The room lay bare of all technology, a bizarre stipulation made by Eric Gastif, Director of Technical Operations for Cyber Barriers Security.
But why the man would make such a request of the senior leadership for one of the most respected computer system security providers in the world, Ken Johnson didn’t know.
Gastif had requested—rather, had demanded—that absolutely no technological devices be admitted to the meeting room, whether computers, digital recorders, miniature net devices or cellular communications. He even asked that only mechanical wristwatches be worn into the room.
But as the three directors approached their seats at the conference table, Johnson considered the dark expression on the older man’s face more the product of deep concern than psychosis. The lines drawn across the pale cheeks spoke of many sleepless nights. Gastif’s coat hung on his shoulders much too loosely; the last two weeks seemed to have aged him considerably.
Johnson, the Chief Liaison, took his seat, uncomfortable without the presence of a briefcase, or at least a folder of papers. These, too, were things Gastif refused to allow into the safe room, perhaps fearing that someone might covertly substitute some device in their place.
Gastif leaned forward in his chair and sighed.
“I want to thank you all for agreeing to my requests,” he said, placing his hands on the table. “But if you’ll indulge me a few minutes to explain, I’m sure you’ll understand.”
Johnson glanced around the table at the other members of the board to gauge their reactions to this statement. Edra Hannish, the President of Cyber Barriers Security, sat wordlessly, reserved, her face drawn in the poor lighting. Jim Tolland, Head of Technological Research and Development, stared at the older man curiously, as if watching a disturbing natural phenomenon; he’d made no secret of his feelings about Gastif’s recent behavior.
“The security breaches have become a world-wide phenomenon,” Gastif continued. “You’ve all read the reports. Hundreds of security systems have detected infiltrations from an unknown source. Not the typical disruptions that we’re used to. Those vulnerabilities we can trace fairly easily, whether they originate from private individuals or curious governments. The first incident to capture my attention was the one the Pentagon reported. They believed some of their computers were being breached by the Chinese, or possibly the Russians. When our team arrived at Bitterroot, we thought the same thing. But when we observed the system there we found something else entirely.”
Johnson leaned back in his chair. This was the first time he’d heard about a breach of security at Bitterroot, which, he previously believed, was impossible to achieve. The facility in Colorado was a single-storage system, in which no external lines of communication were attached to the servers. Storage devices downloaded and transferred highly sensitive information from the system manually, which meant that individual service modules could easily be tested for breaches before they were used within other systems.
The Bitterroot system was a closed circuit, and yet Gastif was now declaring it compromised.
Johnson glanced at Hannish’s face to see if her expression might betray her knowledge of this, but as usual her thoughts were unreadable. At the first sign of trouble she’d calmly organized the company’s personnel into a multi-tiered investigation team, and had since reserved her opinions of the matter. An ability to not rush to judgment as hundreds of clients were crying foul made her an excellent leader, if not the only clearly thinking person in Cyber Barriers Security.
But now the investigation was done, and Johnson wondered what her conclusion would actually be.
“Impossible,” Tolland said, waving his hand. “Bitterroot couldn’t possibly be contaminated. It’s the most secure system in the country.”
“That’s what I believed,” Gastif said, “until I drove down into the tunnels and monitored the system with the chief engineer. Something, some program was running throughout the entire system. We couldn’t isolate it, but we could see where it was multiplying files within the system. After a while the copied files simply vanished.”
“Vanished?” Tolland said. “They couldn’t just vanish.”
“They did,” Gastif said, raising his hands like a magician. “Into thin air. They left no magnetic footprint whatsoever. After a few days of similar episodes, the ghost program ceased. During that time, of course, no storage units were allowed into or out of the installation. I thought it was a particularly ingenious Trojan program that would copy information and then covertly deposit it in any storage units we subsequently introduced to the system. So we searched for any foreign algorithms in the system, but came up empty. Then we cleansed the storage units and scanned them twenty times before, during and after any information transfers. But we still couldn’t find anything.”
“An aberration?” Edra Hannish suggested. “A system failure?”
Gastif shook his head. “We analyzed every part of the system, tested every program, scanned every file for corruption, even the deep storage. The system was in perfect condition.”
“Well,” Hannish continued, smiling briefly, “if there wasn’t any exposure why are you so concerned?”
Gastif nodded gravely.
“That was my initial reaction, too,” he said, “but then I became curious. This—malfunction, if you will—was particularly noticeable at Bitterroot, where you wouldn’t expect a breach of security. I began to wonder if this same phenomenon might be detected elsewhere, so I called our European offices and had them observe some of our more sensitive clients, foreign governments, utility services, financial institutions. I told them to monitor for radiation exposures, additional energy loads, or any other type of significant event.”
“And?” Tolland asked.
“And they observed the same phenomenon in nearly every system they monitored. As if some program were collating all the available information, copying it, and then simply deleting the copies and every trace of the ghost program. But none of this collated information—let me emphasize this point—was ever transferred to any system. There simply was no loss of proprietary information, no cyber attack to trace.”
“A nuisance virus, then. Something delivered into a variety of systems just to annoy us. The equivalent of territorial graffiti.”
“I would be comforted by that thought,” Gastif said, “if I could make myself believe it was that innocuous. Actually, I almost did make myself believe it. A hacker might very well create such a program to avoid prosecution should he be caught. But then the other incidents began to occur, and I couldn’t believe it was so simple anymore.”
“The shutdowns,” Johnson said, feeling he should speak. As liaison to so many clients, he’d had to suppress too many fires in recent weeks, fires that grew proportionately terrifying.
First, several energy systems went offline, and then miraculously recovered. Then hospitals in several cities lost their networks, including their emergency networks, before recovering them. And then the military computers shut down completely before coming back online after a few hours. Some disruptions were as minor as television cable companies, and some were completely untenable, like the FAA systems.
Most recently, communications and other orbiting satellites were experiencing inexplicable outages. Nothing had been permanently affected, but the fact that they had all occurred so closely together was impossible to ignore.
“Yes,” Gastif said, nodding. “The shutdowns. The pattern has been as baffling as the infiltrations I’ve described. Nothing’s been permanently affected, only temporarily compromised. Which seems to have left too many people—too many important people—with the impression that nothing significant has occurred.”
“And has something significant occurred?” Tolland said. “I’ve studied the same reports, and I can’t see anything about these aberrations that can’t be explained by advanced hacking techniques. If the creators of this virus, or whatever it is, intended to hurt us we’d already be injured. We would have suffered some damage, some loss of information, some adulterated program, some loss, wouldn’t we?”
“Perhaps. If these acts were being committed by the people with which we’re familiar.”
“You don’t believe they are?” Johnson asked. He was beginning to see a darker expression fall over Gastif’s face, as if they were quickly approaching the subject matter which had painted the man’s deathly pall.
“No,” Gastif said, “I don’t. And I don’t believe whoever conducted these exercises intended to ruin any of these systems.”
“Exercises?” Hannish said. “What do you mean by calling them exercises?”
“Just that, Edra. The Bitterroot attack gave me the best clue to what we’re dealing with. You see, after these systems came back online—all of them, as far as I know—they conducted a systems check on themselves across the board. Most systems do, of course, but these checks were comprehensive, at times more thorough than they should have been.”
“You suspected they were part of the infiltration?”
“Yes. After these checks, though, the systems functioned normally, so they seemed unrelated. But they weren’t.”
“It was just another part of the hack,” Tolland said dismissively.
Gastif shook his head. “If a malicious hacker had meant to cause some damage or to compromise sensitive information, he would have done so. There’s no point in creating a sophisticated program to infiltrate the most secure computers just for bragging rights. It’s simply not worth a life sentence in a federal prison. And the shutdowns? Malicious mischief? How could one person, or even one group, cause so many disruptions in so many places all around the world? And leave absolutely no footprint?”
“How indeed?” Johnson asked. “That’s why we’re all in this room, to try to uncover who’s behind these attacks.”
Gastif frowned at this statement, stared at his hands a moment, then looked up fearfully. Johnson thought he was imagining the fear in Gastif’s eyes, but as the man’s steady gaze held everyone at the table he realized that it wasn’t an illusion.
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you who’s behind the attacks,” Gastif said grimly. “Or what. Not specifically. I arranged this meeting to describe what I believe is about to happen. That’s why I wanted to meet in this particular room, protected from electrical surveillance and absent of any electronic equipment. Because I believe it’s found in even the simplest computerized system. I believe it can infiltrate any electromagnetic system it pleases.”
“What can infiltrate these systems?” Tolland said impatiently.
Gastif paused a moment before continuing. His eyes focused first on the table’s surface, then on his fellow directors.
“As I said before,” he said, “I requested that our foreign offices monitor our systems for disruptions. At first they found nothing. I suppose that was because they were using traditional analysis tools. But a technician in Belgium, because he was lacking available personnel, decided to set up a hyperspectral imaging camera to capture any fluctuations in the electromagnetic fields within his systems. Should the typical fields fluctuate within the room the variations would be recorded. This is what he found one day after the camera was tripped.”
Gastif reached into his coat and pulled out a series of glossy prints. He slid the sheets toward Hannish, who then passed copies to the others.
Johnson stared at the strange image of a symmetrical oval of light hovering in a pale field. An artifact on the digital image? But the glowing oval seemed well-defined.
“What is this?” Tolland asked.
“The first recorded image of our hacker,” Gastif replied. “But not the last. When I received this image I instructed several other technicians to set up the same type of monitoring equipment. Over the next few days several identical images were recorded, each manifestation occurring during the breach of a system.”
“But what exactly is it?” Hannish said.
Gastif cleared his throat. “I believe it’s some sort of being.”
Tolland’s laugh was short and incredulous. “What are you talking about?”
“I believe this thing, this entity, whatever it is, infiltrated our systems as easily as sea water is absorbed by sand. This entity, perhaps several of them, simply entered into our electronic systems, assessed the data, recorded the data within itself and left the equipment undamaged. It wouldn’t have to transfer information outside of the system it infiltrated because it could record the data within itself. Now, I’m not certain if this is a living entity, or simply the agent of some entity, but it is completely beyond anything we understand. It is an organized energy system that can infiltrate any electromagnetic mechanism, I’m sure of that now.”
“This is preposterous,” Tolland said. “Is that why you called us together in this cave? Because you believe electric ghosts are invading the world’s computers?”
“Let him continue,” Johnson said. He rubbed his hand across his mouth because he felt the same growing fear that Gastif undoubtedly felt. Perhaps it was too much for the others to absorb so quickly—
“I might have remained skeptical,” Gastif said, “if I hadn’t been present during one of the disruptions. Pure chance, I imagine. But I was in the room when one of the entities—when its energy field—was recorded. We watched it materialize in the camera’s display screen. At the time I still didn’t know its precise nature, but I felt an impulse to test the strength of the field, so I walked forward and extended my hand into it. I tell you, I felt its intelligence. Not a human intelligence, but it was as if the entity phased into my own bio-electrical field, just briefly, but long enough for me to perceive that I was being analyzed by a thinking mind. I know that sounds insane, but I knew it was sentient. And dangerous. That was enough to convince me.”
“I thought I was hallucinating,” Johnson said, though he wondered if he should speak of it at all. “I had the same experience in Washington during one of the events. I felt there was something in the room with me—”
“Perhaps it’s because of the electrical capacities of the human brain, I’m not certain. But I’m sure I sensed the presence of an intelligent being.”
“A plasmal life force?”
“I can’t say what they are precisely. But I suspect I know their intentions.”
“What are their intentions?” Hannish asked evenly, but Johnson could see the unease in her eyes, hear the worry in her voice. Was it because she was beginning to believe Gastif? Or did she fear the man was suffering a mental breakdown? Johnson worried that his own experience wasn’t just an illusion.
“Let’s just say this,” Gastif said, leaning forward and speaking softly, perhaps too softly for anyone or anything outside the room to hear. “What would you be able to do to the human species if you controlled all the existing computer systems in the world? First you would have to examine all the pertinent systems and all the information those systems held, and then you would have to experiment to see if the information you’ve learned actually allows you to manipulate those systems. And once you’ve learned the intricacies of those systems and were confident that you could manipulate them perfectly, what would you be capable of doing? If you had control over the electrical plants, the refineries, the air traffic, military equipment, hospitals, communications centers all over the world. Nuclear power plants, nuclear weapons, weapons of all kinds all over the world in every nation. What if you had that kind of control?”
The room was silent. The directors at the table stared at one another, not knowing what to believe.
“This is fantastic,” Tolland finally said, and laughed. “You’ve created a monster in your imagination, a monster that doesn’t exist. There’s some other reason for these incidents. There must be.”
Gastif sighed, then said, “I know all this sounds incredible, but who do you think would be the first people to recognize such an invasion? Not the military, not the news media. It would be the people who monitor the security of the systems that were being compromised. We are the ones who would see it happening first.”
The silence in the room became uncomfortable after a few moments. Johnson finally broke the silence.
“We could just shut everything down if it were a matter of security,” he said. “We could control it.”
“Could we really?” Gastif said. “Do you actually think you could convince every world government to put its military defenses offline, to shut down the power plants, to cripple industry? Exactly how would you go about accomplishing that? No, that’s what makes this attack so brilliant. Consider this for a moment: if you were an invading force, that is, if you were invading an entire world, how would you go about it? Destroy everything and hope that what remains is viable? No. The more intelligent method would be to wait until a species had advanced far enough technologically to take advantage of their weapons and devices. All you would have to do was to create a method for infiltrating their electronic systems, some sort of remote capability that could infiltrate even the best security systems. To that kind of technology, our security systems wouldn’t even exist. It may be the best way, the most painless way, to enslave intelligent species everywhere.”
Johnson thought a moment, then said, “We could insulate the most important systems against electromagnetic infiltration.”
“Perhaps. But I suspect they have the ability to breach any type of insulation we might come up with. In any case, we may not have enough time.”
“We have to notify every government we can. Let them know what to expect. Surely there’s something we can do—”
“Are you even listening to what you’re saying?” Tolland said, his voice echoing sharply in the room. “You’re creating a global scenario from isolated incidents. It’s ridiculous!”
“I’ve seen the evidence,” Gastif said. “The shut-downs were precisely orchestrated events conducted from within the systems themselves. The entity or entities entered the systems, manipulated the programs and left. They walk through energy fields as easily as we walked through that door. And they can do it whenever they please.”
“Is that why you have us isolated in this room like Neanderthals? Because you think electromagnetic ghosts are haunting you?”
“Yes, to be honest.” Gastif glanced around the table, smiling weakly. “Once I came in contact with one of the entities they knew that I knew about their existence. I began sensing their presence whenever I spoke on the phone, or turned on my computer. I think they were monitoring me through electromagnetic devices. And since they were privileged to know my every interaction with the people in the company, surely they were able to define the company’s hierarchy.”
“You mean everyone at this table,” Johnson said, now acutely afraid.
Gastif nodded, his mouth drawn.
But Jim Tolland wasn’t so easily convinced.
“You’ve lost your mind,” he said, shaking his head. “You’ve completely lost touch with reality.”
Johnson turned toward Edra Hannish. If Cyber Barriers Security’s president was going to declare Gastif’s analysis the product of a deranged mind, now would be the time. But she didn’t.
“If all of this is true,” Hannish said instead, without emotion, though her face seemed ashen, “what do you think will happen next?”
“Next?” Gastif said. “Subjugation, perhaps. If we’re lucky.”
“And what if we aren’t lucky?” Johnson asked, leaning back in his chair.
“But there must be some way to intervene—” Hannish began.
A faint chime interrupted her statement.
Gastif stared around the table in disbelief; then Tolland, his nose wrinkling in irritation, reached into his pocket and retrieved a small cell phone. He apologized perfunctorily, but Johnson’s eyes widened in fear.
“I told you not to bring any devices into this room!” he said, nearly screaming. “I told you—”
“You really didn’t expect us to take your paranoia seriously, did you?” Tolland said, shaking his head again. “My responsibilities require me to be accessible, Mr. Gastif. This meeting has been an exercise in lunacy. As far as I’m concerned, you should seek out medical help. I, for one, am not going to act as an enabler for your delusions.”
The phone chimed again; no one in the room said anything for a moment, but as Tolland began thumbing the device Gastif shouted, “Don’t answer that phone! Someone take that phone from him!”
Gastif moved from his chair, but he was too far away, and neither Hannish or Johnson seemed to comprehend the command
Finally, Johnson lurched from his chair, stumbling.
Tolland tapped the cell phone, placed it to his ear and said, “This is Jim Tolland, how can I help you?”
By the time Johnson reached him the lights began flickering in the room.
And by the time he was able to terminate the call, it was much too late.
Bio: Lawrence Buentello has published over 80 short stories in a variety of genres, and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. His fiction has appeared in Short Story America, Stupefying Stories, Perihelion Science Fiction, and several other publications. He lives in San Antonio, Texas, with his wife, Susan, and two Australian shepherds.