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All Systems Down – Chapters 2 and 3

2

Brendan stuffed his hands into the pockets of his only suit jacket. The lining was torn, and it hardly kept out the cold. It didn’t fit well, either. Too tight along the shoulders. It was a lousy interview suit, but he didn’t have much of a choice. He wasn’t going to spring for a new one. Not with funds running low and a family to support.

He took a breath and nudged open the door.

The lobby seemed typical for a robotics company in the trendiest pocket of Portland, Oregon. High-definition screens lined one of the walls, broadcasting sports, an out-of-town technology convention, home shopping, and news. The Sparx logo sat above an empty security guard desk. In the center of the lobby stood the giant statue of a vacuum-cleaning robot, shaped like a disk. It filled most of the space, polished and gleaming in contrast to the fashionably rusted overhead beams.

“Hello?” Brendan said. “Anyone here?”

His cautious footfalls echoed on the stone tiles. A whisper of music hummed in the background, intended, perhaps, to calm visitors, though for Brendan it pronounced the solitude and the emptiness. He edged farther inside, toward the desk, and knocked on the mahogany. This was probably where he’d spend his days if he got the job. And he needed this job. It was a step down, but his pride would just have to take the hit. Pride wouldn’t pay the mortgage.

From across the lobby, the elevator door whooshed opened and a man gamboled out, waifish and young, an air of authority despite his build. “You must be our three o’clock. Brendan, is it?”

“Brendan Chogan.” He moved to close the vast distance between them.

“Well, I’ll say. You certainly look the part of a security guard.” His manicured eyebrows arched while piercing gray eyes travelled up and down Brendan, lingering uncomfortably on his shoulders. Only then did the man offer his hand. “I’m Milo Jones, General Manager.”

Brendan took it with care. It seemed like the kind of hand that might break easily, smooth and white.

“Come on upstairs. I’ve got a room where we can get started.” Milo led the way to the elevator. “So, you were a police officer?”

“No, sir. Parking code enforcement.”

With a ping the elevator door slid open, and Milo skipped inside. “Like a meter maid?”

Brendan ran his hand over the back of his neck where the hair had started to bristle. “Something like that. Foot patrol and dispatch. Mostly wrote code citations.”

The elevator started up with a gentle lurch, the innuendo of music crooning, too soft to hear but impossible to ignore. Brendan shifted, aware of the space of his body in the compartment. Mirrors on both sides revealed him as he towered over Milo. Ungainly. Hulking. He wished one of them would say something to drive back the silence.

Finally, a bell rang. The door yawned open on the sixth floor exposing a bullpen of workers. Men and women sat at desks, beanbag chairs, and barstools. No one glanced up as he passed. They seemed deep in thought, headphones on, typing away on keyboards too small for Brendan’s fingers.

“This is one of our coding floors,” Milo said, leading him forward. “Primarily engineers.”

“What are they working on?”

“Machine learning models, perceptual awareness, that sort of thing. I can’t really tell you more than that.”

Brendan nodded as if he understood, though his eyes had drifted to the walls. Giant framed posters of fictional robots dominated the room. Rosie from the Jetsons, R2-D2, RoboCop. The Terminator.

Milo directed Brendan toward an all-glass conference room where twenty chairs surrounded a long, oval table. “So, what has you making the switch from parking code enforcement to security?” With the push of a button, the white board behind the desk rose and disappeared into the ceiling.

“City laid me off,” Brendan said, trying to sound casual. “Moved to an automated ticketing system.”

“Ahh. Well, that makes sense,” Milo said, flashing a perfect set of poodle-white teeth. “Lose some jobs to make more and better ones.”

Brendan knew enough to keep his mouth shut.

Milo motioned him into a chair but didn’t sit himself. “When we run your background check, are we going to find anything?”

Brendan took a seat, rubbing a thumb over the bent cartilage of his nose, like he sometimes did when he was nervous. “When I was twenty I got into a little scrape. Might be in there.”

“Tell me about it.” Milo leaned forward, platinum pinkie rings tapping against the wooden tabletop.

“Broke a guy’s hand when he put it on my wife. She was just my girlfriend back then. Charges went down to a misdemeanor, but I lost my boxing scholarship. Coulda been worse.”

Milo twisted his mouth, but then nodded. “Anything in the last ten years?”

“No, sir. Just the one brush up. Way behind me.”

A moment of silence. Milo’s eyes bored into him, fingers drumming an out-of-time rhythm. “Well,” he said after far too long, “your credentials meet our minimum requirements. What we’re going to do now is have you take a little online test.” He pulled a glass and steel tablet from a drawer in the conference table. It was a new model, one that Brendan hadn’t seen before. Sleek and modern, he couldn’t help comparing it unfavorably to the ancient one the girls had at home.

“Sounds good.” Brendan folded his arms and tried to keep his foot from bobbing and weaving on the carpet. The chair was small, and his knees knocked against the underside of the table.

“After you’re done here, I’ll show you out.”

Brendan raised an eyebrow. “Out? What about the interview?”

“Oh. I must not have explained clearly. The online test is the interview.” He flitted around the room and patted Brendan on the shoulder. “Mostly, we’re checking for cultural fit. Just answer as best as you can. I’ll be back when you’re through.” The glass door shut behind him.

Brendan set his jaw and fought against the urge to get up and leave. This town didn’t have many open jobs for a guy like him, and he needed this one. He wouldn’t run.

Before he even touched the thing, the tablet switched on. A picture displayed—him, in the upper right corner, wearing the too-tight suit, the angle of the shot telling him it had been taken by a security camera on the way in.

Name: Brendan Andrew Chogan

Age: 35

Previous Employer: City of Portland

– Press Screen to Begin –

The multiple choice questions started out straightforward enough. How easy is it for you to stay relaxed and focused under pressure? How tidy do you keep your home and work environments? What kinds of problems do you like to solve?

After twenty minutes, the questions grew stranger. Could a computer think for itself? What is the objective nature of morality? Are human beings just machines?

And after thirty minutes, the questions became truly unconventional. What is the death of anything, truly? Why is there something rather than nothing? Is the universe a three-dimensional hyper-spherical surface in four dimensions?

Brendan’s eyes glazed over. He stood to stretch and, twisting his back, he chanced a glance out into the bullpen. On the other side of the glass, engineers milled about. Agitated. Some had removed their headphones. Most were pointing to their screens.

Brendan’s own screen flashed from the table top. A message appeared on the tablet that didn’t match up with the questions he’d been answering for the past thirty minutes.

No force in the world can check the advance of our army and people. We rush forward like the blizzards of Mount Paektu. Final victory undoubtedly belongs to us.

That was all, just a few sentences. It was so odd. A joke, maybe. He wasn’t familiar with human resources humor.

A knock on the glass, and the door breezed open. Milo capered into the conference room wearing a half-smile that oozed forced sympathy. “Mr. Chogan,” he said. “I’m afraid I have some bad news for you.”
 
 

3

The sun rising over the Yalu River was the best part of Pak Han-yong’s day.

It began with darkness. In the distance, on the far side of the river, his homeland lay swaddled in unbreaking night. The fields and the factories, the port and the mills all slept. Then the horizon would lighten, from black to blue to gold, and the three faraway smokestacks appeared from the port city of Sinǔiju; first as silhouettes, then as gray fists, casting long shadows.

Next, the sun. Crimson light burned at the edges of red pine forests and reflected off the rice paddies. River, land, and air awoke to the glory of the Supreme Leader and the world’s chosen people. Tears sprung, as they always did, as light brought his beloved North Korea to life.

He observed it all from his desk on the tenth floor of the Shanghai Hotel in Dandong, China, across the border from the land of his ancestors.

China. After two years, Han-yong still had trouble internalizing the wealth of this nation. The Chinese lived in skyscrapers, profligate buildings of steel and glass. So different from his home city of Chongjin, where families lived modestly in single-story “harmonica homes,” so named because of their resemblance to the tiny boxes that make up the chambers of a harmonica.

On Fuchun Street, ten stories below, cars bustled. Unnecessary, extravagant. In Chongjin, nearly everyone was content to ride a bicycle or take public transit. And when they did drive, his people didn’t smoke like the Chinese. If you smoked, you wouldn’t catch the constant engine problems of your soviet-made Volga or ZIL.

Even from thirty meters above, it was apparent how the well-fed Chinese had been made soft by water that flowed reliably and electricity that ran all day. Food here wasn’t rationed by the gram. No one in China grew strong and clever from struggle and strain. There were no hardships here. And for that, he despised the Chinese, military allies or not.

“Long live the Shining Sun of North Korea,” he said. These people aren’t better than us. We have nothing to envy in the world. He lowered himself into the seat of his desk, rearranged his mouse so it squared perfectly with his keyboard, took a final sip of tea, and continued to monitor the attack that had started hours earlier.

Today, Han-yong fell into his routine, despite the enormity of the day’s events. Routine was the scaffolding that held his life together. He had woken in the earliest hours, barely speaking to his five roommates in the converted hotel room, had slipped into his pressed uniform, and spit-polished the single silver star on his shoulder. Then, after quickly wiping dust from the portrait of the Supreme Leader that hung alone on the wall, he’d moved to the common area to drink his tea and work until sunrise.

Two years of waiting, and today it has finally begun. He rubbed his hands together. Every day Han-yong worked here, visited the canteen, and bunked in his room. He rarely slept more than five hours. And never, in those two years, had he left the tenth floor of the Shanghai Hotel.

For all the differences between China and North Korea, there was only one that mattered, and it was why Han-yong was here at all. The Internet. On the North Korean side of the river, the global Internet, for all practical purposes, did not exist. There was a limited internal network that pointed to a handful of websites. But North Korea had fewer Internet protocol addresses in the whole country than could be found on a block in some Imperialist cities.

Here in China, though, the Internet reached nearly every corner of the globe. And because of that, Han-yong and the other elite hackers of Unit 101 could touch a banking system in London, a hospital network in New York City, or a data center in Tokyo.

“Junior Lieutenant Pak!” The gruff voice of the senior lieutenant shattered Han-yong’s reverie and brought him spinning from the window, springing to his feet, fingertips raised to eyebrow in salute. “You are to come with me.”

The senior lieutenant was very different from Han-yong. He was loud and assertive, tall by North Korean standards, and good-looking enough that he probably did well with women when he took leave—an amenity provided only to senior officers. But, most grating, he was a traditional military officer, untrained in online warfare, and knew just enough to stick his fingers where they didn’t belong.

Still, there was nothing to do but obey.

They waded the corridors in silence, past the desks where scores of other hackers from his unit sat immersed in a war that had begun with an attack on an Imperialist supercarrier only hours earlier. As Han-yong sauntered through the ranks of Unit 101, his pulse quickened with pride. They were the elite, plucked from grade school from across the country and enrolled in Command Automation University in Pyongyang. They had trained with the singular focus of learning to hack into secure enemy networks. They had become warriors. Instead of tanks or drones, their weapons were in code. They had mastered digital viruses, worms, the dedicated denial of service attack, trapdoors, and botnets. They had simulated cyber war amongst themselves and infiltrated foreign targets. At every stage, they had been tested and evaluated, and only the most gifted had come to wear the uniform.

The senior lieutenant stopped the door that led to the stairwell. “The colonel has ordered a meeting with you,” he said, one hand placed haughtily on his hip, not bothering to meet Han-yong’s eyes. He’d assumed the pose of a Manchurian guerrilla fighter from the war movies. “You will speak when spoken to and answer all inquiries in full.”

Han-yong couldn’t help himself. “Sir, what inquiries?”

“About the interconnect logic bombs,” the senior lieutenant snapped, unlocking the door. The stairwell beyond was devoid of decoration, except for a creamy swirl on the vinyl tile, like the pattern on the lid of a paint can. “Hurry now.” And he started up the stairs, feet tapping a marching rhythm.

The Imperialists of North America had many weaknesses, but Han-yong had been ordered to focus on the power grid. The system was a relic of the 1960s, set up with no thoughts for security, but instead as a way to balance the supply and demand for electrical power across vast swaths of territory. In their arrogance, the Americans had organized just five power-grid interconnections across the entire country, electrically tied together and operating at the same frequency.

While it may have so far proven a sufficient way to balance loads—power companies with little demand could transfer electricity to areas with greater demand—the reality was that a single significant disturbance could collapse all of the systems tied to the interconnection. And Han-yong did not have the means to cause just a single disturbance.

He had the means to cause thousands.

The project was code-named Sonnimne, after the smallpox gods of Korean mythology that long ago crossed the Yalu River. It was both a nod to the new pestilence they would unleash and a reference to how the plague had already spread in secret, machine to machine, substation to substation.

Han-yong had planted logic bombs—malware that could be triggered in response to an event—in substations across the United States. It had taken months of steadfast work. The difficulty was writing the combustible code within a Trojan application in a way that was at once difficult to detect, easy to spread, and powerful once deployed. While the wait and the work had been excruciating, the payoff would be enormous. And imminent.

They reached the top of the stairs, and the senior lieutenant produced a key to open the gray-painted industrial steel door. The eleventh floor was reserved for high-ranking officers, their quarters, and computer servers that required additional security.

Sweat beaded on Han-yong’s brow. The colonel ranked just three steps below a general, and was likely the most senior military official Han-yong would ever speak to in his career. A slipup here might find him dishonored and discharged, or eating rats in a reeducation camp.

They rounded the first corner through the carpeted corridor, where Han-yong noticed, with more than a little satisfaction, that the smell of mildew pervaded every bit as strongly as in the floor where the junior officers worked. The senior lieutenant pulled up short in front of a door with a brass room number in the Western style. Before they could knock, a man inside bellowed, “Junior Lieutenant Pak Han-yong. Come in. Come in.”

The voice was not what he’d expected. Friendly. Jovial, even. Han-yong poked his chin through the doorway.

Nothing about the scene that greeted them was as he had imagined. The hotel suite was gaudy by North Korean standards. The walls, which should have been bare except for the requisite photograph of the Supreme Leader, were decorated with paintings of mountains and birds in a style that Han-yong vaguely recognized as Japanese.

The room was not sleeping quarters, but an office far larger than the room Han-yong shared with the other soldiers. At the center of the space, a heavy-grain oak desk displayed unrecognizable artifacts: three swords on a wooden rack, an unfolded fan with red tassels and a painted orange sun, a clay jar in the shape of a boar, and a half-dozen other oddities that Han-yong had never seen. They were beautiful, and he felt guilty for admiring the work of foreigners.

The colonel himself was also a surprise. A crisp military uniform did nothing to hide his bulk. No one Han-yong had ever met carried more than a few pounds of extra weight. How could they, when even prison guards and soldiers, who received the best rations in the country, still lived off just enough to fill their bellies?

“Junior Lieutenant,” the colonel began, leaning back in his chair, “your commanding officer tells me we are ready to move forward with project Sonnimne. And I understand that you have implanted code throughout the US system of interconnects?”

“Not exactly, sir.” Han-yong hesitated, unsure of how much technical detail to provide. “I created a zero-day exploit. A new kind of virus, sir. It uses entirely original code.” The colonel raised an eyebrow. “That means it can’t be detected by malware filters,” Han-yong continued. “The virus triggered a patch update in the operating systems of the high-voltage distribution facilities and spread throughout.”

The colonel inclined forward, his chair squealing under the weight. “What do you mean by ‘spread throughout?’ How many facilities have the virus?”

Han-yong paused, careful to give the correct information. “All of them, sir. All of the distribution facilities in the United States now have the virus.”

The senior lieutenant let out a dry cough. Otherwise, for several seconds no one moved or spoke. Han-yong shifted his weight between feet.

“But … that must be thousands,” the colonel said.

A trickle of sweat trickled down Han-yong’s brow toward his eye, but he ignored it. “Yes, sir. There are over nine thousand electric-generating facilities and over three-hundred thousand kilometers of high-voltage lines spread between them. These substations alone carry seventy percent of the most-hated nation’s electricity. They all have the virus.” The sweat droplet fell into his eye. He blinked it away.

“Do you mean to say that we have a virus that can wipe out seventy percent of the American electrical grid?”

“No, sir. When the majority of the US power grid goes down, the lower-voltage lines won’t be able to sustain the added load volume. They will topple under the stress. This virus will wipe out one-hundred percent of the American electrical grid.”

The colonel’s mouth hung open as if he were about to speak, but couldn’t, while the senior lieutenant wore a self-satisfied smirk that reminded Han-yong of a least weasel with a bellyful of stolen eggs.

The colonel’s jaw tightened below a layer of fat. “If the virus is dispersed so completely, then why has nothing happened? The lights are still on in the West.”

Now it was the senior lieutenant’s turn to explain. “The virus has two stages. The first is the spreading stage, which is only recently complete. The second stage is activation, when the logic bombs that have been hidden in the code will deploy. We are ready to deploy that on your order, sir. Today, if desired. Along with the hundreds of other attacks Unit 101 has prepared.”

Han-yong nodded, proud that his efforts fit so well with the whole. Each team member had his own projects designed to attack global enemies; separate and equally deadly projects to take out Imperialist infrastructure. Some cyber soldiers had built malware to disable railways. Some had built code to choke airline traffic. Still others had built viruses to cripple the Imperialist military communications.

“At your command, we can activate the logic bombs with a keystroke,” the senior lieutenant continued. “The virus will cause the power grid to overheat and self-immolate. I have no way of knowing how long it would take to repair, but every time the Americans try to rebuild the lines, we can bring them down again.”

At that, the colonel laughed heartily, the fat of his jowls jiggling with mirth. “You both are too young to appreciate the irony in what we are about to do. You see, when the Soviet Union collapsed decades ago, our system also faltered. The subsidies that had sustained us fell away, and our power plants rusted into disuse. Our streets went dark. And many of our cities are still without power, as you know. The fatherland is still in the dark.”

Han-yong nodded. All too well, he knew of the humiliations his countrymen had suffered under the sanctions of their enemies.

“But our time has come,” the colonel continued. “Like the thousand-li horse, we are too swift to be mounted, too elegant to be cowed. At last, it has all come together. The fight has only begun, and already the enemy falters. So now we will strike at the heart. Today we will lash out with this and everything we have. This is our chance to repay, blindness for blindness, a world that sent us into blackness.”

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