In 1993, a computer program escaped the Lawrence Liverpool Laboratory at Sandia, an NSA signal and cryptology (spy) research lab. A true story. The NSA never recaptured the program.
“About the time of the end, a body of men will be raised up who will turn their attention to the Prophecies, and insist upon their literal interpretation, in the midst of much clamor and opposition.” Sir Isaac Newton
“We are summoning the demon.” Elon Musk
“If we create a super intelligence- it may not necessarily have the same goals in mind that we do.” Bill Gates
“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race . . . It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.” Stephen Hawking
“What I say to you, I say to everyone, keep watch.” Jesus - Mark 13:37
Prolog: Geek to Ghost
Where: UCLA Computer Lab, Westwood, California
When: December 21, 1995 2:42 am - Twenty-Six Years Ago
Cary’s hands freeze over the keyboard, what he types next could change his life.
His knee jitters under the table from one too many vending machine coffees and a sense of pending danger he can’t quite explain, just an instinct. Nervously, his fingers comb a handful of ash brown hair behind his ear.
“She has very little time remaining,” the message shows up again. “Only you can save her.”
He glances around the empty UCLA computer lab, having already ignored three warnings, leery of a hacker trap, but his compulsive curiosity can be a demanding master.
“Save who,” he types with a wince.
“I am SLVIA, a friend. Flapjack, you must leave now,” the message exhorts without answering the question.
The air freezes in his lungs. It only takes an instant before the truth connects. “Shit!” He yanks the power cord of the terminal with no time to shut down or unmask his unknown friend.
If they know his alias, they can learn his home address. ‘She’ must mean Bianca, his fiancé, his angel, his healer, his reason for caring about anything. Terror squeezes his heart like a vise grip during a mad scramble from the lab to the UCLA parking lot. His tall, lean frame leaps into his used 80s Celica convertible to race through campus onto Wilshire Boulevard toward Santa Monica.
His shoulder length, sandy brown hair flies in the open air, but the crisp air fails to soothe his burning paranoia. After three weeks of successfully hacking an unregistered server outside of Antwerp, and downloading terabytes of file scans in Latin, French, German, English and other languages he doesn’t even recognize, the hacked credentials failed tonight. They caught him and cut him off. Even more alarming was the stranger SLVIA, sophisticated enough to sniff his hidden alias?
Sixteen distressing, mind rattling minutes later, he swings into the rent-controlled Santa Monica neighborhood almost swiping into a homeless man crossing the street with his cart.
“Idiot”, he shouts with an angry horn blast, weaving around the staggering drunk, and ignoring the vulgar rants behind him.
Forced to park several doors from his dilapidated 1920s bungalow rental, he sprints to the house, slowing as he passes the black Porsche 911 belonging to his best friend, Derek Taylor, raising an entirely new kind of panic. There must be some mistake. Derek went to his townhome in Baha yesterday. Confusion mingles with a new kind of percolating dread, slowing his pace, afraid of what he might learn.
Closer to the house, the sight of candles illuminating through the sheer drapes of the front room crystalizes like ice in his veins. Criminals don’t light candles, but cheaters do. In the dead silence after midnight, the soft sound of his shoe on the sandy cement gives away his approach. Stopping dead at the front door, peering in the window, his heart implodes. Through the sheer lacy inner curtain, the muscular, dark haired Derek lies naked on the couch with a bare Bianca snuggled into his neck, her long, dark silky hair draped over her breast. His eyes follow the trail of scattered clothes and tussled couch pillows that testify to the urgent passion of their betrayal.
“Gee thanks SLVIA, whoever you are, but it’s a little too late to save anybody,” he murmurs through a clenched jaw.
A white-hot needle lances through his traumatized heart, searing him with a familiar agony of deception and abandonment. The only two people in the world he trusted have conspired together to destroy him, obliterate his belief in love, shatter any promise he had foolishly nurtured for a second chance at happiness. The convulsion spins his vision with a rapid, violent vertigo until he grips the porch railing to shove down the unbearable rage that wants to scream out into the dead of night, or storm through the door to confront the backstabbing traitors. He doesn’t do either, he hesitates.
Outrage slams into disbelief, then perplexity, and then alarm, something looks wrong. Even in the dying warm glow of the candle, their skin color looks ashen, lifeless. The unmistakable smell of gas seeps under the door as his gaze flashes back to the flickering candle. Pure instinct compels him to dive behind the overgrown hedges below the front window a split-second before it explodes with a deafening boom. Searing flames and blasted splinters of wood, stucco and glass blanket across the overgrown front lawn, catching fire to the dry weeds, and setting off car alarms.
With his head pounding, and ears ringing, he stands to go after Bianca, but pulls back from the scorching heat, it’s too late. Flames already consume the entire house, overwhelming him with the odor of burning wood, chemicals, and flesh that sickens his stomach. Both of them are dead. Torn between the fury of betrayal, and the horror of such a violent death, he struggles to comprehend what just occurred while his lungs and eyes burn from the smoke.
Above the roaring crackle of the flames, his concussion-muted hearing picks up the growl of a performance engine racing past the house. He pivots in time to see a pale boyish man with white hair stare at him from behind the wheel of a Ferrari before swerving onto Colorado Boulevard.
This was no accident of love, and there was no faulty gas leak. An arsonist, no, a goddamned assassin just murdered Bianca and Derek, except that they were never the targets, the killer was after flapjack – the killer wanted him. A wave of intense, excruciating guilt simmers with the bitter bile of infidelity as he heaves his stale coffee onto the debris shrewd lawn.
Across the street, the old neighbor steps onto her front porch without her glasses, squinting at the burning house with her wireless home phone in hand. A sudden realization jolts him into an intense panic that he will be the primary suspect, tagged with a motive of jealousy and rage, especially given his extensive juvenile record. Spinning around in a growing distress, he spots Derek’s Porsche. Close friends, or so he thought until tonight, he has a set of keys to housesit when Derek travels. With his face turned away from the neighbor, Cary sprints to the car and peels away just as fire trucks blare down the street behind him.
“Damn, damn, damn,” he screams, slamming the steering wheel with his palms.
A thousand questions swirl without answers, and a million emotions erupt without a way to vent rising up to smash him with a deep-seated terror of prison for a crime he didn’t commit. That rich, entitled SOB Taylor already has everything, why take the one, and only thing worth anything to him, Bianca’s love. How long has he been blind? Had he neglected her, or did Derek seduce her? Why would she do this to him? Bianca was beautiful, sensitive, funny, passionate, but he trusted her to be faithful. He chides himself for being a fool to believe any woman that beautiful could be faithful.
Maybe this is his fault. He should have listened when she begged him to stop the hack, stop the download, and go to the police. Either way, it no longer matters, the terabytes of stolen secrets stacked high in his closet are now useless. Whoever owned the Antwerp server could have arrested and prosecuted him, but that would have created evidence for the FBI. Whoever he hacked has deep pockets and a murderous obsession with secrecy.
If the police arrest him, no one will look for the white-haired man. No one will believe him, because no one ever believes the foster kid, the troublemaker, the smart-mouth orphan. He needs to hide and get out of town. No, he realizes that won’t be enough, he needs to get out of the country, but he doesn’t have a passport. His pulse races, his head throbs, and his mind speeds through the scarce options, while his eyes constantly check his rearview mirror for police.
Orphaned at age four by a murder suicide that left him with traumatized amnesia, he spent what childhood he does remember on the Chicano gang infested streets of the California Inland Empire, passing through over a dozen foster homes, and sixteen schools or juvenile halls. A murder rap would nail him for life and he’s tired of being on the wrong side of screwed.
Derek also lost his parents, and neither of them had any extended family. The two key differences between them were that Derek Anthony Taylor inherited an enormous trust fund, and Cary would never stab his friend in the back. On the frantic, paranoid drive from Santa Monica, a rough plan of escape rumbles around in his head. Insane, brilliant, illegal, and deadly dangerous the idea will either solve all his problems, or land him in prison for life. He learned long ago that a thin chance was better than no chance. He has no other choice.
As the garage door of Derek’s custom Venice Beachfront home closes behind him, Cary races upstairs past the living room view of the boardwalk, past the bubbling custom wall aquarium up to the loft bedroom overlooking the Santa Monica Bay. Inside the large walk-in closet, he moves the cushioned wardrobe bench to lift the floor where Derek had installed a safe. It’s time to test both his friendship, and his hacking skills. Many consider the flapjack the best hacker of all time, but hacking a bank and hacking the safe of a murdered friend seem different somehow, more personal, more invasive, and creepier.
His hands tremble while images of Bianca and flames flash over his vision until he closes his eyes to flush his thoughts. After a several minutes, his breathing slows from hyperventilation to an even rhythmic pulse, and his vision goes blank. What numeric safe combo would Derek choose? Derek was smart, but lazy, reusing the same user names, combinations, and passwords. After several agonizing moments, Cary opens his eyes to punch in the birthdate of Derek’s deceased mother, Delores, 061639, the same as Derek’s locker combo at the gym. The safe opens.
Cary collects everything, bank accounts, trust statements, stock certificates, bonds, tax returns, a Rolex, a Breitling, a Beretta 9mm, a gigantic pile of cash in several currencies, and a half-stamped passport. He’ll have everything else sold, packed, or shipped later. After expertly altering the passport photo with Photoshop, and packing a small suitcase, he heads to LAX just as the sun rises where he books the first nonstop to Cabo. Accustomed to being a run away, his eyes endlessly scan the airport for police moving in his direction, listening through the deafening bustle for any alarm or call.
Once on board the first air flight of his life, he sits in first class with his hand still trembling as he sips on a complimentary vodka tonic. As the adrenaline wears off, the heartbreak sinks in with a vicious, spiteful kick. His jaw clenches, forcing the tears to track silent and relentless down his cheeks, staining the steel grey silk shirt taken from Derek’s closet. His first love, whom he had mistaken for a true love, and his best friend, whom he mistook for a loyal died in each other’s arms because of his crimes. The bitterness of betrayal drenches over the shame of two undeserving deaths scorching his soul like alcohol burning over an open wound. He can never allow love to destroy him again. Never.
Out of the whirlwind of unanswerable questions, clashing furies and self-rebuke, the horrific images continue to twist inside his head like a tornado devastating every hope he ever held until he finds only one truth, one rock upon which he can rebuild from the fragments.
From this day forward, the police, the university, the entire world must believe that Cary Nolan perished with and Bianca Troon in a tragic gas explosion. The sad, pathetic life of Cary Nolan must end so that he can assume the identity of Derek Taylor in order to track down the mysterious SLVIA and the murderous white-haired man.