The Cassidy Chronicles – Chapter TWENTY-THREE

The Miracles of Mac!

I have never met anyone who isn’t silicon-based who is better with computers and technology than Amanda McAllister. None.

I swear, she’s the tech whisperer. Even when it comes to AI’s, who are self-willed and stubborn as hell when they want to be, she can almost always get her way.

And she’s not a bad field agent.

Put it on your calendars now: November 24.

Why?

Because Adam is going to do a blockbuster sale and promotional blitz that day!

He’s going to be all over the web, including at least one (and maybe two) LIVE appearances, PLUS giveaways and contests and all sorts of other fun things.

MOST of this will be on Facebook (see the button below), but he’s also going to be on the Meet The Author Podcast at 7pm EST (4pm PST) on the 24th as well.

Don’t miss out!


This is the group you want to join on FB!

Chapter 23: Who Am I Again?

It was amazing what Mac could do. On the road, on a system space-limited and subject to dropping out of coverage, she still managed to enter the HLC servers again, upload their new IDs, create positions and work histories for them, and devise a plausible excuse for why three lowly employees from the Wichita office would be called into the Houston headquarters.

Rather than try to get in immediately, and risk detection for their late arrival, they decided to show up the next morning with the rest of the workforce, find the cubicles which Mac had assigned to them, fake their way through a day’s work, and then “stay late”, ostensibly to complete their daily tasks.

“First rule of infiltration: KISS,” insisted Montana.

“Kiss?” said Mac.

“Keep It Simple, Stupid,” answered Cass. “Engineering, too. Minimize the opportunities Murphy has to screw things up.”

Mac looked around. “Who’s Murphy?”

Montana looked at Cass. “Did she really just say that?”

“I think she did. Mac, just don’t talk about it, got it?”

“Talk about what? I don’t understand you guys at all!”

“Good night, Mac. Go to bed.”

“But we don’t have everything ready, I have to print out the IDs and make sure the RF spoofer is active, then check the chips and make sure the neural net is primed for -”

“How long will that take, Mac?”

“Half hour, maybe. Less if I can concentrate, which might be tough if you two are sitting and talking about other things because this is my ass too, so I want to know what’s going to go on and happen and that’ll slow me down.”

“Get up early, then. Go in the bedroom, shut the door, and get some sleep.”

Cass agreed with Montana. “If there’s any computer issue tomorrow, we’ll need you to deal with it, and you have to be at your best. A good night’s rest is the best thing for that, I’ve found. Pick out a bed, shut the door, and we’ll try to keep it down out here.”

“What are you going to do, if it’s important stuff I need to know about it so that I can play my part.”

“Go. To. Bed. Now.” Cass made her tone as firm as she dared, and Mac’s reaction was exactly as she hoped.

“Yes, ma’am.” Mac wandered into the bedroom and, with a final look over shoulder, closed the door behind her.

“Doesn’t she drive you nuts?” asked Montana, sotto voce. “Even now, I can only take her in small, small doses!”

Cass smiled slightly before the smile turned sad. “She reminds me of my sister. Always going a mile a minute.”

Montana noticed the subtle change in her demeanor and changed the subject. “What’s our cover?” Cass settled in for a long discussion.

The next morning, the Houston offices of the Heavy Lift Corporation registered the entrance of three techs from the Wichita office: Deety Burroughs, Jessica Dawn (who was feeling very self-conscious about her name, just at the moment), and Amelia Rose. The system at the entry read their IDs and admitted them without even a twitch. Moving purposefully through the crowded halls, they made their way to the IT department, where they reported to the supervisor, a cranky old man named Price.

“You’re not on my list,” he snarled, waving the paper in question before them. “You’re not supposed to be here!”

“Sir, I’m sorry, yes we are,” said Burroughs, extending another piece of paper. “And that’s exactly why we’re here. Too much data is being lost between your office and ours, and it’s originating here.”

Price scowled. “I have a full staff here! Why’d they call you bozos in?”

Dawn’s face showed annoyance at being called a bozo, but Burroughs put a restraining hand on her arm. “Sir, with respect, we’re not bozos, and we’ve been over our entire network. The fault is definitely in your system. The thinking is that, since we’re familiar with the issues, it will be quicker for us to deal with it even with the transport time rather than trying to explain all of our procedures to your crew here.”

“Hmph,” he groused. “First smart thing the head office’s done this week. I suppose you need terminals and access?”

“That would be helpful, sir. If it’s possible, too, can it be a quiet room instead of the cubicles?”

“Why?”

Rose piped up. “Because we’re going to be talking to each other a lot as we try to track down the fault and you know how disruptive that could be and we’re not here to disrupt your department we’re here to help you out.”

“Talk a lot, don’t you?”

“What my colleague means, sir, is that we might be a distraction to the others. Plus, we can probably be in and out without anyone but you knowing about this little issue,” Burroughs appealed to his vanity, which seemed to work. He almost smiled.

“Fine, just stay out from underfoot. This way.”

“Thank you, Mr. Price.”

“Oh, I don’t stand on that formality, now know you’re supposed to be here. You can call me Vince if you want.” The office he led them to was small and well away from the main core of the department. Price was almost apologetic.

“No window, and a long way from the break room, but you shouldn’t have to worry about interruptions. And, just like all the other offices, it’s totally Faradayed.” The scowl returned. “Don’t need you techs interfering with each other’s systems.”

This was better than she expected; Cass had a hard time keeping a grin from erupting on her face. She reined it in, though, as it wouldn’t be in character. “I suppose that’ll work,” she semi-grumbled.

“It’s the best I can do. Take it or leave it,” snapped Price. “If you need me, you can try extension 1138.” He stomped out of the room and the door closed behind him with a solid thump.

“Gonna be a long day, tracking down that fault. We’d better get started.” Taking Montana’s advice about surveillance, Cass stayed in character. “Amelia, why don’t you start on the software? If it’s the same as the problem we found, we can be out of here before lunch. Jess, see if there’s anything in the physical end; I don’t think so, but we’re not being paid to assume.”

“What are you going to do?”

“See if the internal logs have any records of the faults.” These were the agreed-upon cover stories: Mac, as Amelia, would get into the system and try to keep ahead of any cyber monitoring systems; Montana, as Jess, would poke around the walls and ceiling, ostensibly looking for connection problems but really searching for hidden cameras and microphones; and Cass, as Deety, would use the codes Mac had hacked into the system to try to find any more information about Lisa. The isolated room was an unexpected bonus.

The first hour sped by. “Got anything?” said Cass to the other two.

“Nothing out of the ordinary,” replied Montana, still poking her way through the walls. She’d been careful to redirect the various bits of tech she’d discovered to other feeds rather than disable them, as the loss of signal would certainly trigger an alert. Mac would probably cut it off, but there wasn’t any point in taking chances.

“Nothing unusual here either, C – Deety, just standard reports, haven’t found the fault yet but I’m still looking around, thought we had something but it turned out to be nothing at all. What about you?”

Cass shook her head. “Nothing we didn’t already know,” she answered. “I’m still going to dig around, see if I can come up with anything.”

Another half-hour passed without incident, then:

“Got something here!” exclaimed Cass. Her searching had finally gotten a hit. One of the Deputy Directors of Security, a Glenn Kaine, made an entry in a personal log about Lisa.

“What does it say?” said Mac.

“Why don’t you come over here and look?” answered Cass. “I don’t want to say anything in case I jinx it.”

Abashed at her security slip, Mac came over to read the entry, followed by Montana.

Mantchev has to know more about this than she’s saying. Brought her and her husband in for interview 0330. Separated them to break morale.

“Anything going on your end, Amelia?”

“Not a twitch, doesn’t look like any of the software I’m monitoring is the source, but don’t worry, I’m watching really close because I sure don’t want to miss anything on my end!”

“Looks promising,” agreed Mac. “What do we do now?”

“I think that there’s not one but two faults – see? So I’m going to try to track down their exact locations in the system, then we can work on picking them out.” Cass fell to the task with renewed energy. This might just work!

Now that she knew whose files she needed, the prying went quicker. It was only minutes before the rest of the logs were unlocked and Cass was examining them.

“Hmm. Jess, what do you think of this?” Cass pointed to a new entry.

Still resistant. Unacceptable. Have to try different tack. The time stamp was for the previous afternoon.

“Seems like the fault’s gotten more persistent and it’s causing cascading problems. Have you dug out the locations yet?”

“Not yet, not the sub-locations. But we have the primary location now. Do you think it would help to investigate that node?”

Montana looked pensive. “It might be tricky.” She pulled out a padd and waggled it at Cass. “Let me think,” she said aloud, turning away.

What if Kaine is in the office? she typed.

We’ll have to get him out, typed back Cass. How?

Mac can plant a false alarm into the system, direct it to his attention so he responds.

We still have to get in there.

What if the problem is in a security sub-routine? Aren’t those nodes and servers on a different system?

Good idea! Give Mac a few minutes to rig her program and we’ll head out.

Cass said, “I think I have it narrowed down to a single server, but there’s one problem.”

“What’s that?” said Montana, playing her role.

“It’s down in the security section, one of their machines. I can’t access it to make the corrections from here.”

“I guess we’ll have go there and poke around,” sighed Montana. “Come along, Amelia.”

Mac, responding to Cass’s direction, spoke up. “Hold on, hold on, I have to get this done, you don’t want me leaving code tangled like this, I know we weren’t directed to do any upgrades but some of this is just so lousy a teenager with a pocket system could improve it, I figure I’m just doing them a favor and okay, that’s it, let’s go.”

They checked with Price before exiting the department. “So it’s not our servers but theirs? Should have known those ham-handed hacks couldn’t manage their own programming! I’ve told them, over and over, that they didn’t need to have a discrete system, that our servers could easily, safely, securely handle all the encryption they need, but do they listen! Hell no! Serves “em right!”

“Where is the security section?” asked Cass.

“Oh, right, I almost forgot, you don’t know the building!” He scowled again, his favorite expression. “Just ask for directions – there’s a computer that does nothing but give directions. Hardly ever screws up.”

Their forged passcards continued to work beautifully at the checkpoints, slowing only at the entry to the security department. There, a guard sat, physically checking IDs.

“Wichita?” he asked. The badge read J. Cox.

“Just down here for some troubleshooting,” answered Cass, doing her best to look bored instead of terrified. “Commo problem between here and our office. We fixed our end and have tracked the issue to the security computers. You can call Vince Price, back in your IT department, what’s his extension?”

“One One Three Eight,” supplied Montana.

“Yeah, that’s it. If you have questions.”

Cox waved his hand after passing back the IDs. “No way, I’ve dealt with him before. He wouldn’t save his grandmother from a tornado. Go ahead.”

“Thanks.” The smile she flashed him was entirely genuine, though not nearly for the reason he thought.

They went deeper into the department, towards the server and, incidentally, the directors” offices. Two more checkpoints, and guards waved them through with only a cursory examination of their credentials. It seemed like hours, but in only moments they were as close as they were going to get to the security servers.

“We need terminals,” demanded Montana of a passing worker.

“Ah, that’s not my department,” said the young man. “You’ll need to see a supervisor.”

“Fine. Where is one?”

“Down there.” He pointed to the right and scurried off to the left.

“Wonder what that was about,” smirked Montana, turning right.

They took note of the names on the doors as they walked along. “Glenn Kaine, Deputy Director,” read Cass. “Think he can get us terminals?” she said for benefit of the ears she knew were listening.

“If he can’t, nobody can,” agreed Montana. She knocked on the door.

“Come in,” said a gravelly voice, the door sliding aside. “Can I help you?”

The man behind the desk was corpulent if Cass was being kind. Pale skin gleamed in the office light, dark hair fell in uneven strands across a nearly bald head, and the whole was stuffed into a poorly-fitting suit. In all, he was almost the caricature of a security manager, but Cass had come too far to underestimate anyone based on their appearance.

“Yes, sir, we’ve tracked a communications fault down to your security server. We need access to terminals to do repairs and patches to the software.”

The wattles under his chin wobbled. “Communications fault? Since when?” he blustered.

“It’s been a couple days, I’m sure you’ve gotten the memos. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen your name on the distribution lists.”

“A security breach and it’s sent in a memo!?” He half-rose from his chair.

“No, no,” reassured Mac. “It’s not a breach, it’s more a case of over-zealous security cutting off the communications, we didn’t even know about it until we started pulling things apart this morning, then we finally localized it to your server, and it’s just a problem within the company not anyone from the outside getting in, ha ha, and now we want to get this done so we can get out of here and OW!”

Cass’s boot-shod heel came down hard on Mac’s toes. “What my colleague is rambling about is we just want to do our job and get out of your way.”

“No wonder she’s in IT. Okay, how long will this take?”

“No idea, but as little time as possible.” Montana flashed what she hoped was an ingratiating smile. “We want to go home.”

Kaine grunted. “Makes two of us. Whaddya need from me?”

“Terminals, three if possible; we might need physical access to the server if it’s a physical fault; and we’ll have to shut down the system to reboot when we finish.”

“Terminals, yes. Access, if you have to have it, we can arrange it. No chance on the reboot.”

Mac stepped forward, getting totally into her role of an IT specialist. “If we don’t reboot after doing a software patch you’re just going to keep having the same problem every time, even if we get it to run once, without a full reset it’ll just come off like getting a bandage wet before your cut heals, there’s no reason you can’t survive for the two minutes it’ll take to go down and come back up!”

“She talks a lot, doesn’t she?” He glanced at a clock. “Tell you what. If you can get this all done in the next, um, forty-two minutes, then you get your shutdown at noon. If not, you’re SOL.”

“Good enough. Where’s the terminals?”

“We don’t really have much extra space.” He seemed to think then decided. “Use my office; I have more important things to do around the department.” He rose, revealing fully the well-fleshed frame. “I’ll be back just after noon.” Without another word he left.

The door had no sooner shut behind him when Cass took charge. “Amelia, you know what needs doing. Take care of it.” Montana didn’t need any direction; she was already searching the walls for any monitoring devices. Cass paced. Until she knew that the office was secure, she didn’t dare hunt for any information.

“Clear,” said Montana a few minutes later, securing the door. Cass jumped for the desk.

“Mac, get me into his files.” Mac switched seats and attacked the keyboard.

“You’re in.”

“Find those entries!” Cass was plundering his desk, pulling out the drawers, hunting for paperwork that could lead them to Lisa and Kevin.

“Listen!” Mac read. “Moved subjects from holding cells to Level 2 to avoid questions. What’s Level 2?”

“I’ve only heard about it, it’s this super-secret section, like the old Skunk Works that Lockheed had back in the Twentieth,” answered Cass. “Nearly impossible to get into, even if you’re high in the company. I never even saw anything about it officially; all I know are rumors.”

“A real black project? I can get into that, their best security is their secrecy, once people know about them they can get hacked real easy, in fact that’s what got me into OutLook, I got caught breaching the firewall -”

“Mac, more hacking and less talking! We don’t know how long we have until Kaine returns!”

“Actually, we do Cass, he said he was going to be busy on the floor of the department until noon, we have twenty-nine minutes until then, take off five minutes just to be safe and that still leaves me with well over twenty minutes to take care of the system and cover my tracks before he returns.”

“Not the point, Mac!” Her search finally paid off, pulling a notepad from behind the files in the bottom drawer. She scanned the pages, still talking. “The more you talk, the less attention… you’re paying… to what… you’re… FOUND THEM!” She read more carefully, holding up a hand to stop any other comments.

“Two rooms, C281 and D4 – no guards on the rooms, restricted access, Mac, that’s your bailiwick – kept drugged between interrogations – oh, shit!” She stuffed the notes back in the desk. “Fast, fast, fast, Mac!”

“What’s going on?” asked Montana from the door.

“According to his notes, they’re scheduled for termination today! That’s what he went to go supervise!”

Mac’s eyes were huge.

“Can we get in with our IDs as they are now?”

“Yes, but we’re going to leave a trail, I haven’t had a chance to completely mask our signatures, so there’s going to be a record whenever we scan the cards for admittance, and I’ll just bet there’s an alarm system set up on those two rooms, and how are we going to get there anyways, I don’t know the layout of the building, and I don’t think we have time to grab one then go get the other.”

“The trail doesn’t matter,” Cass said as she tossed everything she touched in her bag. “Those are fakes, remember? Just make sure you take or wipe down anywhere you touched, we can’t leave your real fingerprints.”

“They can do a DNA scan based on our skin cells, hair, anything we’ve shed, you know that?”

“Takes more time,” said Montana, spot-cleaning the walls. “Longer than we’ll be in the area. Will the directions work for a secure area?”

“They ought to. Security seems to be physical with a computer backup, so they probably won’t have a lock on directions. We just ask. Mac, you go with Christina to C281. I’m going to take D4. Grab whoever it is and get out! We meet back at the transport in fifteen minutes and run like hell. Got it?”

“What about you?”

“I’ll manage. I’m not as good at hurting people as you are, Christina, and I can’t hack the system like you can Mac, but I’m good enough for this. We’re burning minutes – go!”

Montana paused, hand over the door controls. “Good luck.”

Cass answered softly, “In my experience, there’s no such thing as luck.”

Montana keyed the door and they slipped out. Cass waited a handful of seconds before following.

“Directions, room D4,” she stated clearly.

“Follow the blue directional.” A pulsing blue hologram appeared ahead of her at eye level, bobbed twice to get her attention, then set off down the corridor at a comfortable walking pace. She passed through the department without a single glance, the blue guide being all the workers needed to convince them she belonged. Checking out of the secured area was easy, as well, and Cass began to believe she could pull this off.

Her bravado to Montana and Mac had been an act. She was actually terrified that something would go wrong, that they were taking too many risks, that they should have waited for Kendra to return… But the choices were made. She followed the guide.

One final checkpoint. “ID,” said the bored guard. Her nametag was missing, Cass noted as she passed the card over. The system beeped. “Go ahead.” If there was any question why an IT tech from Wichita was requesting access to what was supposedly the most secure area of the building, the guard didn’t notice, or care.

The guide pulsed more rapidly as she approached the door until, with a final bright flash, it disappeared. “Guess I’m here,” she whispered. She palmed open the door. The interior was dark. Feeling conspicuous, she stepped in, reaching for a flashlight. The door shut behind her and the darkness was complete.

“Hello, Aiyana,” came a voice from the blackness which then lifted.

“Deputy Director Kaine,” she answered as coolly as she could manage. “What an unpleasant surprise.”

“What, no bluster? No questions?” The voice wasn’t any easier on the ears now.

“What’s the point? No, I take that back. How long have you known?” She scanned the room. Kaine, a guard behind him, two more on the wall opposite.

“Oh, we’ve known for a couple days that you would be making some sort of attempt. I didn’t know you were in the building until you talked to me, just a little while ago.”

“Dammit.”

Kaine laughed, a horrid laugh, the laugh of the bully just before he pushes the smaller child into the mud. “Yes, you were doing fine until then.” A false look of politeness crossed his oily visage. “My apologies! Would you like to sit?” He gestured to the guard behind him, who brought a chair around to face him.

“No, I’ll stand.” A sudden thought. “What about – about Jess and Amelia? And Lisa and Kevin?”

“I have good news for you! Not all good, of course, but at least some. You see, all along Dr. Mantchev was nothing more than bait to lure you in, so your friends – are you really going to insist on calling them Jess and Amelia? We both know that’s not their names.” He paused and waited before continuing. “No matter; they’re not important. About now,” he consulted a clock. “Yes, right about now, they should be extracting the good Doctor without any difficulties. She’ll even be conscious; aren’t we kind?”

“And Kevin?”

“I’m afraid that Dr. Anderson resisted our attempt to apprehend him. My staff aren’t known for subtlety, and he didn’t survive the encounter.” He said the last with no trace of emotion.

“So, what, you’ll let them see the door before catching them?”

“Not at all!” The fake smile was fairly plastered on his face. “They’re free to go. If they’re smart, as soon as the time has expired – you did set a time limit, did you not?” Cass nodded. “Smart. When the time expires, and they realize you’re not coming, they should leave. We won’t stop them; they’ve served their purpose.”

“That’s it?”

His smile turned vicious. “Unless they try to rescue you. Then they’ll find that their skills aren’t quite as polished as they think.”

It was too much. She sank into the chair. “Was it all a setup?”

She could see him struggle with the answer, though whether it was to tell the truth or lie she didn’t know. “No, but I’m not going to tell you which parts were, and which parts weren’t.”

“Talbott.” It wasn’t a question.

“That much, I’ll tell. Yes. Ms. Talbott took on a contract, and she fulfilled it to perfection.”

“Jess? Amelia?” The thought that the two women she believed to be her friends would conspire to do this to her…

“I won’t say.” He knew exactly what he was doing. The uncertainty would gnaw at her and hurt her worse than anything else he could do. Kaine stood.

“Now, Dr. Cassidy, we have much to discuss. Would you, please?” Mockingly he bowed her to the exit.

I just have to hold on for a little while, Cass thought as she was herded from the room, handcuffs pinning her arms behind her back. Kendra’s out there, and Mac, and Christine. Lisa too. They’ll figure out what happened, come and get me out of this. I just have to draw it out as long as I can.

Holding onto that thought, Dr. Aiyana Cassidy Foster-Briggs marched into captivity.

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