This book is intended for a more mature audience, so be advised.
╗ NINE ╚
THE WIDE TRUTH
“You look at me like you've seen an apparition of some sort,” the Secretary remarked with a chuckle as she slowly sat down. He pulled an electronic cigarette from a pouch on his desk and took a drag on it, and clouds of bluish vapor began to billow from his mouth as he breathed out. “I have another if you smoke as well?”
Anna shook her head wordlessly. She had quite forgotten if she was supposed to speak or listen, or ask a particular question or wait for an answer. The man apparently sensed her discombobulation because he leaned forward over the desk and clasped his hands together reassuringly. “You, I am sure, are quite full of questions.”
“If . . .” Anna said, hesitated, then began again, “If I am allowed to ask.”
The Secretary laughed quietly and licked his lips. “You are allowed to ask me anything. Whether I answer or not is up to me.” He tapped his fingers on the wood. “It's been quite a whirlwind of three days so far, I can imagine. Your career has taken a completely different turn? New location, new faces, new everything?”
Anna's confidence began to ooze back into her body. He was open and friendly enough and his demeanor put her at ease. She nodded. “I figure that I have you to thank for all of that.”
Adam shrugged. “As much as you've had me to thank for anything else, yes,” he replied cryptically. He hooked his cane onto the edge of the desk and leaned back again in his chair. “I hear that our esteemed Dr. Jarrod has begun to initiate you into his reactive computer project. Your progress on the transfer protocol problem is impressive.” He picked up a remote control from his desk and pressed a button. An omni-monitor rose from the front of the desk, and on the screen played security camera footage of Anna and Dr. Jarrod in front of the mural. “As you can see, we've been keeping a close eye.”
Anna swallowed. She was so used to seeing the security camera bubbles on the ceiling of every public building that the thought of being constantly watched never really registered strongly in her mind. However, her stomach flopped over as she watched video of herself interacting with Dr. Jarrod, in the hallways and the lab.
They had followed her everywhere.
She looked up at Adam with what must have been a stricken look on her face, because he moved quickly to reassure her. “Rest assured, our surveillance only found satisfactory things to see and hear from you, Anna,” he remarked quickly. “You are quite the catch.”
“Am I?” she replied worriedly. She couldn't shake the feeling that she had done something wrong. What it might have been escaped her at the moment. She finally worked up the courage to blurt out, “Why am I here, Mr. Secretary? What did I do to have all of this thrown into my lap?”
He stared at her for a long moment with a look of such intensity that it frightened her. He looked at her like he knew her, although she couldn't possibly think how; she was certain she had never met him before. He took his cane and leaned his chin on the handle. She could feel his mind working behind his soulful eyes, although the content of those thoughts she could not decipher.
“You look so much like her,” he finally muttered to himself. “It's uncanny.”
“Like who?” Anna asked, taken aback.
He shifted in his chair. “Your mother. Your eyes are exactly the same . . . “
Anna jumped with surprise. “You knew her? How? When?”
Adam licked his lips again, thinking. “I knew your mother before you were born, Anna. She was a friend. Almost a mother to me, in fact.” He gave her a strange, almost longing look. “She is the reason that you are here in the first place and not wasting the rest of your life at HomoGen working on dead-end projects.”
Her head spun. Dead-end projects? Her mother, friend to the most powerful man in the country? She hadn't known her parents very well as it was; now it looked as though she didn't know anything about them at all. She sat stunned for a long minute in silence before she could think of her next question. “How is my mother the reason that you wanted me here?”
“The entire answer to that I will save for a later time,” the Secretary said as he sat regarding her, sizing her up it seemed. Anna wilted a little under his scrutiny. Finally he appeared satisfied and turned in his chair towards the window. “Anna, you were called here to do far more than simply write some transfer protocol. Or to help a cooped up and harried scientist do his work.”
“I gathered as much.”
Adam smiled. “Yes, Dr. Jarrod's musings helped with that, I am sure. As I said, we were keeping an eye on you both.” He tapped his cane. “The reactive computer project is vitally important but it is almost complete. No, you were brought here for another reason entirely. You were recruited to replace me.”
Anna's jaw dropped. “What?”
“You are my successor, the Party General Secretary-in-waiting. That is,” he added as he moved towards her, his voice growing low, “if you will accept the offer?”
Anna couldn't remember anymore if she had felt sick earlier in the elevator, because now she was afflicted with a full-scale attack of nausea that dwarfed whatever she had felt on the elevator earlier. Her brain refused to process what he had just said; it instead preferred to focus on tamping down the remains of her breakfast. She gripped the desk with both hands. “Is this a joke?”
“Hardly,” Adam replied with complete seriousness, turning to the side of his desk and filling a small paper cup with water from the pitcher perched there. He handed the full cup to Anna, who snatched it mindlessly and downed the whole thing in one gulp. The icy cold liquid seemed to help a little.
“Why me?” she whispered eventually.
“A favor,” the Secretary replied.
“What kind of favor is that?” she said incredulously.
He smiled kindly at her and tapped his cane on the floor. “If you have to ask that question then I trust my choice of successor even more than I did before.” He turned slowly back and forth in his chair as he spoke. “Your parents were some of the best people I ever knew. Their untimely death crushed me. You were all that was left of that stock, and now here you are. A woman, grown and complete and skilled. I have no children of my own, and I need a successor.”
Anna sat, silent, in shock. She didn't want to believe him; every instinct she had rebelled against the thought. Besides, it didn't quite make sense anyways. She was a nobody in the grand scheme of things, an outsider. “That doesn't answer my question,” she said quickly, breathlessly. “You could have picked anyone. Why me? Tell me.”
Adam thought for a moment, rubbing his chin while he chose his words. “Your major undergraduate and graduate fields of study were computer science and systems technology, yes? Top grades in all your classes?”
These people know everything about me. “Yes, that's true.”
“You almost single-handedly repaired the University of Virginia's central database system, did you not? And rebuilt HomoGen's database and streamlined their output system, yes?” Adam ticked the items off on his fingers as he mentioned them. “And your new system enabled nearly triple the output of Versions? Does any of this sound familiar to you?”
The question was obviously rhetorical, but a flicker of understanding flared up in Anna's mind as she began to think again. Memories of each accomplishment flooded back as he listed them. She had been proud of each one, but the victories had always left her a little hollow and searching for more. She nodded weakly. “I remember them all.”
The Secretary sighed and played with his cigarette. “This is no longer a government and a nation of people, Anna, but of systems and machines and lines upon lines of computer code. You are a computer scientist, a digital systems engineer with a profound grasp of the importance of those systems. You are simply . . . perfect for the task at hand. The next Secretary must be well-versed in these systems and their operation; I am not, and you are. It all makes sense.”
It did make some sense, as unwilling as she was to admit it. No wonder they had all been so concerned with her previous work. She felt recovered enough to press forward with questions. “But again, that doesn't really answer my question. Why must the next secretary be so concerned with systems and codes and machines? You have men, the military, police and whatnot for control and order. Surely this is not totally a matter of computers and systems?”
The Secretary regarded her silently for a long moment. “You think that, do you?” he asked at length.
Anna nodded. “Yes?”
“I suppose it would be perfectly natural for you to think that,” he said, standing and lurching to the window. “Perfectly natural . . . “
“It is true, is it not?”
The Secretary turned suddenly towards her. “Anna, there are some secrets that simply must be kept at all costs. You understand that, yes?”
“I understand,” Anna replied uncertainly. “I think.”
“Secrets that must be kept guarded behind a wall of lies if need be?”
Anna hesitated for a moment. “I suppose, yes.”
He continued. “Because if you thought that I shattered your world with what I've already told you, then I must warn you that we've only barely begun. Everything I tell you here is classified and must not go beyond the two of us.”
Anna's heart sank. There was more?
The Secretary motioned to her to join him at the window. She did so, slowly, crossing the plush carpet to stand in front of the dusty glass. He pointed out the window. “What is it that you see? Out there?”
She looked; all she saw was the restless Washington cityscape below, with all of its usual sights. The traffic moved, people walked, steam rose from the street vents. It was all ordinary. She turned to Adam. “I just see normal life.”
“As you should,” he replied. “And this place? Central Admin? What do you see here? What impression does it give you?”
She thought for a moment before answering. It felt like a trick question that she didn't know the answer to. “Strength, power. It feels . . . very secure,” she ventured.
“It is the proper impression. A sleight of hand trick that works for the most part like a charm. Truth be told, Anna, that your impressions could not be farther from the truth. This entire system is in actuality on the verge of falling apart.”
Anna turned to him in complete surprise. “How is that even possible?”
Adam smiled at her. “It is far more than possible. It is happening as we speak. To understand my position, you must know the truth, the whole truth. Where to begin?” He bit the inside of his cheek in thought. “Well, I will begin at the end and move back to the beginning. I am sure you remember the police traffic stops a couple days ago?”
She nodded, almost with excitement. Her conversation with Dr. Jarrod came to mind. Perhaps she would finally find out what really happened; although, she sighed to herself as she realized she wouldn't be able to tell the doctor her findings.
Adam grimaced at the memory. “Just last week we suffered the most serious electronic systems breach we've ever experienced since I became Party Secretary. Due to a code flaw, the criminal group known as Verité hacked a digital hole in our system three security layers deep, all the way down to the Central Detention Complex where a special prisoner was being held.”
Daniel Marcus. I was right.
Adam noticed the look of dawning realization on her face and nodded. “So you had some clue of what I am talking about from the good Dr. Jarrod. Yes, the prisoner was Daniel Marcus, ex Elite Combat Unit. Extraordinarily dangerous man, Daniel. The stories are true about Mogadishu, by the way. He was considered a hero at one time.”
Anna's interest had been kindled and she suddenly had a stomach for questions again. “What happened? I assume he escaped?”
“He did indeed, an escape the like of which I have never seen in my lifetime. Our detention facility was hit by a blanket attack on the surveillance system, which locked us out of the controls and looped all the security camera footage until somehow Daniel had disappeared. The only trace was two of my guards who ended up dead on the floor. And the message that Verité left on our screens.”
“Yes, all it said was 'Let There Be Life.'”
The blood boiled in Anna's temples. That message. The same anger that always rose up in her throat at its mention. “I've seen that message before,” she said.
“Painted on everything, yes?”
“Yes.” Anna's jaw worked. “It's an insult, frankly.” The thought of being able to help the Secretary suddenly took on a certain relish and the knot in her stomach began to unwind.
“An insult, and a taunt,” Adam replied in agreement. “Verité does not share the same values, the same concerns as I do, and you do. From what I can gather, their obsession lies with some outmoded ideology and they are willing to do anything to tear down what we have built.” His expression took on an extra layer of gravity. “I recruited you partly due to your passion for your work with HomoGen. HomoGen's work is what keeps us alive and functioning. You were born for greater things than them but it provided a start.”
Anna managed a small smile. Oddly, for once she felt truly complimented for her work. She regarded the Secretary with a new respect as well. As she looked into his prematurely lined face it was suddenly clear to her the burden he carried on his shoulders. His responsibilities truly stretched to vast limits.
A nagging thought bubbled up in her consciousness, though, begging to be asked. She licked her lips. “You said you'd start at the end of the story and go back to the beginning. I still don't see how the system is so near catastrophe. Why was your security in such poor shape as to allow a breach that large in the first place? With all of your personnel and equipment I would have thought for sure Daniel Marcus would have been apprehended by now.”
Adam cocked his head at her. “A probing question. One better answered over lunch, what do you say?”
With a growl Anna's stomach agreed.
Read Chapter Ten here!