Prologue – The end arrangement always comes first
This outrageous opportunity that had unceremoniously arrived swirled in her mind as she waited for the call. For the last three days she’d reviewed all the information sent to her from one known only as Mephisto. It was both intriguing and intimidating, plus she’d lost more than a few hours of sleep as she had picked the information apart. When the encrypted file had appeared at the designated location, with no way to trace it back to the sender, she knew she had met a technical better. The combination of the contact, method of file delivery, and the actual file contents were fascinating and more than she had ever imagined as close to feasible. This could change the balance of power in the cyber warfare game.
After she launched the embedded program file on a clean laptop, it had taken less than a day for the code to morph and to complete the stated routine before it simply disappeared. Even her elaborate trace files that she had established to capture the activities of the program were wiped clean. She’d filmed the screen with an external camera, as well as watched the screen as the event occurred. Had that not been the case, she would have reviewed the laptop and sworn that nothing had occurred. Simply stated, she would have categorically argued that the program had failed. Yet it hadn’t. The goal had been accomplished with no trace left behind.
As she’d mentally explored the potential uses of such a program method, she’d found that the targets outlined were only the tip of the iceberg. It seemed clear she was at the ground floor of a disruptive technology that could change the world. The feeling of such power surged through her veins and created a natural buzz. To keep her end of the bargain in this arrangement, she had to accept the high risk potential of imprisonment.
She’d unsuccessfully tried to penetrate to the code level and determined it simply wasn’t possible. That left her frustrated at being unable to steal or copy the information to use on her own. Her frustration reminded her that their group was only a rag-tag band of hackers dropping ransom-ware code onto unsuspecting Internet surfers, encrypting all their hard drive files, and blackmailing them for only digital currency to unlock their machines. This new offer, however, was intoxicating and dwarfed her group’s technical efforts. Her role in this arrangement would be high risk and hypothetically could result in high monetary gains. Her decision point was whether the remuneration exceeded the risk factors. This was a very tough decision. If she agreed to the arrangement, it would give her more time to study and capture this unique code.
Questions still raced through her mind. Why had she been contacted? Was she really prepared for the first set of insertions requested? And who was this group that created this type of code and what were their long term goals? For her, this was a blatant seduction that she’d likely accept for far less money than suggested. The code names being suggested were from Mephisto, and she suspected they held some meaning to him, meanings that he would likely never share. Honestly, she didn’t care about a name. She had been forced to play many roles in her life.
Today would be the third and final call in their planned discussions before the contract would be finalized, or they parted on friendly terms. If she accepted the contract, then she had to fulfill a commitment cancelled only by her death. She was reasonably sure that Mephisto would insist on helping her keep that end of the bargain, if she screwed up. She wasn’t permitted to tell anyone of the details, the targets or the timings. She only needed to provide the access points, introductions, and then simply walk away. Success or failure was to be monitored and then conveyed to her by Mephisto. As the phone rang, she answered in mid ring, then chided herself for being too eager.
The man on the phone softly chuckled as his rich baritone voice suggested, “Ah, I see that you were ready for the call. That is good. For our arrangement to work we need communications between us to be prompt and succinct. All too often people in this business forget their customer service manners, which only sours a relationship.
“I saw that you retrieved the package. May I presume you completed the actions as requested?”
“Yes sir, I did. It performed as advertised. I don’t quite understand how, but it did.”
“Let me be perfectly clear,” he unwaveringly warned, “you do not need to understand the how in any of this. Your role is to deliver what I provide to you, where I say, and convey the information requested within the timeframe for each test. Any attempts to copy, decode, or penetrate the program will be tracked and result in immediate forfeiture of the contract with the ultimate penalty. Just as I know you tried with this code as it was being monitored. That, my dear, is not negotiable. Is that understood?
“I have a great deal of patience for my work but almost none for people who don’t follow instructions. This will be the only time we have to go over this particular rule.”
His deep voice had a malevolent edge to it that made her feel like she was about to be punished. It took all of her mental and emotion strength to resist the physical chill she was experiencing that threatened to make her teeth chatter.
With a few deep breaths to bolster her mental acuity, she responded, “I understand.” Along with everything else, she now had to check her anger at being caught. She shifted the discussion. “I believe that I have outlined the way to effectively enter the first group of scenarios. Do you need that detail?” she asked.
“No. My dear, if you agree to be my Callisto, you will have the freedom to choose how to inject each of the programs into the targets.” His voice tempered as he encouraged, “Be creative. This is a task I want you to have fun with, as long as you provide the entry information and adhere to the timeframe prescribed.”
She nervously laughed and then asked, “I gather there is no traditional user acceptance testing needed? User testing based on your scenarios would be hard to track.”
He chortled as he replied, “That is not a critical factor from your contract perspective. Meeting the performance criteria is the responsibility of others and not your concern. I did like your joke though.
“So, do we have a deal then?”
She paused to form her question carefully, then she inquired, “I would like to know, how you knew to contact me? I have worked to maintain a low profile. Protecting myself is as important to me as protecting yourself is to you.”
“Callisto, if I may be permitted to test how it sounds in our discussion, you were recommended a long time ago for detailed and discreet work by someone who is no longer of this world. I kept this information to myself until the right opportunity for your talents was presented. I did not wish to squander someone such as yourself for mundane and routine assignments. In addition, I was assured that you never broke your word once given. I recognize you learned that lesson the hard way. Furthermore, I know you are and have been relentlessly ruthless in pursuit of your stated objective, and that I have need in my line of work.
“I believe you are the one true Callisto for me. Shall we complete our arrangement? Ten thousand Euros for each of the first group of tasks, payable upon successful time and placement as outlined. Fifty thousand Euros to be paid to your bank account electronically for our finalized agreement. The next series of payments will be determined when those scenarios are identified.”
The answer wasn’t the one she had wished for, but his vague reference to her past hit home. She had no desire to dig up her history, and this arrangement was one she felt able to control. Funding her other projects required this type of money. Her confidence rose as she reflected upon her goals and desires. Her fears subsided as this venture’s possibilities flamed her imagination.
Callisto then suggested, “The cash payments you are offering are attractive, but it occurs to me that they might be dwarfed by what you intend to do with the code after your trial period is over. I would suggest you consider that I be brought in as a junior partner for a percentage of what you think you are going to get, in exchange for just covering my expenses? You said yourself that I have value beyond a simple series of transactions. My female intuition tells me there is much more value to both of us if I receive a percentage, Mephisto.”
Mephisto paused slightly and with a chuckle replied, “I prefer to rent rather than buy my resources. It is why I am still a single male. I can pay more for the pleasure of temporary companionship with none of the long term burdens of ownership. I will consider your offer only after your performance on my designated tasks. Prove your value and worth during the upcoming exercises and perhaps a partnership of sorts will be considered for more than a few gratifying transactions.”
“Mephisto, I am not looking for a full time relationship, but I am interested in a percentage of a larger piece of any future action, and you have agreed to consider my offer. So yes, we have an agreement. Each subsequent group of scenarios will be negotiated for a fee after I review the targets, correct?”
“Excellent, Callisto, we are agreed. This first group will be completed over the next four weeks at the targets indicated. I will provide you a minimum of three days advance notice as to the due date for each of these. The first is due in four days from today and the code for that target will be in the prescribed location with a link to the location for the next source code for target two. The locations will not be repeated. You may work on your plans of how to deliver my information to each source to help prepare you for the targets on the list. No event should occur except on the prescribed due date.”
She assertively replied, “As you wish, Mephisto. I will not fail.”
“We will not fail, my dear.”
As he disconnected the call, an uncomfortable tingle rose up her spine. In that moment, she knew her acceptance was a oneway trip to an uncertain end that she had to control.
The fourth entry in Breakfield and Burkey's (The Enigma Ignite, 2014, etc.) techno-thriller series pits the R-Group against a seemingly untraceable computer virus and what could be a full-scale digital assault.
A series of cyberattacks targets an Irish bank, a Texas winery and a hydroelectric dam in Brazil, among other places. They also attract the R-Group, an organization specializing in information gathering and analysis. The rogue code leaves messages behind, calling itself the Ghost Code, before apparently wiping clear any evidence of its existence. Jacob, his love, Petra, and the rest of the team believe these attacks are indicative of "training exercises" that precede a much larger strike. The R-Group's involvement becomes personal when Juan's plane is hacked; there's a possibility that he's dead after communication is lost. Juan's brother Carlos and Juan's newly pregnant lover, Julie, go undercover to stop Zara, a beautiful cyberassassin, who may play a part in the Ghost Code and who, interestingly enough, could pass for a Petra doppelgänger. The authors' latest novel--their fastest-paced yet--dives headfirst into the plot and maintains an engaging mystery based on the R-Group's investigation. The person responsible for the Ghost Code, they discover, is Mephisto, corresponding with hacker Callisto, though the true identities behind the handles aren't initially clear. There's a veritable hodgepodge of characters, most of whom are returning, but the authors include context for new readers without weighing the story down with a laborious retread. As in prior novels, characters are colorful and indelible. Zara is particularly engrossing. She was a dominatrix at a young age, which instilled in her an obsessive desire for control. There's even a sex scene with Zara in which she humiliates her bodyguard, Dante; while it's evident what's happening, the scene manages to be as subdued as the rest of the novel, with few vulgar words. The main plot ends with over 50 pages remaining, so while the coda might have been better were it truncated, it once again leaves room for another sequel.