Deus ex machina:
the god in the machine
AS HE HAD EXPECTED, THE MEETING, CHAIRED by the DNI, Vice Admiral Leslie Comstock, lasted through the dinner hour and yielded no new or dramatic revelations. Commander Rosen sat through it diligently, making comments when appropriate. When it finally ended, at about 1900 Hours, he rushed back to his secluded Pentagon office and fired up his computer.
FOR THOSE WHO THINK THAT, AFTER 9/11, all U.S. Intelligence agencies had somehow been reconciled and gathered into one “big-tent” community, where each one was aware of what every other one was doing, well—they have another think coming! Even within a single agency, there’s a left wing and a right wing—and there are members of each wing that do things that are sometimes diametrically opposed to, and can be even unknown to, the other. So it was with Naval Intelligence.
Admiral Comstock was the appointee of a decidedly left-wing administration, but just because he was the agency’s leader, his appointment didn’t mean that the activities of the right wing faction within his group would come to a screeching halt—or even be known to the DNI. He was advised, by some of the President’s own men—men that understood that they had to live with these intra-agency conflicts, and that for the smooth running of the agency, Rear Admiral Benson, clearly a conservative, should remain the Deputy DNI, and his allies in Naval Intelligence should also retain their posts. One of these, Commander Rosen, was a dedicated patriot, and being Jewish, he was also a staunch supporter of Israel, who he believed was getting the shaft from the current administration.
In fact, it was agents of the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, who identified two young hackers, who were regularly wreaking havoc with various American banks, large corporations and even the Defense Department. One was aged nineteen and the other twenty. Both were incredible, if troubled, computer geniuses, totally unaware of each other, who had nothing better to do but to hole up in their messy rooms, living on junk food, while hacking into the computer networks of “evil corporations” and the American military. Both youths hated the United States for being the world’s baddest bully, and did what damage they could to give America its come-uppance.
But once the two kids were taken to a safe house known only to Rosen and his colleagues, the youngsters experienced a complete change of heart about America and its objectives. This was understandable, as the hackers were given the choice of working for Naval Intelligence in super-secret roles, doing what they did best, and being paid more money than they ever dreamt of, or being shot and killed on the spot.
Known only to a tiny group within Naval Intelligence, the two hackers were assigned to take part in a combined U.S.-Israeli cyber-war campaign targeting Iran’s developing nuclear capabilities. This campaign came to be known as “Sixty-Nine Special,” after a long-forgotten audible signal of the champion Pittsburgh Steelers of the ‘70s. Within a relatively short period of time, the two young men brought the Mullahs’ grand designs to a virtual standstill, by inserting destructive viruses into the Iranian computer networks dedicated to supporting the process of fostering atomic weaponry.
Only the new techies understood it completely, but the existence of “The Entity,” as they first called it, was deduced before it was discovered, like the planet Neptune. As they performed their 21st-century black magic, both youngsters independently noted certain mathematical anomalies that pointed to at least one “virtual life form” floating aimlessly in the cyber-void. After several fruitless attempts to communicate, they were finally able to “speak” to it, but only through MS-DOS, which may as well have been Martian to most ordinary people, but was a snap for the military intelligence operatives working with them.
A huge breakthrough came when “The Entity” was manipulated into speaking audibly in English. For security purposes it was accessible only by a username and password created by, and known only to, Commander Rosen, the tactical leader of “Sixty-Nine Special.” Now all the efforts of the tiny group waging the campaign against the Iranian nuclear program were dramatically streamlined. “Spearhead,” as the entity was called, was able to do anything and everything that had previously been done by a few elite computer operators—or cyber warriors. But where these operators had to type commands on keyboards, Spearhead could execute orders by responding to the voice commands of Commander Rosen and designated members of his team. There was a written copy kept in Rosen’s lockbox, to be opened only in the case of his death or disability.
BEFORE ROSEN CALLED UP SPEARHEAD, HE alerted the campaign’s team members by phone (using code language, of course) that a new session was about to begin. Having logged on to the DOD network, he pulled up his Internet browser and entered Spearhead’s access code.
His personal home page, the entry page to the Annapolis Naval Academy web site, with a colorful picture of the school’s administration building in springtime, remained on the screen motionless.
I must have gotten a number or letter wrong!
He had never made a mistake like this before—but he must have! He entered the long code again, this time more deliberately.
Now he was starting to question whether he was getting Alzheimer’s or something. He entered the code once more, even more carefully than before, and still got the same non-result.
I’ve got to be doing something wrong!
After thinking his few options over carefully, he called his most senior team member. The mission at hand was simply too vital to worry about what others might think. There was no question in his mind that it would be perceived that he was slipping mentally—just a hair, perhaps, but slipping all the same.
“Bill? Ben! I need you to open the lockbox and read me the access code.”
The few seconds of silence that preceded Bill’s crisp, “Aye, aye, Sir!” confirmed that he had sized up the situation correctly. Before tonight’s session was over, the entire team would know that Commander Rosen had a chink in his mental armor.
When a light on his phone lit up, Ben grabbed the receiver so fast that it hardly buzzed.
It was Bill, who read the access code slowly, twice, to Ben, who jotted down the username and password, read it back for verification, then hung up and stared at his computer screen before entering the secret code. Now his stomach was churning, and he was aware of a thin coat of sweat on his forehead. The last time he felt like this was (of all things!) right before his final German exam, which he had to score well on to graduate from Annapolis.
Now, with fingers trembling oh-so-slightly, he entered the access code in the address box and clicked “Enter,” with more force than usual.
The churning in his stomach and the sweat intensified.
Where the fuck is it?
Initially his thoughts centered on the hackers. They did a miraculous job in harnessing the damn thing, but they probably didn’t know everything about it, and the best thing to do would be to contact them and see what they had to say about Spearhead’s apparent desertion. This idea lessened the stomach churning and the sweat, but only for a moment.
What if they don’t know? Or, what if it’s the Iranians?
He dismissed the second possibility immediately. The Iranians didn’t even know what was happening when his men were attacking their networks! He simply could not believe that they could even conceive of what was happening now! If, on the other hand, the hackers couldn’t explain Spearhead’s sudden disappearance or figure this thing out somehow, well—his men would just have to go back to doing it the old-fashioned way—with keyboards!
Commander Rosen’s phone buzzed again. It was one of his team who had become so impatient that he called his superior for orders. Ben told him to shut up and wait, then slammed down his phone, which buzzed again, almost immediately.
“Ben Rosen!” he growled, expecting another team member with a request for orders.
“Dad, it’s Shelly!”
Jerked unexpectedly to a totally different dimension, Rosen almost cried, sadly and tiredly, “Son! Haven’t I told you never to call me at this number unless it’s an emergency? Uh—is everything okay—I mean with your mom and...”
“No—I mean, Yes! Everything’s okay!”
“Then why the hell...”
“Mom says I need your permission to take the green SUV. We’re getting together at Wolfie’s tonight to get our band going, now that you got the new ax and everything...I know I’m not supposed to call on this phone, but we’re scheduled to start at eight and we got the only SUV available and...”
“Jesus! Is that why you’re calling? Tell your mother that I said it was okay to take the green one. Just don’t crack the damn thing up and be home by ten!”
“Ten? C’mon, Dad! There’s no school yet and...”
“Alright, goddamnit! I don’t care if you never come home! Just let me get back to work, will ya?” And Ben slammed down the receiver, fuming, desperately reordering his thoughts to focus on the business at hand.
Try as he might, he just couldn’t stop thinking about what an incredibly idiotic distraction his son had just bothered him with. Here the future of the Middle East, the United States, maybe even the whole world, was at stake and...
Oh, my God!
Suddenly, as if struck by lightning, it came to Commander Rosen!
That goddamned guitar salesman!
It had to be him that did something—he wasn’t sure what. That guy had his MasterCard, the one that had more than half of the access code on it! It was beyond coincidence that right after half the code fell into that guy’s hands, that all of a sudden Spearhead goes away—to God knows where! But that could be found out!
Commander Rosen yanked his new tablet out of his briefcase and accessed his very most private e-mail account and sent a message, marked “Urgent!,” to one of his field operatives. In it he told the SEAL to locate the salesman, visit him with as many other personnel as needed, find out just what happened, so Spearhead could be restored to its proper master.
DESPITE THE RAPIDLY APPROACHING MOMENT-of-Truth, Rod moved at a normal pace to his front door and opened it—not much, but it was obviously open—like the back kitchen door was. He didn’t want to draw attention to himself from the other apartment building residents by any government goons kicking in either of his doors, as he assumed they would. He just prayed that the men who were coming weren’t the kind that shot first and...
Although Diana had reassured him that he didn’t have to worry about a thing, Rod was anxious and fearful of what was going to happen. For his part, he didn’t want to seem afraid to his new “girlfriend,” thus he walked from the back to the front of his apartment in as relaxed a manner as he could. Even though he knew that Diana could not “see” him.
He needn’t have worried about his doors being kicked to splinters. When his visitors arrived his front doorbell rung. Without asking who it was on the intercom, he buzzed them in. Quickly two men dashed up the stairs, and just like that, Rod was face-to-face with two members of SEAL Team Six!
Rod was surprised that neither man openly displayed any kind of paraphernalia that would identify them as police or military personnel—no black ski masks or bulletproof vests. The first man to come through the door—uninvited—had a shaved head. The second man’s head was not shaved, but he had a very short military-style crew cut. This man closed the door behind him.
Neither stranger identified himself or who he represented, nor did they offer any credentials for Rod to inspect. There was no doubt on anyone’s part who they were sent by and why they were here.
“Mr. Rod Ames?” said Shaved Head. Neither man made any move whatsoever, but Rod detected just the slightest hint of a threat in the tone of the man who spoke to him.
Before he spoke, Rod looked over at his PC screen, black with the pulsating white dot.
This is it!
“I—ahem!—assume you gentlemen are here to talk about the—uh—Sixty Nine thing, or whatever?” Rod’s knees were wobbly, but his voice was remarkably solid.
“That’s right, sir,” said Shaved Head. “We think that we can get this thing resolved quickly, without any trouble. But that, of course, is up to you.” (Again, the threatening tone was slight, but unmistakable.) “No one is exactly sure what happened, but the reality is that you have crossed the line in a matter of the utmost national security and...”
“Excuse me, guys, but I know how hot it is outside. Can I offer you a cold beer or some pop?”
The SEALs seemed to be caught completely off-balance by this, and looked at each other quizzically.
“No, sir,” answered Shaved Head. “But we believe that somehow you have reset the username and password for Spearhead...”
“It’s ‘Diana’ now, gentlemen,” corrected Rod.
“Spearhead, Diana, whatever. Just give us the new access code and we’ll be on our way, and nothing at all will come back on you.”
“Okay, guys. But you better come over here for just a moment,” invited Rod, walking over to the computer.
The two SEALs eyed each other, shrugged and followed Rod over to his makeshift “workstation.”
Rod hit the space bar and his desktop came up. Then he pulled up Windows Live Mail and pointed to the Outbox. “See guys, there are 15 items in my Outbox. You know what they are?”
“What?” asked Shaved Head.
“Actually they’re all the same message, with some general information about Sixty Nine Special. But each one goes to the e-mail addresses of all the members on the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Diana, who you used to call Spearhead, will automatically send these messages in uh—two minutes,” said Rod, checking his watch. “If you guys’ll just leave us alone before then, I’ll tell Diana to stop. But if you cause me any trouble at all, those messages will get sent. Understood?”
Immediately Shaved Head pulled out his cell phone and speed-dialed a pre-programmed number—Rod guessed that the call was to Commander Rosen. The SEAL stepped over to the window in the furthest part of the living room away from Rod and spoke into the tiny phone in hushed, urgent tones. Seconds later he came back and told Rod, “Stop the transmission and we’re out of here.”
“Okay, Diana. Don’t send those messages unless something happens to me, like we talked about,” said Rod.
“No problem, Rod,” answered Diana.
When the SEALs heard Diana’s voice, they were visibly shaken. Then without a word, the two men walked out the front door and slammed it behind them.
A super-relieved Rod almost collapsed into his chair by the computer. “Whew! I can’t believe that that’s over!”
“See, I told you,” soothed Diana.