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On a lovely Friday morning, Sandie Shepherd stood in line at the checkout counter trying to look at the magazines and candy on display while also keeping little Josie under control. The tiny hands seemed to be able to reach several yards in every direction at the same time. Sandie chuckled as she quietly snared another reaching hand. They should make these checkout aisles wider, she thought. Everything is within reach of the endless arms.

She tossed a couple of the latest scandal mags into her basket, plus a handful of chocolate bars. Can’t forget the chocolate, she thought with a laugh. Then she was putting things on the belt and watching Fran start ringing them up. This was her big trip, so the total went up fast. Lots of meat and seafood; asparagus (finally); fresh fruit; and the Bailey’s and Canadian Mist. $125; $160; $221; $240. “Better stop soon, Fran,” she said to the cashier, “or I’ll have to take out a loan.”

Fran laughed back with her, but kept on ringing up items. Finally she got to the end and said, “Sorry, Mrs. Shepherd, but the total is $311.28.”

“Well, I guess I don’t really need a loan yet. I’ll use the credit card.”

“Sure, just go ahead and swipe it.”

Sandie ran the card through the reader and pushed the YES button at the total and waited for a moment. She started a bit when the machine beeped at her and the message said, “Card Not Recognized.”

“What did it do, Mrs. Shepherd?”

“It didn’t recognize my card.”

“Oh, we often have those problems. It’s usually just the phone lines. Let me clear the thing for you and just swipe it again.”

Sandie ran the card through again, and got the same message. “Card Not Recognized.”

“This is ridiculous,” she said, beginning to feel more than a little embarrassed. “Is there nothing you can do to fix it?”

“Let me ring the manager, Mrs. Shepherd. “Maybe he knows the trick.”

So Sandie continued to stand there, with the line growing longer behind her and people beginning to make comments she didn’t like hearing. After forever, the manager arrived, punched a few buttons and pronounced the machine to be working properly as far as he could tell.

“Mrs. Shepherd, I hate to ask, but might you have another card you could use until this problem gets cleared? I’m sure it’s just some glitch in their headquarters.”

Sandie was really angry now with the frustration of the card not working and the growing embarrassment, but she dug out her debit card and swiped it, then entered her password, punched the YES button again, and waited. When the machine beeped at her again, she actually stepped back in shock. “Card Not Valid,” the machine said.

“Please try again, Mrs. Shepherd,’ Fran said. “I know it’s just the machine.” Sandie caught the look on the manager’s face as she reached to swipe the card again and almost stopped. But she had the huge basket of food already bagged, the people in line were beginning to get restless, and Josie was whimpering with the delay. This is crazy, she thought. This has never happened before.

Again the machine refused the card.

“Folks,” the manager spoke loudly to the people in line, “you’ll need to go to the next line until we get this thing figured out. I’m sorry.” And Sandie just about died at the tone in his voice. She had shopped here for years. They all knew her. Even the manager knew her. They had lots of money in their accounts. They always paid their bills on time, especially the cards. She was dying with the anger and embarrassment. I’m never coming back to this stupid store again. Just let me out of here.

Finally, she looked at the manager and said, “Could I call my bank from here, please? They’ll be able to get this straightened out.”

The manager looked at her with a hostile eye for a moment, then turned and said, “Fran, you’ll have to clear the register so the other customers can go through the line.” Then he turned back to Sandie and said curtly, “Come with me.”

At that, Sandie almost grabbed her handbag and ran from the store, but common sense told her to get in touch with the bank right now, so she followed the manager. She saw Fran pushing her basket off to the side and beckoning to the next customer.

When they got to the manager’s office, he grabbed the phone and held it out to her in a brusque manner. She dug her bank identification card from her purse and dialed. Luckily, the call went right through and again, luckily, she got no delay when she asked for the manager. When he came on the phone, she identified herself and explained her problem, all the time feeling the eyes of the store manager on her back, drilling. The bank manager recognized her and said, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Shepherd. Let me look up your account. We’ll get this fixed right away.”

After a fairly long pause, he came back on the line and said carefully, “We seem to have a problem, Mrs. Shepherd. Can you please read me off some identification? Your driver’s license, for instance?”

Sandie felt a chill go through her and she started shaking. She managed to get her card out and read off the numbers to the man and he finally said, “Okay. I guess it actually is you, Mrs. Shepherd. But we really do have a problem.”

Sandie reached out her hand and grabbed the edge of the desk. She was shaking so much she thought she might actually fall and her eyes were not focusing well.

“What,” she whispered hoarsely?

“Mrs. Shepherd, your cards have been closed or stopped. They were closed earlier this morning. There’s a balance due on the credit card of a little over $200. That’s no reason for the card to have been blocked because it’s still a current balance, so I don’t know what the problem is. But, both the cards and your American Express card through the bank have been closed.”

“Oh, my god,” was all Sandie could get out.

“In addition, Mrs. Shepherd, the balances in your checking and savings accounts are both zero. There’s no money in either of them. Hold on just a minute.” There was a pause. “Mrs. Shepherd, your investment account has also been zeroed. As of this moment, there are no balances of any kind in any of them. Mrs. Shepherd, what has happened? What have you done?” The tone of his voice was expressing agony for her.

Sandie couldn’t reply. She vaguely recognized that she was sitting on the floor of the manager’s office with her back against the desk. Her legs were tucked under her, Josie was lying on the floor beside her and was now screaming, and she heard the voices from the phone and the store manager both crying, “Mrs. Shepherd? Mrs. Shepherd?”

Chapter 2

Roger Evans walked through the aspens and spruce of the Canadian north woods simply happy to be there. For all the stress and concerns of the work he did, he had made himself a promise that when he really wanted to get away and relax, he would do just that. And this day, this place, was the time and place to do it.

Slung over one shoulder, his fishing bag held two beautiful Walleye from Bistcho Lake wrapped in wet moss. They weighed out at about eight pounds and would make wonderful lunches and dinners for a couple of days. Over the other shoulder, an aluminum tube contained his old fly rod, broken down and safely stored. The day was beautiful, crisp and clear, and the sun was warm on his back.

Sam ran along with him, making many detours as the scents of the wild reached his nose. The wolf-shepherd cross was Roger’s best friend and Sam seemed to know that and often made it clear. “You are mine and we’re best pals, right? We’re together and safe with each other. You know that, right?”And Roger did know that. Although Sam was still very wild despite being with him for some years now, he knew Sam would be waiting to “share” some of the Walleye with his dinner tonight. It was their way.

He came through the saddle in the hills and into the meadow where the cabin was. About half an acre of soft mountain grass waving in the breeze, surrounded by the beautiful trees he had just been walking through. The cabin was quite large for north woods dwellings, about fifteen hundred square feet, but it was still very simple. The front two-thirds of the long rectangle was his basic living quarters and the back third was his office away from home. His computer system was housed in the basement, an ultra-secure room of almost four hundred square feet under the office area. Home was in Vancouver but the cabin was peace.

Originally the home of the Dunneza, Dene and Cree nations, the area hadn’t changed much over the past two to three hundred years. He was in the northwest corner of Alberta and could see the majestic Rockies not much farther west. Roger had built a strong computer business in Vancouver over the years, but didn’t need to be there much any more, so he spent a lot of his time packing through the back woods around his cabin at Bistcho and packing further into the woods as he felt the desire.

He had a large computer system at the lodge. It was hooked by satellite to his computers in Vancouver so he could tap into that massive system when he needed. He had built his business as a producer of both virus protection software and extremely complex encryption programs that sold to large companies and even government agencies around the world. A lot of the work now was updating of older programs and maintaining client systems, so he wasn’t needed very much at the headquarters. His choice above all other choices, therefore, was to spend most of his free time in the woods.

He entered the cabin, put the fly rod tube on the rack on the wall, then took the fish into the kitchen and began the prep work. He sliced the fish into fillets, then rolled them in a simple paste of olive oil, garlic and onion powder, lemon juice and a sprinkle of basil, wrapped them in foil and set them in the fridge to marinate.

The coffee had finished perking and he poured a fresh cup. He had been up before daybreak and out fishing early. It was now just approaching noon and he settled into the easy-chair looking out the front window, clicked the stereo to an “easy listening” disk and prepared for a restful couple of hours. Sam settled in with the huge chew-bone, the remainder of a moose haunch gifted to Roger from last season.

The music had just started to play and soothe him when he heard a soft ‘ping’ sound from a small speaker in the room. It was a warning message that something had come in to the computer system that needed his attention and it would ring once every minute until he got to it. He rose and went down the steps to the basement, entered his special code and thumb-print to open the secure door to the computer room and immediately saw the flashing red light on the main monitor. That specific light meant someone was attempting to enter his system from the outside and was being blocked, at least for the moment, by his security program. If the problem wasn’t checked and fixed by him shortly, or if the intruder did start to actually get entrance into the programs, the whole system would instantly pull its own plug and shut down. Roger would have to manually start it all up and override all the security functions with special codes in order to get the machines running again.

He hit the keys that would cause his system to capture as much of the intruder’s information as possible so he could try to backtrack on him, then put his system into a safe mode so the intruder would be completely blocked. The intruder was only on the scene for a few more minutes, then seemed to simply disappear. Roger ensured that his security had captured and stored anything that had come in, then started his security checking program to be sure nothing had actually gotten in to the system. The program was large and did a very intensive search of his entire system. It took almost three-quarters of an hour, but he was finally assured that nothing had worked past his firewalls and virus programs and he was able to sit back and begin to examine what had happened.

Roger got a lot of potential intrusions into his system because of the type of work he did out in the Internet and examining websites around the world, but nothing was ever able to get in to do damage. Some of the attacks were from sites he was investigating, some were simply from people throughout the computer world who regularly released viruses or tried to enter systems and grab information. While he was not generally worried about the attacks because of the protection he had, he was always trying to backtrack to discover who might be attempting to intrude at any certain time. He wanted to at least protect himself and also possibly give the information to virus protection services so they could keep up with what was happening in the computer world.

After another hour of examining everything, he decided that the intruder appeared to be quite sophisticated and had a strong intrusion program, but that they hadn’t been able to get into any of his programs and that he was still safe. However, he did log all the information his system had captured into a database that he always kept updated so he could match any other intrusion events to this one. Someone was out there trying to gain entry. Just to his system, or anywhere and everywhere? Some day maybe he would be able to find them.

Chapter 3

The Jackson City Bank opened its doors at eight sharp on March 16 and by nine there was already a good crowd flowing in and out. It was the only bank in town. People knew each other and were smiling hellos; the tellers were able to handle the flow so they were polite and quick, with people and money flowing briskly. All was well in Jackson City.

Until 11:16.

Suddenly all the power went out and the bank went dark. All the machines were blank and silent. People didn’t panic, but they were certainly unnerved. John Parkinson, the manager, and a couple of the loan officers rushed to the people through the dark and worked to calm any fears, their voices mingling with the tellers as they assured people that as soon as the power came back on the machines would be up again. They explained all the machines constantly backed themselves up, so no transactions would have been lost. Most of the clients were understanding and calm. Elderly Mr. Hubbard had to be gently taken outside so he could catch his breath and regain his senses, but even he eventually returned to his place in line.

It seemed like a long power outage and people were getting very nervous. Finally, at 11:28, the power came back on and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. That lasted for just a moment until the word started spreading through the crowd that there was no outage in any other part of town. Only at the bank.

Then chaos hit when one by one the tellers and loan officers brought their machines back to life and found that they were completely blank. There were no customer accounts in any of the machines. No balances. No transactions. The machines were even empty of any bank programs. They were simply empty. Wiped clean.

Mr. Parkinson ran frantically to all the electrical circuits, then to his own computer, then down into the basement where he looked unknowingly at the large mainframe and all the circuits and wires. He knew nothing about them, but he could see there was nothing smoking, nothing that appeared out of sorts. It just looked…okay. And he could hear the shouts and angry voices rising from above him.

That day, between 11:16 and 11:28, the town of Jackson City ground to a halt as everyone discovered that no one who banked locally had any bank records or account balances or cash left, unless they had had it in pocket before the outage.

The next morning when the bank examiners from the state and the fed arrived, with the FBI close behind, it was discovered that indeed there were no records left. Even the mainframe server was as empty as when it had first been built. There was nothing in it for anyone to find, and even when computer experts were brought in, all they could say was that the hard drives were completely empty with no traces of accounts, records or programs. They had been wiped totally clean.

“It’s impossible that there’s nothing there,” one of the experts said. “It’s as if someone deleted all the files, then wiped the drives with an erasing program—leaving nothing there, nothing but part of the operating system.” But it waspossible, because there was nothing there.

Every record, every transaction, every mortgage, every loan, every account in Jackson City—everything except what people had on paper or in pocket—was gone.

Chapter 4

Johnny Carpenter stretched back in his seat, rolling his shoulders and his neck until they cracked, then carefully shifting his hips and legs to relieve the tenseness. He loved his job, but hours of driving big rigs at his ripe old age of fifty-two were starting to put kinks in places he hadn’t felt before. But it was good work, it paid well, and it gave him the freedom of being out in the country on his own. He hated being city bound, and to have most of the roads to himself without the noise and mess of the big city suited him more than fine.

He was rolling out Highway 108 to little Twain Harte, a town in the Sierra Nevada mountains east of the Central Valley of California. From Modesto, east about sixty miles and at about 3,500 feet, nestled in beautiful pines and real oaks. Johnny only delivered there once every couple of weeks, but he remembered how beautiful it was. Above the fog and smog of the valley, below the heavy snow, but with all the beauty of the mountains.

He didn’t know why he had such a big load for the little Twain Harte Market. A third of his truck was full of hanging sides of beef for them, but he figured maybe they were having a summer festival and barbecue or something. Usually he just had a few hundred pounds of assorted meats, but today was different.

This day had started different right from the get-go. The first market he got to, in Tracy, had taken half the truckload of hanging beef, but Tom, the receiving clerk, had looked at the load with amazement.

“Where in the heck am I going to put all this, Johnny? Are you sure the order is right?”

“Yep. That’s what the delivery manifest says. You get everything on the first eleven rows here.”

The two men had pushed the carcasses off and stuffed them in the main locker, filling it completely, but Tom was still shaking his head and muttering about where the boss thought they were supposed to sell it all.

Johnny got to his next stop, in Modesto, about ten in the morning and unloaded the next five rows of beef. Even there the receiver had been amazed about such a big delivery, but then remembered the Fair in town and figured it was okay.

About one-thirty, Johnny was pulling off the highway and through the Twain Harte Arch and down the main street to the market. He turned right down the side street, backed into the loading dock, and rang the bell for the delivery.

“Hi, Johnny. Didn’t know you were coming today. Wha’cha got for us?”

Tony Sanders had been at the market for years and was a good guy. Always helped unload. Usually had a coffeepot going. Even grabbed a few deli sandwiches on occasion for Johnny’s trip home. There weren’t too many receivers as friendly and helpful on the route as Tony.

“Well, here’s the manifest, Tony. Looks like a pretty good size load, but I guess you’ve got something special going on?”

“Not that I’m aware of, but let’s take a look. Maybe the boss just took on a special.”

When he looked at the delivery tag, though, his mouth dropped open and his eyes looked like they would pop.

“Johnny, this can’t be right. We can’t possibly hold all that. And it’d take us a couple of months to go through it. You must have the wrong tag.”

“No, it’s your delivery address, Tony. Nobody else up here with this location. Your phone number. It’s all here.”

“But it can’t be. Not only would this fill us completely, but we couldn’t even get it all in. We don’t have near this much storage space.” He paused for a moment, then said, “Tell you what. Let me call the boss. Maybe he knows what this is about. Hold on, okay?”

“Sure, no problem. I’ll just grab one of these donuts, okay?”

“Yeah, go ahead,” Tony said as he punched the phone intercom button.

Johnny heard him talking with George, the owner, explaining the situation. Tony hung up in a moment and turned back to Johnny to say, “He said hold on. He’ll be back here in just a minute.”

It wasn’t but twenty seconds later that George barreled through the double doors into the warehouse, grabbed the papers from Johnny and read them carefully. Then he looked at Johnny and said, “Uh, uh, Johnny. This isn’t ours. No way. We never ordered anything like this. We wouldn’t sell this much carcass in months, and we sure couldn’t store it. This is wrong, Johnny. You can come check my order book if you want, but we never ordered this. I could take maybe a quarter of it, but no way. And…and…this is all beef carcass. You can look at my order book, Johnny. I ordered a mix of beef, chicken, pork… A bunch of things. No way, Johnny.”

Johnny stood there silently with donut crumbs on his mouth and falling onto his shirt, his eyes bulging. His mind was now swinging back over the day’s trip and remembering the other stores where the load didn’t seem right. He hadn’t really had any bother about it earlier, but now this capped it. The whole day had been off…just wrong from the get-go.

He begged a phone from George and called back to his office. Mary came on and he started to explain the situation, but she cut him off quick. “Just bring back what you’ve got, Johnny. It’s all wrong. The whole day has been wrong. All the drivers have been calling in with the same reports and we can’t find the problems anywhere. We matched up the orders from all the stores to the manifests. The initial printouts from a couple of days ago match, but what printed for the loaders last night was totally different—and all wrong. We can’t find what caused the problems, but it looks like everything got dumped into a big pot, then shuffled and spit back out again, but sorted completely different. Todd’s fit to be tied and he’s been screaming all day. He was going to start firing people until we found the original printouts and saw they were correct.

“Just bring what you’ve got left back in, Johnny. Maybe you can leave something there so Todd won’t keep having fits. Just mark it on the delivery slip and come on back with the rest.”

Johnny acknowledged the instructions, worked out a deal to leave ten carcasses with George, and then started back down the mountain to the plant. While he was perplexed with the screw-ups, he wasn’t a computer geek and knew that they made errors, so he just figured a wire had fried in one of the boxes or something. Everything would be fine tomorrow, he knew. Just a bad day. Gotta have one once in a while, right?

When Johnny got back to the valley and was heading south and east of Stockton, he got another surprise. The highway was completely backed up and traffic was crawling. He turned his radio to a news channel and heard some blurbs about traffic lights being out in some large cities.

This really is a bad day, he thought. I wonder what else can go wrong?

He found out what else as he got just past the Hwy 5/205 junction before Livermore—and the traffic came to a stop. A total stop. Traffic was coming at him heading east on the other side of the road, but everything trying to go west—his side of the road—was just flat out stopped. He flipped through some radio channels but didn’t get any solid information. His truck didn’t have a CB radio and he didn’t carry a cell phone, so he waited until he could tell for sure that traffic wasn’t moving, then got out and jogged up the road about fifty yards to another semi.

“No, I don’t know what the problem is, but it looks like all the control lights getting on this side of the Bay Bridge went to green and let everybody keep going. The traffic started getting across the bridge and into San Fran and ran into stoplights everywhere, just dead red. That’s when everything came to a stop and started backing up, and with all the traffic, it just took a little bit and it got to here. I guess there’s just a solid parking lot from here to and through all the cities down there. And the lights are out all over the Bay Area—San Fran, Oakland, Berkeley, Hayward, San Jose—everywhere.”

“Does anyone say when it might clear up?”

“Nope. The lights are all still bad as far as I heard just a bit earlier. Can’t get any reception now. Cops were trying to either get people through one-by-one, or get them turned around. They were saying they had no idea why the lights were crazy or when they’d get them fixed, but they were screaming, ‘Don’t come this way.’”

Johnny walked slowly back to his truck, wondering what he could do. He had lots of fuel for both the truck and the reefer, but was he just going to sit there all night? He was stopped in the slow lane, the shoulder was too narrow for him to drive on, and the median between the two sides of the highway was a long, major drop from his side down to the other.

And then he heard what was left of his radio click off and go fuzzy. The truck was still running and he got out and checked the cooler. It was okay. He got back in and flipped to another station, and another, and another. Nothing. He did hit a couple of long-distance Spanish and country stations and two with weak reception sky-bouncing from Phoenix and Kansas City, but nothing at all remotely local. Not from the Bay Area, the Valley, L.A. Nothing.

This is nuts, he thought. I guess I amgoing to sit here all night. He was thankful he had picked up a few sandwiches from the Twain Harte store and he still had his water jug half full. It wasn’t going to be cold that night, but he knew it would be a long one and he wasn’t looking forward to it. And not even a sleeper to crash in.

Chapter 5

Roger Evans was working on a project for a government agency from Taiwan that was drawing him in circles. The Taiwanese National Security Bureau was the principal intelligence agency of the Republic of China (Taiwan), including military intelligence, and they had been receiving hundreds of computer attempts to either get into vital secret files or to send in debilitating viruses that could simply shut their systems down. The Director-General, Tsai Chung-nan, knew their own security services were diligent about keeping their systems safe, but thought they might be hampered by being too focused on what they were doing and he wanted some outside, unbiased eyes to take a look. He had come to know Roger a few years before and called on his expertise.

This was one of Roger’s favorite types of projects, digging into problems people (and governments) had and finding solutions that might have escaped them. He was strictly free-lance and was able to go directions that others could not because they were either hampered by laws and regulations and reporting necessities or by not being able to think outside the box.

Roger was working at his cabin at Bistcho Lake, several hundred miles northeast of Vancouver, Canada. His home in Vancouver had a major computer system that was linked to and through his business in downtown Vancouver, but he could also tap into all the systems from his lakeside cabin. His cabin at the lake was his ‘next best thing to heaven.’

The National Security Bureau had sent him enough data to start searches through the computer and Internet world and he was now beginning to get several possible links back. The main problem was he was getting too many hits that looked suspiciously like they were tied together. Either codes within the linked messages that appeared to be the same or transmission lines that looked like they came from the same places or voice tones within the messages that sounded very much alike. And all of them attacking, or at least communicating with, the same NSB offices.

While Roger had not yet been able to get a link back to a specific organization, he already had the opinion they were from the same people, or a group of related people. There were just too many things alike in the flow of messages.

Some of the signals appeared to be very official documents being sent to people in the NSB. Others were forms that were asking for copies of materials within certain files or were enclosing documents to be reviewed. All of these, however, when traced, came from fictitious country or agency sources. Other signals were very quiet hacking attempts that just tried to penetrate certain offices and files, either trying to snoop out and steal documents or trying to place viruses that would either do the same thing or would simply disrupt, sometimes drastically, the operations and security of the agency.

The very puzzling thing Roger was coming across was that when he went out into the ether to look for common links, he was getting dozens of hits from around the world. If Taiwan was the object of attack, why was he getting hits of the same type from Japan, the United States, England and Germany, among several others? His searches and hits were all automatically categorized and filed by his system so he wouldn’t lose a thing and so he could run searches between the files, but right now he was sitting quietly thinking the big question: Why? What was linking all this activity? And who was involved?


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