OCTOPUS. . Chapter Sixteen.

The briefing was at 5:00 P.M. in the main conference room on the sixth floor of DARPA headquarters. The building was a nondescript, brick-faced affair located inside the Virginia Square Plaza in Arlington, Virginia.

In attendance were Deputy Director Vincent Valdez; his assistant, Paul Talbot, and his two assistant military attaches, Captain Norm Pettis, U.S.M.C., and Captain Stanley Greenberg, U.S.N. There were also two Acquisitions and Technology special assistants, an information special tech, a liaison officer, a defense science officer, and a captain from the Special Projects office. A naval lieutenant JG, Sally Watts, the youngest person in the room at only twenty-three, was also a top forensic computer specialist

Next to her was a program interrogation coordinator and a woman from the comptroller’s office.

For such a large gathering the sixth-floor conference room was opened and they had put out coffee and donuts. A low murmur of voices filled the corridor, finally, two-star Air Force General William “Buzz” Turpin, director of DARPA, swept into the room and took his place at the head of the table.

Young at sixty-eight, Turpin’s demeanor was hard and humorless. He began without preamble: “Did everybody get the oh-eight-hundred Re-Op?”

The room nodded. Re-Op stood for Report of Operations. This one was the detailed description of a breach of the secure computer at Gen-A-Tec.

The room was hushed. This was Turpin’s meeting.

“Since the penetration at the New Fairview Hotel in San Francisco by our high-risk special response team at oh-five-hundred yesterday morning, and the subsequent collateralization of the computer hacker by our DU, we have, unfortunately, experienced further breakdowns,” Buzz said softly. He always spoke in a very quiet voice a trick he’d learned on the debate team at the Air Force Academy. Everybody in the room was leaning forward to catch every word.

“The DU recovered Roland Minton’s computer. Minton attempted to erase his last e-mail after he sent it, but Lieutenant Watts managed to digitally reconstruct the message. We have copies for all of you.”

Vincent Valdez stood and passed Roland’s last e-mail around the table. Turpin paused while it was read. When all eyes were once again focused on him, he continued.

“This message was e-mailed to a portable computer. We have the name of the owner but not his location.”

Several ballpoint pens clicked and people began making notes.

“You’ll note that the e-mail address is Strockmeister at earthlink-dot-net. That turns out to be somebody named Herman Strockmire Jr. I’m going to go over the pertinent facts in the e-mail, then you can address questions to your section leaders or to Mr. Valdez after the meeting.

“One: The dead hacker sent the fifty-page Chimera file to Herman Strockmire’s computer. Location unknown. The only address we have is his office in D.C. He’s not there. Apparently his secretary doesn’t know where he is. More on that in a minute.

“Two: According to our cryptographer the encoded file is going to take around two days for Roland’s ‘bud’ to decode, even with ten sun solar work stations. That means we have as little as two days to get it back before we end up in a public-relations disaster.

“Three: The forensic computer section under Lieutenant Watts is working up a list of companies in the Western U.S. that have ten sun solar work stations. It has to be a big lash-up. Once we have that list we cross check it against an employee named Zimmy. It’s undoubtedly a nickname, so it could stand for anything from Zim to Zimmerman. And, Lieutenant, I need all of this yesterday.”

Sally Watts nodded as she jotted notes furiously.

“Four: Herman Strockmire Jr. runs a legal firm called the Institute for Planetary Justice. To put it politely, he’s a tree-and-bunny hugger who has sued just about every federal letter agency in the government. I’m evaluating the possibility of picking up his secretary and debriefing her, but these people are fanatics, and I’m not sure that’s our most prudent course of action. Besides, if Strockmire’s the delusional paranoid our profile makes him out to be, she may have been kept in the dark.”

Buzz Turpin leaned back in his chair and paused for emphasis, then said, “Strockmire is in possession of devastating material that could create huge problems for us. Last week he was in L.A. suing a bunch of federal agencies and private labs over GMO food. He got Rule-Elevened in Judge Melissa King’s court and

fined a million dollars. I think a primary course of action might be to contact Judge King through a blind and see if she can lure him in again. Maybe, if she offers to cut his fine, he’ll show up and we can grab him. We’re running a logistics scan on that and one or two other potential operation plans. We’ll have something in a few hours. As of now nobody seems to know where Strockmire is. We have to change that.

“Five: This person Susie who’s mentioned in the e-mail is undoubtedly Susan Strockmire, Herman’s daughter. She is leverage, and I want her. Get a sniffer on her bank account and on Strockmire’s. Five-hour updates.”

Buzz Turpin cleared his throat and leaned forward. “Okay, people, one more thing and this is important: I’m not looking to turn this into a major news story. One of the problems with this guy is that he has celebrity friends who are environmentalists and animal-rights fanatics. The last thing I need is for fucking Marlon Brando or Cher to jump on the Today Show and start screaming we murdered him. This means Strockmire needs to be neutralized but not necessarily collateralized at least not yet. What we’ve got here is a big, sloshing bucket of shit, and I don’t want to get any more of it on us than necessary. Any deviation from this op plan gets cleared by either Vincent, Paul Talbot, or me. Nobody moves on his own initiative. Are we all absolutely clear on this?”

Everyone in the room nodded.

“Okay. Get going. We’re going to have twelve-hour debriefs in this room at oh-seven-hundred and fourteen-hundred hours. Everybody, except people assigned to location field ops, will be in attendance. No exceptions.” General Buzz Turpin stood and exited the room with long strides and a face that looked like it had been hacked out of granite. Once he was gone Vincent Valdez turned to the room.

“Okay, organize into subgroups. Operations on the right side and Lo-Recon on the left.”

Operations was headed by the two Marine and Navy captains. They were joined by the information officer, the defense weapons specialist, and the captain from the Special Projects office. Lo-Recon was Logistical Reconnaissance, and that was everybody else.

In his office at the end of the sixth-floor corridor, General Turpin slumped behind his desk and looked out through his large picture window at the mall parking lot. A light mist was falling. He glowered down at the slick pavement feeling a surge of impotent fury.

He had fought for DARPA, defended its projects on the Hill in front of the Armed Services Committee, fended off a liberal congress that questioned not only the military applications of their research, but even DARPA’s very usefulness to the country’s defense. He had artfully steered huge sums of money from Pentagon research accounts into DARPA’s coffers. He found promising research at various aviation companies and science labs, then proceeded to funnel DARPA money into those private programs that he controlled. He hired leading scientists and formed think tanks to conceptualize the weapons of the future. The Stealth Bomber was the brainchild of a Northrop engineer, picked up by one of Turpin’s science advisers. The project, financed by DARPA, eventually produced a new generation of attack aircraft.

Now, the Chimera Project, his most innovative accomplishment, was in mortal jeopardy, and with it the entire agency. The concept and execution of the project was brilliant a chance to create test-tube soldiers, better by far than their human counterparts, with abilities far superior to any grunt who ever wore the uniform or fought and died for his flag. Never again would General Turpin be forced to stand at a military funeral and engage the tearful eyes of a dead soldier’s parent, wife, or child.

Buzz Turpin had found the ultimate solution to ground warfare. He was about to rewrite the book on military effectiveness.

With these chimeras, never again would even one American GI be forced to go into battle or be sent home inside a flag-draped coffin.

But, because of Stockmire’s silly lawsuit to protect a bunch of damn butterflies, this legal joke, this accident in a three-piece suit was threatening to destroy everything. The lawyer had compromised the security of the Gen-A-Tec computer system. With this security breach, General Turpin’s crowning career achievement was in jeopardy of being exposed before he had his public-relations plan in order.

Turpin was well aware of how the liberal media would portray this scientific adventure. They would see only the science-fiction horror movie aspects of the program: “Genetic Monsters Created in Government Labs.”

They would attack the program as evil or perhaps even criminal. They would come after Turpin with a vengeance, forcing him to defend his program in a peacetime vacuum. From the beginning he had known that the only way to introduce disposable soldiers was in the field. If the Development Units had been ready during Kosovo he would have used them there. Then, after they had been victorious after no American soldier had been lost on the ground Turpin would reveal them to the world. Under that scenario he could verify their military superiority. He would have results to parade before the press, pictures of the DUs in action. He would be able to show their overpowering effectiveness, their courage and strength in battle.

But this this discovery, these so-called dirty secrets stolen from a secure computer would make all his efforts appear nefarious, evil, and illegal.

Turpin sat in his office and studied the mist-wet tops of cars six stories below. He steepled his fingers under his chin and his mind went back to the snow-blown fields of North Korea thousands of miles and fifty years behind him. He was nineteen, on the ground behind enemy lines, his jet shot down by ground

fire. He wandered in desperation, cold and weak, until he finally hooked up with a forward-area communications battalion. It was the same day the Chinese under the command of General Chai Ung Jun attacked the DMZ, swarming down from the north under leaden skies filled with shrieking artillery.

He remembered the horde of screaming North Koreans, their heads and feet wrapped in rags for warmth, charging insanely while vicious artillery barrages exploded around him, the concussions rupturing his eardrums. He saw American GIs being blown to bits by incendiary grenades, some shredded above ground by Chinese Bouncing Bettys. He could smell brave American flesh burning, the odor choking him. Even now he could hear the GIs screaming, see their blood spurting from open wounds, splashing in ugly patterns on the frozen snow.

And then his mind bolted, and with a fast-beating heart and shortness of breath, he escaped this nightmare and was back in the safety of his office in the Virginia shopping mall. He hasn’t been there,” he whispered, thinking of Herman Strockmire. “He hasn’t heard the screaming. He doesn’t know what he’s trying to destroy.”