Neal hammered on the keyboard, fingers dancing in complex rhythms as he cornered a solution. It was simpler than he thought, the origin signal, that is. Once he partitioned the problem into logical chunks, it all started to unveil itself before his eyes. He had journal-worthy discoveries here, if he were ever allowed to share them.
The din of the diesel engine shifted down a level, as the personnel carrier crested a hill. Reed had barked out “half-click” a short time ago, so they were probably close. Neal closed his eyes and concentrated, letting the visualization he had been working on lock into place in his mind’s eye.
Like most problems, he had been working it from the wrong direction. It was all pretty simple really. Neal had built a parser for the recursively-compressed “R-Wave”, and was ready to execute it. He glanced down at the keychain USB plugged into the main unit below his knees.
Reed hadn’t noticed it was there, and in the low tactical lighting, it would be hard to pick out unless you were right in front of it. Typing a series of commands, Neal backed up his data into the encrypted partition on the USB drive. Old habits die hard, Neal always had viable backups whether they were physical or virtual.
Neal deftly removed the USB drive and buried it deep in his right pocket. Now all he had to do was execute the program. Turning his seat towards the front, Neal thumbed the < Enter > key.
The red lights flickered, and all the displays blanked. In the center of each, a small pixel lit up, edges boiling outward in ragged recursive patterns. It reminded Neal of crystals growing in solution, expanding until it reached the edges of its container. It was beautiful.
Reed rushed to his seat, pointing at the center console display – which also had become a sea of pixels – “See? The damn thing has reached us in here somehow!”
Neal shrugged. He didn’t buy the “infection” story, but playing along seemed to be the safest bet right now.
“How far along were you?”
“I was making progress until the system crashed.”, Neal removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. It had been a grueling session at the terminal, especially under these conditions.
“Keep it fresh in your mind, we’ll have to recreate it in our lab setup.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Neal wondered what paranoid scenario Reed was entertaining now. With countries trying to hack their systems, it was probably only a matter of time before he accused Neal of either stalling on purpose, or working with the enemy. There had to be a way out of this.
The engine noise, a constant bone-jarring undertone to their haphazard escape, wound down to a soft idle. They were at the gates, glaring lights providing sharp contrast to the red-lit shadows inside.
Approval granted, they drove into an access tunnel dotted with high-security lights. Signs reminded of dire consequences if unauthorized access was attempted. Pulling into the depot, the back ramp swung open revealing a complement of soldiers ready to escort them into the base.
A few twisting corridors and keypad-codes later, Neal and Reed were in the main lab. It was well appointed, equipment of all types lined the wall with a symmetric array of electrical devices near the center. They looked like a hybrid of a Tesla Coil and high-tension insulators. The focal point had a small yellow-taped “X” on the concrete floor.
Neal sat down in front of the large display, stainless steel desk sapping the warmth from his arms as he accessed the command menus.
“I’ll be just a moment, I have something to attend to.”, Reed whispered to the soldier standing guard, who stepped forward with a hand on his sidearm. As Neal expected, Reed wasn’t taking any chances. Reed pushed through the side door into the grey hallway, door closing with a muted click.
“Hey, can I get something to eat and some water? I’m dying over here.”
The guard pressed a button on the intercom, asking for confirmation. It was long enough for Neal to reinsert his USB drive into the central unit below.
Neal not only had his personal work on the drive, but a few useful utilities as well. Invoking a command, he began an exploration of the internal network. It was like trying all the knobs on all the doors in a building at once. There had to be a door he could open and walk through.
Typing in another window to look busy, Neal waited for the search prompt to turn up a result.
Reed was under a specific timetable. One that didn’t allow for moody astronomers and foreign agents trying to compromise his mission. It had to be the damn Chinese. They gained a foothold in the network at Parkes, and somehow managed to infect the APC’s systems as well.
Things were going south. Reed had the same feeling he had when he was dangling from the trees in that godforsaken jungle. Exposed and vulnerable. He rested his hand on his sidearm. Solid and comforting. If it were up to him he would have taken all the machines and shot Neal on the spot.
His team were more than capable of handling this, even if it meant recreating a majority of Neal’s work. That man was a liability anyway, with no sense of duty or purpose.
His earpiece squawked, finally able to receive a signal outside the shielded lab.
“Sitrep, advise on the asset.”
Reed considered his response. He didn’t have much to show for his efforts, as the computer Neal was working on crashed on the way over here, wiping out all the data. It was best to rip the bandage off, then offer a solution.
“Asset secured. Decode ongoing, anticipate results promptly. Confident backup team can handle decode.”
The signal bounced through several secured networks, encrypted to a satellite and beamed back to central command. While secure, latency always made conversations an exercise in timing and patience.
“Acknowledged. Burn site and evac in event of failure.”
It was settled then. If Neal couldn’t get things working here, Reed would have to neutralize him and evacuate to their fallback position.
Reed paced down the hallway, mentally running scenarios.
They were running out of time.
(To be continued.)