Continued from last week …
Synopsis: Arnold Wilson Parker continues to use his overwhelming financial power to guide humanity's development from behind the scenes. Special Agent Joshua Weidemeyer, fresh from his success at breaking up a major international counterfeiting ring, finds himself assigned to a new committee.
Two years before Dancing Fawn made her first crossing, Arnold Wilson Parker* sat on the veranda of his estate overlooking the Rockies. Next to him sat Edgar Kohrob, CEO of ENGCO, a conglomerate of the largest engineering, design, and construction companies in the United States. For the past five years, they had conspired, planned, and worked to bring into existence the world's first thorium nuclear power plant. If it was successful, over 20 more would follow and the United States would finally be on the way to solving its energy needs.
"OK, where are we? Now, I mean?" asked Parker.
But Kohrob didn't answer. He waited instead, in discreet silence, as Parker's butler, James, having approached unseen by his host, delivered their lunch. Both men knew that the large veranda, like the rest of the estate, was swept daily for bugs. They also knew, being both born to wealth, that a servant's mouth can never be trusted. Instinctively, they suspend all conversation whenever any help was present. So they sat in silence until this particular security risk finished his duties and went back into the house.
"Sorry," said Parker after the door closed. "Where were we?"
"The Project status. It's moving well," said Kohrob. "We expect warm-up next week."
"And seed injection? How soon?" asked Parker.
Thorium* is only slightly radioactive and produces no heat. To generate power, it must be converted into a type of uranium called U233. When U233 atoms explode, they produce heat and also radiation that changes some thorium into replacement U233. A new reactor is started by adding a small amount of radioactive U233 to the fuel. Until that is done, the fuel is no more dangerous than a bucket of molten sand.
"Two weeks. If they let us."
And that, thought Parker, is the big question. Will they let us?
"What are you doing about them?" he asked, referring to the group of self-appointed watchdogs that had found construction anomalies in the containment vessel. They were threatening to go public, meaning to Van de Groot, with the evidence if ENGCO didn't fix the dome before start-up.
"We've calmed them down for now, but if we seed the core without a fix, they'll blow the whistle on us."
"And you're sure there's no way to repair it?" asked Parker.
"Not without a major rebuild."
And not without years of delay and eventual bankruptcy for ENGCO and most of its partners, all of whom were patrons of Parker. His leadership could not stand the loss. Damn Van de Groot. The b*tch would get him good if that happened.
Parker had been over this time and again with independent experts, people who did not have an axe to grind. Their opinion had always been the same. Because a thorium reactor did not produce radioactive steam, it did not need a containment vessel. A small bunker, maybe, but nothing bigger.
But the issue still worried him. Could a man ever trust his advisors? What if they were wrong? He was in this fight to save the environment, not flush it down a radioactive toilet. There would be no American Chernobyl on his watch.
Then why even risk it? When Parker looked at the big picture, the answer was painfully obvious. Without massive amounts of cheap energy, the nation couldn't even build, much less deploy, an effective military. During a time of growing shortages, those armored divisions and carriers stabilized the world. Civilization depended on them to keep the peace. Chaos, famine, and nuclear war were, now more than ever, just under the surface. If American power ever withdrew, the great collapse would begin.
Windmills and solar panels could never even produce the tanks and ships, much less run them. No matter how many covered the country, there just wasn't enough space. Without oil, nuclear power was the only option. This project, or one like it, had to go through. For humanity's sake.
"OK. Again. Why don't we need one? A containment vessel, that is," he asked.
"To begin with, no water."
"All nuclear power plants now in operation cool their reactors with pressurized water. So it gets radioactive. If there's a leak, it turns into radioactive steam. The dome stops that steam from getting out."
"Thorium reactors don't make steam?"
"Not radioactive steam. They don't use water to cool the core."
"Why the dome? If it's not needed, I mean. Why is it there?"
"Ask your friend, Van de Groot. Her people pushed that through."
Parker didn't have to ask. Damn that woman's ambition. Damn her megalomania. She lusted after power, wanted to run everything. As if she had some special vision, some divine knowledge of what was best for mankind.
And she knew the only way to the top was to embarrass him on a major project, something like Prometheus. Van de Groot had done all she could to make it fail for her own political motives, not for any scientific or technical ones. She pushed through a statutory requirement that all power reactors, regardless of type, must have a containment dome.
Out loud, Parker asked, "Fix the design? On future reactors?"
"This isn't a design problem. Someone just cut a corner building the thing. And, yes, I can promise you it will not happen on any of the rest of the series."
And I know who did the cutting, thought Parker. You greedy shit, putting all of us at risk for a few dollars. Still, you couldn't always choose the human resources you had to work with. For some men, money was more important than honor. He had learned to accept that long ago.
"OK. The troublemakers. You got names?"
Kohrob handed him an envelope. Inside was a sheet of paper with 37 names written on it.
"None of these people critical? I mean, can you finish without them?"
Two hours later, while Edgar Kohrob was on a private jet back to California, Arnold Wilson Parker put in motion the final solution to the Prometheus whistleblower problem.
* * *
It wasn't a very small group, but, given the nature of bureaucracies, it was probably as small as Matthew Hood could manage. Speaking was Hood himself, Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security. This was his baby. The Committee to Insure the Safety of Cyberspace. CISC. They should have thought of a catchier acronym. Unofficially, Weidemeyer had already heard it called the Badlands Sterilization Committee, or BS Com for short.
Hood was droning on about the importance of this committee to the safety of the country. Whatever skills he had as a bureaucratic infighter, he was a poor speaker. His voice was high-pitched, with little intonation. Overweight, with an unpleasant complexion, he did not make an imposing figure. But his eyes compensated for these faults. They darted around the room, riveting first one, then the next attendee in a piercing stare. They were quick, intense eyes, the eyes of a man determined to dominate those around him.
Weidemeyer was here representing the Secret Service. In theory, it would look good on his resume. In reality, he felt like someone was trying to get him out of the way. If it weren't for the fact that he still kept full control of his badlands agents, he would have worried that this was an upward demotion. Still, if that were the case, then some powerful people in other sections of the government had also been demoted. From DHS, there were representatives from TSA and Customs. Also present were key people from the FBI, DEA, NSA, CIA, DOD, BATF and FEMA.
Thank God they left out the IRS.
"This thing started out as just a little counterfeiting," Hood said. "Drugs, a little piracy, some fraud. That was about all. Just a bunch of petty criminals trying to get by."
He paused to again sweep the room with his gaze, singling out two of his listeners for a special stare. Neither the CIA nor DEA representatives seemed comfortable with the extra attention.
"It's gone way beyond that now. They're getting organized. Linking up. This has all the makings of a major crime organization. A new syndicate, developing right under our noses. A new threat.
"That's why you're all here today. This committee has been formed to coordinate our attack. No longer will it be a lonely effort by Customs or FBI or DEA to stop smuggling or bribery or corruption. Beginning today, we will act together. Today we turn the tables on these vermin. Today begins a new chapter in man's struggle against evil.
"These people aren't supermen. They each have an Achilles' heel. They're like roaches, hiding from the light. All we have to do is turn it on, expose them wherever they hide.
"How? The answer is so simple it's hard to believe. Just get a traceable address. That's it. Anything that links back to their registered Internet address. We can find them from that. Names, physical addresses, family. We can hunt them down. All we need is a traceable IP.
"So, as we end this meeting, I want to ask all of you to think about that. Think about how we can get those addresses. Bring me ideas.
"Until next time, ladies and gentlemen, keep that one thought in mind."
And with that, the first meeting of the BS Committee came to a close.
For the next week, the sessions continued. Each BS Com (sorry, CISC) member outlined what resources his organization could bring to the table and a history of his organization's efforts to date. When it was his turn, Weidemeyer went over his six agents, the difficulty of detecting the new counterfeit currency, and how they caught the half-dozen badlanders that they now ran as counter-spies.
Today the NSA representative got to strut his stuff. After four sleep-inducing hours of charts, data, and self-aggrandizement, the man finally finished. The room opened for questions. No one raised a hand.
Weidemeyer didn't want to prove his ignorance to the rest of the group by opening his mouth, but the lack of questions from anyone else gave him no choice. If he wanted his questions answered, he would have to ask them himself.
So he asked, "You mentioned that you had access to the 'National Security Upgrade' resource. Can you explain what that is?"
All background chatter in the room suddenly went away. It became very quiet.
"If you give us an IP, in most cases we can give you full technical information on the computer that is using it," came the answer from the podium.
"Serial number of the microprocessor, MAC addresses of all Internet interface cards, the Product Key, and registration information for the operating system. In addition, if you wish, we can activate a keystroke logger on the machine and give you a listing of the results. Audio and video, too. We can record those if the computer has a camera and microphone."
It took a moment for that to sink in.
"Can you go over that again?" asked Weidemeyer, startled by the length of the list.
"If you give us the Internet address of almost any computer, we can get almost any information you want about it and the people using it as long as it's running Windows or an Apple operating system."
Weidemeyer was impressed. "Any computer? Even a foreign one?"
"Yes, in most cases, unless it's behind an unusually sophisticated firewall."
"How do you do that? "
The NSA rep looked to Matthew Hood for guidance. When none came, he turned back and said, "We have national technical means that I may not discuss. The important thing for you is what we can do, not how we do it. I hope I have satisfied your questions in that regard."
In other words, drop this subject! Perhaps he had just proven that, while there may be no such thing as a stupid question, the same can't be said for the person asking it.
Twenty minutes later, the meeting adjourned. As Weidemeyer walked away from it, trying to get as far as possible from anything that reminded him of the day, FBI representative Daniel Shelton slid next to him and asked if he had time for a drink. Since he had not only time but a burning need for some friendly company, he accepted.
Now they sat in a dark corner of Shelton's favorite bar, one whose only claim to fame seemed to be the size of the waitresses' nipples. The music was loud, the lights low, and their backs were against adjacent walls. Shelton sipped a whiskey and soda, while Weidemeyer nursed a tonic with a twist.
Leaning together so their heads were close enough to talk over the music, Shelton asked, "Was that your turd in the punch bowl this afternoon?"
"What happened?" asked Weidemeyer. "I just asked a simple question."
"You asked about a subject that was classified above your pay grade."
"How was I to know? And why such a big deal anyway?"
"Because the answer was above the pay grade of everyone else in the room and because they knew the answer anyway. You were asking about a secret that is practically public knowledge and could easily become a public disaster."
"It was painful."
"Yeah. For us, too. Look, if you forget where you heard this, I can give you a few details so it won't happen again."
"Know what source code is?"
"Basically, there are only two kinds of programs: Those that can be read by a computer and those that can be read by a human being. One's called an 'executable,' the other 'source code.' Source code looks strange, but it makes some sense, at least to a weirdo who's spent most of his life learning it. Sort of like French. But a computer couldn't make heads or tails out of it. Programs are all written in source code so the guys who write them can understand what they wrote.
"Since computers can't understand that format, it's converted to another one called an 'executable,' which they can understand. Unfortunately, the change is a one-way operation and the result is impossible for a human being to understand. If you want the source code and all you have is the executable, you're f*cked. Going backwards can be done, but it's a b*tch."
"So most software companies take advantage of this. They never supply source code to their customers, only executables. That way, no one can steal their ideas or write software that uses their code without their cooperation. It makes their programs more difficult to copy and almost impossible to modify."
"The point being?"
"The point being that no one outside of Microsoft or Apple knows what their operating systems really do when they run on a computer. Their customers sure don't.
"About a year ago, the DHS leaned on both companies. If they wanted to keep working in the US, they had to add a special feature to their operating systems. Hush-hush, no legal reason they had to, but a promise that no one would hear about it if they did. So they added it.
"On-line updates went out six months ago. Since then, if NSA sends the right Internet message to a computer running either a Microsoft or an Apple operating system, this little bit of code hears it, sucks up all the local ID information, encrypts it, and spits it back to the NSA."
"Is there a punch line here?"
"Hey, you were doing pretty good at busting badlanders for a while there, then everything dried up, right? How come?" asked Shelton.
"The perps started using proxy servers and VPNs."
"So you couldn't trace back their connections anymore, right?"
Weidemeyer nodded his head.
"Well, this changes all that. Now, this little bit of snitch code will get the NSA message, even though that message got routed through Vladivostok, and still spit back the data. The stuff may go back through Russia before the NSA gets it, but they'll still get it, it'll just take a few seconds longer to get there."
"All we need now to catch a badlander is the doorbell message?" asked Weidemeyer.
"Yep. Don't need his real IP, just a link that eventually gets the message back to him."
"Yep. You been fighting this for two years the old way and you've turned, what, five badlanders?"
"Six," interjected Weidemeyer. Why make it worse than it was?
"OK. Six. Using these snitch messages, we caught that many last month."
At this rate, Weidemeyer thought, the badlands will be a memory in a year.
* See Appendices for a list of characters and details on Thorium reactors.
Thieves Emporium is available from Amazon in both paperback and Kindle and in epub format from Smashwords or Nook. Max Hernandez welcomes comments and feedback and can be reached at MaxHernandez@protonmail.ch.
© 2012-2015 Max Hernandez. Reprinted with permission.