Mid-morning, she heard her second-in-command, Cameron, shout, “Chloe! You need to see this!”
Chloe only got a few steps into the Bull pen before she stopped dead in her tracks. Each of the fourteen LED big screen TVs were turned to a different channel. This in itself wasn’t unusual. Her team monitored happenings around the globe constantly. What was unusual was that half of them were displaying various marquees from New York’s Times Square. The most common view was of the New York Times Tower. Located at 42nd and Broadway, it was perhaps the most famous marquee in the United States because of the annual New Year’s Eve ball drop. Each view displayed the count-down clock appearing on the Toshiba LED board, counting down in hours, minutes, seconds, and nanoseconds. There was only a little under twenty-four hours remaining on whatever it was counting towards. Normally, this clock only appeared on December 31st to count down the final few hours of a year. It didn’t activate in March. Chloe groaned. This could not be good. Chloe scanned all the monitors. The most puzzling display was near the count-down clock. The landmark Coca Cola sign was displaying one letter over all the cubes of the action panel, changing to the next letter every six seconds to slowly spell a word.
Chloe watched the letters change one at a time. “Merkle’s Puzzle?” she parroted. “What. The. Hell?” she demanded.
“It’s been flashing this for the last twenty minutes. It is all over the news. The clock started up at exactly seven this morning. No one can get into it. It’s been locked down. The clock started at the same time and is locked down as well,” explained Cameron. “I googled ‘Merkle’s Puzzle’. I knew I had heard of it but couldn’t remember what it was. Apparently, it is an early,“ he started.
“Encryption algorithm,” interrupted Chloe, a sour look upon her face.
“Exactly. Didn’t you do you Doctorate Dissertation on encryption?” asked Cameron.
“I did. Has anyone asked for help on this yet?” asked Chloe as she started scrolling through her phone. It was the one mandate the head of NSA Operations had placed on her team. They had to be asked for help. Her boss was of the mind that you “didn’t go nuclear if ground troops could be a deterrent,” as he always said. Her team literally only got called when they were desperate. “What about Tactical Access?” The Tactical Access Office of the NSA had their fingers in everything.
“No, but I did get pinged by Cherry over there. They are already working on it. “Do you know what is going on?” asked Cameron.
“Not exactly, but God help us if it is what I think it is,” said Chloe, blowing out a deep breath. “Monitor for now. Let me know if anything changes.”
Cameron saluted her and returned to the screens.
Chloe closed the door on her office and sat down at her desk. She just stared at her blank computer screen. Her heart was pounding in her chest. She willed herself to calm down. This was merely coincidental. It had to be. Who else would come up with Merkle’s Puzzle? He just couldn’t be. Why now? She ran through all the possible options in her head. As she had done since she was a child, she always fell back to using Occam’s Razor when trying to analyze a problem. The logic had been around in one form or another for centuries and survived the test of time. It basically stated that no more complicated things should be presumed to exist than were necessary and that the thing with the simplest explanation was the most likely the truth. In other words, eliminate the impossible and the likely answer was the simplest one. The simplest explanation here was there were no facts available to support that he was behind this event even if her gut was screaming that it was for him. She would stick with position for now until she had no other option. The last person she wanted to have to stop would be him. She glanced up at her wall. Her eyes were immediately drawn to the small plaque she had on the wall that she had been given when she took this job. It was a partial quote from the Rudyard Kipling poem, “IF”.
“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, or being lied about, don’t deal in lies…
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same…”
YOU WILL SURVIVE AND WIN.
It had become her personal mantra over the years. She had a feeling she was going to need that today. She blew out another big breath. Chloe decided that she needed coffee. And she needed sugar. Then she needed silence so she could think. In that order, so she could gather enough internal strength, not matter how much it was augmented, to get her brain to come back online.
Her day had not started well. She hadn’t been able to get into the workday groove ever since she had woken up just a little after dawn with her head on her arms, still sitting at her desk. She had sat up and noticed the puddle of liquid sitting on her desk. She had wiped the drool off her blotter with the sleeve of her sweat jacket. The battered old thing had kept her warm more nights than not over the years. She had fallen asleep at the office again. If it were not for her stunning view of the Chesapeake from her condo in Annapolis, she wouldn’t even bother having anything off site. She typically kept a week’s worth of clothes in her locker in the on-site gym for just a week as this. Not that she used the gym. Exercise was a four-letter word in her book and had been since she was no longer forced to do physical activities. Her guardian had long given up on his quest for her to develop healthier habits. The only reason she paid for the gym was for the shower privileges after nights like last night and the discounts on her health insurance. The flaw in the system was that they counted it as exercise if you swiped in, not if you used the equipment. It was cheaper than a second apartment and faster than the hour plus round-trip from Fort Meade to her home and back when she needed a shower. Like now. Only she was not so sure that she was going to get one. Her internal trouble radar was pinging big time. She just knew this was going to spin up into something.
The noise in the bull pen outside of her office door started to increase as the office ramped up for the day as the troops either roused or stumbled in to work. They all worked weird hours and staggered shifts to work around the hideous traffic through the beltway. All niters were frequent here. The light from the bull pen was what had woken her as it gradually increased, flooding through the slats of the blinds on the windows in her office. She rarely closed them. She wanted to see her people and have her people see her. She understood hackers better than any boss in the world. Probably because she was one. Being seen kept hackers on the right path. That was why no one had a cubicle. It was too easy to be isolated and tempted in cubicle world. They all knew her history just as she knew theirs. Sharing your glorious and inglorious past was the right of passage when you joined her team. Everyone owed up to their actions. Even Chloe. Isis had been legendary. She had become a beacon of hope that every hacker could stay straight. She knew that it was too easy to stray when hidden in shadows, so she had taken the shadows away. No one on her team wanted to be the one who failed her.
She had worked darn hard to make sure her team had the best of everything, including high salaries and cool perks so they weren’t tempted with taking side jobs to survive. Boy that had been a battle. The brass finally heard what she had been saying repeatedly after WikiLeaks. She had contended that the real threat to United States security was a bill-laden NSA employee working paycheck to paycheck. Until the embarrassment of the major information breach was made public, every salary request had fallen on deaf ears. She hadn’t stopped pittance of a salary increase. To truly make her point about how important her team was, she had shut down the Stock Exchange with a borrowed cell phone in the middle of a budget meeting to get their attention. The brass had nearly lost their minds over that stunt. She explained that it was her team that stood the wall against digital chaos as she quickly fixed her hack. Now they enjoyed salaries three times the National average for computer specialists, liberal PTO, on-site free daycare, and subsidized medical costs. If she asked for something, she got it. She used that power sparingly, but it was nice to know it was available when she needed it.
She looked out her office door at the bull pen. It had more than a dozen comfortable leather couches that lined every wall around the huge room for impromptu naps. On every wall above the couches, there were large-screen LED TVs controlled from a desktop application. There was even a coffee kitchen that was the envy of every department in the NSA. She had finagled money from some of her many hacking seizures to set up a state-of-the-art tech center, including overhead lighting that mimicked circadian light cycles, ergonomic desks, desk-side mini fridges filled with whatever beverage of choice was needed, a game room, a score of conference rooms in various sizes with state-of-the-art tele-presence equipment and bathrooms located in the security-controlled center. They had their own 100G optical fiber trench with triple redundancy and an on-site server farm. If that wasn’t luxurious enough, her annual budget included a dedicated pastry chef and full-time barista for her team thanks to a couple of patents Chloe shared with the NSA store front businesses.
It had taken her years to build the Division of Encryption Special Projects Response Team, or DESPRT in the acronym-laden world that is the government, into the computer equivalent of the military’s Special Forces. They were the elite of the computer world. It had been her life’s work and was her pride and joy. Hackers catching hackers while staying on the side of angels themselves. They were also the best kept secret in an agency full of secrets. Even the Office of Tailored Access Operations, brought their unsolvable issues to DESPRT. The team’s uniform, a simple polo shirt, had, “When You Get Desperate, Call Me…” embroidered in script above the pocket. They were open seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They only dealt with the worst of computer security issues. In addition to the forty-two hackers she had hand-picked, she had three behavioral analysts she had plucked from Quantico, a social worker, a forensic accountant, a statistician, a private detective to monitor the team integrity, a team of database administrators, a crack team of internet researchers who could literally find the right needle in a haystack of needles, a vendor management specialist to interact with various public and private software companies, a team of hardware specialists she had pulled from Air Force Satellite Communications, and a full-time liaison to an Enhanced Special SWAT team used for apprehension when necessary. They could literally find any hacker at any time in any place in the world and grab them if necessary. Extradition was rarely an issue because most countries either handed cybercriminals over or they turned a blind eye when they were grabbed. Well, except North Korea, which seemed to breed them. There were ways around that government. She had stopped counting the number of North Korean nationals they had nabbed with a free trip to Comic-Con. Frequently, it made more sense to monitor and trace the criminal behavior instead of arresting them. You could learn more keeping your enemies close. Sun Tzu would be happy to know that the Art of War was still relevant. Hackers were like weeds. Pull one, another popped up and you had to start your hunt all over again. But if you tagged each dandelion seed before it flew into the yard, you knew where every weed would pop up as well as their particular flavor of havoc. Work smarter, not harder. Duh.
There was a light knock on her door breaking her reverie, even though it was open. Magda popped her gray head in. Magda was a short, round woman in her early fifties who had owned Chloe’s favorite café in Cambridge. Magda had been feeding her since she was a young teenager. When her husband passed unexpectedly causing them to lose the café to the bank, Chloe hired her to take care of her team. They got rid of the previous caterer and Magda had fed them ever since.
“Guten Morgen, Mausbar” she trilled in her deep German accent. Magda always called her the endearment which meant “Mouse-Bear”. She had told Chloe it was because she was a tiny mouse that roared fiercely when needed. “I bring you sustenance.” She smiled as she set down Chloe’s 48-ounce travel mug and a plate of fresh pastries.
“Good Morning, My Life-Giving Goddess,” Chloe said as she laughed. She took a deep gulp of the nectar of the gods and sighed. She grabbed a pastry off the plate. “I would literally die if you retired. You will have to stay with me forever,” she said around a mouthful of sweet goodness.
Magda just laughed as she left the office, closing the door behind her.
Chloe stood up and stretched after her brain came back online. Not that she amounted to much of an impressive site. Magda was right. She was a mouse. She barely cleared five-feet tall. On a good day, she cracked a hundred pounds on the scale. Thank God for petite clothing or she would be buying her wardrobe in the girl’s department. How embarrassing would that be? Her foster-sister had given a coffee cup years ago as a joke that she kept on her book shelf that said, “Size Zero is Just Stupid”. Jess always teased her about how she was size ‘nothing-nothing’ even though she ate like a truck driver and hated anything remotely resembling a vegetable. The only time she felt powerful was behind a computer. There she was a Goddess. Isis’s hacking days were a long time ago and she had more pressing matters that needed to be attended. She shrugged off that thought as she headed to the ladies’ room. Nothing had blown up in the last few minutes so she figured she could clean herself up before it did. She pulled a small toiletry bag out of her bottom drawer and ran to the ladies’ room.
Refreshed, fed, and well into her second travel cup of coffee, Chloe sat at the head of the table in their largest conference room. The daily status meeting was comprised of all her team leads. The swing shift-lead and the SWAT liaison dialed in via the conference bridge. Cameron sat this one out since he was actively monitoring what was happening in New York. Chloe led with the marquees in Times Square as the most potential issue for the day but gave the caveat that they had not been activated yet. All was quite in the world at the moment after everyone had weighed in on their current status. Well, relative quiet. There was always activity in China and North Korea. So much so that it was almost a background hum. Almost half her team at any one time was tracking something with one of those two countries. Not that Chloe minded. The endless criminal element had forced them to build some bleeding-edge tracking automation to stay ahead of them. Now the team could focus on what needed a human response instead of routine monitoring. Anything that hit the sniffers set on the country perimeters was pushed through an algorithm. Perimeters were established either by country or by regions and risk stratified for each perimeter set. Certain targets had their own perimeter, like China or North Korea. Russia had several due to its size. All content, attachments, worms, and other bits were analyzed for risk both in its entirety and as a component of anything previously identified. They had learned that lesson the hard way after pieces of the 2001 Storm Worm were reused to construct the 2006 Storm Worm. It had been embarrassing, but they had learned a lot from it. They had built a registry of every hacker in the world, including an index to every line of code any hacker had created or touched. If a hacker reused more than ten characters in common with anything in their database, the algorithm started flagging the item for risk. The more characters, the higher the risk. When it was flagged for human review depended on the region and the number of risk points. It had been a whole eleven days since the last time they had a major flag. Chloe stopped at the tote board in the bull pen on the way back to office. She erased the chalk number ten and wrote the number eleven on the board, knowing that doing so probably just jinxed them. New York was going to turn int something. She just knew it. They had taken to tracking the breaks years ago. They had set a record in 2016 with the most days at zero. That record helped her at budgeting time. They were busy. The cash pool going for the longest drought was well up to $100.00. Everyone chipped in a quarter each day and took a guess on what time of day the streak would stop. Macabre to be sure, but there could be some serious money in that pot. The largest pot had been 27 days and had almost three hundred dollars in it. But that had been well before the election tampering. There had been too much since then to get a big streak going.
She had five minutes until her next meeting, so she returned to her office to get ready. Cameron, her day shift team lead, showed up in her office doorway and had that look on his face. Chloe knew she had indeed jinxed them. Cameron was a young guy, although ironically older than her in years. Of course, most people were. The hazards of finishing your PhD at 22 years-old. He didn’t have her fancy education, being a self-taught hacking God, but he was irreplaceable as her right-hand. He rarely raised his voice and unlike most hackers, he was good with people. He looked the opposite of what you would assume a nerd hacker would look like. He was six-four and two-hundred-thirty pounds of muscle. He was lean and fit from his vegan lifestyle and had a bad-boy vibe he gave off with the constant five o’clock shadow he sported and the small gold hoop in each earlobe. He sported the same tattoo she had designed for herself when she got into Harvard. Most kids that age were playing with Barbie, not wrestling with Quantum Physics. She had wanted something unique to celebrate her victory getting into such a prestigious college. The two-inch square diamond tattoo that looked like a hazmat placard was now the unofficial badge of her team. Everyone got one as soon as they passed probation. In each of the four squares was a number. The top held a black number one on a red background, the right square held a black 89 on a yellow background, the bottom held a black 19 on a white background, and the left side held a black 68 on a royal blue background. It spelled H-A-C-K-E-R using chemical symbol values from the periodic table. Even though every high school student had chemistry, it still surprised her how few figured out that the number one was for hydrogen or ‘H’, the 89 was for actinium or “AC’, the 19 was for potassium or “K”, and the 68 was for erbium or “ER”. Then again, she started college at nine, so she was a bit of an odd duck to begin with.
“What?” she asked. Part of her really did not want to know.
“You need to look at the TV. Times Square. Even the banner on ABC News is displaying a new message,” he stammered.
“New message?” she demanded as she hurried after him.
“The Coke sign continued to flash ‘Merkle’s Puzzle.’ The Foot Locker marquee started flashing ‘Tick, tock…’ about thirty minutes ago and the McDonald’s marquee started flashing ‘You will pay…’ repeatedly across the screen just a few minutes ago,” explain Cameron.
Chloe noted that the count-down clock had lost an hour and three minutes. “Cherry still locked out?” she asked.
“Yes. She is still trying, though. I will stay on it,” he said, returning to his keyboard.
Chloe settled into her desk chair and opened her web meeting with the software industry. She hosted a once a month meeting with all the major software manufacturers for operating systems, encryption protocols, and security programs from around the world. All the biggies participated, including her old alma mater. She always made sure to include the Security firm that had supported her through the National Physical Science Consortium (NPSC) with a six-year Doctoral fellowship in Computer Science while she had earned her PhD, despite her age. The industry had helped her stay on the path of righteousness, so she felt like she needed to give back. It was a little self-serving of course since whatever they could prevent, she didn’t have to deal with another day. Chloe ran through all the latest finds and pending risks as quickly as she could, not bothering to wait to see if a quorum was reached. She needed to get this off her plate and now. She rarely had anyone not attend. The risk was just too great not to make sure everybody was on top of the curve. She emailed out the encrypted ‘hacking tells’ cheat sheet that the industry needed to create the newest safeguards. Less than twenty-six minutes. A new record.
The briefing never took long, but it was critical. She had been running these calls for over two years. The BASHLITE virus in 2014 was the last major virus that propagated without a warning. Her team had known it was coming but didn’t prevent its actions outside of the NSA. The impacts had been devastating. It was the catalyst to her department to start being proactive rather than reactive. All trojans and ransomware attacks since then had been monitored. They knew who the players were based on the code fragments. They had used the BASHLITE event to create a full map of the dark web through their shell company, Darksum, before her team handed the kill switch off to a colleague team in the UK for the WannaCry virus. That team had then shut down several extortion rings in Russia and China on the dark web. Their biggest success to date was convincing the Chinese government to crackdown on the North Korean group who had hacked the American credit bureau for personal data. Her team had opted to tag and track instead of intervening directly. She then outed the North Koreans as the source of stolen Chinese secrets and let nature take its course. The dark web videos of the summary executions had been particularly brutal. But hey, you mess with a totalitarian regime, stuff happens. Her team followed the stolen data and apprehended another dozen major players in the identity theft. The popular media kept trying to sell that Russia controlled the 2016 elections through using the Credit Bureau data to have access to names and addresses of voters to reach with a manipulated opinion. If the public knew exactly where they had gotten the names and addresses instead, congressional heads would roll. Chloe knew exactly where they had gotten the data and had her team plug the hole. Russia would not be getting source records again. If they tried, their entire infrastructure would burn to the ground from all the trojans planted after the first theft. The only chink to her team’s master plan to prevent meddling in the US elections so far were the news plants made on social media that looked like real stories but were, in fact, made up garbage meant to incite anger and bigotry while the hackers planted trackers. Her team had since created an algorithm to identify wording patterns across different languages to assist the social media companies in identifying potential subversives so they could use trackers to back trace the data source. Her team would have the algorithm put together soon to be able to flag false stories.
Chloe walked into the bull pen just as the Marriott marquee started flashing “Still stumped?”
“Still stumped? What the hell?” groused Chloe.
“Boy. Whoever the asshole is who is doing this has a flare for the dramatic,” laughed Cameron. Chloe lifted a brow and frowned his direction.
“Just saying. And before you ask, no, Cherry has not escalated yet,” he finished.
She growled and walked back into her office. She hated waiting for the inevitable.
She sighed and started her next daily task.
Tim Burton was the private investigator who monitored the team and did the extra vetting needed for new hires. He was a big, burly man who looked like a grizzled old TV cop, replete with the short sleeve dress shirt stretched across his belly and the balding comb over. All he needed was a donut in his hand. In Chloe’s mind, he was worth his weight in gold because he made sure those who worked for her stayed honest and those who wanted to work for her were capable of it. Chloe never hired contractors. It had proven to be a smart move after everything that had happened with a contractor in another NSA department. She wanted honesty and loyalty from her team members. Hired guns just didn’t fit. Her team was the digital line that kept the world from complete chaos. They were the very best at what they did. She was proud of each and every one of them and what they each brought to her team. It was unacceptable to have an outsider ruin that. Tim settled into the chair across from her with a big groan and grumped, “I am getting too old for this shit.”
Chloe chuckled at him. “You and me both, amigo.”
He started his update when Magda dropped another large travel mug in front of Chloe and a human-size cup in front of Tim. Magda disappeared without a word or waiting for acknowledgement after grabbing the empty mug. Tim started running down a potential time bomb on one of their candidates. He asked for a researcher, so he could either confirm or disprove his suspicions. His gut was setting off alarm bells on this guy. Chloe had learned to trust his hunches because they were usually right. They had passed on ’Verax’ for their team because of Tim’s gut. Chloe still had to chuckle every time she heard his name on the news, knowing they had passed on him even though his Wikipedia page said otherwise. She wouldn’t have been surprised if he had written it himself.
As soon as Tim left, she gave her cactus some bottled water. For some unknown reason, she had managed not to kill the saguaro cactus her team had given her when she was promoted to Director. When it had been alive for a year, she named him Bob. Yes, she and Bob had seen quite a bit of action from her desk at the NSA. Her behind it, and him on the corner of it. He would have never survived if she had brought him home. She was never there.