The White House, Washington, D.C.
As the group from this morning's intelligence briefing filters out of the Oval Office, President Thomas Aldridge arches his back, trying to alleviate the pain that has taken up residence along his lower spine. The world's escalating problems are reflected in the length of the briefings, this one lasting more than an hour. Not only are they dealing with the usual problems—North Korea, Syria, Putin—but a growing trend that's threatening every major computer system, both civilian and government: hacking. And it's gone well beyond a few private e-mails leaked to the press.
The Russian and Chinese governments have hacked their way onto the nation's power grids and there's a growing concern it's only the tip of the iceberg. Aldridge knows from his daily briefings that the United States bears some responsibility for the enemy's computer infiltrations. The computer jocks at the National Security Agency (NSA) were the first to burrow into the power grid computer code in both China and Russia, as well as in many other countries. Aldridge can live with a power grid détente. It's the constant worry about infiltrations into the country's most sensitive networks that keep him up at night.
Aldridge sighs and arches his back a final time before walking over to his desk. A tall man, it doesn't take him long to cover the distance. He circles behind the desk and drops into his seat, reaching for his smartphone. Rail thin, Aldridge runs five miles on the treadmill every morning before most people are out of bed. And at fifty-six, he has the usual aches and pains but he's remarkably healthy for a man who has spent the past three years lugging around the mountain of problems that come with his office. He slips on his reading glasses and pulls up the favorites list on his phone. He
sends a text to his son Jacob, a high school senior, about his first-hour calculus test.
The fact that President Aldridge has a smartphone is a long-simmering issue between him and the Secret Service. The battle raged until Inauguration Day, when the service relented and presented him with a phone that had been specially programmed by the computer whizzes at the NSA. Now the phone is always within reach no matter where he is in the world.
With his son struggling through calculus most of the semester, Aldridge wants to be a supportive parent. He glances up at his chief of staff. "What's next on the agenda, Isabella?"
Chief of Staff Isabella Alvarez consults her iPad. "You're meeting with a Girl Scout troop here in the Oval at ten."
Aldridge groans as his phone chimes, signaling a message. He taps the screen and chuckles. "Is it bad my son doesn't have a clue about how well he did on his test?"
"I'm sure he did fine," Isabella says. "Calculus was definitely not my subject. I think you either get it or you don't. Unfortunately I never did." Alvarez, forty-three, has the dark complexion and raven black hair of her Mexican ancestors, but her azure eyes are a gift from her Caucasian father.
The President thumbs out a reply, but before he can hit send, the phone powers off and begins to reboot. When the screen lights, a tingle of dread races down his spine. "What the hell?"
"What's wrong, sir?" Isabella asks, striding across the room.
The President turns the phone her way. On the screen are three words—VENGEANCE IS OURS. The white letters are in stark contrast to the scarlet background.
"I thought your phone was supposed to be unhackable," Isabella says.
"You and me both. See if you can get in touch—"
"Mr. President," his secretary says over the intercom, "I have an urgent call from General Vickers on line one."
The President picks up the phone and pushes the flashing button. "Earl, I think my phone's been hacked."
There's a slight pause on the other end of the line. "That's the least of our problems, sir. Both the NSA and DOD networks have been infiltrated."
"Unknown, sir. It appears our system is frozen. All the monitors in our office are displaying a single message."