Neal’s office was nearly bare. Desks had been moved and equipment carried out, impressions from the furniture still marking the carpet in perpendicular lines. His workstation was the only connected machine left.
Agent Reed pulled out the chair and motioned for Neal to sit.
“You’ll stop wasting my time and show me the logs.”
Neal swallowed, hesitantly invoking commands to bring up the browsing utility. Scanning the list, Reed stopped and pointed at the file Neal had printed out, hours ago.
“That one has a timestamp that is different from the others. You were studying this entry, weren’t you?”
Damn it all, this guy knew his stuff. Time to half-confess, at least to find out more.
“Yes, I was. I tend to randomly select files to see if the algorithms have missed anything.”
“And you found the R-Wave.”
“The what? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Mr. Watkins, or should I say doctor Watkins, you know perfectly well what I’m talking about. We don’t have time for this. Right now, teams are spreading out to contain this –“, Reed’s finger stabbed at the monitor, “–infection, whatever it is.”
Neal sat in stunned silence.
“You’d better come up with something better than ‘I don’t know’, or so help me I will throw you into a hole so deep, no one will hear your screams.”, Reed slammed down on the desk with a clenched fist, scattering notes on to the floor.
“Maybe you should tell me what you mean by infection.”, Neal reverted to his soothing voice, the one he used when Directors were fuming about funding and lack of published results. It worked.
Reed placed his laptop on the desk, turning the narrow-field display so Neal could read what was on the screen.
“There. Suffice to say if you breathe a word about this you’ll become ‘missing’ in a heartbeat.”
Leaning forward, Neal began reading.
Field Briefing: R-WAVE
[Redacted] studying incoming signal from distant group, SATCOMMS [Redacted], main memory began to fail, backup systems inoperative. Attempted downstream command to reset, was given error but retrieved sample of wave. Not full package, as transmission failed and asset began to de-orbit. Monitoring device was frozen, obtained hardcopy before machine crashed in non-recoverable loop.
Recommend containment procedure ASAP, do not load sample on to sensitive equipment or networks. Unknown mechanism of infection, assumed to be some analog to malware or computer type virus. INFECTION VECTOR NOT UNDERSTOOD. Extreme caution is advised.
“So, it crashes computers? Why does that matter?”, Neal sat back in the chair, springs squeaking.
“It matters, because it seems to adapt to whatever environment it finds itself in. It took out an entire base of networked machines. If we hadn’t been isolated for security, it would’ve hopped out to the internet.”
“Then why is my machine still working?”
“This thing is smart, the onset of symptoms varies with efforts made to contain it. When it determines there’s no escape from your network, all of your machines will go down.”
Just then, alarms buzzed and red lights began pulsing. The servers downstairs were being powered down, reaction to the false fire alarm signal lighting up the building.
“Its begun. You’d better come with me.”, Reed grabbed Neal by the arm, lifting him out of his chair. Neal’s screen blanked, then went into random pixel patterns. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
“Don’t look, we have to get out of here!”, Reed hustled Neal out the door into the cool evening air. Jumping into a large truck, they rolled out of the parking lot towards the main access road.
The silhouette of the building behind them cast in red flashing lights, an angry giant with dark window-framed eyes.
If this was an infectious organism, then Neal had a biohazard stowed in the utility box.
Grimly watching scrub brush disappear in the headlights, Neal wondered if his caution had doomed them all. He had to learn more, this secrecy bullshit was starting to wear at his soul.
“We’re going to a secure facility, we can’t risk contamination scenarios. If you have a cell phone on you, I suggest you turn it in before we arrive.”
Neal produced his phone, glancing at the pixelated display. Hypnotic patterns were dancing at the periphery, like one of those optical illusions that produce movement when you almost look away.
Reed snatched the phone out of his hand and sealed it in a mesh envelope. Faraday cage. Designed to block signals coming in, and out.
Staring out the windshield in silence, they rumbled on the rough backroad towards the horizon, stars blinking in the darkening skies overhead.
(To be continued.)