“Okay, first off,” said Lionel Van Treece to open the daily briefing the next day, “I’d like to officially welcome Mr. Barron to Cris’s group. But seeing as how he has experience across a variety of disciplines, I’ve asked him to sit in on our department head briefings. As we head into the final stretch of the final launch, it’s more vital than ever that we maintain a fresh perspective and keep our eyes on our objective, and I trust that he’ll be a great help in that department.
“To that end, we’ve got a task. Julie?”
Julie Anselmo clasped her hands and stared down at the slate panel on the tabletop in front of her. “We’ve noted a spike in traffic on electronic messaging boards frequented by radical environmental groups that have been associated with Gentle’s movement in the past. We think a strike is imminent.”
“Period or exclamation point?” Isobel asked.
“Periods for the last couple of days,” Savage answered. “Exclamation point today.”
“What?” Barron asked.
“The pattern we’ve noticed is that when an operation is approaching, they’ll enter a single period that’s hyperlinked to a peer-to-peer file sharing system that contains the actual message,” Savage said. “When the operation is imminent, within 24 hours, that period will usually be replaced by an exclamation point.”
“What do the files say?” Barron asked.
“We don’t know,” Savage answered. “They’ve got some good guys working with them. Really good. It’s hard enough tracking down their phantom boards and getting in to monitor traffic. The files themselves are encrypted with something I haven’t been able to break. PGP-HD, probably.”
“Wait, I know what PGP is, but HD?” Barron said. “That doesn’t even make sense.”
“Don’t get me started,” Anselmo muttered, staring at the tabletop.
“It’s not even related to PGP, as far as I can tell,” Savage explained. “It’s a completely new encryption program put together by some hacker. Singapore, probably. That’s where the slang of using ‘HD’ to mean ‘advanced anything’ originated. It’s most common across Southeast Asia, although you’ll hear it used as far north as Japan and Korea. But odds are, he’s from Singapore.
“The point is, without the right encryption key, the only way to break it is to brute force it with a distributed bot-net. I’ve got one set up; our subscribers think they’re actually analyzing radio telescope data for extraterrestrial transmissions. But even with that, it can take up to six days to crack a message, and we don’t have nearly that much time.”
“We don’t need to read the massage to know what it’s about,” Anselmo said. “Now that Metatron’s in final assembly, they’re going to hit the factory.”
“Let ’em try,” Quesada, the tac team leader, said.
“And you know this how?” Barron asked.
Anselmo looked up and met his eyes for perhaps the first time since he’d met her. “Because it’s what I do. I know my job, and I’ve been on this guy’s case way longer than you have.”
“Now, Julie,” Van Treece said. “We all need to be on the same page with this. So let’s make the case once again and make sure we haven’t missed anything.”
“Like what?” Anselmo asked.
“Like why now?” Barron asked. “Why not before, why not later? On an op like this, you choose the time and place to exploit a vulnerability. What’s the exposure here?”
“It’s the first time all the pieces are in the same place,” Savage said. “They’ve been manufacturing subcomponents in various places all over the world. Now they’re finally putting it all together.”
“And keep in mind, we’ve already stopped multiple attempts to sabotage various components,” Van Treece said.
“The assembly’s being done at the Crystron Dynamics plant right here in Austin,” Anselmo said, calling up a diagram and aerial photo of the plant on a high-definition screen on the wall behind her. “It will take them about a week before they’re ready to transport to the launch facility.”
“Are they taking it to Canaveral?” Barron asked.
“UNOPCO has a private launch facility in south Texas, just north of Brownsville where they’re assembling the launch vehicle,” Van Treece said. “They’ll transport the satellite there by convoy once it’s assembled.”
“Well, that’s where they’ll hit it, then,” Barron said. “Why bother hitting a heavily guarded factory when you can just ambush a convoy? That’s when it’s most vulnerable. That’s when you hit it.”
The others at the table exchanged looks, and then Quesada said, “No.”
“What do you mean?” Barron asked. “Why wouldn’t they?”
“Because they know my team will be riding along,” Quesada said.
“How many on your team?”
“And you’re saying they’re afraid to mount an assault on five guys,” Barron said skeptically.
“Not five guys,” Quesada said. “Five skins.”
“I have got to see these skins you’re talking about,” Barron said.
“You can watch them on TV tonight. We’ll be deploying them at the plant to intercept the attack,” Anselmo said, looking down at the table once more. She smiled. “Though you won’t see much.”
“You’re really sure they’re going to hit tonight?” Barron asked.
“Why?” Barron asked, then held up a hand at the angry expression that flashed across Anselmo’s face. “Just bullet points, to make sure we’ve got all the angles.”
Anselmo sighed and ticked off the points on her fingers. “Okay, once more for the slow children. Number one, the satellite’s pieces are all gathered in one place, making it a juicy target. Number two, we’re still over two weeks out from launch, so security isn’t on its highest alert yet. Number three, they know what the skins are capable of and will want to hit before they’re deployed. Number four, hitting early still leaves them the option of attacking again later if something goes wrong. Gentle likes keeping his options open. Number five, and this is the big one, exclamation… point! Got it?”
“Yeah,” Barron said.
Anselmo sighed again. “Finally. God.”
“What about the booster?” Barron asked.
Anselmo bit off a curse and turned away as Quesada slapped the table and muttered something in Spanish. Savage just laughed. “Are you kidding me?” Anselmo asked.
“No,” Barron said. “If they want to stop the launch, there are two pieces to that puzzle: the satellite and the launch vehicle. What if their target is the rocket?”
“It’s not,” Anselmo said.
“How do you know?”
“Because,” Isobel said calmly, trying to cool things down before Anselmo could reply, “it’s easily replaced. If they destroy the booster, there are enough components to put another one together in a matter of days. Even if they blow up the entire factory and all the back stock, we can get another booster shipped in from Georgia or another location in time to make the launch, and at no more than a third of the cost of the satellite itself. Destroying the satellite will set us back at least six months and hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s the obvious target.”
“Exactly,” Barron said. “Which means we ought to at least keep an eye on the booster, too, just in case.”
“I’m not splitting my team on this nonsense,” Quesada said.
“Not asking you to,” Barron said. “I’ll go, since I’m not really vital here.”
“I’ll say,” Anselmo muttered, and Quesada gave a quiet snort.
“I’ll go with you,” Isobel said. “We’ll take a few of my guys, just in case.”
“Waste of time and money,” Anselmo said.
Barron looked at Van Treece. “UNOPCO’s footing the bill, right? I mean, they hired you to be thorough, didn’t they?”
Van Treece smiled. “That they did. I have no qualms about charging them the extra hours. Get your teams ready. I want you on site by sunset.”