His ears rang with the ping and thud of bullets as they struck objects all around his position.
"Motherfuck!" he yelled when a stream of fire raced across his cheek as a projectile came too close.
"You good Rebooter?"
"Yeah, just got buzzed. Where the fuck is the QRF?"
"Inbound. Five mikes."
"Fan-fucking-tastic. I'm down to one mag left. You?"
Rick peeked around his cover. Five minutes until the Marine quick response team was on site. However, his squad was about two minutes away from being wiped off the face of the earth by the armed insurgents doing their best to blow their forward operating base to smithereens. He wasn't an infantryman. A spacious air-conditioned trailer that the staff officers treated like their own personal Kinkos was his usual work environment. He was a maps guy for fuck's sake.
Rick curled himself tighter into a ball behind the HESCO barrier where'd he'd taken cover as the first shots streaked through the air. He looked across the path of dirt between him and Gutierez. The corporal's eyes widened as he scrambled away from the generator he'd been taking cover beside. Rick reached out, but nobody had the chance to hear his scream as it disappeared in the eardrum-rupturing detonation of the generator.
Arcs of fire raced across his face with the slash of each spark as they flew. Vibrations rattled his organs and Rick fought the urge to lose control of his bowels. His ears rang and his brain felt like someone had shaken a Jell-O mold. Pink mist hovered in the air and he tasted the iron that used to be one of the brightest young men to serve in his unit.
Rick jerked up, Gutierez's name reverberated off his walls as the scream that had started four years ago in Iraq escaped into his Maryland bedroom.
Jesus, he hadn't had that dream in a while. He rubbed his face to scrub the last of the images from the dream away. Like there was really anything that would make him forget the sight of Gutierez's body parts flying in all different directions. A couple years of therapy had helped Rick learn to live with the survivor's guilt. Gootz, as everyone had called the corporal, hadn't been the first man he'd seen die. Nor had he been the last, but it was that deployment that triggered a major change in the trajectory of Rick's Army career.
He glanced at the clock and saw it was oh-four-hundred. He didn't really have to be up for work for another two hours, but Rick knew there was no more sleep for him today. Might as well go for a run. He pissed, brushed the overnight tang from his mouth, then dug around in his dresser for some clean clothes.
"Clearly need to do laundry tonight."
Glancing over his shoulder, he spied a pair of jersey shorts that upon inspection weren't too rank. He shrugged into an older Army T-shirt that was about a size too small and dug out his trainers from under the bed.
Rick exited the private entrance to his garage apartment. The fall air seemed crisper here by the water. The lights were still off in the main house, but when Rick left for base most mornings he waved to his landlord as he drank his coffee on the back deck. He stretched and then took off down the long driveway. It wasn't long before Rick found his stride. He'd turned a few thousand miles on treadmills over the years, but when he had the chance, Rick always preferred to get his PT in outside.
The bass in his wireless earbuds echoed in the thump of his feet as he made his way out of the twisting street that led to the house and onto Old Benfield Road. The one lane street, and that was a generous moniker, was covered in leaves this time of year, but it was tree covered and isolated despite there being a four-lane pseudo-highway that shared a common name just on the other side of the berm from where Rick found his stride.
A couple of miles later he made the turn onto the Baltimore & Annapolis Trail; a thirteen-mile paved stretch that followed an old railroad. If he turned north, it would take him toward Baltimore International Airport and if he turned south, it would take him near Annapolis and the harbor. He turned south since it was the more scenic route. Not that he could see much since it was still dark. Rick only had his Hi-Vis LED reflective vest to light his way but as he crossed the seven-mile mark of his run the sun had crept above the horizon to wake the forest for another day. His strides echoed over the wooden bridge that crossed the ravine. He took a moment to enjoy the quiet. It was only when he ran like this that his mind cleared of ghosts, stress, unanswered questions, and cluttered knowledge. As much as he loved his job, he sometimes wished he didn't know.
Speaking of work, he needed to turn around and head home so he could get cleaned up and report for duty.
"Good morning, Sergeant Major."
The sound of a half dozen chairs scooting across the floor and the thump of boots met his ears. He glanced across the room and nodded to the men and women standing.
"Morning everyone. Please take your seats." Rick set his tumbler of coffee down and looked over to the whiteboard that showed the three most recent iterations of the coding that gave him headaches daily. "We're here to discuss the recent increase in failures for Oracle or whatever insulting nickname you've given it this week." There were a few not very well disguised snickers and clearing of throats. "Reports from the 335th seem to flash up false alerts daily."
There was a collective groan from the room.
"That's right and being currently deployed to Camp Arifjan you can imagine the resources being utilized to investigate these incidents. That does not make command happy."
"Sir, my 17Cs have been trying to determine whether the errors stem from a server-based code error or an application-based source code, but each time they think they've eradicated the problem we get field reports that the operation platforms report continued disruption. It's like the code morphs and attacks on an AI level."
Rick looked over at Sgt. McCall. "Is that a possibility? Are we dealing with an attack using artificial intelligence to adapt and block our efforts to secure the pathway?"
"Oracle may use predictive algorithms, but it's not autonomous learning. None of our current structures use AI because the level of security protocols required to ensure isolation within our systems simply doesn't exist yet."
Rick sat and glanced up and down the table to feel out the opinions of all those gathered. While artificial intelligence was gaining popularity in the public sector, the military refused to jump on the bandwagon for many reasons; some based on ethics and others on security. Rick was glad. It was one thing to ask Alexa to turn on his kitchen lights, but not such a good thing to have a smart jet self-select targets. It was most likely that they were dealing with a very dedicated hacker who had too much knowledge about their systems.
In his experience, usually when attacks like this occurred there was someone sitting in an internet cafe half a world away who dropped a line of code and ran away, but based on what McCall was saying it seemed the code was being changed to disrupt Oracle's operations.
Fortunately, Oracle wasn't a weapons system, nor did it contain any classified operation information. Its sole purpose was to link tablet-based entries made by logistic personnel to a server for the processing of requisitions. Therefore, this really was more of a pain in the ass complication rather than one of national security. Unfortunately, it was Rick's problem to deal with because it wasn't simply an IT glitch, there was intent behind the errant lines of code appearing where they didn't belong. His cell vibrated and Rick ignored it. It wasn't his Army issued one that was used by command when they had to speak to him immediately. He'd check the log later.
"Okay, so do we have any idea why we haven't been able to trace the IP address of the infiltration?"
Sgt. Lim raised his hand and leaned forward. "It's a ghost address and our best trackers have reported that it bounces around nearly two hundred locations each time the code implants."
Rick's phone went off again, and he rejected the call.
Jesus how is it that nobody calls me for almost two weeks and now I can't get them to leave me alone for twenty minutes.
"Fan-fucking-tastic. What is our next step?"
One of the newly promoted E-5s, Rick couldn't remember her name for the life of him, raised her hand. "Yes?"
"Sergeant Major, we were brainstorming and have an idea but it's unorthodox."
"I'll listen to anything. I want this shit taken care of."
"So, conventional methods of tracking the code and the individual responsible have failed because we've been looking for subnets using Java. But we need to think like the hacker. Now, a good hacker will not use the language that they learned in computer science class. Instead, they're going to use something like Python to perform the SQL injection. Now, I know our system isn't cloud based, but infiltration premises are the same. We need to reverse engineer the code and chances are we'll find some kind of a hallmark for the writer."
"Right, because the ego of a black hat won't allow their efforts to go unrecognized."
Rick's phone went off a third time, and he looked down at the number. It wasn't one he recognized. It was most likely one of those spam calls notifying him that there was a warrant out for his arrest and he needed to give them his credit card number to avoid having a cop knock on his front door. He slid the icon toward Reject with a bit more force. Maybe the caller would hear his annoyance telepathically.
"Okay, let's run with that and see where it leads. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Have a good day."
Rick grabbed his coffee and stood. The lesser-ranked individuals all came to attention. He had about thirty minutes before he had to report to his CO for their weekly meeting where Rick was expected to present the updates on the next set of performance reviews and a training schedule. When command had asked if he was going to re-up for another tour after his deployment, Rick took the opportunity to negotiate for a change in MOS. Seventeen Charlie was a new MOS to the Army at the time and Rick had always had an affinity for computers. Hell, that was why all the guys since basic had called him Rebooter. As he'd climbed the ranks, he didn't hear the nickname nearly as often, but since Gutierez was the last person to use it Rick had almost felt compelled to do something with all the coding knowledge that had rambled around in his head for years. He'd requested a change in occupation specialty, but he hadn't expected to be put in charge. So now he was a sergeant major and reported to the chief of staff about all the enlisted concerns for cyber operations. Speaking of responsibilities, he had just enough time to head over to the DISA building.
He pushed open the door and took a deep breath of fresh air. Fort Meade was situated partway between Baltimore and Washington D.C. The running joke with all the service members stationed there was that temperatures felt cold for half of the year and nice with a chance of rain or snow the other half. This being Rick's twenty-first year of service, he was on his sixth duty station. There were definitely worse places to rotate through. Like those poor bastards at Fort Puke, aka Fort Polk. If there was ever a town where feral cats circled the moving vans then it was Leesville, Louisiana. A guy Rick knew at Fort Carson had just come from there and he often said that if God had to give earth an enema he would attach the hose to Fort Polk.
His phone rang again, and Rick stopped in the middle of the corridor. "Oh, for fuck's sake." It was the same number as the last three times. "Yes," he snapped.
"Sergeant Major Rick Davis, you need to listen to me and listen fast. I can't stay on this line for long."
"Who is this?"
"That's not important. The information I have is. Your job is about to get a lot harder. I have proof of an imminent military-targeted cyberattack on a level that is unprecedented and will change the shape of the world."