until we know why the defensive drone was triggered we cannot run the override,” Janna explained. “The drone is not moving now. We cannot risk it shooting as soon as the program begins again.”

“But how could you not know about this possibility? Why didn’t we all know this would happen?”

“We will investigate General, and find out how this happened,” Knight defensively replied.

“General we did not have the luxury of time to think through every possibility,” Roman explained. “We did not tell The Network it had an error reading the satellites, we went directly into override. For all we know that’s why we got a response we did not expect. In hindsight, we could have considered this scenario before it happened, but now we must manage the situation as it stands.”

“But we had a plan,” Toews responded, disappointed. “This entire team worked through an action plan.”

“Yes and now we have to run tests on the results, General,” Roman added. “Until we know the capabilities of that defensive drone, all plans for shutting down the program will have to be on hold.”

“But we have a crisis. The scanning program is the problem we were trying to end in the first place. And now we are going to let it keep running?” The com went silent. “Well then Special Command, it’s your responsibility. You explain it to the Russians and keep them off our backs!”

“Yes General I’ll update the Commander on this right away,” Roman responded.

“Faster than right away. The Russians are not going to accept that we are now not only threatening interception of their communications, but also poised to shoot down their satellite. This is a huge mess.”

“Yes General I know and we’ll fix it. I’ll get back to everyone as soon as possible.”

*

“Commander Laltanca?” a hesitant voice reached out to Kadie via com.

“Yes,” Kadie responded, projecting a screen to determine who could be contacting her, but sound as if she did not know it was a direct line.

“My name is Michelle Tavares. I’m one of the engineers on the U.S. satellite project. I was told…I was told to contact you and introduce myself. I’ve been appointed as your direct liaison to the team.”

“Yes fantastic,” Kadie reacted, genuinely enthused. She had already received Tavares’ background information from both Slater and Janna, and knew she was exactly the operative to represent Special Command’s interests on the inside. For a change Slater responded as she had directed. “You have excellent credentials and a great track record, welcome to Special Command.”

“Thank you Commander,” Tavares replied still nervously hesitating. “I received a briefing from my supervisor and Agent James. Do you have any other instructions for me?”

“Yes I do.” Kadie adjusted her tone. “You’re going to have an extended role on this project, because I’ve been around U.S. military, and corporate security for a long time, and when the two of them are aligned it can mean the rest of us are kept out.”

“Kept out? Special Command?”

“Yes. Special Command is a U.N. organization, and not everyone’s preferred approach to supporting global business. But our job is to ensure peace, and to negotiate countries away from conflict.”

“Yes I understand.”

“I will need you to update me on the team’s activities, the details I’m not officially being told.”

“I’m sorry, but how could you not be officially told?”

“Specifically, I don’t know. I leave it up to you to find out and let me know. Tavares, I have never worked with you, and you don’t have to trust me. You can respond to this request as you see fit. I have no influence over your career. But I’m wondering if you can think past the parameters you see directly in front of you.”

“Think?”

“Yes think. You’ll see and hear many things. You might wonder why certain information is being presented in a specific format, or why data is being analyzed from a particular angle. When you think like that, you could be on to information that is not being directly reported. That is the detail I need to know, and the insight I want you to report back to me.”

“But there are Network reports—”

“No Tavares, not Network reports. I would like you, your brain, your analysis, the activities you see, the ones you question, the responses you’re wondering about, do you understand?”

Tavares bit her lip. She was beginning to believe she understood but the consideration terrified her. She had never been asked to view actions that appeared routine as part of another agenda. “Yes Commander, you want to hear my analysis as a thinking professional.”

“Correct.”

Dropping her earlier hesitation, Tavares remarked, “I’ve heard that about you.”

“Heard what?”

“Well that…that’s how you work with the people around you. I’ve heard you don’t let the people on your team only use The Network, you force people to think.”

“Well I don’t know about force.” Kadie softly laughed then calmly said, “I hope I’m encouraging people to freely use their own human brainpower. Individual thinking is very important to me, and I hope it is to others too.”

“That’s cool.” Tavares slipped to informality, which she immediately regretted.

“Then you understand?” Kadie decisively asked again.

“Yes Commander, I understand,” Tavares respectfully replied.

“Excellent.”

“Excuse me Commander?”

“Yes Tavares.”

“I was wondering. I know you said you do not have control over my career, but could you? I mean if this works out…could I apply to work permanently for Special Command?”

Kadie was taken aback. “Well that’s a new level of confidence. You haven’t even worked for me for a day. You have no idea how we really function, and you already want to join us?”

Tavares wavered, but pressed on. “From this brief conversation, I’ve learned enough to ask to come aboard. I appreciate your intentions, and I know I would love to work for a leader who…well, who thinks.”

Kadie laughed. “Thank you Tavares. And yes, you take this assignment seriously, and demonstrate you really know the parameters for success with Special Command, and then you’ll have an inside track.”

“Thank you Commander, that’s all I ask.”

“You’re welcome Tavares, but we’re going to ask a lot more from you in return.”

*

Cracked cement wound its way between the slapping cold waters of English Bay, and the tall green pine trees of Vancouver’s Stanley Park as Hagen Writstone rounded the bend of his last mile. His running feet swept him along the city’s busy Seawall, one after another at a pounding pace matching the struggle in his heart. To make the most of a dry morning, he would push his workout past his normal pace. But as he came even with his closing meters, he looked up towards the park’s majestic totem poles, and halted in mid-stride. Joggers and rollerbladers behind him politely invoked the Canadian curse word ‘sorry,’ as they swiftly readjusted to avoid a collision, and Hagen, noticing their reflexes, hurriedly jumped off the path. His heart was still vibrantly pounding as he dropped his head down to catch his breath, and the man who had been standing watching him, approached.

“Great workout,” Slater exclaimed as he reached Hagen’s bent over body.

“It was supposed to be,” Hagen responded, breathing heavily. Glancing up at Slater, he added, “Until I saw you.”

“And it is good to see you too.”

“Why are you here, Slater?”

“Shall we walk? You need to cool down.”

Hagen straightened, and took several gulps of the crisp, fresh air as he reclaimed control of his body. As Slater began moving across the park grass, Hagen reluctantly followed. A veteran of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s Cyber Intelligence Unit, Hagen had traveled the world in the fight to outpace online criminals from independent hackers to the Cyber Army. As a frequent consultant to Special Command, he had crossed paths with Slater on multiple occasions, but they were reluctant colleagues who also tried to avoid each other, except when specifically necessary.

“How is your life working out here?” Slater asked.

“Perfectly well thanks,” Hagen conclusively answered.

“Really? You enjoy being based at home?”

“Yes I do.”

“Good. Now would you be up for dropping it all for an indefinite amount of time to come and work on another project?”

Hagen paused in stride. “A project? Now?”

Slater continued, “Yes, several people have asked for you.”

Hagen skeptically looked at him. “Who could possibly be asking for me, Slater?”

“The Alliance. People remember why they know your name.”

“The Alliance? Does a powerful individual need action taken without the rest of the world officially knowing about it?”

“Perhaps.”

“Now who could that be?”

“The President of the United States.”

“Seriously?” Slater nodded. “Why?”

“He has his daughter’s simcon.”

Hagen lowered his voice. “Yeah I guess he does. That was so tragic.”

“Yes it was, but he stole it.”

“The simcon?”

“Yes, and when he was communicating with it, he discovered a private detail that was a little too unnerving for words.”

“A private detail?”

“He found out she was involved with Zylen Blain.”

“Zylen Blain?”

“Blain is a rogue tech, one of the best, an Australian who is now living somewhere in this world. He is not a Cyber Army leader, more of an independent who works for the most accessible billionaire who will pay him. Two years ago, he basically created undetectable drones.”

“Drones The Network could not track, I remember.”

“And Special Command caught him, but had to give him up to the less than cooperative rules of international law. Now, unbelievably he has resurfaced in the oddest way possible. He managed to have a relationship with Alannis Solar when she was an exchange student in Melbourne. Now the President believes that perhaps Blain knows details about U.S. government activities he would never want him or any other crusading rogue tech to ever know.”

“And?”

“We have already checked the simcon data, and could not find any evidence Alannis told Blain secret, or even developing, information about U.S. government policies. But now the President wants us to find Blain, and make sure he is not accessing the simcon, and using it to be disruptive to the world.”

“Accessing the simcon? How could he possibly do that?”

“We do not know.”

“Why does the President even think it’s possible?”

Slater hesitated. “Let us say he is being cautious, and wants to make sure there is no national security issue involved with running a simcon from inside The White House.”

“Okay, that’s suspicious.”

“And it is the request.”

“Well okay, but this is a very big world, and I’m sure this Blain guy knows how to hide.”

“Yes he does. That is why we are on this.”

Hagen stopped and looked back towards the city’s snow-capped mountains. Vancouver had been built into one of the world’s most spectacular settings, its blue and green glass skyscrapers folded between a water and mountain terrain as if the man-made features had naturally appeared. “We?”

“You, me, Special Command.”

“Just Special Command or that asshole she calls a boyfriend too?”

Slater rolled his eyes. “In this case both. Look I do not trust Roman either, but it is too late for all those old stories. You work for Kadie, you work for Special Command, and forget about your past.”

“It’s impossible to forget a past with Kadie, and Roman—”

“Ignore him, that is how I handle it. Now do you agree to join us or should I find a way to persuade you?”

“Why the hell would you say that?”

“Because you have a tendency to want to pursue your own independent agenda.”

“That’s why you need me.”

“Yes, but without any additional trouble.”

“Wow such little faith. Yes grumpy, I’m in and there will be no trouble.”

“And the most important part of this assignment is you do not know the President has Alannis’ simcon, and found the Zylen Blain connection, that is your side job. You are going to work with Special Command on the latest incidents with undetectable drones.”

“The latest incidents? That’s all real?”

“Yes of course it is. Why does everyone ask if these incidents are real?”

“Because you can’t unquestioningly believe the news you read…or even see, in the media.”

“Well in this case you can. And we have seen it before, it is very real, and we have to stop it from happening again.”

“And where are we on that?”

Slater held up his com. “I will send you details. You can brief yourself on the trip to D.C.”

*

Kadie and Roman quietly sat in a transport enroute to Special Command’s D.C. office. The driverless vehicle, resembling a car with no underchassis or visible wheels, hovered over the streets of Washington, navigating around other transports, humans and buildings as it traveled the legal speed limit, by the shortest route, taking detours and avoiding obstacles, to deliver them, on instruction only from The Network, to the front doors of their destination. The two were not talking. Their children, her nine and ten year old sons, and their 18 month old baby daughter had been left with Roman’s mother in New York. Technically, they were in the care of Camilla’s staff of maids and nannies, but as a grandmother, Camilla proudly declared that she had complete supervisory control, and the help was strictly help. She did not care how long the children would be with her, with six children and 22 grandchildren, the house was always occupied by her descendants, and they could be comfortably absorbed into her nest indefinitely, which was exactly the outlook Kadie and Roman feared. The longer they were away, the harder it would be to deprogram their offspring from their grandmother’s specifically Latina approach to child-rearing, indulgence in exchange for worship of abuela, dios and la cocina colombiana, grandma, God and Colombian cuisine.

“They’re all right,” Roman stated to break the silence as they reached the halfway point of their journey.

“I know,” Kadie replied with barely concealed exasperation.

“Okay then why aren’t you talking to me?”

She turned to face him. “I’m thinking.”

As she turned away, Roman held his comment. Her response could reflect a range of underlying declarations from ‘don’t talk to me,’ to ‘I’ve almost solved all of the world’s problems.’ Roman knew Kadie’s tones, and that line had been closer to the former. He turned to look out the window as the transport sped on.

Kadie was a relentless thinker. Self-taught to pursue a life beyond the average, she had completed all forms of education well aware of the need to maintain an open and active mind, in the face of dramatic and unforeseen societal change. Human knowledge was every data point that had ever been known or conceived, in every language or communication form that had ever existed on earth. Those who claimed they had ‘finished’ their education dramatically erred by severely limiting their choices for the rest of their lives. Kadie wanted to know and understand as much as possible about every subject that interested her, in as many languages as she could learn. Unlike Roman, who grew up in a household emphasizing education, with parents who ensured their children were exposed to a range of opportunities, Kadie had to unravel the possibilities on her own. But people like her who naturally understood the importance of readapting their thinking, were invaluable in a world where almost all humans responded only to the commands of The Network.

Special Command’s Washington location was in the basement of a functional office building on the banks of the Potomac River. As the transport stopped and opened its doors, Kadie and Roman stepped out and walked through the lobby, passing a bustling array of people from personal gift deliverers to consultants and lawyers. Less than half of employed Americans had to travel to a stationary physical structure to work, the rest could complete their tasks using coms that were carried or embedded in moveable objects. Office buildings existed to hold temporary spaces for face-to-face meetings, and permanent offices for those restrained few whose jobs required onsite interaction. Slipping past the public elevators, Kadie and Roman opened an unmarked door. Each individually faced a control room scanner that, on verification, opened a sliding wall to reveal another set of elevators. They descended two levels and emerged into a large open floor space. Around the room, the permanent D.C.-based Special Command team, those who were not among the uniquely skilled agents Slater had individually contacted, was analysts, communication specialists, consultants, diplomats, computer engineers and programmers, monitoring Cyberspace activities in every U.N. member state, and known territory on earth. The D.C. office worked directly with U.S. military and Intelligence forces. Similar teams backed up the government surveillance and military infrastructure for the European Community in Brussels, the Russians in Moscow, the Indians in New Delhi, the Chinese in Beijing, the Israelis in Tel Aviv, the Brazilians in Sao Paolo, the South Africans in Johannesburg, and at fourteen other locations around the world. The worldwide administrative office, where Kadie was technically based, was at U.N. headquarters in New York. Special Command was singularly unique, a global organization with unfettered cooperation and access into the world’s technology infrastructure for the joint strategic reason that all nations had an interest in ensuring The Network functioned as programmed. Through the organization, governments followed established protocols, and no war among U.N. nation-states had ever broken out in Cyberspace.

As Kadie and Roman entered the room, all nearby turned to offer greetings, and Slater approached them. “Everyone has arrived,” he said to Kadie as he swung an arm towards a conference room table aligning one wall. “Would you like to start the meeting right away?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“All right, but let me first re-introduce you to a couple of old friends.” He put his hand on her arm, a movement not missed by Roman, and led her away.

“Isabella!” Kadie exclaimed, directly approaching her friend with arms outstretched. “We managed to pull you away from Brasilia after all.”

“Yes Commander, only for Special Command,” Isabella delightfully confirmed, returning the hug, another gesture not lost on Roman, who had moved to take a place at the table and wait. “How’s your little future agent?”

“She’s thriving, thanks,” Kadie replied.

“Hey Kadie,” a voice said behind her. Kadie spun around to face Hagen Writstone. “You look fantastic as always,” he continued, leaning in to kiss her cheek.

“Thanks Hagen, so do you,” Kadie automatically responded. This time Roman, catching the sight of Hagen greeting Kadie, cursed under his breath. “A little home time has done you a world of good.”

“After the mission I went through, yes it has.” Kadie looked at him with concern, but did not continue the conversation in front of the others.

“And this is Maltine Krann,” Slater said, directing Kadie’s vision as Maltine approached.

Kadie forced a smile. “Welcome to the team,” she stated, shaking her hand.

“Thank you Commander, it’s good to be here,” Maltine honestly replied. “I’ve been wondering for a long time what Special Command is really like.”

“Well now you will know,” Kadie politely confirmed. “Let’s get to work.”

The team members walked towards the conference room table and sat down. Around them video screens displayed updating news reports, and several observers in other offices around the world were projected into the room as if they were sitting at the same table. Kadie had already asked Slater to give the team an update.

“We have no new leads on the undetectable shooting drones,” Slater began as all in the room were seated. “And we will have to leave it that way unless another incident involving civilians occurs. Our biggest issue right now is a U.S. satellite scanner program that has turned against the Russians.” Slater gestured to the video feed of the Russian satellite. “The Network says this…” he pointed to the screen, “…is a rogue satellite. But as you, I, and all other humans can see, it is a Russian satellite, flag and all.”

“Is it really?” Hagen asked. “A rogue could put a Russian flag on a satellite?”

“We have the Russians’ tracer signals,” Roman coldly replied. “The unique signature cannot be duplicated.”

“All code can be duplicated,” Hagen responded equally annoyed. “That’s simply—”

“We have verified the signals,” Slater interrupted. “And the Russians say it is their satellite. The launch and all global civilian protocols were confirmed. There is no question an error has been made by the scanner program…or The Network. Our first response was to turn the scanner off, but when we tried to do that…it happened again.”

“What happened?” Isabella asked.

“An undetectable weaponized drone appeared.”

“Where? Up in space?”

“Yes. The override for turning off the scanning protocol came from a U.S. military command station at WestCom. But the code apparently also turned on a defensive mechanism, a weaponized drone. The defensive instruction appears to have been linked to the override protocol. The drone materialized out of the sky to threaten the Russian satellite. We have no idea why it happened. No defense commands are programmed against authorized override codes.”

“Are we sure?”

“Yes all right, I should say that is actually one of the questions right now. Is it possible we have coded this response for another program The Network has co-opted?”

“We’re checking all of the command codes,” Roman replied.

“Where’s the defensive drone now?” Hagen asked.

“It is above the Russian satellite,” Slater confirmed, moving towards another screen, and pointing at the threatening machine. “And it is apparently on stand-by.”

“Waiting for another program trigger?”

“Possibly. When we turned the scanner back on, the drone slowed down its trajectory towards the satellite, but it did not immediately stop. Unlike the other undetectables, it did not fire, but it also did not leave when its perceived threat ended. It is now poised to shoot down a Russian satellite. Unfortunately we do not know the action that could trigger it. We had to reset the scanner to continue its protocol, and that seems to have appeased it. But now we are at a standstill.”

“That’s it?” Isabella asked pointing to a video monitor.

“Yes,” Slater replied. “That ordinary looking surveillance drone has pushed us all to the edge of war.”

Silence swept through the room. Then Kadie spoke, “Okay, let’s start where I know the instincts of half this room are going. Is it The Network controlling these undetectable drones?”

“I’m going to say no,” Isabella replied. “There’s no pattern to the incident sites, immigrants on a beach, loggers, satellites. This is actually like a protester’s personal agenda, going after activities they don’t like.”

“I agree,” Roman added. “And not firing at humans, deliberately aiming at their weapons, or shooting only over their heads, that speaks to human behavior too, like an organization is trying to send a message. If The Network wanted to discourage or end a human threat, the protocols would not be so reluctant to shoot people. It would not know to scare them off.”

“Yes, I would support that theory also,” Maltine interjected. “An agitator is trying to make a point about very specific issues. This is not The Network defining its own logic.”

“It could be…” Hagen stated as the eyes in the room turned to look at him, “…but I see actions that could easily be Network code. Drones shooting without killing is a common technique for crowd control, hundreds of police forces have that option, which is managed by The Network, and could easily be duplicated.”

“That’s a crowd control instruction,” Roman replied. “But this was not crowd control. The drones fired at the military forces at the scene so I wouldn’t make the analo—”

“But The Network is fully capable of these reactions.”

“Only under specific protocols.”

“We already know it does not need a defined protocol. It can react if it finds a commonality from recorded human behavior.”

“And what’s the commonality?”

Hagen briefly went silent, then as Roman was about to reply stated, “If it exists, that’s all we need for a Network reaction.”

“Okay you work on that theory,” Roman condescendedly continued, sweeping his hand around the table, “We can start thinking through the bigger issue. Who could this be?” Hagen glared at him, but Roman went on. “We are investigating all known rogue techs to determine where they are now and their current projects.”

“Why would you do that?” Maltine asked. “I agree with Hagen you need pattern analysis on the actual incidents. I don’t think a checklist of global locations for rogue techs is going to help.”

“That’s true. What’s the purpose of locating them?” Hagen echoed the sentiment.

“We need to account for—” Roman began.

“You also need experienced techs to analyze these patterns,” Maltine interrupted. “People who have seen every type of possibility and play with these puzzles all the time.”

“If you mean rogue techs…” Kadie interjected, “…we do not employ them.”

Maltine raised her eyebrows. “In general?” Kadie nodded. “Okay then…” Maltine continued, “…but what about people who may be unofficial, but cooperative?”

“We are aware those people exist,” Kadie carefully stated. “But we’ll use our own team, let them do their jobs.” She pointed over Maltine’s head to a computer analyst seated against the wall. The young man sat up straighter, looking startled to be singled out by the Commander.

“Well they can start there, but they’ll hit a dead end.” Maltine glanced at the analyst. “They simply do not have the flexibility more advanced technologists have.”

“I think you’ll find they’re highly qualified. You’ll see once you’ve worked with them.”

“What other steps should we be taking?” Slater interjected.

“Those are exactly the decisions this team must reach,” Kadie continued, walking over to one of the video monitors, and pointing to the Russian satellite. “We need to fix this, right now.”

“Have we discovered why that particular satellite is the target?” Hagen queried, standing and walking towards Kadie. “Of all the satellites in the sky, the scanner picked this one. Why?”

“What’s your theory?”

“If it were random, then probably because it was the closest satellite. If it’s deliberate, then it probably has to do with the functions of the satellite itself.”

“Like?”

“Like is it part of a weapons system, surveillance…”

“A spy satellite?”

“Could be.”

“We cannot technically confirm its function, and I doubt the Russians will tell us.”

“We can look at the images it’s taking.”

“Those are tough protocols to break.”

“Not that way. We redirect another satellite to try and line up with it.”

“Not literally? The Russians would never accept that approach.”

“No, a simulation. We only need to look where it’s pointed by aligning directly on its coordinates. We should be able to get a good idea of the satellite’s function from its actual position and behavioral pattern.”

“Is that an application? How does it work?”

“Well, it’s a little too involved go into detail here…” Hagen commented looking around the room at the mixed group of agents, “…but I could go down to the Space Coast and set it up with the team there. They have the equipment, and it’s probably easier to teach it, than to explain it.”

“Yes okay that’s a good idea. And Maltine can go with you to review their systems. We need to be able to give the Russians an explanation about the defensive drone’s reaction, and assure them they can stand-down their alerts while we find a solution.”

“When?”

“Yesterday.”

“Okay we’ll move on it quickly.”

“Do we need to investigate further at the incident sites?” Slater asked. “There are a lot of shaken civilians who have told officials different stories.”

“They have, but at the same time I’m not so sure we want to push them further,” Kadie replied. “They’ve been interviewed, reports and videos have been studied. Do you think they have any more information to give us?”

“What about the systems in those places?” Roman asked. “Have our level of techs gone through their hardware and apps to see if the infrastructure could be compromised?”

“To a certain extent.”

“Do we want to double check?”

“Okay you can do that,” Kadie replied without hesitation.

“Oh…”

“And…Isabella?”

Isabella looked up. “Sorry Commander, but I have to stay in D.C.,” she apologized.

“You do?”

“Yes I’ll work here on the diagnostics.”

Kadie looked at her inquisitively but only nodded her agreement. “Okay well if there are no more comments.” Kadie rose from her seat. “Check in as regularly as there are updates, and I’ll do the same.” As the meeting broke apart, she moved towards Slater.

“Any other ideas?” she asked him.

“We do not have much to go on,” Slater replied.

“I agree. I have a feeling the whole story, as always, is in the code. We can investigate as much as we like on the outside, but it will be useless compared to the data we find inside The Network.”

“I have that feeling too. We are not going to uncover a rogue tech sitting in his basement transparently hacking into government systems.”

“Okay then how should we proceed?”

“You know the best option, Kadie. If you want to move faster than last time…if you want results.”

“You mean hire rogue techs to roam around in our systems and find the error code for us?”

“They do not have to be rogues. You need extra super smart computer technologists who know The Network intimately, can work swiftly and reach a solution.”

“And the best people to do that are uninhibited, free operators who are not afraid of government rules or employment constraints? But those people have run away, hidden around the world, working on a personal agenda that is unlikely to be in alignment with our real needs.”

“That is their prerogative.”

“Oh I know, but as the head of an agency that could use the skill on this team, it’s frustrating.”

“Tell me when you want to break your frustration Kadie. It worked last time, and nobody got hur…” he stopped speaking, then readjusted, “…permanently hurt. We can use them again.”

Kadie looked at him with tight resignation. “I’ll allow a little rope in the off chance we end up soliciting additional assistance. For now find out where people are located, and how they could be quickly contacted.”

“Any people?”

“Yes Slater, go ahead, find any of them,” Kadie replied. “But this is only in case, we need a lot more help than we’ve got.”

*

CHAPTER THREETHE CONDEMNATION

“I think I’ve got a big problem,” Zylen Blain told Julie Vide over a communication protocol called Birdtail, a dedicated service, designed to manage conversation privacy in direct opposition to the protocols of official Network surveillance. Rogue techs had not only succeeded in building their own on- and off-ramps to the Internet, but they had also developed the sophisticated software for using the applications without being traced by government eavesdroppers. Their contact functioned through a protected connection, and neither speaker knew where the other was located.

Vide expressed her concern. “You in trouble babycakes?” she softly asked. Their friendship dated back to Zylen’s earliest days working as a programmer for hire out of Brazzaville in The Congo. He had gone to Africa, after being effectively chased away from Australia by his own government, when he had been discovered to be infiltrating The Network to search for information about his own life. Like all other governments, Australia had no patience for hackers, or even harmless inquisitors, into its Network operations. Using pattern matching to decipher aliases, and identify the physical location of masked IP addresses, the government had uncovered Zylen’s true identity. But before they could react to the knowledge, he had fled to a location where he would be much harder to find. Vide was one of the first people to help him navigate in his new life, by demonstrating the confidential protocols used to virtually exhibit his talents, and attract the attention of clients who were contracting technologists, off-the-books, to create Internet off-ramps or other proprietary code. Zylen considered Vide his closest confidante. Working together from the back room of an electronics repair store in the steam heat of the busy African city, they had spent endless hours talking about all topics, as they created customized applications and programs for a paying clientele.

“I think the President of the United States may have information of mine…of ours, that I do not want him to have,” Zylen said.

“Our information?” Vide asked alarmed. “Did they crack you baby?”

“No, no way,” Zylen defensively replied. “It’s worse. I kind of inadvertently might have given it up.”

“You? No way, you don’t give up anything.”

“I was distracted by love.”

“Oh Lord!” Vide laughed. “Okay that is the one distraction that can do it. Us girls will get you every time. Was it a pretty robot who locked you down?”

Zylen briefly considered that option then let it go. There was no way in any scenario Alannis could have been a robot. Nor could she have been sent by the government on a covert mission, of that his one hundred percent human instincts told him, he was certain. Their meeting had been spontaneous, and their reaction to each other was as old as time, folding directly and without alteration into the basic functioning of the universe. Their moments together were genuine, and he was holding to those memories, of the actual physical human, who he intimately knew. “No it was not a robot,” he confidently replied. “I…I kind of was involved with Alannis Solar, the First Daughter of the United States.”

“You’re fuckin’ kidding me!” Vide was stunned. “That’s even crazier. Why didn’t I see your pretty faces in the news?”

“We were very careful.”

“No shit! Were you invisible?”

“She was doing a semester at Melbourne Law School, you might have seen that in the news. We met down there, and then you know we figured out how to stay together, we were very close.”

“And all those big agents around her didn’t run your cute mug through a scan, and take your fingerprints? Were they drugged?”

“No they ran me through all of their known protocols.”

“And security didn’t stop you?”

“She wouldn’t allow it. She’s an adult. Her security was for the violent guys, to prevent kidnapping or protect from a sniper, that stuff. They were not allowed to interfere with her private life if there was no threat.”

“And they didn’t tell her Daddy?”

“They weren’t supposed to. And if they did they couldn’t let on or she would know and feel betrayed, and she wouldn’t trust them anymore. That’s how it worked out. We only needed to hide from the media, and we did.”

“Yeah you sure as hell did. But then what? You told her about your work?”

“And showed her.”

“Ohhh baby…and?”

“And when she…you know…she passed. The President got her simcon.”

“Oh no! Of course she gave it to her parents.”

“No she didn’t. The asshole stole it.”

“That’s impossible.”

“Not for him. I know he must have used an override because he did not have her authorization. He went into The Network and took it.”

“Well of course, that’s how those government types work. No laws for them, only for us. But how do you know all this?”

“Well I…I exacted a little justice of my own.”

“And?”

“I stole it too.”

“You did? But that’s even more impossible.”

“Not if you work at it. I figured out how to get in through The Network’s aggregation app, make a copy, and get out without leaving a trace. The security, or lack of it, was on The Network, not the President’s systems, so I already had an idea for how it could work.”

“You awesome little genius.”

“Yeah except now I know too much about him, and he knows way too much about me.”

“And he’ll come after you.”

“Yeah if they’re not already.”

“Okay then you have to make a move.”

“I want to shut him down, or at least understand how to stop him from looking at my data… remotely erase if necessary, but only on the original without losing her on my end.”

“Oh shit, that sounds—”

“Yeah fuckin’ impossible. Will you help me?”

“Well sure baby, I’ll give it a try, but I’m guessing you’ll need better brains than me.”

“This is a delicate project Julie. I only need people I can trust.”

“Hate to say it cakes, but you need to track down a real power coder like Montana Bash.”

“No way.”

“She’s the best, she would—”

“No way!”

“Okay, okay, but I’m saying if you want serious help.”

“I spent two months in a fuckin’ prison because of that bitch. Keep her away from me.”

“Okay, okay, then who else?”

“I dunno. I’ll troll around a bit and see who might be available.”

“All right, I’ll start getting into it.”

“Yeah, and there’s one other thing.”

“What?”

“It keeps updating.”

“Updating? From the grave?”

“No not like that. I’ve noticed that around every 24 hours new data shows up. It’s running an update, but I have not yet deciphered the parameters. I think it’s only one way. The conversations and interactions they’re adding to it…the original…it’s trying to update to my copy.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah The Network is sending data. I think it’s automatic. I don’t know if they know the program is running, but I’m definitely receiving updates, I can see it in the code. I’ve blocked it though. I mean I see the updates coming, and I basically do not let the data through the firewall of my off-ramp, but it’s out there, free floating in The Network as far as I can tell, trying to figure out what to do.”

“That’s fuckin’ wild. How would The Network know to do updates when simcons are not supposed to be copied?”

“That’s my question. I don’t know how The Network would handle copies, ‘cause like you said there are not supposed to be any. But if it has one, how does it then know how to find where the copy is located? Obviously this was not as straightforward as I thought it would be, there’s a whole other level of commands being executed.”

“There is always another command. Okay, I’ll look at that too. Wow babycakes, you really came up with a crazy project this time.”

“Yeah I know. Thanks Julie. I’m sending you all the access codes, and will cover you for your time. This one is going to be the next level of impossible.”

*

Two copies. The Network did not have two digital profile copies of any human on earth. That was the point. World governments wanted only one complete active record of every living person, ten billion people, ten billion records. From birth, one life registration was generated and against that record the human’s file was compiled. The storing could also begin before birth, but that data would officially be tied to the birth parents, surrogate, foster care, adoption agency, or another individual or organization responsible for creating and managing the new human. Regardless of how the life process started, at viability and naming, The Network would have only one profile for each living being. The record was initially generated with all of the data about a human that other humans inputted. Then around the age of three or four when the parents, guardians or government created an online account for education, the individual human’s own responses would start to be assembled into the record. From that point on, the digital file would grow along with the physical person. Every communication, every answer to every question, every purchase and preference, every attempt, retry, correction and result. Every approach, the time in between to contemplate a problem, the number of hours spent reading, working, studying, playing games. Every trip, every picture, every message. When the human died, The Network could rerun it all, in trillions of combinations to continue responding as if that individual had never departed the physical earth.

The hologram image and the simcon data were the continuing individual to all living humans who interacted with it for the rest of time. A physical body may die, but human existence no longer had to fade away, that was the connection both the President and Zylen wanted with Alannis, without the complication of knowing that the other may have received more.

When the technology had emerged to the extent of making it possible for humans to carry on their lives as holograms, legislators and the judiciary had been overwhelmed. Could a hologram be left alone to care for an infant? It could still contact emergency services if the child had a medical problem, but it could not pick up the child and run from a fire, although it could order a robot, dog, or a drone to do that. Could a hologram work and earn money, holding an employment position in competition with physical human beings? A hologram surgeon could no longer touch a patient, but could she be in the operating room providing a consultation and assisting other doctors. If the physical human had been supporting a family, struggling relatives wanted the projection to keep its former job. After all, they argued, with the simcon, the business would have the same brain, working at the same pace without re-training. Businesses argued that if the hologram of a successful employee did not continue to interact with the real world environment, it would lose its skill. But social welfare agencies countered that a simulated human did not need to maintain any skills, and an ongoing role for digital facsimiles of real people in the workplace would stifle advancement and opportunity for those who were waiting to fill the position. Why did a hologram need to continue to learn? Could it obtain credit for innovation in the workplace? Could the hologram be promoted and hired for new jobs? If the hologram invented a new product, did it hold the legal rights to it, or does the hologram’s designated recipient?

In other realms of human interaction, the debate continued on multiple fronts. Society needed a new etiquette for public transport. Holograms did not need a separate seat, but could humans project their holograms and have conversations with them on airline flights? Would the images be too disruptive to other passengers? Could a hologram even be owned? Was it right to use that terminology? Did the deceased maintain the rights to their own data profiles? If a complete stranger fell in love with a hologram, and it responded, did that person now have a claim on the simcon? Could they be married in a church ceremony?

And should the projection with a complete data record of a human’s conscience, even be called a hologram? Although physical beings could literally walk right through the image, was it not, in some form, human?

The debate plagued the first owners of simcons, and those who thought about continuing their earthly existence through digital regeneration. Several early adopters had raised the question of multiple simcon copies, but that was the first option almost unanimously rejected by social advocates. Aside from the legal, moral and ethical questions, the energy infrastructure demand had been a foremost consideration. Generating the simcon was one operation, keeping it running with a hologram was another that consumed enormous processing power. The constant updating and re-running of the app across multiple copies would be a powerful draw on the electrical grid. Although the stand-alone hologram was an accessible app, it was the interaction capabilities united with the simcon that had excited users about its possibilities. Dampening their enthusiasm, the law intervened to prevent a struggle for control of the simcon storage servers for manipulating Network data. Governments did not want The Network to record a confusion of information from various sources, interacting with multiple copies of one original human. Left unchecked, the human’s profile would become impossible to decipher as the recorded physical life was overlapped with an ongoing after-life that could be altering forever not only the archived record, but also the current records of physical human beings. To that end the settled global agreement was for humans to designate only one owner of a simcon, and The Network to have only one aggregated digital file for every human being, dead or alive. No further discussion determined the reaction to a scenario where, for any reason, The Network generated two identical simcons.

Simcon data aggregation began when a death certificate was registered, and at the moment that processing ended, The Network closed the app, and delivered the data to the designated receiver. Out of curiosity, Zylen had dissected the process from beginning to end long before the day he learned of Alannis’ death. Since she had once told him that if she died first, she wanted him to have her simcon, when he had received the horrific news, he already owned the justification for pursuing control of her data. Alannis had not known she was going to die, her verbal authorization had been a statement handed out as a quiet checkmark on a list, like anticipating the highlights of a wedding. When the tragedy occurred, Zylen did not know if she had completed the official handover, but if she had, his plan was to retrieve it. If she had not, then he had decided to manipulate The Network into generating it. Through his own verification, Zylen confirmed Alannis had not officially designated any individual to receive her simcon. Like most young people, she had made no preparations for an early departure. But as Zylen had worked his way through The Network records, he had realized there was no obvious function for ensuring he could generate the simcon. The government’s protocols around authorized generation were managed under an extensive security program, designed to avoid exactly the possession conflict Zylen was trying to work around. Then after weeks of contemplating this obstacle, the President, Alannis’ father, inadvertently provided Zylen with the most extraordinary opportunity when he decided to illegally generate the simcon for himself. Zylen had started running several applications to troll The Network, and look for code that would aggregate simcon data without authorization. In this process, he discovered the President of the United States had used an override code to create a fake authorization. Zylen’s application protocol caught it, and provided an opening he had never seen coming. Because simcon processing had to be executed directly on The Network, he was able to program his system to watch and wait for the processing of Alannis’ simcon to be completed. Then seconds before The Network closed the data aggregation app, and set the simcon for delivery to a secure White House server, Zylen copied it.

One delivery went to The White House as planned, and the copy accepted a separate delivery instruction and sent it to Zylen. The Network executed the irregular commands without generating an alert or warning. The original coders had never suspected an outsider would be able to make a copy directly from the authorized version, because The Network was expected to automatically reject any attempt to duplicate an aggregated human profile record. No security protocol existed for an activity that was not anticipated to happen. But now The Network had two human file copies, two copies of the exact same person. Although Zylen had been forced to create the copy within The Network’s public server space, as soon as the processing completed, he moved it to an off-ramp. But on The Network, the record still internally existed as a created and delivered recorded copy action.

For Zylen, ownership of Alannis’ simcon was a vital first step in anticipation of utilizing a more precious gift she had officially authorized to his release, her eggs. Like many women, Alannis had reproductive eggs extracted and frozen, avoiding the fears and regrets of a future where time halted before desire had established its place. Zylen knew exactly where her physical DNA was located, and when he could combine it with his own, he would at least fulfill one of their many shared plans, and start a family. To ensure his complete vision of their future, he needed her simcon, then they could raise their children together. In any other circumstance, he would consider his pursuit of her DNA to be a desperate diversion. But from the time he had met Alannis, to the moment she had died, to his formulated plan for prolonging her existence, he finally determined the true value of his computer programming skill. All of the hours spent coding, hacking The Network, running into conflict with governments, and building a team of rogue tech friends, had led him to this digitally supported constitution of a vibrant life, with his own chosen family, in a world he created and controlled. After all of the battles Zylen had fought and won in Cyberspace, an earthbound vision now drove his complete focus onto this latest, most challenging fight for his concept of a settled world.

Zylen ran his version of Alannis from his own off-ramp, and had no plans for receiving updates to her simcon, he had not even thought about that possibility. The conversations or actions between the President, the First Lady and other humans interacting with Alannis’ original simcon were irrelevant to his own plans for his copy. After all, he never expected the two to meet. He fully expected he would have a life with Alannis, and their children that would never cross paths with her family, and those she had known separately before encountering him.

His plan had appeared flawless and definite, until he had started receiving the updates. The first file arrived in the early days of his time with Alannis’ simcon. Basking in his joy of using the marvelous hologram technology, he continued to have conversations with her, and the simcon would generate her responses based on the complete record of all of her past comments. The simcon knew her favorite food to order from takeout restaurants, the clothes she would wear, and entertainment programming she enjoyed, and as Zylen carried out her requests in the physical world, the simcon executed her anticipated reactions without interruption. To avoid curious onlookers who may recognize her, Zylen did not project Alannis in public. He kept her indoors, where he had sufficient processing power to manage a tranquil life reflecting the contentment they had once possessed together. But his peace was shattered when a security alert on his off-ramp picked up the first update. His program noticed the data attempting to find an entry portal into the simcon file. Initially, he had assumed a virtual tracker had been sent by global cyber security, but the update had a generalized Network signature. To his astonishment, Zylen realized the update was coded for Alannis’ simcon. ‘Was this missing data The Network had failed to aggregate earlier, or was this new inputted information?’ he wondered. Running a stand-alone test in a simulated server, he asked Alannis’ hologram for details of her current day. When it replied with records of conversations including current events, the response clearly indicated there was new data Zylen had not helped generate. At that moment, he did not know whether to laugh or cry. Zylen was receiving data updates from inside The White House. Double-checking, he asked more specific questions about the President’s activities, and the simcon told him. Then, he had laughed. Close inspection of the delivery code revealed a decipherable encrypted protocol. The new data was definitely an update, scheduled to run to the copy within a set time frame if it was out of sync with the original. The update also appeared to run only one way from the original to the copy, not back again, indicating the original programmers had assumed there would always be a master original version. But as Zylen continued to examine the data he wondered, ‘how had the update found him?’

Zylen was dazzled by his investigative results, and perturbed. If he let the updates integrate with his copy, then his Alannis would be taking in new information about a life he could not see or control, and he was not certain the full scope of her world was necessary for his plans. Accepting the update would also make his copy traceable, a fact he was absolutely sure he needed to avoid. But at the same time, he had to respect feelings she could no longer directly express. Considering the digitized sentimental reaction of an inanimate being had not been an emotion Zylen ever imagined he would have to acknowledge, and the realization of its implications unnerved him more than he could process. If he did not accept the updates, his Alannis would be incomplete, it would be as if he accepted her death, and only wanted to preserve the Alannis that had existed up until that point. ‘Was the President not continuing her existence by interacting with her and creating new experiences and memories she should have?’ he thought. He guessed that if Alannis understood the option to be fully integrated across all connections with her simcons, she would want the data. Succumbing to guilt, he posed the question to her digitized brain, and learned the feared truth. She said yes. To his shame, Zylen understood too late that he should never have probed for a response, because now he was feeling obligated, to a hologram. But after running several more tests and security protocols, he knew his natural inclination to fulfill her wishes had to be subordinated to the reality of the world he physically lived in. Accepting the update data would be too risky, he would have to sideline his expected intentions, and ignore her sentiments.

“Sorry baby,” he told her hologram while he programmed an update aggregation block into the simcon copy. “It’s too dangerous. I can’t have government agents, or your family knowing I have a copy.”

Alannis’ hologram had looked at him seriously. “But of course I want all of my memories,” her voice had repeated.

“I know. But for now I can only store them for you in a secure server until I figure this out.” As a compromise, Zylen created a location for saving the updates in a virtual storage locker where he could retract the data and discover the details of the President’s and others’ conversations with Alannis’ original simcon, in isolation of integrating the update with the copy. He could continue asking her to describe the daily activities inside The White House, and her answers would materialize as reports without a connection to her other memories. But as he peppered the simcon with a broad array of questions, he came to realize that if he could find the President of the United States’ daily interactions with his daughter, there was likely a level of unexpected detail the President could find out about him. An understanding of his use of Alannis’ simcon became a more prominent concern. Zylen realized that his secrets, the stories he had told her, and the technology he had shown her, were inside her simcon, the same data file sitting on a server at The White House. The President had details he should never have received. And as much as Zylen was interested in the new information, he was much more concerned about the old. In all of his analysis of the update protocol, Zylen kept a second track of infiltration processes running. If there was an option for erasing his private data from Alannis’ original simcon at The White House, he had to find it.

*

Despite instructions to proceed from the D.C. meeting to Cape Canaveral, Hagen diverted from Kadie’s expectations during his first day on the job. If the Special Command team were going to efficiently function, he would have to confront Roman. Masking his com signal to project his status to be ‘on an airplane,’ Hagen went to meet Roman alone in a Washington, D.C. bar.

“Hagen,” Roman guardedly said as he approached him without offering to shake hands.

“Roman,” Hagen responded, standing up from the table. He quickly sat down without further greeting.

“What do you want?” Roman rudely asked, sitting down.

“For you to stop speaking to me like an enemy so we can work together on this investigation for the President.” Hagen measured his words and maintained his calm.

Eyeing him with disdain, Roman evenly commented, “Look, I don’t know why Slater thought it was worthwhile to use you on this team. But you and I do not need to work together on the investigation.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. We’ve got analysts on the simcon, and as they discover information they will let us know the results, and we can decide the next action. You and I do not need any other interaction.”

“This assignment is a request from the President of the United States.”

“He did not request we work together, that was Slater’s plan.”

“You have a problem working with me?”

“No.”

“Because of Kadie?”

“No.”

“Look Roman, Slater asked for me because I’m in cyber intelligence. And I can better understand than you, the programs and code our analysts need to be reviewing and analyzing. They don’t know they’re working with a simcon. They’ve been told to find anomalies in the data that may be related to an external command coming from or going to the code. I’m the one who’s going to look at their reports, and translate it for us so we can decide on our next action.”

“Great,” Roman coldly responded.

“I’m also going to prevent them from accidently erasing data or permanently disabling the simcon.”

“The President will be very happy to hear you’re on top of it.”

“Do you really not want to cooperate with me?”

“You have it all worked out and it can all be done remotely. We do not need to work together.”

“Don’t be an asshole.”

Roman leaned forward to directly face Hagen. “Look Hagen, you and I do not need to be buddies to get this done. Do your job and stay out of mine.”

“Tell me your issues with me, Roman.” Hagen stared back, holding his ground. “Tell me before this escalates. What’s your problem with me?”

Narrowing his eyes, Roman glared at his adversary. “My problem with you Hagen Writstone is you’re a lying drunk who once put Special Command at risk. I don’t trust you.”

“You mean put the Commander at risk,” Hagen cautiously countered, leaning back into his chair.

“I mean the entire organization.”

“And you think I have not recovered?”

“I doubt it. No one should trust you.”

“I guarded Kadie with my life.”

Roman stared at him hard, his eyes glazing over in bitterness. “You should never have had her with you in the first place.”

“It happened. It was years ago. Let it go. We need to get through this assignment.”

“She shouldn’t even have to be around you.”

“Oh so that’s it?”

“No, that’s not it. The team shouldn’t be around you either. You’re dangerous and unpredictable.”

“I did my time Roman. All the re-hab, all the forced leave, I have been fully cleared to return to work.”

“Congratulations.”

“You really want to be an asshole about this, don’t you?”

“I only want to do my job, and protect the people and the organizations I work for.”

Hagen stared at him and sighed. “I guess there’s no sense trying to get through your arrogant head. Okay, I’ll do my job too. But at least you can be civil when talking to me, especially in front of the team.”

“I am civil.”

“Fine, if that’s the way this is going to go, I can’t take any more time. I’m supposed to be on a plane.”

“Oh yeah, lying to your Commander already,” Roman noted with a smirk. “Nice work.”

Hagen scowled, then responded in a steady voice, “I’ve sent you my first take on the code analysis. I’m focusing on the update running out of the simcon into The Network.”

Roman was startled. He had also been reading the analysts’ reports, and had not noticed the same information. “An update?” His voice became serious as his previous attitude suddenly dissipated. “Going where?”

“They don’t have any other details,” Hagen steadily responded, noting Roman’s surprised reaction. “But you know how there’s that team at WestCom working on the satellites?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m going to cross-reference their data with the simcon’s update code, without giving them any details about the incoming data of course.”

“Why?”

“I have a hunch.”

“A hunch, Hagen? C’mon I thought you were in a cooperating mood.”

“I’m seeing if there’s a connection.”

“Why would there be a connection between Alannis’ simcon and the satellites?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I want to check it.”

“That’s pretty risky for a hunch. You’re going to let more people look at the simcon data? A smart tech might figure out it’s not some random code.”

“I’ve set-it up in a way they won’t be able to tell. They’ll be focused on the code only. I’m always very careful. The data is covered.”

“You better be sure.”

“I’m sure.”

“What are you trying to find?”

“I don’t know. Like I said, it’s a hunch.”

*

A few hours later, Hagen walked towards the Control Room at the Cape Canaveral Satellite Monitoring Station. Having already told Maltine he would be traveling on his own, and would meet her onsite, he moved slowly to let the hot, bright Florida sun wash over him, and to view the imposing concrete seawall off the coast. The U.S. government had once considered ending its protection of the long stretch of national seashore separating Florida’s central coast from rising sea levels, but unrelenting nostalgic public sentiment had pushed the Army Corps of Engineers to implement a multi-billion dollar preservation plan. The area, still referred to as Cape Kennedy by many, stretched from the rocket launch pads in the north down to Cocoa Beach in the south, and initiated floating memories of dashing astronauts and susceptible local girls cavorting in the sands. The long narrow barrier islands clung to a past remembered for its unrestrained reach towards the impossible stars. But in recent years, most local families had arrived only for the government-fueled jobs connected to the military, land conservation and The Network.

At the guard station, Hagen flashed his ID, waited for The Network to run a facial scan, and then was escorted to Janna’s team. As he entered the Control Room, he found Maltine at a workstation talking through protocols with an engineer.

“Wow you look like you’ve always worked here,” Hagen remarked, approaching her.

“I like to be prompt and integrate quickly,” Maltine disdainfully replied, looking at him.

“Mr. Writstone,” Janna greeted Hagen with an outstretched hand. “I’m Janna Marric.”

“Ouch,” Hagen responded, grimacing as he shook her hand. “I’m Hagen. Mr. Writstone is reserved for the heavy-handed guard dog known as my father.”

“Oh.” Janna smiled. “Hagen it is. This is my team…” she swung her hand around the room, “…people can introduce themselves as we move along.”

“Sounds good. Where are we?”

“At a standstill,” Maltine answered, jumping back into the conversation. “The U.S. program is still running. The Russians are still waiting for them to turn it off. And the drone is still hovering.”

“Have we learned more?”

“Yes, the satellite program received a command, an external instruction.”

“An instruction?”

“The program was running exactly as required when it suddenly changed course. It received another command it read as authorized, and switched its scanning plans.”

“An authorized command?”

“Right. This hack is very, very good.”

“You think we’ve been hacked?” Janna asked alarmed. “With all of our security?”

“Unfortunately you do not have any level of security that very skilled people cannot unravel,” Maltine replied. “It’s code. It can be read like a book and understood as any language can be. Yes you have encryption and security keys, but that’s all code too. All of the code is created within a finite world of possibilities, starting with ones and zeros. Maybe you can move up to multiple quadrant quantum commands, but it’s all still code. It’s like the translation of a script language to our alphabet. Every symbol will represent a letter, and one by one we can uncover the meaning of the words. This is the same situation. No secret locks, no magic doors, if it’s code, it can be hacked.”

Janna stared at them. “Then how do we stop it?”

“We unravel it,” Hagen replied. “We are going to use diagnostic programs, multiplied around the world to dissect the code at that point where Maltine said The Network received another command.”

“That’s going to take a lot of time.”

“We are extending our processing reach.”

“And the Russians? They are still threatening, we have to manage them too.”

“We’re dealing with it. A global conference com is coming up to decide on the specific diplomatic language we want to use to address them. You should be on it. Maltine can work with your team.” He turned to look at Maltine. “Okay?”

“Yes of course,” Maltine responded. “I would always rather be working with code than listening in on your boring meetings. You will find me here when you’re finished.”

“Okay great.” Hagen turned back to Janna. “Is there a secure communications room?”

“Not in this complex,” Janna replied with hesitation. “We’ll have to go over to the Air Force station. Around here, only the military has those kind of rooms.”

“Okay you arrange it, and let me know when we’re ready.”

“Yes okay.”

As Janna walked away, Hagen sat down beside Maltine. “Do you really know it’s an extra command?” he warily asked her.

Maltine incredulously stared at him. “Of course I know,” she angrily stated. “I know how to decipher the data I’m looking at.”

“And you can review it without breaking the satellite protocol or messing up other commands?”

“Oh no, I thought I would rearrange the data then set-off World War III,” she contemptuously retorted.

“Seriously.”

“I am serious, I have extensive skills,” she flatly confirmed. “Besides the issue is not the command. It is how The Network will respond. You better hurry to have your meeting because if this plan goes wrong you don’t want the Russians to shoot at you first.”

“I don’t understand. What do you expect to happen?”

“Am I not speaking your English?” she replied perturbed. “This command, as far as all the analysis has uncovered, is not normal. It is an instruction no tech has ever seen. The fix we put in place will also have a reaction we have never seen, and that is our gamble.”

“Why do I not like the odds?”

“Because they are terrible.”

“And that’s the probability we give to the Russians?”

“Yes that’s exactly the risk you can honestly tell them to expect.”

*

Roman leaned back into the soft black leather of his private jet seat, and glanced at the darkness looming over the northern Pacific Ocean. He hated being alone. Once he had managed solitary time quite easily, but now that he, Kadie and their children had been living together in the same home since the baby was born, he felt the emptiness of his family’s absence more deeply than he ever could have imagined. Special Command usually sent teams out in pairs, but this time there was no other experienced agent available to join Roman for an investigation into the undetectable drone incident in The Philippines. He was left solo to think and act as the seasoned professional he was expected to be. Idly playing with the monitor screen projected in front of his eyes, he pointed a finger up and the screen moved up, then rapidly pointed a finger left across his chest, and it jumped to the left. He stopped. The kids instigated this activity when they were supposed to be studying. They thought it was funny to evoke their fingers as magic wands, and send multiple screens bouncing around the room. ‘Need to focus like a man,’ he promised, forcing his finger to bring the screen back in front of his eyes. Almost immediately, the communication light flashed. Relieved, he touched a screen icon to answer.

“How is the trip going?” Slater immediately began.

“Slowly on my own,” Roman candidly replied.

“That is why I am calling. Kadie thinks you might want company. I wanted to let you know I am looking for Madison Alan.”

“Madison?”

“Yes he has the experience with undetectables and would be a great help, but unfortunately I cannot yet find him.”

“You can’t find an individual, Slater? That must be a first.”

“Well as you know, when an accomplished agent wants to go off-grid, he goes.”

Roman grimaced. “Yes I know that’s possible.”

“However I wanted you to be aware that if I can track him down, and entice him back to Special Command, then he will be on his way to join you.”

“Okay thanks, is that all you have to tell me?”

“Oh you are so suspicious, what makes you think I have more to say?”

“With you Slater, there is always more. You could have told me about Madison in a text. What else is going on?”

“This assignment for the President,” Slater continued without explanation.

“Yeah.”

“We need to manage the data we are investigating and the details we are uncovering. Hagen’s reviewing the analysts’ reports, but he is about to be redirected to focus on the satellites. Isabella is staying in D.C. only to keep an eye on The Alliance techs who have been working on the simcon, and the Special Command analysts reviewing the new data. She has to synthesize and disseminate that information for the President. But as you may have guessed Kadie does not know that part.”

“Yes but how much does she know?”

“Only that Isabella has an additional assignment from the President. She does not know it is an investigation into the interactions with Alannis’ simcon.”

“And?”

“Isabella is going to need to work with another team member to analyze the data she uncovers—”

“No,” Roman interrupted.

“Roman you are the only one with a view of the entire picture.”

“No way. That will take time I’ll have to account for, and you will not make me lie to Kadie.”

“I am not telling you to li—”

“I understand the work we need to do. But there’s no way I’m working on an assignment that involves Special Command, and Kadie does not know about it. It’s one thing to have an assignment from the President she does not know about that I can work on remotely and discreetly. It’s another to be working directly with both her people and her information, under her command, and not say a word about it. That’s a set-up, Slater. Are you trying to cause trouble between us?”

Slater bristled. “Roman, I am not capable of disrupting you two. You made your own mistakes, and you had to deal with them.”

“Right, I know. But you have an agenda with Kadie. Look at how you brought in that walking disaster, Hagen—”

“Hagen is one of the best agents in the world.”

“With a past with Kadie.”

“Really, are you worried she will trade you in when she sees a better option?”

Roman gripped the arms of his chair. “Listen, I will not let you play with my relationship with Kadie. There are other people besides me who can work with Bella.”

“No there are not. You have had the information about the President from nearly the beginning. And you are on the Special Command team. We cannot bring in outsiders. The whole story is a secret, and discretion is absolutely required. In spite of yourself, you are actually considered a valuable asset to The Alliance. That is why you were brought in on it in the first place. You are a liaison too Roman, and you two have to talk to each other.”

“Kadie is a valuable agent too.”

“Yes of course she is, but she does not need to know about this right now. She will be informed soon.”

“Slater, you are fuckin’ with my life.”

“No I am not. All I am asking is for you to work with Isabella on deciphering the technical data. We are asking because you actually have the brains for this, you are qualified for the assignment. It is a completely separate project from Special Command’s investigation into the emergence of these new undetectable drones.”

“It doesn’t matter. Kadie will want to know. It’s all on her watch.”

“She will know eventually. For now there is no need to involve her. Look, when the time comes I will tell her the President asked for you, and it had to be kept secret among the few people directly authorized by the President to work on it. It is his assignment to you, not hers.”

“It won’t matter Slater. If I’m working with Bella on information she gets from Special Command, then that’s the action Kadie is going to consider a betrayal. We do not keep secrets from each other.”

“Really? That could be against protocol.”

“Fuck off Slater.”

“All right, all right. Look, start working with Isabella and I will put pressure on her to ask the President to bring Kadie in on his request.”

“The other way around.”

“Roman you do not have to be so paranoid. Kadie is not going to end your relationship over a crossing of official orders.”

“That is not the issue. Stay out of our private life Slater. I know you would love to see us apart, but you can stop making suggestions that mess us up.”

“Roman you are really going out of your mind. I am incapable of messing you two up. Either you two want to be together or you do not. You are among the top thinkers in the world. You are highly skilled at managing your own lives, and your own actions.”

“Without interference, yes we are.”

“I am not interfering.”

“First clearance from the President, then have Bella tell Kadie, and then I’ll work with her.”

“You realize we are dealing with a global security issue, and you are making demands like a teenage girl.”

“Yes I realize that, and no, I don’t care.”

Slater hesitated, then relented. “All right, but if the President officially says no, you have to concede we tried. As professionals you and Isabella should be working through the analysis, and we do not want any delays.”

Roman considered the ultimatum. “Fine, if you get an official ‘no’ directly from the President of the United States, I’ll take a different approach.”

“Finally, some cooperation.”

“More than you deserve.”

“Roman, I am trying to do my job. By the way, that is the same effort Kadie expects from you too. You are underestimating her if you think she would be annoyed about her team following up on requests from the President of the United States.”

“Just stay out of my private life. I know the results Kadie expects from me. Don’t even try and go there.”

“Well I am only saying you are looking at this all wrong.”

“And I’m saying you should get out of our private lives Slater. I swear, you make one more decision that looks like you’re playing us, and I’m taking it to her.”

“To say what?”

“That she should get rid of you.”

Slater laughed. “Good luck with that.”

“Don’t be so confident. Kadie has been angry with you in the past, and you know that is not an easy road back.”

Slater hesitated as the humor quickly faded. “I would never compromise my relationship with her…for any reason.”

“You may not get the chance to make that decision.”

“She would not react negatively to choices we make for the work Roman. She is above all rational, practical, a thinker.”

“You go ahead and test her.”

“We already have.” Roman went silent. “Look let us stop this or it will be the next issue she figures out, and then we will both incur her wrath for acting like warring boys. I will work on Isabella, and the President, and then I will contact you.”

“Fine.”

“And then hopefully we will only have one message for Kadie.”

“Yeah and I’ll control it.”

“All right, Mr. Paranoid Man.” Slater signed off before accepting another word.

Roman stared at the disconnect icon on the screen. He had not expected the communication to abruptly end. As a professional Slater was an indispensible and dedicated ally, but as a rival for Kadie’s ear, he was the most dangerous man Roman knew. Probably the only person who had more influence with her than Roman did, was Slater. They had a past, an intimate one, and Kadie was still emotionally involved with Slater. On global decisions, she trusted his advice possibly more than she trusted Roman’s. Roman had talked Slater into breaking that trust once before, he wondered if he could do it again. He leaned back in his chair. Slater was The Alliance’s point-person on all connections between Intelligence agents all over the world. That well-connected and protected a human was not easy to confuse nor deceive, but there could be a way if Roman could imagine it before Kadie or Slater figured out his plans. Of course if Kadie found out…but it would be his primary goal to make sure she did not. He needed to teach Slater a lesson, to get him to back-off, but first he had to find a gap in his armor, and then the best method for piercing right through it.

*

“There’s no way in,” Julie Vide sadly told Zylen over a Birdtail connection. “I’ve thrown all of my prowess at it, and even added concealed input from a few others I know.” Zylen intently listened as she described the processes used in the attempt to determine, if the President could access Zylen’s data through Alannis’ simcon.

“I mean I looked at all the code I could see, commands, instructions, processing routes,” Vide continued. “It’s a great app but it sits alone in a closed environment. When you generate the hologram, it’s the…well brains…so to speak. There’s no other data. But at least the updates are only one way from the original to the copy.”

“Okay, that’s the conclusion I got to also. There’s no way the conversations I’ve been having with her lately could get back to the President,” Zylen confirmed.

“That’s right baby. And it’s not because of your security. I don’t even see it generating an update from the copy.”

“Yeah me neither.”

“The only new world being created is the one with the original.”

“But my recorded interactions with her when she was alive, he’s got all of it from the beginning, and you’re saying I’m not going to know any of the details he may now know?”

“Yeah sorry, that’s the verdict up to now. The data you can see in your copy is what he’s got, but you don’t know how he may be manipulating it. One thing you can guess is he does not have the simcon on official servers because like you said, he stole it.”

“Yeah but who would suspect he stole it? They’re going to assume Alannis authorized it for him.”

“That’s true, but he’ll still want to keep it off the official Network, don’t you think? He’ll want it on a stand-alone server he can easily take with him when he leaves office.”

“His own server?”

“Yeah.”

“But it still has to be connected to The Network to run the simcon app, and to generate the hologram. He has to control it from his com.”

“Yeah, he’ll only have the complete data on a separate server. But he’ll let it access The Network for the app’s re-aggregation feature.”

“Okay, he’s accessing The Network after he or another person has interacted with the simcon, and then shutting down the aggregation in a closed environment. But when would it update?”

“Probably each time he turns it back on, like when a com shuts down.”

“Yeah, each time I get an update it’s probably right after he starts the program. But I haven’t received anything in a while.”

“Maybe he stopped talking to it?”

“Or he stopped re-aggregating the data.”

“Because he figured out it’s updating?”

“Well his minions may have figured it out.”

“That means they’ll look for where the update was going.”

“Yeah I’m ready for their visit.”

“Okay cakes, that’s the info we’ve got so far.”

“You’re awesome Julie, thanks for your help. I guess I can only deal with information he may find out if and when he decides to use it.”

“Yeah and he’ll only know to look from the stuff she tells him.”

“That’s where it would start. But he can also have people run search apps and analyze the results. It’s stored data, they can search for my name or any of our known activities, literally read it, and come to their own conclusions. I mean, it would take them forever, and require a really smart tech who knows how to comb through the code, but if they have the time, and patience, and enough minions, they’ll find my information.”

“What are you going to do about that?”

“Well I’ve changed all my masks and alert protocols. Besides that, I don’t know. Alannis was not much of a techie. I’m hoping the data she kept about us would not be easily recognizable files they can quickly identify.”

“And if she picked up on other, more discreet information? Like if the aggregation app puts two and two together?”

“Yeah I’ve been thinking about that possibility too. I’ve looked at how the app works, running other scenarios. Most people assume it only knows how a person said ‘hello’ or ‘thank you’ but it actually takes all those responses and generates new ones based on how, why, and when an individual said the words.”

“Yeah, it’s a form of A.I.”

“Actually it’s not that sophisticated. It’s programmed code, predetermined responses. And it only works with the data it’s been given. It’s a program that knows how to look at the patterns of words and create logical responses. But the question is, would it be able to interpret programs or apps as sophisticated as the software I have created?”

“There have been a lot of experiments with advanced technical applications. Like one where they inputted the experimental specs from scientific journal articles to see if the app would re-process the information and come up with any new ideas.”

“It didn’t work.”

“Yeah but who knows if other scenarios have been tried.”

Zylen sighed. “That’s exactly the research I don’t know about. I don’t have the data on all the experiments, the ones that worked or failed.”

“And considering where that simcon is located right now, you may never know.”

“Yeah if they uncover the update feature, they’ll try and come after me. I have to be ready no matter which way this goes.”

“Okay you let me know if you need me again.”

“Thanks Julie, but on this one I think I’m on my own. Me versus the President of the United States, didn’t see that one coming.”

Vide laughed. “Neither did I. Keep me posted babycakes, and let me know if you solve this.”

“I will,” Zylen said with determination as he signed off. “ I will absolutely solve it.”

*

From operations in the sky, The Network’s interconnected global satellites projected surveillance coverage across every visible surface on earth from north to south, and in each direction east or west. The complex machines were capable of observing under water, through walls, and around the surfaces of boulders and trees. If an area existed, at a human level, it was seen. Although individuals often publically discarded coms to demonstrate their untethering from The Network, few were actually beyond its range. Directed by global protocols, government, military, commercial, private, and rogue satellites continuously zoomed in on the earth’s surface, and the data was collated by The Network to calculate real-time locations and headcounts for every requesting entity. No individual technically knew how each frequency of global surveillance functioned. And avoiding The Network’s view required access to detailed global surface coordinates few civilians suspected existed.

Free-thinking individuals who had rejected The Network’s takeover of their lives moved to rural areas, islands and mountain valleys, and literally carved out homes the digital eyes could not effortlessly uncover. By ensuring there were no cameras and sensors in spaces at eye or waist level, these outers, as those who chose to live outside of urban regions were called, separately enforced the human right to be left alone, on their own terms. If The Network wanted to track them, it could only find images from the sky. Most governments ignored the outers. Few in numbers, the groups were self-sufficient, and built their own electricity and water sources. In many locations, they were tourist attractions, providing examples for living off the land, and growing natural foods that city dwellers considered a novelty. If they could still find wild animals, naturalist outers documented life in the forests, jungles and oceans, and plants and trees were analyzed for medicinal and healing capabilities. Although scientists worked on The Network, like technologists, there were rogue ones too, who produced their own products for sale over The Internet to the global marketplace. The outers were the middle tier of human existence, not as operationally sophisticated as the rogue techs and their wealthy clients who had literally built their own separate Internet, but completely past the complacency and acquiescence of the managed billions who only functioned on Network instructions. Outers had hybrid lives, their own physical infrastructure built naturally and sustainably wherever they lived, and The Network used only when absolutely necessary.

An accomplished Alliance agent like Madison Alan could access detailed satellite maps, decipher the patterns of the outers, and spot a no-surveillance town to live in anywhere in the world. Having grown up in densely populated cities, Singapore, Shanghai, New York, Paris, and London, Madison appreciated the opportunity to discard the confinement for the specific tranquility inherent in wide open spaces and boundless fresh air. The constraints of his working life, as a global citizen employed by the Singaporean Foreign Service on loan to The Alliance, had pushed him to move outside the limitations of the urban control definitively managing his life, to find a home far from its predictable reach. Multi-lingual, deeply connected and comfortable with all people, Madison knew he would feel settled and refreshed in a setting as tranquil as the Chaco Desert where northern Paraguay met southern Bolivia in South America. Neither national government had connected its land surveillance system out to the remote reaches of sand pushing up against Brazil’s more developed Mato Grosso do Sul region to the east. Instead, scattered farms were left to battle the elements, and pursue a livelihood in a brown and yellow desert basin stretching over a quarter million square miles. At both countries’ border areas, the tentacles of The Network were on full alert, but across the desert expanse there were only a few drifting human settlements, and the grasp of government control dissipated into the hot, dry air. Modern clay-brick farmhouses were anchored on cement foundations dug deep into the soil, and from their solar paneled rooftops, mini satellite dishes could be sporadically turned on to link to the broader world. One of these houses had no visible sign of extending its connections past its front porch door, which is where Slater stood waiting for his knock to be answered.

As the door creaked open, Slater cautiously proclaimed, “I will have to admit, I did not expect this.”

Madison stared at his visitor with cold, unforgiving eyes. In the past year, he had reset his mind and body to a generous and welcoming mode. The scarce, private local people around him had made the transformation possible. But seeing Slater elicited the lingering sentiments he had been trying desperately to discard.

“Hello,” Slater continued. He had stretched out his hand, but dropped it upon seeing Madison’s eyes turnover from a friendly greeting for an expected neighbor, to the unhappy return of a dreaded friend.

Madison shook his head. “Honestly Slater, can I not have a moment’s peace,” he pleaded.

“We have given you a year my friend.” Slater squinted in the bright sun. “May I come in?”

“If I say no?”

“I am asking on behalf of the Commander of U.N. Special Command.”

“Who knows very well not to send her sniffer dog after me!”

“Yes of course she does. We do believe in freedom. But you have skills and when those skills are needed…we have little choice.”

Madison stared at him. “You have plenty of choices. Can the skills not come from another agent?”

“Not on this. You have experience too. It will sound familiar. If you let me in, I will explain.”

With the heaviest of reluctant gestures, Madison stepped aside, and motioned with his hand for Slater to come through the door.

As he walked across the threshold, Slater looked around. The room was decorated in clean-lined Scandinavian furniture, polished woods and painted whites. Dozens of books lined the open shelves as soft music played in the background. Glancing at the photos and paintings on the walls, Slater asked, “Are you comfortable here?”

“Extremely,” an aggravated Madison replied.

“Doing a lot of reading?”

“Yeah all the time. Slater, did you put my face on a continuously running scan protocol for every satellite on earth?”

“Not exactly.”

“Track foreigner movements across borders?”

“It was a combination of proven tactics.”

“A combination only Slater James would execute, to permit The Alliance to invade my privacy whenever it feels like. What do you want?”

“All right.” Slater turned to face him. “We have another global crisis with undetectable drones shooting at humans.” Madison raised his eyebrows. “But this time the drone aims the laser only at the weapons in their hands. Fortunately, no one has been killed. This drone is avoiding harming humans, civilian or military. You understand why I needed to track you down. You have seen this all before Maddy, which means you have insight Special Command would gratefully welcome.”

“Kadie has put a team together to figure out a way to stop these attacks?”

“Yes and she wants you on it.”

“Did she specifically ask for me?”

“Well…she wants a team she can trust, and I know that would include you.”

“Then she didn’t specifically ask for me? She respects my privacy. But this…” he pointed to Slater, “…this smells like a Slater James idea all the way. You’re so pissed off I walked away. You want to end my rogue behavior.”

“No Madison, that is not the reason I am here. You know Kadie, and you know the kind of people with whom she prefers to work. I do not have to run names by her. She would be expecting you.”

“I doubt that. I kind of retired, she knows that, and she understands.”

Slater changed his tone, he and Madison had once been classmates at Oxford, and their shared experiences started long before either had received a summons from Special Command. “We need you Maddy,” he pleaded as an old friend. “We need thinkers. You know how difficult it is for us to function in this world. Few people use the full potential of their brains. We are the last line of defense for the intellectual progress of humanity. If people like us do not keep demonstrating unfettered human thinking as a superior alternative to machines, we will lose a much more important war than the one hackers have handed us. You are one of us Maddy, come and help out for a while. Look at the data, talk to a few people to assess their ideas, add your own, and then…maybe if it is all a dead end, you can leave again.”

“I can leave?” Madison had been staring out the window as Slater spoke. Looking at the ongoing flat expanse of desert reflecting the end of organic life as absolutely as Slater described the end of human progress, he replied, “That does not appear to be an option.”

“Please return to Special Command Maddy. Your services are really required.”

“My services? Slater, I want my freedom.”

“You are free but you are also indispensible. I cannot promise we can ignore your skills.”

“No of course you can’t.”

“Look Maddy, I am not creating global problems. But you signed up to help fix them, to fight bad guys. I know you got sick of it, but you are a young man. It is a little too early to bail out, right?”

“I don’t think so. I’ve been at this for a long time, and it has made me feel much older.”

“Come back, help us out, and then leave again if you want.”

“Until the next incident.”

“No promises.”

“If I say no, are you going to retaliate, maybe cut off my ability to ever come back?”

“You know I would not do that.”

“Do I?”

“If you say no, I will report it to Kadie and she will decide.”

“No you’ll report it to The Alliance and they’ll fuck up my life.” Slater was silent. “I thought so.”

“Nobody wants to ruin your life Maddy. You are a very valuable member of our team. People want you to contribute your talents, your training, in times of need, that is all.”

Madison walked over to the bookshelf, and stared straight ahead as he ran a finger across the spines of the volumes perched in front of him. “Contribute…forever and ever and ever?”

“When we need you.”

“Like right now?”

“Yes of course, right now.”

Madison waited a few more minutes. Slater shifted from one leg to another. Slowly Madison turned back to face him. “What do you need this time?” he asked with bitter resignation.

With a sigh of relief, Slater held up his com. “I am going to send you the details. You are going to The Philippines to meet Roman at the incident site. You two can investigate there as you see fit. We are looking for all the missing details from the official reports.”

“So we have our orders and are free to execute on them as we decide.” Madison grimaced as he watched the data arrive to his com. “But I’m doing this under protest.”

“Duly noted, but remember why you are agreeing, Maddy. You have skills, and the world needs you. There are very few people like you. The world cannot afford to lose you.”

Madison indignantly looked at him. “Thanks for the pep talk.”

“It is true my friend. As you know, there are not enough thinkers. We need you. Hopefully when you have read the information I have sent, you will forgive me for coming to find you, especially if we resolve this conflict together, and protect the world yet again.” Slater turned around and walked out the door.

Surprised, Madison looked at his com, projected a screen and almost as he read the first paragraph, he understood exactly the issue Slater had been trying to convey to him.

*

In a conference room at the Cape Canaveral Air Force station, Hagen and Janna sat across from each other at a boardroom table. Kendall Knight had arrived from Miami and taken the seat closest to the door. Fitted dark blinds blacked out the windows on all sides, and were fronted by 200-inch video monitors. Live feeds projected images of Kadie and Isabella in D.C., U.S. military personnel around a conference table at WestCom, and in Brussels, two E.U. representatives. Looming in greyed out patience, the only empty screen was awaiting a communications connection with the Russians. The screens’ edges overlapped, blending the technology into the background, and allowing all of the projections to place the people in other locations directly around the conference room table as if they were facing each other in person.

“How long are we going to wait?” Knight impatiently asked.

“They confirmed they would join us, we will wait until we hear differently,” Kadie replied. The room fell silent again. Kadie glanced at the attendees. She was not familiar with the members of the U.S. military team who were assigned to the crisis. Neither representative was based at the Pentagon, which limited their access to the halls of true power, and invoked little confidence in how far they could represent the U.S. government’s viewpoint. Knowing that after the communication with the Russians, the assigned U.S. representatives would have to run all the way back to Washington to seek guidance on official policy, Kadie had called an earlier strategy-planning meeting with higher-level decision-makers to propose a first step in reconciliation with the Russians. After intensive debate, the plan had been approved, and over ongoing U.S. military protests, the coordinated global team had been tasked to ensure a secure implementation. The room strained under the pain of waiting for the outlined proposal. Each person projected a personal monitor screen to focus directly on the satellites’ status, as they were gripped into scrutinizing, two aluminum cylinders and an undetectable drone suspended more than 20,000 miles above their heads. But the unchanging scene brought no semblance of tranquility to the meeting, and the mood only tensed further, when 25 minutes after the agreed time, the Russians signaled their readiness to speak. Both sides ran simultaneous translation apps from The Network. The Russian voices came through in English even though the team knew they were speaking their native language. The teams were not concerned the translations would be misinterpreted, the sabotage factor had been eliminated when advanced technology outpaced the known tricks of human intermediaries.

“Commander Laltanca, the Russian Federation continues to officially protest to the United Nations Security Council, the United States intrusion into our sovereign communications devices,” began General Ivan Zoubkov. “And we request immediate Security Council intervention to stop this illegal activity.”

“Thank you General, the Security Council has received the protest, and has requested that Special Command direct the resolution of this issue,” Kadie responded exactly as she had to the previous Russian complaints.

“But we still do not have a resolution.”

“General, as Special Command has previously advised, the United States has reported a technical issue with the scanning program. The U.S. government had no intention of deliberately targeting your satellite. A test protocol has gone offline and they are trying to correct it.”

“The Russian people are expected to believe this story?”

“Yes General, Special Command is speaking for the Security Council. This explanation has been verified. It is true. Please we would like to move forward with a solution.”

“And this would be?”

“The U.S. would like to invite a member of your team to Cape Canaveral to work with their team on the resolution of this issue. With this approach, you will have a member of your team who is directly involved in the process, and who can advise if you have additional concerns.”

A long pause emanated from Moscow. “One moment,” General Zoubkov responded, and the Russian lines went silent as they activated the mute button.

After another ten minutes passed by, Hagen turned on ‘Mute’ for the U.S. based team, then switched the line to a more secure internal communication frequency. “You’ve shocked them,” he said to the group. “They were not expecting this level of cooperation.”

“I’m still completely against it,” announced General Toews from his base at WestCom. “We do not need to share this technology with the Russians to get them to back off.”

“I agree,” Knight added.

“Working together is a more stable approach,” Kadie defended the position yet again. “You do not know exactly why the systems are not working correctly, and nor can you predict the reaction to any of the attempted fixes. Everyone is better off having the Russians be well aware of the process for fixing the problem, instead of having them be surprised.”

“It’s compromising U.S. security,” Toews remarked.

“The Cape Canaveral team assures us that all protected technology will not be affected, and the Russians will be working only with the data needed to deal with the satellites.”

“That’s correct,” Janna hesitantly added. “We have activated the extended security protocol for foreign visitors. The workstation we will give the Russian technician will not have access to any confidential data.”

“They are going to send us one of their genius super hackers,” Knight complained.

“We will monitor for unauthorized activity,” Hagen added. “We have our own geniuses, and the workstation is tracked. The cameras and sensors in the Control Room will also be programmed to detect if the Russian moves to another station, and tries to login from a different location. The Network will automatically display only the programs he has access to regardless of where he tries to work.”

“And you have this protection established for cameras and sensors all over Cape Canaveral?”

“Actually yes.”

Knight was stunned. “Really?”

“Yes of course.” Hagen sighed through his response as if Knight had no knowledge of the capabilities of modern technology…or Special Command. “As soon as they identify their liaison to this team, Special Command will put his image into a facial recognition protocol that will redirect every unauthorized access attempt.”

“But he’ll have a hotel room, maybe other private spaces. You don’t have interior cameras.”

“We have sensors. And we can block identified communication signals coming from the hotel.”

“Well you have an answer for everything.”

“That’s the point of our team, Ms. Knight,” Hagen patiently continued. “Special Command is a team of thinkers, and we spend all of our time working on staying multiple steps ahead of hostile technologists, including super genius hackers.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Knight dubiously replied.

“That is our plan as of now,” Kadie intervened. “But the Russians will have to accept it first. If they choose not to cooperate, you should proceed with your fixes, and hope no unexpected incident is triggered.”

The team fell silent again as the wait continued. After another ten minutes, the Russian team returned. Hagen switched the communication systems when he heard their renewed greeting. Without apology or explanation for the delay, General Zoubkov proclaimed, “We will send two team members, but we want to work from a neutral location.”

Kadie anticipated the counterproposal. “Two people are acceptable, however there will be no change to the location,” she responded. “The entire support team for the satellite program is based at Cape Canaveral. The equipment is not available at another location, and there is no time to move the investigation. The incident is at a critical stage, General. Both countries must resolve this immediately. The U.S. requests you send your team members now so they can be involved as soon as possible.”

Knowing the urgency argument was solid, The General hesitated. He already knew the U.S. team was working on fixes, and any knowledge they had already uncovered was lost to his country. The longer he waited or added additional demands, the more they would miss. Still he wanted a least a few concessions, he did not want to be seen as agreeing too easily. “We will need our own secure room for communications to our headquarters.”

“That can be arranged.”

“No, we will bring our own equipment.”

“That is acceptable.”

He hesitated again, not willing to give in too soon. “How long will this investigation last?”

“The team has been unable to determine the full scope of the investigation, General. Special Command recommends assigning your officers for an indefinite period, or considering how often you would rotate them.”

“We will consider a set time.”

“Then we are agreed?”

The General hesitated again but could not articulate further excuses. “Yes,” he finally concurred.

“And who are the officers? When can the Cape team expect them to arrive?”

“We are sending the leader of our satellite team Maria Ovechkova, and her technician is Pavel Fedorov. They will arrive within 24 hours, we will send you the details.”

“Thank you General, the Security Council appreciates the cooperation of the Russian Federation.”

“And we will appreciate a rapid resolution to this problem, and an end to the American intrusion into our sovereign communication space.”

“Yes General, that is well understood.” Kadie looked around the room. “Are there any questions?” Silence loomed. “Then we are agreed. The Cape Canaveral team will receive their Russian colleagues, and will continue to provide updates on the progress. U.N. Special Command will facilitate a cooperative work environment towards a rapid and peaceful solution. Thank you everyone.” The participants signed off the main com line, but the U.S.-based team stayed connected on a separate frequency. “All right, now do you have any questions?” Kadie asked once they were secure.

“Yes Commander,” Knight began. “Can we actually resolve this problem?”

“Commander if I may,” Hagen interrupted before Kadie could respond. “From the data we have gathered so far, we can confirm the satellite received an external command, we are working on tracking its origin. An intruder infiltrated the system. We are running every tracer protocol we have, and we will find the invading code and fix it.”

“But even if we find this hacker, we still have to stop the protocol from running, and stop the drone from firing.”

“Yes that’s correct, those are our objectives.”

“Then our status is the same.”

“I would not say that Ms. Knight,” Kadie interrupted annoyed. “Every person looking at this code is getting closer and closer to determining exactly where the error lies. These programs are complex, and were designed to avoid unauthorized entry. The program initially went through a series of security breach tests, it will take time to find out if any possibilities were missed.”

“That’s the gap I don’t understand Commander. That type of vital security issue could not have been missed. We have been building and running secure satellites for the U.S. government for decades. This is our most sensitive technology. My company is not convinced there is an error in our code. If your team is only looking at the scanner code, we think you are on the wrong track.”

“We realize you have extraordinary technology, but you could not have anticipated every potential deviation. Since this incident is happening now, we can assume there is an error. And we recognize, it’s also possible the error is not embedded in the program code.”

“I think you should look for alternative issues.”

“Your suggestions?”

“Could be a problem with The Network misinterpreting commands.”

“The Network?”

“Yes, it could be in The Network’s communication paths not our code.”

Hagen interrupted, “We are looking at The Network also, we are not leaving out that possibility.”

“Well good, but that’s where the emphasis should be. There are no holes in our code.”

“Thank you Ms. Knight, we accept your concerns,” Kadie continued. “Are there any other questions or comments?”

“Make sure you lock those Russians down tight,” Toews added.

“Yes General, the security protocol is set.” Kadie decided not to leave the time open for additional feedback. “Thank you everyone.” She turned off the communication before a detractor could reply.

“Okay let’s get back to it,” Hagen said, rising from the table followed by Janna.

“I’m returning to headquarters,” Knight announced, looking at Janna walking towards the door. “Keep me posted.”

“Yes of course,” Janna responded. She and Hagen departed, and began walking back to the Control Room.

“Okay give me your opinion about where we are,” Hagen requested.

“My opinion?” Janna inquired.

“Yes, what do you think?”

“You mean about all this?”

“Yes exactly. I know you can follow orders from Special Command, and accept a diagnosis from The Network, but based on your knowledge and experience, give me your personal analysis.”

Janna hesitated. “Umm I don’t know…”

“C’mon it’s okay. I won’t tell anyone you can think for yourself.”

“No it’s not that. It’s…”

“What? You are only supposed to follow Network instructions?”

“Yes.”

“Have you ever tried to think through a problem on your own?”

Janna considered the question. “Well sure,” she defensively replied. “But that’s not really how we work here.”

“Because you still have to implement the directives The Network gives you, even if you have another idea?”

“I guess.”

“You guess?”

“Look Hagen, stop bugging me. You and I have very different jobs. I don’t deal with thinking people at Special Command all day long. I have to work through The Network and respond to its instructions. My team is here to complete a specific job. Our instructions and protocols are set-up in The Network by our company or the U.S. military, when do you propose we think for ourselves?”

“All the time.”

“That’s easy for you to say.”

“The Network is not always right. You should be re-considering its instructions as you go through your day.”

Janna laughed. “Okay now you’re really mocking me. A human would need a 240-hour day. There’s no way any person could consider every step The Network takes—”

“I’m not talking about every step,” Hagen seriously admonished her. “I’m talking about those critical activities involving life and death situations. It’s very dangerous to look at a report The Network has formulated and accept it without question.”

“Really? I don’t think we live in the same world Hagen. We had exactly that scenario before the Russians issued their alert. Dozens of people were involved, and they all focused on The Network’s report. In my world, you have to look at The Network. That’s the only way to work, the only way tasks are executed. How could that be dangerous when there is no other operating process?”

Hagen sighed as he considered the truthfulness of her words. For most people, The Network was the only option. They lived in a post-control world, a world managed through the aggregation of personal online data that governments and big technology companies had co-opted since September 2001. Humans had turned their lives over to The Internet, connecting through mobile phones, tablets, computers, GPS satellite locators, that transitioned to coms running endless applications accessing, then cross-referencing, information to provide goods and services from around the world. The majority had ceased considering the uses of Big Data, and the control and manipulation of human profiles until it began to manage people’s lives beyond their original understanding. The Network used the data to understand human preferences, then constantly updated and readjusted based on a human’s actions. But the system also redirected humans based on government and business objectives. It made suggestions, activated billions of default actions, and most humans accepted the direction until the process became the permanent instructions for their lives. For many, The Network was a daily aide providing shopping discounts, learning plans, financial loans, housing options, and employment offers based solely on the aggregated data in an online profile, including education results and other accomplishments recorded over the years. The Network processed every online action, as well as physical movements detected by camera and sensor surveillance, then auto-generated important messages, updated personal information, suspended deliveries or services that were no longer needed, and defaulted information and purchases based on the individual’s prior, and even future actions. If a woman was pregnant, which The Network knew from medical records, then it would adjust product suggestions, and automatically add required goods as the due date drew nearer. Once a birth certificate was registered, all related child-rearing activities would receive a Network update at a specific time in the child’s life, such as a prompt to register for education on the day of the child’s fourth birthday.

Entertainment programming was drawn from content available all over the world, and updates and suggestions were made based on the person’s activities across The Internet. Individuals could copy a favorite celebrity’s entire clothing and accessories style, all of the visible wardrobe, makeup and jewelry preferences, and The Network would buy the products, at the preferred size and colors, and deliver them without an additional required command. Each purchase generated an update across servers for preferences tailored to an individual’s profile. Royalties were paid directly to the owners of copyrighted or trademarked content. Despite multiple attempts by hackers to eliminate the anti-piracy tracking technology, the product owners had succeeded, through international law, in forcing a charge every time The Network registered the download or sale of their product.

Routine maintenance for physical goods like transports was unknown to humans. The Network automatically fixed any digitally connected product, and many of the unconnected ones. Drones with pincer arms could be dispatched to any location, and perform a repair requiring the manipulation of tools or heavy lifting. Humans did not have to move. Few people even knew when or how The Network had initiated a repair since the drones would work when the owner was asleep or otherwise occupied.

Governments used The Network to track real earnings and spending, and then adjusted tax policies and budgets based on their constituents’ real-time activities. In fact, lawmakers insisted on Network data accuracy to ensure their defaults for public revenue and resources were also aligned with projected tax revenues, actual consumption and taxpayer requirements. The Network was never off, never over-heated, and never went down for maintenance. Every server had multiple back-ups, and those back-ups had another server grid to live on. The energy resources keeping The Network functioning were each country’s most vital assets.

But there were also humans who did not accept The Network’s control of daily life by default. People like Hagen who worked in Global Intelligence, and others who were too creative, educated, ambitious, risk-seeking or wealthy to take all instructions from a machine. Staying conscience and informed about The Network’s capabilities, this group utilized it to their own advantage. Janna was not one of those people. She was smart, professional, and insightful, but she had not yet tried to operate outside The Network.

“There is another way,” Hagen slowly continued. “Over these next few days as you work with the Russians, try and take a moment to think about the physical action you make in response to the digital command. You have a lot of experience Janna, you might be surprised by the depth of your understanding.”

“Really? You’re serious?”

“Yes and you don’t have to state your thoughts aloud. If you’re not sure, or embarrassed or want to discuss it first, come to me. If you take a moment, and really try and consider the full scope of this situation, you might come up with a solution before Special Command does.”

Janna laughed again. “I doubt that.”

“At least try, okay. You are the expert on these satellites, you really are. By virtue of the fact you are human, you undoubtedly have different data processing capabilities than The Network.” They reached the door to the Control Room.

Janna was staring at Hagen, biologically processing his words. “Okay I’ll try,” she hesitantly replied. “But I don’t know Hagen. That’s a very strange idea, thinking without The Network. I’m not even sure I can imagine how that would work.”

“Well then put it to work and you will not have to imagine anymore.”

“Okay I will. I take your challenge. And bizarre as it sounds, I’ll let you know if I come up with any ideas that are not appearing in the analysis.”

“That’s all I ask,” Hagen said, as they passed through the Control Room door. “That you try and think it through yourself.”

*

“Kadie really thinks The Network has found another loophole for creating its own commands?” Madison questioned Roman as they walked towards the main entrance of the Coast Guard Station on Mindanao Island in The Philippines. Having submitted to the inevitable and returned to work, Madison had reluctantly appeared on the other side of the world to join the Special Command investigation at the first location that had encountered the human-aware undetectable drone.

“Yeah she hasn’t really broadcast her opinion but she wants us to look into it,” Roman answered, squinting in the unrelenting Southeast Asian sun. “No group is claiming responsibility. If hackers launched an attack as spectacular as taking control of a secret U.S. satellite scanning program, then they’d likely lay claim to it, even if only to their friends.”

“Could be rogues wanting only the control without drawing attention to themselves.”

“Yeah but she thinks we held on to that idea for too long last time. This time, regardless of the team’s initial opinions, she wants to start looking at The Network right away.”

“And you? Do you also think it’s The Network? Do you think we’re in a similar place like we were two years ago?”

“I hope not. We went through all of the related Network commands we could find, and inputted an entire protocol for checking its responses to millions of generated combinations of potential scenarios. There is no way this was supposed to happen again.”

“But it did and it’s more precise than last time, not shooting at humans or machines but only at weapons, that’s an amazing application. It has to be a human idea, not an automatic Network reaction to a pattern we should have predicted.”

“Yeah I hope so.”

“There are many similar protocols to avoid death or injury, but who could be giving the order, and what is the trigger?”

‘That is the question. Who is giving the order to The Network?”

The men arrived at the station’s main doors, and waited as a scanner unobtrusively ran a facial recognition application approving them for entrance. As the door opened, Roman and Madison crossed into the lobby, and immediately encountered Trina Lopez and six military and government officers standing on the other side, looking anxious.

“Good afternoon,” Roman greeted them.

“Good afternoon,” Lopez’s group politely replied.

“As you know, we are here on behalf of the United Nations Special Command,” Roman continued in an even-toned announcer’s voice. “We have no role except to ask questions, document your responses, and analyze your systems, to see if we can determine the cause of the undetectable drone incident.” The Filipino team hesitantly nodded, and Madison uncomfortably shifted. “Please go on with your work, and we will contact you as needed.” The Filipinos did not move. Roman waited. “Please go ahead—”

“Are we going to be fired?” Lopez asked on behalf of the group.

Roman stared at her concerned. “No of course not. I mean, not by us, not for this. Why would you ask?”

“We didn’t do anything wrong. That drone, it acted on its own.”

“Yes we understand.”

“People think we did it,” a military officer interjected. “They think a human trafficker paid us off to help those people run away.”

“We don’t have that information,” Roman lied to reassure them. Special Command had been presented with a report from The Philippines government documenting suspicions of insider involvement. But the team, based on their experience, knew they could ignore the blame-passing explanatory stories around interactions with undetectable drones. “We are only going to do an assessment.”

“That drone acted all on its own,” Lopez repeated.

“Yeah,” one of the soldiers spoke up. “It fired at us.”

“Yes we are aware, we saw the video, and read your initial statements,” Roman calmly stated. “Look please, we are here to gather more information, we have no other role. We’re with the U.N., and have no jurisdiction to take any other action.”

“Is there a room where we can all sit and discuss your concerns?” Madison suddenly asked. “Why don’t we start by hearing your stories?” Roman skeptically looked at him. He was not interested in listening to people’s enhanced tale about a shooting drone, their statements had already been documented.

“Yes,” Lopez replied relieved. “Come, follow us.” She turned and began leading the team down the hall.

Roman looked at Madison to protest. “I know you don’t want to do it,” Madison whispered. “But sometimes you actually have to deal with people. You have to help them move away from their fears and concerns about a Network controlling their lives. They’re facing blame for an action that could have been commanded by a hacker…or even directly by a machine. If we can take a few minutes to listen, it will be easier to finish this investigation.”

“It will waste a lot of time,” Roman complained.

“It will help people. We’ve got the time, we do not have to ignore them.”

Madison and Roman followed the team towards the conference room, and sat down around the table. Then the Filipinos all started speaking at once. Madison reeled them back in, and reset from the beginning starting with Lopez, then subsequently each of the others. The individual team members had similar, but strikingly personal stories about the day on the beach. While they spoke of the same incident, on instinct each person ached to explain the direct impact of an unexplainable action on their once completely predictable lives. As they recounted their memories, Madison came to realize their official story might be the first time, perhaps since they were children, when each had been allowed to state a true human response, and feelings about a Network action, and they seized it.

“I was scared,” one of the soldiers remembered. “Isn’t The Network supposed to work all the time? I didn’t get it. When our transports didn’t start, I’d never seen that before. When that drone started shooting, I’ve never seen that either. And the people running away so quickly. I know when there are protests and big crowds, people run if they are scared. We all know that, we’ve seen it in videos. But I didn’t know what to make of it when there was no instruction for what to do next.”

Madison seized on the comment. “Your next steps?” he asked.

“Yeah, The Network always has the whole plan mapped out,” the soldier continued. “We go through it, you know, step-by-step. We don’t have to worry about it ‘cause we always know what’s gonna happen.”

“Because it’s a complete set of instructions? Your protocol for processing the migrants was already determined, step-by-step as you say?”

“Yeah.”

“But the very first step requires transports, and when yours did not start the rest of the process could not be completed.”

“Yeah.”

“Except then you arrived on foot.” The room waited. “And the attack drone was waiting. The attack drone is not in the plan.”

“No, of course not,” Lopez interjected.

“And the surveillance drone, to watch the migrants, that one is part of the plan?”

“Yes it was over the beach. The attack drone was different.”

“But isn’t a surveillance drone assigned to watch you with the migrants? Once you start processing and detaining them?”

“Yeah that’s in the new plan,” another soldier intervened. “But we didn’t need a weaponized drone. I mean…we weren’t supposed to need a weaponized drone. This whole thing happened the day the plans switched over. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe some instructions got crossed.”

Madison was aware the Filipino government had been intending to detain the migrants, not process and release them as had been permitted for years. “Right, you switched plans,” he stated. The team anxiously watched as Madison’s mind churned through the information. They could almost infer he was processing it like a computer. “You switched plans,” he repeated. “And the new plan includes a surveillance drone but not weaponized?”

Roman had been scrolling through reports of the incident on his com. “That’s the key difference between the plans,” Roman added, projecting a screen. “The old plan did not include a surveillance drone over the civilian team. Were you expecting trouble with the government’s new policy?”

“Sure,” Lopez replied. “There are always people who are against arresting migrants. It’s kind of a big deal here because people believe in free movement ideas. I think even your President’s daughter was involved in one of those protests.”

“Our President?” Roman queried, dreading the response.

“The U.S. President. She was in one of those protest groups in Australia. I remember because I watch news reports about the protests against the government’s migrant policy in case it affects my job. And of course they talked about her.”

Roman considered the information. “That’s interesting.”

“Really?”

“It’s helpful,” he honestly replied. “We process every piece of information we receive to determine the entire story.”

“Don’t you put everything we say through The Network and let it give you a report?” one of the soldiers asked.

Surprised, Roman looked at him. “No, we review your comments on our own.”

“All of it?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“How what?”

“How do you do it on your own?”

Roman considered the question as the room stared at him. “Well all I can say about that…” he uncomfortably responded, “…is I guess…we were trained how to think about what you say.”

“Trained? How?”

“As part of our education, work experience…we were challenged to come up with answers before The Network did, to see if we understood the reason for asking questions, and retrieving answers, and if we could figure it out on our own.”

“But why? Isn’t that kinda of a waste of time when you already know The Network can answer any question faster than you can?”

Roman inwardly smiled. When he was younger, he had thought it was a waste of time, and fought his parents on their educational tactics including having him memorize equations, and repeat facts off the top of his head. Constantly annoyed that he had to study and practice to learn to naturally speak different languages, when Network translator apps could be used in countries all over the world, years would pass before he evolved, and came to realize the methods they were trying to make him understand. They were exercising his brain, igniting as many synapses as possible, and keeping them firing. Clinging to dependence on The Network may have been acceptable for most people, but not for Francons. His parents were part of the separation between those who were well aware of the control exhibited by The Network, and those who succumbed to its will. A hundred years earlier, the ideological battle had been between the people who wanted The Network to be free to manage and manipulate data for the public good, and those who wanted to ensure humans continued to advance by using their brains for more demanding and complex tasks. The future of a free humanity was locked into the battle. Many people, most in fact, do not see a role for themselves on earth. Managed from birth, they respond only to the expectations of the waiting world. They complete their educational requirements, accept a job, match with a mate, procreate, and spend each day operating within those limited programmed life parameters. More daring risk-takers would travel to visit another country, or try a few extra elective-learning courses, but there the reach to expand their knowledge ended. Despite the absence of a learning border, most only went as far as the mandated minimum framework.

But for those who ventured further, their lives unfolded in a diverse world of information, knowledge and awareness. The advanced courses available with a typical education curriculum were usually free, libraries and museums were plentiful and accessible, debates and lectures on a myriad of subjects could be watched on The Internet, there was no limit to the access to ongoing education. The difference between those who paid attention and those who did not, was not money, it was instinct. Lined with a code for human survival surpassing the basic physical needs for food, clothing and shelter, a conscious few embraced risking their brainpower to confront all of the untried, unknown and even unwanted human advances that could be imagined. This was the expectation Roman had come to appreciate, but ‘how could he explain his progression to this group now?’

“The Network can process data in only the format we program it to process data,” Roman began. “We, as humans, can think and imagine new actions and ideas. The Network is an output of our thinking, if we left it alone and stopped thinking, we would not move forward, and The Network would not change.” The soldier stared at him, failing to grasp his meaning. Roman tried again. “You know how there is always cool new stuff to buy, new transports, games, different types of food?”

“Yeah of course,” the soldier said smiling. “Last week I got this app that delivers an umbrella before it starts raining.”

“Yeah that’s cool,” another soldier chimed in. “I got that too.”

“Right,” Roman agreed. “That is cool. But The Network did not invent that app, a human did. A human had to think about it and create code to first check the weather, find an available drone, find your umbrella, find your location, and then deliver it.”

“Oh I know all that, my cousin is an engineer,” the first soldier continued. “But for this type of investigation, you’re looking at evidence that’s already there, like police. Why do you need to think for that? All that type of problem is already on The Network, and The Network can explain it to you.”

“I guess you could say we’re looking for the information that is not on The Network. We are looking for evidence that might have been missed or not understood by The Network’s protocols.”

“Missed? But don’t you program it not to miss anything? Humans did all the programming, like you said it’s already all the possibilities you could think of.”

“We have thought of quite a bit. But that does not mean there are no more potential problems.”

“You mean like in the movies when the machines go nuts and become self-aware, and start attacking us and all that.”

“Well no, not that extreme. The movies exaggerate, the machines are not self-aware.”

“Yeah smart guys in the movies always say that at first. But then you never know. You already said there could be problems, but you don’t know what they’ll be. You could be looking for that guy, terminator, you don’t know.”

The room laughed and Roman bristled, now he knew the meeting had prolonged for too long. “No we are not looking for a machine created by a machine to turn against humans. We are looking for real code. The Network is not going to come to life and attack us, but we might have a command conflicting with another, that’s the code we’re looking for.”

The soldier did not look convinced. He clearly preferred the Hollywood explanation to Roman’s official diplomatic statement. “I dunno sir, I’m going to guess you’re looking for another reason like if there’s a weaponized robot coming from The Network.” The room laughed again. “But that’s okay, you don’t have to tell us, we understand state secrets.” Roman looked at Madison for relief.

“Well that’s great,” Madison intervened. “You have all been very helpful, but it appears we are done for now.” The soldiers quieted down. “If we could have the room, we’ll continue from here, and get back to you if any other information is required.”

“Yes of course,” Lopez consented. “Let’s go everyone.” She stood up with the soldiers.

“By the way,” Roman said as they reached the door to leave. “If you do think of any other details, feel free to share information with us. There are no bad ideas, and more information may turn out to be helpful. We will listen to any comments you have.” The soldiers looked at each other with barely contained disbelief.

“Thank you sir, we’ll let you know if we can…” Lopez hesitated, “…ahh think of… another detail.”

Roman nodded and they left the room. Madison turned to face him. “Isn’t it impossible to try and explain our jobs to people?” he asked.

“Yeah his question threw me off,” Roman pensively stated. “Now I have to think about a reply for how we think. I had never considered that before.”

“Me neither. It’s so strange to be inside their world where their entire lives are on The Network, and that’s as far as one goes. In our jobs, we spend all day working around The Network, it’s such a completely different way of operating.”

“And few people do it, so we have to work even harder.”

Madison laughed. “Yeah tell me about it. Guess how I ended up here?”

“And there’s that.” Roman smiled then thoughtfully continued, “The soldier was getting to an idea I’m still not ready to admit.”

“Oh yeah.”

“It could be The Network. Not becoming self-aware like in the movies, but reprocessing code based on protocols we humans have clearly established for it, like last time.”

“Yeah I thought about the reprocessing option too. Last time we saw The Network had created its own command, but it was based on our human pattern of recorded responses including ‘Use This Default,’ remember.”

“Yes of course.”

“It was not self-aware and thinking for itself. We had actually inadvertently programmed it into creating its own instructions, because we had all sorts of unrelated functions on auto and default. The Network went step-by-step through the code it had been programmed to execute, but it turned out the whole process was circular. We had defaulted commands right into creating new commands.”

“Yeah but could we possibly be repeating the same error? Last time, the process to clean up auto-function for weaponized drones was intense. We went through literally millions of simulated scenarios.”

“I know, but unfortunately it looks like we may have definitely missed a few possibilities,” Madison lamented. “Maybe it’s another auto-function, for a non-lethal response, not weapons. Is shooting over people’s heads considered weapons use?”

“It should be, but maybe it falls under scare tactics.”

“Exactly. If it’s not under weapons use, then we could have missed certain functions. We were looking at Network protocols for the usual activity with weaponized drones. Maybe we left out an auto-function that still reprograms drones for other reasons, and has a command not to kill humans.”

“Oh shit, that could be right. But what triggered it?”

“Well I don’t know, but give me credit for one thought-generated discovery a day.”

Roman smiled. “Sure, nice job soldier. At least your skills are not rusty from your time off, it’s good to have you back.”

“Well thanks, but it’s not good to be back.”

“Yeah sorry they tracked you down.”

“You don’t have to apologize,” Madison dryly commented. “I know Slater can find me when he puts his mind to it. And now that I’m back in, it’s all right. This is all familiar. But I hope long-term…I don’t know…at some point in the future, maybe I could be done with all this.”

“Well if we identify the code, and discover the trigger for non-lethal defensive drones, our work here will be done.”

“Yeah until the next incident.”

*

“Mr. President…” Isabella began, “…the team is around the world investigating the migrants issue in The Philippines, and the logging situation in Brazil, and addressing the secret satellite scanning program, we believe—”

“Wait a minute,” President Solar abruptly interrupted as his expression faded into alarm. “Repeat what you said.” Alone in The White House Oval Office, Isabella sat facing him in response to a summons to provide an in-person update on the status of the investigation.

“We are looking into the incidents in The Philippines—”

“No say it the way you were saying it.”

“Oh. Well, I think I was saying, we are looking at the migrant issue in The Philippines, and the logging issue in Brazil and—”

“You see?”

“Mr. President?”

“I told you it was not a coincidence. It’s me.”

“You? But Mr. President as we’ve discussed maybe—”

“Those incidents, the way you referred to them just now…as issues. Well that’s how I spoke to…Alannis…Alannis’ simcon about those very same scenarios, that way, as issues we’re dealing with. Now I’m certain, it’s not a coincidence. Those are the subjects I discussed with her when I was working on my public comments about each one. I practiced statements with her, and she provided feedback. Usually negative feedback, like ‘I hope all the migrants make a run for it.’”

“But sir that’s…I mean, how could that matter? A simcon is a closed system, it’s not connected to The Network.”

“Well not directly, but the app is on The Network. There could be a glitch or it could have been hacked as I thought. I know it is not a coincidence, those were the exact same issues I had been speaking to her about.”

“Okay Mr. President, even if it’s a glitch or a hack, we’re still making a technical leap. How can Alannis’ simcon be in any way affecting real events in the world? She can’t give orders for weaponized drones, she’s never had the authority. Plus, I’m sorry sir but she’s dead. The Network does not keep processing commands from a human who has already been registered as deceased. I’m sorry Mr. President but I don’t think—”

“Ambassador, you of all people should know The Network is fully capable of processing commands humans are not aware of. I know you have had that experience.”

“That’s correct sir. But Special Command and the entire Global Intelligence, Security and Military apparatus went beyond their collective talents to make sure there were no other scenarios—”

“There’s at least one, and I need you to find it.”

“Mr. President, based on your suspicions about this, of course we can investigate as you direct, but I really cannot do it alone. I’m going to need access to more experienced and practiced technologists. Please allow me to speak to Commander Laltanca about all this…this possible connection. Special Command has a complete team of capable techs. We’ll pick trustworthy people who can work on these assumptions.”

“You mean dig further into my daughter’s personal memories.”

“Sir, the techs will only be looking at code. They will not know the data’s origins nor care to probe further. We will implement the highest level of security protocols on the process, mimic the top-secret standards already set for other techs. The analysts will only look at the data necessary to uncover if there is a command being emitted from the simcon to The Network that may have triggered these incidents.”

“Really? You think a tech who is smart enough to be appointed to this assignment is not going to realize exactly what he’s looking at, and then take the opportunity to observe the First Daughter’s private information. I don’t think so.”

“Mr. President, we have been very careful with the data so far. If your suspicions are the answer to the standoff with the Russians—”

“Now hold on Ambassador.”

“Sir I think it’s important—”

“Be careful, Ambassador. You would have to find a discreet and trustworthy tech who also has the skill to not disturb any of the contents of Alannis’ simcon, or I will not agree. If you think such a person exists, let me know.” He stood to end the conversation.

Isabella also stood. “Then I have your permission to discuss the entire situation with the Head of Special Command.”

The President looked at the ceiling, then back at Isabella. “Yes,” he reluctantly replied.

“Thank you Mr. President, we’ll update you as soon as possible.”

*

“I think he’s right,” Kadie remarked as she poured Isabella a glass of pinot noir in the living room of her Washington, D.C. condo. They sat on a plush sofa facing the floor-to-ceiling glass windows framing the view of the city through shimmering residential skyscrapers to the dome of the U.S. Capitol building.

As Isabella had detailed the entire story of President Solar’s retrieval of Alannis’ simcon, his suspicions about the origin of The Network’s untraceable commands, and his covert request for help to Slater and The Alliance, she shifted into informality, removing her shoes and tucking her feet up under her body. “Really?” Isabella responded taking a sip of wine. “You support that theory?”

“Yeah because of the way a simcon works. I think the President is right.”

“Why?”

“When a live person interacts with the app…speaks to it, the simcon looks for an exact match on the sentence, and provides the most recent response from the aggregated data. If no exact match is found it drops one word from the incoming sentence. It actually defines the word to drop based on the pattern it pulled from the data aggregation. If still no match, it drops a second word and on and on. It separates and analyzes fragments of the sentence until it has a response it can use. It’s continuously matching and verifying. Unlike a human who would accept silence, or simply not act on every word another person says, that app reacts to all conversation it hears.”

“How do you know this?”

“I spent a few hours looking into it when we were first asked to draft a security response to the usage directives. You know back when all governments agreed simcons could only be authorized for release by the living human.”

“Yes I remember.”

“I have an acceptable but superficial understanding of how it works. But we’re going to need a technologist who has gone much deeper into it, a thinker who can truly decipher the code, and identify the issue.”

“The people who built it are in the wind, it’s now open source.”

“Yeah I know, but I don’t think a random qualified tech has the sensitivity required to manage this process.”

“But who would? Who could be sensitive to the data they would be viewing and not disturb it?”

Both women paused. Then Kadie proposed, “We know there’s one person, probably the best person in the world for this assignment.”

“I have a feeling you’re about to mention an unmentionable name, which frankly Commander, is already an absurd idea,” Isabella mockingly replied.

“You are perceptive Ambassador. But I’ll say it anyway, Zylen Blain.”

“How much have you had to drink?”

“He’s a technologist with extraordinary skill, and no hostile agenda towards Alannis Solar’s memories.”

“Oh my God, Kadie, has Slater switched out your simcon?”

“Very funny, but you know I’m right.”

“Of course, you’re right. But it’s a completely outrageous idea, especially coming from you, Commander No Rogues.”

“But think about it. Blain is the profile the President expects us to find. And I’m guessing he would actually utilize absolute discretion, do the work and not destroy Alannis’ simcon.”

“He’d also steal it or copy it or erase all the data about himself or program it to tell the President to ‘fuck off’ every five minutes. I mean for heaven’s sake he’s also the last person on earth who can be trusted.”

“Yes there’s that too.”

“Plus we’ll never find him. Surveillance lost him within days of his release. Even under the eyes of our tracker satellites, he slipped away.”

“Yeah because he spends all of his time trying to evade us, and we spend almost no time trying to determine how to stop people like him from evading. He’s mastered being a rogue technologist whose sole purpose in life is to make sure the government does not capture him. But how would he behave if we actually gave him a challenging assignment. We need people like him on our side for a change.”

“Yeah he’s the best, but he’s not even near the dividing line of our side. Kadie, you had him in manacles. You could not even sit alone with him in a room unless he was restrained. He’s the ultimate rogue when it comes to despising us, and the world order we represent. Is there any chance he would ever take an assignment that involved cooperating with Special Command?”

“He obviously did not despise Alannis.”

“No he did not.”

“That’s an opening for at least a discussion. There is always a gift even your worst enemy wants from you.”

“I don’t believe I’m asking this, what exactly are you considering offering him…if you can find him?”

“Maybe he wants to be reconnected with a loved one who according to all once known human and Network information is actually dead.”

“Oh you’re joking. You actually think you can make a deal with him?”

“He’s the one who fell in love with the President’s daughter. If their relationship was as profound as it sounds, then maybe he is feeling cooperative.”

“Cooperative enough to work with his arch enemies in avoiding war with the Russians?”

“There’s only one way to find out.”

“You want to track him down?”

“Yes, we’ll take a chance and track him down.”

*

The dripping humidity of the Amazon rainforest’s interior created a hazy circle around Roman and Madison as their transport automatically navigated the narrow roads leading to the site of the logging incident. Despite centuries of humans literally ripping up the terrain from its roots, the rainforest still protected more than 15,000 species of trees from the hardy palm with its umbrella cover fronds, to the bounty of the rubber leaking its latex into industrial bins bound for distant factories. No work had resumed in the area while the Brazilian government and Special Command conducted the investigation into the incident with the undetectable drone. Instead the setting had been emptied of its protesters, military and worker human population, and left to the monkeys, macaws, and jaguars once again. As the transport maneuvered off the road and into the forest, both men instantly felt the deafening silence close in on them as they disappeared under the trees.

“Are we sure we’re in the right place?” Roman asked looking at the transport dashboard, then around at the towers of tree trunks encircling them. The disorientation from the flat open beaches of Mindanao was overwhelming. But with The Philippines investigation yielding no additional information, they had to readjust and conduct a comparable review in Brazil.

“Has to be, transport is taking us to the exact site,” Madison responded glancing at the display on the same screen.

“There are an awful lot of giant trees around here.”

“Are you claustrophobic?” Madison asked as he noted his colleague’s growing discomfort.

“I didn’t think so,” Roman uneasily replied looking up into a sky of leaf-filled branches. “Now I’m not sure.”

“We’ll be there in a second,” Madison, checking the dashboard again, reassured him.

As expected, the transport began to slow in time to allay Roman’s fears about another Network error leading them astray. In most countries, transports were only operated from Network commands. Individuals used their coms to connect and verify destinations, but the vehicles used Network-controlled satellite and GPS signals to follow approved routes to requested destinations. As a clearing abruptly materialized in front of the men, the transport came to a stop at the base of the trees, they climbed out and looked around.

The clearing was two miles in from the road where the protesters had been staged when the undetectable drone attacked. On all sides the trees had provided a protective wall and isolation for the workers and their auto-saws. Roman moved closer to a tree where markings indicated an auto-saw had once been attached, he reached up and touched the indentation.

“That’s all that’s left, those marks,” Madison remarked as he moved to join Roman. He too reached out, and carefully touched the solid bark as if paying homage to the radiating longevity emanating from the tree trunk.

“The auto-saw digs in deeply,” Roman noted. “But it can work by itself, like a drone. Why was the company using human workers?”

“They claimed humans had to attach the saws.”

“Why? Drones could have done it remotely.”

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s a job creation project.”

Roman thought about that possibility. To ensure viable employment opportunities for humans, governments all over the world had been forced to create jobs where none were required. In many countries, where drones and robots could be used for manual labor, governments had demanded a percentage of positions be reserved for people. Technology had been expected to free humans from trivial, demeaning and difficult tasks, and provide all the time necessary for education, recreation and social interaction to forge concentrated bonds across humanity. But in many regions, unemployed or underemployed people stayed isolated, remaining inside their government provided shelter, playing games on their coms, or viewing entertainment programming. The percentage of the population operating in idleness far exceeded those who were engaged in improving their minds or enhancing their skills. That fact was not lost on governments who tried to make it increasingly less attractive to function among the unskilled, but few paid attention to their overtures. “Yeah I guess so,” Roman finally replied. “A job creation project with near lethal consequences. I wonder how long that employment prospect will be desirable?”

“Well it could be, if we can definitively prove The Network is functioning correctly, and the undetectable drone attack won’t happen again.”

Roman quickly looked at him. “Happen again? That’s an interesting thought.”

“What is?”

“Will it happen again?”

“What?”

“The drone attack. Since the incident, all of the auto-saw logging has stopped. We do not know if this was a one-time instruction, or if it’s a dormant command waiting in The Network for another trigger.”

“Judging from the response when WestCom tried to override the satellite scanner program, it’s waiting.”

“Okay for the satellites, but out here? In The Philippines, the military is now patrolling the beach, their physical presence is too obvious to attract another migrant boat, so we can’t test it there. But here—”

“You want to find out if the drone will come back if they try to cut down the trees again?”

“Why not? I almost think we have to. Remember that’s the trick Zylen Blain ended up teaching us last time. If you want to follow The Network’s hidden commands, you have to turn the unforeseen action on, and track it.”

“But if we say to go ahead and start again, and firing drones show up, we’ll put people’s lives at risk. We cannot tell them to try again if we do not know how lethal that undetectable shooting drone really is.”

“Actually we don’t need people. This is the one site where the trigger activity can be launched remotely, like I thought the company was doing in the first place. We can get Weltern to set-up the saws without any humans around. The drone would not have a target. We can find out if it’s reacting to soldiers or to the sawing.”

Madison considered the idea again. “Yeah you’re right, a remote test could work.”

“We’ll know for sure when we get it going.”

“You’ll probably have to work around the employees though. If this was a job creation project, people will be pissed the work is going to be done remotely.”

“We’ll say it’s a safety test under Special Command, not the company.”

“Okay that might work, let’s set it up.”

The men returned to the transport and selected the return command on the dashboard screen. Back in Manaus, they communicated their idea, and then waded through the process of convincing the entire logging incident apparatus to cooperate. The workers expected to be paid as if they would be completing the work; their supervisors had no experience remotely operating the auto-saws; the Brazilian military revengefully demanded authorization to shoot down any undetectable drone the minute it appeared; the government did not want to be seen to be replacing human jobs; and Special Command needed to divert analysts from the satellite project to focus on The Network reaction to the test. Over three days in a luxury hotel with a view towards the green and gold dome of the city’s two-century-old Renaissance-style Opera House, Roman and Madison were attached to their coms, communicating back and forth with all of the stakeholders until they had an approved plan.

After settling on a test date, Weltern assembled a ground crew at Manaus who programmed industrial drones to carry and set-up the auto-saws, and positioned camera drones to record the entire operation. The Brazilian military waited on stand-by. After cordoning off the felling area to prevent protesters or the media from approaching, the soldiers retreated to locations out of sight of the sawing. They waited, ready with their own authorized pincer-armed, camera-equipped industrial drones that would be permitted to capture and disable, but not destroy, any unauthorized drone appearing on the scene. All of the original workers would be paid as they sat at home waiting for a communication to return to their jobs. At Special Command in D.C., a group of analysts verified incoming video and data feeds from all of the camera drones on the ground, while Kadie, Slater and Isabella watched from a conference room. All quietly wondered if the hostile action would be repeated, or allow the trees to fall.

Roman and Madison tensely waited with the ground crew in a rented conference center converted two days earlier into a monitoring station to hold the resized team. Each ground operator projected at least one screen at eye-level, and maintained suspended keyboard controls under their hands. To avoid human error, all of the equipment had been pre-programmed for the tasks ahead, the operators were only to react to an unexpected, dangerous movement. Waiting patiently as the clock wound down to the appointed hour, all eyes focused on the various video monitors. Four auto-saws were already attached to drones parked on the road. As the clock numbers transitioned to 0800, the drones automatically turned on, and carried the auto-saws towards the clearing of trees. Each auto-saw was as long as the circumference of the largest tree trunk, and required four drones with three-foot long, dangling pincer arms to move it. Grasping the auto-saw in its steel tentacles, each drone encircled a tree, and then adjusted the blades until the saw was firmly attached. Working with flawless precision, the drones moved at exactly the expected speed, pinpointing the specific assigned location, and locking the auto-saws into place. The crew watched, then waited. Once the machines were set, the cutting work was to begin. The teams collectively held their breaths as they followed the operational steps on their com screens. But as each programmed machine moved to start, the anticipation of the deafening noise of metal splitting wood was met with absolute silence.

No one spoke as the screens displayed only the ‘Start’ command. Several more minutes passed as the global teams waited. Finally in exasperation, a crew supervisor asked his operators, “Has the work begun?”

The lead operator was staring at his screen. “It says ‘Start,’” he replied. “But that’s it, like it’s frozen I guess.”

“Frozen?” Madison inquired drifting out of anticipation, and moving closer to the screen. All of the cameras were recording, as the saws remained silent.

“That’s amazing,” Roman said impressed. “It knew to stop only when the saws were positioned and ready. Do we have a Network diagnosis?”

“Not yet,” an analyst replied from Washington. “We’ll need another couple of minutes.”

The various teams continued to watch the scene, and as they did, a low flying drone stealthily materialized on the monitors. “Look,” Madison exclaimed pointing at a screen as he looked at his com. “An undetectable drone.”

Roman stared at the machine appearing on camera, then looked at The Network surveillance report which was not indicating another drone in the area. A military-controlled drone immediately began scanning the sky, without a location signal from The Network, the soldiers would need to visually lock on to the intruder before their drone could take action. “Let’s get the data,” Roman quickly ordered. “Don’t engage with it yet.”

Another camera drone slowly moved closer to the unauthorized drone to record a 360 view of its specifications. The team was looking for a serial number or another marker to identify where the drone had come from, but judging by the drone’s reaction, it was programmed to avoid detection. Within seconds, of the camera drone calibrating on its position, the undetectable turned towards it. “It’s going to shoot,” Madison predicted recognizing the formation.

“No, I don’t think so,” Roman replied, unconvinced. “It’s only—”

His words collapsed to the abrupt sound of the undetectable sparking its laser firing mechanism. With brutal efficiency, the camera drone’s final broadcast image transformed from a red flash to darkness on the video screens in front of them. Spontaneously jumping backwards, the ground crew gaped at the screens, and Roman was silenced.

“We lost one,” Madison summarized for the team.

“And not any more,” a military officer in the room stated. “We’ve seen enough.”

“What if it comes after us?” a panicked operator interjected.

“Us? Here?” Madison replied. “It’s not coming here. It would not have had time to trace the camera drone operation.”

“How do you know it didn’t have time?”

Madison did not know and avoided replying.

“We are going to take it down,” the military officer repeated almost to himself. “That drone is threatening our territory.”

“Officer, we have agreed to a plan,” Kadie spoke out over com. A translator app automatically displayed both the English and Portuguese words on a video screen as The Network simultaneously recorded the conversation. Due to interference and noise control regulations, coms had a word display app, and when it was on, every exchange was collected and stored in Network profiles. “We want to be able to verify the different Network reactions in each situation. We will have this initial diagnosis in a minute, please allow the team to finish.”

The officer did not respond. Agreement already existed to permit the analysis to proceed, before attempting to force the machines to start by overriding the auto-saw instructions. As soon as the Special Command team had recorded sufficient data, the override would begin. Without further discussion, several more minutes passed, then the ground crew operators witnessed the override codes running.

“We’re trying override now,” one operator announced, staring at the screen and reading the display without reacting to it.

The team watched the screens as The Network tried to directly and indirectly prompt the auto-saws to perform. But there was no response from the poised metal. The commands no longer appeared to be frozen, various messages flashed by waiting eyes, but as soon as the code returned to ‘Start,’ the process stopped.

“What’s the command after ‘Start’?” Madison asked the room. The operators did not reply. “Anyone?”

“We don’t know,” replied the lead operator. “We do not look at these screens. ‘Start’ is ‘Start.’ Then it ends when the tree falls. We’ve only ever seen that action.”

“Someone look it up,” Roman suggested.

“We have it,” an operator in D.C. responded.

“Can you manually jump to the next command to force the process forward?” Madison asked.

“One moment,” the offsite analyst requested. Several more minutes went by before he replied. “No sir, it’s programmed for a sensor detection. We won’t see a command unless it actually does start. At the exact moment it detects the saw moving through the tree trunk, the command changes to ‘Operating.’ When it reaches clear air on the other side it ends and retracts. But we can’t force it there, only The Network can. Basically if it doesn’t start, there’s no way to move to ‘Operating.’”

“Okay,” a disappointed Madison acknowledged. “That’s the detail we needed to know.”

Several minutes later Kadie added, “We have gone through every operational step we agreed to try. This instruction is directly on the auto-saws, and they no longer work. We’re guessing if you remove the machines, the undetectable drone will fly away. But before we proceed, the military can go ahead and try and capture it as agreed.”

“We will capture it,” the military officer responded with unrestrained confidence. “Formation,” he directed his team. “On my command.” He selected an icon on his com, and all eyes turned back to the screens. After the undetectable had shot down the camera drone, the military kept a distant eye on the intruder, and used zoom functions to try and uncover its features from a distance. Incongruously, Roman noted, the undetectable did not react to this less invasive surveillance. ‘It must be operating on a sensor not a video view,’ he thought, which was exactly the conclusion reached by the military. After repeated failures shooting at the undetectable, the latest idea was to ensnare it like a group of fish, and disable it at another location. The soldiers activated more than a dozen drones carrying an industrial sized fishing net, but since the undetectable’s coordinates were not displayed on The Network, they could not determine its precise position. Using human eyes only, they manually operated camera drones to execute their plan. Staying more than fifty feet above the undetectable, the drones swept towards it with their trap. But the undetectable must have sensed the movement because each time the drones neared, it moved further away.

“It’s reacting,” an officer announced.

“It’s the sensors,” Roman stated. “It’s picking up a large item moving towards it. Maybe even the noise or the number of drones, it can tell it’s not alone.” Silently, he considered how advanced the technology was, most commercial drones operated from a camera feed only, this one could detect vibrations in the air.

The military scanned cameras and satellites and tried again, but the undeterred drone escaped again. After two more tries, the supervising officer expressed his frustration. “We’re going to shoot it down, you can pick up the pieces from the ground,” he proclaimed with assurance.

Special Command did not comment, the military was following a previously approved course of action. But independently Kadie, Roman, Slater and Madison all knew from experience that the soldiers would be unlikely to precisely aim at the intruder. Without the ability to accurately pinpoint its position in the sky, the soldiers would have to move closer to the machine. And if they moved closer, the drone would detect the hostile activity and shoot back. ‘This is going to be an interminable and futile battle,’ Kadie thought, and she was correct.

Exactly as the Special Command team had expected, on each attempt at capture, the drone either moved or fired at the military drones. The military fired back at dead air. The entire team waited for a resolvable outcome. “Use the satellites to get a better location,” the frustrated supervising officer ordered. But there was no better location human eyes could manage. They were firing blind and the whole team knew it. As another round of shots flew back and forth, Kadie’s patience ran out.

“We are executing on the final protocol,” she announced. “We’ll remove the auto-saws.”

“Wait Commander,” the supervising military officer pleaded. “If you finish the test, it will win. It will disappear as soon as the saws are removed.”

“We will follow it.”

“We need more time, Commander.”

“I’m afraid we have seen and done enough. We need the team to focus on the reports of this incident, and try to determine exactly how the instruction for the auto-saws is functioning. We have to move on.”

“I want to capture that drone!” the officer petulantly responded. “We need to know where it came from.”

“You’re going to have to try another approach,” Roman intervened. “In the past, we found out the undetectable drones were being reprogrammed at nearby facilities. We can run an existing scenario pattern, and try and find it.”

“We want to shoot it down!”

“Yes we’ve seen the multiple attempts. But it’s very sophisticated technology. You’re going to have to let it go.”

“But—”

“The capture plan has come to an end,” Kadie forcefully pronounced. “Execute the final protocol.”

The ground crew looked at their supervisors. Effectively the Brazilian military was in an authority conflict with U.N. Special Command, and the workers were caught in the middle. Not wanting to be seen overriding a military decision, the supervisors did not respond. “You can go ahead,” Roman instructed to the ground crew. “Special Command takes full responsibility for requesting completion of a plan agreed to by the Brazilian government. We have asked the experiment be concluded by execution of the final protocol. Retract the auto-saws.”

Once again the ground crew looked to their supervisors, who all looked away.

“We strongly protest,” the supervising officer stated. “We will take this to our government.”

“We note your protest,” Kadie confirmed. “Retract the auto-saws.”

The military did not respond. The crew waited another minute. “Go ahead,” Roman ordered directly to a crewmember.

Briefly glancing at each other, the operators bowed to the inevitable, and entered the code to retract the auto-saws. The embedded steel blades uncoiled from the tree trunks, and the carrying drones moved the auto-saws back to the storage facility where the machines would be rendered useless once again. The various teams departed from their stations, the ground crew and military went home without a word, and the U.S. analysts went to work on the data. Roman and Madison retreated to a secure room to reconnect with Kadie.

“That undetectable drone is nobody’s warehouse technology,” Kadie began over com.

“I agree,” Roman said. “Wherever it came from, it was not randomly sent here.”

“It must be the U.S. military, don’t you think?” Madison added.

“It’s a possibility,” Kadie admitted. “But we’ll need one of our military officers to verify that suspicion…quietly.”

“I’ll try and find out,” Roman offered. “I agree, I think it’s U.S. technology too. They did a lot of work with the undetectable drone analysis.”

“But so did the Chinese,” Madison said.

“This is not the Chinese, it’s not their style.”

“No it’s not. But follow-up with some discrete checking, and we’ll continue to analyze the code,” Kadie replied. “I hope the diagnostics are not a dead end.”

“There has to be a command code,” Roman said. “We have to be able to determine how the defense instruction is working. Think of the simultaneous activity, stopping the auto-saws at the same time the drone was avoiding capture.”

“Yeah but those could be separate programs,” Madison added. “Last time the undetectables were pretty good at defending themselves too.”

“That’s the issue,” Kadie acknowledged. “These undetectables are always weaponized, ready to shoot back. It’s programmed to avoid capture.”

“My guess is the drone does not want us to trace its origins. But if we get our hands on any information, we’ll be able to work our way through it while it tries to avoid that outcome at all costs.”

“But that instruction must originate from one of our protocols. Where in The Network do we have weaponized drones fighting back only to avoid being identified?”

“Military.”

“I agree,” Roman said. “It’s shooting back to show us it has a level of active control, and is not just a machine.”

“Human control?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Okay then where are we with this test?” Kadie queried. “We know this anti-auto-saw program is still effectively on, so the instruction is not temporary.”

“Do you want us to keep looking for clues here?” Madison asked.

“Yes both of you should look at the diagnostics. You’ve seen this before. Stay in Manaus for now, I’ll need interference with our crusading officer and his official protests. But spend your time on the analysis reports, unless you can think of another scenario you want to try.”

“No we’ll start there,” Roman dejectedly agreed. “And we’ll let you know if we come up with more details that need your attention.”

“Okay.” Kadie hesitated then added, “A test was the right idea. We needed to know if the defense command was still out there, and if we would get the same reaction. Now there’s a diagnostic record from a live incident, we know that drone has another level of technical sophistication we can run through and review. We did not have that before. It’s all good work, very useful, very helpful.”

“Thanks for the support Commander, but we know there is a lot missing. We cannot leave governments with no recourse to an unauthorized weaponized drone. We’ll keep at it until we find out what’s really going on.”

“I know you will, I’ll talk to you both later.”

“Hey Commander.”

“Yes.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll figure this out. Humans created this code, and we have to believe humans will undo it.”

*

Entering an unmarked building in Moscow’s sprawling Skolkovo technology suburb, Sergei Leanov needlessly glanced once over his shoulder as he walked through the door. Like all tech cities, Skolkovo had cameras on every street corner and sensors in every doorway, but Sergei was wearing a facial skin mask, and his sweater hood was up over his head, and under a baseball cap pulled down the width of his forehead to his eyebrows. The mask’s latex covering tightly, but subtly, altered his appearance. If The Network’s digital eyes were able to capture his full facial view, it would likely register an anomaly, and prompt a tracer protocol to determine where the human had originated his trip and the entire route of his travel. Sergei’s artificial adjustment was only designed to avoid instant recognition, and slow down The Network. The Network did not disregard humans who attempted to evade its surveillance protocols. Any human digitally caught wearing a disguise would be automatically flagged by an automated suspicious behavior tracker, and stay on a watch file waiting for another report. To further aid his intentions, Sergei supplemented the facial alteration, by covering up as much as possible. In most major cities, especially in extreme weather geographies like Moscow, the population lived and worked vertically, in skyscrapers connected by underground walkways and metro stations, or above ground overpasses. Few people went outside at any time of the year. The outdoors was the preserve of specialty occupations in agriculture, enthusiasts for winter sports, and activists for the environment or natural rural living. Those individuals used their professions to demonstrate the benefits of a struggling environment to a population that had long ago abandoned the unpredictable weather and precarious conditions, for the controlled and comfortable confines of their indoor, covered and recorded lives.

Even in countries where the temperatures dropped below freezing, and The Network could not dissect the legitimate use of hats, scarfs, ear muffs and balaclavas to protect against the icicle filled air, national security protocols separated the long winter preparation habits from the anomalous lurking citizen. Network evaders who used the exposed roads and sidewalks usually remembered to fully cover their faces, but not their bodies, sporting a light jacket or uncovered pant legs, while working citizens ran across open streets wearing long down-filled coats and heavy boots. For those who triggered The Network to research further, too many flags, could lead to the initiation of a permanent tracker with The Network waiting for the human to make a mistake, then it could send an instruction for law enforcement to investigate. Sergei knew these rules well, his brother was a police officer. But with an urgent message to send, he gambled on risking detection.

As the number four technician on Maria Ovechkova’s satellite team, Sergei had hoped in vain to be selected to travel to Cape Canaveral to gain access to the U.S. satellite technology. But his superiors had picked Pavel Fedorov, the son of a friend of General Zoubkov. Sergei was left behind to report to another technician who he considered had inferior skills. ‘I hate nepotism,’ he whispered under his breath as he entered a code on a locked door, then passed through, traversed a short corridor, and climbed into a nearby workstation. Only people who required extended processing power, wanted to work in teams, or preferred large equipment under their hands, used established workstations for technology development and communication. Few digitally-driven work processes were executed from an immovable location, almost all could be completed remotely, by com. Physical technology hardware lay at the hands of scientists in universities, military and advanced research facilities where security protocols operated behind steel walls, and in private commercial buildings equipped as community halls for experimental technologists. More than two-dozen other individuals were already in the large room, each hiding behind configurable walls, immersed in their monitors. The other patrons ignored Sergei, and he ignored them. Anonymity was a treasured commodity among this cohort. Once inside the building, Sergei did not have to provide his name, state his business or explain his actions. Membership had been established over The Internet, and included access to similar facilities all over the country. Renting the advanced equipment to test evolving results of unique applications, members pushed processing limits beyond the capabilities of a Networked com. They could also solicit help and feedback from each other. Sergei loved joining the spontaneous discussion sessions to see and hear the developments being promoted every minute. He often wondered if people would one day be able to live permanently in creative environments, but that possibility had not yet materialized. These isolated innovation centers were only for those who actively sought its space, and were tolerated but not sponsored, by a government that preferred to endorse predictable activities managed through its own direction provided to The Network.

At the workstation, Sergei accessed the Birdtail communication protocol, entered a coded request to communicate with Zylen Blain, and waited. Sergei had no idea where in the world Zylen was located, it might be late at night where he was, and he could have his com in silent mode. Or he could be wide-awake, but refuse to accept a communication request from a Russian whom he had never met, and knew only by his programming activity reputation. Apprehensively, Sergei noted the time on his com, he could only wait for a limited window. Approximately twenty minutes earlier, he had entered a movie theatre, bought a ticket, and taken a viewing seat for a film. But as soon as the lights were down, and the screen switched to begin the exhibition, he had exited in his disguise. Now he had less than two hours to return, unseen, to his seat. As an individual who worked on sensitive government projects, Sergei could be under targeted surveillance for any reason. National security officials could use The Network’s individual activity search protocols to check for his current whereabouts. The Network would have recorded Sergei entering the theatre, but to avoid suspicion he had to make sure it also assumed he had stayed there. During the two-hour projection of the movie, there was no reason to suspect Sergei was engaged in any activity besides idle entertainment. But if alerted security uncovered an early exiting human who matched Sergei’s physical profile it would send a report. To complete his alibi, he would have to sneak back inside the theatre, and be recorded exiting with all other patrons shortly after the movie ended.

To bide his time, and calm his anxiety, while waiting for Zylen to respond, Sergei began playing a video game. It would be more than 40 minutes before his com would flash with a reply. Sergei attached a headphone/speaker to his ear, and selected the contact command to connect to Zylen.

“Well this is a surprise,” Zylen began through a translator app. “Never expected you could be dragged away from your safe government job to risk contacting me.”

“Did you tell anyone about the satellite masks we were working on?” Sergei responded without introduction.

“Really, no hello?” Zylen mockingly replied covering his shock. “Okay then, what are you talking about?”

“Hello, and you know who I am and I know who you are, da. We have many mutual friends, and some of us once experimented with the idea of masking our satellites behind country-flagged satellites, remember? Well did it happen?”

“Hello to you too. And I am well aware of the project you’re talking about, but there’s no way it could have happened. We could not get it to work, no one could identify the corr—”

“The Americans have figured it out,” Sergei hastily interrupted.

“They couldn’t have.”

“I do not have every detail, but they have a program that confuses a country-flagged satellite with…an unofficial one. A Russian team is going to Cape Canaveral to find out—”

“Cape Canaveral? But that’s a private satellite launch facility.”

“Well maybe, but also official…government. The American program targeted one of our satellites. They claim it’s a mistake, that their protocol thinks the satellite is a rogue. Did you do that? Does it work?”

“No it’s not my work. I wish it were, but last time we looked at it, that technology did not work.”

“Who else did you work with? Maybe someone figured out a way to run it and the Americans found out.”

“Who could do that? There’s no way. Who do we know that could figure it out before I could?”

“Did you tell anyone, maybe someone got the idea?”

Zylen carefully considered the question. He knew he had told one person, but there was little possibility she could have instigated this result. “No,” he replied. “I didn’t tell anyone.”

“Well the Americans have details, and now the two countries are facing each other ready for war in outer space, da.”

“But that’s crazy! How could that be happening? I need to see it for myself. Is there any way you can get me more info, like access to the program? I need to analyze the exact process they have figured out, and see if they are using our work.”

“I don’t know all the details they have. In my job I cannot take the time for a good look because maybe I have supervisors who would be suspicious.”

“But can I get a look? Maybe I can help. I can help you. I mean, if you figure it out first…figure out whatever the Americans are up to, I’m guessing there’s a promotion in it for you.”

Sergei readjusted his tone. “Yes, if I figure it out first, maybe the idiots will recognize my value.” He hesitated only briefly. “Okay I have details through my access, information I’ll let you see.”

“Excellent. But what are they doing with the program now?”

“Nothing, we are at a standstill. They are trying to decipher the code. The idea is for the Americans and Russians to work together on this problem, then if it goes crazy they cannot blame the other.”

“Impressive, a cooperative plan.”

“Yeah, it was forced on them by Special Command.”

“U.N. Special Command? Kadie Laltanca?”

“Yeah those people.”

“Fuck!”

“What?”

“I hate Special Command.”

“Well of course, we all do.”

“No I really do. Can you imagine how much I hate Kadie Laltanca? That bitch had me locked up in chains for 60 days. I really hate Special Command, and she’s at the top of my list, I hate her the most.”

“Okay, okay, yeah I get it, your number one enemies. So if we beat them at this, and get the satellite scanner program, then it would be our big win, da.”

“Yes it would. If we figure this out first, and get it out of Special Command’s evil hands, then you get your promotion, and I get to fuck up the plan Laltanca thinks she has for fixing this problem. This is the best project I’ve had in a while, comrade.”

“Don’t call me that word.”

Zylen laughed. “Yeah, okay. Look, send me all data you can get your hands on, everything you’ve got right now, and I will check it out.”

“Yeah, but be ultra careful. Don’t let them know you’re check—”

“C’mon, who are you talkin’ to? They will have no fuckin’ clue I’m in the neighborhood. They never do.”

“These people are not as stupid as the ones you’ve had to deal with in the past. We have much more sophisticated guys.”

“Yeah and I’ve seen them all before. Don’t worry, get me the details and let me do what I do, and I guarantee you they will not find out.”

“Okay I’m sending the reports and the analysis but I gotta go. I’ll get back in touch with you when I can.”

“Great thanks, man. Best plan ever, now we have to make sure it works.”

*

Hagen, Maltine, Janna and their Russian counterparts had been working together in the Cape Canaveral Control Room for days. Each simulation and test returned inconclusive results from which they could not decipher additional options for stopping the satellite scanner program. The frustration level mounted as the Russians contemplated whether the entire operation was a smokescreen, to keep them from the real investigative work they suspected was taking place in another location. The more Hagen and Maltine tried to limit their fears, the more suspicious the Russians became.

In a secure conference room, where Maria and Hagen were alone comparing feedback on the team’s analysis, she suddenly pointed to the U.S. satellite on a video monitor, and boastfully declared, “That satellite, maybe we should bring it down.”

“Bring it down?” Hagen inquired giving her a noncommittal stare. “Are you trying to provoke me?”

“You tell me.”

“No, you explain.”

Maria frowned as she looked him over. Hagen was not exactly her type, a little too rugged and built out for her preference. She liked her men leaner and more brain driven than brawn equipped. Still he was not impossible to look at, which was welcome during a long workday. “It means to remove the satellite from the sky by any means possible.”

“The U.S. government would prefer you do not even think about those options,” Hagen sternly replied. He had been waiting for time alone with Maria. Her communication personality projected a forbidding deterrence to approach, but Hagen enjoyed the challenge. Shaped to the height and build of a powerful track athlete with long blond hair and chiseled Slavic features, Maria looked at Hagen as if he were a squirrel preparing to flee at the slightest indication of her ferocious intentions. He had to change that perception. “We are leaving the satellite in place,” he definitively stated.

“How long do you believe my government will tolerate this intrusion?” Maria challenged his conviction without a hint of dissuasion.

“As long as it takes for all of us, working together, to figure out how to turn off the scanner without provoking the shooter drone.”

“No Hagen, not that long. We have been at this for days, and this American team is not providing original, interesting or productive work. In fact you are barely changing the process or information from day to day. We will not tolerate this playing around for much longer.”

“Are you threatening us?”

“Why do I have to explain every single possibility to you? Are you an idiot or trying to annoy me?”

“Since those are my only two choices…I’m trying to annoy you.” Hagen barely hid a grin. With Ovechkova glaring at him, he seriously continued, “You have access to all of the information we have, and you can see we’re diligently looking at every angle. You cannot blame us for the test results.”

“Results? I only have access to the information you are authorized to show me,” Maria continued, her voice rising. “This cooperation agreement is a pretense and you know it.”

“Maria, let’s not go down this dangerous path. Are you providing your government with ongoing updates?”

“They know we have been given no valuable information. The analysis is the work of children, stupid children. This whole investigation protocol is managed by inexperienced amateurs. We come here every day and look at the same images and have no progress. Every day I report the same words, ‘zero progress.’”

Hagen bristled at her biting criticism of the team. “I hope you are not reporting ‘zero progress.’ You should be telling them our actual test results.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Are you telling me how to do my job for my government?”

“No.”

“Yes you are. How arrogant, how inappropriate—”

“Wait a second, I did not say anything offensive.”

“How dare you!” Maria’s voice rose in bitter anger. “You think you can challenge the details of my reports to my own government.”

“Maria calm down, all right. I apologize. Of course you can report to your government as you see fit. Please accept my apology.”

Glowering at him with furious eyes, her agitation rose as she continued, “I will think about accepting your apology, and I will think about preparing a complaint for the Commander.”

“A complaint about what?” Hagen stiffened, but he was also infuriated.

“About your sexist behavior.”

“What the…? C’mon I did not make a sexist comment.”

“Your tone is condescending, unprofessional and undiplomatic. I do not see why I have to put up with this. I’m sure Commander Laltanca has courteous agents who can work on an international team.”

“You’re misinterpreting my concerns.” Hagen’s mind was reeling as he thought about all of the other agents Kadie had available to replace him. ‘But would she believe this irrational Russian’s word over his?’ Quickly, he decided to avoid finding out. “Look Maria, we obviously have a misunderstanding,” he beseeched her. “Can we please agree to start again, reset this discussion and manage this situation properly, on behalf of the world?”

Without outward reflection, Maria was triumphantly smiling. Hagen’s reaction was exactly the wilting retreat she had expected. ‘Take the off-guard agent to the edge, and encourage him to provide less formal responses to her questions,’ she thought. ‘Men are so easily manipulated.’ But Maria was not an amateur interrogator, and she knew that anticipated reactions could also arise too smoothly if the other side recognized her tactics. “Yes we can. But I am very insulted. I will accept a reset, as you say, but I am on guard, you understand?”

“Yes I understand,” Hagen contritely replied. “Now can we please continue with our analysis?”

Maria nodded, then immediately shifted the mood. “Hagen,” she softly said in a muted tone that prompted Hagen to suddenly look up, and stare at her as if a new person had emerged into the room. “I need real answers for my government, you understand that’s the only way this will work.”

“Of course, of course.” Hagen uncomfortably backed up in his chair, and evened his voice. “But I’m telling you the truth.”

“Hagen.” Maria leaned towards him, narrowing the gap over the table between them. “Real answers.”

Hagen did not retreat as her face came within two inches of his. “Maria.” He played for time, his mind assessing whether to make her angry again; reveal secrets from the program he was not at liberty to discuss; or kiss her. With that last prospect, he leaned back. “Maria,” he repeated. “There are a lot of different angles being pursued.”

“I can imagine,” she continued whispering, but not moving as she held his gaze. “You must be under so much pressure to find the correct solution. But Hagen…with my government…I am under pressure too. We are supposed to be a cooperative team, but how can I adequately support my government without the correct information. Hagen, tell me more about these other angles I should know about so I can be effective in my position, okay. You want this international team to be a success, right?”

Hagen took a deep breath, Kadie would fire him if she knew where he wanted to take this conversation. But he understood the feeling of being under pressure from an uncaring government. “This is a cooperative international team,” he began. “But I’m with a U.N. organization not a national government, and the governments can individually decide how they want to manage…this situation.”

Maria arched an eyebrow, then carefully, more directly said, “Really? The U.S. government is lying to Special Command.”

Hagen bristled. “No, no, that’s not what I said.”

“That’s what you implied.” Maria’s voice returned to her normal speaking level, as she sat back and moved away from him.

“No it wasn’t.” Hagen sat up straighter.

“Then explain.”

Hagan hesitated as he tried to think of an appropriate explanation to meet all of her current demands, and not compromise his position. “We, I mean Special Command, is not controlling every angle of this investigation. We also do not know the results being generated by each organization involved with this issue. Everyone plans to share, but right now…I mean, I’m sure even your government is also pursuing its own inquiry, and we do not have access to those results. Believe me Maria this entire team is part of a much bigger process, and no single agent knows the complete scope of it.”

“I am sure Commander Laltanca knows.”

“No, not even her.”

“Then maybe Roman Francon?”

“Roman? No.” Hagen winced at the thought that Roman would be considered the best informed agent on the team. “Not him.”

“You don’t like him?” Maria inquired, noting his reaction. “Why?”

“Let’s not discuss Roman.”

“But you don’t like him, I can tell. You two have a history?”

“No we do not.”

“It’s okay, a lot of people don’t like him. He has a way of working around governments to do what he wants, and he has another kind of reputation men love and women detest.”

Hagen’s thoughts crossed to Kadie as he commented, “I’m sure that was in the past.”

“Why are you sure? Because he has a child with the Commander? That’s hardly proof of a change in his personality. Especially for a man, men don’t change.”

“Look let’s not talk about him.” Hagen backed away from the topic. He did not want to be discussing Kadie’s private life with a foreign agent.

“No, I’m curious about the source of your hostility to Roman Francon. Because if he’s the one who knows the details of this investigation, then that would explain why you don’t.”

Hagen blanched. “That’s hardly a fair analysis. I know a great deal and I don’t need to go through Roman.”

“I doubt that.”

“Well don’t. The U.S. has a parallel team at WestCom if we have a break…” He suddenly stopped speaking.

Maria arched her eyebrows again. “That’s interesting. You were saying?” Hagen looked down. “You were going to say maybe any breakthrough we have here would go where first, to this parallel team? Then they can adjust and run tests before sharing information with us, Russians?”

“I did not say they were not sharing information.”

“Yes I think you did. And with your statements you have now proven our presence here is useless.”

“Maria please do not do jump to any conclusions. I told you no one knows the full scope of work being conducted. Listen to me, do not make a hasty decision you might regret.”

“You mean like recommend my colleague and I go home, and remove the offending satellite on our own? Oh and of course maybe tell Commander Laltanca the information you have given me led to the decision.”

“That’s not fair.” Hagen’s voice betrayed an oncoming panic.

“Of course it is, as fair as lying to my country.”

“We are not lying. This team right here is the U.S. satellite investigation team. We are responsible for uncovering the error and fixing it.”

“But the scanner program belongs to the U.S. military. And they are determining how it will be analyzed and fixed. And since they are doing that unilaterally, in a separate, isolated environment, then we are not involved. We are not needed here, we will be leaving.” Maria stood up.

“Maria please.”

“Goodbye Hagen. Under better circumstances I might have considered you to be…I don’t know maybe a different person. Maybe I will consider it again one day. But for now, as they say, if you’re ever in Moscow, you can contact me.” She did not give him a chance to reply as she exited the room.

A stunned Hagen put his hands to his face, then sent an urgent text to Maltine.

“You told her there’s another plan?” Maltine disbelievingly asked Hagen as she responded to his pleading request by appearing, minutes later, in the conference room Maria had recently vacated. “Are you out of your mind?”

“It was inadvertent,” Hagen sheepishly replied.

“Inadvertent? How? Did you have your tongue down her throat?” Hagen glared at her. “Oh don’t give me that look I see the way you look at her. Such a cliché.”

“Okay, well excuse me for admiring a good-looking woman.”

“No I will not excuse you,” Maltine angrily decried him. “You were supposed to be working on a plan to avert a war. Now you’ve single-handily started it. And why did you drag me into it? You want me to tell you it’s going to be all right? No way, because it’s not.”

“Okay great, fine, I fucked up, now I want to fix it,” Hagen implored. “We need to move faster than the Russians on the investigation, where do you think we are?”

“We have barely moved the analysis. Looking under one straw of hay at a time, do you understand?”

“Yes, but—”

“But what? Now we have to divert resources to watch the Russians too. You have set off such an incredible problem I can’t even believe it.”

“Yeah.” Hagen sighed. “Neither can I.”

“That’s all you’re going to say?”

“I need to fix this.”

“You need to crawl on your knees and talk to the Commander. We are going to have to reorganize the entire plan.”

“She’ll fire me.”

“Good.”

“C’mon Maltine, help me out, give me an idea for how I should fix this.”

“You cannot reverse the disaster you have already set in motion,” Maltine declared reaching for the door. “You can only move ahead of the reaction. Tell the Commander the whole story and let her decide,” she brutally offered then walked out.

Hagen tried Slater next.

“Can you help me figure out how to fix this?” Hagen asked over com when he reached him a few minutes later, and told him his version of events.

“As much as I would love to interrogate you,” Slater replied. “I can almost be certain you were simply outplayed.”

“I was set-up?”

“Probably. I can guess the Russians wanted to get out of this cooperation agreement all along. And they were looking for any option that would work. You handed it to them, but it was their plan. They would have found a way, but you made it easy.”

“Then how do I fix it?”

“Well first, do not let Kadie find out before you tell her. You might have already waited too long. And on the technical side, we are basically going to require more brainpower to work through this faster than the Russians can. At least we had already come to that conclusion, plans are in motion to contact more skill. If we find them, you might get another break because we were going in that direction anyway.”

“We’re getting more brainpower? From where?” Hagen inquired, ignoring the implication of the reprieve Slater had handed him. “Do you mean rogues?”

“Some are more cooperative than others.”

“Like Maltine?” When Slater did not respond, Hagen countered, “I thought so.”

“Think what you want. We need specific people with identifiable skills. And you should be grateful, if it works out as planned, you may have received the next great break of your professional career, at least technically, which is all you should care about.”

“Ahh yeah I care,” Hagen replied thinking of Kadie’s reaction. “And I really hope it works out. But in the meantime, after I talk to the Commander, I need to move forward.”

“Keep your head down. Wait out the fallout. Hide in Cocoa Beach. I will get back to you with updates.”

“Wait it out?”

“Yes, and do not talk to any Russians.”

*

CHAPTER FOURTHE ISOLATION

Zylen stared at the information in the files Leonov had sent him. Part of his mind recalled how he had once told Alannis that he and three tech colleagues were working on an advanced satellite technology, to confuse the government’s outer space surveillance programs. But he also knew there was no possibility those idle words could have translated into the details Sergei had forwarded. ‘If the President of the United States had managed to have a conversation with Alannis’ simcon about satellite tracking – which was bizarre enough – why didn’t he target our program directly?’ Zylen wondered. ‘Instead there’s this whole mess with a Russian satellite. What are they doing?’ Zylen’s mind was spinning, ‘what exactly is happening?’ He had to think past the actions of Special Command. Taking complete control of the program out of their Big Brother surveillance tracking hands would be the greatest triumph he could imagine, ‘but how could it work?’ A code data copy was running through one of Zylen’s own analysis programs, and he was carefully watching his results to determine where the technology had originated. As he thought about Alannis talking to her father, he touched an icon on his monitor screen, and her hologram materialized beside him.

A rush of joy ripped through him as her smiling face emerged from the configuration of billions of megabytes of data required to generate her fully formed human image. “Hey,” he said grinning at her.

“Hey yourself,” she replied, returning his contented look. The hologram eyed the room.

“We’re still here,” Zylen responded to the curious glances.

“In St. Lucia?”

“Yes.”

“I love it here.”

“Yes I know.”

Alannis had loved to travel, and Zylen had led her to his favorite corners of his country, often surprising her at the destination with a special gift to remember the moment. Having been raised in Melbourne’s dominating skyscrapers, he could have been a programmed city child, but his parents were historical thinkers who insisted he and his sister should see the vast, unforgiving countryside of rural Australia. On these trips into the Outback, Zylen considered the limitations of a surveilled city life, and the untainted delight inherent in being a creature bound to no known location.

Throughout the world, the urban city infrastructure had been constructed straight upwards from the ground to the sky to permit governments to more efficiently manage millions of people on limited land. In residential skyscrapers, connected by tunnels, subways and overpasses, governments could strictly monitor and control energy and water use, waste disposal and every human. With cameras and sensors on walls, ledges and corners, crime was almost unheard of, and neither was need. Locked into blocks of controlled spaces, every human could be guided under a protocol that claimed to be responsible for their best interests. Melbourne, like most major cities, was ringed by the mansions, parks, and recreation centers of the wealthy, and beyond those suburbs lay land for agriculture, forests preserved for rare timber, mines, and wide open spaces. Rural land was occupied by those humans who refused to succumb to city surveillance, and lived relaxed sporadically monitored lives, that families like the Blains, joined by other daring adventurers, could view on excursions to buy organic food, and hand-made tools, furniture, toys, clothes and crafts. Pockets of indigenous people protecting their reserved land, joined environmentalists monitoring the changing climate, conservationists who rebuilt crumbling rural areas, and detractors who sought a permanent life off The Network, to remain outside the organized reach of government spaces.

Zylen had taken Alannis all over this open, nominally free part of his country, and she had been surprised it even existed. “Australians have a history of criminal behavior,” Zylen had joked to her at the time. “Of all people on earth, we should be the ones with massive rogue territories for us anarchists to roam in.” But despite his bravado, Zylen knew the existence of a nominally liberated territory was only partially true. The expansive rural plains did lack omnipresent security eyes at ground level, but humans were always seen by satellite. Every country had covered its territory with probing digital eyes, and even those who purposefully chose the more difficult life inherent in avoiding government control, did not have the choice as to how, when and where the government would capture their presence on land. When he and Alannis had lain in the dirt of a country town and stared up into the sky, Zylen knew they could be watched, probably were being watched, every single second they were outside.

“This is your client’s house,” Alannis’ memory recalled.

“Yeah you always liked this place,” Zylen noted as his mind returned from their carefree days together when he knew her as a physical being.

“I know it’s a beautiful setting.” The hologram stood up and looked around. Alannis had a relentless curiosity. If she had lived, she would have been the crusading human rights lawyer she had been preparing to be, and left no unopened door in her pursuit of justice for a client. She could easily have joined an international organization, or even the government, although she was not a fan of many government policies, not even her own father’s. Alannis was more aligned with Zylen than he imagined her parents knew. Her own observations told her people should be free, and the relentless assessment and calculation of activity by The Network with its instructions, orders and management of daily life was an affront to the population’s basic humanity. “We are physical creatures forming our own spiritual alliance with any higher power we want, or don’t want,” she had said to him a year ago. “We should never ever be only responding to instructions from machines.”

Many religious organizations agreed with her. After the constraints of national security and consumer privacy, spiritualists decried The Network’s assault on humans’ ability to function on their own accord. The warnings extended to simcons too. Afraid humans would disconnect from living beings; from adopting children in need if they could keep their own children alive; or from assisting abandoned senior citizens if they could cling to their own parents; or engaging with strangers if the ones they loved were always with them; the groups had demanded many of the controls on simcon generation eventually dictated into law. Fearing euthanasia and suicide would become ever more acceptable as humans assumed their love ones would never really disappear from their lives, and could live on in another form, religious groups erected an alliance with conservative humanists and energy conservationists to restrict the use of simcons. The struggle was a natural consequence of the established focus of those who were aligned with a reconciliation of human life on earth, and its unanswered fear about the stagnation of human evolution in the face of The Network’s omnipresent control.

“People had a chance to prevent it,” Zylen had replied at the time. “And they chose not to.”

“Did they choose or was it imposed on them?” the real Alannis had once replied.

“Both.”

“My father defends Network control by explaining there is no other way to manage life on earth for ten billion humans. Under control, governments can monitor for a population that is educated, healthy, employed, provided shelter and sufficient income for food and clothing. He claims that if people were left to run around and make their own choices, then the population would be ignorant and diseased, and the environment would be destroyed.”

“Of course he would say that. Government dictators want to believe they are smarter than the general public, and they have to keep the ignorant masses in check.”

“He’s not a dictator. It’s still a democracy.”

“No, people live under a permanent dictatorship now. A total surveillance protocol has been implemented, and each successive government continues and expands it. No elected leader has ever tried to end it. We absorbed that certainty a hundred years ago. It does not matter who you put in office. The politicians are convinced people must be monitored, and they do it because it’s easy. Once you give a person with power the tools, he is not going to relinquish them under any circumstances.”

As a former volunteer for her father’s electoral campaigns, Alannis had grown pensive, assuming guilt for being a complicit participant within a system affecting every life. “My father is not a bad person,” she had tried explaining. “He’s…I guess caught up in it too. How could he be the one to change the way the world has been organized to function? What would happen to the millions who are actually dependent on The Network? They would not know how to function without it.”

“That’s exactly the acquiescence governments hoped for,” Zylen had insisted. “Democracies offer people a choice, but basically the politicians want them to lock onto The Network, grow in dependency and then not be able to survive without it.”

“Because the people cannot think for themselves?”

“Exactly. They literally would have no idea how to function if The Network did not tell them.” The memory made Zylen grimace. Humans were caught in a vise where the inability to think for themselves, created the vicious circle of dependence on government control from which they had no release. Before meeting Alannis, Zylen had strictly no sympathy for the masses who responded only to Network commands. He believed all individuals completely understood the depth of the government’s control, and chose to accept it out of complacency and laziness alone. Even with the omnipresence of The Network, humans could, if they wanted, be vigilant about the data it managed, and how it monitored them. But most let default commands drop into place without a second thought. People could also be more educated, develop science, technology, engineering and math – STEM skills, and be on the side of the thinkers. But despite innumerable education apps tailored to every learning variable, most individuals considered higher education too difficult or time-consuming to pursue. Many people ended their education at the government minimum, then accepted low-paying, low-skill jobs. Limited numbers continued on to become medical professionals, entrepreneurs, technologists, executive business managers, knowledge professionals and government officials who aligned with traditional high-paying careers like athletes, musicians, artists, investors, bankers and lawyers, and permanently separated their wealth and lifestyle from the abundant, gratified majority. Zylen’s clients, people who hired rogue techs to build Network off-ramps and other technology alternatives, were all educated, wealthy people who were well aware of the difference between using The Network, and having The Network use you. They recruited people who thought as they did, creating a meritocracy of skilled knowledge techs who could be identified and embraced to do the work, and had the drive to understand its benefits and consequences. But these nominal employees had to be superior performers. Their future depended on continuous maintenance and advancement of their technology skills, while remaining invisible to law enforcement. Zylen’s qualifications had attracted the attention of those who were paying attention, and his living came from their secret orders to deliver new programming code and apps to their private servers all over the world. The thinking wealthy, and the employees who worked for them, operated within their own world. In most countries, technology had placed them clear of the reach of the uneducated, complacent and living-wage majority.

In St. Lucia, Zylen’s residence on his client’s villa grounds included a technology room fully equipped with servers and back-up energy resources. Starting with the undetectable drone project, he had been developing code for this client for years, but this was the first time he had been invited to live in her luxury accommodations. He and Alannis had often visited for a week or two at a time, and when she passed, his sympathetic client extended the privilege and granted more permanent access to a location holding only entrancing memories of a separate time he had spent with his love. Zylen watched Alannis’ hologram staring out the window, enjoying the gentle pound of the Caribbean Sea surf against the client’s private beach.

“I love the outdoors, oceans, sea breezes, all of it,” the projection wistfully stated.

Zylen stared at his digital girlfriend, an apparition that waited for a question, then provided an answer. The real Alannis would have already run out into the surf. But fearing a satellite would pick-up the hologram’s existence, he did not render it outside. “Maybe we’ll go out later,” he offered. The image looked at him and smiled. “But come and sit down for a second.” The projection followed him back into the room, and sat next to him on the couch. The realistic image stirred Zylen to ache with the sensation for the connection he really wanted to instigate, which was to take her hand and lead her to the bedroom. Her generated eyes revealed she was expecting a physical reaction. But carnal bonding technology was still outside human capabilities. Of course many programmers had tried, but none had succeeded in creating an immersive natural experience with a hologram. Zylen could not even touch her. Under the influence of the extraordinarily lifelike projected image, he had already instinctively tried multiple times before, and each time, as his hand slid right through the hologram, he was jolted into remembering she was not alive. Suppressing the urge to reach out and grasp her, he reminded himself yet again, ‘She is not a physical being. This is only a projection.’ But it was a projection incorporating virtually all of her conscience mind, and in the end, ‘was that not what humans were really all about?’

“Umm, you know I’m working here right?” Zylen was not sure how to begin his line of questioning.

“Of course, this is your client’s house,” the simcon responded.

“And you sort of know the type of software I work on…that I create.”

“Yes, you told me about your programs.”

“Right exactly, and do you remember talking about satellites?”

“Satellites? Sure, I can recall that.”

The mechanics of the response surprised Zylen. ‘Was she stating a Network generated response based on her aggregated data, or repeating a sentence she had once actually said?’ He pressed on. “Did you tell anyone about my satellite program?”

“Why?” Her tone dramatically changed from its soft, gentle response to a tinge of anger. “Why are you asking me that question?”

Zylen recoiled at the response. He had not previously heard her hardened voice. But he continued, “Well I have a problem, and I’m trying to pinpoint who I might have told and who—”

“You think it’s me? That I have caused a problem?” The irritation continued.

“No, no I’m just asking if you remember.”

“Why are you asking if you don’t think it’s me?”

“Only to…to…” Realizing she had prompted a valid question to which Zylen had no answer, he scrambled for a response. ‘Would he have even asked the real Alannis?’ He had trusted her completely, and was happily unaware of her potential reaction to his suspicions. ‘Maybe this was how she spoke to the President.’

“What’s your explanation?” Her hostility was rising.

Zylen’s nervousness skyrocketed. ‘Was the simcon turning against him? Over a question?’ “Well we talked a lot about my work—” he began.

“But if you asked me to keep it a secret, then I have. Why are you questioning me?”

Zylen readjusted, he had to convince her to retreat from this response. The simcon could be forging new memories or operating from a record of a past argument, maybe with another boyfriend. “Of course you have, of course. I was asking because information got out—”

“I told you if you asked for secrecy, I did as you asked.”

“Okay, okay, I believe you. Sorry for asking, really, really sorry.” Zylen was terrified. Part of him knew he could keep probing if he really wanted more answers. ‘This was not the real Alannis, she would not break up with him if she were angry. Or would she? Maybe if he pushed the simcon too far, she would stop responding to him. After all if it functioned like a person, like a natural human woman, that’s exactly what could happen.’ But he did not want to find out. He had copied her simcon to keep her near him. The woman he loved, and all the features he admired about her were all he really wanted. He was not interested in losing that sensation on any dimension. To adjust the conversation, he had to quickly change the subject.

“Remember when we talked about raising our family here?” he abruptly asked.

The image looked at him surprised, but warmly responded, “Yes of course, we thought it would be fantastic.” Unexpectedly the hologram began to smile. “This is a lovely place for children.”

A wave of relief swept over Zylen. ‘Changing the subject works better than in real life,’ he thought. ‘She does not continue an angry conversation. It’s an on/off switch not a continuous stream of data,’ he deduced. Although, he would have no idea if the simcon had registered the previous conversation as a new data record of hostility towards him, he was relieved to have uncovered how to stop an unwanted response in the moment. The idea for dramatically changing the subject had spontaneously crossed into Zylen’s mind, but now that it had worked, he thought about the true possibilities. Maybe he could force the simcon into staying focused on maintaining their relationship if he reinforced the memory about planning to start a family together. He wanted Alannis with him forever, maybe he needed to ensure he fused that desire with her simcon too.’

As her mother had before her, Alannis completed her egg extraction and freezing process early in adulthood, right after finishing her undergraduate degree. The precaution was a common practice for wealthy, educated young women, a life step women expected to organize to remove reproduction from their list of objectives to accomplish. They could both control for healthy eggs and schedule when to give birth. These women no longer ran out of time. The term ‘biological clock’ had faded from use. Medical advances and efficient solutions for storing reproductive DNA had also altered the marriage dynamic as men no longer thought it imperative to have a young wife. Although many still chased after younger women, men who were hesitant could ask the question first, ‘do you have healthy eggs?” and after delaying marriage, make a decision based on the woman’s compatibility, and not her ability to reproduce. Alannis had not only told Zylen her eggs were stored, but she had also given him legal access. He could have a child with her DNA whenever he was ready.

He loved the idea, but he also knew it was a distraction. In the middle of his many fluid projects from the satellites to his clients’ requests, a baby would be difficult to manage and logistically disruptive. But the thought of not doing it made him equally anxious. If Alannis were alive, they would be talking about starting a family, and deciding on a quiet rural, isolated area where they could attempt to live freely.

“All right, then,” Zylen said, winding the hologram’s data filled conscience closer to his functioning mind. “Let’s do it. We’ll have a baby here, and we can spend time talking about how we’re going to raise him and all that.”

“That would be wonderful,” the hologram image beamed.

Knowing he had instigated desirable thoughts, Zylen loved the effect the topic had on the simcon’s mood. “Good that’s settled then,” he confirmed. Then immediately pondered stringing the promise out as long as needed to keep Alannis’ simcon from considering it had the option to turn against him again.

*

In a Moscow space monitoring ground station, Maria Ovechkova reestablished her team. Pavel Fedorov had returned with her from Cape Canaveral, when the Russians officially ended their cooperation with the Americans, by proclaiming there was little they could learn about the U.S. investigation. Now they would restart the process on their own terms. Across from Maria, General Zoubkov waited for her to announce a new strategy.

“We were pushed by Special Command, now we must push back,” Maria began.

“How?” the General asked through his uncombed mustache. Having reluctantly agreed with Maria’s decision to end the work with the Americans, he remained uneasily concerned about her actual agenda. “Our President has given no authorization for hostile activity.”

“We can put our own weaponized drone on their satellite.”

“But how?”

Annoyed, she explained, “We point a weaponized drone at their satellite, and set it to ‘Ready to Fire.’”

“But that’s hostile activity.”

“Are we to wait and watch them enjoy recording our data? Our satellite programs are paralyzed because of their hostility. The Americans have forced us into defensive precautions costing time, money and critical intelligence information.”

“Do not lecture me! I understand the current situation.”

“Then respectfully General, I am asking we take evasive action.”

General Zoubkov gravely scrutinized her. ‘This is a mere satellite team leader proclaiming the need to threaten the United States with weaponized drones,’ he thought, fighting the intimidation projected from her tight features and over confident demands. He knew her brand of audacious advice did not arise from the manufactured engineers who graduated from Russia’s famed technology universities. She must have received further training in a more sophisticated facility, probably run by the military, although he imagined they would have told him, if his speculation were true. Acquiescing to her intentions, he responded, “To begin, we will tell the Americans we are intending to disable their satellite, and then if they do not provide new and updated information, we will do it.”

“Why do we have to tell them?”

“Ovechkova, we have had good peace for many years. We have no reason, and no authorization to start a conflict in outer space. And we have always committed to working through U.N. Special Command on cyber security. We will follow international law, you understand. We will warn them and let them respond.”

“Yes General,” she angrily concurred while turning to look over her shoulder. “Leanov, contact Commander Laltanca, we’ll do it right now.”

“Yes Ovechkova,” Sergei immediately answered, projecting a screen.

Kadie’s com accepted the communication request from the Russians just after 5 am Washington time. She was awake but lying in bed reading overnight reports from her global team. Blocking the screen visual, she answered with a voice only command.

“Yes this is Commander Laltanca,” Kadie responded through a translator app.

“Commander, this is General Ivan Zoubkov with Maria Ovechkova’s Russian satellite team in Moscow,” Zoubkov forcefully stated as if she should already know who was contacting her.

“Yes good day General.”

“You realize we have had difficulties between our team and the Americans, and we continue to register our protest over the illegal satellite scanning program.”

“Yes General your protest has been noted, but we had an agreement to work together to resolve the problem. Your team did not have to leave—”

“The American team was uncooperative.”

“I don’t believe that was—”

“Commander there is no need for further excuses. We all know Special Command is for diplomats, but we are the military and we are going to take action.”

“May I ask your intentions?”

“We are going to prevent the U.S. satellite from functioning.”

Kadie sat straight up. “Excuse me General, but—”

“This is a courtesy communication Commander. We do not seek your permission or advice. You can tell the Americans we are going to position a weaponized drone over their tracking satellite, and if it does not stop its operation against our satellite, we will take action.”

“General, the U.S. military has already explained that attempting to turn off the tracking program activated the undetectable weaponized drone aimed at your satellite. The source of this hostility is unknown.”

“Yes, we know their story.”

“If you blow up the American satellite, that drone will blow up your satellite.”

The General looked at Maria who shook her head as if the comment were not true. “We do not know the true reaction because we cannot trust the information the Americans are providing to us.”

“General, U.N. Special Command respectfully recommends you provide the U.S. government more time. Our analysis team believes interfering with the U.S. satellite program, will likely instigate a negative defensive reaction leading to global instability, and other potential effects that cannot be predicted. This may be a result your government does not want to manage.”

“The Americans have already instigated it.”

“General, please take the word of all involved. It is not the Americans who are controlling the scanner. They do not know how the protocol was overtaken. I can tell you from experience it is highly possible—”

“We do not believe them.”

“General—”

“This is enough discussion Commander. Special Command has received the stated intentions of the Russian government, and you must relay it to the Americans. Good day.” He signed off before she could reply.

On the other side of the world, Kadie shook her head. ‘Damn, what a hothead.’ She contacted Roman.

“Good morning my love,” he gleefully answered from Manaus. “How are you?”

“We have a big problem?” Kadie breathlessly replied.

“What’s wrong?” Roman’s voice turned grave.

“The Russians have decided to put a weaponized drone on the American satellite, and are threatening to blow it out of the sky.”

“Because of Hagen?”

“I think they wanted to do this all along. Hagen was an excuse.”

“How do you want to respond?”

“You need to go to Moscow and talk the right people down. Zoubkov is trying to show off, and I’m certain Maria is pushing him. From the way she operates, she must be the brain of their entire satellite program.”

“Yeah nobody would believe she’s only a tech team leader,” Roman rapidly agreed.

“Exactly.”

“That’s why she ate Hagen alive.”

“Yes well, that’s done. Go to Moscow. Madison can wrap-up in Manaus. I’ll run your access through all the official admin, but I want this plan stopped now. I do not know who in the military or government could have authorized a defensive reaction. But we do not need to have this pending while we try and find the code.”

“Yeah, yeah, got it, I’m on my way. Don’t worry there is always an official with influence who is more reasonable than the one we’re dealing with, we’ll stop this from escalating.”

“Thanks.”

“I love you,” Roman quietly added.

“I love you too.” Kadie signed off.

*

Frayed armrests suspended slightly off the supports of a tattered plastic chaise lounge, with pale yellow stains sporadically seeping up from under a thin white vinyl coating, faded and re-appeared to Hagen as he contemplated its existence on the other side of seven empty beer bottles. Poolside at a Cocoa Beach hotel had a much more comforting ring to it when he was a valued and trusted agent of the Special Command team. But after repeating the details of his final conversation with Maria to Kadie, he felt as before his last forced leave, like a man who should never have come back to work for Global Intelligence.

“I’m sure it’s not that bad,” Janna voice announced from behind him.

Hagen was lying on his stomach, his arms dangling on either side of the chaise. He tilted his head back to look up at Janna looking down at him. The sun reflected off her shoulders, and her smile transformed his mood. “Suddenly it’s not,” he huskily replied.

She rolled her eyes and came around the chaise. “Sit up!” she admonished him. Hagen slowly moved to prop up his upper body. As he reached for a beer, she moved the bottle away from his hand, and sat down to face him. “C’mon stop being a big baby.”

“I’m a big man,” he corrected her with limited embarrassment.

“I heard about your sloppy chit-chat.”

“Really?” Hagen was visibly shocked. “How?”

“You think a woman like Maria Ovechkova quietly walks out of a room? Sorry but she had a few words to say about you, and then the next thing you know, the Commander says you’re on leave.”

“Fuck!” Hagen exclaimed, falling back down. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

“Now that’s intelligent, diplomatic language. Get up!” Janna’s shout prompted Hagen to sit straight up and quickly look around. “Don’t worry about them,” Janna acknowledged the tourists who were looking in their direction. “They’ll think you’re another drunken tech guy, and I’m your long suffering girlfriend.”

“They will?” Hagen was disoriented as he gripped the chaise to steady himself.

“Look, this really smart Global Intelligence agent once told me that if you have a brain and you’re a thinker, then come to Special Command because they need thinkers who can work independently and generate new ideas. So I can’t imagine why he’s out here wasting time and brain cells by getting drunk.”

“I fucked up.”

“Yeah, because a Russian tech plotted and planned to uncover your weakness? Too bad, you need to get over yourself, if it hadn’t been you, it would have been another team member.”

“But it was me.”

“Okay it was you, now what? C’mon Hagen we have deep trouble going on, and Special Command needs its whole team.”

“Kadie can find another agent, she’s really good at uncovering talent.”

“Kadie? Is that how you address the Commander? Are you close to her?” Hagen looked at her and held his tongue. He was learning, albeit slowly, to watch every word he said. “Oh now you’re afraid to talk. Well good,” Janna concluded, standing. “Get up.” Hagen hesitated. “I said get up!” she repeated more forcefully. “Give me your room key.” Hagen looked around at the pool furniture while touching his shirt pockets. Then held up his com. “Oh good, harder for you to lose it if you have it on your com, let’s go.” She started to walk back towards the hotel building.

“Ahh where are we going?” Hagen asked with rising concern as he rushed to catch up to her.

“To your room to get you cleaned up. You have to come back to work.”

“I’ve been given two days—”

Janna turned and stared at him. “It’s been four.”

“It has?”

She shook her head. “Pull yourself together. I’m here because you did not show up. We’re getting you cleaned up and back to work. We need you on this investigation.”

Hagen stared at her in disbelief. “You came to get me, why?”

“Why do you think?”

“I’m hoping the obvious.”

Janna hesitated, and gave him a light smile. “Clean up, and get back to work. Prove that you can actually be useful in fixing this mess, and maybe the obvious becomes…well who knows.”

“Seriously?”

“Don’t make me change my mind.”

“No, no, I won’t.” They reached the hotel lobby. “Ahh give me like fifteen minutes…unless you want to come up?” Hagen brazenly asked.

“I said don’t make me change my mind.”

He laughed. “Okay, okay.” He turned away from her, then turned back. “Thanks Janna. I don’t know when you got so bold but you’ve brought me back.”

“Good, now make it worth my time.”

*

As Hagen showered, changed and downed coffee to clear his head, a thought crossed into his mind. Returning to his workstation at Cape Canaveral, he quickly sat down and opened a communications link to the reports from the analysts at WestCom. At least if their work had been the source of his irresponsible behavior, he could take a second look and see if the information could be of use to him.

“I hope you’re looking at official business,” Janna stated, noting the complete 360-degree turnaround from his earlier drunken demeanor.

“I’m looking for a telltale line of data I may have missed the first time around,” Hagen responded.

“How will you find it?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“Then how do you know where to start looking?”

“I have a general idea.”

“Of?”

“Are you going to go away and leave me to it?”

“No. You told me to act like a Special Command thinker, so here I am, tell me, maybe I can help.” Hagen quickly glanced around the room, and spontaneously Janna followed his lead. She narrowed her eyes wondering who he thought should not overhear them.

“I’m looking for a connection.”

“Between what and what?”

“That part I can’t tell you.”

Janna frowned. “Okay where are you looking?”

“WestCom is investigating another…” Hagen checked his words. He had no intention of repeating his past mistake, and revealing to Janna information she did not have clearance to hear. But it occurred to him that WestCom’s side of the satellite investigation must be connected with pursuing the programmed source of the satellite’s defensive instruction. After all they were the military team who would have installed the command in the first place. They would also only share the evidence they definitively found about how it was functioning, not the unexplored data they were still in the process of observing or speculating about. Hagen decided to conduct his own analysis on the work-in-progress. “I’m looking at their reports.”

“Aren’t those classified?”

Hagen looked at her as if they had never been introduced. “I’m cleared.”

“Well, sure, but does that mean you can take a look whenever you feel like it?”

“Actually it does. The classification is to keep out certain people, let others in. I’m with the latter.”

“Okay what have you found out?”

“Unfortunately, not the details I wanted, at least not yet. He shifted his voice to a southern lilt, and continued, “‘Cause there’s this supervisor who’s been talkin’ in my ear.”

Janna grinned. “Sorry, can I help?”

Hagen glanced around again, then projected another screen, and using his credentials logged in to a WestCom server. “You can read these reports,” he said making a hand gesture turning the screen towards Janna. “And you can tell me if you find any clues about where the satellite’s instruction is coming from.”

“Seriously,” Janna said staring at the screen, afraid to touch the controls. “You’re giving me access to data I’m not cleared to see.”

“You said you wanted to help me.”

“But Hagen you’re in trouble already. If the Commander finds out about this—”

Hagen chuckled. “You don’t know her very well. This…” he pointed to the screen, “…is exactly the type of action she would take if she thought you could be trusted. Kadie would not complain about initiative, she knows the value of expediency.”

“And WestCom? They have their own security, what if they find out?”

“Are you going to sit there and speculate on what-ifs or are you going to help?” Janna looked at him with concern. “Janna, part of thinking is taking a few risks. This is a minor action, and you shouldn’t even consider the consequences. You certainly don’t need to spend ten minutes thinking about it. I’ve logged in as myself. Who is going to see you looking at these screens with me? A member of your team?” He gestured around the room. “A subordinate who reports to you and wants a good employee evaluation? Or is there an enemy around here looking to put your name on a military shit list? Don’t worry about speculative scenarios that have never played out in reality, that’s the worst way to live. Do a quick risk assessment, and then get to work.”

“Well sorry Hagen, but most of us do not have the luxury of taking risks.”

“I know, but you don’t have to be one of them. It’s exactly like thinking Janna. These are actions you can control if you have the will power. This is not about how The Network works, it is about your own confidence in yourself.”

“Wow maybe you should have become a motivational speaker.”

“An effective leader taught me to have convictions, to operate based on the assessment of my own brain, my own thinking. The advice was verbal of course, it’s not an education course on The Network. I’m passing it on to another individual who deserves to hear it.”

“Okay Hagen, I’m going to trust you too.” Janna turned and faced the screen. “Let’s hope we can find the missing code we’re looking for because the risk has to be worth it right?”

“Yes, yes it does.” Hagen smiled as Janna began to work through the reports. “And it will be.”

*

The contact request reached Kadie before 7 am, and as an early riser, she appreciated the industriousness. “Good morning,” she cheerfully responded.

“Good morning Commander,” Michelle Tavares answered equally comfortably. Since initially being appointed to Special Command, the insider had been sending Kadie regular updates about the project team. But they had agreed if she had specifically questionable information, she would contact her directly. “I learned about a new development late last night.”

“Go ahead.”

“Well Hagen came back to work.”

“Yes I heard.”

“And one of the first actions he took was to begin looking at WestCom’s documented activities.”

“WestCom?”

“Yes Commander, the WestCom investigation.”

“Why would he be looking at their work?”

“That’s what I was wondering so I also decided to check WestCom.”

“And?”

“And from the available reports I was able to review, it looks like they have discovered a connection, but they’re still running tests.”

“A connection? Where?”

“The satellite’s instruction may be coming from back-up functions.”

“A back-up command?”

“Yes…and it’s from The Network. It’s like a command The Network reads as an instruction.”

“A Network instruction?”

“Yes, that’s all I could tell they seem to understand about it for now. The analysts believe it was not a direct instruction from an authorized official. But a command apparently sent to another program, then executed across The Network or activated by a Network reaction.”

“Okay,” Kadie replied with increasing dread.

“Does that help? Do you know if that instruction might be the one we’re looking for?”

“Maybe. At the very least we have more information to look at that could be important, good work Tavares.”

“Thank you Commander. I’ll contact you again when I find out more.”

“Thank you.” Kadie signed off and checked her reports from Hagen. He had not included his research at WestCom. ‘That guy is skating on thin ice,’ she thought closing the report. The next contact went to Isabella.

“A back-up command?” Isabella said after Kadie relayed Tavares information, and they put it in the context of the President’s suspicions. “But there are no Network back-ups of simcons. People have to back-up the data in an offline environment.”

“Yes I know. So if it’s not a back-up, then maybe its functional cousin? What is a back-up producing, as a file?

Isabella thought for a second. “A copy?”

“Exactly, a copy. If a back-up is functionality we know does not exist, then what could the system be doing that looks like backing up, but isn’t?”

“Copying?” Isabella followed along.

“But there are no copies of simcons either.”

“Right.”

“Unless someone figured out how to make one.”

“Well it’s technically possible.”

“Exactly. And who could possibly have the technical expertise, and the desire to copy Alannis Solar’s simcon?”

Isabella briefly paused. “No way.”

“Zylen Blain is the only person with the skill to have figured out how to make a copy.”

“But ‘how’ is the word,” Isabella incredulously stated. “There is no way he could have run a copy app without Network security knowing about it. There had to be a tech on the President’s team who was responsible for making sure the program was not compromised.”

“I’m guessing it was much more subtle.”

“You mean he found another way in?”

“Maybe Zylen found out the President planned to obtain the simcon, and hitched a ride.”

“Oh wow, you’re right. That’s the most likely explanation. He probably assumed the President had authorization to run the simcon retrieval app, and then he waited until he saw it happen, and made a copy.”

“Right, he would have figured out how to do it. But the question still out there is ‘how would The Network read that action’? Officially, there are no copies of simcons. If Zylen’s got one, what does The Network want to do with it?”

“Well, when there are copies of live software on The Network…”

Silence enfolded the conversation as the two both took a minute to consider the possibility they were coming to realize. Then almost simultaneously they said, “It updates.”

“It’s not a backup protocol the techs have found, it’s an update to a copy,” Kadie stated. “Like any kind of live app, it’s updating to its software copy.”

“But why?”

“Maybe because every time the President or First Lady interacts with Alannis’ simcon they are changing the data. Now the original simcon is trying to make sure it maintains its duplicate in the same form.”

“The app is running like an active software program? But there has to be code driving that instruction from a simcon that is not supposed to be copied. And why is it converting to a command?”

“That’s still our issue. It’s not just updating, it’s actually reading and executing on commands.”

“I’ll need some time to analyze this latest scenario.”

“Okay, you have ‘as fast as possible.’ Because if our assumptions are correct, then the President’s suspicions have been right all along, and we have to pinpoint the instruction and disable it before the Russians find it.”

*

Far to the east and north of all Europe, Russia’s storied capital city, Moscow stood alone on a vast plain of dry packed dirt rolling comfortably towards groves of relentlessly regenerating trees. The old city creaked beneath the weight of a history of challengers who had tried, but always failed, to dislodge its weather-beaten inhabitants from their endless pursuit of survival. Glass and steel suburbs from Arkhangelskoye to Zheleznodorozhny twisted around the grand ancient buildings of an ever-lasting civilization. In every direction, the city supported the cosmopolitan faces of well-fed citizens, blonds from the steppes, Asians invested in the Siberian plains, Africans teaching in the universities, all of the Europeans. Despite a continuously shrinking indigenous population, Moscow remained the largest city in Europe, and center of the region’s most populous country. The sheer scope of Russia’s water resources alone made it more influential than the hoarding of its last nuclear weapons. And every other resource was found beneath its ice and snow, in its mountains, valleys and fields, and by following drying rivers and shrunken lakes across eleven time zones from one end of the hemisphere to the other. Roman arrived into Moscow’s dry, bleak air dreading a confrontation with this most intractable of people, on their own soil, where they had never yielded to any invader.

Boarding an official government transport hovering on stand-by at the airport, Roman was taken directly to Skolkovo to encounter the satellite team. On arrival at the designated building, he was met by Sergei Leanov.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Francon, how was your flight?” Sergei greeted Roman with a demeanor aimed at a visiting industrialist who was planning to make a business investment. Roman understood this approach, the area was full of young technologists in blue jeans and t-shirts who expected their Slavic Silicon Valley to be a haven for open innovation and bright-faced cooperation. They never would have suspected the early uneasiness of the next war to be forming within its confines.

Roman cheerfully played along. “It was wonderful thank you,” he replied.

“Good,” Sergei continued. “Please follow me.” The two walked off. Leaving the skyview window atrium to ride the escalators up two floors, they crossed over to a stand-alone bank of elevators, then rode down, maybe six levels Roman silently estimated, and emerged into the team’s Control Room hub. None of the busy technicians sitting at workstations, or walking with projected screens, diverted their eyes when the elevator doors opened. Roman wondered, as a foreign agent on-loan to Special Command, if he was even in the actual satellite team headquarters. The Russians would certainly be wary about showing him their official operations center where the protected, secretive work was being conducted. Sergei led him to the door of a conference room, then stepped aside to allow Roman to enter.

Quickly scanning the dozen faces around the table, Roman noted General Ivan Zoubkov sitting, while Maria Ovechkova stood and walked towards him. “Good afternoon,” she offered her outstretched hand.

“Good afternoon,” Roman replied shaking it.

“You know General Zoubkov.” Maria pointed an open palm in the general’s direction.

As a courtesy Roman walked towards him and reached out his hand. “It’s good to see you again General.” Zoubkov shook, but did not rise as he nodded his head in acknowledgement.

“Please take a seat,” Maria instructed pointing to a chair three spaces away from the General, on the opposite side of a half dozen anxious looking technicians. As Roman moved to his designated spot, Maria sat down to face him. “Well…” she said with finality, “…go ahead Mr. Francon, tell us the official proposal Special Command has sent you to offer.”

Briefly glancing around the room again, Roman adjusted upright in his seat. He knew the Russians would be anxious to immediately begin, but he had not expected they would cloak the discussions in rigid formality. Carefully noting the set tone, he began, “On behalf of the U.N. Security Council, Special Command is extremely disappointed the Russian government has decided not to work jointly with the U.S. government in resolving the satellite issue.”

“The Russian government is very disappointed the American government had no interest in cooperation,” Maria replied.

“Forgive me but that’s not correct.”

“Their approach to our participation was covered in secrecy.”

“They were providing all of the information you required.”

“That we required from their point of view. But not all of the information to actually know the full story about the investigation and its results.”

“The team does not yet have the full story.”

“But you have more than you’re sharing.”

“The team is sharing all it knows.”

“We can debate this point forever.” Maria ended the line of discussion. “Tell us Special Command’s latest request.”

“We are requesting members of the Russian satellite team return to Cape Canaveral to work with the Americans.”

“Huh,” General Zoubkov snorted as he stated, “You mean to waste more time.”

Roman turned towards him. “No General, to try and reach a solution. Your technicians can tell you, the U.S. has no additional insight into the malfunction with the scanner.”

Maria looked at Pavel Fedorov. “Is that our understanding?” she asked him.

“No,” Fedorov replied. “You have quite a bit of additional insight.”

Roman braced himself but betrayed no emotion. “Would you mind explaining?”

“The instruction is coming from The White House.”

“What instruction?” Roman asked with honest shock.

“Really Mr. Francon,” Maria interrupted. “Do you expect us to believe that an agent of your…level would not have this information?”

“You have not told me the information you’re referring too,” Roman pointed out, annoyed.

Maria glared at him. “All right, we’ll play along as you say. Go on Fedorov.”

Fedorov nodded, and continued, “We ran our own analysis. The instruction to turn against our satellite came from The White House. That is the piece of information you refuse to tell us. The U.S. government planned this entire incident.”

“I assure you, I assure you all…” Roman looked around the room, “…the U.S. government did not deliberately set the scanner on your satellite.”

Maria rolled her eyes. “Mr. Francon, you need another story because we do not believe that one,” she forcefully announced. Roman held silent. “Then if there is no explanation, we will proceed with our long-delayed response.”

“Would you mind revealing your intentions?”

“We do not need to advise you of the Russian government’s plans. You will know soon enough.”

Roman scrambled. “What can Special Command do to persuade the Russian government to not take hostile action, and to continue to work with the Americans?”

Maria turned to the General. “Special Command has been helpful as always,” Zoubkov said. “And the Americans have been uncooperative as always. There is no more discussion left. We have to take matters into our own hands, as you say.”

“General…” Roman looked directly at him, “…the U.S. does not want a conflict in outer space. The world is in a state of peace, we settle disagreements through diplomatic solutions—”

“Mr. Francon, do not lecture me with U.N. propaganda. This information I already know.”

“Yes sir. And it’s in the world’s best interest that the…propaganda as you call it, actually be followed and implemented in the interest of a safer world.”

The General laughed. “Commander Laltanca has trained you all so well, all of her agents can sing Special Command’s song.”

Roman ignored the sarcasm. “General, it’s the world’s song. It is the agreement all nations have reached to continue global peace.”

“All nations agree, and then some nations stick to the agreement, and others continue on a private agenda. We have many understandings about outer space, satellite coverage. We have negotiated treaties, developed security safeguards, and still the Americans have their own plan.”

“General, there has been an unauthorized, unknown reaction to a new technology. It’s a rogue tech infiltration or an unidentified Network problem, it’s not the American government.”

“Stop these excuses for them! We do not believe the U.S. government is innocent, that story will not fly, as you say. Now Mr. Francon, as we have already requested you inform us, why are you here? Tell us Special Command’s latest proposal.”

Roman took a breath, then re-stated the organization’s official statement, “The United Nations Security Council Special Command requests the Russian Federation’s cooperation to take no counter action against the suspected U.S. satellite, and to allow a joint U.S.-Russian investigation team to find the solution for stopping the satellite scanner program.”

“This is not possible, the U.S. is engaged in an illegal, intrusive action against our sovereign communication equipment.”

“Your protest has been noted. The request has already been sent to the United States government to cease the action immediately. The U.S. has responded it is working on the solution as fast as it can, and requests again the Russian government send representatives to aid in the process.”

“We will send no representatives, and we will take our own action.”

“Then Special Command requests to know the nature of the proposed action.”

“We decline to respond.”

Roman bit his lower lip. “Are there any initiatives we can take to stop your action?”

“No, nothing.”

“General, may we now consider this conversation a negotiation. There must be another option, perhaps technology your government is interested in from another program? Special Command can help facilitate a separate discussion.”

The General looked at him inquisitively, now Roman Francon was displaying his true credentials and this he would enjoy. “Interesting, this is why I like you diplomats.” Zoubkov smiled. “You will always find something to trade. Very good, the Russian people will consider compensation. You can leave us now, go to your hotel, enjoy our beautiful capital city, and we will contact you after consulting with our government.”

The General was right, Roman was a diplomat, but he was also wrong, there were no options available for trade. “General, may I have your assurance no action will be taken against the U.S. satellite while we are engaged in this negotiation?”

For a moment, General Zoubkov appeared to be contemplating a negative response, as if it suddenly occurred to him that he did not have authorization to rescind an existing government plan, in favor of negotiating for an agreement his superiors had not discussed. But he held his concern and split his options. “I will give you assurance for 24 hours.”

“But you will also contact me to discuss terms before your deadline?”

The General hesitated again. “We will contact you before our deadline to advise Special Command if terms can be discussed.”

“If terms can be discussed? You mean if you will negotiate at all?”

“You may interpret my words as you wish.”

“Within 24 hours.”

“Yes within 24 hours.”

Roman tried one more tactic. “General, we request you broadly consider all possible options. We know there are many areas of industry and advanced technology of interest to the Russian government. We request you do not narrow your scope. Special Command is prepared to present any reasonable proposal to the U.S. government as a potential solution to this conflict.”

The General looked at him curiously searching for hidden meaning in Roman’s words. “Yes, I can imagine you are, but there are also many other avenues for reaching the other…options, as you say. For this particular issue, we will only focus on the possibilities before us.”

Roman did not welcome the sound of the response. The Russians were implying they would only accept trade-offs including satellites, communication, maybe military uses, but few other products in the exchange. Still he had to accept to extend the negotiation time. “All right, thank you General.”

“Very good.” The General turned back to Maria.

Maria pointed to Sergei, who nodded and stood without a word. “You will be escorted out,” she said looking at Roman. “And we will contact you if necessary.”

Reluctantly standing, Roman moved to follow Sergei but as the door opened, he briefly looked back to nod to the General, then to Maria. He considered one more statement but knew it would be hollow, the Russians already had a plan in mind, and they would let him wait to learn the details.

As Roman and Sergei exited, the door closed behind them, and they retraced the route to the atrium. Sergei stopped when they reached the front door to the street. Roman hesitated, then turned to look at him. “You’re a tech on the satellite team?” he asked.

“Yes sir,” Sergei nervously replied.

“Serious about the work? Enjoy it?”

“Yes of course sir.”

“Tell me, Sergei…” Roman carefully continued as the stunned tech flinched upon hearing his first name, “…does the team know more than they said about an instruction coming from The White House?” Sergei arched his eyebrows as he considered the question. He was being baited ‘but why?’ “C’mon Sergei…” Roman continued pressing him, “…you can tell me.”

“No I doubt I could,” Sergei replied, glancing around.

“Think about it. What am I going to do with the information? It’s not going to change the current status. I only want an idea that’s all.”

Wondering how much Roman knew about him, Sergei hesitated again. Targeted direct questioning betrayed the insight he had into Sergei’s extra-curricular activities. Roman was the one agent in Global Intelligence who had more experience with talking, negotiating and arresting rogue techs, than any other. Once he had uncovered a road into their operations, he used it again and again, trading favors, money and freedom for rogue tech Intelligence in every corner of the world. “I believe they only know the details they have told you,” Sergei shyly replied.

Roman stared at him. ‘That was a straight answer even if it did not sound like one’ he thought. “Thank you Sergei,” he replied and walked out of the building.

Back in his hotel room, Roman contacted Kadie. “Can we actually do a trade?” he asked her after recounting the meeting details.

Kadie leaned back in her D.C. office chair. “They’ve managed to isolate the update instruction coming from The White House?” she worriedly probed again.

“Yes, the origin point for the command is on The Network. They’ve got some smart people on their team,” Roman reluctantly conceded.

“And you really believe that’s all they know?”

“Yes, I’m fairly sure.”

“All right then…”

“So we can do a trade, for more time?”

“I’ll run it by the appropriate officials. But I’m sure the Americans will not want to give up any technology the Russians really want.”

“Then we’ll need another plan Kadie.”

“I’m aware of that.”

“And we have to move faster than the Russians or the two countries will line up shooting drones.”

“I’m aware of that too.”

“Any idea how you want to accelerate our approach?”

“I’m thinking about it.”

“Kadie you really have to consider—”

“That we have the people we need to get this done?”

“No we don’t.”

“We can continue to use the resources we have.”

“I’m sorry Commander, but a status quo response will not be acceptable to those who want a faster resolution. You need the best people—”

“We have to use our own people Roman.”

“Our own people are good, but they’re not that good. This incident will escalate in 24 hours. You need to change your stand, and pull in talent where you can find it.” She was silent. “Kadie?”

“I’ll take your suggestion under advisement.”

“Kadie c’mon—”

“I’m going up to New York.” She changed the subject. “To check on our family.”

“Oh okay, but…are you sure you want to work from there considering where we are right now on this issue?”

“Yes I’m sure, that’s what coms are for,” she replied without hiding her annoyance.

“Hey don’t be angry with me, I was—”

“Is there any other information you have for me about the Russian meeting?” she demanded, changing the subject again.

“Kadie I was only asking becau—”

“Okay, I’ll contact you later with the Americans’ offer, bye.” She signed off before he had a chance to reply.

But Roman was not deterred. He knew Kadie would always consider reasonable advice coming from people she trusted. Looking at his com, first he sent a secure text telling Kadie he loved her, then he reluctantly selected the code to contact Slater.

*

“The Commander has an informant on your team,” Hagen whispered while gently running his hands over the swimming pool water.

“Why would you say that?” Janna asked, alarmed. They were both lying face down on plastic chaise lounges parked on the edge of the pool at Hagen’s Cocoa Beach hotel. Hagen’s arms dangled over the edge, as Janna reached for a beer bottle propped on the ground between them.

“I should have guessed your paranoia came from real experience,” he continued, staring at the water.

“You’re speculating on nonsense.” She reached out to turn his face towards hers. “The people on my team would not betray me.”

Hagen turned over to face her. “They’re not betraying you exactly. In a way I guess they’re betraying me, but it was probably inadvertent.”

“Who would betray you?”

“Someone. Kadie put a tracker on my login activities, and a retrace on my research at WestCom.”

“Okay but that could be because WestCom got suspicious. Between the two of us, we looked at a lot of data,” Janna defensively replied.

“No, a member of your team told her about the information I found. I know how Kadie operates. If WestCom knew, they would have been the ones to initiate the checking up on me, and then told her about it later. Since she did it, she must have found out independently.”

“Well maybe they did it too.”

“No I checked for that.”

“Hagen there’s no way…my team is loyal.”

“Hey don’t worry about it. Remember my advice about measuring risk. Kadie’s monitoring my activities, that’s not a big deal. I pissed off the Russians. She probably should have been tracking me ever since Maria and the team left. And she won’t comment about it to WestCom because she knows the information we found is actually valuable. Even though it was not conclusive, she is probably pissed at them for not sharing it.”

“You can only make that assessment because you know the Commander, that’s an easier risk for you than for others.” Janna hesitated. “You actually seem to know her pretty well.”

“I do know her pretty well.”

“How well?”

Hagen raised his eyebrows. “Why do you want to know?”

Janna blushed. “I’m curious.”

“Really? Curious?”

Janna shrugged. “Well did you two work together or…date?”

Hagen looked at her carefully. “Years ago,” he replied.

“How many years ago?”

“I don’t know…a few.”

“Oh yeah, as if you’d forget. But doesn’t she have a bunch of kids with Roman Francon?”

“Only the youngest of her three,” Hagen bitterly answered.

“Three? So you dated before the kids?”

“No…” Hagen hesitated then painfully added, “…before Roman.”

“Before Roman, hmmm. Who’s the other Dad?”

“Ahh, I think this is where this conversation ends.”

“Really? You can tell me, I won’t say anything.”

“We are no longer discussing Commander Laltanca.”

“But I want to understand how to measure risk when talking to her, and you seem to know her very well.”

“I know her very, very well,” he crudely replied, staring hard at Janna. “You don’t need any more of the boring details. I’ve given enough to spark your imagination.”

Janna returned his gaze, blushing even deeper. “Hagen, don’t be—”

“What?” he demanded. “Rude? Crass? You’re the one with the dirty mind, imagining how well I might know the leader of Special Command.”

“Shut up, I was curious about your relationship that’s all.”

Hagen leaned in closer to her. “Really? Or do you want me to show you just how well I knew her?”

“Oh you’re disgusting,” Janna began as Hagen pulled her towards him and kissed her. Her head fell awkwardly between the two chaises, but he held it steady, supporting her weight with his arms as the fading day disappeared over Cocoa Beach. After a few minutes, Hagen stopped and looked at her. Janna’s eyes were closed.

“I should say…” he began as Janna slowly opened her eyes, “…this is a bad idea.”

“I know,” she sadly agreed.

“But the question is, do you care that it’s a bad idea?”

Janna leaned closer into his body. “I should but…no, not really.”

“Hmm not much enthusiasm. I don’t want any more shit raining down on me. Are you completely one hundred percent okay with this or not?”

Janna sat up slightly. “Wow, now who’s being paranoid?”

“On this I know my risks and they are sky-high. Are you okay with it or not?”

Janna frowned at him, then half smiled. “All right fine. The answer is yes, yes, you can record me if you want. I am one hundred percent okay with it.”

Hagen picked up his com and pointed it towards her mouth. “Can you repeat your consent, please?”

“Seriously?”

“It was your idea. And a voice modulator app will be able to detect whether you’re under duress when you say it. I always forget I have it.”

Janna looked at the com with disdain. “Did you make Kadie do this?” Janna asked emphasizing the Commander’s name.

Hagen feigned shock. “Uhhh…how dare you. That’s so inappropriate and totally unanswerable.”

“So, no.”

“No comment. Where were we again? Oh yeah, the CYA part.” He held up the com again.

Janna looked at him, then at the com. “Fine,” she said reaching out, and pulling his hand, holding the device, closer to her mouth. Hagen touched an icon, then Janna clearly stated, “Under no threat or duress, I, Janna Marric am saying yes, I am one hundred percent okay with having sex with Hagen Writstone.”

Hagen grinned as he touched the icon again. “Thank you,” he said pulling her into his arms. The two lingered by the pool a minute longer, then picked up their unfinished beers, and wandered back to Hagen’s hotel room. As night rolled into morning they forgot their fears, their paranoia, their risks. The technology may have brought them this far, but natural human instinct did the rest. In the moment lay no further cares about where their actions would lead them, the impact it would have on their careers, or who would find out. Their hearts, bodies, and especially their minds were far beyond rationalization. As it had been for millennia, as the surf silently eroded the once intractable Florida coastline, Hagen and Janna melted into each other, and let all the forces they could not control take them into the one condition where they were absolutely, uninhibitedly free.

*

An interminably slow sunrise appearing over snow capped mountains bordered by a forest of pine trees, captured Slater’s stare, as the faux window in Kadie’s D.C. office projected on the wall. Enraptured by the stunningly realistic photography, his gaze held the scene, and for a few moments had limited recollection the office was physically underground. ‘This must be a new app?’ he considered, catching sight of a slight breeze brushing over the trees. ‘I feel like I could reach out and touch it.’

“That’s relaxing isn’t it?” Kadie announced, breaking his thoughts. Slater spun around to see her standing in the doorway.

“Yes, it had me totally taken in,” he replied. “The picture is so real.”

“Yeah and it changes every day. Makes me wonder how many places on earth still have those pristine views.”

“Not too many. That is why we preserve it in pictures.”

Kadie moved into the room and sat down behind her desk. “So much for the environmental update, what’s our latest status?”

“With the Russians?”

“Yes, I guess Hagen’s instincts are a little rusty.” The team had moved past the issues with Maria Ovechkova and Hagen, after Kadie privately chastised him for his carelessness.

“He was more than rusty. I would never have believed he, of all people, would let his guard down with a foreign agent.”

“Maria had an agenda and she was smarter than he was. Someone is always smarter.”

“Yes well, now the Russians have left, and we need to be smarter too.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“Kadie, they figured out the instruction came from The White House.”

“But did they uncover any more information about it?”

“No one knows. But if the rest of the world finds out there may be a connection to Alannis’ simcon—”

“We have not confirmed if that’s the case.”

“But we suspect it. We have to move really quickly to find out if our suspicions are correct.”

“And?”

“You are not going to like this but—”

“We don’t need to go there yet.”

“We need the fastest, best—”

“Our team can handle the analysis.”

“You do not even know what I want to ask.”

“You have spoken with Roman, and you guys have reached the same conclusion. You now want to contact rogue techs, and bring them on to the team.”

“Yes okay, we agree it’s the best way to quickly move forward. But we can contain it. Let me speak to a few people who can identify qualified extra hands for this assignment.”

“Slater—”

“Kadie hear me out. We are going too slowly and you know it. The Russians are threatening drastic action, and we need to get ahead of their unease. You know they are going to want to make a point.”

“I’m officially against employing rogue techs. Technically those are the very people Special Command was constituted to fight. We cannot keep dragging them on to our team.”

“Special Command goes after cross-border criminals, not all rogues are the people you are expected to fight.”

“By extension they are.”

“No they are not. Tell me your real concern.”

“Special Command does not employ rogue techs.”

“Commander, please do not lie to me. Be honest. You have one issue and one issue only, Santana Bash, right?”

Kadie glared at him. “Don’t speak to me like that Slater. I don’t care about the liberties you think you can take. I’m the Commander of this team, and I’m not making this decision because of Santana Bash.”

“And I am your top advisor, and respectfully, I believe you are being unreasonable and you know it. Make the right decision. I promise you, if we find her, I will not let Roman near her.”

“That’s not the issue!” Kadie said her voice rising as she adjusted upright in her seat. “Stop trying to use their past relationship as an excuse for my decision. I do not want to employ rogues because most of them are criminals we are trying to apprehend.”

“You have employed them in the past.”

“Under protest.”

“Then put this decision under protest too. We lost track of the Bash twins two years ago. There are others we can work with, and I am asking your permission to contract them for this investigation. You have limited choices Commander. Either you use the Russians’ tactics, or you let them beat you, and then who knows how this will end.” Kadie stared at him. “I am requesting your authorization to employ people who may be able to help us. I swear that does not include known cross-border cyber criminals…or if you want, Santana Bash. I will reach out to a few of the better behaved, cooperative kids who owe the world a favor.”

“And if I don’t give my authorization you’ll take it anyway?”

“The actions I take outside of Special Command’s authorization are not Special Command’s jurisdiction.”

“Right, in other words, you’ll do it anyway.”

“Kadie at the end of the day you and I are fighting only for the best world we know it can be. You are not hurting anyone or compromising your position if you authorize this. It worked last time. We can find the best minds, put them together and stop wasting time. Who knows how far the Russians have moved already.”

Kadie glared at him with reluctant assent. “No criminals.”

“Of course not, only our own people, so to speak. And Santana?”

“I don’t care.”

“Yes you do. To be clear, if I find her, or more specifically Montana Bash, yes or no?”

“I said I don’t care.”

Slater hesitated then guardedly said, “All right, we move forward with all of your concerns noted.”

“Slater this authorization means we get results, quickly, faster than the Russians, and the team they may have already put on this, you understand?”

“Yes Commander.” Slater got up to leave. “Do not worry, we will not lose.” Kadie nodded her agreement as he walked out the door.

*

“She said yes,” Slater relayed the results of his conversation with Kadie to Roman an hour later over com.

“Yes with strings?” Roman warily replied.

“No, wide open.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Well believe it. I have a way with her.”

“Fuck off Slater.”

“I am telling you, she gave in to me. She said I could do whatever I wanted. She trusts me. She knows I will not run off with the first rogue tech I find, and I will report back on any developments.”

“Do you want me to kill you?”

Slater carefully chuckled. “All right, I will stop annoying you with my choice of words. But I am telling you the truth, she did give in. She said yes, to no officially known cross-border criminals, so besides them we can recruit the best we can find.”

“Anyone?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, she said she did not care.”

“How did she say that?”

Slater hesitated. “Like she cares.”

“I knew it.”

“Look you do not have to be involved. I will take Maltine. You keep working on a resolution with the Russians, and I will track down rogue techs who will not be disruptive to your relationship with Kadie.”

“No one can disrupt my relationship with Kadie.”

“And that is why you are so worried?”

“I’m not worried.”

“Okay if that is how you see it. We have a plan.”

“Keep me informed.”

“Of what?”

“Your progress.”

“In finding a certain helpful individual?”

“No asshole, in helping this team get answers to our very big problems.”

“Yes I will keep you informed. But if you let Kadie find out I provided you with any information leading you to a certain person, then…” Slater lowered his voice, “…I will kill you.”

“Yeah, okay fine Slater.”

“All right then we are settled. Now let us see whether this tension turns out to be worth it.”

*

Raucous East African hip-hop music permeated from the interior of Kadie’s taxi as she stared out the window into the chaotic scene. For five long centuries, people by the tens of thousands were kidnapped from the forested Congo with ropes twisted around their wrists and ankles; rafted across the furious waves of Lake Tanganyika; dragged in chains through the vast flat plains at the end of the Rift Valley; and skirted across the final open water that poured into the Indian Ocean, to be sold in an unforgiving, frantic market still fittingly called Stone Town. Reflecting on the city’s history as the animated driver pointed out varied tourist sites, Kadie noted the thousands of free Africans selling trinkets, t-shirts, beer and soft drinks, to thousands more wandering tourists who had come this time from Europe, Arabia, and Asia to lie on the beach, dine in the ruins, and brush their bare skin against intricately carved wooden doors, and the sinking stone foundations on the island of Zanzibar in Tanzania. Stone Town was no longer a slave trader’s port, the haunting ghosts of many millions who went to their dreadful fate caressed its cobble-stoned streets before fading from its stained ramparts. Now the frenetic outdoor markets sold every product except humans. The commerce surged on tourists buying the locals’ time to lead boat rides to the isolated beaches of outer islands, or to walk among the alleyways to find secreted artist shops and restaurants. The mood was exuberant, bustling, choked in oil and foreign exchange, moving forward from a long and bitter distant past.

The taxi rolled out of the city and into the narrow roads of the less hectic countryside. One main highway ringed a protected and isolated center that few tourists visited. Around the outer perimeter, side streets periodically branched off to new tourist resorts, or overnight towns full of dance bars and beer halls throughout the officially culturally conservative Muslim island. Original plans to maintain Zanzibar for the high-end tourist trade had fallen away as the pressure for sand covered getaways grew along with the region’s booming economic advancements. The preferred escape from the overflowing, concrete and steel megacities on the African mainland were the still quiet, isolated corners of the offshore islands or national parks which had been set aside decades ago to preserve at least a portion of the memories of uncomplicated times. Kadie lay back in her seat as the driver made a semi-circumnavigation of the island to find one of the hidden climes located on a tiny bay below Pongwe Forest.

“Nice place to stay this,” the driver told Kadie as he pulled to the front of the exclusive resort. “Only ten villas, very far apart. Your husband will like.” To avoid the driver’s untoward personal interest in her arrangements, Kadie had answered his question about whether she was traveling alone by claiming her ‘husband’ was arriving later. Driverless transport was rare outside Africa’s major cities, people not only sought to maintain jobs, but also the fulfilling human contact arising from mutually beneficial encounters with strangers. When the driver offered to meet ‘her husband’s’ arrival, she deflected his interest by stating he was traveling with a government delegation. This idea diverted the curious man to a new subject, unsure if her excuse was a true story, but unwilling to take the risk of competing with government drivers for a fare.

“How long you stay?” the driver asked as he handed her bag to an eagerly waiting resort attendant, and she handed him the taxi fare.

“Not very long,” Kadie replied.

“Oh should stay long, very nice place.”

“Yes well, maybe next time,” Kadie proposed then turned to follow the attendant into the resort lobby. The main reception was a luxurious wooden hut decorated with scattered plush chairs and fresh flowers. In place of a check-in counter, she was escorted to a sofa, and offered a cold towel and fresh papaya juice. As she enjoyed the breeze coming off the aqua-blue and white ocean waves in the immediate distance, a man who knew her name, discreetly materialized to confirm check-in details. Kadie had no intention of vacationing at the resort, but only guests and employees were allowed on the grounds, a rule which would have made her task difficult to navigate if she had not secured a reservation.

Hemmed in by palm trees bordering isolated pathways, she was guided to her villa room without glimpsing another human. Despite the luxuriousness of her surroundings, Kadie could not help wondering if there was not an easier way to obtain the information she had flown halfway around the world to extract. But since voice message and text contact had not worked, face-to-face would at least earn her one minute, and hopefully that was all she would need. Kadie checked her com. Slater had recommended using the food delivery times as an indicator for when she could knock on the door. After all they would have to eat eventually, and if they ordered a meal, they should be prepared to receive it, and she would not see any private moments neither she nor they would want her to witness. Considering it was still morning, Kadie wondered how long it would be before they came up for air.

Two hours later, her com buzzed. Slater had been tracking the food orders, which were on the resort’s central connection to The Network, and he had sent the delivery time, villa number and a convenient map. ‘He is really so good at this,’ Kadie thought, slipping on her sandals. Exiting, she followed the directions to her destination. A few minutes later coming up one of the secluded paths, she was greeted as expected, with utter disdain.

“Oh you’ve got to be kidding me!” Branson Miracolli howled as he saw Kadie advancing towards him. She sheepishly waved.

“What is it?” a voice called from inside the villa.

“Come out and see,” Branson replied with barely concealed disappointment.

Dominique Dorth appeared on the veranda and laughed. “I told you it was easier to answer her texts,” Dominique reproached him as she saw Kadie. “Now you see, we forced her hand, no.”

“I am so sorry,” Kadie contritely declared approaching them. Branson remained standing in place, but Dominique came down the steps to greet her with a hug and a kiss on each cheek.

“Of course you are sorry, but you also never take no for an answer.”

“I swear I do,” Kadie uneasily confirmed, stepping back. “But this time I think you, both of you, might have valuable insight we could use. I swear I’m not asking you to come back to Special Command full-time. I only want to run the details by you and hear your ideas. You know as well as I do we do not have enough thinkers. I need a bit of your time. Please don’t hate me forever.”

“Kadie, we don’t work for you,” Branson angrily exclaimed. “We’re on a vacation. You have violated every privacy law by tracking us down.”

“Oh leave her alone,” Dominique cheerfully scolded, deflecting his complaints with a wave of her hand. “Of course we know you don’t have enough thinkers, why do you think we’re hiding here? Despite all the knowledge laid out for people at their fingertips, nobody wants to learn it. We have to deal with so many who only want to look at The Network, and let it direct their lives. And then they tell you Special Command will make sure The Network does not get infiltrated, and The Network is protected from bad guys, and they can go ahead and keep staring at it. Your job is impossible! Of course you had to come halfway around the world to find people you can actually talk to, poor thing.” She took Kadie’s arm and led her to the table. “Come have lunch, and tell us what you need.”

Having already accepted the reality of deferring to Dominique’s wishes, Branson relented and sat down. Dominique and Branson had hated each other when they first met two years earlier on Kadie’s Special Command team investigating the undetectable drones. Dominique had thought Branson was a boring womanizer who never used his brain. He had thought she was a snobbish over-achiever who looked down on people who did not have her wealth or prominence. But after Kadie sent them to work together in Botswana, then Egypt, then London, they slowly changed each other’s minds. The two had a lot more in common than either had cared to notice at the outset. By profession, Branson was an East African Intelligence agent with a soldier’s track record of loyalty and bravery, and Dominique was a North African French pharmacist who had single-handedly built a global pharmaceutical business on the combination of ancient Chinese treatments and modern medicine. When Slater had told Kadie she would find them together, she had initially not believed him, even Special Command’s omnipresent surveillance had not detected their romance.

“I promise, a little time,” Kadie entreated as they sat down to a sumptuous lunch, and she immediately began to explain where the team had stalled with the satellite crisis, including their suspicions about Alannis’ simcon. “I can’t help wondering if it’s The Network again adopting a human reaction,” she said of the satellite program command. “I can sense it. Like last time, it could be executing a routine human action that is too obvious to see.”

During the previous undetectable drone investigation, Dominique had speculated The Network had created its own defensive drone response system by mimicking a reflexive human motion. The system, she had initially guessed, was following a circular line of commands building from the human-selected instruction to ‘Use This Default,’ whenever a human wanted the system to proceed without intervention. The Network auto-developed a response equivalent to the human gesture of swatting away an irritating insect that could be felt but not seen. Her insight re-directed the investigation team onto an ultimately successful track for finding the disruptive command code. Kadie hoped Dominique’s perception would once again reach outside the empty analysis achieved to date, and identify a path no one had followed. “I can speak frankly to you two, but few others,” Kadie conceded. “We have had no progress in stopping this satellite scan program, and we’re afraid that if we are too hasty, we’ll cause the satellite’s destruction which could then start a war. I need your brilliant minds to help us think this through.”

Despite his earlier reluctance, Branson was intrigued. “A copied simcon?” he inquired. “If copying was never anticipated, why would the program have an update instruction?”

“The app was built before the laws created for its use. We’re thinking it’s updating because The Network always updates live apps,” Kadie explained. “That’s code in practically every program involving continuously developing software. We do not have one unique original code for simcons because many different apps were developed at the same time, both open source and proprietary. The app the President is using is an amalgamation. It will take a while to go through it line-by-line, but for now we can assume it has all of the standard protocols existing in live software including for updates. Maybe it’s a default to update all copies on The Network. We never knew this was possible with a simcon because the law says you are not allowed to make copies.”

“Okay this update is created and then moves out into The Network with a defined destination. It knows it has a copy, but it can’t find the copy so it transforms the data into a command.”

“Well it appears to be executing an instruction, but why?”

“Maybe it’s like a hypochondriac,” Dominique suggested. She had been quiet throughout Kadie’s explanation, thinking through the scenarios and speculations as presented.

“A hypochondriac?” Kadie asked. “What do you mean?”

“When a person thinks he’s sick, he’s only thinking it, yes. Then the body reacts, it gives the symptoms of a sickness. The person is not sick, but the brain thinks he’s sick so it gives the instructions to get sick and voilà. But the person was never really sick to begin with, he came up with the feeling in his head.”

Kadie considered the analogy. “The Network’s transformation of the update into an instruction is like a brain that does not know where the real symptom for being sick is coming from so it creates the symptoms on its own?” she probed.

“Maybe, okay this is an idea, yes. You see it’s crazy because with all the Hollywood movies we always think the machines will develop intelligence and come after humans. But like this, in this case, it’s the opposite. The Network is copying our irrational behavior and becoming like us. And maybe even there is a default protocol for creating new code based on these unfounded actions. We programmed one expected reaction, after the doctor inputs, ‘this patient is not sick,’ the patient should continue with life. But in the physical world the patient persists, hypochondriacs are among the few people who would ignore Network instructions, not because they are thinking of an alternative option, but because of a perceived biological conflict. The patient may even buy medicines, or not report to work, and then essentially work himself into a sickness. The Network records all this, but these are not supposed to be human actions following from a diagnosis saying ‘the patient is not sick.’ It’s illogical. But we enter all data, beginning to end, all the time. The Network has a record every time symptoms are reported, the tests are run, and the diagnosis turns out later to be nothing at all. But the patient’s recorded actions make it appear there was in fact a sickness, before the patient went back to a normal routine. The Network remembers this pattern, sees it repeated millions and millions of times, and it uses that pattern to process data when it looks similar. Which of course we also programmed The Network to do.”

“You mean The Network records even if the patient say…wanders off in a different direction than the logical instructions told him to go, he still ends up in the same place. The Network sees the ‘wandering off’ eventually comes back to where The Network said it should originally go, and completes the loop.”

“That’s the idea.”

“Okay but we have to decipher how it made that connection. How could it have looked at the pattern from millions of records and made this response? I really don’t want to call The Network a brain.”

“But you see, you’re answering your own question. The system records millions of data records, cross-references similar behavior, and notes the recorded response.”

“Because it’s programmed to find solutions around roadblocks,” Kadie confirmed, almost in disbelief. “The Network is not supposed to give up when an instruction is not completed. It uses its protocols to make sure all orders are executed to eventually reach the end it was expecting. That could be happening here.”

“Yeah, that makes sense,” Branson concurred. As always he was amazed by how Dominique could link biological and physical processes to the activities of the man-made digital Network. “We programmed it to figure out how to always execute on commands, because we did not want to have to constantly monitor or intervene unless a human action was absolutely necessary. But now you’ll have to think through the logical programming code that would have led it to this point. The Network does not think on its own.”

“No, of course not,” Kadie asserted. “It’s the programming.”

“Right but simcons have no ongoing Network program, the app is self-contained. After running the aggregation it’s supposed to shut off from The Network.”

“Right, except that’s not how it really works because the app is stored on The Network. The Network knows it ran the simcon aggregation, and it knows where the completed simcon is located. The simcon data remains in secure servers, but the app to generate the hologram and use it with the simcon is on The Network. Any kind of exposure is the same as if it were sitting on a public Internet website, or traveling along encrypted signals, it’s still the same Network and it still reads data in exactly the same way. Including data suddenly appearing from The White House.”

“And it is looking for its copy. The search has got to trigger a reaction, and it picked the only logical one. But it may not be an instruction exactly, it could be more like a reaction ‘it’s dark so the light comes on,’ a problem that automatically has a solution.”

“That’s true,” Dominique said. “Maybe it’s not specifically targeting anyone. It could be more like an instruction like ‘there should be no arresting of migrants,’ and then it connects to a scenario related to arresting migrants and assumes it should be stopped.”

“But then there’s the shooting…” Kadie replied, “…it’s shooting at soldiers, not to kill them but only to disarm them.”

“I’m sorry to say but that’s one way to stop a soldier with a gun, shoot at him.”

“But only at his weapon?”

“Okay to scare him, but it’s still shooting at him.”

“The Network has many non-lethal protocols,” Branson noted. “That’s actually the standard response for most governments in civilian situations, non-lethal force. There are a lot more Network protocols for dealing with internal civilian unrest than there are for external wars. On a daily basis, most governments are policing their own populations not engaging their enemies.”

“But these incidents involve a lot more programming than a simple reaction to one lost command,” Kadie said.

“Sort of. The Network will follow a pattern and hold on to it until it believes it’s resolved. This is a pattern appearing to be displayed as a command like ‘stop the offending action without killing a human.’”

“Sounds like a slogan,” Dominique said.

“Yeah that’s right, it does,” Kadie noted. “We’ll have to run variations on that wording to see if there’s a connection to any protest groups. That’s yet another lead we can try through layers upon layers of Network defaults and human reactions working at cross purposes.”

“But to stop it you have to start with humans,” Branson remarked. “The White House should be able to issue its own official command to override The Network.”

“Under normal circumstances, yes,” Kadie countered. “But not in the situation where the President has illegally launched an app to ensure his personal access to technology most people with a departed loved one would want to own. We have to decide how to explain it without revealing background information. So far it’s a non-starter.”

“He doesn’t want to come clean?”

“No way, not in this political climate.”

“Then you have to shut it down quietly, offline so to speak.”

“Yes.”

Branson looked at Dominique. “You should try talking to Monifa Abed,” Branson proposed, turning back towards Kadie.

“A rogue tech? Not you too,” Kadie groaned exasperated.

“Rogue techs have the most efficient methods for executing on data analysis.”

“And for stealing all of our code once we let them in.”

“All the same, you might want to think about it. Judging by your reaction, I’m not the only one who thinks it’s a valid idea. Abed gave us perfect intel last time. She was honest, and can be trusted. We paid her a lot of money to stay in touch, she’ll help again.”

“I know rogue techs have plenty of champions at Special Command. And I know their track record with us, especially because of last time, is very good. But the other side of that coin is our record of chasing their friends. We do not know who may have leaked information. It’s impossible to confirm when they are only working for us, and not for the Cyber Army, or other rogues. It’s too volatile a situation. We’ll take all necessary action to resolve this, but I am not a fan of resorting to rogues.”

“Because last time included an unfriendly operator with a little too deep of an insider connection?”

“Why does everyone think that’s my only reason?” Kadie asked annoyed.

“Well it seems obv—”

“No,” Kadie interrupted. “Special Command is responsible for tracking and catching rogue techs, not for using them on our own team. If we keep paying them, we are traveling down the wrong road. We need to improve our own skills with people we can trust.”

“Okay, okay, I understand.” Branson leaned back in his chair. “Now do you have enough ideas? Have we done our part for global peace? We have given Special Command hours of our free time, can we be released to go back to enjoying our vacation?”

Kadie backed down. “Yes of course you can. I really appreciate you both talking this through with me.”

“You’re welcome.”

“But…”

“Oh no.”

“It’s just I have to warn you, I’m flying out in the morning. If another thought occurs to me…and I don’t want to walk in on…”

“Send us a text. To avoid the outcome you were going to recite, I swear we’ll answer rather than have that happen.”

Kadie laughed. “Okay that’s a deal.” All three stood up. “Enjoy yourselves here,” she told them. “As amazed as I was when I first heard about your relationship, I’m definitely happy for you both. You look very relaxed and comfortable, as if you’ve been together for a hundred years.”

Merci Kadie,” Dominique happily assented. “We are as shocked as you by our connection, but we couldn’t agree more, we have known each other for a hundred years.” Kadie smiled as she caught Branson grinning like a teenage boy.

“Well that’s wonderful, now I’ll leave you two alone.” They moved to walk her out, but Kadie waved them off, she could hardly lose her way following the cleared cut paths of the resort.

The moment she was back in her villa she contacted Roman. “Give me a destination halfway between Zanzibar and Moscow,” she requested when they connected.

“Ahhh,” Roman quickly projected a world map, and offered, “Syria?”

“With a beach,” Kadie stipulated.

“A good beach?”

“Yes.”

“Lebanon?”

“Maybe quieter.”

“Can we go west?”

“Yes.”

“Costa del Sol.”

“Yes, Marb—”

“Marbella, okay, when? Tomorrow?”

“Yes, you know where?”

“Of course mi amor. Awesome idea, I’ll see you there.”

*

“I cannot believe Dominique and Branson, of all the once most bitter of enemies, got me aching for you,” Kadie mused as she lay naked in bed next to Roman in their hotel suite in Marbella, Spain. “Those two totally hated each other.”

“Actually I think they were hot for each other all along, but hated themselves for thinking that way about opposites who were not supposed to attract,” Roman proposed, tracing the length of Kadie’s spine with a finger. “They had to find the right moment.”

“It’s still bizarre, completely unpredictable.”

“I hope mismatched couples aren’t the only reason you were aching for me.”

Kadie smiled, turning to look at him. “Well there was the setting. You and I have got to vacation at that resort, it was fantastic.”

“And?” Roman feigned anger. “What about my loving voice, caressing hands, gentle nature, and overall masculine hotness?”

“Oh was I supposed to be desiring that too?”

“Very funny.” He leaned in and kissed her. “Well I don’t need a hot couple in a romantic setting to turn me on to you. Being in Moscow was enough.”

“You mean those overwhelming Slavics are not your type?”

“No they are not.”

“Even Maria Ovechkova?” Roman hesitated. “Don’t bother lying,” Kadie admonished, before he thought a moment too long. “Because then I’ll have to fuckin’ kill you for ruining this date.”

Roman was taken aback. “Ahh… language.”

“I’ve been spending a lot time with Isabella.”

“Like I said…language.”

“Very funny, answer my question. Are there any female Intelligence agents you do not have a past with?”

“You were the last,” Roman softly replied.

“And Maria was number…?” Kadie ignored his romantic intention.

“Maria was a hundred years ago,” Roman claimed exasperated. “And thank you Slater ‘Snoopy’ James for dragging that story out of the most certainly confidential file it was in. But that’s it, my brief, very brief time with her was not significant or important.”

“She has a child.”

“He’s not mine!” Roman nearly screamed. “He’s that asshole General Zoubkov’s.”

Kadie was stunned. “Really?”

Roman backtracked. “Shit, that’s easily one of the biggest secrets in the Russian Intelligence Services. Don’t ever breathe a word.”

“Of course not, but tell me more.”

“There are two different versions of…let’s say, their time together. He says mutual drunken consent, she says not.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes, very. I listened to all of the literal sob stories. I was a friend and it ended there.”

“But Roman that sounds like more than a friend.”

“Baby, it was for a very, very brief time, and then it was over even more quickly. I was around that’s it. We were not close.”

“But you were comforting her?”

“Yes.”

“And the timing makes people think you’re the father?”

“People? What people? You mean Slater?”

“Okay, yes Slater.”

“Who spends way too much time poking around in private files that are none of his business?”

“Okay, okay yes he does. Is that why Slater thinks you’re the father?”

“Look I do not know about the idle wanderings of a drifting little brain like his, but this story…if that’s the detail he gave you, he made it up. He’s acting ridiculous, looking for a connection to discredit me. And I’m sick of it.”

“Okay.”

“Now I’ve got to deal with this.” He pointed at her. “You don’t believe me. I can tell when you’re not convinced.”

“I’m convinced baby. It’s a really horrible story.”

“Yeah it is. It was an extremely rough time in Maria’s life, and career. She had a lot of serious decisions to make, and Slater has no business dragging up the details. I’m sure it was not a thrill for Maria to find out she would be working for Zoubkov again. I’m guessing they talked it through and managed to agreed to move on.” Kadie nodded. “Did you know about Maria before you sent me to Moscow?”

“No.”

“Slater told you afterwards so you’d think there might be an old attraction while I was there?”

“No, he told me because that’s his job.”

“That’s not his job,” Roman angrily whined. “How is dragging up pieces of my long forgotten past part of his job? He wants to find a way to break us up.”

Kadie gave him a hard look. “Slater is not capable of breaking us up. Only we can do that.”

“You mean me.”

“I mean the situation between us personally. We are the only people who can change this relationship Roman. It is, will always be, exactly as you and I decide together.”

“Well I would never decide to end this. That’s not going to happen, ever.”

“Good, because I’m not ending it either.” She rolled closer to him. “We have to leave in a couple of hours. The world is on the brink of war, and we’ve been ignoring it long enough for people to notice.”

“We’re entitled to a moment.”

“As long as we keep working. Can you hold the Russians back a little longer?”

“Kadie c’mon, we do not have to be working all the time.”

“Can you stall them or not?”

Roman growled, but angrily replied, “Yes I can stall them. We are in the same place. I don’t think they are going to cooperate, and I don’t think they will shoot down the U.S. satellite.”

“Have they come up with any specific requests for the Americans?”

“No, and if they do, it will likely be a product or concession the Americans will never give up.”

“Then will they shoot down the satellite?”

“Well, they’ll have an excuse.”

“How much time do you think we have?”

“A day or two.”

“All right, we can think of a response before then.”

“Can we?”

“We have to.”

“Okay but can you please think of it later?” She hesitantly looked at him.

“C’mon mi amor, we rarely have chances like this…”

“Yes I know,” she whispered moving towards him. “Okay a little more time, and then we have to go.”

“Finally a decision I agree with.”

“And we can make the most of it.”

He rolled over on top of her. “Even better,” he whispered.

*

“Do you like being based in Egypt?” Maltine addressed Slater as they rode in a private jet bound for South Africa. They were flying along the African continent’s western coastline, gliding in a cloudless sky providing uncompromising views of the rough greyed out ocean against the dusty yellow earth, briefly turning to tropical green as they approached the equator, then marching back again to an irrigated agricultural brown as they reached the south. Maltine thought wistfully of Korcula as she awaited Slater’s response.

“‘Based’ is not quite the correct word for my status,” Slater replied. “I am almost never there. And when I have a bit of time, I do not automatically run back. Alexandria is too unfriendly a city for a guy like me.”

“What are the friendly cities for you?”

“Rio, Sydney…I prefer diversity, freedom and open cultures.”

“Hmm, so do I,” Maltine agreed. “And Croatia is a little stifling too, it’s no Rio. But one must have a home. Where is your home then?”

“Well if you are asking, I would say London. But it is cold and rainy there, it is no Rio either.”

Maltine smiled. “London is a lot of fun. Rio is no London for culture, shopping, the arts.”

“Yes each location is a trade-off.”

“It certainly is.”

Slater considered an alternative implication of her words. Maltine had been deeply immersed in analyzing the satellite scanner code at Cape Canaveral, and had not supported the plan to leave Hagen alone on site to supervise Janna’s team. But without the Russians to oversee, Special Command had reset its priorities and accelerated other options. As Branson and Dominique had suggested to Kadie, Slater re-connected with Monifa Abed, one of his respectable rogue tech contacts. But as Kadie had not expected, Slater’s intention was not only designed to access Abed’s brainpower as a technologist, but also to infiltrate the chemist’s Cyber Army connections. Indirectly, Abed’s help allowed Slater to isolate the location of Santana and Montana Bash in Cape Town, South Africa. Rogue techs were often based in cities where they could merge into the diverse, concentrated faces formed by the predictable movements of densely populated magnetic centers. Sprawling multi-cultural metropolises, like Cape Town had surveillance cameras tasked to parse out millions of faces every second, a technology limitation producing a nominally safe haven, for those who chose to fold their on-camera existence in with untold multitudes, in the hope only a directly concentrated effort could single them out. The Bash twins were exemplary brains in the rogue tech world who had once been captured by Roman in Europe, hired by Special Command in India, and then disappeared when, as Slater suspected, they became suspicious about the Intelligence Services’ eventual plans for them. Slater knew Kadie had intended to fulfill Special Command’s end of their negotiated agreement, and would have let the twins safely depart with money, new identities and right-to-fly passes. But he had never been sure of Roman’s objectives. Santana Bash was a liability for Roman. When the twins ran from the extraordinary opportunity Special Command had prepared for them, Slater specifically questioned whether Roman’s agenda had instigated their rapid departure. If his suspicions were correct, then Roman also wanted Slater to find the Bashes, not to help the team decipher the satellite code, but maybe to prevent them from revealing his betrayal. ‘Oh I do not understand why Kadie trusts that man,’ Slater thought. But as long as she did, he would have to be vigilant about making sure she did not suffer, professionally or personally, from his actions.

“What are you thinking about?” Maltine interrupted Slater’s concentrated recollections.

“Nothing,” Slater replied.

“Does not look like nothing.”

“Look?”

“Look, look.” Maltine waved a hand towards him. “On your face.”

“Oh, well do not read my face. I am technically a spy, my face will not reveal much.”

“Hah.” Maltine laughed. “Who is she?” Slater blushed. Maltine laughed harder. “Some spy.”

“It is not a she.”

“Oh sorry, who is he?”

“Never mind.”

“Oh come now, this is a long flight. Is he in Rio or Sydney?” Slater thought about Roman working in Moscow, and Kadie managing the team from D.C. If only he could have been thinking about a hot lover in a bouncy, agreeable city instead.

“Never mind,” he repeated, closing his eyes. “I am going to sleep for a bit.”

Maltine groaned but did not say another word. She had already guessed Slater might have a more intense link to Kadie than even Roman had, but she wondered whether it had been reciprocated. The two acted like best friends who were afraid to touch each other, the first sign of an old relationship now considered compromised or forbidden. She lay back to join Slater in a moment of sleep. She would have a few days to work on uncovering the whole story. ‘After all,’ she thought. ‘Chasing rogue techs to the end of the world could not possibly take up all of our time.’

*

Kadie and Roman’s rendezvous in Marbella was brief, desperately desired, and over in less than 24 hours. He returned to Moscow, and she went on to Florida, arriving at Cape Canaveral within a day of Maltine’s departure. Contrary to the explanation Slater had provided to Maltine prior to re-assigning her to Cape Town, the Space Station had become the investigation team’s most important site as they organized strategists and technologists to prepare for the Russians’ defensive reaction to the satellite scanner program. Special Command, the U.S. military, and WestCom deployed personnel to the Control Room to work non-stop on containing a potential outer space conflict that all desperately hoped would not escalate. Senior officials anxiously watched and waited, as their experienced technical team tried desperately to program a counter code for extricating from the scanner’s control. On the morning of her arrival, as Kadie approached the Control Room doors, her com buzzed.

“Good morning,” she greeted Isabella.

“Commander, I think we’ve found another opportunity,” Isabella anxiously stated.

“For what?” Kadie hoped it was the satellite as she stopped outside the doors.

“To get to Zylen Blain.”

“Oh.” Kadie hid her disappointment. “Okay tell me.”

“Well this is random but the First Lady uncovered that Alannis was freezing her eggs.”

“That’s pretty common.”

“Right, but Alannis assigned access rights to her DNA to a confidentially held name.”

“Really? Let me guess…”

“The President, well we know how he likes to use his override authority and—”

“And the name is Zylen Blain.”

“And?”

“And…there’s more?”

“Appears Blain is looking to take possession now.”

“Oh how convenient.”

“Very convenient except—”

“He’s using at least a hundred masks to hide where he is when making the arrangements.”

“Yes.”

“Do we have an intercept plan?”

“We are following all one hundred leads. We are on to him. He’s made inquiries. Question is will he legally collect DNA under his name, or a fake name, or arrange to steal it or have it delivered.”

“Where’s the storage location?”

“In California.”

“All right put a team out there. At least these are physical goods, Zylen can’t retrieve her DNA through an off-ramp. If he wants to have it, he will have to go there himself or send a representative. Either way a human will have to be involved.”

“Yes and then we’ll catch him.”

“But do you think it will be soon? He could be only inquiring now. Why would he want to create a baby at this point in his life?”

“Well maybe it’s not to create a baby, but to move the DNA before her parents find it. If he has any idea about the issues with the simcon, he’ll want to make sure he’s the one who will continue her line. It might be the most important task in his life right now.”

“All right, we’ll keep the team on that storage facility in California for as long as it takes.”

“I’ll set it up. How’s Cocoa Beach?”

“Hot, inside and out.”

“Good luck.”

“Yeah that’s exactly the sentiment the world needs right now.”

*

Before turning his attention back to the satellites, Zylen had uncovered The Network security governing the DNA storage facility storing Alannis’ eggs, and promptly placed the information in a secure virtual folder until he was ready to move forward. Then moving on to the U.S. scanner program, he ran another set of infiltration possibilities, and discovered the U.S. satellite had responded to an external instruction. Tracking the digital trail of evidence, he was almost sure, although not one hundred percent, that the command had come from The White House. His suspicion was possible. Any Network command could originate from The White House, and the President could have any reason for not informing the administration the real reason it had been instigated. But even in that case, the instruction itself should be linked, even secretly, to a memo or policy or speech or legislation, and it was not. It was suspended in The Network, without retrace to an originating document or directive. But Zylen was no ordinary tech looking for an obvious link, he used his own creative faculties to reinterpret the code until he determined a direct identification. If Special Command had a technologist as skilled as Zylen, they would have seen the anomaly in the instruction, and they would have thought, as Zylen did, that they had seen it before.

Two years earlier, Zylen and his own team had challenged Special Command to the core of its skill, by creating an undetectable drone with, they all learned later, an inadvertent instruction prompting The Network to copy the spec and create another undetectable drone of its own. But The Network’s drones were defensive weapons, killers, a function Zylen had not expected, and certainly had not planned to activate. The global military and Intelligence apparatus, with a co-opted Montana Bash, fought Zylen in Cyberspace for The Network’s self-generated code. But he won, changed the code before they could analyze it, and hid the original on an off-ramp, irretrievable from official eyes, at least for the stretch of time it took Special Command to reverse engineer his work, and obtain a copy of their own.

Time passes without halting in two years aimed at global online recovery. For Kadie, the official world’s dependence on rogue techs to assist in retrieving the code left a volatile opening for those whose allegiances lay, more often than not, with counterparts Special Command was hunting and expecting to arrest one day. Using rogue tech talent to support official Intelligence assignments had to be halted. Kadie had lobbied world governments to enhance Special Command’s analyst, coder and programmer teams, and to reconfigure Network security yet again. But rogue techs worked more rapidly than governments. As the Bashes escaped Special Command’s surveillance, new protocols were activated on The Network, and the rogue tech community swept it for weaknesses. Zylen had escaped from Special Command also. First captured in Chile, then held in a prison in Kansas, he had finally been released on grounds of international law. At least his parents and their lawyers could use the global community’s own rules against it. They obtained his release for the most basic of reasons – no evidence, no case. As expected, Zylen had wiped his digital trail, and Special Command’s investigative team exhausted their capabilities attempting to directly isolate his work during the 60 days they could legally hold him. Soon after the final hearing, a freed Zylen confounded the surveillance patrol Special Command implemented to follow him. ‘The problem with that U.N. team…’ Zylen had thought at the time, ‘…was they never looked hard enough at their own processes to determine how a skilled professional like me could elude their vigilance.’ Contrary to popular opinion, not every inch of human ground was covered by cameras and sensors, and an alert evader could instigate surveillance of his own, on his surroundings, and connect the options available to official trackers, whose non-options were, by default, the outs available to the surveilled. By the time he met Alannis on Philip Island, Zylen had dodged Special Command’s view, and the glorious year the couple spent traveling through Australia, and meeting at points around the world, connected the two lovers through more profound ground than Special Command could have imagined. But it ended in a fashion Zylen had never expected, and would be forced to reconcile for the rest of his life.

Shaking from the recollection, Zylen refocused his attention. ‘No time to think about the past…’ he considered, ‘…have to move forward, as she would have wanted.’ Then another thought materialized as he re-considered the phrase, ‘as she would have wanted.’ On the margins of law school, Alannis had been a political activist. She had often told Zylen about debating her father on his proposed policies which ranged from illegal migrants to logging to satellite surveillance, but Zylen wondered, noting the topics, if there was now any meaning behind those stories. He could sense, more than specifically identify, that a direct technical relationship may exist between the instruction coming from The White House and Alannis’ simcon. Global Intelligence had claimed they did not know where the instruction had originated, it could be a Network glitch, but it could also be an unexpected human command. Zylen was almost sweating as the electric impulses in his brain fired on overdrive, turning ideas over and over again in his mind. He wondered if the agents on Kadie’s team could use their brain as he used his own, forcing it to process data in parallel form to the servers on The Network.

Zylen had learned this vital skill at an early age when he had realized his intense interest in the science and technology lessons he was studying alone on a computer. As an online-only student, he could pursue advanced subjects available for credit alongside the required list displayed for the average child. Education lessons were accompanied by links to extended information about related subjects, and a relentlessly curious Zylen would click from one reading to the next, absorbing the material, and completing all of the additional exercises. This endless access to knowledge was the marvel of the online education programs. All formal knowledge a child could pursue was accessible from the point of his fingertips to his brain. There was no teacher or government agenda demanding focus on only one subject or idea. Although most students only went from mandatory lesson to mandatory lesson, trying to finish the requirements as quickly as they could, a curious child like Zylen could wander through The Network’s multiple curriculum offerings, and realize the grand scope of knowledge available to be absorbed and processed. In cavernous study halls strategically located all over towns and cities, people of all ages worked through the state curriculum at all hours of the day and night throughout the year. Australia, like most technology-driven countries, put the entire mandatory public school educational curriculum, from pre-kindergarten to twelfth year, plus college-level advanced courses free online for all citizens, residents and roaming foreigners to access and complete their education. The education applications were massively complex featuring video lectures, exercise modules, supplementary and standardized tests an individual could work through at any desired pace and time. The Network adjusted lessons to be easier or more difficult based on a student’s progress, and human educators were assigned to every study hall to provide back-up support and additional individual lessons when required. No mandated school calendar, classroom times or professional days off existed. Parents, guardians and older individuals decided when to focus on education around their own schedules, work and vacation times.

But as far as Zylen and privacy advocates were concerned, there was one crucial drawback in this process. To customize the education lessons for each student, The Network automatically integrated the learner’s personal information, including eating and shopping habits, social networking, recreation and entertainment preferences directly into the content. Assignments included the names of friends, activities incorporated popular interests, and students were relentlessly intrigued by the individualized integration of their life into their learning. In the background, The Network rebuilt and reconfirmed its extensive profile of an individual, creating yet a more detailed and complete picture to be maintained over a lifetime, and used again and again. Zylen had hated the mandatory amalgamation of his information, although even he had admitted it made learning much easier to manage when every topic reference was to a motivating subject. Even studying Shakespeare could be integrated, ‘write a 1000 word essay on a more advanced communication protocol that would have changed the outcome in Hamlet, and explain why.’ Zylen had loved assignments allowing him to extend his command of technology processes. Targeted work had sent him off to a pre-determined acceptance at a technical college where he earned his computer engineering diploma. Alannis had also completed her primary education online-only, and The Network had every permutation of her educational experience captured and recorded since she was four. The data permitted her simcon to have a rich and detailed record of her preferences, and responses to hundreds of thousands of potential questions and statements in conversations real and imagined.

‘An instruction from The White House? Or From Alannis?’ Zylen wondered again as he re-examined the analysis reports from her simcon data. ‘But she can’t be issuing instructions to The Network,’ he considered as his mind twisted again. ‘Or could she?’

*

The always-on sunshine of a Cape Town day greeted Slater and Maltine as their private jet landed at the South African city’s international airport. The preserved multi-colored harmony of the united city’s people greeted them warmly. Even Maltine was tempted to succumb to their charms, and to blend into their peace, as if she had come only to sip the wines in Stellenbosch, lie on the beach at Camps Bay, and admire the view from the end of Africa. Slater was less sanguine. He rarely reacted positively to his location, knowing each arrival was the beginning of immersed employment, and not a moment to be on vacation. Lost in these separate thoughts, they walked to waiting transport and were steered, without prompting, towards the south of the city.

“I’m not sure this is a completely viable plan,” Maltine stated, breaking the silence as she admired the mountain views separating one section of the city from the other.

“Why?” Slater asked, annoyed she wanted to alter their actions at this point in the assignment.

“If the Bash sisters are as sharp as you say they are, they will see us coming a mile away, and they will react.”

“They will only see you. I will be hiding.”

“Still they’ll suspect.”

“Perhaps you have a secret rogue tech password you can shout out to them to confirm your bonafides?”

“Very funny.”

“Actually I am serious. If they suspect a trap you should have a very specific response to ensure you speak to them. Think like a double agent.”

“They’ll never believe that.”

“They might.”

“I think we need a better prize, a more appealing offer to attract them.”

“They are still owed right-to-fly passes.”

“They’ll want those, and more money.”

“But if you provide those deals up front, they will realize the list sounds too much like a repeat offer from Special Command. And they definitely will not appreciate the sentiment, even if they find it tempting.”

“Well I’m sure that’s how they feel about all government organizations.”

“Maybe in general, but as far as we know, they’ve only ever worked for us.” Slater did not elaborate. He did not want to let Maltine know how severely the Bashes, especially Santana, would be gunning to find Roman. The Bash twins were hybrid rogue technologists, among those who had exceptional physical skills to utilize along with their coding prowess. Combat trained by American survivalists in that country’s rural South, they could supplement the funds they earned from selling apps, by working as security guards for wealthy individuals. Having once been arrested by Roman, then agreeing to work with him on the undetectable drones, then chased out of their temporary home in India by his men, or Zylen’s, Slater had never been sure, they had resurfaced in South Africa, harder to find, and probably angrier towards Global Intelligence than they had ever been. Starting with information from Monifa Abed, Slater had run the Bashes’ facial images, travel patterns and residence preferences through multiple programs. Although The Network analyzed past human activity to use as its base for determining related actions, programs also anticipated the next possible move a specific human would make in a given situation. After decades of testing, the applications were not considered viable across all individuals. But in the post-control world, even mediocre probabilities left only limited options for thinkers like the Bashes, who spent their time trying to avoid detection by The Network. Although rogues who did not want to be located could effortlessly hide their online activity, their physical presence in the world would eventually be worked out by global surveillance. Even after concealing their heads under hoods and hats, or covering their faces with sunglasses and scarves, the technology would wind its way through profile after profile, image after image, eliminating those who never went near an international airplane, boat or train, until it found the ones who were forced to access detectable physical transport to travel from one safe location to the next. In warm weather locations where most rogue techs could blend into mega-population cities with employment options, trying to hide behind too much clothing would easily draw in the protocols to signal an anomaly. In cold weather locations, the entry controls were sophisticated, and the streets were often empty and wide open. Under these conditions, it was difficult for an individual to consistently avoid a searching Network surveillance program, especially if she already had a record. Slater counted on these complex facts as he projected a screen, and Maltine turned to look at it.

“Where are they?” she asked.

“Same place,” Slater replied. “St. Cyprian’s, looks like a posh school.”

“For obedient little girls.”

“Yes, the only reason the Bashes would last a day there would be if they are watching a couple of rich, well-connected kids enjoy their daily life at a private educational enclave.”

“They must hate it.”

“I can imagine they do. But they would only take that sort of job to have access to wealthy people. They want employers to owe them favors, and to provide references for advanced coding work. Since they are out-of-touch with the general rogue community, they would have needed an entry to those inner circles without attracting unwanted attention.”

“It’s a great move. Especially this job, allows them to legally carry weapons at all times.”

“Yes, but inside a fancy school is not the place they would want to brandish or fire guns. When you approach them, they will already be prepared with options for escaping. You must keep the Bashes in front of you, literally and figuratively.” The transport arrived at the gates of the columned main school buildings and hovered. “All right, here we are. The sisters should be passing the time in a separated location, they do not go into the students’ study or recreation areas. At this time of the day, our checking of daily routines indicates their charges are online in one of the study rooms. The sisters should be waiting nearby, maybe in the parking lot or around the grounds or in a spot designated for the help.”

“Yeah I get it,” Maltine responded annoyed as she moved to exit the transport. “I’ll find them.”

“Good luck.”

Maltine stepped out into the waiting West Cape air, light and breezy against her tensed skin. Swiftly glancing around full circle, she noted a half-dozen uniformed laborers talking and smoking in the shade. Since the Bashes were not smokers, she expected to find another waiting area hopefully large, obvious, and indoors. South Africa was a country of extreme wealth separation, and an identifiable labor force supported the educated, affluent elite throughout their day. Maltine walked to the school gates and buzzed for entry. She sensed the cameras zoom in as the scanners analyzed her face. This intrusion was an expected standard practice for a privileged facility, but it still made her uncomfortable.

“How may I help you?” a voice responded. Maltine wondered how the security would react if the scanners could identify her as a criminal. Would she receive the welcoming of pointed guns instead of a gentle voice?

“Good afternoon,” Maltine responded, suppressing the thought. “I have an appointment to tour the facility…for my daughter.”

“Your name please.”

“Elizabeth Fine.” When the school administrator ran her name through The Network, she would find Slater’s recently created profile for the Fines, a prosperous European family who were emigrating to South Africa, and settling in Cape Town with their children. Even for an inquiry, established private facilities always ran Network verifications on potential candidates, and their parents, before opening the doors.

“Yes Mrs. Fine, we have your appointment, please wait a moment, a guard is coming to escort you to our office.”

“Thank you,” Maltine replied, while attempting to peer through the gates. ‘An escort, impressive,’ she thought. ‘This place was not trivial about the pretentions of its purpose.’ Omnipresent Network surveillance had decreased crime rates in most major cities, and flat-lined the annual rise in the number of private security guards. But expensive institutions used the presence of guards as a symbol of wealth identification more than as security protection for its patrons. The example was realized a few minutes later when a young, uniformed, unarmed man opened the gate, and gestured for Maltine to enter. “Thank you,” she said passing by him onto the grounds. As the guard closed the gate behind them, they were immediately severed from the noisy, rapidly moving city. Preserved European enclaves inside once colonial lands had not given up their verdant tranquility, and manicured perfection in the post-colonial, democratic decades that had passed. Indigenous wild flowers sparkled in the sunlight. Buildings stood as new, despite the aged existence of the original foundations, all had fresh paint, updated structural adjustments, and glittering solar paneled roofs doing their part for the environment. Ahead, Maltine looked through the building’s windows at girls drifting by in their light blue dresses and skirts, and to her left at the grass fields where they were in shorts playing organized team sports. Online-only students also occupied private school buildings, but here the administration maintained the exclusivity of personal teachers providing direct one-on-one contact, as needed, for struggling learners. For those who wanted to extend the established curriculum, perhaps to repeat specific subject lessons in French or Zulu, there were expansive computer-equipped study halls with cushioned chairs and private conference rooms. Retreating to these enclaves, girls worked their way through lesson plans in languid comfort as their legs dangled off the couches, and their fingers reached out intermittently to scroll up and down the projected screens. Maltine quickly looked around at these busy activities, but saw no sign of the loitering help. As the guard led her towards the main school building, she asked, “How is it to work here?”

“It is very good Madam,” the young man responded.

“Are there a lot of employees?”

“Very many Madam.”

Maltine grew anxious as the distance to the office building covered less than thirty feet. “And the employees of the students?” she bluntly asked. “Where are they?”

“Madam?”

“The nannies? If I wanted my nanny to stay here during the day, is there a room nearby?”

“Yes madam, of course, she at Waiting Hall.” He stretched his arm towards a building on the opposite end of the immaculate green campus lawns. “She wait there.”

“Oh very good.” Maltine nodded in her best shot at snobbish approval. Arriving at the doors of the administrative offices, the guard led her in. Within a few minutes, she discovered the school’s visiting parents’ tour did not include the Waiting Hall. Instead she had to patiently listen as a junior schoolmistress pridefully waxed on about the school’s multi-century record of achievement in developing female leadership for their country and the world. Maltine nodded her approval and considered her options. As the tour wound back to the administrative offices, she asked to be shown to the restroom. The relaxed and amicable mistress directed her across the hall, and told her when she returned, a guard would be waiting to escort her back to the gate. Maltine offered her grateful thanks, and disappeared into the ladies’ room. Conveniently it was empty. Quickly scanning for an exit, she almost immediately noted an open window, and leaning flat against the wall, reached up to grasp the sill, then raised herself up, and looked down through the opening to the drop below. Comfortable with the safely attainable distance to ground-level, she climbed out, jumped down onto the soft lawns, and ran towards the Waiting Hall without stopping to check if there were witnesses. On the tour, Maltine had noted the location of several of the school’s cameras, even though the administration had gracefully tried to camouflage the equipment inside bountiful trees. But she was familiar with generic facility practices and, more importantly, avoiding the poor strategic placement the security officials likely considered adequate for their purposes. Still despite their carelessness, she would not have much time, guards would come looking for her the minute the schoolmistress realized she had wandered off.

Arriving at the Waiting Hall, Maltine ran up to the side of the building. Pressing her back against the outer wall, she ducked to look through the window. Dozens of energetic people were sitting around tables, laughing, waving their hands, playing cards or board games or watching a video on their coms. A handful, including the Bash twins, were reading. ‘Interesting,’ Maltine thought, ‘you can always tell who is going to go further in life than the next guy, by looking at the ones who are reading, next to the ones who are playing. If I came back here in a year or two all the readers would be gone, and all the players would still be at their games as they complained about being poor and working for others.’ She shook her head, and hoped the Bashes would be more tired of hanging out with idle gamers, than angry about receiving an offer to work for Special Command again.

Wary of the time slipping by, Maltine opened the door, walked straight up to the closest twin, quickly knelt down to face them where they sat, and immediately started talking. “I only have a minute,” Maltine stated, perceptively glimpsing a hand flash over a gun. “You don’t have to shoot me, I’m a colleague of Slater James. There’s another assignment if you want it, another chance to help with a global cyber issue. And he guarantees you’ll get all of the compensation you need to walk free.”

The twin facing Maltine glanced at her sister. ‘This is Montana,’ Maltine silently realized. ‘Santana does all of the negotiating, and she would never look to Montana for direction.’ Maltine immediately turned to the other twin, Santana who was holding her hand on the top of her gun. “You will want this opportunity. I am with them right now, but I know program code and this is a challenge they have never seen. Quit this ridiculous job and accept the offer. Here’s good faith.” Maltine reached out her hand and dropped a rolled up cylinder of $20,000 U.S. dollars onto Montana’s lap. Pointing to the cash she continued, “Come to the waterfront tonight and talk to us. A note inside says when and where. I have to go, but believe me this will be worth your while.” Maltine stood and walked out before either sister could reply. Cutting her way back across the lawns, this time forced to avoid three security guards who appeared to be looking for a misplaced visitor, she entered back through the bathroom window. Passing through the door into the hallway, she returned to the office to greet the startled and embarrassed junior schoolmistress.

“Mrs. Fine, we thought you were unwell, we were knocking on the door,” the schoolmistress began as if chastising a drifting student.

“My dear, I am afraid I did feel terribly ill and…pardon me…but I could only hear the upheaval of my stomach,” Maltine graciously replied, putting a hand on her stomach and another on her head, feigning a weak recovery. “You know when one travels to another country, the body does not always adjust.”

The schoolmistress rapidly reset her demeanor and added with sympathy, “I’m so terribly sorry, how do you feel now?”

“Oh moving towards a recovery, thank you for asking my dear. You can have the guard take me back to the gate now.”

“Is there someone we can contact for you?”

“Oh no, no, thank you, my driver is at the gate.”

“Very well.” The schoolmistress motioned to the guard, who moved to stand next to Maltine as she expressed a slight faint. “Thank you for visiting,” the schoolmistress confirmed the end of the tour. “We hope you consider St. Cyprian’s for your daughter.”

“Oh I definitely have,” Maltine sincerely answered. “I most definitely have.”

Escorting Maltine through the grounds to the gate, the guard watched as she climbed into the transport to settle next to Slater. Since wealthy people often used the term ‘driver,’ to refer to any employee in an escort role, the guard did not appear to care that the man she had called her ‘driver’ was waiting in driverless transport. His job was not to question comments, only to ensure she was removed from the grounds as requested. As the vehicle turned away from the entrance, neither Maltine nor the guard looked back.

“Well?” Slater asked.

“Exactly as predicted,” Maltine triumphantly announced. “They were biding their time with all the other servants.”

“And what did they say when you made contact?”

“I did not give them time to respond.”

“Good, that means they will consider the proposal.”

“I cannot imagine for one minute they are content with that ungrateful world of waiting on spoiled children. They’re brilliant coders.”

“Like I said, they need the contacts, and untraceable cash. They were probably suspicious about the money we gave them last time, so its likely been dumped in a bank vault until it can be safely retrieved. Which would mean they were forced to look for new sources of funds.”

“But they must have other friends in…in other worlds.”

“They do not know if they have any friends at all anymore. When they worked for us a lot of people did not like it. I am sure they are concerned they have no friends left.”

“Such terrible choices. In those circumstances, I’m certain they would be ready to make a change.”

“I hope you are right.”

Maltine was right. At the appointed hour, Slater was relieved when he noticed the Bash twins elbowing through the crowds on the busy Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. Sellers were hawking tourist trinkets, while exotic food smells, stretching from the influences of the Mediterranean through Africa to the Americas, permeated the air, and left nostrils puffing out under the allure. The sea breeze worked to entice a yearning for quiet days on the water, as a variety of personal yachts loomed nearby on the shark-infested waters of the South Atlantic Ocean. Slater and Maltine were seated at a long table with baskets of fish and chips in front of them. As Maltine saw the Bashes approaching, she moved to sit next to Slater, and indicated places for the women on the opposite side facing the global agents.

“Hello ladies,” Slater greeted the Bashes with a smile as they sat down. “It’s good to see you again.”

Santana was staring at Maltine as she asked, “Who are you?”

“I’m an independent individual who does work a little similar to yours,” Maltine answered, pleased her stealth abilities at the school campus had been noted.

“Work for them?” Santana pointed to Slater.

“I help out occasionally in exchange for favors.”

Santana glared at her. “Big favors?”

“Unfortunately, freedom is a favor from most governments.”

Santana sneered. “Freedom is a basic human right, these assholes…” she motioned to Slater again, “…do not recognize because they think they own the world.”

“I agree,” Maltine sympathized. “But sometimes it’s better to know them, right? And to figure out how to get the compensation you want when you can.”

“Sometimes.”

“This time is not trivial.”

“What have the assholes fucked up now?”

“Satellites.”

“Satellites?”

“Yes satellites,” Slater interrupted to retake control. “Do you know about rogue techs playing with the satellite communication infrastructure?”

Santana looked at him. “I have not heard about it.”

“Really, not a word?”

“Not one word.”

“It’s a directed scanning program,” Maltine intervened. “It was designed to monitor rogue tech-controlled satellites, but it targeted a Russian satellite instead.”

“Rogue tech-controlled? Is that the assholes’ terminology?” Santana glowered at Slater. “Are you trying to pretend that all of your favorite billionaires are actually on your side? You know who fuckin’ controls any satellites you don’t own, right?”

“No we do not really know,” Slater conceded. “That is the point.”

“Look we can’t give you all the details,” Maltine interjected.

“I bet,” Santana disdainfully observed.

“But we can tell you about a program that has been compromised.”

“Sounds like it should be compromised. It’s against international law to tamper with another country’s satellites.”

“It’s not supposed to be targeting another country.”

“Of all the satellites in the sky, it happened to pick out the Russians. I’m sure the Russians believe you.” Santana sarcastically laughed.

“If they did, we would not need you,” Slater responded. Santana stopped laughing. “We are running out of time. We need to turn the scanner off, and stop the Russians from launching a war in outer space. Every country is totally dependent on the satellite infrastructure, this would be a disaster.”

“No shit.”

“We would like you…” Maltine instructed, turning towards Montana who was known to be the superior coder, “…to access the code, isolate the problem, and stop it from functioning.”

“Boy this sounds familiar,” Santana responded for both.

“Yes it does,” Slater stated. “Because that’s only the beginning. When we tried to shut down the scanner, an undetectable weaponized drone appeared, and threatened to blow up the Russian satellite. To stop it, we were forced to keep the scanner on.”

“Undetectable?” Montana exclaimed, breaking her silence as her eyes lit up.

“Yes, no Network report, no tracking, no record.” Slater turned to Montana. “Interested now?”

“It’s the same as last time?” Montana queried.

“No, we need to find this new code. We would like you to look at the data, conduct your analysis, and help us end this conflict. We are officially offering you a contract for this work. Your compensation will be double the amount we paid last time, and the complete record cleanup required for both of you to receive air travel passes.”

A shadow crossed Santana’s face as she thought of the passes that had been promised once before. “Where’s Roman Francon?” she scornfully asked.

“We are not revealing his whereabouts,” Slater sternly replied, turning back towards her.

“Why? Are you separating us now?”

“He is not involved with this part of the project.”

“Because he fuckin’ betrayed us? And now we’re supposed to forgive and forget.”

Slater gritted his teeth. “He did not betray you. You left before we could finalize details for you.”

“Oh we saw your final details all right. We saw the plan you had to get rid of us.”

“You misunderstood.”

“I doubt it.”

“Look we are here now with a new offer. If we wanted to kill you, we would have done it. But as we have been trying to explain, the world has a major global crisis, and we would like your help to fix it.”

“And we’ll only be talking to you guys?”

“Yes.” Santana looked disappointed. “You will not be dealing with Roman,” Slater continued. “We need you to concentrate on fixing this issue, and we will provide every accommodation you need to get it done.”

Montana was looking intently at Santana. Slater always assumed from her focused gaze that one twin was subconsciously passing messages to the other. Santana readjusted her stance. “Okay I’ll deal with him on my own time.”

“I did not officially hear you.”

“I don’t care.”

Slater eyed her. “You agree then, we are working together on this one project?”

“Maybe.”

“Santana, I am serious.”

“So am I.”

“Where do you want to work?” Maltine asked to change the subject before the Bashes changed their minds.

“We can pick anywhere?” Montana tentatively interjected.

“Yes of course,” Maltine responded, looking at her. “Where would you think is best?”

“Let me see the specs with the details first, then I can decide on a good location.”

Maltine eyed Slater. Picking up his com, he nodded to Montana, and began to enter a code. “I would prefer to give you this information knowing you have completely said yes,” Slater proposed.

“We’ve said maybe,” Santana offered.

“No,” Slater retreated, holding up his com. “I want a deal, then you get the specs.”

An anxious Montana turned her mental processing power on Santana, and Slater could almost detect her resistance. “We need to know what’s expected first,” Santana countered.

“It is exactly like last time.”

“That’s not a selling point, asshole.”

“Minus all the negative parts you did not like,” Slater angrily replied. “Look Santana, say a trustworthy yes. You know you want the work, the compensation and the freedom to travel, tell me we are agreed.”

Santana gritted her teeth. “Okay fuck you, yes, I guess, send it.”

As Slater pointed his com at Montana, he imagined Santana already planning their exit, the minute she changed her mind about cooperating. Montana held up her com, and let Slater transfer the data which she immediately began studying as it appeared on her screen.

Santana looked at her sister now lost in intense contemplation. “We prefer to work alone and get back to you later,” she announced, reclaiming the initiative as she stood to leave. Montana clicked off her projected screen and quickly stood also.

“As soon as you have looked at the details…” Slater ordered to Montana, “…contact us and let us know of any equipment you need and where you want to work.”

Montana nodded. “I’m not sure how long it will take,” she admitted.

“We need to know immediately. We are under pressure to decipher this quickly.” He turned back to Santana. “And remember we have only one project.”

“Sure,” Santana aloofly agreed. “We are all together on one big happy project.” She turned and walked away, Montana followed while looking at her com.

Slater turned to Maltine. “Okay now we wait,” he acknowledged. “You will stay with them at the location they choose, and I am returning to London.”

“Why are you going to London?” Maltine enquired surprised. She thought Slater would have to return to D.C, while she stayed with the twins. No part of the project work was in London.

“Routine homeland duty,” Slater non-committedly responded.

Maltine smiled. “Oh that’s where he is.”

“Sure,” Slater confessed, wishing her insinuation was the real reason he was going home. “I would skip out on Special Command for a tryst.”

“Guys do that.”

“Not this guy.”

“Loyal to the cause?”

“Always.”

“And to the Commander?”

Slater ignored the suggestive tone of her words. “I will speak to you soon.”

“Your unexpected trip to London is all about this project?”

“It is.”

“Well I hope he’s worth it because I find your departure highly suspicious.”

“Yes, I hope it is worth it too, but because it is a lead we all need.”

“For what?”

“A breakthrough.”

*

“We’ve had no action at the DNA storage site, but we figured out where the inquiry came from,” Isabella told Kadie via com. She was in Los Angeles, the Commander in D.C.

“And?” Kadie responded.

“St. Lucia.”

“There’s a connection to that island? We’ve always thought Zylen’s undetectable drone client was based there, or maybe has a home there.”

“Yeah but we still don’t know who the client was, or still is.”

“A million names are registered residents of an island with only a third as many people living there at one time.”

“Such is the convenience of a Caribbean passport. The number of potential Zylen clients is in the thousands.”

“Property records are sealed by the government. But at least if we’ve narrowed the whole world to one island, that’s an opening we did not have before.”

“Yes, but there is not much we can do with that information. Caribbean countries are fiercely protective of their tax base.”

“You don’t think he’ll personally travel to retrieve the eggs?”

“He may be afraid to, for the exact reasons he should be.”

For a moment, Kadie considered Zylen’s predicament. “Maybe we could send him a message.”

“A message?”

“Yeah a real one, a nice one. Telling him to come out and talk to us.”

“Are you serious?”

“It’s worth a try. I even know who we could ask to try and contact him.”

“Who?”

“A capable insider.”

“An insider who can completely hide a message sent from Special Command?”

“I believe so.”

“Okay Commander, it sounds like you’ve already worked it out.”

“Yes, I’ll get back to you a little later on the details.”

Kadie signed off, then contacted Slater. “I need you to ask Maltine a favor,” she ordered.

“Yes of course, anything you need,” Slater offered.

“We want to send a direct message to Zylen Blain.” Slater went silent. “Slater?”

“Did you just ask what I think you asked?”

“We need very specific help.”

“From Zylen Blain?”

“I have an idea.”

“That involves reaching out to him? Kadie is this really you?”

“Yes and I’ve been considering this for some time. I think he can help us, and we should try and talk to him.”

“Well this is quite a turnaround. We convince you to authorize contact with rogue techs and now you are—”

Kadie’s voice tensed. “Let’s not confuse the objective here. There are narrow reasons for wanting to talk to Blain.”

“And a Special Command mandate to shut him down.”

“One and the same. But I do not want to go into details right now. The idea is we reach out to him to find out if he would be willing to work on the other project. The one he personally has a vested stake in fixing.”

“You want him to work on—”

“I’m not talking this through with you right now.”

“But I am in London. I do not want to wait until I get back to D.C. for the details.”

“Any success with your covert searching for friendly operators?”

“A little, but I want to take a bit more time. Tell me what you are looking for.”

“Think about where we are, the information the Russians have gathered to date, the President’s suspicions, and the one person who may be able to look at the connection without sabotaging the source.”

Slater considered her analysis. “Okay I understand, I have an idea about your plan, but how do you want me to reveal this to Maltine?”

“Well we can’t provide any details. But I’ll ask Isabella to clear at least the high-level points on Special Command’s behalf. If all agree then you’ll have the framework we can present to her.”

“And you will have an answer about Maltine. I will text you if I end up approaching her.”

“If you approach her? Are you negotiating my requests with me now Slater?”

Slater faltered. “No Commander, you only have to make the request. But you also know how she may react. She is officially still an independent. I need to be able to tell her a compelling story to explain why you would want this action. I am only asking for clarification, okay?”

“Fine. Okay that’s it Slater.”

“As you wish, Commander,” he contritely acknowledged as they signed off.

Next Kadie texted Isabella asking her to seek permission from the President to support access for Maltine, to at least part of the information on his interaction with Alannis’ simcon, by playing up her official role as an EU technologist, and not mentioning her unofficial role as an experienced bridge to rogue techs. Isabella utilized her White House secure com protocol to speak directly to the President to request his authorization. With an increasingly fearful President Solar feeling he had no choice but to comply with Special Command’s advice, Isabella soon texted Kadie back his official approval. Then Kadie texted Slater who was already returning to Cape Town. Arriving on time to sit down with Maltine, he talked her through the next level of Special Command instructions. The Network had relayed every message across continents and oceans, each one encrypted and behind its own firewall. Special Command did not provide access to a more inclusive, open view of their discussions and approvals. Even when time was of the essence, each successive step of authority had to be completed and checked before the next person could move on.

After Slater’s briefing, Kadie contacted Maltine. “Don’t take this the wrong way…” she began, “…but do you think you can actually make contact with Zylen Blain? Even if we could find him, there’s no way he would accept a communication from a source he does not recognize.” Maltine hesitated and did not reply. Kadie continued, “Don’t worry. As Slater must have told you, this is a strictly unofficial top secret request with no fallout.”

“He did tell me. But there’s always fallout Commander,” Maltine finally answered.

“Not in this case, you can trust us.”

“I’m sorry Commander, but I do not trust government agents.”

“You can contact him using any communication process you have. Mask it as if you’re hiding it from us. All we want is the response, we do not care how you obtain it.”

“It’s not about trusting you. It’s well…he can be very nasty, and has a few specially trained and mean friends. He prefers loyalty above all else, and excuse me, but he hates you and Special Command.”

“He will not have to know it’s Special Command instigating the contact. Tell him you found out through your own contacts. I’m sure there are more people like you in your world, people who work officially and unofficially.”

“There’s no way I can cover up a connection. If I’m able to provide him access to a particular simcon, then he’ll immediately know I’m working from the inside, and who is behind the request. Plus Commander, forgive me, but it’s a terrible plan. This man hates you. He will steal the simcon and destroy your trust with the owner. It’s a bad idea.”

“I want to speak to him Maltine. He’s the one we need. Can you make the connection or not?”

After a pause, Maltine promised, “Yes I can.”

“Then do it and let me know his response.”

*

“Do you have access to Birdtail?” Maltine inquired to Montana the next day in Cape Town. The Bash sisters had decided the city where they were already located was the safest place to begin to work for Special Command again. Comfortably settled and familiar with the easygoing, multi-cultural population that absorbed outsiders into its streets, the Bashes had access to a sophisticated world-class infrastructure providing all of the hardware and processing power they could use. They had sent Slater specs for a two-story warehouse building where they could work from the second level, and use the higher views to monitor the streets, establish their security, and arrange an additional exit. Downstairs was decorated as a two-bedroom living quarters for young, working girlfriends sharing an apartment, but with Maltine occupying additional space as a reluctant governess. Montana had efficiently set-up her workstation, and was focused on the code within an hour of their arrival at the location. Slater had given her the simcon app, and an altered copy of the data containing not all of Alannis’ digital records, but a transformed sampling that had been used for other tests. She also had the satellite scanner protocol and its command execution codes. Their approved arrangement was to find, as quickly as possible, the parallel patterns in both codes, and hopefully a direct communication connection.

When Maltine posed the question about the secret rogue tech program, Montana stopped to look up and stare at her. But her response was a rapidly formulated, “no.”

Maltine considered her reaction, then asked again, “Does Santana?”

This time Montana paused. “Ask her,” she answered in an affirmative tone as if receiving an approval request to obtain authorization.

Maltine crossed the room to pose the question again to Santana. Santana looked through the agent to her sister who had her head down, working intently. She frowned, then also replied, “no.”

Maltine tried again. “I’m looking to contact an acquaintance. I know Birdtail can be used for certain…people.”

“I said no,” Santana insisted.

“It’s not a trap.”

Santana glared at her, wishing she had ready access to her gun. “Leave me alone.”

Sensing the hatred, Maltine backed off. “Okay.” But prior to yielding, she thought, ‘there are other ways.’

Maltine retreated to a corner of the room and projected a screen. Trying to hack into Santana’s com would likely be futile, and dangerous, since the rogue tech would know exactly who was attempting an infiltration. But she could set up the query to come from another location, and a profile Santana was unlikely to recognize. Although it was risky to guess if a surreptitious approach could work, she had promised results to the Commander. Abandoning attempted cooperation from the Bash sisters, Maltine sent a coded message to a man named Victor Joseph and waited for a reply.

*

Along a waterside boardwalk running by a public beach in Casablanca, Morocco, Victor Joseph was sipping tea when he caught the incoming text message from Maltine displayed on his com. “Shit, it’s one of them,” he remarked across the table.

“Who?” Monifa Abed asked, glancing at the small screen hovering below his eye level.

“Your international cop friends,” he retorted. Abed raised her eyebrows. She had worked with Special Command on the undetectable drones investigation, but only occasionally took Global Intelligence’s money. Even when Slater contacted her, she insisted on short and efficient conversations, and successfully avoided his relentless Network tracking of her whereabouts. Joseph however, was the opposite, a completely elusive rogue tech whose name had surfaced many times, but whose physical identity had never been confirmed nor tracked by government authorities. Special Command had only managed to triage his aliases, and include his possible names on their investigation lists.

“They’re not my friends,” Abed commented with a sneer.

“They like you.”

“They think I can help them.”

“Can you?”

“Usually, depending on the project. What do they want now?”

“To communicate with one of our friends.”

“Who?”

“She doesn’t say.”

“She?”

“Yeah I know who she is. She works both sides.”

“Oh one of those.”

Joseph looked up. “You mean one like you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, I’m not like that.”

“If that’s what you want to believe…”

“Are you going to contact her?” Abed asked annoyed.

“Should I?” Joseph honestly wondered, hoping her input would balance his concerns.

“It does not hurt to have them around, to do a favor now and then, if it does not compromise you. They have a lot of money, and if they think you’re valuable, they’re generous.”

“Some favors can get you killed.”

“Yes but it has not hurt so far. You just have to be careful.”

“Yeah careful and lucky and smarter than they are, then it does not hurt.” Joseph looked around. The sea sweep of the Atlantic Ocean dressed the sunny city in a light breeze as the desert sun pounded down upon the inhabitants. The boardwalk was overflowing with busy patrons. Morocco’s largest city was a magnet for tourists and locals alike, and the beach scene centered at La Corniche, along the most western edge of the continent, was the raunchiest in North Africa. Teenagers panted in shorts and tee-shirts, and chased each other in and out of the water, daring not to touch, as they turned back from the surf to see the looming minarets of nearby mosques. This was the essence of free-wheeling southern California captured in a nominally Muslim African country, challenged by no other location in the region for its comforting paradise appeal of relaxed tolerance and surveilled daring. “Okay let me give it a try.” Joseph sent his reply text. Fifteen minutes later, he had his response from Maltine. “She wants to contact Zylen Blain using Birdtail.”

“No way! That’s a pretty forward request from a government agent.” Abed was visibly shocked. “How does she even know about Birdtail?”

“Probably Slater James. He’s been around long enough to have learned about it.”

“Maybe, but it’s a dangerous request. Are you really going to help?”

“If I can control it, and get seriously well paid.”

“How can you control it?”

“Well first by not giving those idiots access to our app. I’ll have to contact Zylen myself. I’ll find out if he’ll talk to them, then make an offer.”

“But that’s ridiculous. Of course he won’t talk to them.”

“There’s more.”

“She said to tell him it’s about Alannis Solar’s simcon.”

“Alannis Solar? The President’s daughter, the one who died? Why would Zylen care about her simcon?”

“She says he’ll know the details.”

“Really? Zylen will know about some project involving government agents? That’s crazy.”

“That’s what she claims.”

“I don’t like this, smells like a trap. And you know Zylen, if he thinks you betrayed him or you’re aligning with governments, or their friends, he will come after you with those crazy bunch of guys he calls his security.”

“I’m shielding him from direct contact with the government. They’re looking for him.”

“He won’t care. Governments are always looking for him.”

“Yeah I know, but this could be worth a lot. I’ll risk it. But I need a more secure com program. I’m gonna take a little ride, wanna come?”

“I don’t want to be involved in this totally stupid plan. I’ll meet you back at the hotel.”

“Oh okay.” Joseph cautiously reached out to touch her shoulder.

“Be careful Victor,” she warned him, acknowledging his affection with a pat on his hand. “None of these people can be trusted. Not global cops, and not Zylen.”

“Only you?” He smiled.

“Not even me.” Joseph laughed but as he turned to walk towards a taxi stand, his light-hearted calm slowly yielded to trepidation.

*

The contact request reached Zylen an hour later. Then he lay awake stupefied by the details Victor Joseph had transferred to him. Zylen knew Joseph well, for more than three years they had remotely worked together on the undetectable drone project. But Joseph was an unflappably furtive rogue tech, more so than Zylen. Zylen had been physically identified by Special Command through his fingerprints. All Australian babies were fingerprinted at birth, and Zylen could not escape the permanent verification of his real identity. He had considered receiving the finger skin replacement surgery, but heard it was horrifically painful. And once it was completed, an individual had to create a new identity in The Network, which was not impossible, but relentlessly time consuming. Free from comparable fears, Joseph was not associated with any country. He fluently spoke five languages including Arabic, and seemed to prefer to live around the Mediterranean, a fact that did not necessarily reveal his origins. Beyond those attributes, neither the rogue tech community nor Global Intelligence knew who he was, and where he had come from. His on-again, off-again girlfriend, Monifa Abed may have been provided insight, but their relationship was rumored to be turbulent. Rogue techs even believed that during an off-again timeframe, she had given up his name to Special Command in exchange for a huge payday. But the rumor was never proved nor did it lead to his location. Unlike two other members of the undetectable drones team, Joseph had never been physically caught and interrogated by Special Command. Zylen greatly admired his colleague’s ability to avoid detection by global law enforcement. Joseph would never give up any evidence to government agents. After the drone project team had scattered, he had disappeared, and now resurfaced with this most extraordinary of requests. Special Command wants Zylen’s technical help with Alannis’ simcon. No communication could be more improbable in Zylen’s mind, which only indicated it might be the latest ploy to identify his location.

In any other scenario, Zylen would welcome the prospect of understanding how the President was using Alannis’ simcon. But if he complied with the request, he would likely become like a jailed man being given access to the details of the prison security system, from the inside. Special Command was unlikely to trust him with data the President of the United States would desperately want to preserve from alteration. Even if the request was real, they would set all the terms, control the surroundings, and his view into the code. But the tone, nature and route of the request intrigued Zylen even more than the fact they had made it in the first place. Special Command knew about his relationship with Alannis which was recorded, and unproblematic to confirm through the Secret Service. But fake intentions or not, he was certain they would not tell the President they had reached out to him, nor mention a plan to allow him access to the simcon. ‘What are they up to?’ he wondered. Offer to use him in the same way they had used Montana, then renege on their deal and use the evidence against him, or send him running as they had done to her?’ Analyzing the organization’s thought process, Zylen smiled. He was not people naïve like Montana, he would never trust Special Command. But as he constructed his ‘fuck off’ reply for Joseph to transmit, he realized that if any part of the request was real, then they had carelessly given him a clue about their challenge with Alannis’ simcon, a mistake he was ready to use against them as soon as he had the opportunity.

*

“My contact basically said the reply was…excuse me but…‘go fuck yourselves,’” Maltine relayed to Kadie over com.

“Well, not a surprise,” Kadie glumly replied. “Maybe we should not have revealed our identity.”

“No, telling him from the beginning was the right idea. He doesn’t trust you at all. If we had tried to make it look like another organization, and then he found out, it would have been worse.”

“Still we’ve lost him for good now.”

“Sort of,” Maltine cautiously continued.

“Is there another option?”

“Well reaching out…action always triggers the curiosity of a man like Zylen Blain.”

“You mean we’ve given him an opening?”

“Yes Commander, I believe so.”

“Into our line of analysis on this problem?”

“Yes, he now has information he did not have before. He has insight into Special Command’s activities, and the problem he may be in the best position to solve. He knows the problem is related to Alannis’ simcon, and he’ll work through his own details, and your inadvertent hint, to isolate it.”

“And that will help us, how?”

“It means he’ll act on it.”

“Okay then if I were him I would think the simcon has a completely unidentifiable and indecipherable issue, and I would try to work out the level of complexity he could resolve, but not Special Command.”

“Yes he might try and find the problems directly, by himself.”

“Well he can try.”

“Or attack from another direction. Either way we can watch for unusual attempts at infiltration from sources we are not expecting, and try and catch him through his own actions.”

“Yes, that’s exactly what we’ll do.”

*

Zylen Blain had spent his life avoiding virtual ambushes, and an engagement involving Global Intelligence would have to be a setup. He had to commend Special Command for using Victor Joseph to contact him, it was a good idea, but not good enough. ‘Kadie Laltanca’s minions will have to be smarter if she really wants to capture me in action,’ Zylen thought. In the meantime, he ramped up his own plan.

To determine the complex issue with Alannis’ simcon confounding the official technologists, Zylen staged his own test. In a secure server environment, he would simulate The Network’s interaction with Alannis’ real simcon inside The White House, and the copied one on his own off-ramp. The process was ripe with flaws. The Network, with all its variables, could not be thoroughly duplicated in a simulation. Techs had tried, but The Network was every connected device in the world, a complexity far beyond the limited processing capacities of even the most sophisticated workstation simulators. Similarly he could not exactly replicate the server configuration inside The White House, especially the security. Rogue techs had tried to hack into America’s most protected building many times, but to no avail. Bottomless funds made the security systems impenetrable, and extensively managed by multiple organizations using relentless monitoring and control. The depth of their protocols and the intrusion coverage would have to be a guess. Zylen considered the President might be running Alannis’ simcon on a more limited personal server, not on the official White House encrypted machines. If the assumption were correct, it would definitely ease the detection burden. And he would have at least part of the simulation tied to reality. Settling on these assumptions, Zylen developed an untethered server environment, exterior to The Network to avoid any possibility of being detected even within his most secure off-ramp. Then he focused on engaging sufficient processing power to bring him within a fraction he could manipulate to simulate a more workable space for his initiated test program. For the possibilities to be understood, multiple scenarios would need to run. His hoped for result was to reveal The Network’s response, to a package of data generated following routine interactions, in an environment where the simcon has a copy. The options were endless, but Zylen was searching for the most likely scenarios, when the simcon talks, or a human talks to the simcon, or another sends it a text or e-mail, or uploads a new song directly to music files, or other predictable activities under circumstances where Alannis’ likeness is being activated every day to interact with the President. Zylen needed to know the activation process instigating The Network update.

After hundreds of simulated scenarios prompting Alannis’ simcon to reveal the origins of U.S. government action, Zylen was stunned into realizing that the President of the United States was an incessant talker. Alannis had been his sounding board on a myriad of U.S. policy issues from immigration and free trade, to the environment and national security. Not only did his questions and ideas appear neatly in endless e-mails and text messages Alannis had responded to and saved, but also in audio files as preparations for public speeches, when the President had prepped the issues with his daughter. He had practiced his speeches in front of her, and recorded many of their back and forth conversations. Alannis saved those recordings to use as research and to compare ideas, and all of the feedback had been preserved. But the security on her virtual locker in The Cloud had been of little use when the President overrode The Network to capture all of the data related to her life. The simcon app had aggregated files from every identifiable location, and obtained Alannis’ response and ideas for every question posed about U.S. policy. But as Zylen relentlessly fished through the data, he could still not determine the extent of The Network’s aggregation of those responses once live humans interacted with the content again.

He inputted another round of protocol simulations and set it to run. Twenty-four hours later he looked at the results, and decided to change tactics.

This time, in the offline environment, he instigated an in-Network real-time question-and-answer session between Alannis’ simcon, and his live self, simulating a conversation with the President soliciting feedback about running the country. ‘In my position, how would you react when the Brazilians told you they were going to support automated logging with armed force?’ the replication of the President’s words asked.

Then Alannis’ simcon answered in the test environment, ‘That’s awful. Auto-saws can bring down trees at twenty times the rate of an average human team. That’s horrific. You’ll wipe out the forests in a fraction of the predicted time. Why would you support it?’

Zylen entered the President’s simulated response, ‘People have to eat, sweetheart.’

‘As they choke to death on polluted air?’

‘Well help me think it through then. I have to balance growth and wealth needs against our commitments on environmental policies. Give me a viable option.’

‘Ban the import of auto-sawed wood. Order economic sanctions.’

‘Those actions do not align with our free trade agenda. Besides they will protect those operations on principle.’

‘You can use drones to enforce it.’

‘Drones? Really? Against whom? There are workers, civilians, military…’

‘You use drones against others for less damaging activity.’

‘Be serious.’

‘I am serious.’

‘Really? Drones?’

‘For enforcement.’

‘Like defense.’

‘Or just to scare them.’

‘Use drones against Brazilian auto-saw operations?” the President’s simulation slowly repeated.

“Yes that’s the idea,” Alannis’ simcon replied. “Scare them into stopping auto-saw logging.”

Zylen’s hand froze over his keyboard as the long sharp ice edge of fear traveled up his spine. After the conversation ran on, and other simulations followed, he watched The Network process the new data through the simcon app. The simcon, by design, rearranged the data as Alannis might expect to retrieve it later. Keeping the original conversation verbatim, it recreated her expected thoughts and ideas based on the conversation content. As soon as the app had finished running its new, complete aggregation, it created a new record. Once the original and the copy were two different files, The Network tried to update to the copy – the second simcon it was not supposed to have – by sending it an update file. But since the copy was inaccessible behind the firewall of Zylen’s off-ramp, the new data appeared to The Network to be suspended. A command program began running another set of protocols to decipher where the data should be sent. An instruction Zylen had not yet detected responded to the suspended data as if it were required action. By daily function, The Network was already programmed to store and transmit individuals’ data, and every bit was processed for aggregation or updating records and profiles, and then used to generate further commands to the individual. As Zylen observed in stunned silence, he realized The Network’s own protocols were taking Alannis’ rearranged summary of her day’s interactions and putting it into its code as – an instruction. Astonished, he ran the simulations again, multiple times, using changing configurations and responses, through the night and into the next morning, and on for the next several days. But regardless of his initial set up, The Network’s reaction was becoming completely and terrifyingly clear to him. The update was being executed as a command, and that command was provoking action in the real world. Since no new incidents had been reported Zylen assumed, ‘The President must have figured it out too, and stopped talking policy to Alannis’ simcon.’ His action prevented further isolated incidents, but control of the satellite program could not be halted, because following its human activation, the command operated on its own. Zylen re-thought the immediate situation. ‘If the President has adjusted his behavior, then his technologists know the simcon was trying to update to a copy. If they have half-a-brain among them, which they do, they would also accurately guess who has the copy. Then they would try to trace the direction of the update data, and decipher its use. That’s why Special Command wants me,’ he concluded. ‘To design and execute the exact experiment I have just completed.’

If his theory was correct, and the contact request from Special Command had been real, then his physical location was in jeopardy of discovery. But he was not going to give up Alannis’ simcon for any real or manufactured reason. Securing his copy became his top priority in preparation to fight Special Command, over the unintended connection he alone had finally proved.

*

“The Network is trying to update to another file,” Montana confirmed to Slater as they hovered over her monitor screen. “You see this data.” She pointed to code Slater saw but did not understand. “The Network is sending out a timed update, an aggregation of every new interaction this simcon is having.”

“Sending out to where?” Slater asked as he considered Special Command’s ongoing assumptions about the possible Network reaction to the President’s conversations with Alannis’ simcon.

“I don’t know for sure but it could be a back-up file.”

“A back-up file?”

“Well not a back-up really like you’d think. Back-ups sit on archive servers as data and don’t do anything. But this is trying to keep data up-to-date in near real-time.”

“As if it is a live app?”

“Well, I don’t want to speculate until I have figured it out. But it could be a copy.”

“A copy? You can tell The Network has a copy and it is updating new data to it?”

“Maybe. But if it is a copy, it’s on an off-ramp. The Network is going to it, but can’t get in so it’s reprocessing the data.”

“Reprocessing the data? You mean The Network is trying to update a copy, but the data is …transforming?”

“Sort of.”

Slater stared at her. “But what does that mean?”

“I think it means the update is getting processed as a command.”

“A command?”

“This individual’s new interactions become an action the simcon would like to see happen. As if the person could act out the comment.”

“You mean if a real person spoke to it about say, a new idea, it would react? Is that how it is working? Give me a regular person’s explanation.”

Montana rolled her eyes. “Okay a person makes a specific comment mirroring a topic interest in the simcon’s…brain. The simcon processes the information with previous data on the same issue. But it’s got this copy. It sends an update to keep the two files in sync. The update is in The Network but it can’t find the copy, the file it is trying to connect to, so it does not know how to handle this data which is set for a specific location. It re-analyzes the data, then resets it as a command.”

Slater stared at her in disbelief. ‘An unidentifiable internal Network process,’ he thought. ‘The President made a statement about rounding up immigrants, and Alannis’ simcon reprocessed the words to, ‘let’s free the immigrants,’ and bang, the immigrants run away free.’ Confounded, he asked aloud, “But why a command? Why does it not store the data until it can get through to update? Or keep trying to update the copy? Why does it transform?”

“The Network does not let data hang out doing nothing,” Montana continued. “It reacts to new information and processes it. You government assholes designed it to always be giving us orders.” Her voice rose. “You wanted to be able to manipulate people, and send individual instructions based on real-time behavior. You designed The Network to use new data to create new commands. When you guys built The Network to mix and match all of our personal and private information, you used that mix to decide which instructions to create. First it was a simple connection like when this person buys this product, use the purchase record to buy this other product the app set up, for a default match the person never bothered to change. Then it was the education applications, like if this kid does not know this and cannot figure that out, change her options and see how she reacts. And then it became more complex. Now The Network tells you the exact brand of orange juice to drink based on cross-referencing your health records, your previous purchase records and current finances, the other products in your fridge, and the current agricultural crop yields based on weather and price changes. This is the world you wanted, you created it because you wanted to use all of these private individual records to control the population, and force people to function under your limited worldview. Now when The Network receives data tied to a projected action, it uses that data to create and issue commands. That’s how you guys programmed it. So guess what, that’s exactly what it’s now going to do every single time it has data that does not appear to have any other purpose.”

Slater was dumbfounded. “Okay calm down. Are you certain? Why would it not recognize update data, and continue trying from a temporary storage location? It doesn’t turn all update data into commands.”

Montana rolled her eyes, and took a deep breath, then proceeded more evenly with her explanation. “No, when it has instructions to update, it updates, and software designed to be updated will accept the incoming data. But this is unaccepted active data. Any data The Network is aggregating must have a related outcome from the aggregation. For aggregated Network code, its processing has to stop. It runs through all possibilities, and determines the only place for the data to land is in the execution instructions, and that’s where it sends it.”

Slater stared at her, overwhelmed, and alarmed.

“You guys really have no idea how to manage this technology, do you?” Montana scolded. “All you care about is the power you have over average people. It could all be really cool, if it were managed by good people. But as usual, I’m guessing this grand global control plan got all fucked up by evil intent. That’s why I’m here.”

Annoyed by her insinuations, Slater recovered his defenses and straightened to respond. “Lovely thought, but I do not require a lecture on the secret control of all human action,” he forcefully stated. “The Network has helped free billions of people to obtain an education, receive an instant health diagnosis, find a job, pay cheap prices, exchange ideas, rally for causes, listen to music, be endlessly entertained and so on. But yes I do admit, we do not know, cannot know, exactly every possibility when it can go wrong.”

“Like when you have a simcon and a copy sending instructions to The Network, causing a problem, escalated to Special Command.” Montana verbally aggregated her own data. Slater did not reply. “Since no one is even supposed to have copies of simcons, this has to be some big shot who is setting off commands and causing real world problems.”

“Do not try and speculate, continue working on a solution for stopping this.”

“It’s better if I know exactly the level of data I’m dealing with.”

“We prefer to keep that information in a closed circle.”

“I know you’ve got undetectable drones shooting at humans.”

“The whole world knows that.”

“That was the command right? But who issued it? Or better yet whose simcon sent the instruction to a copy it can’t find?”

“Stay focused on the investigation we have in front of us.”

“I’ll figure it out.”

“No doubt. Is there any other information you have learned? How exactly, technically is The Network processing lost data as a command?”

Montana sighed. “Well there are not supposed to be any copies of simcons right? When The Network gets data that is not supposed to exist it has to try and decipher its origins. It goes through various protocols. All of the data must be classified and directed based on its content. Like you know the auto-filing function for unnamed documents?”

“No but keep going.”

“You probably use it all the time. Most apps and programs have this command for when you forget to customize a file name. It automatically scans the contents, and then files it for you under a defined category it thinks matches your previously created preferences for similar data. It’s already on most people’s coms so nobody even notices when it runs. It’s the same function for pictures and videos too. You know how you don’t have to label your travel photos, The Network scans and then names and dates it for you, it’s like that.”

“It is reacting as if it is auto-naming a travel photo?”

“Yeah The Network records directionless data, and automatically reclassifies it. In this case, an update becomes an instruction.”

“Even an instruction to turn on another program?”

“Could be.”

“Okay, let us say your theory is indeed correct, then tell me, how do we turn it off?”

“We are not there yet,” Montana dishearteningly responded. “You guys always want The Network to go back to normal, to all of the pre-programmed actions you were expecting it to do in the first place. Someday it won’t you know. Someday you will not know what normal is.”

“Okay yes, when we arrive at the Hollywood movie with ‘the machines have turned on us’ scenario, we will make a run for it. In the meantime, do you have an idea for how we could turn it off?”

“Stop giving the simcon instruction-like info.”

“Sure and if that works only for new data? What about the information it has already received?”

“I have no idea. The simcon is processing data exactly as the person would have responded, that’s the whole point of the aggregation app. I’m not sure it can be persuaded to change its mind. Even if you make a supposedly non-threatening comment, who knows if the app would consider that data to be hostile or not. It depends on the individual.”

“Really? Well that is not helpful,” Slater acerbically commented. “What else can we do now?”

“It depends. Probably you can turn off the original simcon’s search for a copy by finding the update code in it, or you turn off the copy by finding the copy.”

“And how do we know which option works better?”

“You don’t.”

“Then where do you want to start testing?”

“Well your best bet is to stop the original from updating. Force it back to operating as we thought simcons operate. But since we don’t know which end is the problem, you should probably try both at the same time. I can keep working through this data to find the update code. If you in fact gave me all the data I need.”

“Assume we did.”

Montana smirked. “Okay fine, then I should find it. And for the copy? You guys going to get me that too?”

Slater considered her question. “You want to turn off the copy?”

“Yes, but there’s a problem? I can tell by your very hesitant response. Who’s got the copy Slater? Someone big and scary who does not cooperate with Special Command?”

“I do not know the answer to your question.”

“Oh really, well your normally shady demeanor became even shadier when I mentioned the copy. You know for a spy, you’re kind of transparent.”

Slater frowned at her. “No I am not.”

“Then how do I know, you know?” Slater did not respond. “Who has the copy? C’mon tell me or I’ll stop working.”

Slater considered his options. Treacherously, he was once again aligning Montana Bash on a collision course with Zylen Blain. Two years earlier when Special Command had uncovered the automatic Network response to undetectable drones, it had been Zylen who had been triggering the reaction, and Montana who had to fight him in The Network for the code. But her decision to work with Special Command was not a secret in the rogue tech community. The choice had cost the Bashes the respect and loyalty of their peers, and the security to manage their lives in peace. A vindictive Zylen had sent enforcers after the sisters to punish them for their perceived treachery, but they had escaped and had been avoiding him ever since. If Slater told Montana where she’d likely find the copy of Alannis’ simcon, he could lose her cooperation forever. “Look, give me a day to work out a couple of details then we can talk about this further,” Slater offered.

“Oh you need what’s her face’s permission to tell me?” Montana asked. Slater affirmatively nodded. “Okay I’ll give you a day, then I want a name. Obviously it’s a big fuckin’ deal or you would spit it out. You better not be working on a new evil world domination plan that will piss me off.”

“Of course not.”

“Yeah like I’m going to believe that. One day Big Man or we are gone.”

As Slater walked away, he processed the same sentiment, ‘one day or I am gone too.’

*

“If we tell Montana, Zylen is on the other end of the simcon update, she will walk,” Slater suggested to Roman over com. “But if we do not tell her, and she figures it out by herself, then she is capable of executing her own command code to retaliate from the inside.”

Roman silently took a deep breath. He desperately wanted to be the agent who was managing the Bash twins, he knew them better than their Global Intelligence files. But he also knew they did not trust him, and his presence back in their lives could set them off in another direction detrimental to Special Command’s interests. ‘Still it may be better than letting Slater manage such a delicate situation,’ he thought. Then said aloud, “I should talk to Santana.”

Slater groaned. “That is a horrible idea and you know it. You do not talk to Santana. Tell me the approach you think is best for handling this situation, and I will deal with it.”

“You should let me deal with her directly.”

“And you should screw your head back on.”

“Slater, she’s not easy—”

“Roman, can you not see it is a bad idea?”

Roman braced himself. “I think it’s a good idea, and I’m inclined to go ahead without your cooperation.”

“Then I will tell Kadie.”

“You’re going to tell on me?” Roman bitterly asked. “Where are we, on the playground?”

“Yes.”

Roman went silent. If he could have, he would tell Kadie first, but that was a non-starter. “Fine.”

“Fine? You are going to contact Santana, even after promising you would not? I am tracking every communication signal within ten miles of her. If you try any contact, I will know it is you. If you scare the sisters away, I will also know you destroyed our best chance at fixing this issue, and I will let others know of your involvement.”

“Slater, don’t threaten me.”

“Look I know you think you are The Alliance’s golden boy and can do as you please, but each member of the team has to deliver within their value—”

“Oh shut the fuck up! I know The Alliance’s creed, my father wrote it.”

“Yes and I understand that is why you are so confident. But your father is a realist, and when enough people are tired of your uncooperative behavior, he will respond.”

“Don’t try your un-informed speculation of my father’s future actions on me. You think you’re so connected you can go down that road? Think again, that’s not how it works.”

“And do not try your ancient class-based rationalizations on me. I know exactly how the organization works. Do not challenge me, you—”

“Slater shut the fuck up! You need me to deal with the Bashes, but you don’t want to hand them to me, because you think you’re a superior operative, and I’m another agent to be managed. But I know how to deal with this situation better than any other agent. Get out of my way and let me do it!”

“If you come near Santana Bash and—”

“You’d rather destroy this whole project than let me finish the work you cannot do.”

“I would rather protect Kadie.”

Roman thought for a minute as he calmed down. “Protect her? How?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Actually I don’t. You’re the one who had better get his head on straight, my friend. We are working on a global crisis. Stop trying to protect Kadie as if you’re…out in a bar. Think Slater, think about your words, and your actions.”

“I am thinking.”

“No man, you’re reacting like The Network. I mean actually like any guy in the history of humankind. But you’ve got to get over it. Think about the work, the investigation, this job. You want to protect Kadie, protect the work.”

“You have it all wrong,” Slater replied with limited force. “I am thinking of the work.”

“No you’re not. If you were, you would step aside, and let me deal with Santana.” Slater did not respond. “I’ll do it…” Roman continued, “…with the minimum amount of damage. I’ll make sure they know who has the copy, and you’ll stay out of it.” Slater considered his options. “I mean it, let me do it.”

After a long pause broke their conversation, Slater finally conceded, “Well if you are going to contact Santana regardless of my concerns, then you had better be completely sure your actions will not disrupt this investigation.”

“That’s the only way I know how to work.”

“And Roman.”

“Yeah?”

“Do it quickly.”

“I can do that too.”

*

A government agent, who professed to have covered every potential communication pathway within a ten-mile radius of any human, presented a thinking technologist with the best of non-conflict challenges. Since an infinite number of invisible airwaves lead to each individual, only a fraction could be monitored at any one time. The agent would have to know shortcuts to his goal, and if he had limited dealings with the human, he would have even more restricted awareness of his options. But even The Network would not have accounted for the flying of a white flag, by a human who was trying to avoid being noticed, to signal the same message it had indicated to adversaries for two thousand years. Santana could see the flag from two different directions. When she went out the back door of the Cape Town warehouse, she could see it hovering over the distant buildings like a church steeple, when she went out the front door she saw it again. Realizing the sightings were not a coincidence, she thought, ‘He’s using a projection. Such a fuckin’ clever little asshole.’

The next time Santana slipped out the warehouse door, professedly for a moment of fresh air, she kept on walking. Montana, her internal antennas alerted, briefly looked up from her work. Neither Maltine nor Slater noticed the concern on her face, as they remained engrossed in their com screens. Montana left all senses activated as she pretended not to have changed direction.

Santana walked through Cape Town’s breezy, tree-lined streets, following the white flag image as if cutting towards the apex of a triangle. She knew Slater would have a surveillance drone following her, but the beacon would deflect her away from it. If she stayed within the signaled boundaries, the surveillance would lose her. Santana thought about the tracking cameras, sensors and drones as she moved along the road. Few people understood how the technology controlling their lives operated. Government agents, official technologists and rogue techs could manipulate, redirect, reset, and force it into compliance with their own requirements, and the average person, the vast majority of people on earth, would respond without being aware of outside influence. Equal faults of will and education generated this tragic consequence leaving a poorly prepared population without sufficient skills. The balance were not only well-off financially, but also often lived on the periphery of total control by The Network. Not on off-ramps like rogue techs with wealthy clients, but at least with an understanding of where Network instructions originated, which ones were relevant, and which could be redirected, or even better, defaulted away, without negative consequences. That group of people, thinkers, limited numbers in almost every nation, worked more diligently and independently than the average, at education, business management, athletic and creative endeavors, and even government service, to avoid the mindless mandates of Network control. In a world of almost no required attention, they stayed alert to the vagaries of The Network, and conscious of the effect it was having on all humans. Suppressing fear in favor of ambition and risk, they were the alert, who managed to conquer complacency in the name of instinct alone. Santana admired these people above any in society, which was the only reason she was walking unarmed to confront Roman Francon.

“I knew you’d figure it out,” Roman greeted her smiling as Santana approached him inside a warehouse in an industrial district near the center of the city. Twenty minutes earlier, when Santana had crossed into a busy business district, a transport had materialized to carry her directly to him, and to lose the reach of Slater’s surveillance.

Attempting to avoid responding to his sincere greeting, Santana sat down across from him. “Of course, we had talked about it once,” she quietly responded. Ill at ease without a weapon, she was also decidedly relaxed in his presence. As angry as she was by his past behavior, Santana knew Roman would never be effortless to shake. They had a long, tumultuous and intense relationship, the one arc of her life that she, non-admittedly, would repeat again.

“I’m happy you decided to come,” he continued looking at her. “How have you been?”

“I’ve been joyously running around the world wondering when you assholes would take a shot at us,” she replied with contempt. “But now you’re happy to see me because you have a bullshit story to feed me so you can force more of your dirty work out of us.”

Roman measured his response as he sat down across from her. “No, because it’s good to see you. We have not been hunting you, and now we are working together for a very good cause.”

“You’re such a Boy Scout,” she sarcastically replied. “Always supporting the good cause.”

Roman wistfully regarded her. He loved Santana’s drive, brains and absolute disdain for lies. She had transformed his opinion about rogues forever, and made him a champion of their talents over their non-violent crimes. But his admiration had been risky, it still was, and as always he felt he had no other choice. “I’m here because we have a delicate situation, but since you responded to my signal, I now have hope we’ll work it out.”

“We’ll work it out only if you fuckin’ explain why you let Zylen Blain in on where we were hiding two years ago.”

Roman bristled at the accusation. “Is that why you’re aching to kill me? Well you’re wrong, I didn’t give your location up to Zylen, or anyone.”

“You sent traceable guys to Chennai and he followed them.”

“No way.” Roman sat up straighter and looked directly at her. “I sent our usual guys. Maybe Zylen figured out who they were, but you cannot blame me for his abilities. That’s not fair, you know he runs from us for a living. He spends all of his time trying to discern how Special Command works.”

“I know you set us up.”

“I didn’t set you up. Don’t you think that if I wanted you gone, I could have done it myself? I have resources you know.”

“You wanted Zylen to do it so your hands would stay clean.”

“No, I wanted you to have your travel passes and get safely out of there.”

Santana stared at him. “Like the time before…”

“Don’t ever mention—”

“Was it like the time before?”

“You were owed your freedom. I’m a man of my word. I did not set you up.”

“I don’t believe you.”

Roman glanced up at the ceiling, a hint of anger in his eyes. “That seems to be a theme lately.”

Santana looked at him inquisitively. “And why do you think that is?”

“What?”

“People don’t believe you.”

“Because I once made a mistake and I admit…I lost a little trust. Now I am forced to always answer questions about my motives.”

“Ohh sounds like the questions are coming from a certain someone.” Santana grinned for the first time since walking in. “Is the romance fading? Are you having trouble with Mrs. Big Shot?”

“She’s not Mrs.”

“No of course not, there’s no way she’d marry you. The head of Special Command is on to your lying ass.” Santana laughed. “I gotta talk to that woman.”

Roman blanched at the thought. “Don’t change the subject.”

“Oh no, this is a subject I like,” Santana gleefully continued. “This is important information to have on you. You need to look good to your woman or she’ll drop your dumbass. After all why would she put up with you if you did not deliver on the job?” Roman glared at her. “Fuck that’s awesome. I can’t imagine how smart she is. I really, really need to speak to her, tell her what I know.”

“Can we please talk about this project?”

“We could, but it’s not this much fun.”

“We only have a limited amount of time. Slater has resources too.”

Santana frowned. “You’re such a killjoy, mentioning his name.” Staring at him evenly she continued, “As much fun as your private life is, I have not forgotten about the betrayal we were talking about. But okay, I’ll play along, what do you want to tell me about this project?”

“The information I’m going to tell you is obviously top secret. And you’re going to keep it secret while figuring out how to handle it.”

“How intriguing.”

“Top secret Santana.”

“Yeah, yeah, go the fuck ahead. Tell me.”

“You know Montana’s theory is there’s a copy of the simcon, and The Network is trying to update to it.”

“Yeah.”

“We are technically guessing, but almost absolutely certain, the copy is with…Zylen Blain.”

Santana looked at him with disbelief. “Zylen Blain? Zylen has a copy of a simcon? How? Who’s head is it?”

Roman looked at her evenly. “Remember I said top secret.”

“Yeah, yeah, I remember, who?”

“Alannis Solar, the daughter of the President of the United States.”

“Alannis Solar?”

“Yes.”

“Why would Zylen have a copy of Alannis Solar’s simcon? In what fuckin’ world—”

“They were dating, maybe for a year when she went to school in Melbourne.” Santana was stunned. “No one knew, or was supposed to know, as an adult she could keep her private life from her parents. The Secret Service knew who he was, but they didn’t take official action because he was not considered a security threat to her.”

“Are you kidding me? That bitch gets to date a wanted rogue tech, and I can’t even fly to Jo’burg.”

“He’s not wanted. We have never found any evidence of illegal activities.”

“But you’re still tracking him.”

“That’s a different story. Anyway we’re guessing the simcon was copied, and it had to be by him. Between you and me, it’s the President’s fault. Alannis never authorized the release of her simcon. The President used his power to retrieve it. We’ve assumed Zylen had already been trying to obtain it too. Then he realized, he could copy it. Of course he’s the only person on earth who would try, which means no one set-up a process for stopping it from happening. Now The Network has two identical records of a human and is…we don’t know, maybe turning updates of conversations with the President into commands, instructions for Network action.”

“That’s really fucked up.”

“We need you to work with Montana. To inform her she’s dealing with Zylen, without letting her panic over his possible reaction when he realizes you’re working with us again.”

“Fuck Roman, you are a first class asshole. You have really gotten us into this one. First of all Zylen hates us, and he probably totally loved this Alannis girl. He’s going to use nuclear force to protect her…her simcon, and destroy us.”

“That’s why we need you on top of this.”

“You and your fuckin’ ultimatums, like this is all I’ve got to do in the world, fix the problems you government jerkoffs create.”

“It is all you’ve got to do or there will be no world. Get Montana to understand it’s Zylen on the other end, but still solve how to turn off those instructions in The Network. You can trust us to protect you both.”

“Oh and you think it’s so fuckin’ easy?”

“If it were easy, we wouldn’t need you. Your help is valuable for a reason. We think the simcon updates are interfering with a satellite scanner program, and prompting the Russians to want to start a war. You two have the brainpower to analyze the code, and stop this problem before it escalates.”

“To beat Zylen Blain while he’s trying to protect the memories of the person he loves most? I’m not so sure about that.”

“Well then be sure. That’s all we’ve got to work with, and we’re running out of time.”

Santana sighed. “Of course you are. Fuck I hate you guys, I really, really do.” She looked up at the ceiling, then back at Roman. “Okay get me back to The Man, and I’ll figure out how to manage this latest fuck up.” She stood up.

“Do you believe me now when I tell you I would never have put your lives in danger? I would never have sent Zylen after you.”

“No of course I don’t believe you. Guys like you never change. I only believe the story you just told me about this satellite war thing. Besides that, I do not believe a single word coming out of your mouth, and never will again.”

“C’mon Santana.” Roman stood up and moved towards her. “You’ve got to believe me,” he quietly said as he reached within an inch of her face. “I swear to you, I’m telling the truth.”

Santana flinched as she looked up into his eyes. “I believe you think you’re telling the truth Roman. But it’s only your truth, not my reality. I’m not surprised you want to use me, and at the same time you want to kill me. If I ever get a chance to talk to your Mrs. Big Shot, I could really do a lot of damage. Then where would you be the next time there’s a mega world problem?” Roman backed away. “You need to decide what you really want. You’ll fuck up this whole easy life you have, if you don’t start acting like a grown man with responsibilities, and not a teenage boy with unfinished business. Leave me out of your fantasies, Roman. Stay honest with me, and let me do the job you assholes are paying me to do.”

“That’s all I want.”

“That’s not all you want, I can see it in your eyes,” she sneered at him. “But that’s all you’re gonna get ‘cause smart lady does not deserve to be fucked over by the likes of you.”

This time, Roman took several steps back. “I would never hurt Kadie.”

“You already have,” Santana replied with regret. “On every level you are the worst kind of man Roman Francon. You have it all, you can offer it all. But on the inside you chase only your own agenda, taking action to suit your purpose without thinking about the consequences. You are exactly that spoiled, privileged guy who has wrecked this world, and brought us all once again to another terrifying humanity-ending point.”

Roman stared at her, his face hardening. “Your transport is waiting.”

She glowered back at him. “Good, I’m going back to work. Like you said we’re running out of time, and you and I both know we do not want to run out of time.” Santana turned and walked out the door, as Roman slammed a fist down on the table in front of him.

*

CHAPTER FIVETHE COALITION

“How well do you know President Plushenko sir?” Kadie asked U.S. President Arturo Solar as time ticked by.

“Well enough to know he’s a pompous but rational ass,” President Solar responded.

“Oh.” Kadie looked at Isabella and arched her eyebrows. They were standing across from the President who sat in a plush high backed chair, his arms resting on a small wooden table. Standing to his left was his Chief of Staff who was busy checking com. To his right was the open garage door of an airport hanger, and beyond the doors they could see the blue green shine of an endless Icelandic summer night. The exchange to end the Russians’ threat to blow up the U.S. satellite evolved into an escalation neither side anticipated nor could dispute. Holding both countries’ satellite investigation teams in suspense, Kadie and Slater had scrambled for days to arrange a meeting between the two countries’ presidents. The military and satellite teams on both sides were told to stand down and await the instructions to follow from the secret summit. Even though they had been communicating by com about the satellite incident, Kadie suggested to the U.S. President that he show the Russian President why he thought The Network was acting on its own. Encouraging both leaders to meet at a military base outside Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, was a rapid and gentle solution. The nearly empty island, evolved from an ice cube resting on boiling volcanic lava, was often used as an agreeable neutral territory for leaders to have a fast and frank discussion out of earshot of their myriad team of aides and advisors, and of The Network. As the time passed over the top of the hour, Kadie heard a plane land and looked at Isabella. “We are on,” she said turning to walk towards the hanger door.

On behalf of the U.N. Security Council, Kadie would welcome the Russian President to Iceland, and escort him to President Solar. President Aleksandr Plushenko was also accompanied by only one advisor, and Kadie watched them both descend the airplane steps, then walk towards her.

“Commander,” Plushenko said shaking her hand.

“Mr. President,” Kadie replied. “Thank you for coming, please follow me.” She led him into the hanger. President Solar stood as his counterpart approached, they shook hands, and then both sat down. Kadie sat between them, the seat across from her was empty. The advisors, including Isabella stood behind each representative. A brief silence swept down, then Kadie began, “Gentlemen, U.N. Special Command is facilitating a resolution to the satellite scanning issue. Our global team has carefully reviewed the information from the U.S. government, and looked at the actions within The Network. We can confirm the scanning of the Russian satellite is not under U.S. government control.” Plushenko snorted. “And…” Kadie continued ignoring him, “…the U.S. would like to request that members of the Russian satellite team return to Florida to collaborate on working to find a solution to this problem.”

Plushenko looked at Kadie, then at President Solar. “You are joking right Turo?” he said in English. “You don’t have more to offer me than the same story?”

“I asked Special Command to make sure you know exactly where we officially stand,” Solar responded. “For the record.”

“Record noted, why am I here?”

Solar sighed, looked down, and began tapping his finger on the table. Plushenko frowned. He had not noticed a com keyboard projecting on the wood in front of them. Staring at Solar entering code, Plushenko missed the initial result of his action, until a brightening glow of assembling colors of bits began to emerge in the seat across from Kadie. Plushenko jumped up, then sat down again quickly as Alannis’ hologram form came into view. In complete shock, his mouth dropped open, and his eyes expanded to overtake the entire shape of his face.

“I’m not sure if you have ever seen this work,” Solar began, visibly content he had stunned the Russian President, and could continue speaking through his silence.

Plushenko looked at Solar, his eyes still stretching over his face, and negatively shook his head, a gesture appearing to exhaust all his energy.

“It’s really, really special Alex,” Solar told him. Turning to Alannis’ fully formed hologram he said, “Honey, say hello to President Plushenko.”

Alannis stood up. “Good day Mr. President,” the projection said smiling. Plushenko dropped further into his seat, recoiling from her image. Alannis’ hologram continued smiling, looked around at everyone sitting and sat back down.

“You see how realistic she is?” Solar continued. “Imagine how special it can be for a father to still have his daughter with him after she has passed.”

Plushenko stared at Solar, swallowed, and finally seemed to recover his credentials. “Yes Mr. President, it is really, unbelievably realistic.”

“I’m showing you Alannis…Alannis’ hologram, because we think this…” he nodded his head in the direction of the hologram, then hit an icon freezing the image in pause mode, to prevent further recording, “…this…Alannis is the source of the satellite scanner problem.” Plushenko was taken aback as his mouth slacked open again. “I’ve been talking to her,” the President continued. “I always used to and I did not want to stop. I talk about government plans…policy…and not yet public plans. And it seems my talking has found a way onto The Network…as commands…instructions from The White House.”

“Are you serious?” Plushenko stared at him. “But how? Simcons are closed systems.”

“Yes they are, but this one…” he pointed at the hologram, “…she’s been copied.”

“Copied? But that’s impossible. There are no copies of simcons. It’s not allowed. The Network cannot have two copies of the same human, it’s not in the programming. We prohibited it in our agreements.”

“Yes I know. But I must confess Alannis did not authorize the release of her simcon,” Solar contritely stated. “I took it. And when I did, we believe her…boyfriend, a rogue tech…well we believe he managed to copy it. And now we think The Network is trying to update the copy, but it can’t find it, so it reprocesses the update…as a command. But I promise you Alex, it is not on my instruction. I am not involved in this in any way. This is a Network action based on Alannis’ thoughts and requests.”

“Alannis’ requests?” Shock rose again to Plushenko’s face. “This is the story I’m supposed to believe? This is crazy!”

“Yes it is and that’s why we have not yet been able to resolve it. Alannis was an activist. She disagreed with me on a lot of policy issues. I used her as a sounding board, to get a sense of the opposition agenda. When I told her about the plans to arrest illegal immigrants in The Philippines, she must have had…I mean the simcon must have processed a reaction that it stored in her re-aggregated data. If the idea was to free the migrants, well that’s the action The Network executed.”

“Are you telling me The Network executed a command based on the manipulation of the simcon data?”

“We don’t know exactly how it is working. Maybe she…the simcon has a counter-response, and The Network uses that data to trigger an action. We’re guessing, but it appears The Network may be processing the information to make a command. Normally a simcon would record, aggregate and save new data. But this one is trying to update to a copy. In good faith, we’ll give you, only you, the analysis showing a command being created from the update. It’s processing the information for delivery, as an action. With the satellite program, it’s preventing us from targeting rogue satellites as we always intended. I assure you the program was never aimed at any sovereign nation’s satellites. The new instruction is probably not even to target a Russian satellite. We’re assuming a redirect or a similar command was created to deflect the program away from the rogue satellite to one closest to our satellite. It’s not deliberate, Alex. But all we know right now is we can’t turn it off without triggering that defensive drone.”

“But this…how?” Plushenko was still stupefied.

“We don’t yet know. But we have to find a solution as fast as possible. Believe me Alex, I’ve got teams working around the clock on this. But I cannot tell them I have illegally generated my daughter’s simcon, and then set all this in motion by talking to it. I’ve stopped talking to her because I don’t know how the simcon will continue to react. And we’ve had no more incidents. But regardless, how would it look if I have access to this app and most people do not? Very few people know about this issue Alex, and as a father, promise me you will maintain my confidence.”

Plushenko looked at him again in astonishment. “Yes, yes of course it’s a secret. But am I really supposed to believe it? How can I know this is not just an excuse?”

Solar leaned towards his counterpart. “Alex, President to President, father to father, I am telling you in total and complete honesty this is all we have. I am not providing the instructions. It’s a Network issue with the simcon app.”

Plushenko looked closely at his counterpart. Although the U.S. and Russia were officially on cooperative terms, both countries’ media, government and military institutions supported the long memory of a hostile history in identifying conflict where none might exist. Solar and Plushenko had always worked around those who sought to regenerate a more dangerous time in global geopolitics, and this time would be no different. “All right Turo, I will believe you,” he graciously stated. “But tell me then, how can you fix this?”

Solar pointed to Kadie. “We’ve brought in skilled resources from all over the world, President Plushenko,” Kadie explained. “We have told them as much as they need to know, and then left them to try and work out the solution without compromising the simcon. We’re also looking for the boyfriend, he could be able to help us if he would cooperate.”

“Who is he?”

“Zylen Blain.”

“I know that name?”

“Yes Mr. President, two years ago he led the rogue tech team that set off the undetectable drones. By an extraordinary set of circumstances, he became involved with Alannis, and now it appears he has the simcon too.”

“You see Alex,” Solar asserted. “This could not have been predicted. We did not allow simcon copying because we did not want humans to have clones of their loved ones everywhere. And if my interactions with Alannis have set off these reactions, who knows the possibilities if everyone could do it? Besides The Network’s inability to register duplicates of the same human, we would have an overload nightmare on our hands. There is no way our current energy infrastructure could support multiple simcons of every deceased person. Even if we had allowed it, how could The Network have a protocol to update every copy with every word and action every other person interacting with it was generating? Our infrastructure would simply collapse under the processing demands. I cannot imagine the chaos. But if it leaks that the President’s daughter has been copied, and my family and this boyfriend are able to enjoy having Alannis in our lives, then everyone will demand this functionality. It would be a disaster. Can you imagine if every Russian demanded the simcons of every person they’ve ever loved? We not only have to resolve how to fix this, but also shut it down, keep it secret, and make sure it can never happen again.” Plushenko stared at him, again lost for words. “I’m telling you Alex,” Solar continued. “We need your overall cooperation on this. This is not a hostile act by the United States. It’s a completely inadvertent, unpredictable Network response, we need time to make it right.”

Slowing absorbing the information, Plushenko looked at his counterpart. “Mr. President, you could not have shocked me more,” he honestly stated. “This is truly incredible on every level. The simcon technology is beautiful.” He glanced at Alannis’ hologram then back at the U.S. President. “But you’re right, it would be a disaster for the work we’ve tried to do all these years, to have every human recognized on The Network. I can’t imagine the applications, for terrorists, anarchists. Could you imagine protestors sending out simcons of their grandmothers to fill the streets? That would be crazy.”

“Yes, when I decided to retrieve Alannis’ simcon I was thinking about the opportunity to continue interacting with my daughter. She was taken too soon, and I did not want to lose the connection we had.”

“I understand, and I guess her boyfriend did not want to lose his relationship either.”

“Yes, I assume.”

“Now we have a crisis. Okay, but then what is the communication plan?”

“Plan?”

“I have to give my people a response to the American hostilities.”

“Yes of course.” Solar looked at Kadie.

“Mr. President, please advise your people you have seen evidence the U.S. is not purposefully targeting your satellite,” Kadie responded. “The U.S. would request you do not divulge the exact nature of the evidence, but you let the media speculate it’s rogue techs or terrorists. If you agree to state you have seen the evidence, and you’re satisfied with the U.S. explanation, then you can order your team to resume cooperation with the U.S. team, and we will continue to work with them on resolving this issue.”

“Yes I could do that,” Plushenko responded unconvinced.

Kadie was alarmed. “I’m sorry Mr. President is there a problem?”

Plushenko sighed as he looked at Solar. “Not on the surface. But I believe my people would question it too closely.” He stopped and appeared to be thinking. “You know how the media can be.” He turned back to Kadie. “I will need the cooperation request to come from you.”

Kadie raised her eyebrows. “From U.N. Special Command?”

“Yes Special Command,” Plushenko continued. “I can say I’ve seen the evidence, and Special Command under a Security Council directive is requesting total, classified cooperation, and we have agreed in the interest of peace and organized negotiation.”

“That’s a good idea,” Solar stated. “We’ll keep the attention on Special Command and stay out of it.”

“Yes of course,” Kadie agreed. “That’s what we’re here for.”

“But you’ll need explanations,” Solar stated to Kadie.

“We’re used to that Mr. President. We’ll manage the media.”

Solar turned back to Plushenko. “Mr. President are we agreed?”

Plushenko again looked at Alannis’ projection. “I am so very sorry for your loss Turo, she was a lovely girl. I remember when you brought her to St. Petersburg. She was so sweet and kind, remember my son following her around.”

Solar laughed. “Yes I do.”

Plushenko half-smiled. “He cried for her, as we all did. Such a lovely girl,” he repeated. Reaching out with his left hand, Plushenko stuck it through the projection at Alannis’ arm. Solar bristled but did not respond. The Russian President quickly pulled his hand back. “This is amazing technology.” He stood up and stretched out his right hand to Solar. The U.S. President also stood and shook it. “Yes we are agreed. Special Command can make the request to our satellite team, and we’ll send them back to you, and God help us find a solution as quickly as we can.”

“Thank you Mr. President, I’ll keep you informed,” Solar responded. Plushenko nodded. Then glancing once more at Alannis’ image, he nodded to his advisor and turned to leave. Kadie who had also been standing followed the Russians to the doorway of the hanger, then stopped to briefly impart Special Command’s official goodbye before they took the final steps to the airplane.

As President Plushenko walked away, Solar remained gazing at Alannis’ hologram. “Mr. President,” Isabella interrupted. As she moved closer to him, she could hear the Russian plane starting its engines. “We should go too.”

“It is beautiful technology isn’t it?” Solar wistfully commented, gazing at the hologram.

“Yes sir it is.” Isabella looked at Alannis’ projected image.

“Like she’s right here.”

“Except she’s gone,” Isabella boldly replied. The President looked at her.

“I know she’s gone…” Solar responded, “…but her conscience…”

“That’s gone too sir,” Isabella whispered. “It’s The Network, running a program, looking for logical combinations. It’s not the real interaction we all have now, this…” she demonstrated a back and forth gesture with a finger, “…I wish it were, I really do, but it’s not.”

“I’m aware of that Ambassador,” Solar replied annoyed, as Kadie returned to stand beside the table. “Really I am. I’m not going crazy talking to my dead daughter. I know the difference.”

“I know you do sir,” Isabella carefully continued. “But as you were talking to President Plushenko I realized another fact about simcons. We can think about this…” she made a circular gesture with her finger, “…there is no record of this meeting. The real you and the real President Plushenko speaking as fathers as well as leaders, and there is no Network record. All of the people in this room will have a record of traveling to Iceland and attending a meeting. But when your simcon is generated in the future, it will not have this conversation. Yet this is the kind of conversation that reveals a great deal more about who you are and how you think. How many of Alannis’ thoughts and conversations does the simcon really have? The app is guessing based on a finite amount of data, it’s a lot of data, but it’s still finite. For the real Alannis, who knows how she would have really processed the information you discussed together?”

“Alannis was a civilian she had a lot more personal information on The Network than I would ever allow for myself.”

“Maybe, but it is still not every conversation or thought, especially not the ones that really count. People hide really meaningful information. They have their most intimate conversations when they are off The Network. They do it intentionally, like you have now. For those who still have control, The Network does not have the most reflective parts of their lives, hopefully it never will.”

“Never? I’m not so sure.”

“Neither am I. But as a global leader you’ll be able to influence the outcome. Mr. President forgive me, but what do you believe you’ve really captured by having Alannis’ simcon?”

“I get to keep my daughter with me,” he snapped. “If you had a loved one suddenly pass away you would understand.”

“Yes sir.”

“Mr. President,” Kadie intervened. “I think the Ambassador is reminding us this brave, personal meeting between you and President Plushenko really showed us the limitations of the technology creating this problem. The hologram is not Alannis. Neither she, nor you are responsible for setting off a global crisis. This is a Network program, one we have to decipher and reverse. We are not dealing with a human who has other options. We’re dealing with finite data as Isabella said, data humans can re-arrange and fix.”

The President calmed down. “Yes I agree.”

“And do you agree it was an effective meeting, a real personal meeting between you and President Plushenko to avert a global crisis?”

“Yes we hope it was.”

“And Isabella is right, it’s not on The Network. If you wanted a public record, we would have to create a recorded version without revealing its true origins. People do that all the time to hide their secrets. But in this case, we’re going to go forward with cooperation between your two countries without revealing how we were able to arrive at this point.”

“Okay.” Solar was puzzled.

“We still have the luxury of brainpower…to work around The Network by interacting with people and thinking through responses on our own. Then we act on the analysis created through our own thoughts and discussions, completely offline, in our own minds.”

“Yes, it’s important humans maintain that… type of interaction.”

“But not too many people do it.”

“No they do not.”

“Because an average person would not do many activities off Network. The simcon may be close to their behavior, but Alannis was a thinking person, and an activist. She would have been engaged with people, organizations, personally and in unrecorded meetings. Much of her authentic life was not likely captured because that’s not the type of person she was. You can be proud of her, knowing how independent she was, and how she would have been more concerned about working with humans on solving problems than on relying on The Network.”

“Yes I was proud of her.”

“Even if you do not have all possible permutations of her thoughts?”

President Solar smiled. “Yes even with that realization.”

“For now, it’s only part of the scope of interaction you were hoping for.”

“Yes, that’s true. I do have a fraction, a large enough fraction to enjoy.”

“Yes sir, and that can still represent a significant connection.”

“A connection with a lot of limitations.” He turned to Isabella. “I apologize for snapping at you Ambassador, I know you are right.” Isabella nodded. “I’m talking to a Network program and a realistic hologram rendering of a human. I’m not talking to Alannis.” He turned back to Kadie. “And I know you will stop this program so I can get back to governing without worrying about where the world will end up after every word I say.”

“Yes sir, we will find a way to stop it.”

*

“We can basically reset the simcon on The Network,” Montana explained. “We move data back before the simcon started, back to the date when it first created a file to transfer to the copy.”

“How can you move data back?” Slater dubiously inquired. “The whole world is on The Network in real-time, there is no going back.”

“It’s not the way you’re thinking about it.” Montana looked at him as if he were a two-year old. Perpetually amazed people in Slater’s position did not have a detailed understanding of The Network, how it was built, and continued to be managed, she felt the isolation of her own superior knowledge while struggling to develop a simpler explanation. Senior government officials did not understand the ability to manipulate sections of The Network, and to isolate information people did not want to share. Of course if they did understand, they would not need her, and for that reason she was grateful for their ignorance. “We only set back the world it operates in. It’s like if you have a watch and cross into a different time zone. The watch resets back one hour, or five or even a day, but you haven’t turned back the entire world, only your little piece of it. You gain time, but the rest of the world is where it was. We are not going to turn back the whole world. We take this data within The Network and set it back to its beginning before it wanted to transmit to a copy.”

“But would you not have to know the exact data it was copying?” Slater asked.

“No we can erase all of the new data up to that point.”

“Wait, up to which point?”

“The copying.”

“Before or after.”

“Sorry?”

“Are you erasing from before the data was copied or from a defined point afterwards?”

Montana looked at him exasperated. “Can you please tell me the origins of this simcon? Then I can directly answer and not have to put up with your roundabout questions.”

“Answer my last question.”

“Before.”

“From the original on?”

“Yeah.”

“And if the copy is behind a firewall?”

Montana rolled her eyes. “What kind of firewall?”

“I would not know. But say the most sophisticated you have ever seen.”

“Then I’ll work through it until I crack it.”

“And if it was built by Zylen Blain?” another voice demanded. Montana and Slater both spun around as the sharpness of the question split their relaxed banter. Santana was standing in the doorway awaiting their response. Slater unsteadily stared at her but did not react.

“Zylen?” Montana’s voice betrayed a concern she did not want to share.

“It’s Zylen,” Santana carefully acknowledged walking towards her. “Assholes set us up again.” She pointed a finger in Slater’s direction, and he backed away.

“How do you know?” Montana demanded.

“Guess.”

“Tell me.”

“The boy twin.”

“Him? You spoke to him? Where? Here in Cape Town?”

Slater was now up against the wall as Santana turned to face him. “You and your boy have some fuckin’ set of balls,” she told him. She turned back to Montana. “It’s Zylen again. That’s who you’ll have to get by.”

“The same Zylen who wants to kill us?”

“The same.”

“And you got this from the same Roman who let him try and kill us?”

“Yep.”

“Roman does not want to kill you,” Slater, his back flattened into the woodwork, spoke up from his precarious vantage point. “He never did.”

“Well we don’t believe you,” Santana went on. “But we do believe Zylen is on the other end.” She turned back to Montana. “That’s why they need you because you’re about the only person in the world who may be able to figure it out.”

“Fuck what a bunch of assholes,” Montana proclaimed looking at Slater.

“Yes they are,” Santana agreed staring at him. “Do you still want to do it?”

Montana looked at her sister, then softly said, “Well I’ve done all this work, and if…if this is the way we can get away…”

Santana briefly reflected. “We’ll make it the way,” she definitively stated watching Slater.

“Then we’ll do it.”

*

“We’ll draw him out,” Kadie remarked to Isabella as they arrived at Special Command’s office in Washington. “If we go after Alannis’ eggs, that will prompt him to act.”

“We hope so,” Isabella replied. To lure Zylen from his current location, she had proposed Special Command convince Alannis’ mother to arrange to claim Alannis’ eggs from the storage facility, and use the request as bait to catch Zylen. No one would question a representative sent by the First Lady to California to pick-up a sensitive package. Special Command would be her proxy, and place agents in positions to intercept any attempt Zylen made to stop the retrieval.

“Isn’t it crazy he could have children with her, and raise them with her simcon even though she’s dead?”

“Would you ever do that?”

“Do what?”

“Get your guy’s simcon and then start a family with him…it?”

Kadie laughed as she thought of Roman. “Is this guy my favorite movie star?”

“Seriously, would you do it?”

“Probably not, unless we had already decided to have kids together regardless of our physical presence on earth. But then I think I would generate the babies, and leave the simcon out of it. I mean how do you explain your decision to the kids. ‘Here’s your Daddy. He’s a projection, you can even walk right through him, but go ahead and ask him a question.’ It’s too bizarre for me.”

“Me too. I can’t imagine it. Plus it seems like twice as much work. The simcon might start talking crazy, and you have to manage its behavior and the kids. Total confusion, you would never get out the door.”

“Yeah not much fun. My guess is rogue man Zylen has a romantic streak in him, and he’s envisioning an idyllic family life.”

“Well he’s in for a rude awakening. The kids would be real, but his partner in life would not.”

“Yeah I don’t think Alannis’ hologram would be much help when it comes to changing the diapers on a screaming baby.”

Isabella laughed. “Real partners aren’t much help either. Can’t imagine the stress if you had a hologram hovering nearby, smiling at you while you tried to cope.”

“I think you would minimize it.”

“Yeah.” She laughed even harder. “You can have a voice command like ‘if you’re going to hover, get out of my line of vision,’ and it would disappear.”

“That’s too much.”

“Yeah it certainly would be.”

“But that does not mean people like Zylen don’t want to try it. We have to find out how badly he wants to live in his fantasy world.”

“Hopefully badly enough to give us time to catch him.”

*

“We have figured out a way to distract Zylen,” Slater told Montana and Santana. The twins looked at each other as if a tiring idiot were trying to communicate with them. “Please do not sneer, we really have a plan.”

“To distract Zylen Blain?” Santana suspiciously questioned him. “From the mega assault he will launch on Special Command? I doubt fuckin’ much.”

Slater sighed. “Look we have a plan. We actually have something he wants, and we will use it to drag him out of hiding.”

“What the fuck could you have that he wants?”

“You do not need to know the details.” He turned to Montana. “Can you be ready? I am not sure how this would work, but if you try and break through his firewall while he is not around is that helpful?”

Montana looked at him with disdain. “Haven’t I taught you anything about living in the 22nd century?” Slater looked at her with impatience. “I guess not,” she continued. “Well, way back when, wireless com was invented, and a human can use the technology to access his servers and apps from any point in the world. So no, he does not have to be ‘around’ to launch an attack on me when I try to break in to his system.”

“I know he can access his servers, but would he not require more than his com if you were actually trying to break through his firewalls. Will it not help if he is not at his workstation with all of his hardware around him?”

“Infinitesimally.”

“Really?”

“Okay maybe depending on his set-up he may need more processing power, maybe he’s going to be tethered a tiny little bit.”

“Could a tiny little bit provide you with enough time?”

Looking at Slater as if facing a challenge, Montana reluctantly agreed, “Yes. At the very least, he’ll need to project two screens or a split screen from his com, one to follow me and one for his system. If you’ve got him out there in the physical earth away from a stationary spot, then he’ll have to stop, which means this other chase you have him on would have to wait. If he makes the choice you want him to make, it might work.”

“That is the outcome we are counting on.”

“Okay then that’s the plan I’ll work with.”

*

The distraction began at 1 am, St. Lucia time. The teardrop shaped Windward Island located near the middle of the semi-circle curve of verdant green volcanic mounds forming the eastern edge of land in the Caribbean Sea, provided dreaming vacationers with a spectacular scene. Shaped almost entirely of hills and valleys, the narrow, flat coastal edges of the island supported agriculture, access roads and sprawling waterfront vacation resorts. In the island’s seaside capital city Castries, tourists were still dancing in the bars and nightclubs, as Zylen lay asleep in bed almost thirty miles to the south at the base of the hills behind Anse Chastanet Beach. Isolated and tranquil, Zylen had settled into the restive location as calmly as a newborn in his mother’s arms. He had yet to determine another location that could provide the same security for his plans. But when his com beeped its alert message, he suddenly realized his peace was over, and his defenses had to be activated.

Zylen stared at the message. The program he had installed on the DNA storage facility’s security system signaled an outsider was requesting access to Alannis’ eggs. Since he knew her parents had all of her secrets from her simcon, he had decided to be extra cautious, and his attentiveness had been vindicated. The alert displayed a text informing him the facility had received a move request. Zylen’s program automatically overwrote it, resetting the instructions to reflect only his personal intentions. Only The Network managed the facility’s move requests, a facility employee looking at the changed information would not be able to change it back. By the time the intruding requestor realized the instructions had been altered, it would be too late.

The program automatically followed the reset with an action instruction, but Zylen needed another individual to assist him. Weeks before, he had contacted one of the few in the world whom he still trusted.

“Can you do me a favor?” he had asked at the time.

“Is it legal?” she had suspiciously replied.

Zylen had laughed. “Yes it’s legal. For you, only legal requests, I know how much you can take.”

“What is it?”

“I need you to go to L.A. to pickup a package for me.”

“Do you legally own the contents of this package?”

“Yes I swear. I’ll send all of the information, and you can see I own it all. But people are watching and I do not want them to see me go there.”

“Really?”

“Yes. But I don’t need it right away. It’s kind of delicate so you’ll move it from point A to point B. I’ll send you a text when it needs to be done.”

“All right little brother, one more favor but only if the details check out.”

“Thanks Seren, you’re the best sister a guy can have.”

With the alert, Seren would react immediately. Despite her concerns about the lawfulness of his activities, she was faithful to their common upbringing, and remained a consistent believer in individual liberty. Surveillance was a loathed feature of the government infrastructure, and testing it through elusive action, was an enjoyable counteraction. Seren would arrive at the facility before the agents who were looking for Zylen, but he wondered, with concern, if she would be able to depart in time.

*

Montana had one hovering monitor screen displaying the interior route to Zylen’s digital world, which she assumed was the off-ramp hosting Alannis’ simcon copy. Having uncovered a Network record of the original simcon’s aggregation program and the copy delivery, she co-opted the data to trace the update route. Even though Zylen had initially deleted the copy delivery record, Montana had recovered it. But her success ended at that point. She now physically stood contemplating the screen as if searching for a crack in a quadruple bolted door. Her options were limited. Zylen was not likely to try and move the simcon for fear of activating tracers. Since it was safer to leave the data where it was, Montana would have to infiltrate his server location, and carefully disable or destroy the data where it was stored. She did not want to consider how deeply the wrath of Zylen would penetrate if she succeeded in destroying his only copy of Alannis. Even with money and air travel passes from Special Command, it would be a lifelong strain to avoid Zylen’s revenge. But she could not think about that outcome now, they had made a promise to finish this job, and the work would have to be completed.

Her com buzzed. “There is movement at the place where we have the product Zylen wants,” Slater declared when she answered. He had earlier claimed to have another meeting, and had left for the center of the city hours before. “Be ready.”

“Okay,” Montana replied even though she knew it was a meaningless suggestion. As she had already warned, it would not matter if Zylen were distracted. He would have built up virtual fences, alarms and mazes. With lingering doubt, she began running her protocols, searching for any potential opening.

*

Zylen had one screen projected displaying the surveillance coverage from the DNA storage facility, and another for the cameras along the Southern California freeway system. He had hacked into Los Angeles area traffic control, and could follow Seren from the moment she drove into the sprawling mini-nation state, and merged into its defined pounding impact of urban living. Seren was a legitimate, highly compensated computer engineer in Silicon Valley. With an ocean view home near the central California coast, she rarely reported to her company’s archaic work campus in the Mountain View area. The company obliged her insistence on being contacted only by com. If there were a task to be completed, Seren would perform efficiently and correctly, and spend the rest of her time indulging in her favorite pastimes. Although she did not have the depth of Zylen’s programming skill, she was the definition of high performance. Zylen briefly viewed the interior of Seren’s personal transport. Lying across the seats, she was listening to loud music and inputting computer code. Her arrival time was less than an hour, then he would pay attention again.

Projected on a third, larger screen two feet in front of his face, Zylen was running an infiltration attempt on the satellite scanner program. But as he turned to focus on those results, another alert beeped, an intruder was trying to penetrate the firewall of his off-ramp. ‘Oh isn’t that cute,’ he laughed. Ever since the simcon began receiving updates from The White House, he had known it would only be a matter of time before the tech team on their side identified the update destination, and attempted to access his copy. Of course, no agents on the government’s team were as technically sophisticated as he was, but he enjoyed the view of their intrusion attempts. Having already created a new off-ramp, and redoubled the security on all access points, he suspected the intruder’s efforts would not last long. Protecting his copy of Alannis’ simcon was his highest priority, and he would not allow it to be compromised.

As time ticked on, he maneuvered among his screens. His plan with the satellites was to focus on manipulating the U.S. government’s scanner code. If he had control of it, he could block the process the government was trying to execute against rogue tech satellites. His clients would pay a significant amount of money for advanced official technology, and the ongoing ability to prevent governments from tracing the activity of their satellites. His best effort would be to identify the specific code without Global Intelligence or the U.S. military even noticing, and then use the program to thwart them when he took control of their technology. Unfortunately the details Sergei had given him were not much detail at all. While the Americans were obviously withholding data test results, Zylen wondered if the Russians had a shrewd technician who could recognize the vagaries in the analysis. Sergei had come close to isolating the anomalies when he and Zylen were dissecting the code in an off-ramp, while Sergei monitored the synchronized activity of the Russian team. His supervisors had not allowed him, as a communications technician, to join the designated investigation team, but he did have access to their output. Zylen found the forwarded data laughable, government officials almost never identified real tech talent for critical projects. In countries where nepotism still ruled in employment selection, they missed out on the Sergei Leanovs in their midst who had much more to offer than the average. Zylen often suggested to Sergei that if he was determined to do legitimate work, he should at least immigrate to America where he could earn more money. But the complacent Russian had replied, he was comfortable where he was already located. Zylen understood the sentiment, he truthfully would love to work full-time in Australia, but technically sophisticated countries provided a precarious home base for a rogue tech. And his preference for a permanent existence in his homeland’s unoccupied countryside was even more of a non-starter. With his tech processing requirements, his presence would be too obvious, and The Network responds instantly, without prompting, to the obvious.

Zylen looked back at the satellite scanner program screen. An access protocol was running through its sequences, and he could see the intrusion rapidly approaching its goal. Then seconds after running a simulation check, he suddenly realized he was in. ‘Oh that’s awesome,’ he thought retyping an instruction to direct the now copying code to an off-ramp. ‘Thank you Sergei, goodbye U.S. satellite tracking.’ He hit execute on his command screen.

*

Sergei rolled his chair back and forth between two workstations, one holding a communication link to the Americans in Cape Canaveral, the other a similar connection to the Russians. As his job did not officially include monitoring the satellite activity, he was not paying direct attention to developments by the Russian team. But he did remain on-call to activate secure contact at any point. When the urgent request suddenly appeared on his screen, he was looking the other way.

“Skolkovo station!” Sergei heard a voice emanate from the console behind him. He swung back towards his main workstation.

“Yes this is Leanov,” he replied through the speaker function.

“I need the whole team on full alert!” ordered the panicked voice of Pavel Fedorov. “Connect me to the entire international team right now.”

“The entire team?”

“Yes, interrupt their current com status.”

“Including the Americans and Special Command?”

“Of course, the whole international team!” Fedorov angrily replied. “It’s an urgent request, on your screen, right now.”

Sergei glanced at the screen flashing the alert. “Yes sir, one moment,” he hastily replied. Scrambling to execute on the request, he activated a preset protocol for contacting the entire team simultaneously. The Network confirmed where each person was physically located, their local time, and whether they were in a non-sensitive situation. The resulting data would be aggregated in a report that, depending on the rank of the person, could include any level of detail including if the person was asleep, shopping or in a meeting. For more senior officials, personal security protocols blocked outside programs from communicating directly to them, but redirected urgent requests to human intervention. Luckily for Sergei, Kadie Laltanca was already in Cape Canaveral, and it was she, he noted, and not Fedorov, who had given the global communications order. But unluckily, General Zoubkov was at a spa on the Black Sea. Protesting the disrespect for his authority, the General had slipped away days before, when his objections to restarting cooperation with the Americans had been ignored. But he was still technically in charge of the Russian team, and was at the top of the required list for the communication. Sergei watched to see if the security protocol would put through his contact request, it did not. ‘Shit,’ he thought. He kept watching as The Network automatically sent notice of General Zoubkov’s com rejection to Sergei’s supervisor Oksana Troukova. Troukova would have another protocol to automatically note she did not have the required authority to override General Zoubkov’s objections, and it skipped her to notify Maria Ovechkova.

In Cape Canaveral, when Maria saw the notice on her com, she also did not take any action. According to her protocol, if specific officials including Special Command had instigated the original request, a separate communication message was automatically sent to General Zoubkov. Without taking any personal action, she noted the message transmitting to General Zoubkov’s com with an alert function to disable his silent mode setting. The entire process took less than a minute, required no human actions, and succeeded in informing every member of the global team, wherever they were located, to connect to the discussion. When Sergei saw all of the participants come online, he reconfirmed the secure links, then turned to the center table in the room where Troukova had ordered the team in Russia to await new instructions.

On a projected screen, Maria appeared and spoke first. “We have a breach,” she calmly stated. “A hacker has infiltrated the American security, and has succeeded in identifying the satellite scanner code. We can see the copying process on this end, but we have not been able to stop it. We need this team to refocus its attention. Red alert cyber attack defenses have been activated. All external connections are disabled. While the Americans are focused on stopping the breach, do not communicate with any individual outside the Control Rooms. I do not have to tell you that if enemy hands obtain this code then we have another level of problem.”

“But how did he get in?” General Zoubkov gruffly interrupted sounding alert and exasperated despite his unrequested wake-up call.

“We believe it’s a very sophisticated rogue tech,” Kadie replied.

“But how did he even know where to look?”

“It’s possible there was an internal breach.”

“Internal?”

“Yes and we will investigate.”

Sergei shrunk a little lower into his seat. ‘Fuck, Zylen,’ he thought. Knowing Zylen would be able to infiltrate the program exactly as intended, he failed to account for the hack appearing to be an inside job.

“Another team is already running the protocols to review all access and communication to the system,” Maria said. “That is why we are on lockdown. No one leaves or communicates with anyone outside this team.”

“Are the Americans doing the same?” General Zoubkov demanded.

“Yes General,” replied Janna Marric. “We have our personnel on lockdown, and we are investigating their communications.”

“Our priority is to prevent the stealing of the code,” Kadie added. “The investigation teams can do their work, but all other techs have to continue protecting the satellites. Remember the U.S. and Russia agreed to cooperate, we have a plan.”

“How much time do we have? How long before this…this rogue gets to the code?” General Zoubkov asked.

“Probably not more than an hour or two,” Kadie confirmed. “He will hit one more layer of security before he gets all the way through. That’s the only break we’ll get.”

“A break?”

“Yes, the U.S. team is recoding the layer right now, by the time he gets there hopefully the decryption code he has created will no longer be valid.”

Sergei heard Kadie’s comment with trepidation. ‘Shit again, Zylen will be pissed off,’ he thought. ‘He may even think I gave him the wrong intel.’ Then he wondered if he could warn him.

“Hopefully not be valid?” the General asked.

“This is a race,” Kadie replied. “We do not know who can get there fastest.”

The coms went silent. “Are there any questions?” Maria added. The participants did not reply. “Good. Back to your stations and be prepared for any reaction to this breach.”

Sergei watched the communications protocol drop all the connections, and re-secure the line. Then he noted, probably at the instigation of Special Command, a virtual blackout umbrella launch over all external signals. The satellite team’s control room was being covered, as were their personal coms. ‘Double shit,’ Sergei thought again. Now he was completely enveloped inside the security cone. Under the lockdown rules, he could not leave the building to warn Zylen. ‘He’s on his own,’ Sergei thought. ‘He won’t like it, but if any level of tech can handle it, it will be him.’

*

‘Oh that’s interesting,’ Zylen noted, cutting through the satellite team’s firewall and discovering a new layer of code. ‘Recoding on the fly, nice work. Sergei was right, this is a smarter team than usual. But probably not smart enough.’ He reset his actions to directly pursue the scanner.

*

“A woman arrived at the facility with the access codes for Alannis Solar’s eggs,” Isabella said to Kadie via com.

“Do we know who she is?” Kadie asked.

“Not yet. But she drove down from the central coast.”

“We don’t have an ID, even from the transport?”

“No. Her transport was registered to a leasing company, and they have not yet authorized release of their clients’ names.”

“Oh one of those companies.”

“Yes, she obviously has resources. You can almost be certain the company charges more for delayed service.”

“The network of private service, of course we should have expected nothing less.” An entire industry of personal service companies provided support to those who pursued individual freedom over government control. Stretching the bounds of regulation, these companies who subtly advertised their capabilities, rarely gave up client names without a fight, provided generic ID codes, and other camouflage techniques to protect consumer use of their services, and to maintain their practices behind the secret domain of private action. Only individuals who could afford to pay their premiums actually knew how to access the products and services. This group included a long list of professionals, computer engineers, coders, and strategists who worked in the country’s key technology centers. They were rarely traceable through established protocols.

“And there was another unexpected complication,” Isabella continued.

“Now what?”

“When we went to check that our plan was in place, we found out it was not.”

“In what way?”

“The instruction to release the eggs to us was remotely replaced.”

“Of course Zylen, who else could it be? He would have set-up his own warning alarm. Was there anything we could do?”

“We tried to reactivate the instruction.”

“And?”

“And it didn’t work.”

“Damn, he’s good. The facility releases only to the name on The Network, and he made sure that information would be under his control. Then this person could walk in there and walk out with the President’s daughter’s DNA.”

“We’re following her.”

“Don’t lose her Bella. This is our link to Zylen. Don’t let her get away.”

“I won’t. But if Zylen is controlling this, we have a challenge we cannot predict.”

“I know, just don’t lose her.” Kadie signed off, and then sent a text to Slater.

*

“Zylen’s distraction may be lost,” Slater told Montana. “You are going to have to make a move now.”

“I’m not ready,” she replied with concern. “I can’t jump in at any point.”

“Well you have to try, he is getting too close to the satellite program.”

“It doesn’t work that way.”

“Figure out a way it does work.”

*

“She exited with a standard container,” Isabella confirmed.

“Maybe we should reduce our risk and apprehend her right now,” Kadie speculated.

“We could but do you think that’s reduced risk? Do we want the eggs or do we want Zylen?”

“Both. If we try to follow and then lose her, we lose both. But if we grab her maybe the one will expose the other.”

“It’s possible but I would like to see where she’s going and how she plans to contact him.”

“All right, your call, stay on her.”

Seren Blain peacefully rode home along the Pacific Coast highway enjoying the views of the ocean pushing against the beach and cliffs of a splendid California scene. She was comfortably lying down, this time watching an action movie on a projected com screen as the transport directed her towards home. When she arrived at her residence, the garage door automatically opened, and the transport disappeared inside.

“I don’t know about this,” Isabella thoughtfully observed to Kadie a half hour after Seren’s arrival. “Random people do not store DNA at home.”

“Well not for long,” Kadie noted. “Unless they have the equipment.”

“I don’t like it. I will absolutely bet she does not have the equipment.”

“Then—”

“We fuckin’ fell for one of the oldest tricks…”

“Which one?”

“She must have been a decoy.”

“A decoy?”

“I’ll get the team on the ground to re-check the facility for any conflicts.” Ten minutes later Isabella contacted Kadie again. “An unidentified transport rolled up two minutes after she left.”

“Let me guess…” Kadie began.

“We traced it, but it had already handed off to one of those international delivery distribution centers at a complex near Castaic. It’s gone.”

Kadie swallowed a string of curse words. “Okay I’ll ask, will the facility give up their records?”

“Eventually. But even with a warrant, I’ll bet we’ll only uncover fake names and codes.”

“Well take the data we can force out of them, and run it through pattern matchers. And let’s go back to the decoy woman. We’ll at least find out who she is, and if she’ll give up any of the details about her connection to Zylen Blain.”

Seren did not give up one word. She had been carefully coached, and Zylen had even more thoroughly cloaked her identity. Special Command had little leeway for probable cause for any crime. DNA samples were vigilantly protected, reproductive plans even more so. The only detail connecting her to the entire incident was a leisurely drive down the coast to visit the DNA facility, and departure with a container that turned out to be loaded with fresh California fruit. Seren had little to say about her unexplainable trip, and the authorities had no sway for persuading her otherwise. The Special Command team was exactly where it had started.

“Well it’s not all gone,” Kadie revealed. “Our other team might have found another option.”

“They have news?” Isabella asked.

“Zylen did get a little distracted.”

“Really? And?”

“I don’t know the exact details, but she found an opening.”

“Well at least that’s progress.”

“Yes until Zylen figures it out.”

*

Zylen instantly knew when a gap in his code was exposed, and it took him less than eight minutes to close it. At first he had been stunned when his com had again beeped an alert at the off-ramp to the server storing Alannis’ simcon. Data sent as an update was managed through a separate copy process, with the alert turned on for direct attempts to penetrate the simcon’s firewall. But looking up from his work on the satellite, and switching screens, he was amazed to recognize a more skilled intruder had arrived.

Working backwards, Zylen noted a pattern, and patterns were the telltale trail left by a coder. Regardless of how many different permutations a coder could pursue, many were creatures of habit. Years before, Zylen had created his own application to decipher patterns to identify real identities. It would run automatically on an attempted security breach, going backwards through the digital footprints to search for the offending party. Zylen could see that whomever he was dealing with was not a government official, or at least not an ‘official’ official. Even without looking at the results of his protocol, he could confirm his assumption about dealing with one of his own. The question was, ‘which one?’

Before proposing an answer, his program triggered the next layer of encryption on his off-ramp’s entrance and pushed the intruder back. Zylen looked at his pattern tracker. The app was one of the few ideas he had first received from government-run cyber security. When he was a teenager, he would spend his spare time trying to decipher exactly how The Network worked. But while he trolled government databases and ran hacks into secure systems, the government had used a pattern tracker to uncover his true identity. Zylen had finished his educational requirements at 16, and was pursuing his university degree while focusing the majority of his time on government agencies. He had repeatedly attempted using various aliases and identifications to infiltrate The Network’s official records. But after being specifically identified, he had to retract from his work, and eventually flee Australia. The capitulation left him permanently annoyed by the government’s ability to learn who he was by virtue of dissecting the pattern of his online activity. But by using his victim’s knowledge of the pattern tracker protocols, he was able to create his own application, and applied it to the many rogue techs, and government organizations and agencies he encountered over the years. The more often he applied it, the more sophisticated it became. Advanced enough to uncover the identity of the most superior technologists including…Zylen looked at the screen display and groaned in disgust, …Montana Bash.

*

“Oh shit he’s fast,” Montana frantically commented, striking her keyboard.

“Who?” Slater asked.

“Zylen, who else?”

“Zylen?” Slater practically ran to her side. “You found him?”

Montana looked at him with disdain. “No I’m saying his name for fun.”

“Assume I am slow and give me some leeway when you make comments. Where are you?”

Montana sighed. “I’m at the front door breaking it down. But he’s too fast. He’s on the other side of the door building another one that’s stronger and harder to destroy.”

“He’s moving faster than you are?”

“Yeah.” She looked at him and smirked. “Wouldn’t you love to have a tech like him on your team?”

“We have you.”

“Yeah well he probably has me too. It will take him another five seconds to figure out who’s outside, and then he’ll send the equivalent of heat-seeking missiles to take me out.”

“And what will you do?”

“I’ll duck.”

“You can do that?”

“In the digital realm, yes Slater, you can do anything.”

*

“Zylen Blain is fighting three battles at once and we still can’t bring him down,” Kadie irately observed. She had Isabella, Roman and Slater on com, the only other people in the world who had the entire picture of the external conflicts surrounding their official mandate.

“Yeah we have no lead on the DNA, it’s gone,” Isabella noted.

“The President is going to be so angry.”

“We are holding off on details for as long as we possibly can.”

“And we have a new fight on the simcon copy,” Slater said. “Kid has another layer of encryption Montana is trying to break, but unless we know yet another capable tech who knows more than any one of the others, she probably will not get through on time.”

“And we are hand-to-hand on the satellites,” Roman added. “He’s moving faster than we can code our way out of it. His victory is soon to be a reality, it’s only a matter of time before he breaks through.”

“In summary, we are nowhere,” Kadie exclaimed while halting the urge to scream. “Where do we take this next?”

“We have to capture him.”

“Yeah we’ve tried.”

“Our best bet is to set the simcon back to before the copying began,” Slater announced. “People here believe we can turn off the command at the beginning.”

“But that might interfere with the simcon’s functions, which the President will never allow,” Isabella responded.

“Then we have to do it without interfering with the simcon.”

“But using Zylen was the plan,” Kadie lamented. “There’s no way we can convince him to do it now.”

“We could try Maltine,” Slater gingerly suggested. The conversation went silent. “I know you do not trust her, but she has the skills.”

“No way, she’s a foreign agent, “ Isabella said. “We cannot bring her into the President’s confidence.”

“We are all foreign agents,” Slater replied.

“Not that foreign.”

“Okay,” Kadie interrupted. “We are not using Maltine on the simcon. Isabella’s right it’s too close to the President for that level of agent. But if we’re going to take the work down another road, we should…” Kadie hesitated, “…we will use Montana.”

“What?” they all screamed in reply.

“Not from the inside, the outside.”

“You are becoming truly unrecognizable with your opinion on rogue techs,” Slater commented. “How can we use Montana?”

“She is as good a tech as Zylen, and she has no motive for destroying a simcon. We tell her our overall objective without telling her where the simcon is or who it is. We leave Isabella at The White House to keep track of the app’s status. Any sign of suspicious activity, and we shut it down. Otherwise we keep going until we’ve got the result we want.”

“You are going to let a rogue tech in on the President’s personal servers?”

“We’re going to mirror The White House set-up, and monitor every single data point.”

“Do you realize that if Zylen Blain figures out where Montana will be working—”

“Slater, we need to move forward and we need to do this now. I’ll take my chances with Zylen.”

“We cannot allow it Commander.”

“Yes we can. I’ll take responsibility. Everything will be backed up and all alerts will be on. We have enough techs who can at least sound alarms even if they cannot outcode Montana.”

“You are taking an incredible risk.”

“It’s the only way to move forward,” Roman intervened, holding silent on the information about Alannis’ simcon that he had already revealed to the Bashes. He knew they were unlikely to subversively destroy it. “If we do not take drastic action, we’ll have worse trouble on our hands.”

“Let our techs keep at it,” Slater warned.

“Now you sound like me,” Kadie mockingly observed. “But too much time has passed already. We have to shut off the scanner without starting a war. That’s our first task, to be completed as fast as we can, using all the people we’ve got on this, right now.”

“You are forcing me to try and protect us all from Montana going after information she can extract to compromise U.S. national security,” Slater complained.

“She’s not like that,” Roman said.

“Santana is, and she will give her instructions.”

“No she won’t. They’ve got no incentive.”

“Yes they do. They want to redeem their names to the entire rogue tech community. You are biased. You cannot see they will try to take advantage of this situation.”

Enraged, Roman countered, “I’m not biased! I’m making an informed decision based on past experience.”

“Experience? Is that what you are calling it now?”

The com went silent as all four were too stunned by Slater’s insinuation to speak. Then Isabella sternly stated, “Slater, let’s only focus on the global issue we’re trying to resolve.” She barely contained her contempt. Slater did not respond. His measured breathing could almost be detected through the airwaves, as could Roman’s rolling fury.

Kadie let the silence slip by for a few more seconds as she forced her own control then said, “We have a plan. Let’s cooperatively execute and end this. If there are no more questions…” She briefly hesitated. Signing off, she finished, “I’ll contact you when we need to reconvene.”

Immediately afterwards, Kadie’s com buzzed with separate incoming contact requests from Roman, Slater and Isabella. She selected ‘Ignore’ for all three. Kadie had no patience for Roman’s romping condemnation of Slater’s behavior, Slater’s constrained apology for his mis-speak, or Isabella’s genuine sympathy that she was caught between the two. She thought of Dominique and Branson looking delightfully content in their Zanzibar hideaway, and she wondered if she would one day recapture that emotion. Kadie stood and looked out the window. The rising Atlantic Ocean surf had already defeated portions of Florida including the coasts of the barrier islands stretching from Cape Canaveral to Jupiter Island. The changing ocean tides had submerged land, and created new islands changing Florida’s eastern shore forever. Endlessly fighting and battling with humans, Mother Earth had the most powerful forces at work for her – earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, winds – she could direct her weapons to fight the scourge human species in its sleep. Humans had no counter-offensive against her, only defenses for their habitats, and they had to react to the release of her wrath, always without exact warning, and with unpredictable time to prepare. As in their dealings with each other, humans fought endless continuous conflicts that were never resolved. Kadie was responsible for keeping the world stable in Cyberspace, but she could not negotiate peace between her two best friends. She had limited options for keeping them apart, and unlimited incentive for forcing them to work together. But at this moment, they were the last two people she was interested in engaging, instead she thought of three others who would instantly settle her senses by virtue of their existence apart from the spinning gloominess of an unmanageable world. As the day wound down on another search for the satellite code, Kadie slipped away from Cape Canaveral, and flew up to New York City for the night.

*

Roman found all four together, asleep. Kadie had the baby in her arms, and the boys on either side as they lay in the California King sized bed occupying a third of the guest suite his mother kept prepared for visitors. The boys were usually in the children’s bunk-bed filled guest room down the hall, and the baby in her grandmother’s permanent nursery, but Roman was certain Kadie’s surprise visit had disrupted them all into an extended night of story-telling, hugs and kisses before they fell asleep where they had gathered. He stared at them, his whole life in one place, and considered whether he should stay or go. Pushed by an aching heart, his brain’s indecision was overtaken by his gripped sentiment as he slipped off his shoes, and crawled on top of the bed to lie down next to them. He reached his arm out to capture each one within his grasp, then fell asleep to the sound of their calm breathing so perfectly secluded from the reach of satellites, simcons and The Network.

Hours later, as Roman opened his eyes, he could see the sun trying to force its way through the black-out blinds his mother insisted were vital to a good night’s sleep. All of the children were gone, but Kadie was sitting on the bed working. He watched her for a moment as she read from a projected screen, then she turned and looked at him.

“Good morning,” she offered, trying not to smile.

“Good morning,” Roman responded stretching up to kiss her, then falling back onto the bed. “Where are our babies?”

“Depending on which one you’re looking for, either working with Abuela, or studying with Nana.”

“I’m so tired, I wish I was studying with Nana. She’d let me sleep.”

“Not this one. There are six kids staying here right now, and your Mom has a new Generalissimo to keep them all in line.”

Roman laughed. “Of course she has.” He looked at the blinds and frowned. “What time is it?”

“About 8:30.”

Roman noted, she replied as if it were the middle of the afternoon. “And what’s our status?”

“Another hour or so before Montana’s good to go.”

“Okay.” He stood and stretched.

As he started to walk away, Kadie stopped him. “Do you want to talk about your friend Slater?”

“Not if I don’t have to.”

“Roman.”

Mi amor, that guy is obsessed with undermining me. He has this romantic fantasy about splitting us up.”

“C’mon.”

“I’m not kidding.”

“I hardly think that would be his intention.”

“Why because that ship has sailed?”

“Yes exactly.”

“Why do I not think he would be deterred?”

“Can you two please stop the nonsense, and work as professionals on a team?”

“Tell it to him,” Roman angrily replied then disappeared into the bathroom.

Kadie watched him go. “I have told him,” she whispered under her breath. When Roman returned she continued, “We need to focus.”

“I’m always focused.” She looked at him exasperated as he lay back down on the bed, and noted her glare. “Okay we’ll be focused, but it’s a two way street.”

“I know baby, but you’re the man in my bed so I’m starting with you, okay.”

Roman looked at her with anticipation. “You really shouldn’t make sexy comments when you want to have a serious conversation. It’s distracting. Did you say something about being in bed?”

“Yes.” Looking down at him she started to smile. “But don’t change the subject.”

“And something about having an hour?”

She grinned. “Yes.”

He reached up and pulled her down beside him. “Then let’s make the most of it.” He began kissing her. Out of the corner of her eye, Kadie hit the collapse icon on her com screen, and the hovering visual disappeared from above their heads. Roman threw the physical com on the ground as he quickly pulled off both sets of their clothes. They could hear children’s voices as they merged together, news programs broadcasting from coms, music, adults speaking in English and Spanish, teenagers chatting about dates and clothes. They were at home, but only briefly to re-capture their personal grip on each other. Only they knew how superficial Slater’s words were to their compact forged in private moments, when at their core they were connected by the most basic of human interactions. Even this one had, in many ways, succumbed to the omnipresence of The Network, but not yet completely. Not as Kadie and Roman knew it, not como Dios manda, not as the road to ongoing evolution, not as a protracted and uncontrollable release of a biological force locking loving humans as one, not that way, not ever.

*

CHAPTER SIXTHE GRATIFICATION

“I got it,” Montana triumphantly remarked, looking up at Santana and Slater. “I can see the data you’re after.”

Slater walked towards her and asked, “Which data?”

“The update code.”

“Can you turn it off?”

“Well no, at least not yet. It’s actually processing in the aggregation. When you talk to a simcon, it re-aggregates the data to create a new complete file, and then issues its update. The update is part of the revived conscience, it’s not a separate piece of data with ‘update information’ displayed on it.”

“How does that change your approach?”

“No dice on stopping it there.”

“Then where?”

“On the original.”

“Not an option.”

“But you won’t say why. If you told me, maybe I could work out an acceptable process for you.”

“Focus on the mandate we have given you.”

Montana turned back to her screen. Slater had taken Montana off the satellite project, to work exclusively on the update command. “I am focused on it, and I’ve told you all I’ve got.”

Slater looked at her. “From you? Seriously, that is all you know?”

Hating having her skills questioned, Montana frowned. “Go away I’m working on it.”

Slater walked away, only half grinning until he caught Santana glaring at him. Santana had a more measured level of Montana’s programming skill, but she provided a meticulous review and vetting function, monitoring their security, and staying vigilant about potential digital intruders. Still she was annoyed, secondary roles did not suit her. Neither did being in the dark about the work they were completing, and where they were going with it.

*

Zylen assumed his new security on Alannis’ simcon had scared Montana away, but the possibility only made him more cautious. He had to guess where she would surface next, and his only idea assumed she was once again with Special Command, which would mean she would be at the other end of the simcon update route, with access to the original. This both terrified him and gave him hope. He could not imagine she would make a mistake with the original, but she would look for a process to stop the updates. The updates were a liability, an automatic process leading directly to his copy, and he could not let Montana find any road in. But, he hoped, if she figured out how to eliminate the functionality, she would give him a way out.

*

Days passed as Zylen let his satellite scanner infiltration app run around the clock against the final layer of security the U.S. team had erected to stop him. Hastily created new security protocols always had flaws, and within less time than it had taken for government officials to upload the new firewalls, Zylen brought them crumbling down. When the successful result signaled on his com, he almost jumped through the roof in excitement. Using his knowledge from working on his own satellite scanner program, the same one he had shown Alannis, he backtracked into the government’s scheme, and reversed it to reveal the last command. ‘Oh that’s so cool,’ he thought. Alannis’ simcon had produced the instruction to ignore the location signals of rogue tech satellites. By definition, those satellites were not registered to any official country or company’s list of commercial or military satellites, and could not be directly identified. The Network was cross-referencing the signal code with the list of known satellites, and instead of locking on one not on the list, it was re-directing towards one within its visible range, in this case, from a specific country, Russia. Zylen’s original program code had ended at deflecting attention away from his clients’ satellites. But the government’s instruction had gone one step further, and enforced its targeting with a weaponized drone. Zylen wondered how the two steps were connected through Alannis, until he uncovered the second part was being inferred from existing military orders. ‘They must have been planning on identifying and shooting down our satellites,’ Zylen thought. ‘Assholes. Now let’s see how clever you really are.’

Unable to suppress his elation, Zylen sent a message to Cape Canaveral, an encrypted cyber war hostage note directly stating, ‘I have control of your satellite scanner code, now what are you going to give me for it?’

*

Forcing down a grin as he read Zylen’s message, Sergei ducked his head further into his cubicle. His rogue tech friend was, as usual, a hundred steps ahead of governments. With only a trace of concern, Sergei set the communication alerts to attract the global satellite team’s attention.

Kadie’s plane had not yet arrived when the alert flashed on her com. “Damn it,” she said aloud, then texted Slater.

“Fuck!” was all Slater had to say to an empty room as he approached full consciousness, and contacted Kadie live. “We have to act even faster now,” he responded to her analysis of the current situation.

“Why didn’t he just tell us what he wants?” Kadie inquired.

“He probably has no specific request, but wants to rattle us.”

“Get Montana back on this immediately, if he’s in our Network right now she might be able to trace how he got there.”

“Okay.”

“And I’m thinking we can make him a reverse offer.”

“For?”

“He turns over the satellite code and helps us turn off the simcon update function, then he can have his copy, and we will not interfere.”

“Wait, are you going to reveal this offer to the President? Zylen is going to start a family using the President of the United States’ lineal DNA, and an illegal copy of his daughter’s simcon.”

“There’s not much we can do about his reproductive rights. That was Alannis’ decision, not ours or her parents. And it’s definitely not our priority.”

“You know how crazy it is that he can create Alannis’ baby without Alannis ever knowing.”

“She gave him the authorization, he’s the designated recipient. Maybe she expected him to keep her line going even after she was gone. It’s not completely crazy. Anyway, we have no idea if it’s his actual intention. How many globe roaming rogue techs are saddled with kids to drag around? I doubt he’s about to do it now. It will buy us time, we make the deal, and then we go after him later.”

“This is risky.”

“We have few options left,” Kadie countered with resignation, then signed off.

Her plane landed at Cape Canaveral fifteen minutes later, and she joined the team as the counterproposal was sent back to Zylen. Two messages were relayed. The official one said the United States does not negotiate with terrorists. The unofficial one said that if he turns over the satellite program, and agrees to cooperate on the fix for turning off the update command, then he could trade for his continued ownership of Alannis Solar’s copied simcon, free and clear without government interference, forever. Kadie waited with the U.S.-Russian team for the response on the official message, Maltine waited alone for the response on the unofficial one.

Both arrived at the same time and read, ‘I want to speak face-to-face with Commander Laltanca.’

*

“It is a trap to kill you,” General Zoubkov pessimistically announced as the global teams reconnected on com. “They’ll lure you to an isolated location, and then rogue techs will shoot you. It would be their ultimate triumph over global cyber security.”

“That guy could survey our weapons systems,” General Crosby added. “We would have limited means for protecting you. He might even use undetectable weaponized drones that we’d have to physically see before we could even start to fight back.”

“They have GPS tracking satellites, off-ramp controls, and they would designate the location,” Maria Ovechkova continued. “You would be lost to our security systems.”

“There are certain overrides we could use, line-of-sight protocols could be focused on you,” Maltine suggested. “We could establish a protection ring inside the obvious one they would target.”

“We have a few on our side, we can use them as back-ups,” Slater recommended. “We can have them use their internal communication and tracking to make sure the official information we have is accurate, and the most up-to-date. It would not be ideal, we would have to trust them, but it could work.”

“What do you want to do?” Roman asked holding his voice steady.

“I’m going to go meet with him,” Kadie replied to all of their comments. “He does not want to kill me, that would ruin all of his fun. He wants to see how far we would go to protect global security against people like him. He’s on a fishing expedition to force me to react on his terms. And I’m going to go and find out what he wants so we can end this once and for all.”

*

“You know there’s no way we are handing you over to Zylen Blain, right?” Roman sternly remarked looking at Kadie. They stood facing each other inside her D.C. office. “There’s no way.”

“I’ve made up my mind,” she responded. “We need to draw him out, and this is how we’re going to do it.”

“Do you even realize how ridiculous that sounds? Accepting his plan is a suicide mission. We’ve got three kids, there’s no way you can go unarmed and unprotected. We’re not military officers, Kadie, we’re diplomats. I’m not letting you walk into an ambush.”

Kadie carefully looked at him, ignoring his pleading eyes. “Roman, our representative governments have spent billions and billions of dollars on surveillance and equipment, all that taxpayers’ money for a reason. If we have the best trained technologists in the world, working 24/7 on global cyber security, then they can protect me, wherever I need to go.”

“This is different. Let’s be honest about the situation we are in. We know rogue techs can outsmart us online. Our systems are only as good as our technologists who are routinely outpaced in the digital talent world. But this…this is also a physical threat…and we do not have enough time to think through every variable, every possible action Blain might try.”

“Well that’s why you are going to have to cooperate.”

“Cooperate with who?”

Before she could answer, there was a knock on the office door. “Yes,” Kadie responded.

As the door opened, Slater moved into the doorframe. “You wanted to see me?” he asked.

“Yes come in.” Roman hunched his shoulders but stood his ground next to Kadie as Slater entered, and briefly glanced at him.

“You two…” Kadie said looking from Slater to Roman, “…can stop fighting each other right now. You are going to jointly be in charge of my security. Both of you. We have to work out a plan, and I trust you, both of you, to keep me alive.”

Slater looked at the floor. He had already asked Kadie to assign him complete control of the security plan without interference from the rest of the team, and he had approached her office intending to spend time working through the details. Roman had also already separately made the same request. But she had told them both, she had another idea.

“You are supposed to be two of the best officers in Special Command, and in The Alliance,” Kadie continued. “I want you to jointly use all of our resources to create a plan, together. Do this for me guys or I’ll give the responsibility to Madison.”

“Okay I don’t doubt either one of us would round up all of our resources to keep you alive…” Roman began, suppressing his rage, “…but one of us has to be in charge.”

“No, you can both come up with a plan and execute it,” Kadie corrected him.

“And if we do not agree on a plan?”

“The whole point is to agree.”

“C’mon you’re risking your life to teach us a lesson.”

Kadie angrily stared at him. “Seriously? You’d rather put me in danger than agree to work together? If you two can’t get along long enough to protect me then we are in the wrong business.” Roman bristled in shame.

‘And the wrong relationship,’ Slater thought but said aloud, “You do not need to worry. We will protect you. All of Special Command will focus on the details, and the entire team will make sure you are covered.”

“Good,” Kadie said, as Roman seethed.

“I know this is a King Solomon kind of approach you are taking,” Slater smirked as he continued. “And I get it. There will be no conflict, I guarantee it.”

Roman’s agitation soared as he realized how far up the higher ground Slater had climbed. He had let him walk right into it, but he had his own cards to play. “Okay,” Roman agreed. “Then that’s settled now let’s set the plan.”

Slater suspiciously regarded him as all three quietly sat down. Roman projected a wall-sized screen, and they began to go over potential options for a security plan to prevent Kadie from being killed by Zylen Blain.

*

Montana returned to working on the satellites moments after Slater had provided her details of Zylen’s infiltration success. As much as she and Zylen were rivals, they were also admirers of each other’s technical skill, and if she could see the next level of his capability, she could learn more from analyzing the work he had done than programming on her own would ever tell her. Carefully she began to establish a connection that would permit her to display the work for Special Command as a mask to her own attempt to reveal the details of Zylen’s pursuits.

*

Zylen knew she would come. Two years earlier, in his first personal introduction to Kadie, he had been bound in manacles to a metal table, and she stood triumphantly over him offering 30-day rotations in prison if he did not give up the details on the undetectable drone technology. But he had been tracking her for years before that encounter, using a proprietary program to scour The Internet for travel, personal appearance and home schedules of people he wanted to follow. He used the app to monitor the active locations of global cyber intelligence officials, and had started tracking Kadie even before she became the head of Special Command. Her professional experience was clearly indicating she would continue to rise, and be one of the Global Intelligence leaders he would have to deal with one day. Now they were finally about to stand at eye level, but on unequal ground where he had her exactly where he wanted her.

Zylen approached Kadie from the south. Despite the crowds she could see his form through the multi-hued near naked bodies, ‘he should have accounted for dressing down,’ she thought. On all sides were the beautiful people who defined Rio de Janeiro so freely. The Copacabana beach area in Brazil’s second largest city contained every color of human, every sound of joy, the smells of Latino cooking, the rock of ocean waves, the bounce of screaming delight. The heat, hordes, and confusion created a perfect setting for Zylen’s plan, the space was too compact for the use of weapons or even the most sophisticated communication equipment. Here both Zylen and Kadie looked like locals, their faces lost in the swarming movement, to surveillance cameras and tracking drones. If they walked along this beach, as Kadie anticipated they would, she would vanish from her bulkier security support within minutes.

“Good afternoon Commander,” Zylen said, arriving in front of her.

“Mr. Blain,” Kadie responded.

He squinted up into the sun. “Guess we’re a little over-dressed for the beach don’t you think?”

Depende de como você olha para ele.”

“I don’t speak Portuguese.”

“I see.”

“Oh is that how you want to play this, you’ll pretend to be smarter than me,” Zylen snidely replied. “Force me to use a translator app.”

“I tune into the locals.”

Zylen narrowed his eyes, then grinned. “Oh, you are clever Commander. You wanted to confirm if I speak the language. This is a mixed, crowded city, and you wondered if someone like me could be comfortably living here. One sentence and you got one data point about me, and the answer to your question, very good, you are as advertised.”

“Why did you ask to speak to me, Mr. Blain?” Kadie quickly cut him off.

“Walk with me Commander.” Zylen readjusted to a lighter tone. “Let’s see some Rio sites.” Warily Kadie looked at him, but began to follow as he turned up the beach. “Great city isn’t it? Encircled by lots of cool hills to hide drones in, and mobs of crowds to confuse tight surveillance.” Kadie did not respond. “Are you wondering where we’re going?”

“Not really.”

“You know your surveillance will lose you?”

“I’m sure we’ll all manage.”

“Why because they put a tracker directly on you? I’ve blocked it you know.”

“What do you want Mr. Blain?” Kadie repeated, deliberately slowing down their walking pace.

“You’re not concerned I could take you out right now with an undetectable weaponized drone?” Kadie stopped and carefully looked at him. Zylen stopped too and continued, “No, of course not, because you have your own weaponized drones all set to take me, and any machine that may come near you, out too. I get it.” He resumed walking, and she followed. “But maybe I’ve invented a truly invisible weaponized drone, one that not even the human eye can see.”

“Mr. Blain can we have the conversation we came here to have?”

“You’re so impatient, Commander. Guess you don’t like small talk or being exposed to all of the real and virtual elements that can track you?” Kadie did not respond. “This is how it feels to be trailed by your enemy, Commander. To constantly be aware Big Global Surveillance is watching you. It feels like this. You don’t know this feeling do you? After all, the head of Special Command never gets tracked.”

“Mr. Blain—”

“Please call me Zylen. We are introduced acquaintances.”

“Zylen, do you want unfettered access to Alannis’ simcon?” Kadie directly asked. Zylen inadvertently quivered at the sound of Alannis’ name, but he kept his head down and continued walking. He had already decided not to dispute speculation about the existence of the simcon copy. “We can end our search for your copy if you help us turn off the updating feature without damaging the original. You’ll have a self-contained record of her entire life online, and if it stays off The Network, and is never publically revealed, then it’s yours without interference from Special Command or any government.”

They had reached the entrance to an expansive shopping mall stretching nearly three blocks in parallel to the beach. The doors swung open on all sides as crowds of shoppers entered, and swept Kadie and Zylen in with them. “Commander I don’t understand, why you’re making demands of me? I can make copies of your satellite scanner code and give it as gifts to all of my friends,” Zylen replied as they continued to move with the crowds.

“Worthless gifts. We have our own resources—”

“Yeah like Montana Bash maybe. But while she’s crawling around in your system, I can shoot down Russian satellites and make it look like the U.S. did it.”

“I don’t think you want to do that.”

“Oh yeah, why not?”

“Because you want to be around to raise your child with Alannis’ simcon.”

Zylen tried not to stop walking as his mind considered the exposed truth. “Yeah Commander that’s good,” he said with bravado. “But you assume you’ll catch me.”

“We’ll catch you,” Kadie responded stopping again, and forcing Zylen to do the same or lose her in the crush of people. “You know we’ll catch you. And don’t worry, this time we’ll have the evidence. We’ve been working on our detection also.”

“Oh yeah, what’d you do? Manufacture it?”

“We have developed new Network protocols for identifying certain activity.”

“Well that doesn’t surprise me, you assholes are always coming up with ‘new Network protocols’ to invade our privacy and destroy our freedoms.”

“That’s hardly correct Zylen. Most people are not like you, trying to disrupt The Network.”

“The Network is the scourge of all human existence. It’s eating away at our very sense of ourselves. It’s slowly killing our ability to innovate and be creative.” Kadie continued to watch him. “But you know that already, I know you do. Despite your official job, you are no real fan of The Network. I’ve read your cautionary memos, op-ed pieces. You should join us, we could use strategic brainpower like yours.”

“Can we reach an agreement or not Zylen?”

“And if I don’t agree?”

“We keep fighting you as always. And this time when we win, you’re done.”

“When you win? Commander you’re dreaming if you think your government idiots are ever going to get ahead of free techs in this war. Your guys are stifled by the very Network they’re trying to protect. The rest of us can move forward around it.”

“Zylen, I don’t need a lecture on the status of the Cyber War. Tell me, do you want the freedom to raise your family or not?”

Zylen stared at her, weighing his options, wondering if he could come up with a better plan. “To fix the update problem, you’re going to have to give me access to the original simcon.”

Kadie incredulously looked at him. “No, of course we will not do that. You’re going to copy another one and work out how to fix the update using that one.”

“Oh yeah, who’d you kill to get another one?”

“Seren.”

The continuous hum of the bustling Rio crowd halted in a blast of silence as Zylen’s heart stopped. His eyes clouding over in rage, slowly turned to look at her, as he grasped for a breath, then established an even balance to his voice, before he quietly demanded, “Who?”

A hint of triumph in her voice, Kadie slowly replied, “We did not physically kill her if that’s your initial concern. But we’ve isolated her and will fake her death to The Network. You did an okay job recreating her identity, it took us a bit of time to determine exactly who she was. But we did uncover her real name because, as you are very well aware, all babies born in Australia are fingerprinted at birth. We know who she is, as we know exactly who you are.” Zylen stared at Kadie, but did not reply. “You can have her simcon. Figure out how to stop the update feature, and then we’ll put it back the way it was, and release her. If you don’t do it correctly, you will disrupt her entire life online, right? How would The Network manage the life of a living individual who has been registered as dead?”

“I don’t know,” Zylen honestly replied, suppressing his instinct to lash out.

“Neither do we,” Kadie conceded. “Resetting Seren’s life will be an experiment. And we know The Network is capable of responses we cannot predict. You’ll have to work very carefully to make sure it does not react negatively and try to correct its own records.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“Maybe not. But the question is, what would The Network do?”

“You fuckin’ bitch!”

“I understand you do not like the offer Zylen. But remember, if you’re as a good a technologist as you claim to be, then you’ll be preserving both Alannis and your sister with no harm done to any living being. I’d take the deal if I were you.” Kadie could see Zylen rapidly contemplating all of the options tied to her offer. Inside the air-conditioned mall, his body reacted as if they were still standing outside in the incessant sunlight. In all of his calculations of the past few weeks, he had not accounted for the most basic of human emotions, the fact he deeply cared about another living human being. “Are you ready to do it or not?”

“I don’t trust you to keep your word,” he bitterly responded.

“You’ll have to take a chance.”

“Do I really? You know I can get to you. You have family too.”

“Don’t threaten me Zylen,” Kadie countered as her voice turned to ice. “Don’t make me tear you to shreds.”

“Oh yeah Commander, is that your practice?” Zylen boldly asked.

“Yes Zylen, if it has to be. Don’t even think about testing me.” Zylen was silent. “This is the final minute the offer is available. Give me an answer right now.”

Zylen shifted from one foot to the other, looked around at the moving faces in the sprawling and packed mall, all oblivious to his decision as they idly made one discretionary purchase after another. Slowly he turned back to Kadie and abrasively replied, “Okay, fine bitch, I’ll do it.”

*

No rogue technologist wanted to avoid the appearance of cooperating with global government more than Zylen Blain. Special Command complied with this sentiment by placing him in the one location where his rogue tech colleagues would never expect to find him, Washington, D.C. Zylen had initially balked at the idea of entering one of the world’s most surveilled cities, but Slater convinced him the locked down capital was the one place where Special Command really did have control and no one, not even the President would know he was there. Alone in a warehouse, next to a grocery store in the city’s southwest quadrant, Zylen accessed The Network server generating Seren’s simcon. He thought about the reams of data, all of the online evidence of the activities of her whole life being bundled into one final set of bits. After the submission of the rendered death certificate, her records had immediately begun aggregating into the simcon app. Zylen silently watched, as he had done before for Alannis. The Network reached the end of the aggregation process, and prepared to close off the data forever, but as the commands displayed on his monitor, Zylen turned on his copy program, and produced the facsimile of his sister.

Immediately, he projected the hologram. Seren’s slim form materialized into the space next to him, and Zylen hollowly stared at it as the familiar glint in her eyes, and half-smile on her face greeted him. Knowing she was physically alive, he hated seeing the digital image. And more specifically, he abhorred the idea that she was being held captive by Special Command, as he had once been.

“Hey,” he said to Seren’s digital projection.

“Hey yourself,” the image replied. “What are you doing?”

“Working on a computer program.”

“As always.”

Zylen and Special Command had stubbornly debated the specific list of words he could repeat to Seren’s simcon. If The Network tried and failed to process her update it may or may not have the same effect as an instruction from The White House, either way Global Intelligence did not want to take any chances.

“Have you ever thought about spontaneously sending flowers to Mom?” Zylen asked his simulated sister.

“No, never,” the projection replied.

“You should do it. Send flowers, to say ‘hi.’ You can charge my account.”

“Is she sick?”

“No, no it’s nothing bad. But you can surprise her with a gift. You like to surprise people.”

“Yes I do. I like to surprise people.”

Zylen sighed as he minimized the hologram. He could not bear having the digital version of his sister looming over his work. ‘Let’s see if you really like surprises,’ he thought as the original simcon went into off mode. Within one minute of running the simcon clock through a virtual 24-hour cycle, Zylen saw the update protocol begin. The Network had registered two out of sync records, and it began to forge a link from the original to the copy. ‘Man that’s a lot of processing power,’ Zylen thought as the entire simcon data aggregation was re-created, and then launched on its update path. Zylen watched the file reach the off-ramp door to the copy, and attempt several entry protocols before resetting. The data began transitioning to an instruction as it redirected its purpose while hovering in The Network’s unprocessed cloud. The instruction placed an order to a flower shop in Melbourne to send a bouquet of flowers, and include a card from Seren Blain that read ‘Surprise.’ On the other side of the world, Zylen’s parents received the delivery, and a visit from an Australian government national security official who told them not to react. Special Command had created Seren’s death in isolation of any of the usual rites of passing including informing family. Instead the Blains were told Seren was participating in a national security Network experiment that could not be further explained. They were indeed surprised, and suspicious the attention was really related to Zylen’s possible involvement. He, unlike Seren, had been responsible over the years for dozens of officials appearing at their door. But without further information, when they were told not to repeat the details of the delivery to anyone, they complied.

Zylen found analyzing the reaction of Seren’s simcon fascinating, but he could not isolate the update code’s instructions to transition to a command. The first experiment would be repeated as he attempted it again and again, and his mother continued to receive bouquets of flowers. Although the process would not be revealed in rapid time, Zylen was still much more efficient than the Special Command technologists had been, a fact not lost on the waiting and watching global team.

*

“What are you going to tell the President?” Roman asked Kadie at Special Command’s D.C. office where, along with Isabella, they were remotely monitoring Zylen’s work.

“This experiment does not need to be revealed,” she replied.

“Seriously, you’re going to keep this quiet? Under which excuse, ‘I’m the Commander and let me do my job without question,’ or more like ‘Mr. President, I’m sorry but you know how sneaky those rogue techs can be’?”

Kadie smirked. “I like the former.”

“And meeting with Zylen, the guy the President has been wanting to catch and interrogate?” Roman received his answer with a retractive look. “Oh the record is gone, is it? All of the evidence mysteriously missing from The Network? All official details sealed, and all who knew are now sworn to secrecy or face your wrath? Boy, you can be scary sometimes.” Kadie did not reply.

“There’s only a reason to tell if this works,” Isabella interjected.

“It has to work,” Kadie added. “We’ve run out of options. This is our last best gamble.”

*

As Zylen worked through his protocols he speculated on how Special Command intended to put Seren back online, then wondered if she would want to be. To work, study or participate in any developed society, an individual required a data profile on The Network. In isolated parts of the world, a few people may exist without a registered birth or external contact or interest in entertainment programming, but Zylen could not imagine where they could be located. He could not envision Seren as a completely hidden, off-grid individual, which was the ghost she would be forced to become if her life online could not be recreated. Seren was a well-connected knowledge professional, with profiles and accounts all over The Network. ‘If she had no online existence when she came back into the physical world, could that be like death?’ If she did not exist to The Network, then she would not exist to humans in the world either, and that would essentially prevent her from functioning as active humans do. Rejection could mimic a form of death Seren would never want to live through, of that he was certain. She would not want to be physically alive, but excluded from the world all humans participate in. Freely or not, the overriding sweep of Network control also made life easier. In most countries, individuals did not exert any energy to open doors, move transports or obtain food. People not only paid for the products they wanted, but also only those they could afford. For an education, there was access to essentially all of the public knowledge in the world. Zylen had to admit the benefits of The Network were real, recognized and accepted, even by him. He was a champion of the benefits, but he hated the official domination accompanying those offerings, the control that had made it possible for Special Command to trap him as they had now.

He knew his actions were being watched and tracked from another location. Kadie’s team would be gathered together at a point in the world where they could view his every movement in The Network. Although, the assignment would not have worked if they had not given him access to their servers, Special Command techs controlled the parameters within which he could function. He knew they had tasked the best technologists they could identify, probably even Montana, to review his every keystroke and copy his movements to both record the pattern, and freely copy the program code he was creating. He hated their comprehensive approach. The capabilities of his brain, to define new options for using computer technology, were his own unique output from his efforts at studying and learning. Coding was his proprietary professional skill. Clients all over the world paid him competitive fees to use his talent to create digital magic they could convert for their own purposes. But Special Command had resorted to blackmail instead. By threatening one of the few people he cared about, they could extort the fruits of his talent for free, and use it for their own ends. Redoubling his loathing of the organization and its tactics, he broiled with anger.

Now locked inside the boundaries of his enemies, if Zylen wanted out, for both Seren and for Alannis, the skill he so fiercely protected would have to be utilized at the next level of prowess to uncover an escape. Using Seren’s simcon, he would determine how to turn off the update, and then he could take his copy of Alannis and disappear. But before he left he would have an opportunity to extract his revenge on Special Command, and to make them account for using him, and his sister. The only opening he required would be a matter of precise timing.

*

“It’s all legit,” Montana affirmed to Slater. “His approach to coding, the way he’s doing it, it’s okay. As you may have guessed, he’s set-up an excellent protocol for the simulations.” They sat across from each other in a room in the Cape Town warehouse’s living quarters. Montana had been given the additional task of logging into Special Command’s server environment to confirm Zylen did not use his coding knowledge to divert from his task, and program an unexpected surprise into The Network as he worked to reverse engineer the simcon’s automatic updates.

“Are you sure?” Slater warily asked. “That guy can make his own bizarre changes.”

“I’m sure. He can’t work this out in a process that’s not real.”

“Until he finds a way.”

“Well I’ll notice if he does.”

“I hope so.”

*

“I don’t see any unusual activity,” Maltine told the Special Command team in D.C. as she completed her online review of Zylen’s latest programming work. “He’s a genius, that’s for sure. The work he has accomplished already is more than I would have been able to think of, but there’s no covert activity. He’s doing as you asked.”

“Are you sure?” Kadie inquired with trepidation. She did not trust Zylen to cooperate with Special Command’s requests under any circumstances.

“Yes I’m sure Commander. It’s a perfectly correct protocol, no loopholes.”

“Zylen can create loopholes super technologists cannot even see.”

“Well if he’s a magician, then I plead ignorance. If he’s a programmer working within the bounds of known technological capabilities, then I can tell you the approach he’s taking is not raising any alarms.”

Kadie expressed her doubt. “That’s the problem. We do not know if he can suppress our alarms too. We have to keep watching.”

*

Sergei was still not allowed outside the Skolkovo facility, but when he saw the coded request arrive through masked access on his internal communications console, he immediately redirected it to Victor Joseph. Since Joseph would require one other person, he opted for Julie Vide. She was discreet, would work quickly, and ask few questions. The moment Montana saw the covert link created by Zylen, she checked for the connections in Birdtail, but stayed silent about her discovery. Vide was a personal friend, a confidante who had helped the Bash sisters on many occasions, if she wanted to work with Zylen, Montana was the last person who would interfere. She did however reconfirm the masks they used were invisible to skilled observers on the Special Command team. The digital camouflage had been effortless, Zylen was far ahead of his enemies as always, Montana could only marvel at his skill.

*

As Zylen’s test protocols came to an end, Seren’s simcon, unbeknownst to the Special Command team went into copy mode again, a second copy, of the copy. If Special Command tried to prevent him from reclaiming his sister, Zylen would put her back online himself. He had no idea of The Network’s reaction to a second copy, but had no time to question his own actions. As part of his internal security plans, the initiation of the extra copy began immediately after he had resolved the update issue which, with no advisory to Special Command, he had already completed.

*

Montana saw Zylen solve the update issue, and wondered when he would announce it. She noticed he was running more tests, but he had essentially resolved the remnants of the puzzle. Of course there could be a problem she did not see, but she doubted it. Montana went back through the protocols again, then sent a coded text to Santana.

“We’re going to use the window to get the fuck out of here,” Santana told Montana a half hour later as they stood outside the warehouse. They could see Slater looking at his monitor, communicating with the D.C.-based team.

Alarmed, Montana asked, “What do you mean get out? We’re not finished. What about our air travel passes?”

“We’ve got them.”

“How? When?” Montana was stunned. She could not imagine a legitimate way they could have received air travel permission without having first completed all of the work they had agreed to for Special Command.

“You’re not the only one working around here,” Santana gleefully explained. “I’ve been getting us organized.”

“How?”

Santana unashamedly looked at her. “When he was here.”

“Who?”

“Who do you think?”

“Roman?

“When he came in person to tell me about Zylen, it was because he wanted me to tell you the rival you were up against, so I made a deal.”

“But he gave up the only card they had left.”

“He feels guilty.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes, and there’s no way the other government assholes know he did it, not even Slater.”

“Holy shit!”

“He owed us, and he knew it.”

“But if we take off they’ll know it was him. We’ll mess up his career.”

“I’m not responsible for that boy’s actions. If he wants to fuck up his life that’s his problem.”

“I don’t know Santi, I mean if we lose our connection to him, maybe—”

“Maybe what?”

“I dunno…”

“Oh c’mon say it. You like it when they show up and force us to work for them?”

“It’s not that.”

“Yes it is. Don’t think I don’t know exactly what you’re thinking. We’ve been beyond that since the day we were born. You like to work for them. Every job allows you to test your skills against the best, like Zylen. It’s safe and lucrative, and when we’re with them, it means they’re not chasing us.”

“Okay yes.”

“It’s also slavery Monti. They own and control us for as long as they want, and we have to do their bidding. That’s not freedom. It’s the world most people are stuck in, but not us.”

“But there has to be a way we can still…still help out…without being stuck in it. I mean if we finish the work, and then say a polite good-bye we should be okay right?”

Santana looked at her with loving disdain. “Do you really think they’ll leave us alone? You, with your skill? They practically think you’re one of them already, and they can contact you whenever they feel like it. Monti think about the reality here, think about your freedom.”

Montana glanced over at Slater who had intermittently been watching them. “See that,” Santana said pointing to him. “We can’t even have a private conversation as two sisters without that asshole watching us. Does that really feel better than being on our own?”

“No, but I still don’t think it’s fair to Roman.”

“He knows what he’s doing. I’m sure he covered his ass, he’s got major lying skills, probably made it look like those passes the U.N. issues for migrant emergencies. He’s a big boy. We have earned our freedom, now we need to get the fuck out when we can.”

Montana sighed with resignation. “Okay I’ll trust you’re right.”

“Of course I’m right. Get all your shit together and be ready to go. Figure out when we’ll have the opening.”

“Where are we going?”

“Don’t worry about that, I’ve worked out a plan, including making sure Big Babysitter does not notice.”

“He’s all right,” Montana remarked again looking at Slater.

“Oh you’re such a sentimental softhead. He’s all right until he points a gun at you. These are not our friends Monti, you have got to realize that by now.”

“I know,” she softly said. “But it did work out for a while.”

“Yeah, when they needed us. But that’s it. Forget about them. We’ve got the money, identities, and re-established access to air travel. That’s all we ever needed from them, and now we can go.”

Montana looked at her and complied. “Okay I’ll be ready.”

*

Throughout the time he had known the Bash sisters, Slater had not really noticed when or how often they spoke privately to each other. He assumed twins had a mental telepathy, and therefore would not need to skulk in a corner and whisper as if they were charting an elaborate plan. But Slater had a sixth sense for a plot. Especially if it was unrolling directly around him. With the team focused on the satellite crisis and tracking Zylen, he could not raise an alarm right away. He had to be able to convey the Bash sisters’ exact plans to Kadie, to give her the facts not a suspicion the Bashes were going to initiate an activity that could be an issue for Special Command. With Maltine back in Cape Canaveral to ensure Zylen relinquished the satellite code, Slater redoubled his effort as an alert agent. Within minutes, he extended the drone surveillance protocol already assigned to the facility, and to the sisters.

*

Zylen had the data he needed. In the end, Special Command had done him an enormous favor by co-opting Seren’s simcon. The technology they desperately wanted to uncover was exactly the program he also coveted. In fact, he was stunned they had not already worked it out. They had come close, probably using Montana, but close was not good enough, he had made it across the finish line. Now his priority was to make it out, to get far beyond their grasp before they even noticed he was gone. In the calculations for his next move, he gave himself less than ten minutes.

‘And here we go,’ Zylen thought, as a countdown clock displayed the seconds down to three, two, one…then he hit an icon on his com, and the count immediately reversed – one, two, three… Projecting a screen, he watched his program take his targets down, one-by-one. The world would start to react, people would be infuriated, but he only needed a window and this would have to be it.

In the slow vacuum of space, Zylen’s stealth program initiated a signal blackout of privately owned satellites rotating in terrestrial orbits. One after another, he closed off the communications operations of rogue techs and their wealthy clients. And as the satellites stopped transmitting, the satellite surveillance programs owned by governments, military and Global Intelligence forces, began to scramble to find the lost signals now rapidly disappearing from every monitor screen in the world.

*

“Look at this!” Janna shouted from her vantage point in the Cape Canaveral Control Room. “We have a problem. Get me Special Command.” The satellite team rushed to open the com protocol and Kadie came online.

“They’re shutting down satellites,” Janna said.

“We can see that, but what does it mean?” Kadie demanded infuriated. The Special Command Control Room in D.C. had been viewing the reports of the darkening satellites as each fading signal set off a cascade of security warning responses. “What is the satellite surveillance reaction?”

“Our systems are scrambling to find the lost satellites, doing mass sweeps trying to locate signals all at the same time.”

“What’s the effect?”

“If we do not intervene our surveillance satellites will keep looking for theirs, and keep trying to re-establish contact. If we want to stop it, we have to reset, shut down the satellites, all the programs, and essentially reboot.”

“That little…” Kadie stopped herself. “That’s the only option?”

“Yes if you want the fastest reaction. And it’s actually bittersweet. We’ll be setback for a while, but every program will have to be restarted including the scanner. He’s kind of inadvertently given us a solution.”

“Why? Are you saying the satellite scanner program won’t come back on?”

“That’s right Commander, it should not.”

“And our defensive drone?”

“Hopefully it will be off too, if as we suspect, it’s on the same protocol.”

“And this will only work now because…?”

“It’s a Network security emergency response protocol only, Commander. We needed the emergency to launch it. This reboot can only be done when The Network is reacting to all of our satellites in a command mode we cannot reverse. It’s basically only for a chaotic situation, one we would never purposefully set up. The only reason it’s such a dramatic shutdown with such sweeping consequences is because it’s only used when there’s a massive technical issue like this one right now. We actually would never do this, you’re going into surveillance blindness. And we do not know exactly how it will turn out.”

“It’s a possible solution, but we have no idea of the outcome?”

“That’s correct.”

“And you’re certain there’s no other process?”

“Yes Commander, if you want an immediate fix, this is it.”

Kadie considered their options with one last acknowledgement to the dread of consequence, then gambled on Janna’s word. “Okay do it.”

On The Network’s prompting, Janna’s team selected the reset protocols processing through layers of country-by-country approval authority as one-by-one surveillance satellites focused on Zylen, on the Bashes, on each individual on earth, released their view. For the longest lasting thirty minutes in recent history, ten billion humans gained total individual freedom from overhead physical observation, a release most of humanity had not known for more than a century.

The law enforcement officers assigned to the Washington warehouse had no warning, and no time to react, when Zylen ran from the bathroom to a waiting transport hovering outside the door, then took off into the sky after leaping in, and assuming manual control.

Slater was not even paying attention when the Bashes stepped outside the Cape Town warehouse, walked along the street, and disappeared into a crowd at the edge of an office and shopping complex before finding transport to take them to the airport.

For most of the world, the reprieve from surveillance went unnoticed. Global Intelligence would never know the true human reaction if people had been aware they were not being observed. Perhaps no response would have come fast enough as most humans had mechanically self-programmed to behave in public, to avoid making any gesture that would draw attention from a camera or satellite. But others might have jumped up and down, dashed from office to home, kissed a stranger they had only been admiring from afar, or even stripped off their clothes to run naked into the ocean. If all had known, as a couple of waiting rogue techs knew, they would receive those minutes of freedom, then humans may have released their eternal longing to be left alone. But their lost responses would never be realized as the momentary reprieve ran through its programmed instructions, and then began returning to the humans’ true reality.

As satellite after satellite completed a cycle of shutting down and coming back online, the gap of freedom closed over the world again. But those who had wanted to break through it were gone. Even Slater lost more than a half hour before he realized the effect of the breach. After Kadie asked for Montana’s feedback on Zylen’s distraction trick, Slater began to search for her. He walked outside thinking the twins were there, then ran back inside to check their rooms. With the evidence showing their backpacks and a few other personal items gone, Slater hung his head in shame, almost in tears. He scrambled surveillance drones, but with the missing minutes of satellite coverage, the machines were ignorant to even the sisters’ direction on exiting. Walking around the warehouse again, he looked in every drawer and closet as if the Bashes, of all people, would have left a clue. Then contritely, he re-connected with the Special Command team.

“They are gone,” Slater bitterly announced.

“Gone?” came Kadie’s astonished reply. “Where?”

“Who knows, they have left. I guess it was a plan, and a good one. They took their belongings and fled.”

“But how could they have known?”

“They managed to communicate. They worked right under our watch, and we did not notice.”

“But again they left without the authorizations we had agreed to give them. They wanted those air travel passes from us.”

“Well they could manage it last time, they should again.” But as Slater commented, a thought crossed his mind, and he entered a code to look for Special Command’s travel authorizations. As the information materialized on the monitor in front of him, he shook his head. The Bashes’ air travel passes had been approved weeks before. He checked the requester’s name, General Patrick Wheeler. Slater smiled and thought, ‘very good choice, Roman.’ General Wheeler would not remember issuing travel authorizations, and would be too embarrassed to admit forgetting. A check by Kadie would quickly uncover a connection, but no other agent would know. Slater filed away his discovery of this small truth. He would have this one on Roman, and save the information until it could be used for another purpose.

“Did they at least leave us with the code?” Kadie asked.

“Yes,” said Maltine who had been analyzing Montana’s work.

“Does it look right?”

“Yes, it’s your own proprietary program for stopping the update code. She finished it, and left it for us.”

*

Remarkably Zylen had left the update program code also, with a note. ‘I’ve done as you asked. Here are my suggestions for putting Seren back online. As we agreed, I expect to find out she’s been physically released within 24 hours. If not, I have left a gift for you that you do not want to open.’

“Of course there’s more,” an exasperated Kadie remarked to the team over com.

“We’re checking the code,” Maltine tried to sound optimistic. “But my guess is he put in an activation trigger, that’s how they usually do it.”

“And what’s the usual outcome?”

“Maybe another type of satellite scramble, timed to his deadline for putting Seren back.”

“Then we could manage it, if we’ve seen it before?”

“I won’t know until it’s analyzed.”

“You won’t find it,” Roman bitterly added. “There’s no way you’ll be able to tell how his trigger will work.”

“Well we’ll check anyway,” Maltine admonished him. “You never know if a trail was left.”

“There’s no trail. He never leaves a trail.”

“We’ll see.”

*

Upon arrival at his client’s villa in St. Lucia, Zylen projected Alannis’ hologram. He asked the simcon several questions, and all of the replies indicated her data was intact. Later he checked that the package had arrived safely from the DNA storage facility in Los Angeles, and was being stored exactly as he had instructed. Then he confirmed Seren’s status. He had no access to the facility where Special Command had her locked up, nor into the servers where they would be storing her simcon data. All he could do was run search protocols for digital evidence of her restoration to The Network, and then find a visual when her physical person appeared on surveillance cameras. As he ran his apps, he waited with trepidation for the proof to materialize. Before he could continue with his own plans, he had to see her revival for himself.

*

“We don’t need her anymore,” Kadie declared to Roman and Slater. “There’s no point. Zylen is long gone.”

“But we can drag him out again,” Roman tried.

“You said it yourself, we do not have the evidence. There is no reason to provoke him into causing more damage.”

“We need to capture that guy and hold him.”

“Not this time.”

“Then when Kadie? When are we going to make sure he does not get in our way again?”

“When we are smarter,” Slater conceded. “We have to become smarter. We lost him because he can outcode us, we need to ramp up our people, training, ideas, all over again.”

“I agree, we’re too far behind the very people we’re trying to stop,” Kadie admitted. “Look at how they controlled this entire incident, and ended up free, and with all the data they wanted.”

Special Command had not completely determined how Zylen had managed to communicate outside his holding area, and turn off the rogue satellites. They found no evidence in the analysis of the code he had been working on. But they did learn other rogue techs knew exactly which satellites were under surveillance by governments, and that information prompted global security to change their protocols. As usual, the hindsight precaution would have to wait for another incident before it would be known if the action was relevant.

“The President would like to capture him also,” Isabella said. The team had not told the President of the United States that Zylen had his daughter’s DNA. But he was aware the updating had stopped, and he could speak to his daughter’s simcon again as he had always intended.

“The President does not need him either. He’s got Alannis’ simcon he can use it when he wants. The updating has stopped, and we’ve made significant advances in our understanding of the simcon technology and its interaction with The Network. The crisis is over.”

“He’s still concerned.”

“Really? Why? Talk him out of his concern Bella. We do not need him to keep asking questions. And we do not need to keep fighting Zylen on this. Even if we catch him, he will never give in.”

“He’s got—”

“He’s got the copy we promised he could have without restriction, that’s it. The DNA was Alannis’ choice, not ours. Which is more than we can say about the President’s control of her simcon. It’s over. We are done.” Isabella did not reply, but her disapproval was palpable.

With protests coming from all sides, Kadie ordered the release of Seren Blain.

*

When Zylen saw his sister’s profile reappear on The Network as if she had never left, and then reconfirmed with his own eyes that she was back home in California, he sent her a text, waited for a comforting reply, then shut down external communications, and projected Alannis’ hologram.

“We’re still here,” her image said gazing out the window. “In St. Lucia.”

“Yes we’re still here,” Zylen softly replied.

“It’s so beautiful.”

“Yes it is. Do you still want to have a child here?”

The hologram looked at him and smiled. “Can we do that?”

Zylen looked back at the projection and thought of a young woman whose physical presence he first felt lying in the dirt next to him before he even saw her face. Then with a contented dismissal of his brain’s own embedded image he softly offered, “Yes we can do that, we can do whatever we want.”

##

Dear Reader,

I hope you enjoyed The Unbroken Line. Please leave a review for the book at your favorite ebook retailer website. Thanks for being a reader. Hope you stay on the side of the thinkers, all the best,

Case Lane

About Case Lane

 

Case Lane is a future life chronicler. Her Life Online series of books tell the next century stories of our challenges with living in a digital machine controlled society without the help of the technologists who built it. A former reporter, diplomat, consultant and corporate executive, she has witnessed first hand the unintended consequences of our transition to new technologies, and the knowledge gap that will strain our ability to cope with the changes. A global traveler, Case has studied, lived, and worked in Canada, The Philippines, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, Tanzania, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States. She holds a BA in Political Science, MBA, JD, and is working on an MPS in Applied Economics. The Life Online and Consul series are inspired by her international education, work experience, travels and observations.

 

Connect with Case Lane

 

Find the Life Online background stories, more information about the books and Case, and links to sites on related topics at the author’s website Case Lane’s Spinning World: http://www.claneworld.com

 

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Other Titles by Case Lane

Here is Chapter One from The Motion Clue, the first book in The Life Online Series. Start from the beginning with Kadie, Roman, Slater and the rest of the Special Command team as they confront the challenge of finding and disabling unauthorized Network commands. Meet Zylen Blain and his rogue tech friends as they fight the established world order for the right to be left alone. You can find the complete book at your favorite ebook retailer.

 

 

BONUS READING

DISCOVER THE MOTION CLUE by CASE LANE

Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.

 

Justice Louis Brandeis, United States Supreme Court, dissenting in Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438 (1928)

CHAPTER ONETHE BROKEN SILENCE

An intense burst of energy surged through a plain plastic and copper data cord. Internally, the physical piece of hardware succumbed to the overload pressure created by unexpected digital code. Externally, the cord burned until it split in half, and the pieces fell into the neat rows of connectors hanging, u-shaped like jump rope, between the server racks. No human saw it happen, and no human intervened. On monitor screens from twenty feet to eight thousand miles away, an error message appeared. Error messages occurred from time to time, and then disappeared after a Network fix. By design, The Network functioned on a continuous, seamless, unyielding schedule programmed to direct all electronically-managed activity. But to The Network’s surprise, this error message was not reacting to the design.

Louis Santino, a burly, 43 year old former professional football player from down south in Fargo, North Dakota, was the technician in charge, the only human located at the 148-acre hydroelectric power facility on the craggy lakeside in northern Manitoba. Inside the fiberglass walls of the main Control Room, Santino could not see the error message displayed on a monitor two feet above his line-of-sight. He was lying across his chair watching a football game. Enraptured by the competition, Santino kept his eyes on the screen, his ears tuned to the loud volume, and his body balanced across the industrial furniture. Like many humans, he relished viewing a spectacle of men engaged in dangerous, physical hand-to-hand competition. To keep the game at levels of continuous brutal contact, professional football players wore body armor shields. Fans logged on to watch hulking men of swift athletic skill tangle with skilled players with lightening hands, directed by coaches using thought strategies to outwit their opponents. Eagerly anticipating trick plays, spectators waited for the novelty of witnessing humans execute unpredictable options by using only their brains and bodily strength. But the coaches also used The Network. They had apps running pattern simulations on completed games, and analyzed player moves and statistics over his lifetime. Still, most fans ignored the programmed assistance, in favor of the thrilling live play.

Santino focused on the intensifying game action until, without warning, the words ‘Alert Signal’ displayed in 64-point red block letters flashed, like the bullet from a firing gun, directly in front of his eyes. Shocked into a swiftness that recalled his own playing days, Santino jumped straight up and out of his chair. Having never previously seen the alert message projection function used, he stood stock still in the center of the room. Without prompting, the game volume on the viewing monitor automatically went down, and The Network switched his viewing preference to record. The Network knew Santino would continue watching the game at a later time, and it reacted by saving it for him.

As his shaking legs settled into an upright place, Santino slowly lifted his handheld com to eye level. All of the facility’s operations, the signals, reports and alert data, could be tracked through his com, a palm-sized, flat-screen, black-rimmed, plastic electronic device he had strapped to his belt. All communication devices, or electronic devices with similar features, were called a com even though the equipment had a range of fading names like phone, radio, television, camera, personal electronic device, or palm, because most literally fit into a hand. Some were named for fruits like berry, apple, cherry or orange, but those were favored by children. The range of size, shape and materiel used to manufacture coms was almost limitless, but all had one shared function, all were wirelessly connected to The Network.

People in cities usually kept the com functionality attached to a part of the body like the wrist, or to clothing, like a flap on a shirt pocket, but Santino preferred holding the physical device, and the feel of identifiable material between his fingers. The display screen fit neatly into his large hand tightly grasping the edges as he guardedly read the message The Network was displaying – Employee Intervention Required – for an error, an electrical shortage on the grid in Section 2G. In sixteen years on the job, Santino had never received an alert requiring him to personally engage in an error repair action. Puzzled, he took a deep breath and began to feel slightly anxious.

Within the minute passing by, a transport silently rolled into the Control Room, and the sight of the driverless vehicle prompted Santino to jump again. The transport, an IO Rider for indoor-outdoor, was sized and shaped like an old snowmobile, with a closed, clear fiberglass box cab on top, and space for two passengers sitting one behind the other. With functionality to move or hover forward, backward and sideways on floors, carpets, gravel, grass, cement, ice, snow and heated terrain, the Rider automatically adjusted to the ground beneath it. Santino stared at the transport, and his anxiety deepened.

The Network had processed Santino’s transport preference against the intended destination, detected his com location, cross-referenced his image from the surveillance camera in the Control Room, and then sent the Rider directly to where he stood. Knowing Santino had little history of pleasure walking, certainly not to the distance of Section 2G, and almost never in winter temperatures, The Network calculated he would not walk to the error location. With his profile, even if Santino had preferred to walk, the transport would follow him, and his com screen would not change instructions until he accepted the ride. He had no override code for the transport instructions. Without another option, he climbed into the Rider, and as The Network registered the pressure of his buttocks on the seat, the cab door slowly closed. Santino did not want, or have to, look at the dashboard screen in front of him as it updated to display the destination. Although all of his next required actions were automatically uploaded to his com, he was too confused to view the information.

The Rider departed the Control Room, but as it approached the facility's garage style exit doors, it rolled to a stop at a walk-in closet lining one of the walls. The vehicle waited next to a table holding a set of clothing that had been separated from other varying sizes hanging inside. Using Santino's already stored measurements, The Network had selected a coat, snow pants, hat, scarf, gloves and boots, and arranged the items, distributed by conveyor belt, at the closet entrance. Santino stepped out of the transport and walked up to the table. He did not look at the clothing, which was not only his size, but also his color. Putting the items on, he would not normally question why he was dressing warmly, but a flash in his memory considered that if the transport had stopped for winter clothing, The Network not only wanted him to go outside of the facility, but also to step out of the transport. The building temperature was a comfortable 74 degrees Fahrenheit, and Santino was wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Outdoors it was -20, but it was January, and it would feel like -36. The vast, empty expanse of semi-permafrost and razor thin trees encircling the complex was an occupied home dominated by black bears and gray wolves. The facility at Grand Rapids, the westernmost outpost of Canada's Hudson Bay Hydroelectric and Water Reservoir Complex, was on the 53rd latitudinal parallel, north. In winter, the terrain was surrounded by ice and snow as far as the eyes could see, and there was no cover from the elements. Humans rarely ventured into the open air as part of their daily functioning. The outdoors was for adventurers, sportspeople, environmentalists, and the occasional daring family with children who wanted to ensure the next generation knew about natural trees and flowers. In cities, both cold and hot weather populated areas had connected most buildings through tunnels, underground shopping centers, transport stations, subways, overhead crosswalks, and covered people movers. Certain industry employees, like agricultural managers, occasionally worked outside, but only when The Network signaled a problem that could not be remotely fixed, which did not happen often.

Fully dressed for the temperature change, Santino returned to the Rider and, still avoiding the dashboard panel, stepped in and sat down. An extra few seconds would pass as the Rider recalibrated his weight to detect he had sufficient cover for his required pending activity. Satisfied, the transport closed its door and moved towards the garage opening. As it approached, the garage door began to rise, and at exactly the spot where the door was three feet over Santino’s head, the transport crossed from the controlled environment of the facility, and into the unmanaged wilderness. The moment the transport cleared the exit, the door rolled back down. The silent descent was not unknown to Santino, but he turned back to follow its close. From his vantage point, the entryway was a gray cut in a wall of snow, unknown as the access to a billion dollar facility currently without a single human inside its walls. As the transport moved forward, he continued to watch the door shrink and fade away from sight.

Despite being inside a heated cab, Santino immediately felt the bitter cold. Living in the North did not inure him to experiencing its winter. As the Rider followed its expected path to Section 2G, the wind whipped around the transport, and cut through gaps in Santino’s additional clothing. Defrosters kept the cab windows from fogging and icing over, and he could see the mix of nature and human destruction all around him. The facility’s land was covered in short pine trees, limping in the frozen bog of winter, black and white in every direction. But the facility itself was gray and silver, cement and steel walls pushed up against a body of water, flowing even in the cold, as liquid rushing through the barrier with a force turning the world’s largest turbines, and pushing electrons out over wires for thousands of miles. Santino did admire the engineering, and all of the details required to create the facility, but it was ancient technology, vulnerable to terrorists, remote and disruptive to the natural environment. Clean air had a price, humans had learned that lesson decades ago.

The Rider traveled 50 mph, and for a minute Santino considered he had no idea where Section 2G was located. When he had first obtained the hydro job, he had been told not to expect to know the layout of the complex, The Network would lead him to any location he was required to visit. But in his idleness with the employment’s tasks, he would scroll through distraction options on his com, which led occasionally to searching The Network to view maps and blueprints for the facility. Coms had an endless array of features, but the only portal for accessing it all was The Network. Every business used The Network for its operations, administration, sales tracking, inventory ordering, marketing and forecasting, and since employees needed access to the information for their work, it was available through their coms. The same device facilitated personal lives by displaying The Network links to data inputted into computers as text and voice communications, government records, education results, employment opportunities, sports scores, movie reviews, consultations, nutrition advice, weather warnings, and all other information stored on globally-connected servers. Recorded movements from cameras and sensors tracking the timing and changes in human activity were automatically stored on servers too. The Network continuously scanned servers, even those not exposed to the public Internet to retrieve, cross-reference, and integrate data within controlled server spaces. Aggregated data was used to create and send appropriate daily life instructions, specifically prepared for each individual’s com, and all other coms interacting with an individual. Avoiding The Network was considered impossible. Some people tried diminishing its role in their lives, but few completely avoided it. The Network managed personal lives, businesses, organizations, and government operations with efficiency and accuracy, directing individuals throughout the day, and even allotting time for relaxation and socializing. Millions of programs and apps recalculated and redefined data every second, and the data fed the human’s com, and the human reacted accordingly.

But The Network did not ignore the surfing of its own files, an unexpected search was recorded, and a protocol determined if the issue should be escalated. After Santino had executed a few similar search requests about the facility, The Network had sent a text message asking him to define the information he was looking for, and the reasons for his search. After one warning, if an employee persisted in unexplained searches, The Network would implement a punishment tailored to the employee’s preferences. When Santino had tested the protocol once too often, The Network blocked his access to Internet sports and entertainment sites for 24 hours. He had been left with the silence of the facility. Since that day, he had not bothered to look at the facility’s layout again.

Without an awareness of his current location or direction, Santino patiently sat as the Rider continued to fly across the terrain, automatically adjusting its speed to the surroundings, the activity in the area, and the presence, or lack of, other vehicles. All transports had sensors for assessing the environment around its route. If no other movement was detected along the travel path, the transport could accelerate across the snow and ice like the wolves in pursuit of prey in the forest nearby. Santino let the wind, snow and trees pass by him as a cascade of debris from a sneeze, and considered for a moment that he might be enjoying the ride. But when the vehicle began slowing down, his anxiety returned. Section 2G arose no special memories for Santino, he was not near the main dam, but out along the high voltage electrical power lines running away from Grand Rapids to all defined destinations. The dashboard was displaying the coordinates for the area, but he was still not interested in registering detailed information. As the Rider came to a stop at the base of an electrical transmission tower, Santino leaned back against the seat, then the cab door slowly opened.

Looking out into the bleak of the fading daylight, Santino waited for his instruction. But after another minute, he realized the transport would not be in talk mode. He was one of the few employees who hated voice instructions. Transport voices could be any modulation, a soprano lady, a child, your own, but Santino preferred not to respond to electronically-spoken instructions. Other people did not mind, especially if they were around humans all day. But Santino had decided in the absence of working with humans, having a computer talk to him seemed a little desperate. His home system had a few voice commands, but since The Network already knew he had most of them turned off, it waited for him to read his instructions from the Rider dashboard screen or his com. Choosing to ignore both options, Santino braced for the cold and stepped out of the cab. A sensation overcame him he rarely felt, surprise. He stared up the long, high stretch of tower steel, glanced down at his com, and then back at the Rider.

The transmission tower was one of thousands of identical steel structures built to the sky on needle-like precision that minimized wind shear and maximized height. Santino could not see the top, only the sensor lights illuminating in red, yellow or green, offering the same warning as streetlights. At first glance, all he saw was green. But as he looked straight up the spine of the tower, another shockwave slowly rolled over him. Santino felt the unfamiliar sensation again, surprise, cloaked in an even more unexpected awareness of rising trepidation. In the near night sky, glowed the unmistakable purple light of a hovering drone.

Unmanned aerial devices operating one hundred percent automatically on instructions from The Network, or automatically with a human override, or one hundred percent by a human with a manual remote control were, by common understanding, a drone. The machines could be any size, and had a variety of functional uses including carrying products from instruction documents to packages to emergency kits to repair tools, to assisting with construction and structural repairs, or disaster rescue, and targeted surveillance. Drones could be any geometric shape even balls or triangles, or resemble miniature versions of helicopters and other flying machines. For delivering packages in a city, drones were predominately small square boxes, but for military maneuvers in the desert, the machines were the size of small airplanes. Humans co-opted the name ‘drone’ from military aircraft that had been used for missions in the last century’s desert wars. The military and drone manufacturers had desperately tried to encourage an independent civilian name for the machines, but the term had long ago passed into popular use, easy to say, spell and remember. With unlimited specs, drones could also be manufactured in any type of facility, and equipped with weapons, legally or not. Businesses, organizations, professionals and individuals ubiquitously used civilian drones in all aspects of their daily lives and operations. Humans appreciated the conveniences provided by the machines, and most were placidly comfortable with the devices moving above them at work, in streets, parks, homes and office buildings. Drones and humans were considered completely compatible.

On an industrial site, the machines were work-tools, programmed to lift heavy objects, patrol remote facilities, and ferry goods around complexes. By law, the devices emanated a unique fluorescent light created under patent through a color simulation of royal purple and aquamarine blue that could not be used for any other aerial object. Civilian drones had to be distinguishable from every other status light or active device in the sky. All recognized nations had signed a treaty solidifying, for governments, companies, and international service organizations, the unified rules for the use of commercial drones. In most countries, individuals could own personal drones, and its action lights could take on any hue. But the status light color that humans and The Network saw as the drone moved through the sky, or hovered nearby, had to be drone purple.

Santino recognized the purple light, but not the drone. His apprehension rising again, he looked at his com to search for the drone’s identification record. But there was no report, and no displayed coordinates for a drone in the vicinity. He hit ‘Refresh,’ and the screen re-calculated in less than a second. His instructions were still there, but no drone indicator. Confused, Santino knew he should not be able to see a drone’s light, if there was no drone. Repair drones were stored at locations all around the complex, and The Network could dispatch one to any location to fix an operational problem. But it would never send a human and a drone to look at the same error at the same time. If animals or the weather had damaged a line, drones equipped with cameras, mechanical arms or industrial equipment, could make the repairs without humans. A human employee could view the repair operation from the Control Room, using the fixed surveillance cameras, the repair drone’s camera, or even dispatch a specific camera drone to record it. Company management or law enforcement could also dispatch camera drones at any time to look at incidents around the site. The Network would recognize this instruction and update an employee’s com. Occasionally a specific authorization was required to be advised if a drone was on site, but that advisory usually depended on security issues, which Grand Rapids never had.

Santino’s puzzlement was quickly turning to outright fear. He desperately considered if the situation had a valid explanation. ‘Maybe it was a camera drone a human monitor had sent to view the error.’ Although he was the only human at the complex, he was not exactly alone. The electronic surveillance was extensive and omnipresent. The complex’s operations could be monitored from the company’s operational facilities 1,100 miles to the south in Kansas City in the United States. After Kansas City, the data was continuously backed up to a server farm in Iceland, and its back-up was in Liberia. Because hydroelectric power was a strategic and vital resource for millions, the Canadian Defense Force Command Centre near Ottawa monitored all of the connected sites, and the North American Defense Command outside Denver monitored all monitoring. Mexican officials kept their eyes on activity from their surveillance complex in Toluca, west of Mexico City. The Chinese and Europeans were also likely to be paying attention, but their surveillance was not considered official, and was politely ignored. At least one Santino-level employee, but not many more, worked at every monitoring site. The sites were responsible for continuously viewing all security at all energy plants, reservoirs, sub-stations, and along thousands of miles of transmission lines stretching across the North American continent. Santino expected the individual who sent the drone to be aware a human was at the same location, but it was also possible human operators did not have the same information. Disturbingly, he had no definitive idea which options were possible. He had never interacted with the information, equipment and protocols available to the monitoring teams around the world. He could only be almost certain, although not completely, that The Network would detect any drone at the complex, and he should be able to see the detection on his com. ‘This is all so strange,’ he considered, looking around. Grand Rapids had 10,124 cameras and sensors, all visibly on. Each networked security device could register the difference between a black bear, wind, an authorized human employee, and an unauthorized intruder. An unknown, unidentified detection would trigger an intruder protocol. After analyzing evidence from camera and sensor data, The Network would activate an investigatory drone to deploy to the incident site. Since the company had the right to be advised of all drones inside its complex, if this one was not an authorized drone, then the unauthorized intrusion protocol should already be in progress. Either way The Network must be aware a drone was there, and then inform the human employee. Santino should have the information on his com, but he did not.

Abruptly the sound of metal cracking ice emerged from the Rider, and Santino spun around to face the sight of a ladder unfolding from a side panel, and ascending like a stretching coil up the narrow steel edge of the tower. The transport remained parked alongside the tower, and Santino observed the action with increasing nervousness. The ladder inched its way up, at every two-foot mark, it automatically unrolled a clamp to attach to the tower’s frame. Although The Network could continuously measure the voltage traveling in any direction, and the chance of a miscalculation was negligible, the absorption ladder was a precaution used as a barrier to protect humans from electrical currents. If charges were unbalanced, The Network sensed and corrected the difference, then redirected electricity across the appropriate wires to cut voltage to an overcharging area, or increase it to an area reporting a shortage. Santino eyed the ladder as it resolutely continued to move up and out of his sight. Holding up his com to eye level, he noted his next displayed instruction was to climb the ladder. He moved over to it, but stopped and stood with one foot on the lowest rung. Sucking in a deep breath of the ice-laced air, he uncomfortably realized he had come all of the way out to Section 2G, and did not know why. ‘What was the repair work that could not be completed by a drone or The Network?’ Feeling increasingly unnerved in the bitter Canadian cold, Santino finally decided he should read the entire Network error report.

Gripping his com, he scrolled the text back to the point where the error message had first appeared. All company information was configured to a specific employee by prior education, experience, and duties. If an engineer pulled up the same report it would contain technical language and schematics, for Santino it displayed only basic points explained in plain English. The report began with the surcharge, but did not state the source, next were instructions he had already witnessed, leading to the pending step for a human action to ascend the ladder. None of this information was a revelation to Santino, but the fact he was standing out in the cold did not add up. Now if he wanted to return indoors, he would have to follow The Network instructions, or the transport would not process his efforts and take him back inside. The temperature felt like it was dropping by the minute, forcing his questions and concerns to be clipped at the same precipitous pace.

As sheer spots of frost began to develop on the waiting ladder, Santino realized the error must be unrecognizable by a drone or The Network, or both, and this possibility terrified him. He was a technician, not an engineer or a tower designer. ‘What did The Network conclude he could do?’ The report on his com had stopped at action for a human, and he was the one who had been brought to the site to complete it. ‘Maybe this was some new, unknown type of damage.’ Although The Network could assess any error, and determine a repair protocol, an unforeseen problem may have intervened with the process. Suddenly, Santino felt better. ‘Yes,’ he decided. ‘It’s an unknown type of damage The Network cannot interpret, that’s why a human is required.’ But as he began to climb the ladder steps, apprehension swept over him again. ‘What could be an issue he would encounter that The Network could not detect, analyze and manage on its own?’ All information was in The Network, all of the data humans knew. The entire hydro complex – the electrical systems, transmission towers, and programming for the servers – had been designed and built by computers. As Santino climbed the ladder, he ached to imagine the problem he would find, and failed to process any potential scene.

Rising up the transmission tower were sensors placed at two-foot intervals. The tower stood at 216 feet, and his com indicated a red light flashing at marker 56, 112 feet up, high enough that as Santino began to climb, he would not be able to see the sensor above him until he drew nearer. As he continued to ascend, another confusion wave rolled over him. Part of The Network’s standard error assessment was to send photos or video of the problem for review prior to transporting the employee to the site. Yet he was climbing without any diagnostic or repair tools. After only visually noting the error, he would have to input findings into his com, and wait for The Network to determine next steps, including, if necessary, delivering required tools. With each step Santino’s incomprehension soared. The lack of visuals, he realized, must be an error within the error.

A minute later, reaching the 100-foot mark, he emerged into the defined purple glow from the unidentified drone illuminating the flat black sky around him. By silently hovering, the drone complied with laws protecting birds and other flying creatures from audio disruption to their natural rhythms by man-made airborne devices. But the accommodation ended there. The machine was a two-foot square box coated black except for one side featuring a clear plastic viewing window, a popular feature Santino enjoyed because a human could see directly in to the electronics. Despite the ease with which drones fit into human life, an interior view reminded humans the drones were machines. Unlike flying creatures, drones did not require wings, but many people, the opposite of the interior-view types, added the feature as if to re-assure themselves the machines were more natural, members of the bird family, and not an output from a gadget factory. The movement of the box itself acted as its gravity-defying support. The device made an almost imperceptible rocking motion, up and down and side-to-side, which aided in remaining steady in the air. Seeing the drone waiting with balanced calm, Santino stared and offered, under his breath, a slight moaning “hmmm” as a greeting when his eyes and hands reached level with marker 56, 112 feet above the ground on the transmission tower in Section 2G. The drone’s reaction locked Santino into a reflexive shock.

“Good evening,” the drone greeted him in a clear, steady news announcer’s voice.

Santino’s hair stood up at the back of his neck, and his hands gripped the ladder frame as he thwarted an instinct to jump. Drones did not talk. Not only could a human turn off all talk instructions from Network-connected electronics, but also by law and common practice, company drones, law enforcement, military, all standard, work-related drones, did not talk. Emergency rescue drones had a speaker function humans used for communicating in disaster areas when drones were used to look for survivors. And many civilians had personal talking drones. But it was illegal to fly a talking drone in public airspace with the talk function turned on. Under no normal circumstances would a drone dispatched to an industrial work site talk, no circumstances at all. Drones were not robots, robots could talk, and everyone knew that. But governments, and most citizens, did not want to hear talking from boxes or bags with wings. Public spaces were already disturbed by the miniaturization of coms that made it appear as if humans were always talking to themselves. But it would be worse if tens of thousands of inanimate objects also spoke randomly and simultaneously aloud. Part of the ease felt with the flying devices humans had come to tolerate was that the machines did not talk. “A talking drone,” Santino whispered under his breath, while glancing at the box. The machine did not reply. Santino could now hear his own heart beating loud and fast beneath the layers of winter clothing. ‘A talking drone,’ he silently repeated. Santino stared at the machine. For the first time in the evening, he was absolutely certain the incident was not routine, but forced outside of his experience, education, training and knowledge of human life. Drones did not talk. Humans and drones were not sent to repair the same error at the same time. And the error at marker 56 was not an error that had ever been seen before.

*

Khadrian Laltanca could not believe she and Roman Francon had managed to be in the same place at the same time for more than one night, for the first time in two months. She stared at his naked back as he lay face down beside her in bed. Over his torso, she could see the peaks of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado breaking through the horizon as snow sprinkled the frozen ground, and crystal snowflakes formed on the window. ‘The best way to enjoy winter is indoors,’ she thought slipping deeper beneath the down blanket, and closer to Roman’s warm body. Their relationship had begun exactly where it was prohibited, at a top secret international conference where they were not only representing different countries, but were also on opposite sides of the issue. Every time she had made a point in counterclaim to his delegation’s argument, he would look at her from across the meeting table and grin. If his action had been a negotiating strategy designed to attract her attention, then he had been right on track.

At the time, she was one of her country’s top strategists, working behind the scenes to allow private companies to build technology infrastructure projects in other countries, without revealing the nation’s research and development secrets. A diplomat and a lawyer, Kadie interacted with every interest group, balancing their demands against one another in search of a viable solution. Within the past year, the United Nations had asked her to take on the same role for the world, Commander of the U. N. Security Council Special Command for Cybersecurity, the unit within the global security organization authorized to address and settle cross-border cyber conflicts. The U.N. role was her official post. But it was The Alliance that had solidified her future by reaching out, quietly as they always did, to those who showed the most promise as unfaultable global leaders. The Alliance preferred to encourage people who had multiple ties to countries around the world, transitional language skills, and the ability to blend in among individuals as diverse as a medic in a refugee camp, or a donator at a ten-star charity dinner. The secret organization was even more specifically impressed that she had independently built her skills, a natural was always a better bet than the groomed. The naturals knew the life they wanted, and pursued it without regard to obstacles falling onto their paths. The groomed always needed a little hand-holding. Kadie had grown up on the flat dry lands of the upper Midwest, and worked her way through school, with one clear objective in mind, independence. She preferred to be her own boss, but if she had to answer to a higher ranked official, then that person had to be a broader thinker than she was, an individual from whom she could still learn. Kadie traded jobs when people failed to live up to her expectations, resigning was her way of not settling, of always extending to achieve more than the envisaged.

Roman knew the profile, and had noticed this attribute the moment he had seen her at the conference. Having studied the biographies of the participants, he had memorized her picture and resume. And once he saw her at work, he finalized his assessment. Kadie was intelligent, attentive, precise, fair, and fun, in his analysis, a female version of Roman Francon. But she was a natural, making her singularly more attractive on every level.

In contrast, Roman was the definition of the groomed, he had been born into The Alliance. His British father, Landon Francon founded one of the largest financial investment firms in the world, Francon Global, and he was The Alliance before it was invented. Although the organization did not encourage nepotism, it did take recommendations from its own, and when Roman independently showed his promise, he was accepted into the organization soon after earning a commission with British Intelligence. Landon had married a Colombian hedge fund owner, Camilia Fernandez, who was richer than he was. They raised Roman and his five siblings, all over the world. But New York was usually home, and the entrenched prep schools lining the U.S. Northeast coast were the setting for their education, at least part of the year. The rest of the time, they were learning in Europe or China or Colombia, living in the cultures and languages their parents determined were important for their future. The Francons did not shy away from relentless ambition. Landon and Camilia had no intention of allowing their offspring to fall into the middle class, or even upper middle class. They insisted the children fill their brains with knowledge, even while owning the technology allowing them to bypass it. They had to learn to work with their hands, memorize translations, and solve mathematical equations without a computer. Roman had hated his parents’ insistence on human brain-captured information and knowledge, until he began to understand the life they were trying to maintain, and the separation that had come upon the world between those who paid attention, and those who did not.

In the five-star suite at the Silver Deer Lodge in Aspen, the fire was down, but the room remained at a comfortable room temperature, ‘probably too warm for Roman,’ Kadie thought. She pulled the blankets down to their waists, she was naked too, lying face up. As she rolled over to her side to run her fingers through Roman’s hair, she caught a glimpse of his com, flashing. She grinned. “Nice boy,” she whispered, “you turned off the sound.” But her contentment quickly faded, the com was persistently flashing, firing in red, and she of all people knew exactly the implications of that signal. Carefully she reached over him to pick-up the com from his side of the bed. Looking at the screen, she turned towards him with shrinking joy, and crawled on top of his body. She placed the com at his closed eyes, kissed his lips, and whispered into his ear, “somebody wants you.”

*

“Sunlight,” Santino spoke aloud, holding his voice steady, trying not to tremble in response to the persistent cold nor the waiting drone. He carefully watched as the drone slowly turned over its light, the purple beam faded to the back of the box, and a glowing yellow-white light took its place. Like cars with headlights, drones were typically built with illumination capabilities from the straight-line beam of a flashlight, to the unraveled cone shaped rays mimicking a child’s drawing of the sun. Around Santino, the deep darkness was sliced off at the edges, brightening marker 56, the tower, the ladder, his clothes, the trees, and even the stars shining in the night sky above. Santino adjusted his eyes, blinking repeatedly. Slowly the brightness broke his fear, and made him feel as if the sense of abnormality of the last hour had only been a flare of ignorance. Drones, he knew, responded to specific voice commands. But when he dared to look back over his shoulder, he saw darkness again, and stillness, the simulated sunlight he was receiving was only the limited offering the box was programmed to deliver. Restricted to the instructions on his com, Santino had no choice but to accept and carry on. Instinctively, he held his com to the light even though the extra brightness to read the screen was unnecessary. The device continued to display an error message for marker 56, with no further pinpoint accuracy. As steadily as it had stabilized, Santino felt the uneasy feeling returning. If the drone had been dispatched to check the error, it should have been aiming a pointed light directly at the reported problem, instead it hovered, waiting. Santino held his com up over the marker and selected the ‘Locate’ button for the error. The device narrowed its own light, Santino stared in the direction of the beam, looking up and down and around, but the entire frame appeared exactly as he had already seen it.

“This is ridiculous,” he declared, abruptly pulling back his com and shutting off its light. No new instructions appeared on the screen, and no further report was generated. “Okay…” he continued aloud, “…this is the error.” The idea made him shudder, but he could not imagine another explanation. No visible problem could be seen, and neither the drone nor the com were pointing to an exact location he should review. Even the tower’s status lights, illuminating only in green, confirmed his assessment. Santino looked in all directions for red or yellow warnings, but none were visible. Sinking further into distress, he considered that if his suspicions were true, then he had another problem. ‘How could he tell The Network, it was wrong?’ The Network had sent for human intervention, and it was stuck on the error message. Without a human taking action to repair the reported error, The Network would not react. If Santino tried to leave Section 2G without fixing the error, he would need manual control of the Rider. But with no override code for the transport, if he wanted to return to the Control Room, he would be forced to claim an emergency. On the average workday at an industrial site, there was no human emergency that could not first be analyzed by The Network. The Network had to view or detect incidents, and then review the data to determine if it should authorize an override code. Emergencies had to be specific, a human had to be in physical danger, or be suffering from a sudden ailment requiring human intervention. But at this point in the 22nd century, most diseases were rapidly eradicated. When unknown illness symptoms manifested, blood samples could be extracted at an automated biolab, located in shopping malls, large office buildings, on university campuses, at residential high-rises, or even the hydro complex, and then sent for analysis to World Health Organization certified labs. Data about every reported ailment was being collected and processed every second, and global health labs produced antidotes, vaccines or other cures based on collated information from around the world. A broken bone would not help either. A com could detect the status of bones in his body, and an onsite medical drone could perform a laser-soldering procedure to stabilize it before an ambulance arrived at the facility to transport him to a hospital. Failed internal organs were typically the only option left for obtaining immediate medical contact with another human, but then he would actually need an organ to fail, the diagnosis had to come first from The Network.

An employee at the largest hydroelectric complex in the middle of North America could not use the excuse of a medical emergency to obtain an override code for transport to take him back inside, because he was cold and confused, and unable to find an error The Network had been reporting for over an hour. Other types of emergencies would have to be verified with video from a camera feed, or sensor data on The Network. If he tried external help, no employee at any other monitoring station would understand a disruption instigated by a human, and not The Network.

Desperately, he tried to imagine other statements he could make, or ask The Network, that would trigger an override or response to, at least, allow him to go back to the Control Room. If The Network had detected an error it could not fix, and the detection was actually also an error, then maybe reporting it could not be seen would prompt The Network to recognize a human action, and change its instruction. Deciding that option was worth a try, Santino held up his screen, and entered the code for a human action resolution. The detail screen appeared, and he stared at it. Using a drop-down selection for previously used standard reasons for required human intervention actions, he searched for the simplest option, ‘Unable to fix.’ Although he doubted his attempt would be successful, he added ‘no specific location for error indicated, no problem visible,’ in the comments box, and touched, ‘Submit.’ The screen read ‘Resetting,’ but a second later it returned to, ‘Error – Employee Intervention Required.’ Sadly, Santino conceded his idea, as he suspected, had not worked. He wondered if a human monitor on the other end would see his message, maybe he should have entered more information. Quivering in the brisk air, he contemplated his options again. If he contacted a monitoring station, he suspected the other end could view only the same errors and instructions, and probably tell him he had to find the error. He thought about walking back to the facility, but he was on the opposite side of the complex, too far away from a human entry point. Humans could only use their com, face scan or handprint to enter doors on the south or west side of the building, he was to the northeast with only transmission towers around him. He would not be able to use the Rider entrance on that side either, because the garage doors were only programmed to open for transports with entry instructions.

Santino struggled in the sinking cold, ‘what to do?’ he wondered. He kept looking at the com hoping it would suddenly display another instruction. He hit the manual ‘Refresh’ button again to see if the information would change, but it was the same. Then he speculated about touching the wire and casings at marker 56, to determine if there was an issue he could feel, even if he could not see it. Or he could simulate fixing it to trigger a Network reaction. Part of him knew the idea was ridiculous. The Network was precise. If he reached out to shake the wire it would register the movement had taken place, at the touch of human fingers, or a tool. It would not register a fix unless it was really fixed. Still he was out of ideas, and getting colder. If this did not work, he would brace himself for questions he could not answer, and contact a monitoring station. He turned back to marker 56, looked again at the area where the error had been detected, and shined the com light back over the spot. Since all of the wires were high voltage, he would not touch it directly. Instead, he would shake the edges of the frame connected to the wire. Although the action seemed trivial, sometimes there really was only a hair out of place. Slowly removing the glove from his right hand, he decided to use his bare fingers to initiate The Network’s cross-reference of his fingerprints with the authorization records. If an unauthorized person touched the equipment with bare hands, sensors would trigger an alarm, and the pre-determined security response, dispatching camera drones to the site. But his prints should only create an authorized notation.

As Louis Santino’s skin came into contact with the frame in front of him, a whirring sound of a slowly revving jet engine rose up from the drone. Santino froze again, his hand stuck to the tower. Civilian drones operated silently, gliding through the air without engine or machine noise. ‘But this sound…’ he wondered, ‘…first talking, and then…noise? Who operated civilian drones that made noise?’

*

“Yeah she’s a hot chick, and she’s been fooling around with me all night,” Roman light-heartedly groaned into his pillow. His eyes were still closed as he spoke, and Kadie pressed her weight against his back.

“Sorry my love,” she said with melancholy. “Open your eyes.”

Roman opened his eyes prepared to roll her underneath him, but the first visual he saw was the glowing red screen of his own com. “Fuck,” he proclaimed taking the device from her hand, and holding it at eye level. Kadie rolled off and lay beside him.

“Oh that’s lovely language for first thing in the morning.”

“Yep,” Roman responded, entering text into the device. He rolled over onto his back, hand on his forehead to hold back his hair as he read. Then he stopped and looked at his girlfriend.

“Problem?” Kadie asked, knowing that was all it could be.

He leaned over to her face, the com and his hand brushing against her breasts. “Sorry my love,” he entreated, kissing her. “Good morning.” He moved to sit up with his hand still holding the com, then continued to text. When he finished, he stood up. “Electricity has gone out.”

“What?” Kadie instinctively looked out the window. The early morning streetlights twinkled in the streets of Aspen.

Roman followed her gaze. “Not here. From Canada, moving down the center grid towards Kansas City.”

“What’s moving?”

“I do not know my love,” Roman replied walking towards the bathroom.

“But what are you talking about?” Kadie knew it was theoretically possible for the electricity to go out, since there was always a chance of simultaneous catastrophic failure in all back-up locations. But redundancies in the inter-locking grid maximized resources. No blackout of any length had disrupted a developed country for decades.

“I’m talking about an electricity shortage,” he shouted back to her over the sound of running water. “They are re-routing from James Bay, but people are without electricity.”

Kadie could not believe the news she was hearing. “But why are they contacting you?” she shouted back. It was several minutes before he emerged, dripping, and wrapped in a towel. “Why are they contacting you?” she repeated.

“Security issues, baby,” he responded slightly exasperated as he began to dress.

Kadie rolled her eyes at him. She had a higher security clearance level than he did. “I know it’s security,” she retorted. “But what?”

“I don’t know, but I’ve got to go.” Roman had swiftly shaved, groomed, dressed, and holstered his gun. She always marveled at how rapidly he could prepare for the day. Catching her anxiously watching him, his demeanor shifted. Walking towards her, he leaned down to kiss, before politely adding, “I’m unbelievably sorry, but I have to leave you to go and deal with an international emergency.” He stared into her softening eyes. “I love you, and I’ll let you know the moment I know what is going on.”

“Security permitting,” she warned as she kissed him back.

“Yes of course, security permitting.”

“I love you too. Be safe.”

He smiled, kissed her again and turned to leave. As the door closed behind him, Kadie picked up her com and began looking at overnight messages. Neither Kadie nor Roman were officially in Aspen, and they certainly were not known to be sleeping together. Kadie had no reason to know there was an emergency on the electricity grid. But she looked for a search route to the details of Roman’s alert notification message that would not be uncovered by The Network.

As government monitoring of Internet activity had grown increasingly intrusive, technologists from around the world, highly skilled engineers and computer programmers declaring no affiliation to a government, or business or non-governmental organization, had built a separate Internet. They knew how to hide their server farm physical infrastructure, but not digital signal transmission equipment that permitted global instant access. Then the acceleration of personal space travel, expanded into personal cargo shipping into space, and people with resources launched their own satellites faster than any government could legislate against it. Since shooting down satellites could lead to war, the private civilian launches created a crisis. Almost all commercial satellites had been controlled by public companies, not wealthy individuals operating behind shell corporations. The governments tried to outlaw private, individual satellites, but lost all of the court battles. The technology was too advanced to claim interference with national security, and the territory of the earth’s orbit was too large to demand more than limited control over its expanse. As long as individuals adhered to the operational treaty agreements of their home governments, the satellites were legal. Although governments could use their own satellites to monitor all others in the sky, on the ground the rogue techs, as the independent technologists came to be known, had sliced the electromagnetic spectrum to carve out private lanes in the virtual cloud to untraceably carry their data. They called these electronic roads off the public information superhighway, off-ramps. The governments knew the off-ramps existed, but whenever their official technologists reached an identified entry point, they could not find a way in. Rogue techs had built impenetrable firewalls, coded multi-level encryption keys, created redundancies around the world, and most importantly, attracted the help of billionaires who had wanted a secret, but accessible Internet for their personal use. The work was a volatile risk that changed every day. Rogues with deep-pocketed friends managed to build and re-build their off-ramps and private networks, faster than governments and law enforcement could find and infiltrate them. The rogues considered it a challenge, the greatest videogame ever played, and a battle they had to win. When they had uncovered the most efficient means for traveling back and forth between their servers and the worldwide Internet, while virtually masking the access to their off-ramps, the separate, secret networks proliferated. Although conspiracy theorists warned that people were delusional if they thought governments did not have control over every bit of data, those who could afford it bought access to an off-ramp, and the software to use their coms while masking the activity from The Network. The switching was seamless from a Networked com, Global Intelligence rarely knew who was on private off-ramps around the world. And although technically, government officials were not permitted to access the unofficial entry points using their high security level coms, unlike most people who were monitored for the activity by The Network, some people, like Kadie, were not.

She projected a screen in front of her eyes, and then using an off-ramp, accessed a private global news forum for government and industry officials who cared about sharing non-public information. The site had been built, then populated, through virtual word of mouth, as a portal for invited members to anonymously post information they could use in negotiations and international discussions. The contributors saw it as efficient diplomacy, their governments would likely have another word for it, disloyalty. But claiming disloyalty was an overreaction that Kadie knew was a threat to limit the actions of thinking people. True disloyalty put millions of lives in danger, their knowledge sharing saved millions.

Kadie navigated to a forum site. Users entered information in their own languages, and had developed their own coded terms. If a user were serious about staying up-to-date, then she would have to master the ability to read other people’s coded comments. Quickly Kadie wrote, ‘Driving into dark near Kansas today, looking for divergences on the road?’ Expecting the wait for a reply would not be long, she hit post.

*

Louis Santino and the box drone were at a standstill. The whirring sound had been brief, but from the moment Santino had expressed alarm and stopped moving, it had ended. Staring at the drone, he literally felt the drone staring back. The air around him had ceased to be cold, instead Santino felt the heat permeating from his body, as he sweated from head to toe. His fingers were gripped to the tower frame, not attached by frostbite, but by his own terror of not knowing if a movement would trigger a drone action he was not prepared to manage. As he considered the position of his hand, the simulated sunlight he had nonchalantly requested minutes before, began to fade.

“No, no, don’t!” Santino proclaimed aloud as the sky encircling him transformed from the comforting soft white glow to the background of a perfect black night. If a human had sensitive eyes, The Network would have the drone slowly adjust the light. But Santino did not have sensitive eyes, this drone should have instantly switched the light off only on his command. With growing awareness, Santino determined he would not be providing any more instructions to a box acting on its own. He desperately wanted to look at his com, to see if new information had appeared, but the slowly setting simulated sun told him it was probably too late for official or unofficial word to reach him. As the light faded completely out, a red laser beam flashed on, and aimed its pointer directly at the spot where Santino’s hand still grasped the frame at marker 56.

“No, no, Santa Maria, no!” Santino shouted. He had seen the work of red laser beams on news programs. Screaming into an empty dark forest where bears, wolves and deer had long ago been frightened away, and chased deep into the trees by the construction of the hydroelectricity complex, Santino expected no response. “No, no, no, off, off!” he cried as the drone once more increased the volume of its whirring sound. “No, please, no!” Santino begged the box, as he launched reflexive actions to prevent capitulation to the waiting forest. As he moved to lift his hand off the frame, and direct his feet down the ladder, the drone stopped prepping. Before the human could make his retreat, the machine revved up the force and intensity of the beam, and the whirring sound mimicked the extraction of a firing mechanism. The red laser reconfigured as a singular heat source directing its trajectory towards Santino’s hand, through to a green-lit sensor on the tower, and at impact, set off an explosion bringing down the transmission tower in Section 2G. Alert signals lit up monitoring stations all over the world.

*

When Roman arrived onsite in response to the earlier text alert, more than one person in the meeting room was completely startled to see him. He was equally disconcerted. For several weeks, he had been working with an officially non-existent Western Hemisphere Defense Command team, inside a military complex in the mountains between Aspen and Denver, Colorado. A digital mask overrode the GPS signal on his com, and broadcast his location as Dallas, Texas, his status read ‘On Business.’ The gathered attendees he now viewed, representatives of eleven countries and organizations, were not the same people he had been seeing every day at WestCom to negotiate a new security agreement for Central American countries. Instead, this group was military and industrial officials, assembled to hear specific information.

In a room containing a long oblong table short at one end, wider at the other, and built on a slight rise, each person could clearly view the rest of the seated attendees. At each chair, translation sensors were embedded into the armrests. An individual’s com would detect the spoken language and, if necessary, feed a simultaneous translation into an earpiece. On one wall 90-inch video conferencing screens were positioned to project as if the displayed individuals, who were in other locations, were sitting in the room. Another wall broadcast news and satellite images. The last had a refreshments table pushed up against it, with the preferred beverages and snacks of every participant ordered, and available based on a Network predicted calculation of the amount each person would consume, within the scheduled time they would be meeting. Roman was hungry, but he would not have time to reach the food table.

“What’s going on?” were the first words Roman heard upon entering.

“I’m sorry General, I received the same message you did,” he politely replied to U.S. Army General Patrick Wheeler. “I have no other intel.” Wheeler inattentively looked at him, and Roman quickly moved to take his place among the representatives.

On a video screen, Slater James at British Intelligence in London began speaking, “We have been monitoring a situation at the Grand Rapids hydro dam in Canada.”

“What kind of situation?” Roman asked.

“We had a glitch,” began the hydro company’s representative Corey Miller, a senior executive with military clearance. “A fried or split line, and then an outage. But we cannot get a complete report.”

“We do not know what the problem is?” interrupted Eduardo Juarez, the senior Mexican military officer based at WestCom.

“It’s a big facility, it could be anything, and we have no credible Network report,” Miller glumly stated. The complete hydroelectric complex provided zero carbon emission, always on electricity, to the populated areas of central North America north to the mining and military towns in the Arctic, and south down the Pan American highway from Winnipeg to Minneapolis to Kansas City to Dallas to Monterrey and to Mexico City on through Tegucigalpa to San Jose and ending a few miles south of Panama City. Each of those centers, transmitted electricity in a hundred directions to the skyscrapers of the big cities, factories in industrial zones, acres of agricultural production sites, and small forgotten towns along the routes. The towering transmission lines rolled out from sites like Grand Rapids at high voltage across empty plains, and upon reaching populated areas, the lines went underground, or where necessary, disappeared to continue transmitting virtually, through the air. Most humans had never seen a power line. As a stable, reliable energy source managed through a treaty, almost all military installations within range also connected to the complex. Despite its limited use of human employees on the ground, Grand Rapids was a vital location affecting millions who obtained at least part of their living from its existence. The center of North America was the crucial back-up for the mega-populations and ports on the coasts. The strategic inhabited centers in the Pacific Northwest, around the Great Lakes, New York City, in Northern and Southern California, Texas, South Florida and Mexico City contained nearly three-quarters of the continent’s people. Those areas had self-contained networks, energy, and water supplies, but their back-ups were all in the center, and most of the infrastructure was on the Hudson Bay grid.

Miller continued, “We have a lot of data being analyzed, cross-ref—” He halted as an alert signal sounded, and the room fell completely silent.

“Please look at the monitors everyone,” Slater directed. “Another incident has occurred.”

The video screens switched to scenes of the disaster at Grand Rapids, smoke drifted over a crumpled heap of steel where the transmission tower in Section 2G had once stood. The entire room gasped. At the site, a dozen wheelbarrow-sized drones acted as water cannons, and dosed the embers from the explosion fire, while a camera drone, programmed to detect body parts, scanned for Santino. Human investigators had been dispatched to the scene, but all of the initial information to be analyzed was already captured in The Network. The committee members rapidly activated personal screens from their coms, and simultaneously read The Network’s report.

“This is your glitch?” shouted General Wheeler. “What is this?”

“No, no, this just happened,” Miller frantically clarified, reading the report on his com. “This just happened. The security camera pictures show a drone—”

“But this is unbelievable!” General Wheeler interrupted. “There is no drone on this report, only the man.”

“What brought down the tower?” Roman asked.

“It was all routine,” responded Jayna Luongo, another cleared corporate executive. “An error was detected, and an employee was sent to look at it.”

“But why a human? It does not even say what was wrong.” Roman was also quickly looking at the details on the report.

“It says error.”

“But what does that mean? There’s no diagnostic for the error.”

“Did the employee make a mistake?” Miller interrupted.

“It doesn’t say,” Luongo responded. “There was an error, a human was sent to look at it, and then a drone—”

“What drone?” Roman asked

“Whose drone?” General Wheeler demanded. “It does not say that either.”

“The Network recorded the transmission tower went offline, but it does not say how,” Luongo continued. “We have only surveillance pictures of a drone…umm…attack. That’s all we know. But those pictures cannot give us any more details.”

“But what kind of drone was it?” Wheeler asked again. “Was there military activity in the area?” Military and law enforcement drones could be weaponized with the ability to deliver a range of disabling impacts from the effects of stun guns to missiles. But operating a legal, weaponized drone required adherence to laws, regulations and protocols, sanctioned and used almost exclusively by governments. If the protocol had been followed, a few of the people in the room would have the details available on The Network, but they did not.

The questions flew across the table as Roman stood up, and walked up to a 50-inch screen displaying a live camera feed of the smoldering scene at Grand Rapids. ‘What an extraordinary explosion,’ he thought. ‘It brought down the tower, an entire transmission tower, but how?’ He looked closely at the images. The tower had collapsed straight down, straining adjacent transmission lines, but not creating a domino effect. The wire casings were set to automatically snap, and avoid pulling another tower down if one fell. In fact, the attack, as it was now being referred to, seemed to have been neatly organized only to collapse the one tower with poor Louis Santino. ‘But was Santino necessary?’ Roman wondered. ‘Why didn’t it, whatever it was, just shoot the tower? Why kill a human too? What was this? What kind of terrorist organization or anarchist was after them now?’

“Listen everyone, please listen!” Slater shouted to restore calm. “We have been watching this site since the outage was first reported. Consider this information confidential, this attack drone…this is the third incident worldwide that we know. And this is the first one that has knocked out power. Whoever this is, they are getting bolder. And whatever technology they have, we do not have it. Every time it has happened, we have had to find the drone visually, using satellite pictures, there was no detection on The Network.”

“What do you mean no detection?” General Wheeler asked. “Network cameras and sensors are always checking the entire space around—”

“No, it does not check, so to speak,” Slater corrected him. “If the intruder drone is emitting an electronic signal, The Network would detect it through the complex’s sensors. For most security protocols, if the signal it detects is within camera range, it takes a picture or records video. Then it analyzes the picture, and confirms the image it has captured. It only looks for signals it detects, and it only detects objects having a detectable signal, or an object it senses in some other way like the sound of a buzzing bee, or the touch of a hand. If it does not detect an object, the picture will not be analyzed, a human would have to launch a manual request, if the human even knew to look for it in the first place. Whatever that box is, it has no detectable signal.”

“But that’s impossible,” Luongo interrupted. “How can it fly around without a signal? A human must be controlling it.”

“It appears to be a new way of operating drones, Ms. Luongo,” Slater countered, slightly annoyed. “These operators have technology we do not have.”

“Or we do not officially have,” Roman said.

The room fell silent. “And the destruction? We have not heard about that before, what a mess,” General Wheeler added. “Humans have to clean that up.”

“Drones can do the heavy lifting,” Miller assured the group.

“Not before we’ve examined every inch of the place.”

“I am afraid we are only likely to find dead wolves,” Slater ruefully commented. “We will not find evidence of any use to us.”

Roman tried to concentrate. ‘We won’t find any evidence?’ he thought. ‘We have to catch him, whoever he is. We have to figure out the pattern, what he’s doing and why.’ He looked around the room. ‘We’ll never get it done with these people.’ Moving his com under the table to avoid appearing distracted, Roman sent a text message to Slater.

“Listen up!” General Wheeler shouted over the clamor. “Our analysts will look for clues in the data, but in the meantime, what do we think is going on here? Terrorists? Industrial sabotage? Who?” The room went silent.

“It has been three attacks, three completely different locations,” Slater added. “There’s been a solar farm in Botswana, a wind farm in the North Sea and now hydro power in Canada. The only connection among the sites is renewable energy. But for the first two, the facilities did not really lose power…or a life.”

“And this time, kaboom.” General Wheeler dramatically flung his arms into the air.

“Yes whatever this is, it has escalated.”

The people in the room looked at each other. They were political appointees, friends of leaders, business people with money, in general, not the people with the experience and patience to think the incident through strategically, and make serious decisions. Roman moved towards the General.

“We should ask for an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting,” General Wheeler commented. The clamor of simultaneous shouting began again.

“And tell them what?” Juarez demanded.

“To be careful, to change security protocols.”

“But for what? What explanation can we give?”

As Roman approached, he spoke clearly and directly, “General, we do not need a U.N. meeting. We immediately need to bring in the right people to get to work on this. This is an ongoing international problem, not one incident. We need a team that can think this through, figure out what’s going on and take action.”

The General stared at him. “Of course people,” he said pointing to the room as if to indicate he knew what people were, and he had them right in front of him. “What are you talking about?”

“With all due respect General, not people who talk,” Roman continued. “People who think. People who would have a better understanding of the issues we could be dealing with.”

“People who think?”

“I agree, General,” Slater interjected. “A different type of group is required to manage these incidents.”

“Whoever did this has access to some amazing technology,” Roman stated. “We need people who have experience in these areas. We also need to be on top of what might happen next, to be ahead of this perpetrator. We need to identify the right people, get them collaborating, and let them figure this out.”

“The right people?” General Wheeler asked puzzled. “What people? Who?”

“I know who,” Roman confidently replied.

*

 

The Motion Clue is available at your favorite e-book retailer.

Thanks for reading,

Case Lane

 

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The Unbroken Line

A promising new technology creating interactive digital copies of deceased humans turns into a frightening stand-off between two global powers. The Unbroken Line introduces the simcon, or simulated conscience, a data application, that uses the entire digital record of your existence, all of the online presence that has been updated, recorded, photographed, videoed or otherwise saved in any server or digital storage facility in the world throughout your lifetime, to recreate a functioning you as a hologram that can interact with living people. But did a conversation between U.S. President Arturo Solar and his deceased daughter’s simcon trigger an act of war with the Russians? An international investigation from earth to outer space, balances unauthorized alliances between rogues technologists and Intelligence agents in exotic locations, were answers are elusive and romantic liaisons omnipresent. Welcome to the immediate future and the battle for humanity’s survival. When the powerful new simcon app is suspected of tipping the balance of geopolitical power, Kadie Laltanca and the global technology team at U.N. Special Command must figure out if its a human or digital perpetrator. Following the clues from Cape Canaveral to The Philippines to Brazil to Moscow, and back to the halls of Washington, the team uncovers old foes and new conflicts, as they search for a criminal they cannot see. As the battle intensifies and the clues turn the investigation around, rogue technologist Zylen Blain fights to keep his freedom, technological superiority, and the love of his life from the rapidly approaching Global Intelligence agents. In world where humans had not realized they were no longer thinking, but only reacting, to Network instructions, warring techies go head-to-head online in a race to outpace one another for digital domination. But neither side can envision how the unpredictable actions of The Network force extraordinary human responses in a world of complacent digital control.

  • Author: Case Lane
  • Published: 2015-11-01 00:40:13
  • Words: 125550
The Unbroken Line The Unbroken Line