Element

All Rights Reserved ©

SIXTEEN

Chicago, Illinois

“Hey, I’m just calling to say hi. I’m on my lunch break. How is everything?” Elle heard her mother sigh.

“Oh okay, your father’s at work so I’m here by myself.”

“Aww.”

“I’m worried about your brother. Have you been watching the news?”

Elle leaned against a counter, a mask dangling from her neck by an elastic, her hair slightly disarrayed and her blue scrubs wrinkled. “Not really. I haven’t had much of a chance. We had a bad night.”

“Oh no, what happened?”

“We got an ambulance with a gunshot victim and right after we’d gotten him prepped, another ambulance came in with a motorcycle accident victim. We just didn’t have enough people. So we had to make some tough choices. So yeah, it wasn’t such a good night.”

“Oh honey, I’m sorry. Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m just kinda tired. I’ve been on call for about eighteen hours now. I was actually about to take a nap. But you said you saw something on the news. What’s up?”

“Well I don’t want to bother you. You seem to have enough to worry about.”

“I’m fine, mom. Seriously, what’s going on?”

“Well you know how your brother’s firefighting in Arizona?

“Yeah?”

“Well there is an absolutely HUGE forest fire in New Mexico right now and now they’re saying it might eventually spill over into Colorado.”

“Oh… Well, John’s where?”

“San Carlos. They’re like right on the border.”

“The New Mexico border.”

“Yes. God El, I know I’m overreacting but I just wish we hadn’t let him go on that damn internship.”

“Hey, calm down. I’m sure he’s all right. He’s a big boy. You had to let him make his own decision.”

“I know…”

“Isn’t he with professionals?”

Supposedly… I don’t know anything about this internship. All I know is it’s through this agency called the SCA.”

“The Student Conservation Association?”

“Yeah, how do you know of them?”

“I applied for an internship with them when I was in college. They do internships all over the country.” She looked at her watch. Oh God, she needed sleep. But she didn’t want to just leave her. “Um, well, don’t they have a telephone number where you can get in touch with him?”

“No. John said they don’t have telephones out there so they use pay phones.”

Long pause. “Really.”

“Yes. And when he called he said he wasn’t getting good cell reception.”

“Uh huh… That doesn’t sound right.”

“No?”

“No. Maybe he’s camping out somewhere in the woods. But unless they plan to spend the whole month out of doors, they’re going to need to have headquarters somewhere. Because they conduct interviews over the telephone.”

“…Really.” She could see her mother’s expression. It was the same expression she was making. Elle didn’t respond for a few moments as she considered this. “Tell you what, I’ll do some checking. But don’t worry. I’m sure John’s fine.”

“I hope you’re right. Because I’m watching the news and it’s not pretty out there. At this rate, your brother will be coming back with a side of blue cheese.” That made them both laugh.

“That’s horrible.”

“Yeah, well, gotta stay sane somehow.”

“There you go. Well okay, I’m going to do some checking because like I said, that sounds weird. I’ll be in touch. In the meantime, try not to worry. I’m sure they wouldn’t put their interns in any real danger, because then there’d be liability.”

“Nope, they signed waivers.”

“Oh.” Longer pause. “Did you see this waiver?”

“…No.”

“Okay… Well I’ll do some checking and talk to you again, hopefully tonight. All right? Can you sit tight till then?”

“I guess so. Thanks, El.”

“No prob. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

She breathed out deeply. And checked her watch again. Only forty minutes left. Just barely enough to achieve REM sleep. Maybe. She rubbed her brow.

“Hey, you okay?” Eric Boyd asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine. She hung her head and tried to stay conscious. The tile floor was scuffed, she noticed for the umpteenth time. She felt the bunk beckoning her from up the hall. But she realized she had already made her decision. Goddammit. She tilted her head slightly.

“Hey Eric, you did an SCA internship once, didn’t you?”

Dresden was the greenest city John had ever seen. There was grass everywhere. When he pointed it out to Josh, he said it was known for that. Yawning, he looked down as they drove over an expressway and passed into a quiet district, before coming to rest at a hostel. They paid for their rooms and unpacked the cars. The rooms were like many others. Mostly empty. Taking a seat on a cot, Katie opened up a laptop.

“We’re getting the wireless from that coffee shop across the street. Good.” They’d been driving all day.

John handed her the document he’d reread several times and she took it, leafing through it a moment, then setting it down on a night stand to take her jacket off. She was wearing a purple shirt underneath. John and Josh went to unpack in their own room. They ordered pizzas from across the street, three big ones, and waited for Viktor and Cory to pick them up. When they came back, and they had all had time to get focused, they set the pizza boxes on the rug and Katie briefed them.

After she was done answering questions, she took a bite of pizza.

“So how do we do this?” she asked. By the tone of the question, John wondered how far she’d already worked that out.

“Well obviously first we need to look at the place,” Josh said. “See whether we can camp out or not. Cuz if so, we can just wait for a truck to show up on Saturday and follow it.” John looked at Erika who waved at him. He waved back. “The first thing we need to do is drive around a little bit and get a lay of the land.”

“Agreed. It says that the trucks leave during third shift so we may have cover, we may not. We need to find out. André, Google map it and get directions. Want to do that now?”

“Sure.”

“While you’re at it, if you would, see if Google Earth has any pictures of it on the ground.” She handed him her laptop. He wiped off his fingers and set it down on the rug, typing into it. He was at it for no more than a minute.

“Got it. It’s about fifteen minutes from here. On the other side of the city. Map’s loading.” He got a new slice of pizza and balanced it on his hands, looking up at Katie who was looking down at him expectantly. “It’s loading.” John got a cup of water from a Brita pitcher and leaned over André’s shoulder.

The search browser screen was covered with gray squares. Gradually, they tiled in, becoming blurry mosaics. They sharpened. He zoomed in. More gray squares. Another blurry mosaic. It sharpened.

“It’s a big building. Four sections. A parking lot. That might be a loading dock. Lots of parking spaces.”

“And the area around it?”

“Buildings. All around. It’s an industrial park. There’s a little wood here. What looks like maybe a guard booth. The area is isolated from the street. There are some other businesses nearby where I guess you can park at.”

“Can I see?”

“Yeah.” He handed the computer to Josh.

“Wanna drive around now?” People nodded.

“Okay,” Katie said.

Closing up the pizza boxes, they piled into the Volkswagen and the Subaru and drove through the heart of the city, emerging out the other side in an area that looked run down. The road was broken up. Eventually, they came to where Kation was. John video recorded from the back seat, the car never stopping. They made a left turn a block later and saw that it was a dead end. There were train tracks. Someone set a walkie-talkie on speaker and placed it in a cup holder.

“Is the loading dock visible from the train tracks?” John asked to help.

Katie looked at the Google Map they’d taken a screencap of. “Yes, actually. It appears so anyway. We can put a guy there. Who’s interested?”

“I’ll do it,” John offered.

“Okay, be careful.” They made a u-turn. “We can park the cars here and wait. The quickest way to route one seventy, which goes towards the Czech border, is the way we came, but we can station a car going in the other direction. Whoever doesn’t get passed by the truck can wait for John. Okay, good. Yeah, that’ll work. Yeah.”

“Who’s gonna follow him?” Josh asked.

“We all have to,” Viktor said, his voice distorted. “One vehicle for the whole trip will be too conspicuous. There could be more than one truck as well. Some people are going to have to go on ahead and wait for a handoff. I’ll be the first tail.”

“You don’t have a camera mount,” Katie said.

“I think I can rig up something.” He seemed to sense her hesitation. “If not, there’s time to change the plan.” She paused.

“All right. Second tail?”

“I can do it,” Erika said.

“I’ll probably be the one staying behind to pick John up,” Josh said.

“Why don’t you two just go steady already?” Viktor said. John glared at the walkie-talkie.

“You’re just jealous because I like him and not you.”

“Ugh. Just kidding guys. God, chill the fuck out.”

“Actually, Josh, we could use your fancy lights on this one,” Katie said finally, sidestepping the whole conversation. “And now that I think about it, it would probably make the most sense if you took the first tail. Cory, why don’t you pick up John.”

“Okay,” said her amplified voice.

“We still haven’t confirmed the loading dock is where we think it is.”

Katie exhaled. “I know.” They drove to a convenience store parking lot, two blocks from the factory, and pulled side by side, rolling down their windows.

“We could just drive in then out fast,” Cory said. “It would probably be all right.” From the enthusiasm in her voice, they could tell she favored that approach.

“No cameras though,” someone added. “People could see those.” Katie rubbed her chin.

“I don’t know.” They sat there in silence for several seconds. “Yeah, okay. Let’s do it.”

One car, one person; that was the plan. While everyone else climbed out of the Volkswagen and went into the convenience store, Erika drove out of the parking lot and disappeared. When she came back several minutes later, she didn’t mince words.

“There’s a problem,” she said matter-of-factly. “There are two loading docks. And one of them isn’t visible from the train tracks. But the good news is, there’s some brush, and there should be enough to hide under. With two cameras, we should have sufficient coverage.” They all looked at each other. That was that, then.

At the same time, across the ocean, Joe Hansen listened quietly as his boss’ boss, the director of the NSA, explained to the Secretary of Homeland Security, Director of National Intelligence, Director of Central Intelligence and a senior representative of the FBI why he recommended they issue an ‘elevated’ alert through the National Terrorism Advisory System. They were sitting around a wooden, ring-shaped table in the director’s expansive conference room. For the most part, the visitors were receptive. Cyber attacks targeting law enforcement, firefighters, and critical infrastructure were up, especially in the Midwest, at a time when a massive volume of land was being devoured by wildfires and they were most critical. In addition to the hazards to the public, the federal government had a number of valuable assets in that region. The fact that the cyber attacks were not targeting medical responders seemed telling. It implied the objective of the attackers was specific. Physical damage. This led to the inevitable question: were the intrusions a prelude to a ‘real’ attack meant to take advantage of the wildfires?

What damage could it wreak? To answer that, the senior FBI woman suggested that they bring in the Region Six Administrator for FEMA and the director of the National Park Service. Assent from the head of Homeland Security. He would make the arrangements. At the same time, they desperately needed to find out who in Europe was using Trojan.Quechua to probe the country’s networks. The head of Homeland Security was important to have here for this conversation because under the federal restructuring that had taken place after 9/11, the Directorate of Operations fell under his control. The Director of Central Intelligence had brought two senior analysts from the Eastern European and Western European desks and allowed the Director of National Intelligence to question them about odd activity in Germany or The Czech Republic that might pertain to the United States’ interests. Neither of them could offer a definitive affirmative response.

There were certainly reasons why German citizens might feel motivated to act out against the United States. Germany and the U.S. had different internal political dynamics regarding matters of climate change and renewable energy and much of Europe was critical of American unilateralism, partially because they felt it emboldened Russia to take hard lines on issues such as energy and its renewed interest in exerting pressure on its former satellites. There had also recently been an environmental summit in Germany. But the short answer was no, nothing particularly definitive had come on their radar that seemed pertinent to their investigation.

It was at this time that the representative of the FBI expressed her intention to open a dialog with the German Federal Criminal Police Office and the Czech Security Information Service through the FBI’s legal attaché offices in the U.S. Embassies in those countries, as the agency had previously done with similar organizations in Belgium, France, and Switzerland. By examining the servers in the universities where the attacks originated, it should be a simple matter for their personnel to identify the media access control -MAC- addresses of the computers the attackers used. By searching for network records containing those MAC addresses, assuming the attackers hadn’t changed those addresses before and afterwards -as, unfortunately, they had done elsewhere- it should be a simple matter to identify the locations on campus the users frequented. And if or when a perp subsequently logged into a university user account, he would give his identity away.

Alternatively, by correlating the times the attackers accessed the guest networks with surveillance camera footage, it might be possible to spot a perp in the act. The FBI representative acknowledged that this last idea was a bit of a longshot, though.

The NSA director said he agreed with this plan. NSA actually had the capability to do all or most of these things from Maryland, but it would be labor intensive, even with the agency’s vast array of automated analytical tools and stockpile of unpublished exploits, and outsourcing would free NSA staff from having to do it themselves.

Listening to this plan, which was no different from what they had already done, Joe was glad they were outsourcing this work. Because he had a strong feeling it was destined to fail. Never say never, of course, but pulling usage logs in Belgium, France, and Switzerland had failed to bear any fruit for a month and a half now. And spotting a perp on camera was a needle in a haystack. Comparatively few intrusions originated from locations with good video coverage. And even then, the perps still always seemed to manage to find a nook to hide in somewhere. Whoever these people were, they all followed the same playbook. They were disciplined. Given that, he doubted the parties in question would suddenly make such a simple blunder as hacking from a place where they could be singled out on a video recording.

He didn’t say any of this, though. There was no need. It was obvious.

At last, the conference shifted to other matters. Joe and the CIA analysts were not cleared for some of it so they excused themselves from the room. As he left the room, Joe wondered if the odds would ultimately prove him wrong. Hackers were fallible too, he reminded himself.

Walking back to NTOC, he reluctantly made himself put Trojan.Quechua out of his mind. It had absorbed enough of his time for one day. Whatever developed, in the meantime, he had much other work to do. Interesting as that problem was, he knew that many orders of magnitude more numerous other intrusions had targeted the defense department while they were having their conference. Ultimately, it would turn out to be a loose network of graduate students and malcontent IT professionals who were recruited by the Chinese government. Or ethnic Russians who thought annexing Crimea was a good idea. Or delusional Muslims returning from Syria. That one was actually more than a little bit scary. But in any event, one thing was clear. Until they made a mistake, it might as well be the kid next door.

The coffee shop across the street had a few computers and John sat down at one and loaded his buddy list. The doors to the shop were open because it was so warm and a large number of twenty-somethings congregated in the soft light and talked and drank java. He himself had a cup to stay alert, even though what his body really craved was sleep. He was wearing a black collared shirt with drawn-on buttons and pockets that were stenciled in white, chalk-looking ink. It felt quite hip. Black jeans, lucky coin. Sandals to look bohemian. He felt pretty comfortable.

As he knew he’d be, Scott was online.

AngryLabMonkey: Heya

Nordictrax: Hey! You vanished.

AngryLabMonkey: Yeah I know.

Nordictrax: I sent the first postcard. Your parents should get it like tomorrow.

AngryLabMonkey: Okay, cool. Thanks.

Nordictrax: Where are you now?”

AngryLabMonkey: Germany.

Nordictrax: What?! Just the other day, you were in France!

AngryLabMonkey: Yeah, I know. I met some kids and we’re traveling around together.

Nordictrax: What?!

AngryLabMonkey: Yes. Scott, they are sooooooo cool. I can’t handle it.

Nordictrax: You’re insane.

AngryLabMonkey: Why? They’re nice.

Nordictrax: I dunno… So what’re you guys doing? Just going around, hanging out?

AngryLabMonkey: Something like that. I can’t say exactly.

He instantly regretted typing it.

Nordictrax: You can’t say?? What the hell does that mean??

AngryLabMonkey: I’m not supposed to.

Nordictrax: Come on dude.

AngryLabMonkey: Uh, I’ve gotta go. Bye.

Nordictrac: What?!

He closed the window.

He sat, contemplating over his coffee for a time. Then he got up and went to a payphone. He took out his calling card. His mom picked up.

“Hey!”

“Hey! We’ve been worried sick about you. There’s a huge forest fire near where you are. Did you know that?”

“Uh yeah, I did. We’re still pretty far away though. It just looks close on the map. It’s pretty cool. Every once in a while, we see a fire bomber fly overhead. They’re the planes with the huge water tanks that they fill by scooping up the tops of lakes.”

“Honey, be careful.”

“I will.”

“I actually just got off the phone with your sister. You’re doing SCA right?”

“…Uh yeah.”

“Well she spoke to a friend of hers who did an internship with them in Alaska.”

“Okay…”

“And she said that he said that field offices always have a phone number where people can be reached. So is there a number you can be reached at?” He gulped.

“I… don’t think so. None I’m aware of.”

“You’re telling me the truth aren’t you?”

“Yeah mom! God!”

“Okay okay. Well look, ask tomorrow if there’s a phone you can use to be reached at.”

“I will.”

“Honey, it’s important. Your safety is important.”

“I know, Mom. I know. Is Dad there?”

“Yeah, hold on. Tom!?” He heard a voice in the background. “It’s John.” His dad came on the line. They talked for a couple minutes, he reiterating his wife’s concerns and asking John some logistical questions about fire fighting. He was able to answer them satisfactorily but he knew he needed to do some research in the next few days. Finally, his dad told him he was going to go to bed and gave the phone back to his mother. John told him he loved him and his father said he loved him too and to please be careful. John’s mom came back on the phone.

“Okay honey, I’m about to read in bed. You have a good night.”

“Thanks.”

“It must be getting pretty late there. You should get some sleep.”

“Yeah, I know. It’s been a long day. I just wanted to say goodnight before checking out.”

“Okay honey, you get some rest. And get us that number soon. Do you promise?”

He felt dizzy. “I promise.”

“Okay, night honey.”

“Night mom.” He hung up, warmed that they were so worried about him but glad it was over. Slowly, he regained awareness of where he was. He stepped out of the little alcove and the people around him were speaking German. Starting back to the hostel, he looked at the counter at a young couple and shoved his hands into his pockets, truly glad he was about to go to sleep. In his fatigued state, he never realized how close he’d come to blowing his cover.

Continue Reading Next Chapter

About Us

Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered publisher, providing a platform to discover hidden talents and turn them into globally successful authors. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books our readers love most on our sister app, GALATEA and other formats.