Thunder Clap: Simple Problems are the Hardest

There was a brief period before they arrived when Sykes could see the sun grow from a dim glow through the windows at the back of the van to a bright, almost painful light. Like Stillwater, Sykes napped off and on through the course of the drive so he still wasn’t sure how long it took but by the time they arrived the sun was high overhead. At that point the two of them were taken out of the back of the van and into a building.

He’d never been a fan of the monolithic construction that made up so much of modern cities. Except for his time in the group home he’d always lived on the outskirts of cities, able to enjoy the nearby conveniences of a large metropolitan area without having to sacrifice green grass in the yard or open skylines. But big buildings had always struck him as ridiculous things, too large to be used practically or safely disposed of when they inevitably aged and needed to be replaced. Naturally he wound up stuck in the basement of one, in a cramped room with no light, to spend even more time waiting.

This time at least he wasn’t entirely alone.

Although the room was small – not quite a coffin but very close to a mausoleum – Stillwater was positioned somewhere nearby and his voice would come echoing down through the ceiling from time to time, asking how he was doing or just making small talk. Which wasn’t so say Sykes didn’t spend a lot of time thinking. Or dreaming.

After snapping awake at an unexpected sound for the fourth or fifth time since he’d been left in the dark Stillwater asked, “Are you alright down there?”

Sykes grunted, resettling himself in his chair as he got his bearings again. “Just feeling my age.”

There was a period of silence before Stillwater answered, laughter still tinging his voice. “If you’re looking for sympathy you’re in the wrong place, son.”

“Not really.” Sykes smiled to himself, that probably had sounded very stupid to someone who had served in the Second World war. “Brain’s just moving slow right now. Spoke without thinking. Any chance I’ll actually get to do something soon?”

“They’re working on the hook-ups right now. I could check in with them if you want?”

“No.” Sykes shook his head from long conditioning although he was still technically alone. “It’s not that important. If you can stand the waiting I can.”

“That’s the spirit. Don’t let your elders show you up. It’s embarrassing.” Stillwater’s tone turned from cheery to inquisitive. “I’ve been wondering for a while. The guy in charge said you’re supposed to hack the network. Can you really do that?”

“Yes and no.” Sykes tapped the laptop he’d been given, waiting for whatever the others were doing to to connect it to the building’s LAN to be finished. “This system I’ve got here doesn’t have the processing power to go head to head with much of anything a dedicated hacker has – and the guy you’re after is definitely a dedicated hacker. But our network has backdoors for maintenance work that let us bypass the machines hooked into the network and shutdown parts of the system at any time.”

“Or all of the system at once?”

“We never thought we’d have to do that. The whole network shouldn’t need maintenance at once.” Sykes rubbed his thumb absently along the side of the laptop. Sykes Telecom was a big company these days and a lot of its infrastructure was state of the art. Switching a large portion of it off would require more than just activating a few backdoors. That could get him into the system but it was very unlikely he could actually run a standard shutdown on any one part of the network before the people at the center of things caught what he was doing and countered the move.

“Well, if you cut the problem off at the head then that should be the end of it,” Stillwater said, oblivious to Sykes’ line of thought. “Shutting down the building would cut him off from the rest of his machines, right?”

“Possibly. Unless he’s got a fallback location set up somewhere else he can tap into our network. Smart hackers have backups and anyone who got this far is definitely smart. You were right the first time. The whole system has to go.” Sykes opened the computer and started booting it up. Now that he was talking about the problem he realized he was going to need a few tools to tinker with the network that didn’t come built in to the maintenance programs running on the servers. Best to have them on hand when he went in, rather than improvising them on the fly. “It’s not impossible to shut the whole system down once piece at a time but, again, that takes time. The longer we spend on this the more time our friend upstairs has to figure out what we’re doing and counter it by backhacking us. Or just paying us a personal visit.”

For the first time Sykes actually heard a sound other than talking from Stillwater, a gentled humming sound. There wasn’t a clear tune so Sykes assumed the other man was just thinking to himself. Finally Stillwater said, “We sure don’t want the man himself showing up. I don’t know much about Open Circuit myself but all I’ve heard suggests he’s very much a loose cannon. We can deal with him, but not when he’s got a whole city’s worth of gizmos at his fingertips. Can you shut everything down from here without pulling him down on us?”

“It’s going to be bad for the bottom line but yeah, I think I can pull it off.” Sykes checked through the software loaded on the laptop, finding most of what he would need fairly quickly. He’d just have to improvise the rest. “If you don’t mind my asking, Stillwater, why did you come along if you can’t deal with that guy yourself? I’m not complaining about your being here but it strikes me as a little weird. And I get that you want to do your part and all that but what, exactly, is your part? You’re not what I was expecting.”

“Yeah, most people expect big, good looking guys like that Aluchisnkii guy.” Stillwater chuckled. “Wave makers like me usually work as communications or stealth people when we work with the Project. I did a lot with sonar research for the Navy, too, in my day although different people do most of that now. I think that’s why that fancy guy in charge picked me out for this little project – I can’t be taken out by that EMP stuff. Plus my file isn’t classified any more. It’s not exactly public knowledge but a lot of other government branches know about me than used to and whoever planned this operation knew they’d need an actual Project agent to make a legal arrest so that’s clearly what they’re aiming for. ”

Sykes hesitated mid keystroke, resulting in his having to delete a lot of meaningless repeated letters. “You mean you don’t even know what branch of the government brought you on here?”

“Well I suspect the Secret Service, since the man leading their talent countermeasures group is… it’s a long story. But there was a very small window of opportunity to join this operation and frankly I jumped at the chance. Hold on.” Stillwater was quiet for almost two minutes. “Alright, they’ve got a splice into the building network set up. Someone should be down with you in a few minutes.”

Sykes typed faster.

Even moving at an increased speed he had just started compiling his new code when his favorite person of the group, the man who’d taken him from his house less than ten hours ago, arrived with coil of network cable under one arm. Sykes held out his hand for it wordlessly.

The big man handed it over and said, “It’s all on you now. Work your magic.”

And work he did.

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