Ethan Hamilton put the picture book aside. His daughter was asleep on his shoulder. Finally. Wysiwyg their cat was nestled in his lap. His watch told him it was past two, early on the morning of June 22, 2007. Katie needed to be back in her bed and Ethan needed to grab some sleep.
Nevertheless he didn’t get up just yet. Having his daughter asleep on his shoulder these days was rare. It was worth a few minutes more, just to soak it in. He stroked her blond hair and marveled at the delicate beauty of her face.
An insistent vibration at his hip put an end to his moment of paternal bliss. Ethan stood carefully and tucked the three-year-old back in her bed. He switched the pager off and headed into the hallway. He paused there, listening for contraband TV signals emanating from Jordan’s room. Satisfied, Ethan passed the master bedroom where his wife, Kaye, was sleeping, and walked down the metal spiral staircase. Thirty seconds and two banged toes later, Ethan Hamilton descended into his underground game room.
“Penny,” he said to the ceiling, “flame on.”
A woman’s alto voice issued from hidden speakers. “Reactivating previous configuration.” Cooling fans whirred, monitors set in the black walls popped on, storage drives clicked, overhead lights brightened.
Ethan’s game room was his refuge, his inner sanctum. It expressed his personality perfectly: aesthetically plain but equipped with awesome horsepower. The underground chamber was about the size of a master bedroom. The only pieces of furniture were a table with two black swivel stools pushed underneath. Computer monitors and keyboards punctuated the black paneling all around. One wall was completely taken up by a huge flat-screen monitor.
There were no decorations, per se—no nooks with potpourri or pressed flowers. But four posters were on display, one on each of four narrow doors set at the corners of the room. One poster showed Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, another showed the Army’s A1M4 Main Battle Tank, another showed a portrait of Falcon’s Grove Castle (from a virtual world created by Ethan), and the fourth showed the dashing figure of Marvin the Martian. These doors led to the holiest of holies: Ethan’s virtual reality gaming cockpits.
Ethan faced the giant screen, which had popped on. The monitor displayed more than twenty computer-generated figures staring at him from a plain virtual room. A wire-grid floor stretched to the artificial horizon. Each person in the “room” was dressed distinctively. Several wore the uniforms representing the four military branches. One wore a Bogey trench coat. One had a red FBI cap on. Two looked like rocket scientists and several looked like archetypal nerds. Where a virtual face should be, each figure had real video of the person’s actual face. It was an eerie effect, made more so if the person moved around at all.
This was Ethan’s multiagency counter-cyberterrorist team. President Rand Connor had created the team less than a year ago and established Ethan as its first director. There were thirteen member agencies in the U.S. intelligence community, more than half of whom were from the Department of Defense. Each agency had assigned two agents to the pilot program. Congress had outdone itself designing an especially unwieldy title for the little group: Joint Intelligence Detail, Information Operations and Counter-Cyberterrorism, Provisional, or JIDIOC-P.
“Good morning, sportsfans,” Ethan said. “What’s the situation?”
The only female in the group, a pretty Asian woman in an Army uniform, answered. “Operation Hydra is set to go, Director. Delta Force is approaching the target.”
“Very good, Major Lee,” Ethan said. “All right then. Let’s go around the horn.” Ethan looked at the left-most figure, a Marine in dress blues, saber and all. “Major Fontana?”
Fontana’s real face bobbed slightly in the space allocated for it atop his virtual body. “Sir, Third Combat Engineer Battalion, First Marine Division is in position in Denver and standing by.”
“Good,” Ethan said. “What’s the status on the delivery boys?”
The figure with the red FBI cap spoke up. “Denver PD’s got ’em passing north of Mile High Mall. That’s about ten minutes out.”
Ethan nodded at the camera inset in his wall. “All right. Dean, is your man in place?”
“Yes, sir,” the figure in the trench coat said.
“Did you tell him when he joined the CIA that he’d be mopping the floor of a mental institution?” Ethan asked.
“We all do our part to clean up the world, Director.”
“Ha, ha,” Ethan said. “Are we getting video from him?”
“I’ll punch it up.”
On the virtual wall behind Ethan’s team a moving image of a concrete hallway appeared. Every now and then a mop entered at the bottom of the frame, held by strong black hands.
“Good,” Ethan said. “Department of Energy, you guys ready?”
One of the rocket scientists gave a cybernetic thumbs-up. “Piece of pie.”
Ethan shifted. “You’re sure your ray gun is going to work, Earl? This is the only part of this whole thing I’m nervous about.”
“Boss, DoE’s been doing this since the sixties. It’s not a problem.”
“You’re just going to point that microwave gun at the bad guy and he’s going to turn into a vegetable?” Ethan asked.
“Well, Brainiac,” Earl Hatfield said, calling Ethan by his code name, “let’s just say he’ll be extremely susceptible to suggestions.”
“Okay,” Ethan said. “Just don’t point it at Agent Coakley by mistake.” He took a deep breath and prayed for the hundredth time that God would hold this whole house of cards he’d constructed together, at least for the duration of this operation, code named Operation Hydra.
“Not to worry, Director,” the CIA figure said. “This is the best-trained janitor in all of Colorado. These guys aren’t going to know what hit them, even if DoE blows it.”
“Hey,” Hatfield said.
“Cool it, you two,” Ethan said quickly. “All right, the institution’s taken care of for now. What about you, Gary? Is the Air Force ready?”
“One hundred percent, sir,” Captain Gary Reinke said.
“AWACS is in position over the target. Electromagnetic pulse is charged, just waiting for you to give the word.”
“Good,” Ethan said. “You’re sure the pulse won’t interfere with Delta Force or the plane they’re jumping from?”
“As long as the grunts know how to follow orders.”
“Excuse me?” the other Army figure said. His freckled, Richie Cunningham face wagged in the face spot. “Did the flyboy call those warriors ‘grunts’?”
The female Army figure intervened. “That’s enough, Mr. Barnes.”
Even in cyberspace Ethan could see the look Major Lee gave him. “I said that’s enough. We’ve got enough going against us here as it is. Don’t add anything.”
Ethan sighed. He’d been told when he took this job that the single largest problem he would face as JIDIOC-P’s director would be territorialism. President Connor had warned him about it. Mike Gillette had warned him about it. Even his son Jordan had warned him about it. The military people didn’t want to work with the civilians, and vice versa. The Navy didn’t want to work with the Army, the FBI didn’t want to work with the CIA, and nobody wanted to work with the more academic organizations such as the National Imagery & Mapping Agency. A common enemy was what they needed. Something to bond them together. Ethan was hoping it would happen through Operation Hydra.
The FBI agent said, “Delivery’s passing Claremont. Four minutes out.”
“Thanks, Max,” Ethan said.
“I only meant,” the Air Force figure said, “that if the Delta Force units took off all their electronic equipment, as per their briefing, they’ll be safe from the EMP. The MC-130’s electronics have special shielding.”
“Okay,” Ethan said. “Let’s finish up. NSA, Sai, you guys ready?”
“Just waiting on you, boss,” Sai Cho said.
“Max,” Ethan said, “how’s my man Gillette doing?”
“He’s fine,” Max answered. “His team’s in place outside the Manning warehouse.”
“He told me to give you a message,” Max said.
“He said to tell you he’s ready to bust another door down for you.”
Ethan smiled. “Just tell him to try the doorknob first. His shoulder can’t have that many more busted doors left in it.”
“I’ll tell him.”
Ethan scanned the faces. “Anybody else have anything?”
A Navy officer raised a virtual hand.
“Go ahead, Commander Dunbar.”
“Just an old sailor’s sour gut about this op, sir.”
“Can you be more specific?”
“Is it too late to call the whole thing off?”
“Yes, Commander, it’s too late. Unless you’ve got a very good reason.”
“Excuse me?” Ethan said.
“Keep it simple, stupid.”
Ethan pursed his lips. “You think we’ve got too many things going?”
“By about 2,000 percent, sir. Ever hear of a little fiasco called Desert One? Carter’s plan to save the Iranian hostages. And that was only trying to coordinate branches of the professional military. Why can’t—” He cut himself off.
“Don’t stop now,” Ethan said. “Say it.”
“Well, sir, why can’t you just let each agency and branch do their own thing in their own way? You’re gonna end up getting men killed trying to give everybody a piece of the action. Believe me, sir, we don’t care if another agency gets the credit.”
Ethan scanned the real-video faces. He saw assent reflected in several. He was conscious of all the elements they had, literally, up in the air. Every second they delayed made Commander Dunbar’s prediction closer to self-fulfilling prophecy. Ethan noticed, belatedly, a new element to the virtual room: a surveillance camera icon mounted on the wall. It meant the director of Central Intelligence, Roy Pickett, nominally Ethan’s superior, was tuned in. Roy was probably eating this up, Ethan thought.
“Glad you could join us, Roy,” Ethan said.
“Wouldn’t miss it, buddy,” he said in his tenor voice. A virtual pane appeared on the left wall of the artificial room. It was a live feed from Pickett’s location. It showed his chubby face and sly eyes. “Hello, everybody.”
The team members answered cordially.
“Say, Ethan…” Pickett said. “I’m a little confused. General Lowe tells me you pulled a Delta Force unit out from under his nose. Would you like to explain yourself?”
Ethan paused a moment to let the Holy Spirit remove the caustic words that came to his tongue. “Sure, Director Pickett. But I’m wondering if maybe we could find another time for it? How about I call you in the morning?”
“I’m sure sorry, buddy, but I’m afraid that isn’t good enough. I need you to tell me now.”
Ethan rubbed his face. “Max,” he said to the FBI agent, “what’s the status of the delivery?”
“Denver PD estimates two minutes, Director.”
“All right, Roy,” Ethan said. “How about a one-and-a-half-minute briefing?”
The director of Central Intelligence shrugged.
Ethan sighed and prayed for a good way to explain it. “Okay, Director. How about this? Do you watch much pro football?”
Pickett sniffed. “Only the world champion Redskins.”
“Okay, imagine a football team. All of us, Delta Force included, are offensive players about to run a play. Everybody on the field has a task, right? Some of the tasks are very different from one another. The receiver running his route has a far different job from the lineman blocking. These tasks happen in different places on the playing field. But everybody’s working for the same goal. If everything goes right, we move the ball a long way down the field. If too many parts, or even one crucial part, break down, we suffer a loss. With me so far, Roy?”
Pickett smirked. “If you’d come up through the ranks of any intelligence agency, you’d know that you don’t—how should I say it?—you don’t run a flea flicker when a quarterback sneak would work just as well.”
Ethan ignored it. “Your Agent Coakley is in Denver, along with the DoE and the Marines, to take care of the bombers. They’re like the offensive line blocking the rush. The FBI strike team will take out the enemy’s computer component, and General Lowe’s Delta Force unit will neutralize the enemy’s military arm. They’re like receivers taking the linebackers out of the play. The Air Force’s electromagnetic pulse will knock out the militia’s electronics—like the quarterback’s pump fake that freezes the secondary. And the NSA’s code breakers will get me into the enemy’s central computers, like the fullback’s block that springs the halfback through to pay dirt.”
Ethan was pleased with the analogy. It helped even him think about the complexities of Operation Hydra more clearly. “Look,” he said to his team, “I know this is the first time we’ve attempted anything this big before. And I know you’re not sure it’s going to work. It being nighttime doesn’t help many of you, I know. I see as well as you do that any number of things might go wrong. But look, all I know is we need each other. Not one of your agencies could bring to bear everything we’ve got going in Hydra. The bad guys are breaking all the old molds, so we’d better, too.”
Ethan gestured over his shoulder, as if the enemy were standing right behind him. “These people are monsters; they blow up babies and old people. But they’re also professionals. Now, you military people correct me if I’m wrong, but as I understand it, you only get the element of surprise once. Once they find out we’re on to them, they’re going to disappear in a cloud of smoke.”
How, Ethan asked himself, had he gotten here? How was it that a virtual reality programmer from Texas came to be sending commandos into battle and CIA agents into harm’s way? Ethan knew that others were wondering the same thing. His eyes flicked to Roy Pickett’s plump face.
“This op,” Ethan said, “Operation Hydra, is the only way we can grab everybody we need to get. This is exactly the kind of thing this team was put together to do. If it works, we’ll have pulled off the biggest victory for the American intelligence community since…well, I don’t know that stuff. But the biggest victory in a long time.”
Ethan cringed. Not exactly a Patton-like ending to his speech.
Max’s face looked down. It was a strange effect, since his body remained perfectly upright. “Boss, Denver PD says the delivery’s on the block. About thirty seconds now.”
“Okay, everybody,” Ethan said. “This is it. What do you say? Do we go on with Hydra or do we scrub?” He scanned their faces. No one said anything. “All right then. I expect each one of you to hit this with everything he’s got. Let’s make it work.” He turned toward his VR cockpit but then paused at the door. “We’re going ahead with it, Director.”
“Sure, buddy, don’t let me stand in your way.”
Ethan ducked into a cockpit. He slid into his vinyl gunner’s chair. His hands were trembling. Icy sweat shot down his ribs. O Father, he prayed silently, please make this work. As he powered up his cockpit for his upcoming gambit in cyberspace, a word kept buzzing around in his head like a mosquito. Buddy.
* * *
“‘Don’t let me stand in your way’?”
Director Roy Pickett looked at his aide across his desk. “Did you like that?”
The aide, a wispy-haired young man named Colin Bates, nodded. “Nice touch.”
“I am DCI, you know. I do want them to succeed.”
Bates spread his hands. “What’d I say?”
“Just shut up, will you? It will look very bad on all of us if Hydra goes wrong. Not to mention the lives at risk.”
“Mm-hmm.” Bates turned his gaze to the wall of monitors displaying Operation Hydra. “One day I’m going to have to ask you what this poor schmuck did to deserve your wrath.”
“Oh,” Pickett said with a tired sigh, “it’s not him so much.” He shook his head. “One day you’ll understand, my son.”
“When I’m old and cranky like you.”
“Exactly. Now shut up.”
Click here to buy Fatal Defect from Amazon.
Clipperton Island, featured in this novel, is a real island in the Pacific.
It has a fascinating and colorful history, includ-ing a brutal man who enslaved the Western women settlers—until they ganged up on him and killed him.
This story is told in detail in Fatal Defect.