Chapter 1 – Security Breach

The rusty garage door groaned as the man strained under the weight, lifting the bulky door upward.  It made a deafening rattle as the rollers slammed against the end of the tracks and a dusty cloud emerged from the dark interior of the garage, out into the afternoon light of the empty back alley.  The man squinted as he peered into the opening, his eyes taking a moment to adjust to the change in lighting.  He could hear the nearby bustle of the crowded Mexican market softly bouncing off the walls of the buildings which lined the cracked narrow pavement. With a quick glance down each side of the alley, the man stepped inside the threshold of the garage.

The box truck was smaller than he had anticipated.  He fumbled around the side of the vehicle, feeling along the corrugated metal walls of the garage, hoping to find a light switch. He found none, but no matter – his instructions had indicated that the keys would be in the ignition.  Working towards the back of the truck, he came to the rear door of the cargo box. Unlatching the lock, the man heaved the door upward, opening it just enough to get a glimpse of the contents inside the dark opening.  He could make out the rough shape of what appeared to be six large oil drums with wires strewn between them.  The only illumination inside the box came from the small red LED lights, part of some electric device that topped each of the half-dozen containers.  He pulled the cargo door back down and latched it securely shut.

The man made his way to the driver side door and grasped the handle, twisting it open. He hefted himself up into the cab and swung his legs and body inside as he came to rest on the bench-style seat. Nervously, he reached around the side of the steering column and his fingers found a set of keys, dangling in the ignition. With a sigh, the man paused.

Part of him wished the keys weren’t there, or better yet, the garage completely empty. Perhaps then, he could abandon this task and return home to his family without incident.

His wife’s face crept into his thoughts; he could see her sitting on the porch swing, lazily rocking back and forth, their newborn daughter asleep in her arms.  He wished he could, somehow, be there with them in that moment, kissing the soft skin of the baby’s forehead as she dreamed blissfully in the warm breeze.

He had, however, taken an oath to fulfill his duty. He couldn’t abandon it now.

The man inhaled deeply, and slowly exhaled.  He twisted the keys in the ignition as the engine coughed, sputtered, and then rumbled to life.  Shifting into gear, the man eased his foot onto the gas pedal, and the truck crept out through the dusty opening of the garage door back into the afternoon sunlight.  Turning down the alley, the truck lightly jostled as it rolled over the cracked pavement.  No need to close the garage door behind him he thought.  The man, the truck and its unforgiving cargo would not be returning to the unfamiliar alleyway.

Driving through the streets of Cholula, a vibrant city in the Mexican state of Puebla, the man passed teeming sidewalks – flooded with people going about their afternoon, food carts serving up the day’s largest meal, and no shortage of noise.  Never in his life had he been surrounded by so much commotion and liveliness.  The man looked down at his lap, to the rough map that had been drawn on a piece of paper, one of the many things that had been sitting on his hotel room dresser – waiting for him – when he first arrived only a day prior.

Also on that dresser was a set of work clothes, light brown, with the logo of a local delivery company embroidered on the shirt pocket.  On top of the clothes lay a plastic laminated I.D. badge with a lanyard attached. The photo on the badge was his own, of course, but the name was not, and it featured the same company logo that adorned the shirt.  Next to it was a computer data stick, the contents of which were unknown to him.  The final item on the dresser was one that made the man sweat when he first laid eyes on it.  Now, tucked into the rear of his waistband, the cool metal of the 9-mm pistol against his skin was an uncomfortable reminder of the danger that lay ahead.

The man looked up from his lap, just in time to see the jalopy narrowly pulling out in front of him from a side street.  Reacting quickly, the man shoved both feet onto the brake pedal as the truck skidded toward the rusty car.  The truck lurched as it reached an abrupt stop, and the man tensed as he heard the liquid-laden drums in the rear slide forward and slam against the front wall of the cargo box.  With his eyes squeezed shut, the man held his breath, waiting for the drums to detonate.  After a moment, the man – peeking through one eye – looked around to find that he was indeed still alive, the truck sitting in the center of the busy street, the jalopy nowhere in sight.  A wave of relief flooded over him.  However, the relief soon faded as he remembered his task.

Minutes later, the truck pulled up to a security gate, with a small guard shack, flanked on both sides by a fifteen-foot chain-link fence topped with razor wire.  The man could see the Great Pyramid of Cholula in the distance, beyond the guard shack and the immense research facility.  From here, the pyramid merely resembled a tall grassy hill, covered in trees, with an old Spanish church that sat on top.  He knew, however, that what lay beneath that church was not a naturally-formed hill; and below it, something not from the hands of man.

A Hispanic fellow in a guard uniform emerged from the tiny shack and approached the truck.  The driver, immensely anxious, fumbled for the fake I.D. badge and the piece of paper containing the delivery order.  The guard, now at the driver side window, tapped on the glass rapidly with the corner of his clipboard.

The driver took a deep breath and rolled down the window.

“Hola,” said the guard.

“Hola,” The driver stammered, wearing a nervous grin. “Uh–Habla Ingles?”

“Yes, I speak English,” the guard replied. “May I see your credentials and paperwork?”

The driver handed the I.D. badge and delivery order to the guard through the truck window.  He watched the guard anxiously as he scanned the badge with an electronic device, and proceeded to check the paperwork against his own.  After a few moments, the guard scribbled something brief on the clipboard, and handed the badge and paperwork back to the driver.

“The loading dock is on the east side of the facility,” said the guard. “Your badge will give you temporary access to the cargo area.”

“O-Okay, thank you–um, Gracias!” the driver said, with a forced laugh.

The guard looked quizzically at the driver; “De nada,” he replied.

The driver, now inside the loading dock, hopped down from the cab of the truck and walked around to the rear doors.  After a quick glance around to ensure nobody would be peering inside, he unlatched the lock, pulled open the door and hopped up into the cargo box. After a moment, he emerged back onto the loading platform with a dolly stacked with cardboard boxes.  He re-secured the cargo box and proceeded to push the dolly through a set of doors at the far end of the platform.  Just inside the doorway was a brightly lit hallway with glossy tile floors. To his immediate right was a counter and sliding glass window – behind it, a woman, seated at a desk facing the window.  The man approached the counter, the woman glanced up and recognizing the uniform, motioned him onward.  He was relieved that he could spare himself another awkward encounter.  The man rolled the dolly by the window and smiled, the woman eyeing the boxes as he passed.

The content of the boxes was not important. What was important was the data stick in his shirt pocket.  He needed to find a way to access the facility’s secure data network, most likely in a server room.  The instructions he had been given were clear – once the data stick is in place, he is to return to his truck within the loading dock, initiate the detonator timer attached to the drums, and get away from the facility on foot as quickly as possible.  The operation had been planned for the late afternoon, so that most of the workers and researchers would hopefully be gone for the day.

After several minutes of roaming the twisting labyrinth of fluorescent-lighted hallways, the man eventually came upon a set of large double doors.  Above them was lettering that read: CONTROL ROOM – AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.  Thus far, the few people he had passed in the hallways, each wearing a white lab coat and carrying file folders in arm, didn’t seem to pay him any mind.  Beyond this door, however, people were sure to take notice of a lost deliveryman.  He decided it would be best that he be unencumbered going forward, so he rested the dolly upright against the opposite wall.  He approached the double doors, pulled one open, and slipped inside.

In the control room, the man took a moment to take in his surroundings.  The large space was much more dimly lit than the hallways, with a soft white light emitting from a high darkly-painted ceiling above.  Eerily quiet, the expanse of the room was filled with workstations and cubicles arranged in rows, each with a glowing computer screen and the occasional desk lamp or potted plant.  High on the opposite wall was an array of large video monitors, each displaying information relating to the facility and its research.  One displayed a weather radar image of the local area, with light and dark green blobs indicating that rain was approaching.  Others showed continuously-scrolling graphs with various real-time measurements – vibration level, frequency, temperature and a few others.  On the adjacent wall was a door made of frosted glass, with a pale blue light barely visible from behind.

There were a few personnel still seated at their workstations, but most seemed to be completely transfixed to their computer monitors.  The man made his way quietly around the perimeter of the room toward the glowing frosted door.  As he got nearer, he could make out the low drone from a cacophony of computer fans. That had to be the server room he was after.  Once he reached the door, he noticed a keycard scanner affixed just above the handle.  He retrieved his I.D. badge from the lanyard around his neck and waved it across the scanner, but nothing happened.

Quickly looking around, he saw a hefty man still seated at his desk nearby, reclining in his chair with his back turned to him.  The man’s head was tilted forward, his double-chin resting on his puffy chest, and his head rocked slightly with each breathe that he took.

The deliveryman crept quietly toward the cubicle where the sleeping man sat, his jacket draped across the back of his chair.  He noticed the man’s I.D. badge clipped to the lapel of his jacket, and he slowly reached out to try and unclip the badge.  His fingers gingerly pried open the clasp and the badge was free from the jacket lapel.  He slowly backed away, in a crouched position, until he was confident he was out of earshot of the sleeping man.

“What do you think you’re doing?” came a stern voice from behind.

The deliveryman jumped, and quickly whirled around to find a woman standing there with her hands on her hips.

Her voice raised, “This is a restricted area; you’re not supposed to be–”

She stopped as she noticed the man was clutching the I.D. badge in his hand.  She raised her gaze to meet the man’s eyes, understanding in that instant what the deliveryman was up to.

Roused from his slumber, the hefty man rose from his seat.  The deliveryman quickly looked behind him at the now-attentive sleeper, and then back at the woman in front of him.  He was immediately overwhelmed with a crushing sense of panic, and before the woman could open her mouth again, he sprung forward shoving the woman hard against the opposing cubicle.  Spilling backward, the woman screamed in horror, and the deliveryman took off running toward the control room doors through which he came.  The woman scrambled to her knees and shouted at the hefty man, “Jesus Christ–call security, now!”

The man erupted out of the double doors of the control room, crashing headlong into the dolly he had stationed just outside.  He jumped to his feet and tore down the hall, rounding one corner and then another.  Clearing a doorway, he could hear a woman’s urgent voice come over the loudspeaker in the hallway, “SECURITY ALERT. FACILITY LOCKDOWN IN EFFECT.”  As he rounded the next corner he skidded to a halt, as four uniformed guards sprinted down the hall toward him from the opposite end.  In that moment, the man remembered the pistol tucked in his waistband.  Wide eyed, he looked back down the hallway he had just emerged from, horrified to see that three more guards were running at him full speed.

The man reached into the rear of his waistband, where his fingers met with the cool hard steel of the pistol grip.  He backed himself up into the opposing corner, able to see both groups of men charging toward him.  He could hear the guards shouting something at him, but he was unable to make out their words – the overhead speaker drowning out their commands.  The man closed his eyes, squeezing them tightly, even tighter than earlier when his truck was skidding toward certain death.

In that moment, he took himself back to the porch swing, his wife sitting there looking over at him.  She glanced down at the infant girl she held in her arms, and then back up at him, as a tear rolled down her tender cheek.  With his hand, the man gingerly wiped away her tear and leaned in, touching his forehead to hers.  He looked down at his beautiful daughter, and silently thanked God for blessing them with such a precious gift.  He raised his gaze to meet the teary eyes of his wife, and gently spoke to her.

“I love you so much,” he said, as he struggled to hold back his own emotions. “Take care of our daughter–you both will be forever in my heart.”

The man opened his eyes, the blare of the loudspeaker crashing through his eardrums, the guards only a few yards away now.  His hand, still wrapped around the pistol, emerged from his waistband.  The guards, seeing this, stopped in their tracks and drew their own side arms.  They wouldn’t need them, the man thought – as he raised the gun, pressed the barrel to his right temple and pulled the trigger.

Claire Cartwright hurriedly gathered the implements from the kitchen counter, tossing them into her purse – cell phone, sunglasses, keys and a brochure for the conference.  She was already running late, and still had to make it downtown in time to see the keynote speaker.  With bottled water in hand, she took one last glance around the small one-room New York apartment, crowded with stacks of cardboard boxes, and then headed out the door.

Luckily, the subway station was only a block from her building.  The twenty-eight-year-old bobbed and weaved, filing her way through the crowded station as she made her way toward the platform.  The train would be packed this time of day, she needed to be ready to jam her way inside as soon as the train arrived.

A long line of subway cars whizzed into the station, accompanied by a lofty gust as the train grinded to a halt near the platform – the breeze felt good, thought Claire.  When the doors opened, she and dozens of other commuters proceeded to push and prod their way into the crowded cars – forget about finding an empty seat, she would be standing for this trip.  That was one thing she would not miss once she leaves this city; the overabundance of impatient people.  As the train leapt forward, she noticed the man standing across for her, staring intently at his newspaper.  A slight smile crept over her face.  She was glad to see that some, like herself, still preferred the hard medium over the glowing screen of a tablet or smartphone.  Her eyes glided over the headline on the front page: Alliance Meets for Annual Conference.

Claire’s pulse quickened.  Ever since she was in high school, she has always been fascinated by the work of the Global Research Alliance – but more importantly, the discoveries it has made over the past five decades.  It was this fascination that drove her to pursue Anthropology during her many years at Columbia University, considering the fact that Extraterrestrial Studies was not part of any curriculum that she knew of.

Today’s conference downtown, however, was just a primer – Having accepted a position as a mid-level research assistant at the Giza facility in Egypt, she would actually be joining the Alliance in just a few short weeks.  She had barely been able to contain her excitement ever since she received her offer letter only days ago.  She remembered back to her first video interview with Dr. Youssef Abadi, the director of the Giza facility.  She had been terribly nervous that day, and it probably showed.

“So Claire, tell me a bit about your graduate experience, and how it relates to the position being offered here at the G.R.A.,” said Abadi, in a thick middle-eastern accent.

Claire straightened herself in the desk chair. “I wrote my master’s thesis in direct response to the work that was being done by the Alliance,” explained Claire. “It was entitled Likely Communication Methods of an Interstellar Race.”

Abadi looked down at his papers, jotting some notes. “Please continue,” he replied.

“It examined the progression of language and communication techniques between previously unfamiliar populations throughout recorded history,” continued Claire. “And ultimately how that pattern could predict the way in which an extraterrestrial species might eventually establish contact with human beings here on Earth.”

After another forty minutes of questioning on various topics, the doctor concluded cheerfully, “Well Ms. Cartwright, we would certainly like to speak with you further as we narrow down the list of applicants.”

“I would like that very much,” said Claire with a broad smile.

She had left the interview feeling confident.  The lengthy application process had been an ordeal of its own – but the six-month wait thereafter, not knowing if she had made the cut, was almost unbearable.  She knew, however, all of the persistence and patience had paid off the moment she returned home from her bookstore job four days ago.  As she walked through the door into her tiny apartment, she noticed the oversized manila envelope laying on the floor beneath the mail slot.  It was adorned with the official seal of the G.R.A. on the front.

Claire continued to stare at the newspaper as she rocked back and forth with the motion of the train, clutching the vertical handrail.

Beneath the headline was the picture of a man, standing at a podium before a large group of seated scientists and researchers.  She recognized him from the numerous interviews and articles she had seen on the internet – she had always thought he was rather good-looking.  The caption under the picture read:

Dr. Andrew Lanigan, 42, leads the U.S. division of the Alliance and is considered by many to be the foremost expert on the discoveries and the associated research.

Claire was very excited to see him speak in person for the first time, and certainly did not want to be late, potentially missing all of the good seats near the front of the hall.

The subway train rolled to a stop at the 34th Street-Hudson Yard station in Manhattan, just around the corner from the convention center.  Claire and several of the other passengers filed their way out of the crowded train car and proceeded along the platform and up the escalators to street level.  She remembered the days when she was still getting used to taking the subway everywhere – that was nearly ten years ago.

When she first came to the city from rural Nebraska, Claire missed her car terribly.  Back home, her little four-door sedan was her only means of independence – and at times, escape.  However, once she was here, attending Columbia, all that she had ever known was completely changed.  Quiet cornfields and elegant wind turbines were replaced with noisy, bustling streets and overbearing skyscrapers.  Her Monday morning American History lecture had more students than her entire high school student body back home.  For the first few months she had felt completely overwhelmed, unsure if she could stomach the stresses of college – and big city life – all in the same gulp.  That feeling, however, eased with time and eventually she grew quite fond of living in New York.  By the time she finished her undergraduate studies, she was a natural city slicker, and truly felt at home.

It was strange to think that in just a few short weeks she would be boarding a plane, bound for Cairo, starting the next chapter in her saga.  She had already put in her notice at the bookstore, hosted a small farewell party with all of her close friends, and crammed the last ten years of her life into two dozen cardboard boxes which now littered her apartment.

As Claire rounded the corner of west 34th Street and 11th Avenue, she could see the tall glass walls of the conference center come into view.  The mid-morning sun shone brightly, bouncing rays of warm light off the highly-polished windows and cascading down the massive face of the building.  Twenty or so others were also heading toward the conference center from various directions, yet none as eager as Claire.

Crossing the street, Claire could hear what sounded like a large crowd of people shouting or chanting, the collection of voices pinging wildly off the walls of the surrounding buildings.  As she neared the conference center, the entire scene was not what she had been anticipating.  There was a large police presence – patrol cars lined up along the sidewalk in front of the entrance, dozens of uniformed officers standing guard, checking the credentials of attendees in line for the conference.  In the past, it had always been open to the public, with minimal security; Claire was curious what had spurred this obvious change in procedure.

She could now see that the noisy commotion originated from a sizable group of protestors, stationed on the opposite end of the block behind a police barricade.  Many of them held signs, shouting and raising them up and down.  They seemed to be quite angry, throwing their firsts up in unison as they chanted.  She strained to clearly hear what they were shouting.

“THE HANDS OF GOD ARE SACRED – THE HANDS OF GOD ARE SACRED,” the group repeated over and over again with a mighty fervor.

In that instant, Claire knew who the group was and why they were here.  She got an uneasy feeling in her stomach, and the hairs stood up on the back of her neck.  It had been over a decade since she had encountered members of the religious sect.  They were normally more prevalent in the Midwest and South; she had never before seen a group like this inside the city.  From time to time, she would come across a propaganda poster on a shop window, or leaflets stacked on the checkout counter of the corner grocery store, but never a mass demonstration like this.  The sect was something that Claire never bought into, even though she herself was raised in an official sectarian community and her parents were devout members.  She honestly felt sorry for her parents; they were good, kind-hearted people – worlds apart from the corrupt and maniacal sect leaders that controlled the community and congregation.

Inside the main hall, there were throngs of people milling about.  The heightened state of security clearly extended to the interior as well; police officers in uniform were posted every twenty feet along the perimeter of the space.  As she walked, Claire noticed the occasional undercover officer, dressed in civilian clothing, keeping an eye on the crowd – the earpiece and poorly concealed hip holster were dead giveaways.

She glanced at her watch; she needed to get to the auditorium and find a seat.

The room with the podium was massive, having a capacity of what had to be at least a thousand occupants.  Luckily, Claire was able to find an empty seat only a dozen rows back from the stage; the auditorium was filling quickly.

There was a buzz of excitement amongst the attendees, many of whom were researchers or otherwise affiliated with the Alliance in some fashion.  The scholarly-looking woman sitting to Claire’s left was obviously here on official business, her G.R.A. credentials on a lanyard around her neck.

Feeling bold, Claire turned to the woman. “Quite the gathering!” she exclaimed, almost having to shout above the roar of chatter in the large room.

The woman looked at Claire. “Indeed, it is” she said with a smile. “It appears that Dr. Lanigan has grown in popularity,” she said smugly. “His audience was only half this size at last year’s conference.”

Claire guessed that the woman must have some sort of history with Lanigan.  Her tone of voice and facial expression was enough to signify that she was not his biggest fan.

“Oh, so you know him?” Claire asked.

“Well, technically he’s my boss,” the woman laughed. “I’m in the research department at the Cahokia facility in Illinois.  But it’s not too often that we have an interaction – he’s a very busy man, and not the least bit interested in getting to know his employees.”

“I see,” said Claire with a chuckle, feeling like she should probably change the subject. “This is my first conference,” she announced proudly. “I’ll be joining the Giza team next month, also in the research department.”

“Well congratulations dear!” the woman exclaimed. “Be sure to tell Youssef that Agatha sends her greetings. You’ve met Dr. Abadi already, yes?”

“I have –” said Claire “And I will certainly pass along the message.” She turned in her seat and looked over her shoulder toward the far wall, motioning to the line of uniformed officers. “What’s with all the cops – any idea?”

Agatha glanced back in that direction. “I imagine it has something to do with the security breach at the Puebla facility – and, of course, the bomb too” she said.

“Security breach?  Bomb?” Claire asked incredulously, her eyes wide. “I hadn’t heard about anything like that. Was this recently?” she inquired.

“No, I’m sure you hadn’t heard.” said Agatha, answering the first of the two.  “It was not public information.  The Alliance chose to keep the official reports from the press.” Agatha continued. “And yes, it happened just last week.”  She leaned in closer to Claire. “Apparently, someone posing as a deliveryman had somehow gotten into a restricted area and was caught by security. When they cornered him, the man drew a gun and blew his own brains out.”

“Oh my God!” exclaimed Claire.

“They found his truck, still in the loading dock – filled with explosives.” Agatha said in a hushed tone, staring directly into Claire’s eyes.

Claire stared back in disbelief.  “Did they ever figure out why he was there – or what he was doing?” she asked.

“I don’t know. But if they did –” Agatha replied. “They haven’t leaked a word.”

Claire sat there for a moment, looking down at her lap and shaking her head from side to side, unsure of how to process the information.  Just as she was about to respond, she noticed the lights above the audience dimmed and the stage illuminated.

William Barnes stood at his desk, his hands placed firmly on the edge, leaning forward on his outstretched arms.  He eyed the stacks of reports that littered the mahogany top, each marked with the same recipient: United States Department of Homeland Security, each from a different office.  He glanced at his watch.

Realizing he was late, he hurriedly gathered the stacks of papers together and stowed them in his briefcase, along with a disc that he retrieved from his top drawer.

The man strode briskly down the hallway, continuing to glance at his watch, cursing under his breathe.  As he neared his destination, he could see that the office door was closed, a man in a dark suit standing in front of it with his back to the door.  This was good news, perhaps his tardiness would go unnoticed.  Barnes seated himself in the waiting room just around the corner.  He rested in a plush leather chair, and began silently running through the upcoming conversation in his head.  Nervous was not the right word, anxious and frustrated were more accurate descriptors of his current mood.

After several minutes, a voice broke his concentration.  A young woman came through the doorway holding a clipboard.

“Secretary Barnes –” the woman said in a soft yet authoritative manner.  “The President will see you now.”

The man reluctantly rose from his comfortable seat.  He followed the woman to the office door, now open – as she ushered him inside.  Barnes looked around the brightly lit room with a bit of nostalgia, sunlight pouring through the bay of high windows that surrounded nearly half of the space.  It had been a while since he was last in the Oval, he missed it.

“He’ll be right with you,” the woman said with a slight smile, as she turned and exited the room through the doorway.

A few moments later, a different door opened on the opposite end of the office, as the same dark-suited man he had seen earlier entered the room – taking two steps forward and then another two off to the side.  Behind him came a second man, as he strode toward Barnes with his arm outstretched. “William, it’s been too long.” Said the man. “How are you my friend?”

“Doing well Mr. President, thank you” replied Barnes, as he gave the man a firm handshake.  “It’s nice to be back in the Oval, although – I can’t say that I miss the circumstances which had us here before.”

“Now that, I can agree with” the President retorted with a laugh, as he rounded the rear of his desk and sat down in the high-backed chair. “Those damned Russians wouldn’t know sovereign territory even if it came with flashing lighted signs.”

Barnes chuckled. “Luckily, their little foray into Kazakhstan was just for show, otherwise we’d have had a real mess on our hands” he replied.

The President looked up at him, this time more seriously, “Like the mess we have now?”

Barnes let out a hefty sigh and looked down at the carpet, placing his hands on his hips.  He lifted his gaze to meet the other man’s eyes. “To be honest Mr. President – I don’t know what to make of this situation in Mexico.”

He grabbed his briefcase off the floor and plopped it on top of the broad desk, opening it and retrieving the contents.  As he laid each report out in front of the President, he replied in exasperation, “FBI, CIA, Federales – Hell, even the damned Cholula P.D. – they all have their own take on what had happened at the Puebla facility” said Barnes. “Yet none of them seem to have the slightest clue who was behind the attack, and certainly can’t offer up any reasonable motive.”

The President, annoyed, sat up in his chair.  “To me, the obvious question here is – what does this mean for us?” He replied.  “Should we be expecting a similar attempt in Illinois?”

Barnes shifted his weight. “At this point in time, we have no reason to believe that there is a threat at the Cahokia facility.” He replied. “However – we’ve taken numerous precautions and bolstered security all along the perimeter.  Any personnel or vehicles that enter the grounds are thoroughly searched before proceeding.”

The President leaned back in his chair and swiveled toward the window, bringing his hand to his chin.  “What do we know about this guy – this deliveryman?”

“Virtually nothing, I’m afraid.  Dental records gave us a name and address here in the States” replied Barnes. “Just some average Joe that worked as a high school janitor in his hometown in Missouri, he’d lived there his entire life as far as we know.  No known affiliations with any terrorist organizations or foreign governments to our knowledge.”

“Has anyone checked out the delivery company?” the President asked.

“They’re legitimate,” replied Barnes. “But they confirmed this man was never an employee.  The truck wasn’t even theirs.”

The President’s gaze left the sunny lawn outside the window and he returned his eyes to meet Barnes. “A lone wolf, then?” He asked.

“I wish I had something more concrete for you Sir, there’s still too many unknowns–” said Barnes, as he was abruptly cut off.

“For Christ’s sake William, the man had a truck full of ammonium nitrate” the President exclaimed, clearly agitated. “He was obviously motivated by something.  Enough to leave behind a family, correct?”

“Yes sir, a wife – and an infant daughter.” Barnes replied, his voice thick with dismay.

The President sighed, as he stood up from his chair and walked around to the two couches in the center of the large presidential seal that adorned the carpet.  He motioned to Barnes, “Here, have a seat.” He said.

The two men each took a seat on opposite couches.

“Still got some of that aged whiskey I remember?” asked Barnes, in an attempt to break the tension.

The President looked up at Barnes, a smile eventually working its way across his face.  He got up from the couch and returned a moment later with a decanter and two glasses, pouring a few ounces into each.  They each retrieved their glass, clinking them together in solidarity, and each took a sip of the smooth, triple-distilled, Kentucky bourbon.

The President returned his glass to the coffee table between them. “What else do we know, William?” He asked, this time much calmer.

“The guard at the front gate said his paperwork checked out, even the I.D. badge” replied Barnes.  “Surveillance footage shows the suspect leaving the truck in the loading dock, and entering the main facility with a loaded dolly.”

“Did he have to pass any additional security checkpoints?” asked the President.

“No sir –” said Barnes. “He made it inside the control room before anyone was even alerted.”

“The control room?” the President said quizzically.

“We believe he was trying to get to the data servers” Barnes replied.  “The woman he attacked – she caught the man stealing an access card that would get him into the server room.  Not only that, the police found a data stick in his pocket.”

The President perked up. “Well – what was on it?” He asked.

“Encrypted sir” replied Barnes. “My team says it’s locked down tighter than Fort Knox.  Whatever is on it, and wherever it leads – they sure as hell don’t want us finding out.”

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