The agency was a vast communications drift net, catching hundreds of millions of electrical and radio transmissions worldwide every hour and sifting through them with some of the most powerful supercomputers on the planet. From its very beginning-back in the days of the fabled Black Chamber after World War II-the agency was responsible for creating the cryptologic ciphers relied upon to safeguard America’s secrets and for cracking the ciphers of foreign powers.
A culture of secrecy dating back to the Cold War permeated the place. Posters seemingly from a bygone era hung in the common spaces, extolling the virtues of keeping secrets-even from other top-secret researchers. However, with the explosion of technology throughout the nineties, even the NSA was no longer able to keep up with the worldwide flow of digital information, and they were forced to let the rumors of their omniscience hide a brutal reality: no one knew where the next threat was coming from. Nation states were no longer the enemy. The enemy had become a catchall phrase:
In a corner boardroom of the OPS-2B building, a group of agency directors convened an emergency meeting. No introductions were necessary. They had already worked together closely in the War on Terror and the War on Drugs, and they stood ready to combat any other noun that caused trouble. Senior intelligence and research officers from a periodic table of agencies were in attendance: NSA, CIA, DIA, DARPA, and the FBI. The talk was fast and urgent.
NSA: “So, what is it, a virus? An Internet worm?”
DARPA: “No, something new. Some sort of distributed scripting engine that responds to real-world events. It’s almost certainly capable of further propagation.”
NSA: “Can we write a bot to scour the Net and delete it?”
DARPA: “Not likely.”
NSA: “Why not?”
DARPA: “Because it doesn’t appear to have a single profile. Our best guess is that it consists of hundreds or even thousands of individual components spread over compromised workstations linked to the Net. Once a component is used, it’s probably no longer needed.”
NSA: “Then there’s an end to it? I mean, Sobol’s dead, so it will stop once it runs its course.”
DARPA: “True, but there’s obvious concern over the damage it might cause in the meantime. It’s already killed eight people.”
NSA: “Can’t we block its communications? Surely the components have to communicate with each other?”
DARPA: “No. They don’t. We believe the components are triggered not by each other, but by reading news stories. For example, one component just issued this press release”-he passed a printed page-“only after the siege story hit the wire services. The release is digitally signed. Sobol wants us to know it was his. We already tracked down the origin of the press release; it was e-mailed from a poorly secured computer in a St. Louis accounting firm. The program destroyed itself after it ran, but we were able to recover it from a tape backup. It was a simple HTML reader searching hundreds of Web sites for headlines about this estate siege.”
CIA: “Jesus. So we can’t stop this thing? What’s it up to?”
DARPA: “Its proximate purpose appears to be self-preservation. Its ultimate purpose is unclear. It acts like a distributed AI agent-which would make sense if Matthew Sobol designed it.”
CIA: “Artificial intelligence? You’re not serious?”
DARPA: “Let me be clear: this is not a thinking, talking, sentient machine. This is narrow AI-like a character in a computer game. It’s a collection of specific rules searching for recognizable patterns or events. Very basic. Nonetheless, very potent. It can alter course based on what’s occurring in the real world, but it can’t innovate or deviate from its given parameters. It required an incredible amount of planning. The name the press gave it is apt: it’s basically a daemon. A distributed daemon.”
CIA: “This is horseshit. There must be living people controlling it-cyber terrorists. I mean, how could Sobol know in advance exactly how we’re going to react?”
DARPA: “He didn’t have to. He could plan for multiple contingencies and then observe what actually occurs. Thus its monitoring of Internet news.”
FBI: “Just shut down the Internet.”
The others gave him a patronizing look.
FBI: “You guys built the damned thing. Why can’t you turn it off?”
NSA: “Let’s stick to reasonable suggestions, shall we?”
FBI: “I don’t mean for a long time-just for a second.”
DARPA: “The Internet is not a single system. It consists of hundreds of millions of individual computer systems linked with a common protocol. No one controls it entirely. It can’t be ‘shut down.’ And even if you could shut it down, the Daemon would just come back when you turned it back on.”
The director cut him off.
NSA: “Look, let’s not hold a remedial class on distributed networks. Let’s get back to the big question: do we defy Sobol’s demand? What can he do if we enter the estate prior to thirty days?”
NSA: “Of course I do. But before I make my report to the Advisory Council, I need to know the potential consequences of defying this thing.”
Everyone looked to the scientist.
DARPA: “Based on the deaths yesterday, I’d say there will be more fatalities.”
CIA: “But nothing on a grander scale? No economic damage? No political ramifications?”
DARPA: “It’s impossible to say. We’ll only know when we defy it.”
NSA: “What about jamming the radio signals to the Hummer?”
DARPA opened a folder and flipped through it while he talked.
DARPA: “The Hummer isn’t the problem. The problem is the ultrawideband signals emanating from the house.” He distributed handouts.
NSA: “Ultrawideband? Refresh me on that.”
DARPA: “Ultrawideband involves extremely short pulses of radio energy-just billionths or trillionths of a second. By their nature ultrashort radio pulses occupy a wide swath of the frequency spectrum, covering several gigahertz in range.”
NSA: “Bottom-line it for us.”
DARPA: “Okay. This explains the high amount of radio interference around the estate. Normally, ultrawideband transceivers wouldn’t be made powerful for that very reason, but Sobol’s got a big one in place-and I don’t think he’s worried about violating FCC rules. It’s screwing up our radio communications, and it will be hard as hell to jam.”
CIA: “This is commercial technology? What good is something like that?”
DARPA, warming up to his topic: “It can be used as a super-accurate local GPS system-and I mean accurate down to a centimeter scale. Because of the wide swath of frequencies in use, some portion of the signal’s going to get through even brick walls and radio jamming. With a computer map of the property and a transponder mounted in the Hummer, it would be possible to know exactly where the vehicle was at all times. He could relay infrared or other targeting information to the Hummer from a central computer, and he could protect the central computer from direct attack.”
CIA: “You’re sure he’s using this ultrawideband?”
DARPA: “We’ve got CSC techs on the scene gathering COMINT and SIGINT.”
FBI: “Was it ultrawideband that took out the bomb disposal team?”
DARPA: “No.” He passed out more folders. “Fortunately the disposal team survived, and one of our researchers was able to interview Agent Guerner at County USC. His account leads our scientists to conclude that Sobol used some form of acoustical weaponry.”
CIA: “Jesus Christ, why didn’t we recruit this guy?”
NSA: “We tried to.”
FBI: “Acoustical weaponry?”
DARPA: “Yes. Extremely low-frequency sound waves have been researched for use as nonlethal weapons. They’re intended for quelling riots.”
NSA, reading report: “Some nonlethal weapon. The capillaries in their eyes burst.”
DARPA: “The low-frequency sound vibrates the victim’s intestines, creating a feeling of deep unease and panic, difficulty breathing-and in stronger applications damaging delicate blood vessels. This matches Guerner’s account and his injuries. Bear in mind, much of this technology isn’t classified. With a good amount of money, a technical expert like Sobol could theoretically reproduce it-especially if he didn’t intend to profit from it.”
The attendees were duly sobered.
NSA: “How do we keep the Daemon from knowing we’ve entered the estate?”
FBI: “Can’t we simply impose a news blackout? To stop it from reading the news?”
FBI: “Not a total news blackout-just redaction of news about the Daemon. A gag order. Use our ties to the Web search companies. Or just decree it in the name of national security.”
CIA: “Why not take out a full-page ad asking the public to panic?”
DARPA: “Look, you’re ignoring the fact that at least one component of the Daemon is
Everyone grew quiet again.
DIA: “They’ve cut power to the house, right?”
It was FBI’s turn to roll his eyes.
DARPA: “It probably has backup power systems.”
FBI, examining his own report: “Ground-penetrating radar shows nothing unusual on the estate grounds. No secret power lines or tunnels. The L.A. Division got ahold of the networking company that installed Sobol’s server room. He’s got about twelve hours of backup battery power. The city permit office plans also show a backup diesel generator with three-hundred-gallon fuel capacity.”
CIA: “How long could that last?”
NSA: “The political pressure will be intense. I’m guessing we can’t wait even a couple of days.”
FBI: “It’s being taken care of, gentlemen.”
DARPA: “Frankly, we’re more concerned about the Daemon components on the Internet than the components in the house.”
CIA: “Can’t you focus
NSA: “That quickly turns into a discussion of USSID-18. We all know what a shitstorm that kicked up.”
CIA: “That’s ridiculous. This isn’t a domestic surveillance issue. Sobol’s
DIA: “I’ll bet the ACLU would have an opinion on that.”
FBI: “Just purchase consumer data from the private sector. It’s easier.”
DARPA: “Once again, gentlemen, reality intrudes. Our standard surveillance methods won’t work. The Daemon issues press releases or reads the news. One is highly public; the other is a passive activity. There are no recurrent IP addresses or search words in e-mails to monitor.
The room grew quiet again.
NSA: “Then we’re agreed that we need to defy the Daemon’s demand as soon as power can be brought down on the estate?”
They all nodded.
NSA: “Good. We’ll know more once we capture Sobol’s server room.” He looked to FBI. “Make that happen, and we’ll see what this thing has up its sleeve.”
* * *
Marine Captain Terence Lawne waited in a prone position on a shipping blanket laid across the roof of the County’s SWAT van. This gave him a vantage point over the estate fence line and deep into Sobol’s property. Lawne’s right eye pressed against the rubberized viewfinder on the infrared scope of his M82A1A.50-caliber anti-materiel rifle. He panned the property, swiveling the monster gun on its bipod until he located Sobol’s Hummer. He focused the crosshairs on it. The Hummer’s engine had been off for a while, but there was still a good heat signature. “I got it.”
Major Karl Devon shifted position next to him to get a good look with his FLIR scope. The sheet metal roof of the SWAT van thumped and moved as he did so.
“Major, watch the movement. This thing’s four hundred and fifty yards downrange.”
He kept looking. “How’s your angle?”
Lawne settled in again, getting his breathing under control. “It’s a clear shot.” He pulled on his hearing protection.
Devon looked down toward the nearby road at the gathered crowd of police, FBI, reporters, and technicians. It was a veritable army standing in the darkness below. The construction lights had been extinguished to facilitate Lawne’s work.
Devon shouted, “Cover your ears, people!” Devon pulled on his own ear protection and looked back to Lawne. “Fire when ready, Captain.”
Captain Lawne got the Hummer back in his crosshairs. He focused on his breathing, and felt the calm flow over him. He slowly squeezed the trigger.
The big gun boomed and kicked back into his shoulder. He brought his eye back up to the infrared scope for damage assessment. Hot liquid streamed out of the bottom of the Hummer’s engine compartment. Heat suddenly spread throughout the engine, and Lawne heard the distant sound of a diesel engine coming to life. The Hummer started to move-albeit slowly.
“It’s on the move!” He kept his eye to the scope and aimed again. The gun boomed and recoiled. Lawne saw the Hummer jerk to a stop. He had nailed it straight through the engine block. The armor-piercing round struck a mortal blow. Powerful heat was spreading now. Lawne looked up from the viewfinder. He could see orange flames downrange. He pulled off his hearing protectors. “Sorry, Major. It started its engine after the first hit. The Hummer’s on fire.”
Devon checked his FLIR scope. “Goddamnit, Lawne.”
He scanned the scene some more. Nothing they could do about it now. Diesel fuel was fairly slow burning, but nobody was going on that property until the Daemon was down for the count. “Forget about it. Let’s take out the emergency generator.”
Captain Lawne put his eye up to the scope again and swung the long sniper rifle toward the garage, a good hundred yards closer. His eye followed a gravel footpath fifty feet or so to a small stucco outbuilding with an air-conditioning unit set in the wall. The AC unit was red with heat-obviously running. There was also an exterior light just to the right of the nearby door. Lawne switched from infrared to normal view.
Rustling paper came to Lawne’s ear.
Major Devon lowered his night vision goggles and examined blueprints with the aid of an infrared flashlight. “Do you see the AC unit in the south wall-just to the left of the door?”
“I see it.”
“From this vector, you want to put your rounds…” The major was trying to see his pencil lines.”…about halfway between the door and the AC unit, about a foot below the bottom of the AC unit.” He looked up from the blueprints. “Understood?”
“Fire when ready.”
They both put their ear protection back on. Lawne squinted and took aim. This would be an easy shot if he knew exactly what he was aiming for. He let loose.
A divot appeared in the stucco, followed by draining brick dust. The electrical power was still on-the exterior light was still on.
Lawne fired several more times, spreading the shots over an imaginary grid of six-inch squares. The wall rapidly started to crumble. He paused several seconds between each shot to recover from the recoil. His shoulder was starting to ache just as the exterior light flicked off. A muffled cheer and scattered applause went up from hundreds of people in the darkness. Lawne looked up from the viewfinder and could see that all the lights on the Sobol estate had gone out. The only visible light was the Hummer-nearly fully engulfed in flames four football fields away. Lawne pulled off his earphones. He could now hear the excited buzz of the crowd below.
Major Devon called down to a Computer Systems Corporation SIGINT team sent out from DOD, working from the back of a nearby van. “Rigninski! Is the house still emitting ultrawideband?”
An engineer conferred with a technician wearing headphones. He looked up at Devon-even though he couldn’t clearly see him in the darkness. “Yes. It’s still transmitting. Must be running on battery backup.”
Devon looked toward a nearby FBI van, where an array of parabolic microphones was focused on various parts of the Sobol estate. “Agent Gruder, did we take out the generator?”
Gruder held up a finger as she listened in on a pair of headphones. After a good ten seconds she gave the thumbs-up sign. “It’s dead, Major. Good job.”
A somewhat forced cheer went up in the crowd closest to them. It was a small victory.
Major Devon smiled in the darkness. Now it was just a matter of waiting out the battery power backup in the computer room. That gave the Daemon just twelve hours to live.