╗ ONE ╚
“Perimeter control to Central, come in please...”
“Go ahead, perimeter control, you're on vox. The room can hear you.”
“Central, we think we have a problem.”
A ripple of professional consternation murmured around the Central Control room as each man at his post began to check monitors and stats. The tension dripped off faces, dampened palms, raised vocal pitches. Above the heads of the troubled crowd, a wide digital timer silently and ominously marked off the time. The current decimals displayed 05:57:37, and slowly but steadily ticked away the seconds.
“What seems to be the problem, perimeter control?” The Central Control officer in charge paced in front of his desk in short bursts, his temper as jerky as his movements. He nervously rubbed his close-cropped military-style haircut with his palm and clutched his headset mic with his other hand. Reddened eyes stared out of his head with a harried feverishness.
“We think we have a loop on Cell Block 3-2 camera, Central. We'd like you to check the video timecode on your end to be sure.”
The harried Central Control officer abruptly stopped pacing, frowned and leaned over to tap his console. “Perimeter control, the external digital filters didn't catch it. It's probably a negative.”
A long silence from the other end, then the voice again. “Captain James, it's worth a double check.”
The large screen at the front of the room showed what it had already shown for the past ten minutes, and the Central Control officer squinted at it with growing frustration. “Perimeter control, what evidence do you have of a loop in the system?” he inquired into his microphone. “Just because the prisoner hasn't moved in ten minutes doesn't mean there's been a breach. It's edgy enough over here without another false alarm. We've been plagued all day by that crap.”
Another silence from the disembodied voice from Perimeter. Then: “The video timecode is out of sync. We think we may have had a hardware security breach.”
The Central officer startled but still appeared skeptical. He attempted to rub the fatigue out of his eyes before staring back up at the main monitor. He hoped his mind was not playing some nasty trick on him.“Perimeter, the prisoner has not moved from his bed for almost a quarter hour. Steady breathing pattern, and the bio-sensors in the room are all registering normal. I say again, the video does not appear to be looped. Check the damn thing again from your end.”
The man on the other end of the line grunted, peeved. “Can you check it from your end, Captain James? Just to be sure? Someone might be trying to tamper with the feed from the outside.”
Captain James sighed into his mic. “This system has never been breached before. And besides, the prisoner will be dead in less than six hours and off our hands.”
A nearby controller snorted in agreement. Captain James' eyes flicked over to his colleague but he could not share in the mirth, no matter how wry. The entire situation bordered on the ridiculous, mixed with the tragic: diverting a significant portion of already scarce security complex personnel in order to watch one man. Captain James stared closer at the inert digital form of the prisoner on the screen, and the longer he stared the more he could feel guilt rising in his throat. It wasn't right, to kill a friend. But he shook his head; the prisoner's file was marked Blackout 1 Solitary. One was not awarded that level of incarceration without a serious cause.
“Please check the video feeds from your end, Central, that's all we ask.” The voice from perimeter control was resigned.
Sighing, the man in Central Control complied. In a flash of rebelliousness he almost hoped that someone would be decent enough to break the prisoner out. He gestured to his console and the thin glass omni-monitor reacted, spitting out a stream of visual data for his perusal. He frowned as he watched the data flow past on the screen; something didn't look right at all. He hesitated, then typed in a command. The computer failed to respond. Typing again more frantically, he again entered the same command. Still, nothing changed. He tapped his headset.
“Perimeter? I can't switch over my video feeds. Can you?”
Tapping from the other end, then a low growl. “Dammit, I can't either. Check the bio-sensor switches?”
Captain James had broken out in a cold sweat as his fingers flew over the keyboard, and his stomach sank as the computer again failed to respond. “No bio-sensor control either from this end,” he croaked.
The Perimeter officer could be heard pounding his desk in anger. “Has the command line been hacked? Can you trace the source?”
Captain James typed away madly on his console, but before he could pull any meaningful data the main monitor suddenly changed. The video feed of the sleeping prisoner flickered, pixelated, then abruptly morphed to an image of an empty cot in the same cell. In another split second, words appeared superimposed over the video feed. They said: LET THERE BE LIFE.
The earpiece in the captain's ear exploded in a violent string of curses, and he could hear the main alarm beginning to bellow over the radio. “Do you see this, Central?!” the Perimeter man shouted at Captain James. “Do you see this? The system has been breached!”
“I see it,” Central replied, fear palpable in his voice. “Run a full system rescan and lock everything down now!”
“We just did that!” Perimeter said furiously. “Whoever breached the feed is gone, though.”
“Get some of your men down there,” Captain James said through gritted teeth, “and do a physical assessment on the status of the prisoner. He couldn't have gone very far.”
No voice answered but he could hear the sirens wailing and the trampling of feet in the background. It was obvious they were already doing just that. He waited a tense thirty seconds, a minute, two minutes. He pushed his mic nearer his mouth. “Perimeter control, what is the status of the prisoner?” Another thirty seconds elapsed, and he repeated the request. No answer. Then the sound of the headset being reinstalled on someone's head and the familiar voice returned.
The Central officer's jaw fell. “What?”
“He's gone. It's like he was never here. I'm not even sure how long he's been gone.”
The captain began to tremble. This was awful. He tapped his screen in a silly and futile attempt to bring back the image of the sleeping man on the monitor. However, the bed on the screen remained empty, and the ominous text persisted. He looked closer and his jaw began to work in realization.
“Perimeter, this wasn't just a breach.”
The distant voice was puzzled as well as angry. “What do you mean?”
“This was a taunt.”
“'Let There Be Life'...that's the Verité hacker group's MO. They spray paint that everywhere. Verité is taking responsibility for the jailbreak.” Captain James didn't sound as if he himself entirely believed what he was saying. His hand shook. “And if they hacked the system as far as Level Three, then they must know about the Complex too.”
The Perimeter Control man audibly gulped. His voice emerged almost in a stutter. “They-how-how could they possibly know? Nobody knows about the Complex!”
“I think someone does now.” The Central officer clenched his fist hard until the knuckles turned white; equal parts relief and terror gripped him. “This was supposed to be all over within five hours or so. We gave our assurances to the Secretary himself.” He paused, then added: “I think we need to call the Secretary's office.”
The Perimeter man failed to respond. Only heavy breathing came over the headset. Captain James continued. “I will make the call. He needs to know. Now.”
“Yes,” Perimeter croaked back. “He ought to know. Although, what do you think he'll do?”
The Central officer sweated as he punched up the Secretary's office on his console. “I don't know,” he said, “but it had better be damn good.”
The aide's knees were close to buckling underneath him as he placed the tablet on the heavy oak desk. “The prisoner in Cell Block 3-2 has escaped, Mr. Secretary, and we have no idea how.” His voice emerged half-baked and tremulous.
The man sitting behind the desk regarded the aide with curiosity, then slowly picked up the tablet and looked intently at the image on the screen. He brushed long brown hair back from his eyes and squinted up at the terrified aide standing before him. “No idea?” he inquired mildly. “You have no idea?”
The aide shifted uncomfortably, sweat beading on his forehead. “The security system was breached, to be more accurate. And the prisoner escaped. We have no idea where the breach happened or how. Two guards are also dead.”
The Secretary blinked and leaned back in his huge leather chair, his expression thoughtful and his large green eyes darting about. He put his fingers together and sat for several seconds in silent thought. Finally he stirred.
“This is most unfortunate,” he remarked almost offhandedly, standing slowly and walking to the window in a deliberate fashion, his metal cane creaking on the floor. In the darkened office the tall window let in a dramatic shaft of afternoon sunlight that sliced through the dust and threw the oak furniture into sharp relief. It also illuminated his aging face and piercing eyes, and he stood and frowned down at the urban world through the glass.
“Verité is growing bolder.” He turned to the aide and handed the tablet back. “How far did they penetrate our security protocols?”
“Level Three, Mr. Secretary.”
“Hmm. And the Complex is right next door.”
“Yes, Mr. Secretary.” Sweat rolled into the aide's eyes.
“So Verité must be aware of its existence by now, perhaps?”
“We're ninety-nine percent certain they are, yes.”
The Secretary's gaze was once again captured by the view from the window. His eyes twitched but otherwise nothing else moved. He heaved a long burdened sigh. “The plan will continue to proceed, albeit on an accelerated timetable. Verité will be emboldened to act quickly in the wake of their success. What is the status of the woman?”
The aide looked confused. “Miss McLean, you mean?”
“Who else?” The Secretary smiled. “How has the vetting process gone?”
The aide cleared his throat and buried his face in his tablet. He tapped the screen several times until the correct personnel file popped into view, then turned the device around so the older man could see. “She is clean. Thoroughly vetted, no skeletons in her closet other than a misdemeanor in vocational school involving a hacking prank. Solid party credentials. The only small point of concern is her parents...”
The Secretary breathed slowly and nodded, pressing his weight onto his cane. “I knew her parents,” he said softly, almost intimately. Shaking himself, his voice reverted to a more business-like tone as he continued, “But they will not be a point of concern. Have Holloway make the pitch to her as soon as he can. We need her. I...need her.”
The aide bowed slightly and ran from the room.
The Secretary cocked his head at the windowpanes; they were covered in a thin layer of dust. He put out his index finger and wrote “ Verité” on the glass in the dust. Then, with a sudden slash of the same finger, he cut a line through the word. He smiled and returned to his desk.
Reach Chapter 2 here!
Reach Chapter 2 here!