When you wind up with some really good bad guys—you know, the ones who revel in just being bad… Well, I’ve got to admit, it’s plain fun to write ’em. Sometimes I have to remind myself that Trip Ashfield is not the center of the story!
Excerpt from Sea of a Thousand Words.
HighTower Corporate, Denver CO. Jun 7. 2033
Trip Ashfield tapped his finger on the rim of his cup and stared at the concentric ripples forming on the surface of his coffee. The split-screen conversation on Trip’s monitor had devolved into something akin to a shouting match as his employer Nelson Banks debriefed U.S. Secretary of State Maureen Gorton on the current Hong Kong crisis.
“So, what I’m not getting here, Nelson, is how in the year 2033, there can possibly be something as archaic as laptops and hardcopy emails just lying around a top secret laboratory? Because, it seems to me at least—and I am no scientist here—but it seems like that would be an incredibly asinine protocol to have in place.”
“Maureen, you’re preaching to the fucking choir, believe me. Allow me to have Mr. Ashfield describe—Trip—are you still there? Explain this all to Madame Secretary for me. I still can’t fathom the logic behind it.”
Trip cleared his throat and sat forward in the chair. “Madame Secretary, it goes something like this: When companies or individuals deal with sensitive material and if data breach is of high concern, they will typically opt for lower-tech methods. That is to say, they’ll use their own air-gapped systems, randomized operating systems on older models of computers. They tend to build in personal encryptions, combined with a variety of other security protocols. They will keep everything off the cloud so that hackers would have difficulty accessing the information. It’s not impossible, mind you—it can be hacked—but it becomes much more complicated to get inside.”
“Yes, thank you Mr. Ashfield, I believe I have a pretty firm grasp of espionage counter measures. But I am referring specifically to the emails right now. This doesn’t begin to explain the existence of the goddamn emails. I mean, who in blazes even prints out paper copies anymore?”
“Well Ma’am, I’m afraid that the weak link appears to be on HighTower’s…”
“Now, wait a minute here—I can assure you, Maureen…” Banks interrupted.
“Quiet Nelson. Please proceed, Mr. Ashfield.”
“Yes, of course. It appears that one of Huang’s scientists—a Zhao Xu—used a separate account when he corresponded with HSA’s contact. As I understand it, Mr. Xu was paid to pass along certain components of the human genome editing experiment covertly to HSA, dubbed ‘Project Revelations.’ My supposition is that the printed emails were sort of a C.Y.A. measure. Archaic? Yes. But in some circumstances—and with some types of people, still a highly regarded back-up plan.”
Maureen interrupted, “What in the hell is C.Y.A.?”
“My apologies—a protection measure—he was ‘covering his ass,’ you might say.”
“Now, Huang’s lead researcher—this individual named Chen—was unaware of Xu’s relationship with HSA concerning the weaponized variation. Chen apparently kept these documents that he discovered and, after he destroyed the lab’s air-gapped system, has added another layer of encryptions to the remaining data. We are working to crack his new codes of course, however as Xu’s personal computer was lost in the fire, so were the only existing copies of those downloaded files.”
“I see. And, Mr. Ashfield, how exposed would you say we are at this moment?”
“Well Madame Secretary, I can inform you that, at this moment, Mr. Xu is no longer a factor in our equation. My operatives have assured me that the other scientist—the Mr. Chen—should be in HighTower’s custody within the day. Cleanup is occurring as we speak… so my opinion is that our exposure risk is minimal.”
“There… So you see, Maureen,” said Banks, “we’ve put a tight lid on this matter, like I told you—the whole…”
“I have no interest in hearing about a lid, Nelson. There is not going to be any ‘put a fucking lid on it.’ Do you get my meaning, here? Am I being succinct enough for you? I want this entire matter to be dealt with… Disappeared, dissolved, dissipated—dis-effing-owned.”
“I hear you loud and clear Madame Secretary. Loud and cl…”
“…And furthermore, I am informing you that as of right now, the Administration has no knowledge of this Revelations project—absolutely none. We’re catching a lot of heat from people like Raj Kaleka and his organization about the whole immigrant thing. We cannot handle any more negative press—or god forbid, a scandal. So, if there’s any blowback, it will be your heads that swing—and only yours. The buck stops with HighTower, Nelson.”
“Maureen, I am acutely aware of this. Thank you for reminding me.”
Trip leaned back in his chair and folded his hands behind his head. Their chatter was beginning to give him a headache. He yawned and stretched his neck until the vertebrae popped, then returned his attention to the conversation.
“Gentlemen, I have to go down the hall now and debrief the President about your situation. Did you hear me say that— your situation? I can assure you that he will not be pleased in the least to hear this news. So now, is there anything else that I should know about before we end our conversation?”
“Only that Trip has been given full authority to clean this mess up using any means necessary—quickly and cleanly. And that by the next time we talk Maureen, this project will be concluded—history.”
“What project would that be, Nelson?”
“Right… Yes. Exactly, Madame Secretary.”
“Oh, and gentlemen… do I need to remind you that this matter must never reach the Prime Minister’s ears? It must be contained—correct?”
“That goes without saying.”
“Fine. I trust you’ll have some good news for me in the next twenty-four hours, Nelson. And thank you for your time, Mr. Ashfield. Good afternoon.”
“Thank you, Maureen.” Banks replied.
“My pleasure, Madame Secretary.” Trip pressed the escape key and the spit screen vanished. His mobile buzzed.
“That is the absolute last ass-whooping I plan to receive from that obnoxious bitch—you got that?”
“I’m reasonably certain that I understand your meaning.”
“Excellent, as long as we are clear on that particular issue. So, what have you got on this missing celestial?”
“The search of Chen’s apartment yielded nothing. Two operatives are paying a visit to his associate—a woman named Jiang Lui—she’s one of the other researchers in Huang’s lab, apparently she was pretty tight with Chen. They’re currently interrogating her; I’ll receive a call once they’ve sifted out anything relevant.”
“Sift her fine, Trip. We need some solid results soon.”
“They know what’s expected of them. Look Nelson, we’ve got analysts checking scanners at all airports and docks. This guy’s going to turn up on our radar soon—there’s no other way around it.” Trip stood up and walked over to the plate-glass window with his cup. His reflection off the mirrored glass was clearly visible—golden hair, a deep set brow with steel blue eyes glared coolly back at him as he sipped the lukewarm coffee and said, “We’re not leaving any crumbs behind on the trail, Nelson.”
“Good, good. You know the consequences on this one.”
“Oh, and listen—Trip—In the event that this intel should fall into the hands of a terrorist organization… Well, how soon would we know about—would we have the time…?”
“There’s no way to predict. They’re telling me that solving this encryption process could take a month or more. But from what I’ve seen so far, this guy’s clearly an amateur. He’ll be dealt with long before he could round up any buyers.”
“I need to hear from you that there will be no loose ends on any front.
“Relax Nelson, my advice for you is to handle things one crisis at a time. There will be no loose ends.”
“Alright then. Look, there’s a guy named Richard Cross—the director over in our west coast office—he’s up to speed as far as things stand right now. I’m sending you his mobile number. Keep him in the loop from here on out—I may need a few more ‘buffers’, if you know what I mean.”
Trip ended the call, swiped his screen and glanced at the text. Swallowing the last of his coffee, he turned to the clerical robot seated next to his desk. “Did you catch all that?”
“Yes, Mr. Ashfield, the conversation has been transcribed in its entirety.”
“Great. That’ll be all then.”