A Serialized Novel
Somewhere in North Korea...
A lone bespectacled man clutching a briefcase approached the reception desk. He was in his forties, average height. There was nothing to set him apart from his countrymen except a linear scar across his forehead. The spectacles made it more prominent. He wore the yellowish green uniform of the Korean People's Liberation Army (KPLA). Chest lapels wore no decorations but two bronze stars polished to sparkle, adored his shoulder lapels. He wore a cap. On his chest was a neat name badge. It read ‘MAJOR KWANG’.
He was at the office of the Vice-Chancellor of the University; there weren’t many in this country. That the Institution also housed the fastest supercomputer wasn’t coincidence either. Closing time approached. The University would remain on holiday for the weekend plus a few days thereafter, on account of the Great Leader’s birthday festival.
The young lady with a heavy make-up, at the reception raised her head, a broad smile on her face.
"Yes sir, how can I...."
"I am Major Kwang.” the man cut her off in the middle.
“Take me to your Vice-Chancellor. Now!"
The smile from her face disappeared. She began to tell something, but stopped. There was something menacing to this robot-faced man. She dare not tell him that the Vice-Chancellor is busy, and unavailable.
"Yes sir, please follow," she came out of her desk and led him across the big hall.
With practised military rigidity, Major Kwang followed her.
The reception hall-cum-lounge of the University was huge to say the least. An old palace renovated, it still exuded ancient grandeur and majesty. It took the duo a full minute to arrive at the Vice-Chancellor's office on the first floor.
The receptionist knocked gently over the massive teak doors. No response came from within.
They waited for a while.
She noticed that the man was getting irritated and his mask like face began breaking into frowns.
Feeling uneasy, she pushed the door. It was not locked and opened inside.
Afraid to face the Vice-Chancellor, she stood back and motioned the man to get inside. She waited till he went inside and then closed the door behind him.
She did not want to get rebuked by the Vice-Chancellor before a stranger.
The Vice-Chancellor, a man in his sixties, bald head and wrinkled face, looked up from his papers and adjusted his spectacles. Unannounced intrusion annoyed him. He decided to discipline his receptionist and threaten her.
As he raised his head, he noticed the man from the army. His expression changed from annoyance into a broad grin.
He rose from his chair and greeted the person
"Welcome to the University..."
"I am Major Kwang, I have a message from the General."
He opened his brief case and took out a sealed envelope in one swift motion and handed over to the Vice-Chancellor.
The Vice-Chancellor mumbled and opened the letter, which had only two lines in it. He extended his hand to the guest.
"How is the Gen..."
"Open the room." Major Kwang was terse.
The Vice-Chancellor looked up at the man who cut short his pleasantries.
He took back his hand.
"Yes comrade, please follow me."
He came out of his desk, walked towards a huge safe, punched in some numbers and opened it.
He extracted a wooden box and opened it...
A gold-plated Key was inside.
Without looking at the Major, he took the key and led him to another room across the lounge in the same floor.
He opened the room and waved the Major in.
Vice-Chancellor switched on the lights and in a moment the grandeur of the room came alive.
He turned towards Major Kwang and began to tell something.
Kwang did not look at him. He was looking at the massive machine occupying half the big room.
He raised his hand towards the Vice-Chancellor and said "You can go."
"Ok comrade, in case you need...."
"You go now." the man seemed irritated.
The Vice-Chancellor left the room closing the doors behind him.
Major Kwang was waiting for this moment for the last one decade. At last, he could play with the toy of his fantasy.
He went to the world's fastest supercomputer and sat in awe of it for a full minute.
He switched it on. Within minutes, it came to life and began humming. It would shortly go online.
He did some basic checks and appeared satisfied. He opened his briefcase, got the pen drives and CDs out and inserted them into the super computer.
He knew the task ahead would not be easy. He was prepared for that.
Major Kwang, a computer expert in the Korean People's Liberation Army, was about to unleash the full might of the world's most powerful supercomputer, hitherto non-existent, on an unsuspecting yet formidable American Target.
The tall, muscular man stood in a dim room, lit only by the slits of light filtering through the window blinds. He was standing beside the sun’s rays, allowing them to shine undisturbed onto the adjacent wall. The soft Eastern European sun illuminated the wall in an otherwise dark and eerie room.
Twelve photographs on the wall, aligned in 2 neat rows. The first picture, that of a woman, not young, in her mid-forties, and not good-looking. There was a red ‘X’ drawn over her. The next picture, a man, he too, marked by ‘X’. Eleven of the twelve photos held the same mark. The final picture on the wall was unmarked, on his photo there was nothing, as unlike the others, he remained living.
The man stared at each photo for a considerable length of time. He watched their lifeless eyes and faces, remembering how each of them looked when he took their lives.
Distinct from most assassins, he was always with them in person when their heart stopped beating. Each time a new mark died, he heard their last breath, saw the light drain from their eyes, and felt their heart stop. Contrast to most killers, these experiences, different for each person who died by his hands, allowed him to cherish every one of his victims. He believed that when they died, they became a part of him, a part of who he was. A part of his whole.
But his latest target had escaped him. He was more frustrated than he would admit; Few knew of the ritual he spent a decade perfecting, and that was how he liked it. Here, he spent weeks tracking him, and then right when he was about to move in for the kill, he disappeared, off of the face of the earth. Only two days ago he was told that his target would be traced. Therefore, today he was expecting a call that would give him the finalized details. Soon he would know where 'He' was, and soon he could resume the hunt. 'He' would become a part of him, just like all the others.
His gaze remained on the elusive target's photo for a long time, much longer than the time he allotted for his already deceased victims. He didn’t need to look at them for as long; they were always a part of him, and he already knew how they affected him. But this man, he was a different story. He didn’t yet know how this man would change him. The vibration of his cellphone broke his reverie. The man turned away from his wall of photographs, picked it up, and said nothing, waiting for the other end to speak first.
"It's time." It was a voice that he hadn’t heard in a while. He scratched his tightly shaved scalp; a personal choice.
"Very well. When will I have the details?” he asked.
His accent was only noticeable to those with a keen ear, as the once thick, Eastern European accent was replaced with a more tasteful, American style accent.
"You’ll be receiving what you need to know via an encrypted e-mail within the next forty minutes. A flight has already been arranged. You are to leave at once. No time to waste.”
The line went dead, but the man held the cell to his ear for another moment before he slid it back into his pocket. He crossed his arms and looked back to his wall of photos. While he was never happy to leave them, he had no choice but to resume his hunt. He was a slave to the pull and desire to kill. It was comforting to know that soon he would return, and when he did, his whole self would be different.
A single computer console remained lit in the dark lab that housed the Supercomputer. The Major of the KPLA leaning over it was enthralled in his work. He determined to finish what he started; a project he knew, if successful, would be worth more than anything.
He tilted his head away from the computer to rest his eyes; the constant white light was draining him. He reminisced for a while, the look on the Vice-Chancellor's face when he saw the letter. That was many hours ago. Now it was deep in the night. Light from the screen still reflected off his glasses while he looked elsewhere, but a moment later he focused his gaze on the monitor in front of him. His eyes narrowed on the several programs remaining open on the computer screen. All the programs worked together to achieve a unified goal: to get access to the NASA computer network.
The man typed away for two minutes before leaning back in his chair. He eyed the screen, only for a second, and then moved back in to tap a few keys before resuming his relaxed position, this time crossing his arms. His progress noted on the screen, he watched with great interest as different lines of code got scanned and analyzed; most only showing on the screen for a split second. He knew he was getting close, but yet felt far from reaching his goal. It was no surprise when the program stopped abruptly. Its body highlighted with the word- ‘ERROR’. Where all the previous lines of codes were displayed, a single strip remained highlighted and blinking, telling him exactly where the error had occurred. Though, much to his annoyance, not what was wrong with it.
He opened the panel that displayed the written code he provided. Looking through it to discover where he went wrong didn’t take much time; deciding how to fix the problem did. He had given the program a very specific command, and he would have to make some serious changes to continue with that command. He would have to rewrite several sections of it so as to have it complete the same process a different way. This opened the code up for more potential errors. He took a moment to stretch his legs. He fiddled his fingers in an overhang of hesitation. Finally waiting with his hands gripping his forearms, deep in thought, came to a decision. For the next several minutes he adjusted the code to complement his new plan; he rewrote complete sections of code, reordered the entire script, and then finally restarted the program altogether. It booted up with no immediate errors and began running through his new code, but there was something telling him that it wouldn’t be enough. He waited until several seconds passed after all of the program’s processes were active. He ran his fingers across the keyboard, took a deep breath and felt a tinge of pride in the strength of his code. He wasn’t sure of its ability to combat the protective measures set in place to guard the computer network. He ended up giving his programs and his own system more commands to combat the security features keeping him from his goal.
The computer took some time to process the commands, but it was soon ready. It then began moving through them, success after success, until it paused at 99%. It remained there for several more minutes before it ticked to 100%, but even then, it wasn’t quite finished. Another minute passed before the program completed all of its background work and brightened with the words ‘ACCESS GRANTED’. He let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding.
He blinked and watched the screen, waiting for the computer to tell him there was an error. That was what he expected to happen; it couldn’t have been quite that easy. Yet, there was never any sign of a problem. His hand hovered over the mouse for a moment. His fingers touched down on it. A wide grin spread on his face as he began to navigate the complex directories in the system he’d accessed. Somehow, despite all the odds being stacked against him, he’d gotten in.
He took his time looking through the system. There was no nook, cranny, or file that went unopened by the end of his search. But he quickly stumbled upon a single folder with an additional layer of protection. Having password protected folders inside a heavily guarded directory wasn’t unheard of. It only confirmed that there was something valuable inside; there was no way he intended to leave something that NASA considered that valuable unopened and unsearched.
There were two ways he could break the code, but he figured he’d start with the simplest. He opened up an intelligent program specifically designed to crack difficult passwords, which would definitely be the case here. If they bothered protecting it at all, it wasn’t going to be some flimsy four-character password he could guess on his own. Breaking Encryptions like these was the reason he was at the console of the world's most advanced supercomputer. He spent the first several minutes tuning the program to the NASA system, and resetting the features enabled for his last hacking endeavour. He did not do much to set it accordingly. Once set, he clicked the ‘START’ button on the screen. It ran and began doing its thing. While it did so, the man couldn’t help but wonder at the complexity of how the program worked. He was its principal creator. But he hadn’t had any time to dig deeper inside to see if it would work.
His attention turned back to the program. It was still adjusting itself to the changes he had made before it tried to get around the system’s strong encryption architecture. At first it only scanned the password system put in place. It seemed to be taking its time, determining how difficult the code would be to crack. As soon as he thought that, however, he picked up his cup of coffee from the desk and lifted it to his lips. Before he’d even been able to take a sip, the password lock broke. He was all the way in.
He took a long quick gulp of coffee. He was hesitant to move on; unsure whether he’d actually gotten in or if the foreign system had just sprung a trap. The anonymity and possibility of denial was what had led him to use a University Supercomputer rather than a defence Supercomputer. There was no dearth of defence supercomputing systems in his country. But the Americans catalogued and carefully monitored them in real-time. The time log on supercomputers in the University was also monitored secretly by the Americans. That's why The Major had to use a hitherto undeclared Supercomputing grid, the key to which the Vice-Chancellor had given. It was like the power of the Supercomputer had not existed before it was put online by the Vice-Chancellor's Gold-plated key. The Americans would be taken by surprise by this new, humungously powerful system suddenly coming online. And by the time they traced it, a long period would have passed. Not that long, but long enough to get his work done.
He reasoned that if it were a trap, there wasn’t much he could do about it now. It was better to see what he found and suffer the consequences of his discovery later on, if that were even the case. There was no more hesitation in his thoughts when he went ahead and began navigating the folder and everything inside. The main folder had a single name-"PROJECT 209". The Major's eyes sparkled with patriotic delight.
The first folder contained three more, all of which opened to a variety of different files. Everything in each one, however, was encrypted. The man was tempted to sort through it all right then and there, but it was already getting late. No matter how curious he was as to the file’s contents, it could wait until leisure. Then, he could review everything with a fresh mind, and make sure everything he found was correct and not a ruse for something else. So much time was already spent accessing this information, and there was no way he could leave it behind. He carefully compiled everything from the once protected folders onto his machine, ready for him to review once he went back to where he came from. He then took one final sweep over the system, just to be sure that there wasn’t anything of interest that he missed.
Before leaving, he organized the compiled files according to how he found them. Some were encrypted, others not, and the ones that were in the folder he spent extra time cracking, were kept separate from all of those. Once he decided he was done, he exited, without a trace. He went through the procedure of shutting down the grid in the reverse order of how he had started it. Finally he locked the key securely back in place. While hacking into NASA, he had pirated signals from Japan, China, Russia and even some countries from Europe. Any attempt to trace him would lead to dead-end searches to all these countries. These countries have heavy internet traffic. The Major’s foray would be lost in the heavy internet haze of the Far East and Europe. Even if traced, the servers and the extra grid would be dismantled in the next few days anyway, making it extremely difficult to trace the hack to this time and place. It would be replaced by a new system, for a future contingency. True, it would cost a few tens of millions of dollars. But neither he nor his government cared for such 'extravagance', for the resources of the state were plenty, if America was the target. And his Great Leader had pretty deep pockets for such endeavours. His people could starve, while he played with his toys. Even if somehow traced to this time and place, its was the University Vice-Chancellor that was answerable. The Vice-Chancellor, honoring the instructions in the letter had allowed him to use this awesome machine. Explaining the machine’s usage to the Army top brass was the Vice-Chancellor’s responsibility. Unauthorised access or anything off, the Vice-Chancellor would face the music, execution even.
Daylight was breaking, though it was not the first time he had seen sunset and sunrise in a single wakeful sitting. He placed the Disks carrying the hacked information in his briefcase. It had been a long Day, and night. And he was satisfied with a work well done. It didn’t bother the man that he was not actually Major Kwang from the KPLA.
(This will be a weekly series. To be continued next Sunday......)